An acclaimed musician and her apprentice travel to the newly freed country of Skinnere to play a complex and culturally fraught song that will lay bare the wounds of empire, occupation, and sacrifice of its players and listeners.
“Have you been to Skinnere before?” asked Pom, his hands tight on the railing. When his teacher didn’t reply, he turned away from the view of the oncoming shore. “Saaba?”
“Yes, pk. Now get away from the side.”
Saaba-niszak was in a dreadful mood. The ferry crossing had damaged her zankla flute—a gift from her late teacher, Saaba-meszki, and a rare treasure from their shared homeland, Sorskail. There was no replacing it, nor hope of an adequate repair. Her despair threatened to ruin their chances at the coming audition, which would make the loss even worse: her zankla would have been broken for nothing. She only hoped that no one else had been hired by the time they arrived.
She thought it unlikely. The advertisement had called for musicians who could play the Lay of Lilyfinger. The Lay was the traditional centrepiece of a Skinnish girl’s Staining ceremony; it ran for five hours with two hundred and fifty stanzas across three movements, and no one record of it agreed with another. Bards with the Lay in their repertoire were few and far between, and she was confident in her rendition. Even if she hadn’t been, there was nothing for it—they badly needed this job. She had an apprentice to feed and creditors to pay off. The ferry tickets hadn’t been cheap.
She hugged her suitcase protectively as the ferry rolled over the harbour chain.
Pom joined her on the seat, the rosy nap that covered his skin all blown about by the wind. Saaba-niszak regretted her sharp tone—he was bound to be excited by new places. But the odd mixture of his Yamzemayan nap and short legs was drawing unwanted attention from the other passengers.
He kicked the air sullenly. “What’s it like? Skinnere?”
“Wet,” she said. “Focus, Pom. First stanza, pk.”
Pom stilled his legs and dutifully recited the Lay’s first stanza sotto voce. Twenty-two octosyllabic lines in a language he barely spoke, learned by rote in the short time they’d been travelling. As soon as he finished, he started swinging his legs again.
Despite this feat of memory for a child so young, Saaba-niszak’s eyes darkened. He had almost six thousand further lines to memorise. “Your Skinnish needs work, pk. Practice your susurration and dampen your trills, they are too sharp. How many times must I say?”
He swung one leg with particular violence, jolting the seat. “Why can’t they sing their own stupid song?”
She cuffed him round the head. “Ignorant boy.”
“It’s too hard, Saaba,” he whined, rubbing where she’d hit him. “If you’re teaching me, I can’t help picking it up wrong. No one’s cuffing you for your accent.”
“I’m not the one singing.” She tapped her suitcase as if blocking finger holes; yes, she reassured herself, her hands definitely recalled the pattern for the Lay. “And I don’t care how hard Skinnish is. When we’re there, you’re not to speak Larish. Speak Yamzemayan or not at all.”
“My Yamzemayan’s even worse.”
“Then act mute. Second stanza, pk.”
As Pom reluctantly obeyed, Saaba-niszak lifted her head and watched their destination creep closer. After a century of peace, the stilt-city of Thallagh still bore scars of Larish occupation. It was a scant three hours’ crossing from Laring and as such had shouldered the brunt of its neighbour’s animosity. The lookout posts, firing range and barricades had been preserved as monuments to the dead.
Pom ought to know the Lay’s significance if he was to do it justice; he spoke the words but lent them no soul. So, once he had finished, instead of boring holes in his technique like she usually did, Saaba-niszak said, “When Laring occupied this country, a Skinnish orphan survived by harvesting the lilies that grow on the banks of the Skinn. The bulbs to eat, and the roots, stems and flowers to make potent medicines, pk. She plucked them every day, staining her fingers with pollen. People called her Lilyfinger—this, you know from the stanzas I have taught you, pk. I tell you the rest.”
He settled back in his seat. Turning songs into stories was how Pom learned best, and he’d recognise a lesson anywhere.
“One day, a cruel Larish general grew sick and made Lilyfinger his personal physician. He did not account for her hatred of him, nor the fact that lilies can be poisonous.
“During the climax of the Lay’s first movement—I will teach you, sza—she wipes out the general’s household in a single night. The whole second movement is a bloody rebellion led by Lilyfinger herself. You will like the cadenza; a chance to play your lyre, yes?”
“The story, Saaba.”
“It gets very sad,” she said, scratching her cheek. She was starting to shed. “The Larish army captured Lilyfinger. They executed her for disturbing the peace, pk. The rebels continued on in her memory until, at last, they succeeded in driving the invaders out.”
Swept away by the romance of it all, Pom let out a whoop that turned several heads. Saaba-niszak checked him with a stern finger. “This Lay is not some fancy. It’s not ancient history like the sagas I show you. A hundred years are nothing, even for you short-lived folk. To my kind, it’s the blink of an eye. For Skinnere and its people, the story has never ended.
“Now, where was I?”
“The rebels won,” Pom mumbled.
“Gratitude. After she was murdered, Lilyfinger’s Lay spurred the rebels on so much that the Larish grew afraid of it. See that firing range, sza?” She pointed it out to Pom as the ferry turned into port. “They shot people there just for humming the countermelody.”
The boy craned his neck. If he looked very carefully, he could see the bullet holes.
“It’s still banned throughout Larish territory, so it has had to be passed down in secret. Not everyone’s memory is as long as mine, pk; many who say they know it know an impure form. Skinnish girls stain their fingers with lily pollen in honour of Lilyfinger, to remind the world they bow to no one, and as Skinnere recovers and more girls come of age, the Lay is returned to them slowly, very slowly—but even for this, they must rely on outsiders if they want it done properly.
“That is why they cannot sing their own stupid song, as you say before.”
The ferry docked with a sudden bump. Somewhere below, the gangway squealed open.
Pom sighed. “Is the Lay beautiful?”
“Only if you sing it right, pk. Get up.”
They gathered their things and joined the shuffling throng. “It’s busy,” she said, “stay close,” and he took her so literally that his toes nipped her heels all the way through security.
As Saaba-niszak handed over their travel papers, she asked the guard in Skinnish whether a musician had been found for the merchant’s daughter’s Staining yet.
“Nope,” he said, stamping with relish. “Having a go, are you?”
The shedding was getting worse, and it took all she had to hold in her pks and szas: the interjections that peppered her native tongue. Too much Skail made strangers uncomfortable. “We will do more than have a go.”
“Good luck. Though, er . . .” He nodded at Pom, lurking behind her. “The girl’s mother, Aurig, won’t take kindly to the ingya.”
“Don’t call him that.”
Saaba-niszak snatched their stamped papers off him and led Pom through the turnstile. When they’d cleared the crowd on the other side, she took a moment to breathe. The guard had used a slur that meant forced child. As if such children deserved to bear the shame of the parent who’d done the forcing.
Pom set down a suitcase almost as big as himself. “Saaba?” he ventured in Larish. “Why did that man look at me like that?”
“What did I tell you? Yamzemayan or mute. Don’t mind him, pk. Smooth yourself.”
His nap looked messier than ever, dull where the hairs ran upwards and shiny where they ran down. He wiped his face so all was slick, then he poised a finger, anxious to make a good impression. Symbols could be drawn in Yamzemayan nap by working against the grain, and this was done as a mark of respect. Saaba-nishak shook her head. “Save for the performance, yes? Tidy is good for now. Let’s go.”
They announced themselves to the housekeeper—a woman of mountain stock, not quite Skinnish—and were shown into a room that was bare except for a low table and kneeling aids. The panels in the left wall were slid back for a stunning panorama of the sea. Sir was away on business but Madam could see them; and anyway, the housekeeper confided as she brought them hot honeyed water, it was Madam making all the decisions. She’d spent months soliciting nothing less than the very best for her daughter, Bruin. Wine from Lurtzog vineyards, Damese pastries . . .
“Gratitude,” said Saaba-niszak to cut the gossip short. Once they were left alone, she turned to Pom. “A moment to compose yourself, yes? Show the lady your lyre-work if your hands can manage.”
As Pom unclasped his lyre case, Saaba-niszak tried to make herself comfortable. She rubbed her face and neck, longing for a pumice; under her clothes, her old skin felt tight. Her wing stubs throbbed. It was no good dwelling on this. Shedding could happen later.
She opened her suitcase and extracted the wooden box containing her zankla. The lid was askew, the hinge broken. Inside, a crack ran through two of the flute’s three prongs. She set the box aside, fighting a sob, and took out her long-stemmed Yamzemayan flute instead. The finger holes were a close approximation, though the sound was not.
“Thank you for coming.” A Skinnish woman strode into the room. “We’ve a week to go so you’ll forgive me if I seem tense. I’m Aurig, Bruin’s mother.”
Aurig knelt before them in a cloud of robes. She was tall, though not as tall as Saaba-niszak—few were—and her skin was faintly green like buds on the verge of ripeness. Her stained fingers were carefully displayed in her lap. She did not incline her head whatsoever, as it was not the Skinnish custom to do so; Pom, however, pressed his forehead to the floor as they did in Yamzemay, and this drew Aurig’s attention immediately. When he straightened up, her cheeks flared pink.
“What insult is this?”
Saaba-niszak placed a hand on Pom’s shoulder. He held his lyre tight, still as a mouse.
“No insult, Madam.”
“The boy is Larish. I see it in his legs. How dare you.”
Saaba-niszak had dealt with Skinnish pride before and was unfazed. “True, my apprentice has a Larish father,” she said. “But look closer, Madam—Yamzemayan nap from his mother. This coupling was not tender. I’m sure you understand my meaning.”
Aurig narrowed her eyes. “Poor child,” she said without warmth. “Did you find him in a labour camp?”
“No. His mother worked hard to get out. She needed lots of money for release, lots of work. Work makes lots of children.”
Of all the countries Saaba-niszak had seen, Yamzemay seemed to her the bleakest. It was too vast, its people too widely scattered, to shake off Laring’s influence as Skinnere had done. Last year, she’d been working in the capital, and the best accommodation she could afford—where her money would line the right pockets, at least—was a guest house on the cracked banks of the Yamze. Its proprietor was a single mother whose youngest was Pom. The boy was a bag of bones. Saaba-niszak had never seriously considered taking an apprentice before; she’d always insisted she wasn’t ready for one. But the recent loss of her teacher had made her impossibly lonesome, lacking direction. And it was clear to her that, without intervention, Pom wouldn’t survive the winter.
The truth was, Pom’s mixed heritage made him especially suited to life as a bard. His Larish blood granted him that infamous stamina so abused elsewhere; Saaba-niszak had seen him play for hours without fatigue. From his mother’s side, along with the characteristic nap, he had an extended larynx and slender fingers capable of such plucking even Saaba-niszak was sometimes moved to envy. Although the physical combination resulting from such parents was widely considered ugly—an abhorrent bias, to her mind, but a tenacious one; it had even cost them a job or two—she could not imagine a more promising apprentice. She gave him a rare smile before turning back to business.
“My name is Saaba-niszak. My teacher was the late Saaba-meszki. The boy is Pom. We have prepared the opening stanzas of the Lay for your consideration.”
Aurig’s eyes shone; she would not deign to nod.
Saaba-niszak drew breath and lifted the flute to her lips. She lingered on the first notes longer than was strictly necessary, promising proficiency for the glissandos in the second movement. As that first, single breath powered on, Aurig’s eyebrows rose. Pom was not the only one with unique gifts: the Skail possessed increased lung capacity to help them tolerate the high altitude of their homeland.
On her mark, Pom played a refrain and started to sing. Although his pronunciation slipped more than she’d have liked, hearing Lilyfinger’s story had imbued him with passion; and, of course, his voice was sublime. Like cool, glittering rain. It had not yet cracked with age, though it would, all too soon, and then she would have to put a choice to him. And what a choice for someone so young.
The stanzas complete, they ended with a lyre solo. Finally, Pom set down his instrument and tapped his forehead to the floor, and then the room was silent. The whole audition had lasted ten minutes.
Aurig’s orange fingers were at her breast, her mouth slightly open. Behind the closed door, the silhouettes of the staff dispersed, having been drawn to the music like moths to a lamp in the dark.
“I—I’ve never heard it played this way.”
“Apology,” said Saaba-niszak. “We had to adjust. My best flute is broken and Pom is still learning. But my form is true. My teacher, the late Saaba-meszki, learned it from Lilyfinger’s contemporaries and passed the knowledge to me.”
Aurig sat forward, gripping her skirts. “He was in Skinnere a hundred years ago?”
“We Skail are long-lived, Madam.”
The woman’s face hardened. All she could say was: “Where have you been?”
Saaba-niszak had to look away. It was the old complaint: if the Skail were so clever, if they lived so long and remembered so much, why didn’t they fix things? She glanced at Pom, who’d understood none of their exchange. The alarm was clear on his face. Had he done something wrong? She gave him a slight shake of her head.
“You could have been teaching us all these years.” Aurig’s voice was bitter. “I’d heard your kind were selfish, but this . . .”
Saaba-niszak cut across her. “I am not selfish. Wherever I go, I teach my fellow bards as all bards teach each other. The full Lay calls for an arrangement of eight. If you can find six to join us, it would be my honour to instruct them as well.”
“That is the least you owe Skinnere, I think,” said Aurig, her face taut. She rose to her feet. “I will send for these six.”
“You intend to hire us?”
“I want the best for Bruin.” As she opened the door to leave, she paused and pressed her fingers to her lips. Her hand quivered. “Do you understand? I want to give my daughter the Staining I never had.”
A final, raking look, and then she was gone.
Saaba-niszak and Pom knelt in stunned silence. One of their bags slipped to the floor.
Pom gulped. “Did—did we get the job?”
She didn’t even scold him for speaking Larish.
The bathwater was deliciously hot, the dried loofah as coarse as sand. Slowly, with the help of some vigorous scrubbing, the dead layer of Saaba-niszak’s skin sloughed off and her body relaxed into its new dimensions.
Suddenly, the bathtub felt too small. She eyed her crumpled clothes on the floor: how many hems and seams would she have to let out this time?
She climbed out, dripping water everywhere, and padded to the wall. Aurig had given them rooms in the house; yes, there were panels here, just like the room they’d auditioned in. She slid one open just enough to let the steam flow out, then pulled it wider when she saw the view of the sea. Above it, the sky looked scale-silver. Her wing stubs twitched, sensing open air, recalling the impulse to flap.
Dreaming of flight.
She reached over her shoulder gingerly. They’d grown a little with her shedding, her wing stubs, but they would never regenerate, not fully. Not as well as some lizards regrew their tails. They would protrude just enough to invite disgust, to upset the cut of her clothes, to catch in doorways. She would have to ligate them—tie them off with cord to cut off the blood supply—before the bone formed. Painful, yet necessary.
Homesickness didn’t strike her often, but when it did, it hit hard. In a perverse way, Pom was lucky. Yamzemay was a central, landlocked country, which meant he could visit his mother and siblings with relative ease. Sorskail was far beyond the sea in a place no boat could reach, and her wings had been cut away as penance for leaving, so she couldn’t fly there. The only remaining glimpse of her old life was Saaba-meszki’s zankla, lying broken in its box.
The smell of salt and sulphur lingered in the lining. She breathed it for a while before lifting the zankla out.
Zanklas were carved from hard coral but they grew fragile with age, same as anything. In Sorskail, more coral was easy to come by. Off the coasts of Skinnere, Laring or Dam? Nothing. She tried a note but the sound came out flat, her breath leaking through the cracks before it reached the finger holes. Even handling it worsened the damage. She set the flute back in its box, trying not to cry. Trying to think of it as any other broken instrument, and not the final filament binding her to home.
Despite the tiring journey, Pom could not settle that night. Anxiety made him hungry, and nothing prompted more anxiety than grand houses like this one. Thankfully, the kitchen staff were used to indulging a peckish child. They were green and spoke Skinnish, yet they had none of Aurig’s hauteur, and they gave him food, so Pom wasn’t afraid. He accepted handfuls of spiced curd and a dozen honeysticks before dashing off again with his telltale Larish gait.
He found a room in which to eat his plunder and wipe his sticky fingers on the carpet. Unfortunately, the room was not empty.
A forgivable mistake, to think he was alone. Bruin breathed so quietly and held herself so still that Pom would later liken her to the river dragons sunning themselves back home in Yamzemay, steadfast as carved rock.
She chided him in Skinnish.
The sound of an unfamiliar voice made him jump to his feet, horrified. He’d known it was wrong to ruin the carpet. Being an unsupervised child, he’d done it anyway. He almost burst into tears at the thought of disappointing Saaba-niszak. What to do? He didn’t know how to apologise in Skinnish. Would Larish make it worse? The agony showed on his face.
She looked at his nap and long fingers, and switched smoothly to Yamzemayan. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell.”
The tones nagged at him like a forgotten refrain. “I am sorry.”
Her brow crinkled. “You talk like a baby. Why can’t you speak your own language?”
He couldn’t have put into words how in Yamzemay, same as here, the Larish had suppressed the native culture for generations until people simply forgot; how his mother had been born in the same labour camp she would later escape, hearing nothing but Larish except for bedtimes, when her mother sang lullabies in her ear; how she’d done her best to pass on these fragments to her own children; that the reason he wasn’t fluent in the language his larynx was made for was the same reason Bruin would have strangers performing the Lay at her Staining.
All he could say was, “No practice. You speak Larish?”
She bit her lip and switched. “I’m not supposed to.”
“Then I won’t tell either,” he said, venturing a smile.
She returned it.
Though young, she looked to him as elegant as any woman. Her long green hair was slicked back, dark with oil, and her robes shimmered with prints of leaping fish. The staff in this household were clad better than almost anyone he’d met, and he’d not yet developed an eye for clothes of real quality. He took her for an aide, maybe a clerk. Without meaning to, he puffed out his chest.
“Are you the musician?” she asked.
“The apprentice. My teacher is Saaba-niszak, whose teacher was Saaba-meszki. Have you heard of him?”
“Should I have?”
“He was very famous.”
“Oh.” She pouted. “Are you famous?”
“I reckon so,” he said with a grin. “Sometimes people pay a lot of money to hear us. We played in a Damese plaza once while the old men sat around drinking their caffy; oh, and there was a wedding in Lurtz where everyone stood up at the end—Saaba-niszak said it was the cue to dance but she’s very modest—and we just came from Laring which I didn’t like much. We’ve been everywhere.”
To his horror, she raised her chin, wise to his bragging. “Play me something.”
“Um. I left my lyre in my room.”
She shrugged. “We have spares.” With a gesture for Pom to follow her, she took neat, measured steps through the house, which he endeavoured to match. They came to a room that had been set aside for the purpose of storing party supplies. Crockery and extra tables took up the most space, and then there were boxes of confetti and perfumed oils and stacks of sample menus, and ten crates of Lurtzog wine; and many, many musical instruments.
“My mother went a bit overboard.”
Pom gawped at her, twigging who she was at last. “It’s your Staining?”
“Yes,” she said, pinching her robes. “Who else do you think dresses like this? A maid?”
“No, but I . . .” Tears threatened again. He would never have boasted if he’d known she was the client.
“Come and see what I’ll be wearing next week.” She pulled him towards a large box that smelled achingly familiar. Inside lay robes of Yamzemayan velvet. She reached in to stroke the pale, stippled nap. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Pom blinked, unsure what to say. Traditionally, such velvet was Yamzemayan skin harvested after death. When Damese looms made faux velvet possible by weaving cloth out of nap fibres, shavings of unusual length or colour became highly sought after. Pom’s mother had shaved herself raw to buy food for her children. So what kind of velvet was this? Someone’s skin, or the woven nap of a hundred hungry mothers? Either way, it was wrong to call it beautiful.
Bruin noted his discomfort and closed the box. “The lyres are over here.”
Her parents had rented various instruments to cover all possible options. Pom picked out a Damese lyre still bearing its loan tag, tuned it, and haltingly picked out a ballad. His own lyre boasted six strings whereas this had twelve, with wooden arms that smelled of beeswax and bay. Once his nimble fingers found their way around—dancing across the strings, doubling back then leaping forward like tiny birds looking for somewhere to land—the tone grew clearer; yes, he liked this lyre very much.
Bruin followed his fingers intently. When he finished, she said, “Will you show me how to play that?”
Thallagh’s windsmith had never seen a zankla before. He examined it under his loupe, running his fingers over the cracks.
“I could gum it back together, I suppose,” he said, looking out from under his brows, “but it won’t sound the same. There will always be a disturbance around the join. Different airflow, you know.”
The thought of a ruined zankla stung. The thought of losing it altogether stung far more. “Do what you can,” Saaba-niszak said. “I need it back by the end of the week.”
She paid the deposit and squeezed outside.
The city was blurry with mist. An unseasonably warm sun had burned off the night’s moisture—along the riverbank, the year’s first lilyflies drifted around in search of mates. Fishermen’s nets swirled open and slapped the water while the ferry’s engine puttered out of sight like the gears of an old bicycle. She breathed it in, this lovely calm.
It did little to dispel her worries.
Too many variables in this job, that was the trouble. Her teacher, Saaba-meszki, had drummed into his apprentice the constant need for order. Control. But music, like the people making it, could not be controlled. Pom had five days to memorise more than two hundred and fifty stanzas, plus some tricky progressions and harmonies, and not only had he been distracted during their lesson that morning, he’d also brought a new lyre along.
“We have no time for this,” Saaba-niszak had said. “You need an instrument you know, pk. Six strings are good for now. We can practice twelve strings later.”
“Please, Saaba,” he’d begged, “this one sounds so much better.”
Admittedly, he was right, but she’d made up her mind to be stubborn. “It’s a loan! What is the point of learning twelve strings just to leave it behind?”
“I’ll buy my own when we’re paid!”
“Yes? And deprive your mother her share? We are not paid so very much, Pom; Damese craft is beyond us.” She’d wrestled the lyre off him and held it out of reach. “Did you even ask to borrow this, sza? Stop your games now and fetch your own instrument.”
Pom had screwed up his face. “No!”
“Control yourself,” she’d hissed. “You’ll ruin your voice.”
“You drag me from place to place and never ask where I want to go or what I want to play,” he’d cried shrilly. “I choose one thing for myself and you accuse me of stealing!”
“You waste time with this lyre, Pom. Why you not see sense?”
Neither had given ground. Eventually, he’d run off somewhere to cry, and Saaba-niszak had sighed and let him go. She never handled these tantrums well, especially when he struck a nerve. Despite his natural ability, life as a bard was a hardship one ought to choose for oneself, and she’d often felt guilty about whisking him away from home before he was old enough to make that choice. This was the first time he’d demonstrated a preference; a good teacher—a kind teacher, as she’d resolved to be—must encourage such self-expression.
When Pom returned, she would apologise, and if his heart was still set on it, she would promise to show him how to play the Damese lyre.
The six Skinnish musicians she had pledged to teach arrived that afternoon: one novice from a nearby fishing village, two harpists by riverboat, a singing double act who’d turned down a residency in Laring to catch the ferry home, and a distinguished master from the university. The room with the best acoustics was cleared for their use and Saaba-niszak joined them—alone, since Pom was still sulking. She’d been ready for their benign acceptance, even their gratitude, to her shame; and yet, over dinner, it became clear they’d rather expected to teach her. Each of them knew different renditions of the Lay and each insisted theirs was correct.
In the middle of a heated discussion that Saaba-niszak struggled to moderate, the novice, Heri, snapped at her: “Don’t tell us how to sing our own song when you can’t even speak Skinnish properly, snake-face.”
“Try holding eight languages in your head at once, sza,” Saaba-niszak snapped back. She glared at each of them in turn. “My teacher learned the Lay as it was first composed and my memory does not fail me. If my client did not want its true form for her daughter, she should have hired someone else.”
“She still could . . .”
The master, Alstan, who had also studied under Saaba-meszki many decades ago and therefore understood her obstinacy, held up a fern-green hand. The attention of the room shifted. “We do not doubt your memory, Saaba. Indeed, it will be crucial. However, you must understand that the Lay has evolved since its composition, as all music does. It has come to mean many things to many people. Without enough bards to go around, some families have had to start their own traditions. If everyone’s tone-deaf, no one sings at all! Oh, don’t look so scandalised, music is supposed to be fun.”
Saaba-niszak scowled. “Music is no longer fun when you are struck for every wrong note. When your fingers are forced apart to widen their span.”
Alstan nodded. “Our teacher was a brute, everyone knows that. But he’s no longer with us. He wields no power here.”
A guilty shudder ran down Saaba-niszak’s spine, as if Saaba-meszki was somehow present, judging her response. Her loyalty.
“Can we not work together,” Alstan went on, “to create a rendition that reflects Skinnere’s collective interpretation?”
The phrase collective interpretation would have sent Saaba-meszki into a spitting rage. Saaba-niszak pursed her lips and said, “You propose an entirely new arrangement. In the short time we have, this is impossible. We must agree on one form or risk chaos.”
One of the harpists raised her eyebrow. “And that form would be yours, would it?”
“The form I was hired for, pk.”
Someone, likely Heri, muttered something rude under their breath. Saaba-niszak lost control of herself and hissed. Alstan said, “We’ll get nowhere by trading insults. Let’s discuss this in the morning, when everyone is rested.”
They retired, grumbling, to their respective rooms. All except Alstan, who touched her elbow gently as she went to leave.
She gave him a withering look. “I’m in no mood.”
“Skail never are. But come now, this is not the Saaba-niszak I’ve heard tell of. Why are you digging your heels in like this? All this talk of a pure Lay, an impure Lay—you stir up currents you cannot fathom. Are you trying to insult everyone?”
“Of course not.” Saaba-niszak crossed her arms. “But what to do at the Staining if everyone inserts parts no one else knows or we play over each other for attention? I will be blamed in front of the guests. We bards live and die on our reputations, and my apprentice cannot eat air.”
He tutted. “Oh, she won’t blame you, don’t worry; not in public. She won’t be able to stand anyone thinking it wasn’t to her specifications. She’s a snob. She’s embarrassed about growing up the way she did.”
Saaba-niszak tilted her head. “Poor?”
“Very.” He lowered his voice. “Her fingers were stained with something other than pollen at first because her family couldn’t afford lilies. It often happens. Does it make her any less Skinnish?”
“There are many ways to be Skinnish,” she replied.
“Exactly,” said Alstan.
Before she went to sleep, Saaba-niszak checked Pom’s room. It was empty. Where was that boy? He’d been missing for hours. She opened his wall panels and watched that fruitless day come to a close, waiting to hear his footsteps in the corridor.
Beyond the house, the water was all sibilance. As a young woman, she’d been in love with its music. She would lie for hours on the clifftops of Sorskail listening to the sea kick up its spray, and every morning she’d fly low over the waves, singing their own song back to them.
That should have been enough.
But the gulls brought her news from the continent, news of the exiled bard Saaba-meszki, who had learned every song in the world. Every song! Her wings, long taken for granted, seemed a small price to pay for that knowledge. She’d left Sorskail and sought him out, and begged him to take her on as his apprentice.
Why, as Alstan had intimated, should she stay loyal to him now that he was dead?
She knew the answer. It was just too painful to admit to anyone but herself.
If she turned her back on all he’d taught her, what had been the point of losing her family, her home, of letting him hack off her wings? Even her memory, she’d discovered, had its limits: cramming millions of lyrics and chord progressions into her head had pushed out everything but the merest scrap of her native language, and Saaba-meszki had refused to help her coax it back. The interjections that sounded to Pom like a crackling fire were all she had left. Why not cling meanly to every lesson if it meant the sacrifice was worthwhile?
Suddenly, the door opened. It was Pom—the dark shape of him, at least. Saaba-niszak swallowed. Her throat felt tight. “Where have you been? I was worried, pk.”
“I’m sorry.” He sounded close to tears. He came to sit with her by the open panel. “Saaba, why can’t I speak Larish here, but they can buy velvet?”
“What are you about? What velvet?”
“They bought velvet robes for the Staining. I saw them yesterday. The daughter showed me.”
“I see.” She sighed. Keeping one’s distance from the client was a mark of class and good manners. At some point, she would have to scold him for this lapse of propriety, but not tonight. “Pom, there are few commodities in the world that Laring does not control, so people pick and choose: they’ll tolerate no spoken Larish, but they will drink Lurtzog wine. It is illogical, I know.”
“Wine is different,” he said, wiping his nose. “Grapes don’t feel pain when someone stands on them.”
“And the vintners who are made to do the standing? What of them?”
Pom didn’t reply, but a Yamzemayan face was easy to read. Saaba-niszak thought of his mother and the patches of angry skin she’d spotted under the woman’s sleeves. There was injustice everywhere, if one knew where to look. A price to pay for living in a messy world. The thought tired her.
“I want to go home,” he wailed.
Her breath caught. She knew that sorrow keenly. They had never been affectionate with one another; now, she pulled him onto her lap and let him bury his wet face in her neck. She rubbed his back and rocked him, shushing his cries until they faded to hiccoughs and, finally, sleep.
The next day, Saaba-niszak introduced Pom to the others: Alstan, Heri, the harpists Orgag and Hethe, and the singing duo, Sila and Sali, who were identical twins and could not be told apart. She said, “I propose he sings. I am teaching him the stanzas, but he speaks no Skinnish. Will you help?”
Alstan rubbed his chin. “Why go to the trouble? Any one of us could sing the Lay and expend half the time learning.”
She nodded. After waking in the same position in which they’d fallen asleep, with Pom in her arms, tenderness had sharpened her desire to put the boy forward. Her ambition had been tempered, however, by the old master’s counsel and her own reflections. “I understand. But Pom has an uncommon voice, sza. May he demonstrate?”
The room filled with noncommittal shrugs and murmurs that required no translation.
Pom took a nervous gulp of hot honeyed water and started to sing. He was not at his best this early. Even so, his tenor ululated exquisitely, spiralling higher and higher into the upper reaches of his range. The musicians’ mouths sagged open. Sila and Sali joined him in harmony and the three voices blended so well, it was hard to tell where one ended and another began.
When they finished, everyone—even Heri—applauded.
“Extraordinary,” muttered Alstan. He leaned forward and placed a kindly hand on Pom’s shoulder. In his best Yamzemayan, he said, “Well done, child.”
Pom tucked his chin, embarrassed.
Saaba-niszak said, “He cannot . . .”
The master realised his presumption and pulled away, chastised. To the room, he said, “It’s no good if young Pom can’t follow what we say. If we’re agreed he should sing, we’ll speak Larish for his benefit.”
Orgag shook his head, amused. “Aurig will kill us.”
“I’m sure Aurig would prefer a singer who knows his cues. Heri, your village trades with the Larish. You’re both of an age. Take the boy in hand and help him.”
Heri hugged his knees. “You’re dreaming if you think I’ll speak that filthy tongue when I don’t have to.”
Alstan turned back to the novice. “Well, you do have to. Or would you like to be sent home without pay? It’s no flood out of my field. I can find plenty more boys eager to take your place.”
“You’re just giving them what they want!” cried Heri. He was met with stony silence. “A bit of singing and you’ve already forgiven the snake-face for last night. Shall we hand the Lay over to her now or do we need to hear what she can do first?”
Saaba-niszak gritted her teeth. “I see now I was wrong to impose. I will collaborate. But you, novice, will show respect to your betters and address me as Saaba.”
Saaba, never niszak. No one could address a Skail by their core name alone—not a parent, not even a lover. It was too intimate, and far too rude. Even inviting him to address her in full, hearing her core name in his mouth, would be too generous a concession.
Before he could scoff, Sila or Sali said, “We’ve toured in Laring for floods and daresay know the language better. Pom can learn with us.”
“Gratitude.” Saaba-niszak pushed Pom towards the twins, switching to Larish. “Sit with them. You will sing the Lay. They will help you with your pronunciation.”
Once breakfast was cleared, everyone brought out their instruments. Violas, lyres, harps, lutes and flutes covered the floor. Alstan opened his mouth to begin the session when Hethe, closest to the adjoining room, said, “Wait.”
Hethe slid a wall panel aside, revealing the adjoining room. “We have a spy.”
Bruin knelt within, watching them—it could be no one else, for the girl had her mother’s vulpine looks. Saaba-niszak tried not to patronise her with a smile, as she would for any other child, mindful that in a few short days, Bruin would take her first step towards autonomy. A newly Stained woman of her class might expect to employ her own housekeeper, or make investments, perhaps enrol in university. Skinnish women bloomed fast, even by continental standards. To Skail eyes, though, she was hopelessly, charmingly young, and would be for many years.
Alstan raised his eyebrows. “Why, my dear? You’ll hear the result soon enough.”
Bruin shuffled gracefully towards them, pulling the panel shut behind her. She clutched a harp, Saaba-niszak saw, which was the only indication of nerves; her face was smooth and unreadable. “I’m curious. May I join you?”
“It will be tiresome.”
“Nevertheless, I want to watch.”
Alstan drummed his fingers.
Saaba-niszak noted how Pom smoothed his nap and how Bruin tucked her dark hair behind her ears. Ah, yes, they had already met. She rolled her eyes. Everywhere they went, the boy managed to get attached.
“I don’t see why she shouldn’t be involved,” said Orgag. “It is her Staining.”
That settled it, since they only had four days to practice and no time to argue.
They set to work mapping out the Lay, collating everything they knew about it, demonstrating tricky sections and transposing it all to a key that would best suit Pom’s range. In the making of art, Saaba-niszak became more than herself. She transcribed almost six thousand lines in both Skinnish and Larish. She could pinpoint a bad note down to the offending finger hole or string, and track multiple time signatures simultaneously. Her grasp of the craft was so intuitive, so nimble, it recalled the ease of flight. And yet she could not revel in her ability nor its grace as she usually did.
Under her coat, her wing stubs burned. She was paying her own small price.
At the end of that long day, Bruin followed Saaba-niszak to her room. Pom was muttering lyrics under his breath and didn’t realise she was there, but Saaba-niszak’s mind was whetted by hard work. She sent Pom to bed, then turned to face Bruin outside her own door.
“What do you want, Madam?”
Bruin hadn’t set down her harp all day. Saaba-niszak’s attention roved over the grimy strings, the discoloured pillar—she guessed that until today it had sat unused in Bruin’s room like an ornament.
“I want you to teach me, Saaba. Please.”
Saaba-niszak flicked a hand. “I must focus on your Staining. Ask Alstan. He will not mind how you treat your instruments.”
The girl blushed. “You’re better than Alstan.”
“Because I am much older. I’m also too busy.”
“Then show me how to care for this. I tried cleaning it with something from the kitchen but it split the wood.”
Wherever this sudden, voracious enthusiasm for music had come from, it was likely to end the moment Bruin’s fingers touched the bowl of lily pollen. A last-minute spree before everything had to matter. Saaba-niszak had seen it before. She also hated to see a harp of quality neglected.
“You removed the finish. Wait here.”
She fetched wax and a small, soft brush from her suitcase, calculating the cost of replacing them as she handed them over. “Use the wax to restore shine. Dust with the brush. Keep it out of sunlight or covered. You need new strings but I have none to give you. Ask Orgag or Hethe. Harps are their speciality.”
Saaba-niszak was wrong to think it a whim; the girl was as tenacious as a seed deep in the ground, waiting for spring. Bruin observed the musicians the next day, and the day after that, and each night she asked Saaba-niszak to teach her.
“I already have one apprentice I cannot manage,” Saaba-niszak finally snarled.
The Staining was the day after tomorrow, and rehearsal had not gone well. They’d argued over the third movement. Apparently, some parts of Skinnere had done away with Lilyfinger’s death. Alstan, Saaba-niszak and, strangely, Heri were united in her martyrdom, while Hethe, Orgag, Sila and Sali felt it cast a pall over what should be a happy occasion, however historically accurate it may be.
It was also the first time Pom’s voice had cracked. The horror on everyone’s faces—Alstan’s hoarse, “Has he not been cut?”—had sent the boy running to his room to hide, which was where Saaba-niszak was heading when Bruin ambushed her.
“I wouldn’t cause you trouble.”
“You cause me trouble now, pk. Out of my way.”
Pom was sitting on the bed, his heels tucked to his buttocks and his forehead resting on his knees. When Saaba-niszak came in, he looked up.
“It’s not so terrible,” she said.
“I couldn’t control it at all,” he whispered. “I’ve been resting and drinking water with honey and not coughing too hard and everything else you said. What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing. Just bad timing.” She sat next to him—gingerly, because her ligated wing stubs were in agony. Once settled, she didn’t know what to say. “Did your mother explain these changes?”
He recoiled. “What changes?”
She cursed, and waited a few moments to be sure Bruin wasn’t lingering in the corridor before plunging on. “Bodies change as we age. Yamzemayan larynxes thicken. Perhaps you notice your nap darkening in private places and do not tell me?” He rubbed his face self-consciously, which she took for affirmation. “You are becoming an adult, pk. That means you will be able to mate one day.”
She gave him a moment to digest what she’d said.
“Will I still be able to sing?”
“Yes, sza. But you will not sound the same.” Like her zankla, she thought grimly.
He looked panicked. No doubt he had made the connection between the quality of his voice and the amount of money he could send home to his family. “I have to sound the same, Saaba! I don’t want to change!”
She sighed. “We can preserve your voice by cutting a part of you out. It will remove the hormones and reverse the changes.”
“Cutting—is that what Alstan meant?”
“Yes, sza. But you would never be able to have children.”
“I don’t want babies,” he said quickly.
“Not now, pk. Later, when you are grown. You may wish for them.” She held up a hand to quiet him. “Decide nothing yet. The cut can be done at any age. Pom, you must be sure. I must know you are sure.”
I must do right by you, she thought, as I did not do right by taking you with me without your full consent.
He chewed his lip. “What about those high parts?” He was referring to a crucial moment in the Lay where he had to oscillate between a series of soaring notes at the very top of his range; she knew the section troubled him. “What if I can’t do it at the Staining?”
“What do we say if we play badly otherwise? If we are sick or tired?”
“All bards have bad days.”
She shrugged—ah, shooting pain!—and wished she hadn’t. “So perhaps you will have a bad day. That is not your fault. You are working hard, sza, everyone can see. If you know you cannot hit the notes, find a lower complement for the viola; if you try and fail, it doesn’t mean you will never sing well again.” She found herself smiling and looked away, surprised at herself. “Music is supposed to be fun, as Alstan say before.”
Pom nibbled the nap at the ends of his fingers. “Do lots of singers have this—this part—cut out?”
“Other singers do not matter, pk. I do not expect it of you. Uncut or not, you will always sing well and develop more skills. What of the Damese lyre? Is it abandoned already?”
He smiled behind his fingers. “You’ll teach me twelve strings?”
“Of course. I not tell you before?” She patted his head. The movement hurt so much she had to suck in air.
Pom looked alarmed. He gripped her sleeve. “Saaba?”
He kept his gaze down. “We never used Yamzemayan at home, except sometimes, if my mother felt up to it. Can you teach me that, too?”
Saaba-niszak just looked at him. She couldn’t know, not fully, the strange disconnect the boy felt towards his heritage, or that Bruin’s question still burned in his mind, but she could imagine. It had broken her heart to lose her own language; it broke her heart that he’d never had his. “Worry about Skinnish for now. But yes, I teach you.”
The next morning, Saaba-niszak couldn’t move without whimpering.
When she didn’t appear for breakfast, Pom came and found her. Before she could stop him, he hurtled through the house crying for help, and once the staff understood what he’d seen, they descended upon Saaba-niszak’s room like a horde, hospitality quite forgotten.
“Get out,” Saaba-niszak growled as more of them caught sight of her infected wing stubs.
“Saaba?” Pom sobbed.
“I SAID, GET OUT.”
They left her, though it was a while before the hubbub outside her door faded. She gritted her teeth and crawled out of bed. Her shoulders throbbed as if they might burst. Warm fluid—blood or pus, she couldn’t tell which—ran down her ribs. Her arms wobbled and gave out beneath her. Suddenly, she wished she hadn’t sent everyone away; she was terrified and had no strength to shout for help.
She had been lying on the floor for half an hour when Alstan arrived, carrying a bowl of warm water. He set it down, then bent stiffly to help Saaba-niszak up.
“Stupid old man. You’ll fall before I stand.”
“Stay there, then.” He grunted as he lowered himself further to inspect her injuries. “I see now why young Pom was making no sense. For the love of lilyflies, what have you done to yourself?”
Her speech came in pained gasps. “Shedding makes them grow into a nuisance, so I tie them off. They have never hurt like this before.” She felt him touch the raw skin. It was as if he handled an exposed nerve. “Ah! Ah, please do not do that.”
“I think the cord was not properly disinfected,” said Alstan, continuing to examine her. “You’ll have to see a proper surgeon.”
“Only myself or another Skail can tou—”
He stood up and put his fists on his hips. “This is a serious infection. I think we’re well past cultural formalities, don’t you?”
He gave her something to clamp between her teeth while he removed the cord, pulling it free where it had lodged in her flesh, and then he cleaned her wounds. She swore in every language except Skail. It was said that pain brought one’s mother tongue forward. To her dismay, nothing came to mind.
After he’d administered to her as best as he could manage, he put the wall panels aside. Cold rushed in, scouring away the smell. Saaba-niszak threw an arm across her face.
“You need to let the salt get to them. Come on, up. Out.”
“Someone will see.”
“That particular fish has already left the nursery.”
Saaba-niszak let him lead her towards the open air, too tired to argue. The sensation of anything touching her wing stubs—even air or light, let alone another person’s hands—was strange. Usually, she kept them well covered up. She sighed, closed her eyes, and tried to relax into the pain. It helped, a bit.
When she opened her eyes again, he was looking at her wing stubs. Jagged spurs of hardening bone.
He averted his eyes. “The rest of you is such a beautiful colour. Like the insides of shells. I assume the wings were the same?”
“I’ll never understand why you had to cut them off.”
“No,” she murmured, “you wouldn’t.” She thought back to the things Saaba-meszki had said to comfort her, after. Things he had doubtless said to himself. “Even if exile did not demand it, they were too large, pk. In Sorskail, there are no ceilings. Here, I would knock things over. Also, people would not like them. They see a Skail, they say cruel things.”
“That might have been the case once,” he said lightly. “The world is more tolerant now.”
She snorted. “Heri calls me snake-face. People call Pom an ingya. The world looks tolerant to you, perhaps.”
He bowed his head.
Pom’s footsteps thudded down the corridor. He flung open the bedroom door, and she turned around just in time to see him flush red as if he’d caught her naked. Clearly, knowing she had wing stubs was one thing, and seeing them quite another.
He wrung the hem of his shirt and stared at the floor.
“Saaba, Master Alstan. She—the client wants to watch our dress rehearsal.”
Leaving this room was too much to ask; she had yet to send for a doctor, or indeed eat breakfast. Playing in her state was impossible. She sighed and said to Alstan apologetically, “I need rest.”
Pom blinked. Tears clung like dew to his lashes. His cheeks were soggy. “Saaba, are you going to die?”
She almost chided him. After a year in her care, hadn’t he matured at all? But no, she reasoned, poverty had taught him his world could flip at any moment. Such scars fade slowly, if at all.
“I am not going to die, pk. I may not have your constitution but I am not so easy to kill as that. Go, both of you. Show Aurig our progress. Pom knows his lines now, yes?”
Pom was appalled by this. “We can’t rehearse without you! What about the end?”
“Play clearly and I will hear. As for Lilyfinger—I cannot say if she ought she die. The Lay welcomes Bruin to adulthood. She decides, sza.”
“I wanted the best!” Aurig shrieked. Her voice filled the bedroom. “I paid for the best! You dare send my daughter to play her own Lay while you laze around in my house, on my coin? Oh, you are clever to wait until the last moment, or you’d be out of a job today.”
Saaba-niszak watched the Skinnish woman pace, her heart in her mouth.
She had listened to the rehearsal all morning, eating the blandest food the kitchen could bring her and barely paying attention to the doctor when he called in. There were some faltering transitions and dropped notes, and Pom’s developing voice did fail him at the exact point he’d feared it would, but on the whole it was salvageable.
Towards the end, however, her ears had picked out a few twangs from untuned harp strings. She’d groaned and put her face in her hands. Bruin had apparently decided to join in.
“Your daughter took advantage of my absence, nothing more,” she said. “And, as you see, I do not laze. I have been ill. I intend to fulfil my duties tomorrow, as I have all week.”
“Yes, the doctor told me you were indisposed,” Aurig sneered. “How you mutilate yourself is not my problem.”
Then her rage softened, became melancholy. Her eyes glistened.
“I wanted the best for Bruin, do you understand? The perfect Staining. All my mother could do for me was half an hour of humming. A bowl of turmik—a spice—for my fingers. I found her crying in the kitchen afterwards out of shame, and I vowed then to do better by my daughter when her time came.” She raised her voice. “Instead, I get an ingya whose accent is too Larish and a Lilyfinger who lives . . . What am I to tell everyone when they hear it?”
Saaba-niszak did not reply right away.
Eight decades ago, she had played the Lay at another Staining. She’d just started her training, and for her many mistakes Saaba-meszki had taken her into a side room and beaten her. She closed her eyes and listened to the sea. Its music filled her as it had long ago—the same song, sung differently.
“Tell them the perfect Staining does not exist. It cannot, sza. A Lay must vary as every girl varies. None weighs less than another.”
Aurig knelt, too drained to stand. Strain sickened her complexion. “Do not lecture me about the validity of my customs.”
“Apology. I do not mean to assume . . . I think only of the turmik and your mother’s tears. They have played their part, yes? They have driven you to succeed, to marry well and manage a business. You are powerful, Madam, because of that unorthodox ceremony. It is a priceless reminder every time you renew your stains.”
The two women sat in silence for a while.
When Saaba-niszak judged Aurig to be calm, she said, “She asks me to teach her.”
“Of course she does, stubborn girl.” Aurig rubbed her temples. “We’ve spent a small fortune on private tutors for arithmetic, science, history, and economics, but music was never her suit. Why is she interested in something she can’t do? She sounded dreadful.”
“Old strings. If she must play with us—and I think her mind is set, yes?—I can instruct her.”
Aurig frowned. “You want to take her from me?”
Saaba-niszak shook her head. “No. I cannot manage two apprentices. But,” she sighed, “I must accept that Pom will not need me forever, and I do better with company. Bruin needs to study basics. Fast, withstand sleep, harden her fingertips, develop taste. I will return for her, pk. In a few years, maybe. If she still enjoys music, this preparation is helpful. If she does not, no harm will have been done.
“In the meantime, with your blessing, I will ask the harpists to demonstrate a few chords so she will not embarrass herself tomorrow.”
Afterwards, Pom would remember the party as nothing but a blur of texture, colour, sights and smells. It outranked the wedding in Lurtz; it definitely eclipsed the Damese plaza and the men with their caffy. Every room exploded with bunting. Special robes arrived for the musicians to wear, and someone to style their hair and smear red paint across their eyelids. They were sequestered away from the guests, a final opportunity to tune instruments and drill passages as the party kicked off around them.
He was all fidgets, caught up in the excitement of an impending performance. The symbols in his nap had come out crooked, his hand was so unsteady.
Saaba-niszak looked up from her zankla. There had barely been time to examine the repair, let alone test the sound. “Calm yourself.”
But he couldn’t calm himself, which made them all laugh. She wiped his nap shiny and redrew the symbols for him with a fingertip. Dark lines for humility and merriment.
“Saaba, we’re coming back for Bruin in a few years, aren’t we?”
“Where are we going until then?”
She tutted. “We are not yet finished here.”
“I know. I just wondered—can we go to Yamzemay?” He wriggled, not knowing how to put his thoughts into words. He wanted to see his family. He wanted to ask his mother about her mother. Lilyfinger’s story was incendiary and he wanted to see if it could spark fires elsewhere, in the labour camps and at the looms. The force of his wanting surprised him.
Saaba-niszak nodded. “We can take a riverboat north and pass through the mountains, pk.”
“Are there any Yamzemayan lays or sagas? I want to learn a really, really good one.”
Under her robes, he saw her wing stubs flex. The bone had hardened to form a tiny knuckle, the memory of a joint. “If we are patient, we are sure to find some. To the east, Laring’s hold is not so tight.” She drew back and considered him. “This is a calling, yes?”
Just then, the housekeeper opened the door. “Places!”
They were led to the same room in which Saaba-niszak and Pom had auditioned. It was bursting with guests eating roasted lily bulbs, drinking wine; the wall panels had been thrown open so the party could spill out onto the water. People wandered barefoot along the shore, already drunk.
Someone called for quiet as a bowl of lily pollen was brought before Bruin. She wore reed linen instead of velvet, dyed blue for the coming floodwater. With an encouraging nod from her mother, she dipped her fingers into the pollen, rubbing the colour in until they glowed gold. She would have to do this once a year for the rest of her life. Then, to the party’s surprise, she padded the length of the room to where Pom held out her harp. She took it from him, smearing pollen across the wood, and nestled herself beside Saaba-niszak.
It would be chaos. How could it not be? By the time the musicians finished, their eyes would be red, their calluses split. But none of the guests would remember when Pom’s voice gave out, or when a viola string snapped—all those inevitable mistakes were forgiven in the moment. All anyone would remember was the smell of lilies, and the sound of a keening flute with an unearthly timbre they’d never heard before and would never hear again.
A zankla. Not quite broken, not quite whole.
At peace with that thought, Saaba-niszak gave the cue for Bruin to begin. The young woman arranged her fingers upon the strings like Hethe had shown her. With purpose, she struck the first chord.
“The Lay of Lilyfinger” copyright © 2021 by G. V. Anderson
Art copyright © 2021 by Sija Hong