1. The New Soprano
The new soprano arrived during the bread riots. M. Petrie introduced her at the foot of the stage. Outside, bottles shattered in the streets, but within the comédie we lit the candles as usual I, for one, spared no thought for rebels. I had wanted La Donna—but La Donna was not here.
“Mimi de Melian,” said the new soprano. She held out a delicate, lavender-gloved hand. Dwarfed by the looming trees of our set, she looked too skinny for a heroine. Behind her loitered a similarly threadbare bag-man. Only one! La Donna strung about at least twelve. I had seen them when she sung Gloriosa at Siren. Such eager, striking lads in their immaculately turned stockings! They’d followed her like a flower chain of suitors though, appropriately, La Donna claimed to love only music.
“Enchanté,” I told the new soprano.
“Maestro.” She smiled. “Shall I sing the adagio?”
The others—M. Volpek, our baritone; the choristers; our owner, M. Petrie; the corps de ballet—all murmured enthusiastically—but I felt a sudden stab of rage. Though I myself had no better Blood—the freed child of a Bloodlord and a Sugar Isle slave (even worse: I was complexioned like an Isleman, and had fought more than one duel as a result)— I disparaged the lot of them in my mind. Ignorant half-Bloods! So unaware of perfection! La Donna was a virtual Bloodlord, or the closest you could get in such comédies as ours. I’d seen Mimi de Melian’s papers. She was just another bastard with no pedigree.
“I suppose you should,” I replied blandly, wondering all the while why La Donna had sent her. A sudden pox had stolen the diva’s voice just before she’d been set star in my opera. Now, instead of anticipating the festival of Germinal as an opportunity of gaining more exalted patronage, I could only brood like a dog around a bone that had long since been stripped of all nourishing meat. Three Germinals I’d been at the comédie. Three Germinals hoping to entice La Donna—and now, finally, when I’d written my score and the libretto was worthy of a singer like her, I must suffer the gray, sublime defeat of watching this de Melian assume her role.
Shouting and stone-breaking sounded outside.
Death to the Bloodlords!
Death to the Ministers!
We ignored these slogans as a matter of course. Without the Blood, there would be no opera. We instead watched Mimi de Melian—her wide panniers swaying as she ascended the stage.
To her credit, the girl seemed confident. She couldn’t sense my disappointment, or else she didn’t care. Perhaps the former, for she held my eye, a coquettish sort of moue on her full-lipped mouth. This, at least, was diva-like. Though how she could replace La Donna ...
I smiled at her tolerantly as Madame Felicia struck the introductory chords. To the side, de Melian’s bag-man straightened. I sensed his wave of nervousness as his mistress burst forth –but my interest in him was temporary, for it seemed our new, thin soprano could sing.
Imagine, if you will, some pure ice cavern dripping crystalline notes instead of spring thaw. Golden flutters of light and deep, brooding troughs of darkness—this was the sound of de Melian’s voice.
A shiver ran through our company. M. Petrie sidled up and nudged me in the ribs. I think my mouth was hanging open. Such notes! By Ora! From a half-Blood!
She sailed through the arpeggios, touching each briefly. The sound of her won me so completely that it took my brain a moment to detect her crime. Improvisation! Undeniably lovely—yet completely and utterly taboo! I’d already put my score past the censors, spending weeks of my time and more money than I had. One did not go around altering approved notes—not unless one hoped to draw the Ministers.
I should have stopped her. She should not have done it. Nothing like this had happened before! Had we been a more united company we might have tackled her off the stage. Yet, recently, M. Petrie had hired new players and the company had no shared sense of preservation. We were all of us staring at Mimi de Melian—some of us horrified, far more of us entranced—when an enormous boom sounded at the front of the theatre and, like a great cloud, the Ministers came.
They had no feet, the Ministers. They floated, when they seemed to move at all. When they came to your theatre it was always en rang, in rows of five or six or ten. “Red shadows” we called them—though they were solid enough, their tall shapes draped in yards of scarlet. The color, of course, was only fitting, for they were the literal creations of the Blood.
These Ministers were led by the Duc de Clave—the very nobleman whose patronage I most desired. In addition the Duc had brought his usual entourage of luxuriant young-Bloods. Dressed in blue and white and silver, these young men clocked after their patron in a patter of high-heeled shoes. My heart turned to ice at the sight of them. By Ora. To have acquired a criminal soprano now!
Sweeping from the stage and down to the house, the cause of my ruin appeared nonplussed. While our company retreated from the Ministers, de Melian gave no outward sign of fear. Indeed: she stepped closer as the procession halted. I wanted to strike her. We would all be arrested!
Yet when the Duc spoke in his measured baritone, all he said was: “Petrie! I adore your set!”
Petrie, responding to that lustrous voice, jerked towards its owner like a marionette. “Why thank you, your Grace!” he said, smiling. “It’s for Belissima—D’Isle’s new opera.”
“Ah.” I had met the Duc several times, yet on each occasion he seemed to rediscover me. He stood there—a dark-haired handsome man, with his angel-embroidered surcoat and his lacquered walking cane—and eyed me the way he might eye a lion whose presence he was considering for his menagerie. “Is that the Bête Noire, D’Isle?” he asked, pointing with the cane, whose ivory pommel was a miniature globe of the world. I followed his gesture towards our backdrop of trees. It was, indeed, a painted Bête Noire: all tangled forest and shadows.
“Where are the wards?” the Duc asked playfully. He made a show of searching for the monolithic ward-stones.
I coughed and managed to find my voice. “The wards are the subject of my opera, your Grace. Only, in this scene, they have not yet been created.”
The Duc laughed. “Very good,” he said. “See to it they are created, for the sake of us all!” His young-Bloods, aligned in a row behind him, all grinned with identical canine smiles.
“May we assist you with something, your Grace?” Petrie, the eternal showman, pretended not to see the Ministers. Until the moment the creatures swarmed you, no one ever looked at them. (At that point no acknowledgement was necessary. Your screams or your silence would speak for themselves.)
The Duc smiled. “It’s these rebels,” he said. “There was some trouble at the Cimetière du Noire. The fiends removed some items from a crypt and now, I’m afraid, we must search door-to-door.”
I waited for him to turn to De Melian—this out-of-town soprano with her illegal improvisation. Why else, I wondered, had he paid us this visit if not because the Ministers had sensed her crime? His unassuming tone must have been meant to disarm her, his tale an anchor to keep her from flight. So certain was I that the Ministers would seize her I nearly leapt from my skin when she spoke.
“But don’t Ministers guard La Cimetière, Your Grace?” She wore a huge-eyed, fearful frown. The Duc turned towards her with slow irritation—then, seeing she was pretty, smoothed his face.
“They do,” he replied. “They guard us all. Yet even rebels get lucky now and then. Oh, don’t worry,” he said as she gasped, “we will catch them and drag them to the town square. Our death engine is finally complete and it waits for a chance to chop some heads!” So saying, he turned towards his entourage and beckoned them behind the Ministers. The red shadows ignored de Melian and floated towards the peripheral aisles.
“A moment now, Petrie,” the Duc called. “Everyone keep still and let our friends work.” He waved again and stepped behind the Ministers as a familiar tension gripped the air.
They never made a sound, the Ministers, yet sound was their whole reason for being. They had been created in the ancient days when Lyrian singing had drawn demons from the Bête Noire. Even after the demons had been sung down and great wards used to seal them in the forest, the Blood had conjured the Ministers to insure the land against future invasion. There were still certain songs that could draw destruction, still notes that might free the demons from their spell. The Ministers were the price we paid for safety—though, for many, the payment was too high.
I was not unsympathetic to these sentiments. The very sight of the Ministers discomfited me. On performance nights they would line the aisles in order snap the strings—or necks—of discordants. I’d seen a violinist’s off-key sawing derailed as his own strings cut him across the face, and street buskers surrounded for unsanctioned ballads, their high-pitched screams the most remarkable notes of their careers. A kind of awe shrouded the Ministers. Their swift, brutal work revealed a connoisseur’s ear.
Yet I did not think the Ministers had ears at all or, despite their shape, any features resembling a man’s.
Soon enough the air released us, leaving a mild buzzing in my head. The Ministers reformed behind the Duc. Incredibly, they had found nothing.
As our company slowly roused themselves, I waited for the trick to be revealed—for the Duc to turn and point with his cane, or a performer to out de Melian. If improvisation was a crime, so too was harboring traitorous sopranos.
Yet no one said anything. The Duc and the Ministers drifted towards the doors.
When M. Petrie made to kiss de Melian’s hand I felt I must be going mad. We’d all heard her sing! We were all in danger!
I raced after the Duc and caught him near the exit.
“Your Grace—there is a problem,” I said. Agitation made my legs shake. The Ministers turned along with their master, regarding me from the face-plates beneath their shrouds. No eye-holes pierce those featureless masks—as if even the Blood dared not pretend the things were human.
“Yes?” The Duc raised a well-groomed eyebrow.
I found I could not speak a word.
My mouth worked. Denouncements crowded my tongue: Your Grace—there is a rebel among us!
Not even a wheeze would pass my lips.
A melting feeling spread through me.
I stamped my foot, hoping to jar something loose. Nothing changed but that my tongue grew drier. The Duc’s splendid eyebrow arched again and I sensed humiliation in my future.
“Oh, your Grace, forgive me! This is my fault!” A woman’s soft arm slipped through mine. De Melian offered a nervous giggle. “It’s only... I’ve never met a true Bloodlord before.” As I gaped, she thrust a piece of paper at the Duc. “I asked our Maestro to obtain your autograph. I’ve heard all the legends of your career Oh, would you? Please? It would mean so much...”
The Duc, who had indeed plied his baritone on the great, gilded stages of Abendlied and Siren, relaxed and took de Melian’s paper, scrawling his name with a dripping quill pen (this last provided by a graceful retainer no doubt hired for the exact purpose). As a scion of one of Lyria’s purest lines, he had been a popular performer and, unlike many Blood where the talent had vanished, was one of the few capable of using the Bloodsong. The ability to seduce or kill with one’s voice had been outlawed since the ancient days, yet I’d seen him sing in my childhood, and the threat that he might use it had spiced his performance.
More relevant to my current predicament, the Duc was a man who thrived on adoration. A fact which Mimi de Melian now used to escape her rightful punishment.
In a moment, the Duc was away, leaving me alone with the treacherous girl.
“Maestro,” she said, speaking lower—but I pulled free from her, my skin a-crawl.
“What have you done?” I tried to say. This worked no better than it had with the Duc. The more I tried to yell, the warmer my chest grew and, in a moment I had gone nearly limp. This wretched soprano had done something. I could not speak! And could not move to express the fact!
Confounded I moved away from her, pursued by her expression of surprise. She appeared both troubled by and for me as though she’d done something not entirely by choice.
Removed from her presence I found I could do little but take up the day’s rehearsal as planned. I did so, my emotions whirling, my gut clenched in anticipation of when she must sing.
But throughout the endless hours that followed, she performed my score as faithfully as if she’d written it herself.
2. The Gamin
So long did my confusion linger that, walking home that evening, I was nearly killed.
It happened a little ways from my apartments, where my brooding had lulled me to a somnambulic state. By the time I noted the smell of smoke and the clatter of bootheels moving towards me, I was already on the fringes of the conflagration, bright flames and dark bodies darting past me like comets. In the distance, the reddening sky over Clave was bisected by a column of smoke. The rebels had fired another bakery. Ragged peasants flashed by, bread-loaves piled in their arms.
Among the toothless dams and cobblers, the swift forms of the gamins stood out to me. These young ragamuffins were not yet defeated by poverty—and always roused my delight with their impetuous pranks. As I stumbled backwards, fumbling for my rapier—for there was fair chance the mob might turn on me—I noted in particular a swarthy boy of ten, who carried something shining in his hand. Where his elders had the faces of panicking sheep, the boy smiled and pranced, waving this makeshift scepter, the thing whirling so dizzyingly fast I could not make out what it was. A pack of fellow urchins ran at his heels, laughing and hooting and gorging on bread. They might have been enjoying a feast-day processional—until the Blood and the Ministers came.
I had retreated, by then, to the mouth of an alley so as to wait out the buffeting tide. I therefore had a front row to the proceedings as a pack of young Bloodlords charged out of the dark. Though no song had been raised, the Ministers followed them, swarming over the rebels at the front of the crowd. Harsh screaming drowned out the roaring of flames and everywhere, rebels began to die.
The gamin I’d noticed paused in his caper, terror returning him to childhood. No haughty street-princeling now stood on the cobbles—only a small and homeless boy. As the Bloodlords came down on him he raised his strange scepter and dealt a fair blow to one nobleman’s thigh. The man—in Duc’s livery—repaid this bruising by skewering the lad through his soft child’s throat.
I screamed and attempted to lunge from the alley. If fighting had not cut me off I might have done murder. Yet Ora, in Her mercy, must have been watching, and I was forced to retreat the other way. By the time I emerged from the far end of the alley, something like sanity had returned. What was I thinking, to attack Duc’s men? I needed the Duc if I were ever to rise! It was terrible—tragic!—that children should die, yet the rebels made war on my benefactors. My Bloodlord father had made me a freeman so that I might honor Ora with my gifts. I could hardly accomplish this whilst dead—or rotting in some moss-dripping dungeon.
No, I thought, hardening my heart. No—it was the rebels who were wrong. And now one of them had discovered some trick and was seeking to infiltrate my opera!
I stalked home in the light of the burning bakery, full of dark thoughts and angry plans. All of this was somehow de Melian’s fault. All my doubts and misgivings were roused by her. I would follow her, I decided. I would find some way to prove her a traitor. I might even receive rewards for this and so obtain the golden stage of Siren more quickly.
Still, as I fell into a smoke-scented sleep, it was the face of the gamin that hovered before me.
3. The Cello
It took several days to carry out my plan, for our season had begun in all its hurly-burly. Paint and sawdust speckled our rehearsals as the sets were finished and pulley systems secured. The facsimile wards so anticipated by the Duc were prepared and tested on a counter-weighted lift. There was squabbling between the corps de ballet and a half-blind old seamstress who’d used the wrong sequins—and even our distinguished M.Volpek threatened to quit over a disastrous wig.
Through it all I watched Mimi de Melian, and Mimi de Melian watched me.
Save for the normal stage directions, we’d not spoken since the day of her arrival. She’d made several attempts to approach me since then, but I always hurried myself away. Her expression towards me was one of near-pleading—but I doubted the existence of her good intentions. I feared what further power she might use and determined I would remain un-cornered.
Cornering her though... How to do it? She always vanished directly rehearsal ended. She would slip off with her shadowy bag-man, Renard, who I’d noticed carousing with the orchestra. He seemed particularly friendly with Devois, the old man who played our great bass cello. I saw the pair conferring a few times—yet my interest in de Melian overrode all. Each night I attempted to follow her—and each night was impeded by M. Petrie. Suddenly, the opera-owner’s concerns and confusions were as numerous and overwhelming as mine.
“D’Isle! These stage directions won’t do!”
“D’Isle! Is it legal to extend this A-flat?”
“D’Isle! Come into my office! I’ve some good strong Chalet and some puzzling receipts!”
At first I took this as a matter of course. It is true we’d planned more time for rehearsal. La Donna’s sudden removal from our production had left a hole into which time poured like sand. And yet, after so many wine-soaked nights, as I felt my resolve towards de Melian weaken, I began to suspect some collusion of Petrie, his requests keeping me unnecessarily late. Why was he always waiting for me—he who’d once enjoyed his lone nights on the town? Why had I seen him talking to Renard, or trying to wave me over when de Melian was there? What might they do if they caught me alone? I was being engulfed by unknown schemes!
Yet even as my desperation peaked, Petrie himself provided me with the key.
Another night of wasted opportunity had passed. I arrived at rehearsal in a dangerous mood. When young Nathalie, in the pants role, failed to land her A, my frustration drove me onto the stage.
“There are three weeks until Germinal!” I shouted. “Hit that note or I’ll find another Petite Sabina!”
Nathalie, nineteen and sunny-haired, shrank against de Melian—just arrived from the wings.
“Maestro,” de Melian began.
“What have you to say of it?!” I roared. “You’ve never seen a score you couldn’t improve!”
Her eyelashes fluttered in surprise.
I gasped. By Ora! I’d mentioned her crime! To her—which would avail me nothing—but for one moment, I had been free!
“Is all well here?” M. Petrie called.
He and Renard were strolling up the aisle.
“It’s a tense day,” he continued. “Let’s break early, Maestro! There’s some Chalet in my rooms....”
I ignored him, watching de Melian, her mouth tight as she descended the stage. She slid an arm through Renard’s, and together they strolled towards the dressing rooms. They asked no permission from M. Petrie, their clandestine air less of lovers than of thieves. I boiled, remembering the Duc’s visit. Rebels had stolen something. Rebels like her.
“Maestro....” Petrie touched my shoulder. In that moment I knew he was part of it. He had a family plot in the Cimetière du Noire—maybe he had helped them rob the crypts! Certainly, whatever the rebels had stolen was the very thing enabling de Melian’s voice!
Thinking this, the dam broke.
“I’m going home!” I declared in a snarl. I stormed off stage left, opposite my prey. My anger was real—but calculated. Within moments I’d secured my rapier and was ensconced in an alley across from the theatre. I was just in time to catch Renard and de Melian’s exit—and to observe Renard carrying a large, heavy case.
Vindication blazed through me. This had to be the rebels’ stolen treasure!
Yet, oddly enough, it was Devois’s cello-case. I recognized the frayed handle.
Unaware of me, Renard and de Melian stepped out and turned towards the town square. I followed them, thankful I’d removed my wig, for my face was known to the local proprietors.
Soon though, wine shops replaced the well-kempt taverns and moldering fruit-bins the flower stalls. The clientele grew increasingly more ragged, and I knew we were heading towards the outskirts of town. There, beyond Clave’s ancient, tumble-down wall, the dark tangled shadow of the Bête Noire lurked behind its wards-stones.
Presently, a tussling sounded. One street over, a flute gave out with a shriek. The Ministers. Well, the tune was unsanctioned—and what fool dared play music so near the wood? Renard and de Melian, recognizing this cue, sped up, the cello case jouncing between them. They raced towards a dilapidated shop, and I slipped down an alley into the establishment’s weed-filled garden. The walls of the place were so thin and crumbling I could clearly hear the tromping of feet inside. Thinking to slip through the splintered back door I moved into the garden—and then flung myself back. A flicker of movement was my only warning that Renard and de Melian hadn’t slowed.
They were out the back door before I could hide, tearing through the garden towards a small, rusted gate. The gate let out into a sedge-colored field where brambles and weeds grew as tall as a man. Beyond, at a pace of a few hundred feet were the wards—and the entrance to the Bête Noire.
In their flight, the pair had overlooked me completely. I followed them in disbelief. They were not! They could not! No one went into the forest! Not the Blood. Not even the Ministers! Yet clearly this was their destination and—after a short rustling—they were gone. The hem of de Melian’s skirt flashed brightly: a crimson flame vanishing into the trees.
All nations conceal their demons somewhere. Beyond the field the glittering wards stabbed up. Those dark and jagged lengths stone—said to be the teeth of greater demons—showed the comédie’s painted replicas for the cheap toys they were. Behind them the Bête Noire rose naked and gnarled. I’d written my opera about it but hadn’t bothered revisiting. Everyone has seen the Bête Noire—but only madmen ever ventured inside.
The tangled field smelled sweetly of hay. Cool shadows consumed me as I passed between the wards. By contrast the forest itself was warm. A dense, boggy vapor rose from the deadfall. The scent alone told me the place was wrong—how wrong then the two figures stealing through the trees?
Even in the gloom I picked them out: moving with confidence through the woody maze. I sped after them, cold sweat slicking my spine and—just as quickly—I lost my way. Like the Bloodsong, the Bête Noire confounds the senses. The famed cartographer De Vecchio had written a pamphlet before he disappeared: “The Bête Noire intoxicates... ” he’d said. I felt it now like a liquor, stealing through my veins.
And then, ahead and to my right I heard a low, deep throated growl. I freed my rapier. Oh, Ora! I was done for! Only the Bloodsong could kill the demons of the wood! To make matters worse, I was entangled in a thicket whose silvery bushes grabbed at my clothes. I struggled—a fly in a spider’s web!—until I realized: it was no demon’s voice.
As if a spell had lifted from me I found, again, the ability to move. I advanced, following the plaintive notes, slowly recognizing them from my opera. The adagio again: its last, sustained G! I rounded a bend and found de Melian. She was sitting in a clearing, sawing at Devois’s cello—until Renard appeared and took it from her.
“Too bad about d’Isle,” he said, beginning to unstring the instrument.
Heart pounding I pressed myself to a trunk, marveling at this strange tableau. Renard loosed a single string, his movements sure but tense and impatient. He might have been a careless rake loosening the stays of his latest conquest. De Melian, seated on a root, wore a contemplative expression.
“It should have worked,” she said, and scowled.
“Well it didn’t.” His voice snapped with the string. He tossed it to the forest floor, then set about re-stringing with a strange, tarnished specimen. The cello case lay open near his boot, a handful of other off-color strings inside. Even stranger than the strings was the sharp cold that touched me as he completed his task. As he released the cello back to de Melian, her handling of it pricked my teeth. When she plucked the G, I felt paralysis, as if a knife had skittered up my spine. The feeling was more than could be accounted for even by the madness of playing music within the wood.
Why aren’t they afraid? I wondered. Demons came to music here like bees to the comb.
Then de Melian’s bow touched the strings and, once more, my body froze in place.
It came on slowly, creepingly: a bend in the pressure of the air. The note solidified: dark and low, trembling in my very bones. My center of gravity sunk to the earth. In my mind, tall shadows reached for me. I longed for and dreaded their embrace and, all the time, I could not move...
The music. The music is binding me! I could not fathom how Renard still moved. He strode through the clearing and crouched near some tree roots, wrestling with something hidden beneath...
Though visions of sinuous phantoms beckoned me I forced my fogging eyes to track him. He extracted a ragged tarpaulin from the roots and unfolded it to reveal a dark jumble of objects. Quickly he selected one and placed it on the flat of a nearby rock. The thing was round and glittered darkly, like an insect’s carapace or the surface of the wards.
There was more. A wand-like object followed. Renard placed it on the altar-like stone. Stepping away he said “Focus!” and de Melian bore down on the strings.
Shadows roared within my head. Suddenly I knew what I beheld. The thing—the skull—on the stone shuddered. Bones! Dark bones from La Cimetière!
An awful pressure filled my head like some mailed fist slowly uncurling its fingers. It pushed at my eyes and my inner ears, my blood roaring in nearly pleasurable terror. Whatever they had done to Devois’s cello had made it into a weapon it like some fell engine of old. In ancient days the Blood had fought with such things: instruments sharper than their voices.
“Stop!” At last the pain overcame me. Unable to think, I stumbled forward. The skull and bone on the rock trembled. Another moment—maybe two—before they—and I—cracked.
“Maestro!” De Melian shot to her feet, the cello falling with a tuneless clang. Renard backed up, mouth agape. With my rapier I gestured at them, even as I slipped and fell to my knees.
They looked up and up—far above the top of my head. In the silence a new kind of sound emerged. On the leaves, my shadow was eclipsed by one darker.
I began to flee before I knew my danger, my progress a loping, animalistic thing. It brought me to de Melian on fingertips and toes as, behind me, something stepped into the clearing.
Renard seized me and propelled me behind de Melian, the two of us falling in one another’s arms. An image flashed: the Duc and his Ministers. How he always stood behind them during their ritual. Renard pressed me to the ground. His gaze was trained upwards towards the sound of snarling—towards the darkness, suddenly alive, that now towered over de Melian.
The demon—surely it was one!—had a vaguely amphibious aspect. It resembled an overgrown newt or salamander—but salamanders have no teeth and newts no ursine claws. I saw both appendages flash in de Melian’s face, followed by a bifurcated tongue.
Mimi de Melian never flinched.
As the thing barreled towards her, she began to sing.
Her voice, as before, was silvery cold—and pained my head as had the cello. A higher, clearer kind of pain that instinctively led me to cover my ears. I turned my head against Renard and buried both nose and dignity in his arm. It was there, scenting fear-sweat through his thin velvet jacket that I heard, rather than saw the demon’s demise.
The sound of snarling grew with my pain. At some point, I began to scream. There were fingers gouging my eyes from inside, an iron hand squeezing my brain to porridge. That clear high note, was killing me. My very bones cracking. My very bones....
I came to in a world of rustling silence, Renard’s scuffed boots standing sentry at my head.
“You killed it!” he crowed, and clapped his hands. It struck me, suddenly, how young he was.
“Mm,” said Mimi de Melian. No fear in her voice. The demon was dead. When she moved, her crimson skirts revealed a huge body sprawled in the immediate clearing.
Renard had neglected to disarm me. With rapier in hand, I flew to my feet. I flinched to glimpse the demon’s bulk, but it was de Melian I feared. The Bloodsong, I thought. She used the Bloodsong! She was no half-Blood. She never had been. I had been so blind and angry over La Donna I had assumed her replacement would be inferior. That she would be greater—able to boggle minds, able to slay demons like some heroine of old—this had never occurred to me. I wouldn’t have believed it now if her voice had not still echoed in my head. As I circled her, my rapier up, aiming at her pale throat, my mind was full of so many questions I might have still been caught in her spell.
“What are you!” I snarled, pointlessly—not caring if anything lurking might hear.
In response, she smiled, and sang a note, and my rapier fell quivering to the forest floor.
I followed it down a moment later, having tripped over Renard’s tarpaulin of bones. As I sat there amongst those glassy relics, their color too dark and their touch strangely cold, de Melian approached and held out a hand.
“I’m what any Bloodlord is, Maestro,” she said. “I’m a monster.”
4. The Choice
“It’s the bones,” she said later, when they’d conducted me—dazed and stumbling—back to the abandoned shop. She poured tea into a delicate, chipped cup and settled me in a sagging chair. A single bone lay across her lap—a dark, glittering femur that she tapped like a wand. Strange objects—tarnished strings and black, thimble-shaped pebbles—lay gleaming on a work table in a corner of the room. Renard, pushing past me, still holding a skull, removed a pebble from each of his ears. Not pebbles. Ear stones. Protection against sound. Made from the bones in his tarpaulin.
De Melian caught me gaping at him.
“It’s the only way he can stand my singing,” she said.
“Withstand, you mean?” Not only protection. These objects were weapons against the Blood. Looking again I saw other devices: obsidian bracelets and something like a collar. A scattering of powder beneath the tarnished strings, also obsidian, also gleaming. I realized that somehow they had treated the strings, giving them a coating of ground Bloodlord bone.
“How have you not been discovered?” I asked.
De Melian rolled her shoulder at me. “We keep the bones—and all we make from them—concealed in the Bête Noire. Even the Ministers won’t go there.”
“But you,” I said. “You have Blood-bones. How is it the Ministers didn’t sense it?”
She shrugged. “They were searching for a caché. We took five skeletons out of the tombs. In any case, the Blood have spawned so many half-Bloods I doubt the Ministers could find any one Bloodlord among them.”
“And why would any Bloodlord betray her own kind?” I glared at her suspiciously.
“Because they’re monsters,” Renard said. He held up the grinning, obsidian skull.
I shuddered. It was the same color as the wards—the same glassy stuff as the teeth of demons. Ministers guarded La Cimetière du Noire, and I was beginning to understand why.
“Monsters,” Renard repeated, emphatic. He pointed to the skull’s nasal cavity. “Their vocal chambers produce more resonance, which makes them better able to sing your doom. Their bones are different—lighter—show him, Mimi! Whatever they’re made of helps them make the Bloodsong. They go around claiming they’re the scions of angels but they’re the ones that ought to be locked in the Bête Noire!”
De Melian passed me the femur bone. I shuddered again, fighting a sense of recognition. The object reminded me painfully of something, but I shoved that aside, too busy reeling. The Blood, our self-proclaimed protectors, our heroes and benefactors, defeaters of demons, were kindred to the things in the wood... and they knew it, had tried to hide it away.
I felt as if a mask had slipped, revealing a pocked, disease scarred face. Yet I could not claim complete surprise. The Blood had made the Ministers, after all.
You always knew, a voice whispered. You always sensed the Blood were wrong.
“So you are armoring yourselves,” I said.
“We can use the bones against them,” de Melian said.
I thought of M. Petrie and all his new hires. “You’re not alone.”
She smirked. “Of course not. Have you seen what’s happening in the streets, Maestro? The people lack only opportunity.”
“Like Germinal, you mean?” I said. “Like my opera? You plan to use your... talents on the Ministers and Blood?”
“And you want my help,” I said. “But why would I help you, mademoiselle? I’ve spent a career seeking favor with the Duc who, I daresay, has treated me better than you have!”
My sudden vehemence took her aback. “If you mean...” she began.
“I do mean!” I shouted. “Do you take me for a fool? If you wanted my help you’ve a funny way of asking for it! Using the Bloodsong? Subverting my mind? I couldn’t speak! I still can’t!”
“You’re speaking now,” de Melian said.
“To you,” I said. “But to no one else. If I tried to speak of your bones or your singing or your little revolutionary schemes I’d splutter like some palsied derelict with half a tongue and even less of a brain!”
De Melian raised an eyebrow at me. “Such contempt for the lowly. Maybe La Donna was wrong.”
“You’re the one with contempt!” I raged. Then: “La Donna?” By Ora! To hear her name in this place!
De Melian rolled one silk-clad shoulder. “Who do you think recommended you? She says she’s always feared to accept roles in your operas because you give too many solos to the common-born characters.”
“An odd way of courting the Blood,” she continued, “but maybe you’ve got more of that than you know. I happen to know you paid off the censors. La Donna and Petrie both mentioned it. The Ministry wanted you to re-write Belissima and make her into some Bloodlord queen—but you paid them more money and they relented. So it seems you’re a snob but not quite a nationalist.”
I thought I might start gargling at her. “What—did you seduce La Donna too?”
“I didn’t have to,” de Melian said. “La Donna is a rebel. It’s you I can’t figure out.” Her tone—growing steadily hotter—suddenly cooled with a weary sigh. “I should not have done it,” she said resolutely. “It wasn’t right—and I’ve no one but to blame but myself. I did try to control you, Maestro, but only until I could make sure of you. Its serves me right that you thwarted me. You resisted. You were even aware of my spell. I don’t know why that is. It might mean you’re mostly Bloodlord—but even if that turns out to be true I still doubt that you are with them.”
She said this with such lack of apology—with such indifference to how she might shatter my world—that it took me a moment to find my breath in order to start swearing at her.
“You know nothing of me!” I said. “I ask again: why would I help you? You’ve admitted you tried to make me your pawn. Why would I ever fall in with your plans?”
“Because,” she said, “if we win, you can say you composed the Revolution.”
I laughed at her—but my stomach tightened. Maybe she did know a little of me. All this time, struggling to please the Duc, and here was a gamble with far greater spoils.
“Why even ask?” I hissed. “You want my music? Kill me and take it. Explode my head. Use your Bloodsong! Make me a puppet the way you intended! You’re no different than them, mademoiselle. I’ve no choice but to live in the world you make for me!”
Renard swore beneath his breath at that, but de Melian waved him into silence. She set her tea-cup on the floor.
“You’re right,” she said. “You’re right, Maestro.”
I flinched as she suddenly hummed a note. Panic and helplessness coursed through me. As useless as it would have been I nearly rushed to throttle her—but then I heard Renard groan, and felt my chest loosen. I’d been standing, shouting, quivering. Now I relaxed like an unplucked string.
“There,” Mimi de Melian said. For the first time she seemed young to me.
“What did you do?” I was still angry. Could one be angry if one was seduced?
“I freed you,” she said. “The spell is gone. Tell the world of us. The choice is yours.”
“Mimi!” Renard said. He made to approach her but she turned on him.
“We must offer freedom,” she said.
“He will go to the Duc!” Renard said. “He said it himself—he seeks his favor!” For a moment I thought he would tackle me—or perhaps he would hurl at me the grinning skull he cradled in the crook of his arm.
“Will he?” de Melian asked. She approached me. “You know what we are,” she said. “My offer stands. I hope you will help us. I have... seen things, Maestro, which have made me rash. Don’t let my rashness spoil things. There are greater scores to write than the ones the Duc commissions. I swear to you that, if you help us, you won’t have to pay the censors again. There will be no censors. No Ministers. What you would do if you were truly free?”
“What if I turn you in?” I countered.
She smiled. That smile that knew me too well.
“I only ask that you send me an hour’s warning. I did save you from being eaten, you know.”
So saying she bobbed a curtsy. Her paniers swayed as she turned away. The femur, drooping in her hand, resembled, in that moment, the scepter of a queen.
I walked. What else could I do? I walked back to town in the dimming day. Along my path I saw a vagrant.
“There are rebels,” I told him. “At the comédie.”
“Oh aye!” he nodded affably and attended to the sharp-scented bottle in his hand. Other low-lives I encountered had a similar response. So: I was free. I could tell the Duc of de Melian.
And Petrie and La Donna and everyone else. I knew what the evidence would prove. Overnight I would become the Blood’s greatest composer—I had only to sing this sad little song. I’d spent years composing operas, and now the most inconsequential ditty would do.
Another building burned on the far side of town. I heard men chanting, low and defiant. The screams soon followed on the cold, smoke-fouled breeze and I realized I had reached the site of the previous weeks’ violence. Here was the mouth of the alley where I’d sheltered and here the men and women of Clave had filed past, among them the mischievous, swarthy gamin, twirling his incomprehensible scepter.
The hairs lifted on the back of my neck. I saw the red swirl of de Melian’s skirts. I found the spot where the gamin had died and stood there, the street empty, the wind carrying sounds of combat. As I turned in a series of useless circles, hoping for something I-knew-not-what, my eye fell upon a patch of darkness at the edge of the street: a small circular drain capped by a grate. Approaching, I regarded this aperture—and the glistening object that protruded from it. When I reached down I found the knob of a glassy-black bone, caught and hidden by the grate. With a tug I pulled forth the gamin’s scepter. The secret everyone knew but me.
Not human, Renard had called the Blood. Remembering the gamin’s death, I nodded. Not human, these men in their angel-worked coats. Not human, these deniers of bread and of life.
On the breeze, the chanting of rebels had faded, but I could make out shrill voices-crying out to the last.
De Melian was in her dressing room—a small alcove set aside for the leading soprano. Morning by then. The theatre lit by lantern. She was combing her hair in preparation for its coif.
“Maestro,” she greeted me, already knowing.
“I’ve seen things too.” I placed the gamin’s scepter on her lap. “You will listen, and I will tell you how we will go about our task.”
She smiled. “Of course. You are the composer. I would hope for nothing less.”
“Good.” I nodded sharply.
“There’s just one last thing I should tell you. Something you should know about the Ministers...”
5. The Ministers
On the night of the performance we attired ourselves in dark secret armor of Renard’s making: cuffs of Blood-bone hidden by shirt sleeves, bone collars by cravats, and small noise-blocking ear stones hidden by the curls of our wigs. We were outmatched in beauty by the glittering Blood who flocked to their seats in their diamonds and silk-sheen; yet on this night, as never before, we matched them in our deadliness.
I had thought long on how best to spring the trap. Certain things must happen: the Ministers must die. The Duc must be neutralized and for all of this to happen, our music must stun. How though? An overt attack would fail. We all knew how fast the Ministers reacted. I understood from de Melian why they came so swiftly, yet, for some days, that gave me no help for our how?
The gamin was in my dreams most nights—and the violinist I’d once seen cut by his own strings. I remembered the loud, obvious note that felled him. He had lived, but that note had killed his career.
I intended my career to live on, and at last I formulated a plan. When the orchestra cued up the overture they reached for their unmodified instruments first.
Calmly, as on any other night, we proceeded with Belissima’s first act. I led from the conductor’s bloc and, when de Melian sang, it was with ordinary beauty. As the first act wound down I could tell they loved her, and not only for her voice but for the story she told. Poor Belissima! Poor meek, common girl! Torn between two lovers and destined to die for the Blood! There were dewy eyes mixed with the diamond-glare as our company bowed and the curtain fell.
In the aisles the Ministers were motionless: red columns that neither stirred nor spoke.
We proceeded with our tale in the second act. Belissima’s first lover, Arturo, promised to meet her near the Bête Noire. Thanks to the lustful Penandros, he was devoured by a ravening night-ghast instead. Our demons, made of sweeps of midnight fabric, drew breathless applause and a scattered ovation. M. Volpek, as Penandros, raised feminine shrieks, his murder no contest to his seat-trembling vowels. A true ovation came following a torrid duet in which the grieving Belissima accepted Penandros’s protection—and as de Melian gathered up armfuls of carnations I realized that I would have won Germinal.
I paused for a moment as the crowd roared—and caught sight of the Duc in his gilded box. He was standing, applauding, murmuring something to a lady, her aquiline beauty as vacant as his. A host of other young-Bloods surrounded them, performing the motions of patronage. Wine, cheese, and grape-clusters were brought to their boxes, and the candle-light played on their glittering jewelry. It struck me: these trappings were what interested them. The glitter, the powder, the granting of applause. Our lives and our fortunes hung on their smiles but, for them all of this was an evening’s excursion.
I turned to regard the orchestra and gave them our agreed-upon nod. Covered by applause and a brief intermission, they took up their new instruments for the last act.
Despite Renard’s earlier assurances, our final move remained untested. Old Devois handled his restrung cello as if the thing were made of spun glass. There was a delicate shifting as chin rests were placed and bows set to hover on Blood-bone-treated strings. Yet when the time came there was no hesitation—even as sweat stained each musician’s brow.
The third act began with the pulse of a drum and the low, subtle hum of our bone violins. My own sweat dripped down the small of my back as I adhered meticulously to the officially sanctioned score. Though we played upon illicit strings we did not yet play illicit music—and in an audience of so many Blood and half-Bloods the Ministers—I hoped—would detect no crime.
As moments passed and red lightning did not strike I grew more certain of my gamble. It was sound that mattered most to the Ministers—that things were correct and not discordant. Even when I gave the signal for the strings to play con forza, a quick glance at the aisles told me the creatures remained inert. The only change came from the audience who, slowly, began to lean towards the stage.
In part this was due to de Melian, for we had come to the climax of the story. Seduced and wed by Penandros, Belissima determined to save him from the demons of the Bête Noire. Invoking both him and the slain Arturo, she rallied the peasantry to protect the Blood, knowing full well she would give her life to buy her new husband the time he needed to create the wards.
Propaganda no Bloodlord could resist!—and yet by now other forces were in play. Even wearing Renard’s ear stones I felt the music entering my bones. No unsanctioned notes, and yet something was happening, something that I had felt only once before. That day in the Bête Noire with Devois’s cello—how the music had pinned me, weighting me like a stone.
My restless nights had proved productive. What—I had thought—if I could sustain that heavy feeling? To lure the audience in, then strike? Not with new notes, but with what I already had? Our bone-rendered strings remained faithful to my score—and yet they spoke and influenced like the Bloodsong itself
Down, they sang. Stay down. Stay still.
I suppose it helped that we’d bided our time—after three acts even the hardiest opera-goer is putty and the sated audience of Bloodlords did not yet know they were enspelled.
Thus, unimpeded by Ministers, we came to the final adagio.
A single beat marked the dramatic transition. We gave the audience no time to applaud. De Melian, in white, toed the lip of the stage, her eyes on mine to receive her cue.
I gave the downbeat.
She departed entirely from the score.
It was as if a great undertow rolled through the room. Her throaty vibrato crushed us where we stood. I stumbled and the orchestra winced in the pit—but our ear stones kept us from collapse. A hundred bodies bent, drawn in by our music—and a sudden tension told me the Ministers were in play.
A bright, downward run of painful accelerando eclipsed the beginning of our audience’s screams. Skirts rustled and boot-heels thumped in the aisles as the most resilient members surged to their feet. I was sweating, too afraid to turn, trusting de Melian to guard my back. There is something you need to know about the Ministers, she’d told me, but for the moment we still needed to keep playing.
In the pit the orchestra sawed and bowed, their faces bloodless suffering things—yet their chins were firm and their resolve un-hollowed even as the air began to thicken like lead. We played. We played to drown our fear, though we knew the red shadows were coming for us.
Two more measures. De Melian sang—a sweet, damned song of explosive punctuation. Each time she let forth a piercing high-note the screams came and hands pounded on the theatre doors. We’d barred these, of course. The Duc must be confined. Sounds of scuffling and pleading underscored our madness. When we’d played our last measure I left the orchestra to improvise and whirled, my rapier drawn from underneath the conductor’s stand, towards a seething Blood sea.
A great mass of people squirmed against the doors, trapped and trampling, finding no egress. Another handful were scattered in the seat-rows and aisles, unconscious or dead, some bleeding from their ears. Those of lesser Blood were the most vulnerable to the Bloodsong—yet I had no time for guilt: now the Ministers were on me.
I will never shed my heart!
No, no, no, no!
Never, never, never, never shed my heart!
Belissima’s aria ran on, her every never! and no! battering the audience. As each note touched down the crowd shrieked in pain and the Ministers
(... there is something you should know... )
gave a shudder. Nearby, two red robes lay puddled in the aisles, and what sprawled beyond them was unlike anything I’d seen. I remembered de Melian’s dressing room and her calm explanation of otherworldly things.
They exist on some other plane, the Ministers. This is why they float and how they materialize so fast. In their present form they are incorporeal—immortal—but they can be killed when the right notes are sung. Think of them as demons with a different kind of ward, and of me as an ancient who must summon them. We have to make them part of this world, first and then... well. I think you have some prowess with a blade?
I did—yet when I saw what was happening it was I who existed in some other realm. The whole world had been uprooted like a flagstone to reveal the scuttling worm-things beneath.
They had no feet, the Ministers. Not until de Melian’s voice found them. Then they vibrated and sprang into the world, limbs gray and squelching, bursting from their robes. A wave of terror swarmed through me as two silently snarling things split their robes like seed pods. They came at me, rushing with their raw, pink mouths...
I might have run mad if a flicker of movement had not stayed me. Just below me, a Minister hunched, removed of its robe like an inverted crustacean. It swiped away its metallic face-plate—then gave a soundless screech and toppled back. Renard appeared, struggling out from beneath it, already racing towards the next monster. His dagger, catching the candle-gleam, recalled me to my sense of purpose.
Above me, de Melian’s voice grew raw, yet she held the Ministers back from the stage. Red robes split and mouths champed, tongues moving in caves of crystalline teeth. A cloud of stale breath nearly staggered me as I plunged into the monstrous fray. That I could smell the Ministers was somehow more terrifying than the flabby claws that ripped at my throat.
Renard and Petrie labored beside me along with M. Volpek and several of the cast. Like the orchestra, the chorus had swapped out their instruments: bearing real blades now, instead of the props they’d carried onstage. Renard’s cuffs and collars seemed to protect us—we moved slower, but our various armors worked. The strange vibrations sent out by the Ministers were felt only as a subtle rattling in the chest.
It was perhaps the thrill of unimpeded destruction that drove the thought of other enemies from my mind.
In all the time I fought and stabbed I forgot completely about the Duc. I wanted only to spill demon blood, to repay the Ministers for their tyranny. Each note over which I’d agonized, each bribe, each license, each lyric second-guessed—with such tools had the Ministers warded my days until my hatred was its own red shadow in my mind. I slashed and killed in an orgy of fury—and so missed the moment when the Duc reappeared.
He came from the heart of the stampede (his box, after all, was closest to the doors), and if he seemed more than casually bloodied, those wounds had no bearing on his voice. Where de Melian uttered a liquid trill—oceanic at the height of its power—the Duc had an earthy, rumbling tone that set the ground shaking beneath my feet.
I fell forward onto a Minister, its claws raking my face as it died. My cheek struck the too-soft cushion of its flesh and there I stayed, pinned by the Duc’s Bloodsong.
Every string in the orchestra snapped as one. By the chorus of screams, so did several bones. Nearly all of us had Blood in our lineage, yet Blood or common, we could all be taken down. The heavy vibration of the Duc’s voice gripped my like a hand and squeezed. Bone-jarring tremors raced up my spine as if I were a tuning fork in search of a pitch.
A hush descended on the house. Most of the audience was comatose or dead. If not for Renard’s clever devices I knew my own mortal bell would have tolled. But his ear stones and the panels I wore kept me conscious, if not entirely free of pain. I managed to roll from my hideous cushion to behold what passed between the Duc and de Melian.
A high, whistling sound came from her lips as the Duc’s loud singing bore her down. He did not seem able to crush her outright—a frustration which clearly showed on his face. For a moment I thought he might stand there all night until he simply ran out of breath. But then he raised a jewel-crusted hand and motioned the last of the Ministers towards her.
There were only three encased in their robes—yet I knew de Melian could not survive them. She knelt, still singing in the faintest rasp, yet her body trembled, close to failure.
The Duc, approaching from the back of the house, stepped over me in a cloud of perfume. A few feet away I glimpsed Renard and Volpek, tumbled together beside a Minister. No help there. As far as I could tell, myself, the Duc, and de Melian were the only things that moved.
And the three Ministers, of course. They floated to the stage. The Duc sang more slowly, hand raised to shield his eyes. He could only see what I could see: a rather thin soprano in a gleaming white dress.
A woman hissing songs into death’s scarlet face.
A rebel whose eyes flickered briefly towards mine.
Instinctively, I looked where she bade me: to my rapier, an arm’s length from my spasming hand. Beyond the rapier-point, nearly touching it, was the Duc’s ankle in the supple leather of his boot.
I could not move well at all. But with the Duc fixed on de Melian, I was at least unobserved.
I lunged. My fingers found the rapier. An undignified flop carried me across the ground. My rapier-point skewered the Duc’s heel and, with a shattering roar, he stopped singing.
An explosive high-note came from the stage—a sound so pure that I must have imagined it. Three scarlet shapes catapulted backwards at tremendous speed, their sinister color disintegrating as they flew through the air. They struck the theatre doors with a sound like a gong and tumbled, grayly, to crown the pile of victims. Meanwhile, I lurched and took hold of the Duc, holding the bloodied rapier against his throat.
Roughed and ravaged as Belissima herself, Mimi de Melian descended the stage. The Duc made a kind of panicked gargle but could do little else as I held him firm.
“I thought I was right about you,” de Melian told me. Then, coldly, to the Duc: “You’ve summoned more.”
The Duc flinched. “How do you...?”
Strangely, she took his hand.
“I know how this works,” she said to him. “I know that you can transfer the leash. Do it, or I will take you apart.”
The others were beginning to recover. Dazed figures emerged from the wings and the pit. Not as many as there had been, but enough to guard the prisoners at Renard’s command. He had recovered, was staggering to his feet. He waved a set of volunteers towards the doors. Then he turned to regard the Duc, arms folded, a smirk on his hungry, bloodstained face. I wondered if he saw the scene as I did: the Duc bowing before de Melian in a final tableau.
“Do it,” de Melian repeated. I felt the Duc swallow against my blade. There was a sound like a child preparing to sob—and then a shift and de Melian stepped back.
“See that his wounds are bound,” she told Renard. “And gag him. He can still do harm.” She ordered the doors opened and the prisoners gathered. I surrendered the Duc to one who could bind him. The Duc, much deflated, wept openly—but stopped with a snuffle as his honor guard appeared.
They came en rang as they always did, their fierce red cloaks like blood-soaked wings. Yet they lifted the Duc almost tenderly and waited with obedience as we gathered our band. I walked side-by-side with de Melian, through the ruined comédie, out into the night. Drums pulsed softly, triumphant in the darkness, and sweet flutes played any note they chose.
“To the palace!” de Melian declared, and a great, unsanctioned cheer rose around us.
And I knew then that the curtain had only just risen and that we—we alone—were the Ministers now.