Warmth bathes the drawing room with hues of russet and of bronze as Malaguena, my benefactor, plays for me the Sonata of the Dancing Moon.
I have heard it played by a full philharmonic orchestra in a concert hall razed to the ground during the third Lusini war. It was the first and last time I would hear The Silence of the Seven Moons suite in its entirety. Malaguena refuses to play most of the pieces dedicated to the other moons, but this sonata, composed for the Swan Moon, accompanies our evenings which are composed mostly of silence and half-formed sentences of niceties that belong to a long-dead age.
She never tires of playing it. And if I tire of the ceaseless variations, I never show it. Our peace is too fragile, and the meals she makes for me are too necessary, fleshing out of me a semblance of the person I once was from the gaunt skeletal frame I possessed that first morning when she fed me. But tonight, the mood runs tense as a violin string tuned too tightly and ready to snap against the bow.
Malaguena runs her deep brown fingers over the ivory keys. “I used to play this sonata for my grandmother all the time when she was still alive. When she could remember conducting the Royal Lusini Philharmonic.”
Her face grows pensive as her fingers still.
This interruption of the sonata is unprecedented in our brief tenure together within these four walls. She turns to look at me. I flinch at her gaze, colder than a Lusini night of no moons.
Bile rises. I anticipate her words.
“This song meant everything to us. It reminded us of how we survived the wars in our little underground shelter as the Dvenri troops exterminated those of our people who did not hide in underground enclaves. As your people, your glorious Yroi Empire, then exterminated mine and the Dvenri troops. What was left of us, our cultures, and our lore that we carefully curated from the Earth that we left, to rebuild here in Lusini. Gone. Gone. Gone.”
Her words are repeated for effect in her vibrant coloratura that could have taken centre-stage in that concert hall we would never inhabit again.
After the third war that happened within twenty years, nobody wanted to rebuild again. The city was a ghost remembering the remnants of its last days. As were we all.
Slowly, we poked our way out of our shelters, our conclaves of hiding, those of us who remained. Some of us, like me, were fortunate enough to be able to escape to Yroi enclaves outside of Lusini, using our Yroi passports as our means of escape. I am the only one foolish enough to have returned, drawn by the memory of a piece of music that seemed to stretch from the beginning to the ending of the world we inhabited.
“But I am Lusini too,” I start to protest, until the look in her eyes quells me, stealing from me my words, my thoughts, my very breath. I remember that she is feeding me three times a day. I remember that these words are unwanted.
We have slipped into a comfortable routine that is in itself a refrain in the melody of our days together. Each day at dawn, I skulk with my characteristic slouch into Malaguena’s gardens, my entire form braced against unexpected attacks. I relax as I enter her presence; my form straightens as I am lulled into awakening by the sound of her coloratura singing a song to tease the sun from beneath the caul of night. I remember the person I was before the wars, the same way I forget every evening when I leave her side. I receive from her hands a bowl of food when the sun bathes the fruiting trees in hues of gold and rose: honey, creamed oatmeal, a generous ladling of whatever fruits she chooses to preserve on any given week. The trees fruit and flower with abundance in the aftermath of past wars. We do not question too deeply about the bounty upon which these trees engorge their enterprising roots.
Then, like the phrase that ends a chorus, I trail after her into the cobwebbed interior of the half-scavenged, half-destroyed manor. She feeds me both food and music. She requires of me only that I listen. She gifts me with silence. She embalms me with the sonata, night after night.
She embalms us both with it.
(Every night I hope that she will ask me to stay, that I need not slouch back into the bleakness that lies beyond her garden walls.)
Malaguena, named after a melody composed in the world our ancestors left before it imploded from within. Malaguena, born of the best, the elite in this city of music and of gastronomy. Lusini, a protected enclave of a civilization nestled in a valley between two Empires. Lusini, which was to die and be resurrected again, and yet again, as though under some eldritch curse.
My protestation remains in the air as I slip back into the moment, weighed down by the exhalation of my need to belong to this city and to a shared past. Our eyes now meet in a foreshadowing of that duel that I’ve been anticipating since that first morning she invited me into her home. Malaguena’s fingers rest against the ivory keys briefly before moving up to caress the polished rosewood. She nods her head in time as though to an invisible metronome. The actual clockwork metronome that perches in elegance in the centre of the faded lace runner lies silent. We wait as though for a conductor’s cue. Finally it arrives, as though a tap from an invisible baton clutched by arthritic fingers
“You. Will. Never. Be. Lusini,” Malaguena’s reproof is as quiet and as genteel as her mien. Her head cocks sideways. It is a gesture of wearied elegance.
Emotion swells in me, treacly dark. Ugly as the grave. I inhale, trying to banish the feeling, trying to will the moment out of existence. I need to eat. I need this music. I need to not... destroy what we have. This small thing is an island of warmth against what lies in wait outside. The melodies limn the empty hollows of my thoughts, making what was dank seem luminous and worthy of rehabilitation.
I distract myself by looking at the opulent furnishings, the paintings, the lace curtains pulled back to allow the sunlight that bathed the skeletons of a city that has forgotten to dream, that is refusing to rebuild itself out of this last war, the third within two decades.
Finally, I turn towards the faded daguerreotype of her grandmother on the wall mounted on an elegant teakwood board. Rygane, of the austere features and the teak-brown skin, conducted that last concert I watched from my seat up in the presidential booth as the scion of the Yroi ambassador. “I am so sorry for your loss,” I say, as though it all happened last night. As though twenty years have not passed since I sat on that balcony, listening to that music and watching as the little girl from the balcony across the concert hall leaned over the rails, excited by the sight of her grandmother in a stately conductor’s jacket. The words push out of my mouth, taking shape as envy, thick and hideous despite its fluting extravagance, “but I would have given anything to be in that shelter, to learn from the great Rygane, to have that memory of shared music, of communion against despair.”
I pause, feeding the demon within me that has grown sleepy and slumberous in these past weeks. “I’d think three wars would be worth that experience, distilled. To be the greatest pianist this planet has ever known, tutored by the greatest conductor this planet has ever known. You have been. So. Lucky.”
I shape the thought like it is praise. I know it is not.
I watch her head rear back.
These wars, fought between Dvenri or Yroi forces as both newly formed empires battled for dominion of the Conjoined Continents. Fought against her people. These wars that have made my people the conqueror of the Continents. As the Dvenri are made our vassals, and the Lusini crippled and afraid of living out in the open.
Except for Malaguena, whose will burns like fire in the night.
Her amber eyes overflow with surprised loathing. Her coloratura vibrates with the passion that underscores her words, “You really have no inkling of what we have lost, Yroi scavenger. You, who harvested potatoes and fruits from our orchards. You who have stolen who knows what, while we hid underground, deeper than the graves of our soldiers. Or you would not say such foolish things.”
The cadence of her voice intensifies. Her swan-like neck sways. Malaguena pivots towards me from her seat on the piano bench. “Why have you not returned to your people? Why are you still here?”
Her voice raises, finally, but even this is a mere octave above her usual registers.
“I am Lusini,” I protest, moving one step closer to her, feeling the dank mustiness of my being shrug off the embalming samite of her sonata’s spell.
I watch her recoil in fear or in utter revulsion.
I watch the fear that lines her body, like it has lined her body on so many nights, on all of these nights when I have thought we shared a communion of music and of sustenance. I have ignored the rigidity of that spine, of that guarded weariness that is born of aversion.
“I am Lusini,” I repeat. My words sound confused even to myself.
She turns her back to me, returning to the melody that halted as we spoke. Sweeter than heartache, more deadly than arsenic, I allow the Sonata of the Dancing Moon to move me for the very last time. I know that I am no longer welcome in this drawing room, and I will probably never be invited again. I know that the defenseless back is a challenge rather than a gesture of surrender.
I clutch at my side a hidden Yroi keris, envenomed in self-defense. I have had it with me all of these nights, waiting for an offense, waiting for the moment as is now presented to me.
Her weapon has already left its poison trailing deep within me, a well-deserved strike. I will never be Lusini, I will never be welcome. Here.
Outside, the ghost of a city waits for me like the mouth of a communal grave. I skulk towards it, as it knew I would.