On the dusty stage above a desert of empty seats, the first clarinet played the tuning note. The warm, reedy tones of the other clarinets joined her, then the cloudy air-throats of flutes, the determined drone of a bassoon, then horns, trumpets, trombones, and the burbling boom of the tuba. The instruments’ voices merged, then broke, and merged again. It was how every rehearsal began. But today the conductor’s stand stayed empty.
The first clarinet paused for breath and frowned. Something sounded off. Was it her? Hers was supposed to be the keynote, but maybe she’d jarred her instrument out of tune without noticing. She didn’t have perfect pitch—she’d gotten this position through time and toil—and glanced toward the first trumpet, who did. But he sat drooped in his chair, lanky form in a posture of exhaustion, his instrument between his knees. What had he been doing last night? He was from the mountains, she remembered. He’d probably been up all night, waiting for news after the earthquake.
Beside her, the second clarinet shifted in his seat and grumbled, “I thought there was going to be a new conductor. What’s the point of holding rehearsal without a conductor?”
The complaint lit the first clarinet’s seething anger. He should shut his mouth and tune his clarinet. Yes, the new conductor was late, but the ensemble had all gathered, when, for too long, they hadn’t known if they would ever gather again. Two weeks at home, with nothing but shrieking children and her mother and sister-in-laws’ chorus of laments—oh our menfolk, oh the senate, oh the drought—was enough. She needed this. Didn’t they all, right now? They would have an ordinary rehearsal if she had to drag each one through it by their nose.
She played her note to the empty conductor’s stand as if it could batter the ghost of the man upon it. The fool, the pompous, brazen fool.
The first clarinet had worked closely with their old conductor—organizing concert advertising, copying parts, keeping rehearsal notes. It was extra money—always welcome—and she’d liked the old conductor, for all that he’d grumbled and acted put-upon. They both believed in efficiency; no patience for time-wasters, artistes, and layabouts. He’d had no patience for politics either.
He should have had a little more patience.
Conductors never listened to advice. They stood at the podium, controlling three-score people with the flick of their fingers, and thought they’d become gods. But when a young senator had just named himself Dictator, it wasn’t a good time to be a god.
All the conductor had done was complain about the drought, about how he thought the Dictator was wasting resources with the siege against Labadi. But that had been enough.
Who in the ensemble had reported him? Someone quiet—the nebbish second oboe, perhaps? Someone guilty—was that what weighed on the trumpet’s shoulders? Someone loyal? The tall young woman who played the tuba—arms ripcord-strong from carrying it—wore the same dim and unfurtive look as the Greyshirts’ farmboy recruits.
It could have been anyone.
Her clarinet squeaked as she over-tensed her mouth.
How could they be an ensemble if they couldn’t trust the musician at their side?
The timpanist lightly tapped the drum that matched the tuning note with his new mallets. He’d made them himself and was very pleased by them. Buying good wood and rawhide, soaking the rawhide in a basin, shaping it around the heads—he’d never worked a craft before. He’d been a laborer, laying tile in the hot sun, picking grapes, digging graves. He wanted to show his mallets off, but he wasn’t sure if he should. What if all timpanists made their own mallets? Would he get a look like he’d said he was proud of having lost all his milk teeth? He couldn’t risk people wondering if he really belonged here.
He tapped the drum again, then winced. Not quite right. Placing the key, he adjusted the tension, tap tap, turn, tap tap. There. The next drum was in fourths with this one. He tapped both, puzzled over the interval, then adjusted the higher drum just a touch.
He’d been told he’d be joining a percussion section. So he’d given himself a quick lesson in musical notation for drums and shown up, expecting to be handed a triangle or put on the bass drum. But it turned out the ensemble had lost their timpani player.
He’d lied through a fixed grin, pretended the pitched drums were old friends. Halfway through rehearsal, just as the conductor turned to a timpani-heavy section, he’d faked a loud, nauseated groan, clutched his stomach, and run to the toilets. Then he’d come in early every day to learn as much as he could. How to tune the finicky drums. How to play a simple roll.
He’d been there early, tuning his drums, listening for the intervals with his eyes shut, when the first clarinet—the ensemble’s taskmistress—caught him. He’d noticed her before, liking the look of her: military bearing, short skirts, great legs. But he hadn’t wanted her to look back.
Here she was, studying him. His mallet bounced to stillness on the drum.
“You’re not using the bones?” She tipped her head toward the xylophone.
“Ah—no.” He had at first, to find the pitches for tuning, but now he could hear the intervals. He hit all four drums in succession.
She cocked her head, then nodded. “Good. Good ear.”
An unusual feeling washed through him—a bit like pride, a bit like luck. The timpanist had never shown talent at something before. He liked it.
But now that the conductor had been detained, the timpanist was careful not to catch the first clarinet’s eye.
The tuba player spotted the new conductor’s arrival first, which was a surprise, as the large instrument in her lap often blocked her view of important things—such as the conductor’s baton. A woman had entered the auditorium through the side door, moving with a spring-heeled gait, carrying an overflowing folder of papers and a tiny leather case. A baton case—the new conductor. She was slender in a boyish way, as if she were a baton herself, in a brown suede jacket and tailored grey trousers. There was a vibrancy, an energy to her that made the tuba player smile, then catch herself. She needed to stay wary.
This is what the tuba knew about the new conductor:
One, she was not from Biga, like they were. She was from Masl, a graduate of their Academie. She’d taken a hood in conducting but also in composition history, losing herself in the dusty archives of the music library to write a dissertation on three obscure Bigan composers. They’d been popular two centuries ago, when Labadi was the dominant city in the area and Biga just a farm town with pretensions. She was known to have had two boyfriends and three girlfriends in her time at the Academie, some concurrently. She was part of one of the secret dueling societies at the school and had a scar across the back of her hand from it. She dabbled in acting. And when she left Masl, the oboist from her wind quartet clung to her leg and sobbed to try to keep her from going.
The tuba was excellent at gossip.
No surprise the new conductor was a foreigner—a safe choice. Why would someone from Masl care about Bigan politics? People from Masl weren’t horrified when one leader of the Bigan senate replaced another in a literal backstabbing. They just called it ‘operatic.’
Wind ensembles derived from military bands, horn and fife and drum. They played the sort of music that leaders who had proven themselves on the battlefield—or pretended they had—liked the most. The Dictator needed the music that could make a usurper into a military victor. He needed them. That was why their whole group hadn’t been detained—so far.
The tuba knew it wasn’t safe to be here, hiding in plain sight under the Dictator’s eye. But so far she’d been overlooked. The new conductor made her want to stay longer. She wanted to stay as long as there were good things in Biga.
She still believed in good things.
“Greetings.” The new conductor sprang up the steps that led onto the stage by threes and was on the dais in an instant. She rested her elbows lightly on the podium and surveyed the ensemble. “I am your new conductor. I am most glad to meet all of you.” Her gaze crossed the group from right to left, landing last upon the first clarinet.
“Rehearsal starts on the hour, you know,” the first clarinet said. “We cannot start without you.”
The conductor tipped her head to the side; her lips quirked. “Yes, yes,” she said, then continued as if the clarinet hadn’t spoken. The tuba player hid a laugh behind her hand. “I am most excited because conducting a wind band gives me the opportunity to direct a work by my most favorite composer.” She openly smiled her pleasure, then bent forward, intent. “It is not a simple work, and we must give it utmost effort, but I hope we may present it in two weeks at your festival for the Cleansing of the City. It was written for such an occasion, and is most suitable.”
She tapped her folio on the podium to tidy the papers inside, then started handing out parts. The first clarinet sprang up, as that had always been her job under the old conductor, but the new conductor ignored her and paced the narrow aisles between music stands and chairs herself.
When the tuba’s part came, it was unusual. The notation was not the modern standard but the precursor to it, with odd marginalia written using a chisel-edged pen in a language she didn’t know. Other musicians were also murmuring at their parts.
“We can’t play this,” the first clarinet protested. The tuba wished she’d shut up. Even if they couldn’t, she wanted to try.
“Is it too hard?” The conductor looked concerned.
“No,” the first clarinet said. “It’s non-standard. The clefs are fine, but the annotations—What language is that?”
The tuba looked up. The very word sounded like sedition. Labadi had been under siege for weeks, after declaring their independence from Bigan rule. Last night, an earthquake centered in Labadi had shaken the Bigan Cathedral enough so that the head of the statue of Yitmar, the goddess of green growing things, fell and smashed on the stones. The Dictator was sending no aid to Labadi, and people had been arrested for sharing rumors of the devastation.
But there was nothing but innocent bemusement in the conductor’s tone. “I assumed Labadin would not give Bigans trouble, as it is a closely related language. But it does not matter. You have me. For interpretation.”
The first clarinet’s face flushed dark.
“Now we tune,” said the conductor.
“We’ve already tuned,” said the first clarinet.
“Oh no,” the conductor said. “We tune at the beginning of rehearsal, and as you said, the rehearsal cannot begin until I am here. We tune.”
Stiffly, the first clarinet stood and played her tuning note.
Startled, the first clarinet cut off.
“You are flat.”
“I am not.“
“You are. What did you do? Tune to the piano in the foyer? It is not bad, but it is not quite right. And as I can hear the difference between right and not quite right and it gives me a migraine, please tighten your instrument.”
The first clarinet did so with a jerk.
It took two more tries before the clarinet was in tune.
The tuba thought she might stay in Biga a little longer now. She was enjoying this too much. Sometimes, after everything that had happened, she felt guilty about being happy. But other times she was only grateful for the opportunity.
“Now,” the new conductor said once they were tuned, offering a smile that promised infinite secrets. “We begin.”
The auditorium was dark, save for one gas-burning lamp that illuminated the trumpet’s music stand. He had stayed late to practice his solo—and to avoid the friends he no longer felt friendly toward.
The night before, he’d met them in the taverna, eating tiny fried river fish and pickled burdock root and drinking givo, grape-seed liquor—for once not more expensive than wine, as even drought-shriveled fruits could be distilled. His friends had been artists once, Hurio a playwright and Martio an actor and operatic tenor. But they’d gotten in political trouble and could no longer find jobs. Because of that, the trumpet picked up the bill for most of the liquor, and still they kept trying to convince him to become a rebel like them.
Last night, Martio had also come with a story.
“Alicio, Alicio, let me tell you what I heard,” he said. He had the actor’s art of capturing attention. “I heard—from a reputable source, mind you—that just before the earthquake, a young man came down from Labadi to the army encampment. They say he was carrying a lyuta, and he offered to play it in exchange for food. Of course the soldiers laughed at him. They searched him, stripped him, humiliated him. But then, they said, yes, play your lyuta. Sieges are boring, and armies need entertainment.
“They say he played so beautifully and sang so sadly that everyone in the encampment gathered to listen. The privates, the sergeants, the captains, the generals. And as he sang, the earth began to shake. When the song crescendoed to a climax, the earth cracked and opened up. And he continued to sing as the earth rent itself apart and swallowed the whole battalion.”
The trumpet had heard stories like that before. Incenti, songs that could, in a perfect performance, create physical effects upon the world, had been a common theme in his grandmother’s hearthside tales. No doubt the idea had its origins in the mountains, when a song with the right frequencies had disturbed a carefully balanced rockpile and resulted in an avalanche. But if incenti had once been other than myth, in today’s corrupt era no performances ever did more than shake a few bats from the rafters.
Finishing the tale, Martio turned to the trumpet, his tongue grown silken with eloquence. “Now that is resistance, Alicio. That is the strength of your people.”
His people, his home, Labadi, in the mountains, with purple gorse on the hillsides and vivid red and yellow flowers on sticky vines, with pestilent monkeys picking through trash, and music, always music, on every streetcorner and under the long tented awnings of the markets. It had suffered enough, besieged by the Bigan dictator who would not allow them to rule themselves. Aided by the drought and last year’s poor harvest, he planned to starve Labadi’s resistance out.
And then, two nights ago, the earthquake, centered near Labadi. The Dictator offered no aid. Masl had a relief boat ready, but the rivers were too dry to carry it and the mountain passes too treacherous to go by land. Labadi was cut off. And yet people, like Martio, were casting this disaster as an act of defiance.
If his mother did not send word soon...
This story was the worst Martio could have chosen. If any were so foolish as to believe it, if the rumor reached the Dictator’s ear, he would have cause to wipe the Labadin out. They would take the musicians first.
“Don’t—” The trumpet grasped vainly for words. “Don’t tell that story again. Don’t be a fool, Martio.”
But Martio had laughed and turned away.
Now alone in the dark auditorium, the trumpet played his solo once more, hearing in his mind the swell of the other instruments around him: the thready underpinnings of the clarinets, the rich whine of the oboes, the rumble of the timpani. As he finished, the brazen echo took its time dying. For a moment he smelled something fresh, like spring rain on the wind. But he was indoors, and the drought was here to stay.
He put away his instrument and went back to the sweltering garret apartment that he would never call home.
The run-down jewelry shop in the money-lenders’ district was doing good business during the drought. Locals pawned their heirlooms for a few coins to buy the now-expensive food. When the drought ended, perhaps they would have the funds to buy them back. Or perhaps not. This jewelry shop would survive even if no one bought anything at all. When the last patron slipped out the door, the timpanist emerged from between two shelves and approached the counter.
“How is the new conductor?” asked the man sitting there. He wore a jeweler’s lens and eyed the open back of a pocketwatch.
The timpanist, distracted by trying to separate his reports from his sheet music, responded before he’d thought about it. “Terrifying,” he said.
The jeweler sat up on his stool and stared at him.
The timpanist forced a smile and handed the reports over, letting the worn pages of his drum part slip back into the bag. “I mean—she’s a character. She—she brought in this composition. It’s old as balls and the notation is weird, and she’s got a plan for how we’re rehearsing it, but no one has any idea what that plan is, except whenever we really get going and are getting it, she stops us.”
The jeweler eyed him over the open pocketwatch. Was this useful information? The timpanist didn’t know. His mouth was spilling improvisation. But something about the piece was different from the ones they’d played with the old conductor. It had moments of military flair, but it wasn’t a march or an overture to an extended fanfare. It had a sparseness to it, with single lines passing from instrument to instrument, a clarinet echoing a melody from an oboe, a trombone line picked up by a horn or a muted trumpet. Playing it felt different.
“There was this one part—it was all brass, nearly. The trombones were doing an up-down bomm-bomm-bomm-bomm thing, and the horns were daa-da-ta-da-ta-daaa, building and building and then the trumpets cried out, a piercing fanfare above the rest, and then... me.
“I’d been counting my ass off. I knew my part was coming, but I had no idea what it was supposed to sound like. There were at least two-hundred measures of rests before it, so I was tapping out the rhythm on my legs, trying to hear how my part might fit with what everyone else was playing. And then we were almost there, one more measure of rest, and I took a breath and—”
The timpanist felt it again, that surging wave of adrenaline, and raised his hands up, then let his body go, miming the way he had pounded on the drums as if he was playing the jeweler’s countertop itself.
The jeweler recoiled. The timpanist froze.
This was definitely not useful information. He should have stopped talking three minutes ago. The jeweler’s mouth had drawn down at the corners in a cold line.
The timpanist tucked his hands in close to his sides, to restrain any further urge to drum.
“I just— It just— It sounded wild. Absolutely wild. Like, I don’t know. It sounded like that feeling you get when you’re hiking in the hills and you look up, and there’s a cougar looking down at you.”
The rhythm had been so frantic, syncopated and unexpected, that everyone stopped playing and turned to look at the timpanist. Sweat had run down his forehead; he’d felt panicked and wild and embarrassed. Everyone had stopped. Everyone was looking at him.
“That was right? Wasn’t it?” he’d asked the conductor. “It was a lot of counting, but I thought—”
The conductor had grinned her foreign grin. “That was right. To be fair, I did not expect any percussion to actually come in on the right beat on our first time through. Thank you for paying such close attention.”
The timpanist had wanted to melt away into the floor and at the same time puff his chest out with pride. As the conductor gave a few comments to other instruments, he stood there, still shaking with adrenaline, the pounding of the flurried tattoo in his ears.
It had been... glorious.
“I got it right,” he said, and the jeweler’s shop reformed around him.
The jeweler had an expression on his face that the timpanist could not read at all, but he was certain it was not a good one. “I wasn’t asking—” he said, slowly and carefully as if he suspected the timpanist might not know the language. “—about your musical impressions.”
The timpanist flushed. “Of course,” he said, scrambling to put some other impressions together. “I mean, I don’t really have any. She didn’t even comment on why the job came open, so either she’s very discreet, or she just doesn’t care about our politics. She is a foreigner.”
“Mmh.” The jeweler shuffled the pages of the report.
The timpanist’s mouth filled with more words and explanations, but he’d already said too much. He bit his tongue.
“Keep an eye on things,” the jeweler said finally. “And try not to get carried away.”
The timpanist stuffed his sheet music as deep into his satchel as it would go and slunk out into the relentless Bigan sun.
In the middle of rehearsal the following week, the doors in the rear of the auditorium opened, and the tuba, focused on offbeat oomp-pahs in time with the timpani behind her, found herself performing an impromptu solo for an extra two bars before she realized that the rest of the ensemble had stopped playing.
They’d stopped because the Dictator had come for a visit. The tuba nearly fell off her chair in the lurch caused by her impulse to escape.
“Hey, are you all right?” the timpanist whispered.
“Fine,” the tuba hissed, straightening up and trying to breathe more slowly.
The Dictator shook hands with the new conductor. “So glad to have you!” The tuba did not have to look at him to know his face, his shape. He was not particularly tall nor short. He was fresh-faced and young, with a godlike body, ginger in his Bigan-dark hair, and a boyishly sly smile.
The tuba couldn’t breathe when she looked at him. She couldn’t breathe, just like her father couldn’t breathe—sucking futile gasps as he tried to pull air into punctured lungs; like her little brother, shot in the back as he tried to run out of the door to the kitchens; like her mother, knocked aside, head impacting the edge of that little tiled table she loved so much.
“...play a snatch of what you’re working on?”
The conductor, unusually subdued, called out a measure, and the ensemble began a careful recitation of one of the more ornate sections of the piece. The tuba couldn’t get enough breath to blow a note, but it was a part where she didn’t come in, so she clung to the valve casings and pressed her mouth to the mouthpiece, hiding as much of her face as she could.
He used to come over to their house, a white villa on the hill. He’d said her mother’s alvino was the best he’d ever had. He’d played quoits with her brother. He’d flirted with her, casually, as a young man did with a girl just on the border of being of age, and then seriously, when—she now knew—his alliance with her father had grown shaky and he was seeking new ways to shore it up. If she hadn’t been so set on becoming a musician, her father might have encouraged her to marry him. Instead she’d fled from his men into the dark streets as he made his move to take the city.
The section ended. Finally, finally he left the auditorium. The tuba held her instrument and quietly cried.
When rehearsal finished, the timpanist nervously hovered by her chair. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Are you?” the first trumpet had come up too, his instrument already packed away. “I saw—” He made an aborted gesture towards his face. He’d seen her tears.
She wished she could be grateful for their concern instead of only afraid. She shook her head. “I didn’t expect to react like that, I’m sorry. It’s just different, with the old conductor gone.”
She’d practiced the line in her head for the whole last hour of rehearsal, and it came out smooth and assured. The trumpet nodded. The timpanist drew back and wrapped his arms around himself.
“I didn’t know him as well as you all did,” he said.
The tuba laughed abruptly. “Oh, he was awful. I much prefer the new one. And yet—”
The trumpet’s face was shadowed. “And yet,” he muttered.
The timpanist looked between them. “A drink, for us all? I’ll buy.”
The tuba took a breath and calmed herself. These boys—the trumpet with his reluctant speech and hunched shoulders, the timpanist with his stubborn chin and ill-fitting clothes—they were just boys, musicians, like her. She didn’t need to fear them. And by the gods she did not want to be alone tonight.
At the beginning of the second week of rehearsal, the first clarinet stood for her solo. She wished she’d had more time to practice it at home, because the two times she’d played it before, the new conductor had made a tight sort of face, and the first clarinet didn’t know what she was doing wrong. She hated that; how they never practiced the sections in order, never finished a whole movement, how the conductor never explained exactly what she was looking for. But home was not conducive to practice.
The first clarinet was not naturally talented, but she was persistent. She had chosen music, and she had committed to that choice, just like her foolish father and brothers had committed to their senator. Now the senator was dead and they were rotting in a prison camp, while their wives and children had all moved into her mother’s house, where the first clarinet, unmarried, still lived—five women and twelve children in one narrow townhouse, and the only paycheck was hers.
The long rehearsals were a respite. At least in the concert hall, she could hear herself think.
She began to play. Standing gave her the flexibility in her diaphragm to get the depth of sound she needed. The piece was growing on her. At first it had seemed unnecessarily complex, but when they got it right, it was beautiful; all those passing notes became melodic lines, the rhythms unexpected and exhilarating.
Halfway through, the conductor cut her off.
Then she pointed at the second clarinet—an older man who had been a condescending section leader until the first clarinet had challenged him for his seat and taken it. “I want you to try the solo.”
“What?” The word shot out of the first clarinet’s mouth before she could think. “It’s my part. I’ve earned it.” Her eyes stung and she hated herself. Her father would be ashamed of her insubordination, for being so upset about losing a solo.
“Have you?” the conductor asked. “But it sounds not right. You have earned a position of leadership, so for you, the most important thing should be the whole. The piece must be right. Would you complain if I said, oh, the score had a mistake, the part is for a trombone?”
The first clarinet clenched a fist at her side. “I can do better.”
The conductor looked at her for a long time. Then she quirked that mysterious smile. “I will give you a chance. We will have... my favorite thing. A challenge!” She nodded to the second clarinet. “Would you like to fight?”
“Yes please,” he said with a cockiness that made the first clarinet furious. He would not have been so confident if the conductor hadn’t just undermined her.
“Then, at the end of the week. Now let us turn to the Adagio.”
The first clarinet sat down in her seat, shaking with anger. But she had a chance. A challenge meant she had one more chance.
In the taverna nearest the concert hall, the trumpet leaned against the table, fingers curled around the base of his glass of givo. He’d grown comfortable with the tuba player and the timpanist—funny, as he’d been with the ensemble for years and hadn’t made friends. But he’d had his other friends then. Now, new ones were a better choice.
The tuba, her pretty braids falling down across her face, matched him drink for drink. The timpanist was flushed and bolt-upright across from them. He seemed to grow younger when he drank, and he held his liquor much worse.
The trumpet had still heard nothing from his family. All he knew was that the relief boat from Masl had not been able to sail. He was so tired.
“Do you feel like there’s something different about this piece we’re playing?” the tuba asked, musing over her third glass of givo.
“What do you mean?” the timpanist asked, with the quick curiosity that took him after a few drinks. His accent would come out too—but it was a city accent, and the trumpet was not from this city and couldn’t place the neighborhood.
“It’s like—” the tuba searched for words. “It’s... exactly what it was meant to be. And because of that it becomes more than what it is.” She frowned. Then shook her head. “I’m drunk.”
“You’ve had nothing!” the timpanist protested. “You should have another.”
The piece was by a composer from Labadi: Miel Bicello. The trumpet had gone to the library on a morning off to find out more about him, but all the books on Labadi were gone. That, on top of the lack of news, calcified into a rock in his stomach. The Dictator wanted the trumpet’s home to not exist, to not ever have existed. But it did exist. Every day that they played this piece, he clung to its existence.
“It’s true though,” he said. “It feels true. I can hear it, sometimes, how it should sound, and we are getting so close. I think the conductor can hear it too.”
Every rehearsal made the ache inside him hurt worse—the Labadin words in the margins, the little changes the conductor would make. She would bring in new pages, switching a part from one instrument to another, each time making it sound more like home. She even brought in a ring of bells—Labadin bells, the ones meant to be worn around the ankle while you danced. She gave them to the timpanist, saying he looked like someone who could dance.
She was right. He’d jigged like a sailor the other night when they were out. The trumpet wanted to tell him that they were Labadin bells, that he used to wear them while dancing with his brothers and sisters in the children’s parade. But the books were gone, and when he tried to speak the name of his hometown it burned his lips.
The timpanist looked between him and the tuba, worry on his face. “I heard her saying that she studied this composer at school,” he offered. “She wrote a thesis on him.”
The tuba laughed. “That’s why I’m surprised she conducts him so well. My father had many academic friends; they always joked that the point wasn’t to understand their subject but to argue about it.”
“Was your father an academic?” the timpanist asked.
The tuba went abruptly still. “No,” she said.
The trumpet stared deep into his givo. He wanted to be home. He so deeply wanted to be home.
The timpanist tried again. “I think I understand what you mean,” he said. “Yesterday, with the clarinet solo—the way the first clarinet played it, it sounded like a very nice clarinet solo. But when you played your solo today—” he gestured to the trumpet “—it sounded like something real, not an instrument but a song woven from the cries of the mountain eagles.”
The words caught the trumpet’s ear, and he lifted his head. The compliment was nice, the metaphor lovely. The timpanist, embarrassed, ducked down, his long eyelashes brushing his cheeks. The trumpet pushed the bowl of spices and puffed rice towards the pretty boy. “The composer was from my hometown,” he said. “Perhaps that’s why I can hear the mountains in the piece.”
“Where are you from?” the tuba asked.
The trumpet made to say it, to say the name: Labadi. But he couldn’t. “Just a small mountain town.”
“They say incenti came from the mountains,” the tuba said, leaning forward on her elbows.
“Incen-what?” the timpanist asked.
“Music magic,” the tuba explained. “Some pieces, it’s said, if played perfectly, can change the world.”
The timpanist looked back and forth between them, a furrow on his brow and a pout on his mouth like he was worried he was being made fun of. “Is that a real thing?”
“Of course not,” the trumpet said. “It’s a country folktale.”
“I don’t know,” the tuba said. “Sometimes when we’re playing this piece, I imagine it could be one.”
All three fell silent, the trumpet with an anxious sickness in his gut.
“If any piece could,” the timpanist said slowly, “I think it would be this one.”
The trumpet agreed, but he would never say so.
As he went up to get another round of drinks, someone grabbed his sleeve. Martio.
“Alicio. Where have you been?”
“I have rehearsal,” he said.
“Drinking with these collaborators.” Martio sneered.
“My fellow performers,” the trumpet hissed. “My friends.” He shook Martio’s grip from his sleeve. He tried to walk on, but Martio followed him into the crush by the bar.
“We have a plan, Ali. We need you.”
“Oh, a plan? What is it, a bombing? A riot? How will it help the Labadin? How will it help my family?”
“It will bring attention to their plight! The Dictator will know we are serious.”
The trumpet snorted. It would not help the Labadin, no matter what Martio claimed, not even if their bombs shouted ‘Free Labadi!’ instead of booming their explosions. “I have to work. I have work, unlike you.”
“You are just frightened. You’re a timid mouse, with no convictions. I spit on you.” And Martio did spit. The trumpet reeled back, his fists balling. Martio stood there, chin out, ready to be hit.
The trumpet lowered his fists and turned away. When he returned to the table the timpanist’s eyes lingered on him. Like an apology, the timpanist pushed the basket of puffed rice back.
The tuba player lived above a grocer. Before the drought, the grocer had been very kind when the tuba had yet to sort out where her money was coming from and had none left for food after paying the rent. But now the grocer’s crates and baskets grew empty, with only shriveled onions and wrinkled, leggy caisci remaining. Still, she would not mark up her prices so only the rich could eat. That was another small good thing. The tuba player valued it and made sure to always pay her rent on time.
She didn’t have a tuba at home, just a small euphonium. She was known as the girl with ‘that brass instrument.’ It was better than lugging the tuba through the city every day. If she needed to run, she could run.
“Sweet-thing!” the grocer called out, as she returned from rehearsal. “I was just talking to someone about you. Always admirers for such a pretty girl. The spitting image of poor Lady Crio—may the gods keep her soul—though I didn’t say that. Not these days. But I did mention you had a concert coming up. He seemed so interested to hear about it—”
“Thank you,” the tuba said, the sweetness in her voice all artificial. She’d gone as still as a windless lake at the mention of her mother’s name. “Did he leave?”
“Yes, I’m afraid. You missed him by an hour or so.”
The tuba nodded. She walked up the stairs. There was only one entrance to the apartment. It would be hard to get in without anyone noticing. And yet the panic in her chest made it seem all too likely. If he was in there, waiting for her... She could just go, turn around, not even try her own door. But there was a chance—
If she died, she died. She’d accepted that a long time ago. She opened the door. Was there a sound? No. She grabbed the bag she’d left hanging from the coat rack and her euphonium tucked behind it, stepped back, and shut the door.
She didn’t lock it. Thieves could take what they wanted. She wouldn’t be coming back.
“Have you heard of incenti?” the timpanist asked the jeweler. He’d put off including it in his reports for a week now, going out with the trumpet and the tuba every night after rehearsal, hoping for a little more information first. But the subject never came up again.
“What?” the jeweler replied, sounding irritated, not looking up from the timpanist’s reports.
“I don’t know. No one told me stories when I was a boy. The other musicians were talking about it. When I asked around, all I could find were a few rumors about avalanches, and old tales about singers kept aboard ships to call winds and storms. Lots of old songs are said to be incenti—magic—but they don’t do anything. I guess it’s just folklore—”
The jeweler was glaring at him out from under his bushy eyebrows.
“Just nonsense,” the timpanist said hurriedly.
“Right. Except that the conversation was obviously seditious.”
“What? We were just talking about music. There was no implication—”
“Why are you defensive, Savant?”
“I’m not!” Now that was defensive. The timpanist grit his teeth at his own childishness. “I would tell you if I saw signs of sedition. Yes, Ali has friends who are suspect, but he has been out with me every night. He hasn’t met them once.” Except that one time—but he’d refused them.
“What about the girl?”
“Marin?” In his reports, the timpanist had only said he’d been going out with a few other musicians; he hadn’t mentioned a specific girl. “She—she plays the tuba.”
The jeweler glowered. “I don’t care what she plays. Who is she? Her family, her contacts. I sent someone around. She’s a lodger. Fake name.”
“She’s—” The timpanist remembered her shock, her sweat, her tears, in the presence of the Dictator. “She’s been with the ensemble for a while. From what she’s said, I think she’s an orphan. I can ask about her teachers, her previous musical groups—”
The jeweler sat back slowly, crossing his arms. “You haven’t even fucked them.”
The timpanist went still.
“You three looked pretty cozy in that bar. Back in my old job I could have gotten an adultery case on less. But each night you all went your separate ways. If you’d gone home with either one, or both, I’d understand it.” The jeweler shook his head.
No. The timpanist hadn’t slept with them. But he felt as sated as if he had. They went out every night to tavernas that had music. They laughed together, sometimes danced. He knew them well now. Alicio, the trumpeter, his family were goat farmers. He’d gotten his town’s only scholarship to the conservatory. Marin, the tuba player, she held her drink better than either of them, and told filthier jokes too. She was good-natured and cheerful even in the face of terrible things. It was not that he liked them and so he did not believe they were traitors, but they were not traitors and so he liked them.
They treated him as a fellow musician. He liked that too. He liked it better than being spied on by the people he was working for.
The timpanist unclenched his fists, stretching out his hands, then closed them again, but only as tight as he would hold his mallets. “Have you ever played music, sir?”
The jeweler scoffed. “Can’t say it’s a good idea on stakeout. Learned to knit, though. Blessing on long cold nights.”
“Well, I like it. The music. That’s all. I like the music.”
“I’d guessed that,” the jeweler said. But there was the hint of a smile in the corners of his lips.
The timpanist left, oddly relieved by the conversation. The jeweler in the end hadn’t been all that interested in his report. He wouldn’t send people to break up the ensemble because of an innocent chat about folktales. The music could not become a weapon.
There was no such thing as incenti.
At the knock, the trumpet opened the door to his garret apartment. “Marin?”
“I was going to leave the city, but I just—” The tuba player stood at the top of the rickety stair, clutching her euphonium case to her chest. “—I walked and I walked. I went to every gate, but I could not bear to cross.”
The trumpet took a breath. Dangerous, this was dangerous. He knew who she was, of course he did. Everyone knew that Senator Crio’s eldest daughter was a musician. She hadn’t wanted to get a chair through her father’s name, so she’d always used a different one. And she hadn’t been killed in the purge. The Greyshirts had orders to hunt her. He could not let her stay.
But without their tuba, the ensemble would fall apart. No grounding bass to guide them.
That night she cleaned and oiled her euphonium, but she did not play a note.
They slept in his narrow tick bed, back to back.
As the ensemble hurried to rehearsal and home again, they saw the streets sprouting garlands of laurel and bunting in anticipation of the Cleansing of the City festival. The concert on the first night would take place outdoors, from atop the old, broad city walls, so the ring of the trumpets, trombones, and horns would echo over tiled rooftops and domed spires. Workers were finishing construction on a grandstand and an acoustic backdrop to carry the sound of the entire ensemble, brass and woodwinds and percussion, to the crowds gathered in the plaza below. The following morning, at dawn, the children of the city, dressed in white, would race a circuit of the streets, tossing cloth bombs of chalk scented with desert myrtle at doors and arches and bridges to drive foul spirits away. Then the priests and priestesses would walk the streets, the novices with brooms made of sacred leaves or grasses, sweeping the cobbles and bricks.
Usually, the final part of the ceremony was to open the sluicegates of the hilltop cisterns and send water rushing down the streets into the river. All those who wished to rinse off their burdens of guilt and pain and sorrow bathed themselves in the running water to start their lives afresh. But as everyone in the ensemble knew, the spring rains had not come, and there was not enough water to cleanse the city of blood and shame.
“Are you ready?” The conductor leaned on her podium and smiled down at the clarinet section with the quirk of secret knowledge to her lips that the first clarinet truly wanted to despise.
Today was the day of the challenge, and the first clarinet felt nothing but a simmering intensity in every sinew. She hadn’t had much sleep, but she had practiced.
Trying to find time and space at home, as children screamed and her sisters-in-law called her selfish for ignoring their troubles, had seemed futile. But she’d sat in a corner, stuffed her ears with wax, and played against the chaos. As she did, her eldest brother’s daughter stopped to listen. Then she corralled the other children old enough to be out of cribs and made them sit as a small audience and be silent. The first clarinet uncorked her ears and played to them. In their faces, she could see when the solo was coming right, when it worked.
She’d given the girl her old recorder. The girl’s mother hadn’t thanked her—”the noise! The noise!” she’d said. But the first clarinet didn’t care. Her mother had always said the same about her playing too.
The conductor nodded to the second clarinet. He stood. She gave the ensemble a measure and counted them off. Over the ensemble, the second clarinet began to play.
The first clarinet stayed quiet, listening. No, not like that. Oh, that line was beautiful. Mmh, not quite in time with the flutes. The shape of the solo, set in the landscape of the piece, was clearer to her now than it had been. She watched the conductor’s face. The conductor usually conducted with her whole body, relaxed shoulders, swiveling at the hips, leaning back as an arpeggio bellied out, sighing at its end, tossing her head to the energetic martiality. But for this she stayed composed, the end of her baton lightly twitching.
“Thank you,” the conductor said with a slight nod. Then her eyes turned to the first clarinet. There was a challenge in them.
The first clarinet rose. She was no longer angry, or irritated, or anxious. She understood. It had to be right.
So she would play it right.
The tuba player had no part in this section, so she sat back and listened. The second clarinet had been good. He sounded assured, with a resonant depth of tone. But the first clarinet...
There was a new shape to her part, an intensity and eagerness. She didn’t follow the conductor but pushed. Eighteen measures in, the conductor was no longer looking at her. She had her eyes shut; she was directing the whole ensemble, breathing with the first clarinet. The tuba shut her eyes too. This was why she hadn’t left. This was why she would risk it. Because if she left—if she left she would not have this, could not have this. She needed this.
The highpoint, now, the peak; muted trumpets joining, the raindrop rhythm of the trombones. A flourish, a long, endless fermata, and then a rumble, organic, thunderous—the bass drum?
The tuba opened her eyes. She hadn’t remembered the bass drum having a part there. But the drum’s skins were flat; still. The rumble had come from all around. A vibration shivered through the pages on her music stand, and a spark of static electricity cracked from her fingers to the valves of the tuba.
She looked behind her, caught the timpanist’s wide eyes, looked to the trumpet who’d just put down his instrument. A moment hung between them.
“Enough.” The conductor cut off the first clarinet, her voice sharp and rough as if she was just remembering how to speak. Startled, the first clarinet lowered her instrument, her lips unusually red, her cheeks flushed. Shame shuttered her face. Failure.
“You keep it,” the conductor said. “Thank you. Now, to the Allegretto.”
The second clarinet grumbled and turned his part over.
The first clarinet looked staggered, then slowly sat, putting a hand on her chest as if her lungs were strained.
Incenti. The tuba breathed slowly over her mouthpiece. For a moment, she thought the air was touched with the scent of spring rain.
The timpanist paced back and forth in his apartment. He knew what he should do. He knew it. The conductor—oh she had plans. It seemed like most of the ensemble hadn’t noticed—too busy playing or counting or being bored, or they didn’t know enough of incenti to recognize what had happened. But he’d felt it. And that feeling—he’d entered with the trombones, an arpeggioed tattoo, and it had felt—He’d been buoyed by it. He had never experienced anything like that before—being part of something, part of creating something greater than the sum of its parts, part of an act of beauty that could change the world.
He clutched his mallets in his hands. His home-made mallets, that hit with just the right resound.
He knew what he should do. This was foolish, selfish. But...
He wanted to play.
The early morning street was crowded with the line for the water pump. Greyshirts watched it, making sure no one took too much, but still it always ran out before midday.
Martio was there. The trumpet did not meet his eyes, trying to walk past.
“Ali. I had a letter. From Labadi.”
“What?” The trumpet froze. They stood shoulder to shoulder beside the line for the pump, facing in opposite directions, neither turning their heads nor making any sign that they conversed. “How can you, if I have not?”
There were no letters getting through. So long as the trumpet had no news, he had to tell himself that. He spent his days vacillating between unfounded hope and unconfirmed despair.
“I’m sorry, Alicio.” Paper slipped into the trumpet’s hand. “I guess it was just an earthquake.”
Martio walked on quickly. The trumpet clutched the letter in both hands. He could not bring himself to open it.
“Hey, you!” Down the street a Greyshirt took a stride toward Martio. “Show your identification.”
Martio glanced about, searching for an excuse, an escape. There was none. A shadow in an alley formed into the shape of another Greyshirt, moving toward him. An apparent farmer drew a pistol and turned the flap of his jacket over to reveal the Dictator’s warrant.
The trumpet stumbled backwards. He needed to look away, he needed to distance himself, pretend to be unaffected, uninvolved. But he could not. He’d looked away from Labadi. Everyone had looked away from Labadi. He could not look away from Martio. But he could not move to act either.
“I live nearby,” Martio said, his words rapid and rattling against each other. “I didn’t bring my papers, but I—”
“Are you Martio Balani?” “Get on your knees!” “Hold out your hands.”
Martio showed his empty hands, holding them open before his face. He tried to kneel while keeping his hands up and fell in the gutter. One Greyshirt grasped his thick hair, pulled his head back. The warranted farmer pressed his pistol to the bulge of Martio’s throat. The other Greyshirt opened Martio’s jacket, pawing through the inside pockets. He tore a packet of identification papers out with a rip of silk.
“It is you!” He shook the papers in Martio’s face.
“Of what crime am I accused? I’m just an actor!” Martio protested, but his voice cracked.
“Disloyalty and sedition.”
“I am loyal to Biga!”
“Oh good.” One of the Greyshirts laughed. “Then tell us you love the Dictator. Swear it.”
The trumpet couldn’t breathe. There was a place for defiance and a place for capitulation. He had heard what the Greyshirts had done in other parts of the city. In his heart, he couldn’t believe it: this was Biga, wellspring of senatorial rule, of justice and free debate, not some lawless place. But though his heart didn’t believe, his mind knew enough to be afraid. Do it, he silently begged. There would be other days for defiance.
But Martio did not say the words. “Let me go,” he said instead.
“No! Free Labadi!”
The shout of the forbidden name roused birds from the rooftops, soaring black specks against the bright cloudless sky. Then the nose of the farmer’s pistol slid down to the center of Martio’s chest. Two shots. The scent of burned cloth, gunpowder, and blood.
They dropped him, a heap of flesh on the paving-stones, baking in the hot sun. Blood began to flow down the long-dry gutters.
“Not such a good actor,” the warranted farmer said. “Couldn’t even say his lines.”
The passers-by looked away. The trumpet’s fingers clawed at his palms; his throat was bulging and raw with leashed screams.
“Who has this man been with? Who has he been speaking to?” the Greyshirt demanded.
A woman in the water line turned toward the trumpet and pointed. “Him. He spoke to him.”
The trumpet ran.
Under the steeply slanted ceiling of the trumpet’s garret apartment, the tuba sat on the bed and oiled her euphonium’s valves. The tick mattress already stank of valve oil, so she didn’t feel bad about dripping on it. She looked up when she heard the thunder of feet on the stairs.
The trumpet burst into the garret, shaken and sweaty. “I have to leave,” he gasped out. “I’ll go to Masl, to—somewhere. You must leave too. It isn’t safe here.”
“My friend—” He crumpled an unopened letter in his hand. “My family.”
His urgency struck her. She’d always known she would have to leave at no notice, to abandon everything. But his pain and panic broke against her and fell away. Her own feelings were all muted as if by heavy felt.
“We can’t go,” she said. “The festival begins tomorrow night. They can’t play without us.”
The trumpet gaped. “You’d stay here because of the performance? You’d stay to die? They killed your family, and mine—I should have gone to Labadi immediately, even if there was nothing I could do, even if they would have killed me for trying to get in. Now it’s too late.”
The tuba shook her head. “You felt it too. We need to play this piece.”
“Incenti isn’t real!” He screamed it.
The tuba sat silent. She knew he believed that, in spite of what they’d heard. He needed to believe it. If he thought, even for a moment, that incenti might be real, he would have hope again, and with hope came pain, and they had all suffered so much already.
“Once,” he said, “yes, once I thought it was, that it could be.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead. “When I was a child I thought that if I played, just right, I could change the shape of things—transform a caterpillar into a butterfly, shift the course of running water, draw clouds into the sky. But those were a child’s beliefs. I am grown now, grown so old that I have friends bleeding out in the gutter. Incenti isn’t real. And even if it were, how could it fix things? There is no reason to stay.”
“Maybe not,” the tuba said. “But does it matter? If there was something to do, fine. If there was a way to end the drought, or bring relief to Labadi, or give amnesty to my father’s friends, we should do that. But just running away? I would rather play that piece and die than run and live like a rat.”
The tuba nodded, short and abrupt. Maybe she’d only said it because he needed to hear it. Maybe she’d bullied herself into it, when on her own, her fear would make her run. But it had been said. She would stand by it.
“What do we do?” he said.
“We go now. We spend the night in the practice rooms. If they come here and find it empty, they’ll think we’ve run. They’ll be watching the borders. They won’t check the concert hall.”
The trumpet blinked at her, befuddled and exhausted by the emotion that had coursed through him. But the practical suggestion was enough to cling to. “Right,” he said. “Right.” He packed a bag and gathered up his trumpet case.
They hurried together into the baking night.
The conductor was perched crosslegged on her podium when the first clarinet arrived, gazing out over the grandstand, past the city to the dry dirt fields and the hills lined with vines and olives beyond.
The first clarinet slowed to a stop. She had not expected the conductor to be there—and yet, wasn’t that why she’d come early? To spend more time with her? “How long have you been here?” she asked. “I’m stupidly early.”
“Mm?” As if waking from a deep sleep, the conductor lifted her head.
The first clarinet found herself unable to look away. She’d fought against this feeling but lost the battle. It was what troubled her most about the new conductor: the way she made no sense yet perfect sense, the way she was purely frustrating yet mesmerizing, the way she knew everything and explained nothing.
“Why are you doing this?” the first clarinet asked. “I felt it the other day. I think I know what it is. I just don’t know why.”
The conductor watched her for a moment, eyes shadowed and unreadable. Under that gaze, the first clarinet felt transparent, exposed. Once more, she waited to discover if she would be deemed worthy. Then came the slightest of nods; the conductor’s gaze drifted past her, toward the mountains.
“My family came from Labadi,” she said. “My great-grandparents. They left after the last failed push for independence. I grew up with stories about this. About incenti.“
“Oh.” The shape of the conductor’s face, her bearing, they had always been familiar even as her accent made her strange.
“They say the music needs to be played with perfection, but I have a theory this is not so. If ‘perfection’ is needed, such pieces would never work, for nothing in this world is perfect. Instead, I think they must be played with need, with full commitment.” She reached out and caught the first clarinet’s hand. “When I first saw this score in the archive, I could hear it. I knew how to make it right. But hearing you play it, with life—that was not an experience I had imagined, and I am honored by it.”
The first clarinet struggled to not seem as flustered as she was. Having her hand taken was overwhelming; the compliment made it worse.
“But—what does it do?”
“I don’t know.” The conductor smiled, still holding her hand.
The first clarinet was tired of asking the practical stupid questions. But someone had to be stupidly practical. Someone had to count chairs and get the ensemble members on stage and make sure that the gods-bedamned Greyshirts wouldn’t be waiting at the bottom of the steps after the performance to arrest the lot of them.
“What’s the point if you don’t know?” She pulled her hand away. Too many of them had felt the building shake, had smelled the change in the air, and one of them was an informer. They knew one of them was an informer. This performance would never happen.
She had come regardless. If she missed her chance to play that solo, she would regret it for the rest of her life.
“To find out?” the conductor asked, teasing. Silently laughing, she shook her head. “It’s music.” There was no smile this time, just assuredness. “Music is meant to be heard. And this piece was written for the Cleansing of the City. I don’t know what that means, except that it means it is the right piece for today. If everyone comes, if we play with our full intention, we will find out what it does. And if it does nothing? It is still Labadin music, being given the honor it deserves.”
“We will all be thrown in jail.”
“It’s a possibility.”
The conductor moved to the side and patted the space beside her. Surprised, the first clarinet hesitated, then sat down.
They sat together quietly as stupidly early turned into reasonably early, and then to on-time, and one-by-one the other musicians began to arrive.
As the sun lowered toward the western horizon, the conductor rose and mounted her platform. She peered at the searingly blue sky. Was that grey haze on the horizon distant clouds? She paged absently through her score. She had held the ensemble back from performing the whole concerto as one until now, because she did not know what would happen. If it were to collapse the roof, she’d prefer they were outside.
The performers continued to file onto the stage and take their seats: her darling first clarinet, always ready; the tuba player and the first trumpet, both a little more rumpled than expected, tired and shaken but moving with a certain step that gave her confidence. The flutes were all there, the rest of the clarinets, the trombones, the horns, the percussionists. Paper whispered and stands creaked as the ensemble arranged their music. Those who sat sat perched on the edges of their chairs, their bodies tilted forward like young shoots toward the sun. Those who stood held themselves in readiness, each muscle a pressed spring.
Only the timpanist was missing. They could play without him, but his part was a key one. Would the magic happen without him, or would they simply cry out a fruitless lament into the air?
She knew he was the informer. She’d noted his vigilant eyes, the care in his casual jibes to the other percussionists. His application forms had been impeccable—most unusual for a musician—and the conductors referenced on them did not remember his name. But she’d also seen the craving in him—for connection, for purpose. She had tried to fill him up with music. Had it been enough? Would he come with his mallets, or leading a gang of Greyshirts bearing chains?
Behind her, she heard the disquieted murmur as the Dictator and his fellow senators took their boxes in the stands. Crowds were streaming into the plaza below the wall to see such pomp and circumstance, to hear the wind ensemble, to listen and perhaps be changed by music alone.
The first clarinet sounded the tuning note, one lone perfect voice against the rustles of the settling audience. Then others joined, and for a moment all was cacophony—then harmony—then silence.
A thump of footsteps, there. The timpanist hurtled up the stairs to the stage, his mallets in hand. His hair was disordered; his white dress shirt flapped untucked. He took his position behind his drums. With his eyes closed, his ear cocked, he beat a light tap on each to check the tuning. A nod. He settled himself. Feet planted, shoulders back, his mallets poised over the broad head of the largest drum, readied for the opening flourish.
She raised her baton.
The world around them hushed. The grandstand fell silent. The crowd in the plaza below the walls held its breath.
For her whole life, the conductor had wanted to direct a piece that she knew, in her soul, was incenti. Deep in the dusty forgotten archives reading this score, she had foreseen this moment: the pale stem of her baton against the violet evening, the breathless baked-over air, the soundless crowd, and her players, ready to come together and cast true music into the skies.
This ensemble, she had faith in them. They had risen to the challenge of this piece; shown themselves sensitive and eager to learn. In spite of the loss, the risk, the inescapable suffering of the world they inhabited, they had devoted themselves to the music. Together they would turn this dusty manuscript into beautiful, irrefutable sound. Together, they would cleanse the city.
The conductor scanned her gathered players, noted her principals: her spiky first clarinet; her first trumpet, his chin up, his bell flaring above his stand; her tuba, cradling the glorious brazen mass of her instrument. Behind the tuba, her timpanist’s fierce gaze; she inclined her head just a touch, saw his slight delighted smile.
A twitch in the air—
Her baton plunged.