The Perfect Instrument
Eshell settled himself at Tallis's bedside, the lyre on his lap, its u-shaped frame resting against the misshapen fingers of his left hand. With his good hand, Eshell caressed the instrument's unfamiliar strings, saddened that he would be the last person to ever pluck them.
"I know it's not what you're used to," Tallis said, his eyes cloudy and his skin pallid, the poison he had ingested fast at work. "But I want its notes to be the last I hear before I die."
Eshell's fingers stiffened, refusing to play. Was easing a friend's passing worth the risk of discovery? They had learned from their friends in the underground that soldiers would be there at midday to conduct another "cleansing"--raids on the homes of those rumored to be harboring outlawed instruments and paintings, or worse yet, practicing such useless arts themselves. But rather than be burned alive with his instruments, Tallis had chosen to die on his own terms: a draught of poison and a final song from Eshell.
Eshell cast a nervous glance about the bedroom; like Tallis, it seemed a shadow of what it had been. The wall's gilded moldings were chipped, a mural of the gods dancing through an olive grove had been painted over, and the room's only window was closed and shuttered. Eshell imagined that the slivers of sunlight creeping in at the shutters' edges would retreat the moment he played the lyre. They would wind their way through the streets of Corlith and sound an alarm until everyone knew dissidents lurked in the home of Tallis. General Jantus himself would know that the cripple Eshell had dared to set his hand to music in a city where all but the art of war had been declared irrelevant.
Footsteps drew Eshell's gaze toward the doorway. His lover Seric, who had been keeping watch in the atrium, peered into the bedroom. The flame from an oil lamp cast shadows across Seric's leather breastplate, making the emblem on the front--a serpent's head with fangs bared--look as if it were alive.
"You're going to get us all killed with your stalling," Seric said. He marched into the bedroom, as if to take up the lyre himself, but drew up short. He looked from Eshell to the instrument, his expression rueful and weary. Eshell almost set the lyre aside, thinking it unfair that Seric shouldn't have a chance to play as well, but Seric left the room without a word.
Tallis nodded toward the lyre. "Go on, boy."
Eshell swallowed. It seemed so foolish to risk discovery now, even for a friend. If all went to plan, he and Seric would be leaving Corlith before the month was out. But more than losing that chance, more than risking death at the hands of General Jantus's followers, Eshell feared the lyre would reject his attempt to play after all this time.
"It's been so long," he said. "I don't know if I can."
Tallis responded with a thin, poison-choked laugh. "The day an instrument doesn't play for you is the day music has been silenced in far more places than Corlith."
Eshell plucked a string and flinched at the forbidden tone, even as a song filled his head: A Hymn to Ditra, Goddess of Music. The choice made, he began to play. He felt a twinge in his left hand, but still his misshapen fingers worked the lower strings in a way that had always mystified other musicians, even Seric. A gift from Ditra, people had said of his skill. To Eshell, though, his technique was immaterial. Even with two good hands, music would simply be a matter of listening, of echoing the beauty around him, of letting his memories drive each song...
Five years before, and he is fifteen, playing in the streets of Aralis for coin and scraps of food. Tallis hears him one morning, claims to have influence with a wealthy patron in Corlith, and Eshell is all too eager to follow the promise of payment for his music; the world holds little else for a crippled orphan. Tallis offers him a meal and a bath, then brings him to perform for a wealthy woman named Amleth. At her home, among other musicians hoping to gain her patronage, Eshell sees Seric for the first time--a young man with a pipe to his lips, only a few years older than himself, his lean build and bronze skin as beautiful as the music he plays.
When Eshell's time to perform comes, he shambles toward the center of the room, noting the usual stares at his twisted left leg, the titters from the other musicians when he nearly drops the battered old lyre his parents gave to him before their deaths. But at the first strains of Eshell's song, those gathered fall into silence. Still, Eshell feels like a stranger among them, a freak amidst beauty--until he spies Seric watching him. Eshell's singing grows stronger, his fingers more certain, fed by the ardor in Seric's gaze.
"Would the gods I had never brought you to this cursed city," Tallis said, pulling Eshell's thoughts back to the present. "A gift such as yours should be celebrated, not hidden away in the dark to accompany an old man's passing."
"Our friends in the underground seem to think I should be doing more hiding in the dark with them," Eshell said. At first, the underground had been no more than artists assembling in secret to paint and play and sing. But as those gatherings gave way to meetings with aims more rebellious than art, Eshell finally heeded Seric's advice and stopped attending.
His fingers absently continued their journey over the lyre's strings, muddying a melody that had resounded so clearly a moment before. "I don't see how I'd be of any use to them."
"You don't give yourself enough credit," Tallis said.
Eshell forced a smile. As much as he wanted to believe that, Seric's warnings weighed too heavily on his mind: any involvement with the underground brought with it the risk of death. Even when Eshell's old friend Lurallia offered to help them leave the city, Seric had been reluctant to agree to the plan. It had taken days of pleading to convince him they could escape without discovery.
Eshell closed his eyes, hoping to fall back into the grip of memory and song, but a weak chuckle from Tallis disrupted the music's spell.
"You were always the better musician," Tallis said, a hint of mischief in his voice. "Seric could coax the sweetest sounds from any instrument, but you always played as if the music belonged to everyone around you, never just yourself."
Eshell switched to a quick, fierce tune--an attempt to drive away memories of Seric's honey-coated singing and the music they could no longer make together.
A Hymn to Maldus, God of War.
Two years before, and Eshell feels ill upon hearing the news: with the surrounding empire in shambles, General Jantus is determined to make his bid for control and seize power beyond the walls of Corlith. He has declared military service mandatory for all but the old, the infirm, and those in essential occupations. Anyone caught leaving the city to avoid conscription will be executed, as will those who engage in decadent pursuits that do not advance Jantus's cause.
"Amleth has disavowed her previous luxuries so adamantly that she's among General Jantus's most favored supporters now," Seric says, frowning as he holds up the leather breastplate he is to wear as a member of Amleth's personal guard--the only favor she could pay to a one-time musician. "Rumor has it our former patron is among Jantus's most favored lovers as well."
"We don't have to stay," Eshell says. "Tallis said there are people leaving the city, ones who will pay for us to play elsewhere if--"
"They'll pay for you, Esh. Not me." Seric tosses the breastplate aside. "No one's going to risk execution to smuggle a second-rate musician like me out of this damned place."
Eshell lowers his gaze, ashamed. No one has ever envied him before. Not with his twisted body.
"Would you leave without me?" Seric asks.
"Never," Eshell says. He may never play again if they stay, but no one has ever loved him before either.
Seric stepped into Tallis's bedroom. "Esh?"
Eshell continued to play, each note bending out of tune to match his mood.
Seric leaned over the bed and closed Tallis's eyes, then rested a hand on Eshell's shoulder. "We have to go."
Eshell's fingers drifted away from the lyre's strings, leaving the room as quiet and still as Tallis's body. Eshell had been so lost in his thoughts and music that he never heard Tallis's labored breathing stop.
Seric reached out to take the lyre, but Eshell clutched it to his chest, his gaze fixed on Tallis's dead form.
"Please, Esh." Seric cupped Eshell's face between his hands. "You said you wouldn't do this."
As always, Eshell responded to the pleading in Seric's voice as easily as any instrument would have responded to his hands. He blinked back tears, nodded, and let Seric take the lyre.
Seric smashed the lyre on the floor. The instrument crunched and splintered beneath his sandal, and Eshell cringed. He couldn't help but remember when Seric, unable to do the same with his own instruments, had given them to Tallis to sell outside of Corlith.
Eshell grabbed his walking stick and rose from his chair, groaning at the stiffness in his twisted leg. Immediately, Seric slipped an arm around his waist and hurried him through the house.
Once outside, Eshell faltered, dizzied by the harsh sunlight. For a moment, the surrounding homes seemed to swirl about him, monstrously large, on the brink of toppling over to crush him. But as he blinked and shielded his eyes, the neighborhood settled into its normal appearance: a street lined with two-storey homes of white-washed brick and red-tiled roofs, large, yet dwarfed by the nearby hillside where the bathhouses and temples of the city forum dominated the horizon.
"Hurry back home," Seric said.
"What if we're next?" Ellis asked with a nervous glance toward Tallis's home. "What if we don't leave soon enough and they--"
"I still have sway with Amleth, and she still has sway with General Jantus. No one will touch us. Now go before we give them reason to."
Eshell nodded. He would go--home for now, but then, when his friend Lurallia gave him the signal that it was time, far from Corlith, and Seric with him.
As the midday bell sent its robust peal throughout the city, Eshell reached the home he shared with Seric. It was small in comparison to Tallis's, yet for Seric, a greater perk than the other soldiers in Amleth's personal guard received.
Alongside one of the house's mottled brick walls, a wooden bucket had been overturned, perhaps just by chance, or perhaps as the signal Eshell had been waiting for from Lurallia. Pulse pounding, he made a show of righting the fallen bucket, then reached into a hollow in the wall until his fingers brushed dry parchment. A new message.
Eshell slipped the parchment into a pouch belted at his waist. Anxiety demanded that he rush into the house and tear the message open, but Eshell forced himself to keep his gait no quicker than usual. Once inside, with the door shut to shield him from prying eyes, he set his walking stick aside and opened the letter.
Lurallia has been killed. Another cleansing.
The words struck Eshell like a blow, so hard and sudden that he couldn't breathe. Another friend gone. The only friend willing to get him and Seric out of Corlith. Seric was too great a risk, the others had all told him. Too close Amleth, and thus too close to General Jantus.
Eshell staggered across the house's small, square atrium, around the sunken pool where rainwater collected. Sunlight poured in through an opening in the roof above, filling the room with so much brightness that Eshell could not ignore the way the walls, once painted in rich shades of red and gold, had become as chipped and faded as his hope.
On a table at the atrium's far end, he lit an oil lamp and held the message over its flame. The parchment blackened, and despair burned just as hot within him. Two friends and his one chance of leaving the city with Seric all destroyed in a single day.
Eshell scooped the ashen remains into his hand and carried them into the open courtyard at the house's center. He scattered the ashes at the base of a lemon tree, then collapsed onto a stone bench, where he listened to twittering birds and the breeze whistling through the leaves. The tunes of each were far too cheerful, but nature had become the only music safe to enjoy in Corlith. Seric had even warned Eshell against singing in their own home, convinced the wrong person might walk through the door and use it as an excuse to burn their dwelling to the ground. But now, with so much lost and only Seric to keep him there in the city, Eshell hummed softly to himself in a futile attempt to stave off his tears.
A Hymn to Unlari, Goddess of Love.
Five years before, and Eshell has been in Corlith for two months, performing as Seric does for gatherings at the home of his patron, Amleth. One night, after the music has given way to drink and conversation, Eshell retreats to the moon-drenched courtyard. He seats himself on the edge of a fountain and plays the type of slow, pensive air the guests have not been in the mood for.
"I'm jealous, you know."
Startled by Seric's voice, Eshell stops playing. His face flushes. Seric stands in the doorway, the twin moons above competing for which can lend the more beautiful sheen of light to his skin.
"The way you play," Seric says, strolling into the courtyard. "It's as if..." He sits beside Eshell, the light scent of wine on his breath. "Can you show me?"
"What do you mean?"
Seric turns Eshell slightly, presses close behind him, places his hands on his. He runs his fingers over the rough, gnarled skin of Eshell's twisted hand. Eshell shudders.
"Does that hurt you?" Seric asks.
"No." Eshell's breath quickens. No one has ever touched his hand without hesitation or a grimace of uncertainty.
"Go ahead and play," Seric says.
Eshell begins a tune that tells of the goddess Unlari, how she took a mortal man she loved and placed him among the stars so that no other person could have him. Seric sings the accompanying lay, all the while letting his hands follow the movement of Eshell's. The dulcet timbre of Seric's voice, soft in his ear, reverberates through Eshell until he trembles as much as the lyre's strings.
The song ends. Eshell glances back, about to speak, but his words are forgotten as Seric's lips press against his own.
Eshell swiped at his damp cheeks, then rose from the bench and hobbled inside. In a dark, dusty corner of the bedroom, he knelt and slipped a finger into a crack between the wall and one of the floor's ceramic tiles. The tile came up easily enough, releasing the musty smell of earth from beneath, but Eshell struggled to make his misshapen hand do its share of the work in moving the tile aside. He had no replacement should the tile slip from his grasp and shatter, and no explanation he could give Seric.
Eshell reached into the hole he had dug years ago and pulled out his lyre.
The instrument's wood, set with turquoise inlays, was cool to the touch. Eshell brushed the dirt off the strings and the curved frame, his fingers knowing where they would encounter every nick and imperfection in the weathered finish. He yearned to play with the same ache he had felt when he first met Seric--wanting to touch something, but afraid the results would be disastrous.
Eshell caressed the lyre, thinking there had to be someone else willing to sneak Seric out of the city. All the while, Eshell's gaze constantly flitted toward the window; although it looked out on the interior courtyard, he could not shake the fear that someone would peer inside and see what he held. But Eshell remained alone, sitting there on the floor until the sun hung low in the sky, casting its orange sheen across the bedroom walls.
In the atrium, the door clicked open. Eshell returned the lyre to its hiding spot, heart racing, and slid the tile in place. He scrambled to his feet; how many times would Seric find him here and still believe the lie that he had fallen? Fortunately, Seric's footfalls never strayed beyond the atrium. Someone else's steps joined them, and Eshell hovered by the bedroom doorway, out of sight, but close enough to hear.
"Where's your little catamite?"
Eshell's skin crawled at the sound of the familiar voice--Amleth's brother, Captain Therus.
"If you're going to insult him," Seric said, "then you can leave my home now."
"My apologies." Therus followed the remark with a short laugh, as if to punctuate its insincerity.
Eshell peered through a crack between the bedroom door and the frame. Therus dominated his line of sight: tall and broad, a skirt of metal-plated leather strips falling over muscled legs, helmet held at his side, its plume the same scarlet color as the cape signifying his captain's rank. When Amleth had been patron to Seric and Eshell, Therus would have been the first to toast their skill and call for a song. Now he conducted General Jantus's cleansings with equal enthusiasm.
"What do you want?" Seric asked.
"Names." Therus spoke with a lilt to his voice, though it failed to mask the menace lurking beneath. "An element of justice is lost when those whom General Jantus wishes to make an example of deny him the chance. Someone warned old Tallis about the cleansing, and I want to know who."
"Then you should stop wasting your time here and ask someone who knows."
"You know who Tallis's friends were."
"So does your sister."
Therus laughed, the sound cocksure, and not without a hint of danger. "You're fortunate she's so fond of you."
There was a long silence, then the familiar click of metal against tile--Seric setting his helmet on the floor. "I've told you everything I know."
"Then perhaps I should bring Eshell in for questioning. Though I can't guarantee that my men will be as gentle with him as you are."
Seric shoved Therus against the wall, so hard that Eshell jumped. The two men were now close enough to the bedroom door for Eshell to see the sweat beading on Seric's brow.
"You used to have a better sense of humor," Therus said.
Eshell felt sick, certain the man's threat had been no joke.
Seric released Therus, who laughed and started toward the door. Before leaving, he added, "You'll tell me if you hear anything, of course."
As soon as Therus was gone, Seric kicked his helmet across the floor, then discarded his breastplate with equal force. Eshell stepped out of the bedroom.
Seric turned toward him with a start. "You heard all of that?"
Eshell nodded. He tried to speak, but managed only a fearful stammer. If he and Seric had lingered too long at Tallis's home, or if he had not hidden the lyre quickly enough just now--Therus had but to arrive a moment too soon to find the dissidents he sought.
Seric pulled Eshell close. "Therus can threaten all he likes, but he's never going to take you away from me."
"He'll find a way if we stay here much longer. My friend who was going to help us, Lurallia..." Eshell closed his eyes for a moment, forcing back tears. "She's dead."
"I heard." Seric turned away and pressed his hands against the wall, his chest puffing with quick, angry breaths. "Therus was quick to boast about that one on the way here. He said it almost made up for not getting to kill Tallis himself."
Eshell collapsed onto the atrium's couch. The straw-stuffed cushion shifted beneath him; the wooden frame creaked under his meager weight, as precarious as their lives in Corlith had become. Eshell imagined what must have become of Tallis's home by now--his furnishings thrown outside for anyone to claim, the hidden instruments smashed in the streets as evidence of his crimes, then burned along with his home and his body. Amid those sorrowful images, a selfish thought lingered: had Eshell given his lyre to Tallis as Seric had asked him to years ago, it would have been destroyed too. As painful as it was to keep the lyre a secret, Eshell knew it had enabled him to save at least one thing of beauty.
"There has to be someone else who can help us," Eshell said. "Another way to put this place behind us, to go someplace where we can sing and play the way we used to."
Seric sat beside him and ran a hand through his hair, pausing sometimes to curl a lock around his fingers. "I never told you this before--I was too embarrassed, I suppose--but I used to be so desperate for fame that I wasted three month's pay on a witch who claimed she could help me become the greatest musician the empire had ever known. When all I did was prove myself a fool, I thought I could settle for being the most famous musician in Corlith. But then you came along." Seric kissed him on the forehead. "If I never play a note again, it won't matter as long as I have you--the most perfect instrument the gods ever created."
Eshell smiled, but stared down at the knotted flesh that riddled his left hand and leg. "Hardly perfect."
"Neither was that lyre of yours. But you made it sound perfect." Seric laughed--something Eshell rarely heard from him anymore. "Sometimes I think you were fonder of that old thing than you are of me."
Eshell kept his gaze lowered, afraid Seric would somehow read the truth in his face and realize that the lyre was still there, hiding beneath his feet every time he rose from bed.
"There is no greater music than this," Seric said, wrapping his arms around Eshell and holding him tighter than usual. "The gods themselves could not play anything so beautiful."
He kissed Eshell along his neck, eased him back on the couch, and for a time, at least, reminded him that they could share pleasures other than music.
The next afternoon, while Seric was attending to his duties at Amleth's home, Captain Therus came to the door.
"Seric's not here," Eshell said, holding the door half-open, a shield between them. This close, it was all too evident how much Therus towered over him. Eshell peered past him, frightfully certain that he'd see more soldiers swarming in behind him, ready to cleanse Corlith of another worthless dissident.
Therus grinned. "Seric's not the one I came to see." He waited, apparently expecting to be invited inside--almost as unsettling a thought for Eshell as a cleansing. But when the silence stretched on too long, Therus sighed. "You've lost friends, and you blame me. I understand that. But I'm trying to keep you from losing any more. The more people see what defiance means, the more they'll be inclined to follow the example of law-abiding citizens such as yourself--for the betterment of us all."
Eshell clung to the door, knuckles white. He wished he could slam it shut, but such insult to Therus could very well mean his death.
Therus leaned in close. "All I want are names," he said, his tone so hushed and intimate that Eshell shivered. "You and Tallis moved in the same circles, shared the same friends. You might know who warned him about the cleansing." Therus's gaze wandered from Eshell's twisted hand to his face and back again, as if he were surprised they could belong to the same person. "If my sister weren't so insistent on coddling your lover, you'd have been sent off with the legions to dress wounds and fetch water. So just one name, and perhaps General Jantus will reward you for finally becoming useful to his cause."
"I don't know anything," Eshell said, keeping his words short and clipped to mask his nervousness.
Therus gave an incredulous laugh. "You're as stubborn as Seric." He reached into a pouch at his waist and pulled out a folded slip of parchment. "But I wonder how loyal you'd be to him if you knew about this."
The parchment's wax seal was broken, but Eshell still recognized Amleth's insignia. He had seen Seric with messages like this one countless times before. No more than a soldier's instructions, Seric had said.
"Why would I be interested in Seric's orders?" Eshell asked.
"Because the sword your lover carries at his side isn't the only one my sister pays him to use." Therus paused, as if to lend weight to his suggestive tone, then added, "Quite a risk for them both. General Jantus is rather fond of Amleth, and he doesn't like sharing things he's fond of. It would be tragic if someone told him about her interest in a mere guard."
"You're lying," Eshell said.
Therus held out the parchment. "Take a look for yourself."
"Why should I?"
"Because despite what this letter says," Therus said, all pretense to amiability gone, "I know you don't want to see Seric dead." He stared at Eshell, his gaze hard enough for doubt to sink in, for the idea of Seric's faithlessness to seem possible. Then, slowly, Therus's smile returned. "I'll keep silent about the contents of this message, and you can leave Corlith a wealthier man, all for a few names. And the more names you give me, the more money I'll give you--the more instruments you'll be able to buy when you end up wherever it is you decide to go."
Eshell snatched the letter from him. "I'll let you know if I hear anything."
"Good." Therus laughed lightly, then strolled away.
Eshell slammed the door shut behind him and tore the letter open.
Amleth's handwriting. It's a lie, Eshell thought, though his stomach twisted with every word he read, every mention Amleth made of her desire to see Seric, to hear the sweet music of his voice in her ear once more.
I know how devoted you are to Eshell, my love, but it would be fairer to us both if you left him. We would risk so much less if you stayed among the guards in my home.
Eshell flung the letter aside. It had to be a forgery; Therus seemed more capable of that than Seric did of infidelity. Seric could have any man or woman he chose, and yet he stayed with Eshell, the cripple who could offer him nothing in return, upon whom he had to lavish twice as much care as anyone else. But the more Eshell told himself that Seric would never betray him, the more Therus's insinuations brought to mind every conversation he had witnessed between Seric and Amleth--the way Amleth touched Seric's arm whenever they spoke, how often they exchanged whispers and glances, the way Seric held Eshell's hand tighter around her, as if in compensation.
"It's not true," Eshell said, and set to busying himself around the house, scrubbing surfaces he had cleaned only the day before, boiling the wheat he had bought at the marketplace for their evening meal--anything to occupy himself until Seric returned. But then, just before nightfall, Seric sent word that Amleth had duties for him to attend to that evening. He would not return home until morning.
Eshell collapsed onto the couch. In his head, a tune began--relentless, dark, and bitter. He couldn't bring himself to hum it, but soon, exhausted by tears and suspicion, he fell asleep, and the music gave way to a dream.
A Hymn to Parnamis, God of Lies and Deception.
He and Seric are in the courtyard, playing and singing together as they did the night of their first kiss. Eshell smiles, comforted by Seric's hands on his, his voice in his ear. But after a time, pain shoots through his hands. Eshell looks down and gasps. Where his twisted hand should be, the battered frame of his lyre protrudes from his wrist. The fingers of his right hand stretch up, thinning to form the instrument's strings.
All the while, Seric continues to play upon him.
Eshell woke with a shudder. He clutched his hands to assure himself they were as they should be, then looked up to find Seric seated on the edge of the couch, leaning over him.
"I didn't mean to startle you," Seric said.
Eshell sat up. As his eyes adjusted to the stark sunlight pouring into the atrium, he spied the discarded letter on the floor, apparently unnoticed by Seric.
"What did..." Eshell tried to swallow away the thickness in his throat. "What did Amleth need you for last night?"
Seric cocked his head in surprise. "One of the other guards fell ill," he said, a note of hesitance in his voice.
Eshell nodded. Seric had every reason to be surprised; Eshell seldom questioned the nature of his orders. But still, Eshell couldn't help wondering if he should have been questioning them all along. "What did you have to do, though? Was it just--"
Seric silenced him with a quick kiss. "Can we talk about this later? I've been up all night."
Eshell nodded again, though suspicion quickly amended Seric's words: Can we talk about this later so I have time to think of a better lie? Seric started toward the bedroom, but Eshell grabbed his hand. "Wait."
"Please, Esh, I'm exhausted."
Eshell rose from the couch, snatched the letter from the floor, and held it out to Seric.
"What's this?" Seric took the parchment from him. His face blanched as he read. "Where did you get this?"
"Just tell me it's not true."
Seric jabbed at the air with the letter. "Did Therus give this to you?"
"Tell me it's not true," Eshell repeated, louder.
Seric turned away. Eshell waited for him to insist that the letter was a forgery, a lie from Therus to get information out of him. Instead, Seric paced through the atrium, looking everywhere except at him. Eshell buried his face in his hands, sick with the realization that, had Seric wanted to deny the affair, he would have by now--and Eshell would have believed him.
"She asked you to leave me," Eshell said.
"Yet I haven't. All the times she's asked, I haven't." Seric slumped against the wall, the letter held limply at his side. "That should tell you something."
"That you're a better liar than I thought. I've been putting my life at risk trying to find a way out of this city, and all this time you've been with her. You said we'd leave here together, as soon as I found a way. Was that a lie too?"
Seric stood silent for a long moment, then said softly, "Not at first."
"And now it is?" Eshell's skin flushed with anger. They had been robbed first of their music, then of their friends; how could Seric want to stay? "You knew what I was doing, who I was contacting. Everything. You never tried to stop me, never--"
"I'm the one who informed on Lurallia," Seric said sharply. He met Eshell's gaze for a moment, then looked away. "Therus threatened to tell General Jantus about my affair with Amleth, so I gave him a name."
Eshell's stomach tightened until it felt as knotted as his twisted limbs. Of all the people Seric could have informed on, he had chosen Lurallia, the only person willing to help him escape the city.
"How could you?" Eshell said.
"Because you would have me leave the only place where someone would ever want my services over yours. 'You were always the better musician, Eshell.' Do you think I never heard that before?" Seric crumpled the letter and threw it across the room. "What would I be anywhere else?"
"And what am I here other than your 'little catamite?' That's what people like Therus call me, isn't it?"
"If I had told you that I wanted to stay..." Seric took Eshell's face between his hands. "I did this for us. To keep us together."
Eshell shook off Seric's hands and headed for the door. "You did this for yourself."
With no idea as to his destination, Eshell wandered the streets of Corlith. He glanced over his shoulder after every corner he turned, hoping to find that Seric had followed him, that he would have some explanation for what he had done, something Eshell could forgive. But Eshell saw no one he recognized, and no one paid attention to him for any reason other than to gawk at his lame leg as he walked.
His aimless steps took him across the city forum, where the activity was steady yet grave, the crowds cowed into silence by the soldiers stationed outside the temples and the arched entranceways of the marketplace building. Eshell allowed himself the briefest of pauses outside the temple of Ditra, goddess of music. The temple was vacant, its priests long dead, its fluted columns and ornamented façade defaced by General Jantus's followers. Years before, music would have drifted from within; now the temple stood silent, the only music left in Eshell's mind.
A Hymn to Thirlus, God of Travel.
Eshell shook his head, trying to drive the tune from his thoughts, but its winding, skipping melody persisted, urging him on. After Seric's betrayal, what did he have to stay for? He had friends in the underground who would take him in, but what use would a worthless cripple be to them in the end? Eshell was nothing without his music, and so he would hide the lyre in his belongings and flee the city. And unlike Seric, he would give no names. Therus could keep his money.
But just as quickly as that thought came, Eshell's mind conjured images of Seric being poisoned or burned alive or suffering some other horrible execution. Eshell's resolve faded. Therus had been right about that, at least: no matter what Seric had done, Eshell couldn't bear the thought of his death. If he left Corlith without giving names, Therus would reveal the affair with Amleth, and General Jantus would have Seric killed.
And who else would love you, Esh?
Eshell imagined Seric's voice in his ear so clearly that he whirled and drew a gasp from a woman walking past.
Who else would see past your deformities as I have?
A cramp shot through Eshell's thigh--normal enough after being on his feet for so long without his walking stick, but missing was Seric slipping an arm around his waist to support him. Eshell clutched his leg, grimacing, but the people around him continued across the forum, looking away and pretending they had not just seen someone in pain. Could Seric, who had always helped him when so many others would not, have changed so completely? Eshell had given him so little time to explain--perhaps Amleth had coerced him into the affair so that Therus would have something to use against him. Perhaps, with Therus hanging that threat over their heads, Seric would change his mind about leaving.
Eshell started toward home. The melody in his head, the call of the god Thirlus to dance on the open road, faded with every step.
By the time he reached home, Eshell wanted nothing more than to sit and ease his aching leg. As soon as he stepped inside the atrium, though, it became clear that Seric's mood was not one that would allow for rest. The clay fragments of an oil lamp lay scattered across the floor. One side of the couch had collapsed, the wooden leg of its frame splintered and broken. Seric's helmet sat in the rainwater pool--thrown or kicked there, judging by the water that had splashed across the floor nearby.
A crash sounded from the bedroom. Eshell rushed into the room to find the bed overturned and Seric crouching beside it, tossing aside shards of broken floor tile. The toppled bed frame had cracked several of them, including the one that had been hiding Eshell's lyre.
Eshell grabbed the wall to keep his legs from buckling beneath him.
"How long have you been hiding this thing here?" Seric pulled the lyre from its hole and stormed toward him, veins bulging in his neck. "Do you have any idea what would have happened if someone else had found this?"
Seric raised his arm to throw the lyre, but Eshell grabbed it from him.
"My parents gave this to me," Eshell said. "You have no right."
"You have no right to endanger us both by keeping it here."
"Are you going to turn me over to Therus too, then?
Seric's face, so twisted with ire a moment before, softened with surprise. "No, I would never..." He ran his hands through his hair. "No, we can fix this," he said, and began pacing across the room. "We have all our lies out in the open now, so we start over. We get rid of the lyre, I end things with Amleth, and we give Therus whatever he wants to keep quiet."
"No," Eshell said, nauseated at thought of turning in their friends. He searched Seric's face for some hint of doubt or regret, but all he saw was fear.
Would Seric truly be in danger if I refuse to give Therus names? Eshell wondered. Or would he simply give Therus the names himself, all in exchange for his life?
Seric nodded toward the lyre. "That thing's not staying here."
Eshell hugged the lyre to his chest, the way Seric had so often held him--like a possession, cherished, yet as easily traded as a name. Eshell plucked one of the strings, and the beginnings of a melody filled his head.
"It's not staying," he said softly. He opened a trunk that sat at the foot of the toppled bed and rummaged through its contents until he found a sack large enough to hold the lyre. "And neither am I." Eshell set the lyre in the sack, then surrounded it with the few items he could claim as his own: his winter cloak, his tunics, a woolen blanket, an old pair of sandals with cracked leather straps.
"Don't be a fool," Seric said. "You have no money, no--"
"Therus offered me money." Eshell tied the sack shut. "But I'm not taking it."
"And where are you going to go, Esh?" Seric pressed close, and his voice became a whisper, an echo of Eshell's own misgivings. "Back to starving on the streets? Is that the life you'd rather have?"
I'm going where I'm needed, Eshell thought. Where I should have gone a long time ago. He may have doubted his use to the underground before, but now it was all too clear. He knew which names Seric would give to Therus in order to save himself. He knew who to warn, who needed to leave the city more desperately than he did.
Eshell slung the sack over his shoulder, brushed past Seric, and made for the front door. Perhaps he would meet the fate of so many others in the underground--beaten, burned alive, the cold slice of a sword through his neck. Perhaps he would be stopped in the streets before he could reach his friends, and the lyre's final notes would be a snap of its strings and the crack of its frame as it broke beneath the weight of his dead body. Or perhaps, if he proved useful after all, there would be music in Corlith again one day, and he could honor the memory of Tallis and Lurallia and so many others with the songs they deserved.
"Don't come back," Seric shouted after him. "Don't come back if you love your damned music more than me."
Eshell paused in the doorway. There was a desperate, pleading edge to Seric's voice--fear, most likely, but maybe regret. Eshell shuffled his feet, tempted to turn back and discover which, but then he stared down at his hands. Once, he would have smiled at the memory of Seric touching them without hesitation. Now all he could see was Seric playing them like a lyre.
Eshell grabbed his walking stick. "If Therus wants another name, you can give him mine." He walked out the door, and his footfalls sounded in time with the melody in his head: A Hymn to Imleth, Goddess of Freedom.
Barbara A. Barnett
The Cycle of the Sun, fiction, Issue 18, March 1, 2012
The Perfect Instrument, fiction, Issue 26, March 1, 2014
Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, graduate student in library and information science, Odyssey Writing Workshop alum, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-around geek. In addition to NewMyths.com, her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fantasy Magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Shimmer, and Daily Science Fiction. Barbara lives with her husband in southern New Jersey and can be found online at www.babarnett.com.
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