First Place Winner of Voyage’s Love & War Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Ayana Gray
Clio twisted the tuning key and plucked the shortest string again, bending close to her harp to hear it over the patricians’ murmurs. Too much—the note had gone sharp. She inched the key back with twitches of her wrist until the note rang out clear and bright and on-key.
“Are we ready now, or shall we keep His Majesty waiting longer?” Marek teased.
The king of Sevand did not seem to be waiting on them to speak with the queen of Meliferra. But apart from the Sevandi royal family and their entourage, most of the attendees were Meliferran and would need Clio and Marek’s services.
Servants swanned through the room like boats at a regatta, carrying trays of fried rice balls coated in breadcrumbs, dried figs wrapped in thin pink slices of cured ham, and grape leaves stuffed with lamb. Clio’s mouth watered with anticipation. She hadn’t eaten for hours before they took the ferry to Soltuo Island to stave off seasickness. It had worked, but now she would have to wait until after their first set to eat.
She knew her next line: part of their daily pre-show ritual. “You only have four strings to tune. I have twenty-eight.” She swept her skirts forward in a swirl of sage green and perched on her stool. “We are both ready now.”
Marek tucked the violin under his chin. Clio leaned her harp back, the weight of it comfortable on her shoulder. Clio counted them in.
Translation was one of the easiest gigs for a bard. It required, at a minimum, two musicians who spoke the desired languages, and a four-minute song repeated for as long as the spell was to last. For the same reason, translation was also one of the most tedious gigs.
But Clio enjoyed it. The dissonance of the first dyad—the notes only a half step apart, as though the two parts could not understand one another despite their closeness. Next, the melodies twined around one another in counterpoint, one climbing as the other descended. Then, for the first time, the voices met in perfect unison, comprehension reached. On parting they stayed in harmony, at times rejoining or switching places as the tempo accelerated.
Beyond the musicians’ dais, conversation began, the language barrier between the Meliferran hosts and the Sevandi guests dismantled for as long as Clio and Marek played. That was the other downside of translation gigs: long shifts, short breaks.
Five repetitions of the song later, they took their first break. Clio pulled the fingers of her left hand back to ease the cramp and scanned the room for the nearest servant. One stood just off from the dais, his back to the bards. If she could catch his eye—
“Excuse me, sir!” Marek called to the servant in Meliferran. He turned and approached with his tray of toasted bread rounds. The honeycomb atop them gleamed golden in the light from the gaslamps.
“Thank you.” Clio took two, scooping one directly into her mouth. She tasted crisp pear and creamy goat cheese beneath the sweetness of the honeycomb. If she could eat like this every night, she would happily play translation gigs for the next seven years.
“You’ll only get what you want if you ask,” Marek tsked.
“But it’s so much easier when you do it for me,” Clio said, covering her mouth to catch the spray of crumbs.
“Yes, you’d probably starve without me.”
“And you would waste all your money on fancy clothes without me.”
Marek clutched at his waistcoat—lavender silk, the bass clef stitched over his breast in silver thread. “‘Waste’?”
“You have a patrician’s taste and a bard’s budget.” There was a reason Clio handled their earnings. Money, she had learned over the past twelve years, was the one thing she could not trust Marek with. “Perhaps you can find a patron here who will fund your lifestyle.”
“That is the best idea you’ve ever had.” Marek scanned the hall. “How about him?”
“The one with the beaded jacket? He certainly shares your fashion tastes.” Clio crunched into her second crostini.
“Not sure how I feel about the beard. What about—ah, Your Highness, good evening.”
Clio looked up. A young woman about her age with a round face stood at the end of the dais, auburn hair cascading down the shoulders of a saffron gown. Treble clefs embroidered in gold along the waist indicated her pronouns. “Good evening,” she said in lightly-accented Meliferran. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
Of course the most beautiful woman in the room would talk to her when her mouth was full. Clio swept into a curtsey to hide her frantic chewing.
Marek was quicker, suaver. He swept a deep bow. “Not at all.”
Clio swallowed and rose from her curtsey, brushing her crumb-covered hands on her skirt. In front of the youngest princess of Sevand, her nicest outfit felt like a grain sack. “We are glad to be of service, Your Highness,” Clio said. For song’s sake, don’t let there be pear skin caught between my teeth.
“Please, Sabina is fine,” Princess Sabina said, still in Meliferran. Her eyes, green as the Aoedean Sea, lit first on Clio, and then on Marek. “And I know you are busy, I was only curious about your music. You must practice very much to play so well together, Mister…?”
“Mirrorgleam. Marek Mirrorgleam.” Marek swept a second, unnecessary bow. “And my duetist, Clio Newsong.”
“Ah, you’re a student at the Conservatorio,” Sabina said.
All novices took on the name Newsong when they joined the Conservatorio. Composing a new spell earned a bard their own name. Marek Newsong became Marek Mirrorgleam when he composed his first spell. But nothing Clio wrote had ever produced magic. The name she had prided twelve years ago for marking her as a future bard now marked her failure to create.
“No,” Clio said, cheeks burning, “a graduate.”
“And yes, we have a rigorous practice routine,” Marek continued. “Though it seems you have little need of our services. Your Meliferran is flawless.”
“My tutors assigned me a rigorous practice routine.” A smile tugged at the corners of Sabina’s mouth. “But I confess I know very little about your craft. Would you indulge a few questions?”
“I’d be happy to indulge you,” Clio said and blushed again when the princess turned her amused gaze on her.
Marek gave the princess another bow. “We are at your service.”
“Do most bards only play one instrument?”
“We must master one instrument before leaving the Conservatorio, but we often learn more than one.” Clio had flitted from woodwinds to percussion to dulcimer before settling into the harp. Each instrument offered different advantages. In theory, a spell with only a melody line could be played on any instrument, but some spells worked better on certain instruments. Reeded instruments were best for spells that acted on a living creature’s body, woodwinds had an edge in altering elements or materials, and strings produced stronger effects on the mind. Clio had liked that the harp could provide its own accompaniment, allowing for more complex spells. “I mostly play the harp, but I’m decent on the syrinx in a pinch.”
“And the lamellophone, don’t sell yourself short.” Marek winked. “I confess, I’m not nearly as versatile. The violin owns my heart. Are you a musician, Sabina?”
“Musician would be an exaggeration,” she said modestly. “I play the pianoforte, although not nearly as proficiently as my instructor would like.”
“Every song begins with a single measure,” Clio said and was rewarded with a smile from Sabina.
“Forgive the interruption, but I believe duty calls.” Marek nodded toward the Meliferran queen’s majordomo, who was signaling to the musicians with waves that rivaled the Scontro Strait’s. “Perhaps later.”
“Later, yes.” Sabina held Clio’s gaze. “I will hold you to that.”
Clio could not help but watch her walk away.
“The Sevandi princess? Really?” Marek murmured, raising his violin again. “And you think I have expensive tastes.”
“Don’t,” Clio chided and counted them in before he could continue.
They were halfway through the second set when Clio heard music that wasn’t theirs—piercing aulos notes. A tune she recognized. Harps were too large and temperamental for a marching army, but Clio had completed the coursework all the same. This song bent the air to the bard’s will. It was usually used to help an arrow hit its mark. That meant there were archers here, and that meant—
The first arrow landed in the king’s throat. Clio’s ears still rang with the aulos song when the first screams registered.
The ballroom burst into a cacophony of panic. The heavy double doors that led to the palace and the balconies slammed shut, even as the partygoers stampeded for the exits. Sevandis and Meliferrans shrieked and sobbed in the same language, terror surpassing translation. One of the king’s guards knelt beside the fallen ruler, reaching for their syrinx, and the first desperate notes of a healing spell rang out before another arrow split through the song.
Where were they coming from? Clio searched the chaos. There, on an upper balcony—an aulos player and an archer, the latter nocking another arrow. But more were among the guests, with syrinxes, with blades, with more preparation for an attack than the king’s guards. The guards were outnumbered, and even as they reached for their own weapons, Clio could see they were about to be cut down. And once the guards were gone—Clio searched the room desperately and found Sabina, hidden behind a table near the stage, her face a pale mask of terror.
Marek began to play.
Clio was there the sunny spring afternoon Marek had played his composition for the triumvirate and earned the name Mirrorgleam. She knew his legendmark the way she knew his eyes were gray, the way she knew he came from a farming village in west Sevand. Like a fact from their theory textbooks. But watching Marek put his bow to strings with storm-bright eyes, she remembered, vividly, sneaking into one of the Conservatorio’s airy practice rooms together to eat the berry-pepper jam his mother sent with her last letter. They scooped it generously onto crackers and, when they ran out of crackers, stuck their fingers in the jar to get every last lick. After the jar was empty, she’d asked why he hadn’t kept it all for himself.
“It’s supposed to be shared,” he insisted, smiling at her with berry-stained lips. “It’s for family.”
That was when she understood what it meant for him, living in a second home so far from his first.
Clio knew how Marek Mirrorgleam earned his name, but she only understood now, seeing him play through the melee. When he performed for the triumvirate, his piece was a conjurer’s trick, creating playful sparkles in the room. Now, at a forceful forte, his song shredded the air, leaving dazzling tears in its wake. The ballroom glimmered like a lake’s surface at noon, bright and blinding.
Clio shut her eyes against the light. The roar of battle faltered, and Clio heard the scrambling escape as the survivors rushed for the door. Clio should run. No, she should help. She could accompany Marek, add to his spell. The harp was still on her shoulder. She knew how to find the notes she needed without looking. Her hands moved so, so slowly toward the strings.
“The princess!” Marek cried. “Clio—”
At first, Clio thought the unmusical snap was one of her harpstrings breaking. But no, her strings sang their ends, and the only music she heard were those sharp shrill harmonies and Marek’s bow scraping light into the room.
Then his bow screeched across the strings, and the power radiating from Marek twisted. The sparkles dimmed, and Clio could see again. In the blinking afterimage, Clio thought Marek was holding a second bow. But he didn’t keep playing. His grip on his violin slackened. He stumbled backward. Clio looked at the second bow, which had feathers at the end where the frog should be. A feathered bow?
When Marek dropped his violin, it hit the ground with a dissonant echo Clio heard through the battle noise. When Marek fell beside it, he made no sound. Blood blossomed on his waistcoat from the arrow in his chest, staining the lavender silk with deep red.
A new note, wavering and off-key, grated against Clio’s ears. Only when she ran out of breath did she realize it was her scream. Marek. Marek! Was she screaming his name or just screaming? It didn’t matter.
What now? What could she do alone? Hiding. A spell of disappearing only needed one musician. Clio put shaking fingers to harpstrings. Shaking, shaking, too much shaking. She couldn’t play. She’d make a mistake and be seen, or the power in the song would slip from her control, slip like Marek’s violin had dropped from his careful hand—
No. Breathe. It was just a performance. I have twenty-eight. Clio did not look at Marek. She took a breath, counted herself in, and her practiced fingers danced the brisk, sweet melody out of the harp.
Clio imagined herself disappearing into the song, as though she had called up a darting wind to whisk her image away from the attackers’ eyes. A silence descended on her, the room blurring away into a gray haze.
Hidden. Safe. Safe, for as long as she played. Clio added a second hand, the ornamentation building the song’s power, and directed part of her spell to where Sabina lay cowering. It enveloped the princess, adding her to the closed world of the spell.
The tremors that fled Clio’s hands had found a home in her voice, but she spoke through it. “Your Highness, you need to run.”
“Are you doing this? What is this?”
“It’s an invisibility spell. They won’t see or hear us as long as I keep playing.” Clio risked a glance at the princess. Her saffron dress was splattered with blood. “Are you hurt?”
“No. But—my sisters—my father—you have to help them.”
Clio couldn’t find the words to tell her it was too late for her family. They had to get out. How? The attackers were still in the ballroom, their presence a hazy stirring beyond the spell’s cocoon. She played on, trying to remember the ballroom. “There was a window behind me, right?”
“I think so. I—I can’t really see—”
“That’s part of the spell. I need you to get as close to that window as you can.”
“But my family—”
“I’m so sorry,” Clio said helplessly, her attention too consumed by the song to offer true comfort. “You have to go now.”
“Now, Sabina. Hurry.”
Sabina moved at an agonizing pace. Clio reached the coda of the invisibility song and started over. The blurs outside the spell moved away, then closer, and Clio understood. Before they fired their first arrow, the attackers saw the harp and recognized it for the weapon it could be in the right hands. They’d want to neutralize it, the way they had the violin. That it had vanished before their eyes did not clear it from their memories.
They were looking for her. Cold dread crept up Clio’s spine. The spell only made her invisible and inaudible to those outside it. They could still walk into her. She would be found, and if they found her—when they found her—
“Here!” Sabina cried at the moment Clio thought the shaking would overcome her.
She took a breath. One chance. “Be ready.”
Clio damped her strings. The invisibility fell away, and the world rushed back.
The attackers were feet from her. Marek lay close by, his gray eyes staring upward. Staring at Clio. Her heart raced staccato in her throat as she dragged her fingernail up her strings in a stinging glissando. At the highest octave, she tore an augmented fourth from the instrument.
All the glass in the room shattered. Shards rained from the gaslamps and window frames, tinkling like chimes. Sabina screamed, and even the attackers startled.
The closest, recovering from the shock, lunged for Clio with the short blade in their hand. Panic shot ice through her veins. What could she use? Her harp, every spell she knew was too slow to save her. Nothing else was close at hand except Marek’s violin, smashed on the marble.
The idea settled like a chord resolving. She had one thing left to protect—herself. Clio surged to her feet and heaved her harp off her shoulder. The twenty-pound instrument crashed onto the attacker. Clio ran for the broken window. Sabina climbed through ahead of her, the bright torch of a gown hiked up to her knees.
Wood splintered behind her, the remains of her harp joining the broken pieces of Marek’s violin on the dais. Footsteps thundered behind her, a drumbeat reaching a crescendo, and she pushed her burning legs for another stride—another—a leap and she was through the window, beside the princess, at the top of a grass-studded hill that dropped steeply into the sea.
Clio’s heart dropped. Nowhere left to run. No music to hide behind. No time. No plan. Marek would have a plan, but he was gone, and she had left him behind.
“What are you waiting for?” Sabina demanded, and before Clio could reply, the princess wrapped Clio’s hand in hers and threw them both into the moon-silvered water.