Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2011
Fiction: A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong by K. J. Parker
“My sixteenth concerto,” he said, smiling at me. I could just about see him. “In the circumstances, I was thinking of calling it the Unfinished.”
Well, of course. I’d never been in a condemned cell before. It was more or less what I’d imagined it would be like. There was a stone bench under the tiny window. Other than that, it was empty, as free of human artefacts as a stretch of open moorland. After all, what things does a man need if he’s going to die in six hours?
I was having difficulty with the words. “You haven’t—”
“No.” He shook his head. “I’m two-thirds of the way through the third movement, so under normal circumstances I’d hope to get that done by—well, you know. But they won’t let me have a candle, and I can’t write in the dark.” He breathed out slowly. He was savouring the taste of air, like an expert sampling a fine wine. “It’ll all be in here, though” he went on, lightly tapping the side of his head. “So at least I’ll know how it ends.”
I really didn’t want to ask, but time was running out. “You’ve got the main theme,” I said.
“Oh yes, of course. It’s on the leash, just waiting for me to turn it loose.”
I could barely speak. “I could finish it for you,” I said, soft and hoarse as a man propositioning his best friend’s wife. “You could hum me the theme, and—”
He laughed. Not unkindly, not kindly either. “My dear old friend,” I said, “I couldn’t possibly let you do that. Well,” he added, hardening his voice a little, “obviously I won’t be in any position to stop you trying. But you’ll have to make up your own theme.”
“But if it’s nearly finished—”
I could just about make out a slight shrug. “That’s how it’ll have to stay,” he said. “No offence, my very good and dear old friend, but you simply aren’t up to it. You haven’t got the—” He paused to search for the word, then gave up. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “We’ve known each other—what, ten years? Can it really be that long?”
“You were fifteen when you came to the Studium.”
“Ten years.” He sighed. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. But you—well, let’s put it this way. Nobody knows more about form and technique than you do, but you haven’t got wings. All you can do is run fast and flap your arms up and down. Which you do,” he added pleasantly, “superlatively well.”
“You don’t want me to help you,” I said.
“I’ve offended you.” Not the first time he’d said that, not by a long way. And always, in the past, I’d forgiven him instantly. “And you’ve taken the trouble to come and see me, and I’ve insulted you. I’m really sorry. I guess this place has had a bad effect on me.”
“Think about it,” I said, and I was so ashamed of myself; like robbing a dying man. “Your last work. Possibly your greatest.”
He laughed out loud. “You haven’t read it yet,” he said. “It could be absolute garbage for all you know.”
It could have been, but I knew it wasn’t. “Let me finish it for you,” I said. “Please. Don’t let it die with you. You owe it to the human race.”
I’d said the wrong thing. “To be brutally frank with you,” he said, in a light, slightly brittle voice, “I couldn’t give a twopenny fuck about the human race. They’re the ones who put me in here, and in six hours’ time they’re going to pull my neck like a chicken. Screw the lot of them.”
My fault. I’d said the wrong thing, and as a result, the music inside his head would stay there, trapped in there, until the rope crushed his windpipe and his brain went cold. So, naturally, I blamed him. “Fine,” I said. “If that’s your attitude, I don’t think there’s anything left to say.”
“Quite.” He sighed. I think he wanted me to leave. “It’s all a bit pointless now, isn’t it? Here,” he added, and I felt a sheaf of paper thrust against my chest. “You’d better take the manuscript. If it’s left here, there’s a fair chance the guards’ll use it for arsewipe.”
“Would it bother you if they did?”
He laughed. “I don’t think it would, to be honest,” he said. “But it’s worth money,” he went on, and I wish I could’ve seen his face. “Even incomplete,” he added. “It’s got to be worth a hundred angels to somebody, and I seem to recall I owe you a hundred and fifty, from the last time.”
I felt my fingers close around the pages. I didn’t want to take them, but I gripped so tight I could feel the paper crumple. I had in fact already opened negotiations with the Kapelmeister.
I stood up. “Goodbye,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t go blaming yourself for anything.” Absolution, so easy for him to give; like a duke scattering coins to the crowd from a balcony. Of course, the old duke used to have the coins heated in a brazier first. I still have little white scars on my fingertips. “I’ve always been the sole author of my own misfortunes. You always did your best for me.”
And failed, of course. “Even so,” I said, “I’m sorry. It’s such a waste.”
That made him laugh. “I wish,” he said, “that music could’ve been the most important thing in my life, like it should’ve been. But it was only ever a way of getting a bit of money.”
I couldn’t reply to that. The truth, which I’d always known since I first met him, was that if he’d cared about music, he couldn’t have written it so well. Now there’s irony.
“You’re going to finish it anyway.”
I stopped, a pace or so short of the door. “Not if you don’t want me to.”
“I won’t be here to stop you.”
“I can’t finish it,” I said. “Not without the theme.”
“Balls.” He clicked his tongue, that irritating sound I’ll always associate with him. “You’ll have a stab at it, I know you will. And for the rest of time, everybody will be able to see the join.”
“Goodbye,” I said, without looking round.
“You could always pass it off as your own,” he said.
I balled my fist and bashed on the door. All I wanted to do was get out of there as quickly as I could; because while I was in there with him, I hated him, because of what he’d just said. Because I’d deserved better of him than that, over the years. And because the thought had crossed my mind.
I waited till I got back to my rooms before I unfolded the sheaf of paper and looked at it.
At that point, I had been the professor of music at the Academy of the Invincible Sun for twenty-seven years. I was the youngest ever incumbent, and I fully intend to die in these rooms, though not for a very long time. I’d taught the very best. My own music was universally respected, and I got at least five major commissions every year for ducal and official occasions. I’d written six books on musical theory, all of which had become the standard works on the aspects of the subject they cover. Students came here from every part of the empire, thousands of miles in cramped ships and badly-sprung coaches, to hear me lecture on harmony and the use of form. The year before, they’d named one of the five modes after me.
When I’d read it, I looked at the fire, which the servant had lit while I was out. It would be so easy, I thought. Twenty sheets of paper don’t take very long to burn. But, as I think I told you, I’d already broached the subject with the Kapelmeister, who’d offered me five hundred angels, sight unseen, even unfinished. I knew I could get him up to eight hundred. I have no illusions about myself.
I didn’t try and finish the piece; not because I’d promised I wouldn’t, but because he escaped. To this day, nobody has the faintest idea how he managed it. All we know is that when the captain of the guard opened his cell to take him to the scaffold, he found a warder sitting on the bench with his throat cut, and no sign of the prisoner.
There was an enquiry, needless to say. I had a very uncomfortable morning at guard headquarters, where I sat on a bench in a corridor for three hours before making the acquaintance of a Captain Monomachus of the Investigative branch. He pointed out to me that I was a known associate of the prisoner, and that I’d been the last person to be alone with him before his escape. I replied that I’d been thoroughly and quite humiliatingly searched before I went in to see him, and there was no way I could’ve taken him in any kind of weapon.
“We aren’t looking for a weapon, as a matter of fact,” captain Monomachus replied. “We reckon he smashed his inkwell and used a shard of the glass. What we’re interested in is how he got clear of the barbican. We figure he must’ve had help.”
I looked the captain straight in the eye. I could afford to. “He always had plenty of friends,” I said.
For some reason, the captain smiled at that. “After you left him,” he said, “where did you go?”
“Straight back to my rooms in college. The porter can vouch for me, presumably. And my servant. He brought me a light supper shortly after I got home.”
Captain Monomachus prowled round me for a while after that, but since he had absolutely nothing against me, he had to let me go. As I was about to leave, he stopped me and said, “I understand there was a last piece.”
I nodded. “That’s right. That’s what I was reading, the rest of the evening.”
“Oh yes.” I paused, then added, “Possibly his best. Unfinished, of course.”
There was a slight feather of shyness about the question that followed. “Will there be a performance?”
I told him the date and the venue. He wrote them down on a scrap of paper, which he folded and put in his pocket.
The good captain was, in fact, the least of my problems. That same evening, I was summoned to the Master’s lodgings.
“Your protégé,” the Master said, pouring me a very small glass of the college brandy.
“My student,” I said. It’s very good brandy, as a matter of fact, but invariably wasted, because the only times I get to drink it are when I’m summoned into the presence, on which occasions I’m always so paralysed with fear that even good brandy has no effect whatsoever.
He sighed, sniffed his glass and sat down; or rather, he perched on the edge of the settle. He always likes to be higher than his guests. Makes swooping to strike easier, I imagine. “An amazingly gifted man,” he said. “You might go so far as to call him a genius, though that term is sadly overused these days, I find.” I waited, and a moment and a sip of brandy later, he continued; “But a fundamentally unstable character. I suppose we ought to have seen the warning signs.”
We meaning me; because the Master wasn’t appointed until the year after my poor student was expelled. “You know,” I said, trying to sound as though it was a conversation rather than an interrogation, “I sometimes wonder if in his case, the two are inseparable; the instability and the brilliance, I mean.”
The Master nodded. “The same essential characteristics that made him a genius also made him a murderer,” he said. “It’s a viable hypothesis, to be sure. In which case, the question must surely arise; can the one ever justify the other? The most sublime music, set against a man’s life.” He shrugged, a gesture for which his broad, sloping shoulders were perfectly suited. “I shall have to bear that one in mind for my Ethics tutorials. You could argue it quite well both ways, of course. After all, his music will live for ever, and the man he killed was the most dreadful fellow, by all accounts, a petty thief and a drunkard.” He paused, to give me time to agree. Even I knew better than that. Once it was clear I’d refused the bait, he said, “The important thing, I think, is to try and learn something from this tragic case.”
“Indeed,” I said, and nibbled at my brandy to give myself time. I’ve never fenced, but I believe that’s what fencers do; make time by controlling distance. So I held up my brandy glass and hid behind it as best I could.
“Warning signs,” he went on, “that’s what we need to look out for. These young people come here, they’re entrusted to our care at a particularly difficult stage in their development. Our duty doesn’t end with stuffing their heads full of knowledge. We need to adopt a more comprehensive pastoral approach. Don’t you agree?”
In the old duke’s time, they used to punish traitors by shutting them up in a cage with a lion. As an exquisite refinement of malice, they used to feed the lion to bursting point first. That way, it wasn’t hungry again for the best part of a day. I always found that very upsetting to think about. If I’m going to be torn apart, I want it to be over quickly. The Master and the old duke were students together, by the way. I believe they got on very well.
“Of course,” I said. “No doubt the Senate will let us have some guidelines in due course.”
I got out of there eventually, in one piece. Curiously enough, I didn’t start shaking until I was halfway across the quadrangle, on my way back to my rooms. I couldn’t tell you why encounters like that disturb me so much. After all, the worst the Master could do to me was dismiss me—which was bound to happen, sooner or later, because I only had qualified tenure, and I knew he thought of me as a closet Optimate. Which was, of course, entirely true. But so what? Unfortunately, the thought of losing my post utterly terrifies me. I know I’m too old to get another post anything like as good as this one, and such talent as I ever had has long since dissipated through overuse. I have doctorates and honorary doctorates in music enough to cover a wall, but I can’t actually play a musical instrument. I have a little money put by these days, but not nearly enough. I have never experienced poverty, but in the city you see it every day. I don’t have a particularly vivid imagination—anybody familiar with my music can attest to that—but I have no trouble at all imagining what it would be like to be homeless and hungry and cold in Perimadeia. I think about it all the time. Accordingly, the threat of my inevitable dismissal at some unascertained point in the future lies over my present like a cloud of volcanic ash, blotting out the sun, and I’m incapable of taking any pleasure in anything at all.
He will always be known by his name in religion, Subtilius of Bohec; but he was born Aimeric de Beguilhan, third son of a minor Northern squire, raised in the farmyard and the stables, destined for an uneventful career in the Ministry. When he came here, he had a place to read Logic, Literature and Rhetoric, and by his own account he’d never composed a bar of music in his life. In Bohec (I have no idea where it is), music consisted of tavern songs and painfully refined dances from the previous century; it featured in his life about as much as the sea, which is something like two hundred miles away in every direction. He first encountered real music in the Studium chapel, which is presumably why nearly all his early work was devotional and choral. When he transferred to the Faculty of Music, I introduced him to the secular instrumental tradition; I suppose that when I appear at last before the court of the Invincible Sun and whoever cross-examines me there asks me if there’s one thing I’ve done which has made the world a better place, that’ll be it. Without me, Subtilius would never have written for strings, or composed the five violin concertos, or the three polyphonic symphonies. But he’d already written the first of the Masses before I ever set eyes on him.
The murder was such a stupid business; though, looking back, I suppose it was more or less inevitable that something of the kind should have happened sooner or later. He always did have such a quick temper, fatally combined with a sharp tongue, an unfortunate manner and enough skill at arms to make him practically fearless. There was also the fondness for money—there was never quite enough money when he was growing up, and I know he was exceptionally sensitive about that—and the sort of amorality that often seems to go hand in hand with keen intelligence and an unsatisfactory upbringing. He was intelligent enough to see past the reasons generally advanced in support of obedience to the rules and the law, but lacking in any moral code of his own to take its place. Add to that youth, and overconfidence arising from the praise he’d become accustomed to as soon as he began to compose music, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Even now, I couldn’t tell you much about the man he killed. Depending on which account you go by, he was either an accomplice or a rival. In any event, he was a small-time professional thief, a thoroughly worthless specimen who would most assuredly have ended up on the gallows if Subtilius hadn’t stabbed him through the neck in the stable-yard of the Integrity and Honour in Foregate. Violent death is, I believe, no uncommon occurrence there, and he’d probably have got away with it had not one of the ostlers been a passionate admirer of his religious music, and therefore recognised him and been able to identify him to the Watch; an unfortunate consequence, I suppose, of the quite exceptionally broad appeal of Subtilius’ music. If I’d stabbed a man in a stable-yard, the chances of a devoted fan recognising me would’ve been too tiny to quantify, unless the ostler happened to be a fellow academic fallen on hard times.
I got back to my rooms, fumbled with the keys, dropped them—anybody passing would have thought I was drunk, although of course I scarcely touched a drop in those days; I couldn’t afford to, with the excise tax so high—finally managed to get the door open and fall into the room. It was dark, of course, and I spent quite some time groping for the tinder-box and the candle, and then I dropped the moss out of the box onto the floor and had to grope for that too. Eventually I struck a light, and used the candle to light the oil lamp. It was only then, as the light colonised the room, that I saw I wasn’t alone.
“Hello, professor,” said Subtilius.
My first thought—I was surprised at how quickly and practically I reacted—was the shutters. Mercifully, they were closed. In which case, he couldn’t have come in through the window—
He laughed. “It’s all right,” he said, “nobody saw me. I was extremely careful.”
Easy to say; easy to believe, but easy to be wrong. “How long have you been here?”
“I came in just after you left. You left the door unlocked.”
Quite right; I’d forgotten.
“I took the precaution of locking it for you,” he went on, “with the spare key you still keep in that ghastly pot on the mantelpiece. Look, why don’t you sit down before you fall over? You look awful.”
I went straight to the door and locked it. Not that I get many visitors, but I was in no mood to rely on the laws of probability. “What the hell are you doing here?”
He sighed, and stretched out his legs. I imagine it was what his father used to do, after a long day on the farm or following the hounds. “Hiding,” he said. “What do you think?”
“You can’t hide here.”
“Overjoyed to see you too.”
It was an entirely valid rebuke, so I ignored it. “Aimeric, you’re being utterly unreasonable. You can’t expect me to harbour a fugitive from justice—”
“Aimeric.” He repeated the word as though it had some kind of incantatory power. “You know, professor, you’re the only person who’s called me that since the old man died. Can’t say I ever liked the name, but it’s odd to hear it again after all these years. Listen,” he said, before I could get a word in, “I’m sorry if I scared the life out of you, but I need your help.”
I always did find him both irresistibly charming and utterly infuriating. His voice, for one thing. I suppose it’s my musician’s ear; I can tell you more about a man, where he’s from and how much money he’s got, from hearing him say two words than any mere visual clues. Subtilius had a perfect voice; consonants clear and sharp as a knife, vowels fully distinguished and immaculately expressed. You can’t learn to talk like that over the age of three. No matter how hard you try, if you start off with a provincial burr, like me, it’ll always bleed through sooner or later. You can only achieve that bell-like clarity and those supremely beautiful dentals and labials if you start learning them before you can walk. That’s where actors go wrong, of course. They can make themselves sound like noblemen after years of study so long as they stick to normal everyday conversational pitches. But if they try and shout, anyone with a trained ear can hear the northern whine or the southern bleat, obvious as a stain on a white sheet. Subtilius had a voice you’d have paid money to listen to, even if all he was doing was giving you directions to the Southgate, or swearing at a porter for letting the sludge get into the wine. That sort of perfection is, of course, profoundly annoying if you don’t happen to be true-born aristocracy. My father was a fuller and soap-boiler in Ap’Escatoy. My first job was riding with him on the cart collecting the contents of chamber pots from the inns in the early hours of the morning. I’ve spent forty years trying to sound like a gentleman, and these days I can fool everybody except myself. Subtilius was born perfect and never had to try.
“Where the hell,” I asked him, “have you been? The guard’s been turning the city upside down. How did you get out of the barbican? All the gates were watched.”
He laughed. “Simple,” he said. “I didn’t leave. Been here all the time, camping out in the clock tower.”
Well, of course. The Studium, as I’m sure you know, is built into the west wall of the barbican. Naturally they searched it, the same day he escaped, after which they concluded that he must’ve got past the gate somehow and made it down to the lower town. It wouldn’t have occurred to them to try the clock tower. Twenty years ago, an escaped prisoner hid up there, and when they found him, he was extremely dead. Nothing can survive in the bell-chamber when the clock strikes; the sheer pressure of sound would pulp your brain. Oh, I imagine a couple of guardsmen put their heads round inside the chamber when they knew it was safe, but they wouldn’t have made a thorough search, because everybody knows the story. But in that case—
“Why aren’t I dead?” He grinned at me. “Because the story’s a load of old rubbish. I always had my doubts about it, so I took the trouble to look up the actual records. The prisoner who hid out up there died of blood poisoning from a scratch he’d got climbing out of a broken window. The thing about the bells killing him was pure mythology. You know how people like to believe that sort of thing.” He gave me a delightful smile. “So they’ve been looking for me in Lower Town, have they? Bless them.”
Curiosity, presumably; the true scholar’s instinct, which he always had. But combined, I dare say, with the thought at the back of his mind that one day, a guaranteed safe hiding-place would come in useful. I wondered when he’d made his search in the archives; when he was fifteen, or seventeen, or twenty-one?
“I’m not saying it was exactly pleasant, mind,” he went on, “not when the bells actually struck. The whole tower shakes, did you know that? It’s a miracle it hasn’t collapsed. But I found that if I crammed spiders’ web into my ears—really squashed it down till no more would go in—it sort of deadened the noise to the point where it was bearable. And one thing there’s no shortage of up there is cobwebs.”
I’ve always been terrified of spiders. I’m sure he knew that.
“Fine,” I snapped at him; I was embarrassed with myself, because my first reaction was admiration. “So you killed a man and managed to stay free for three weeks. How very impressive. What have you been living on, for God’s sake? You should be thin as a rake.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t stay in there all the time,” he said. “Generally speaking, I made my excursions around noon and midnight.” When the bell tolls twelve times, there being a limit, presumably, to the defensive capacity of cobweb. “It’s amazing how much perfectly good food gets thrown out in the kitchens. You’re on the catering committee, you really ought to do something about it.”
Part of his genius, I suppose; to make his desperate escape and three weeks’ torment in the bell-tower sound like a student prank, just as he made writing the Seventh Mass seem effortless, something he churned out in an idle moment between hangovers. Perhaps the secret of sublime achievement really is not to try. But first, you have to check the archives, or learn the twelve major modulations of the Vesani mode, or be born into a family that can trace its pedigree back to Boamond.
“Well,” I said, standing up, “I’m sorry, but you’ve had all that for nothing. I’m going to have to turn you in. You do realise that.”
He just laughed at me. He knew me too well. He knew that if I’d really meant it, I’d have done it straight away, yelled for the guard at the top of my voice instead of panicking about the shutters. He knew it; I didn’t, not until I heard him laugh. Until then, I thought I was deadly serious. But he was right, of course. “Sure,” he said. “You go ahead.”
I sat down again. I hated him so much, at that moment.
“How’s the concerto coming along?” he asked.
For a moment, I had no idea what he was talking about. Then I remembered; his last concerto, or that’s what it should have been. The manuscript he gave me in the condemned cell. “You said not to finish it,” I told him.
“Good Lord.” He was amused. “I assumed you’d have taken no notice. Well, I’m touched. Thank you.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked him.
“I need money,” he replied, and somehow his voice contrived to lose a proportion of its honeyed charm. “And clothes, and shoes, things like that. And someone to leave a door open at night. That sort of thing.”
“I can’t,” I said.
He sighed. “You can, you know. What you mean is, you don’t want to.”
“I haven’t got any money.”
He gave me a sad look. “We’re not talking about large sums,” he said. “It’s strictly a matter of context. Enough to get me out of town and on a ship, that’s all. That’s wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.” He paused—I think it was for effect—and added, “I’m not asking for a present. I do have something to sell.”
There was a moment when my entire covering of skin went cold. I could guess. What else would he have to sell, apart from—?
“Three weeks in the bloody bell tower,” he went on, and now he sounded exactly like his old self. “Nothing to do all day. Fortunately, on my second trip to the trash cans I passed an open door, some first-year, presumably, who hasn’t learned about keeping his door locked. He’d got ink, pens and half a ream of good paper. Don’t suppose he’ll make that mistake again.”
I love music. It’s been my life. Music has informed my development, given me more pleasure than I can possibly quantify or qualify; it’s also taken me from the fullers’ yard at Ap’Escatoy to the Studium, and kept me here, so far at least. Everything I am, everything I have, is because of music.
For which I am properly grateful. The unfortunate part of it is, there’s never been quite enough. Not enough music in me; never enough money. The pleasure, emotional and intellectual, is one thing. The money, however, is another. Almost enough—I’m not a luxurious sort of person, I don’t spend extravagantly, but most of it seems to go on overheads; college bills, servants’ wages, contributions to this and that fund, taxes, of course, all that sort of nonsense—but never quite enough to let me feel comfortable. I live in a constant state of anxiety about money, and inevitably that anxiety has a bad effect on my relationship with music. And the harder I try, the less the inspiration flows. When I don’t need it, when I’m relatively comfortable and the worry subsides for a while, a melody will come to me quite unexpectedly and I’ll write something really quite good. But when I’m facing a deadline, or when the bills are due and my purse is empty; when I need money, the inspiration seems to dry up completely, and all I can do is grind a little paste off the salt-block of what I’ve learned, or try and dress up something old, my own or someone else’s, and hope to God nobody notices. At times like that, I get angry with music. I even imagine—wrongly, of course—that I wish I was back in the fullers’ yard. But that’s long gone, of course. My brother and I sold it when my father died, and the money was spent years ago, so I don’t even have that to fall back on. Just music.
“You’ve written something,” I said.
“Oh yes.” From inside his shirt he pulled a sheaf of paper. “A symphony, in three movements and a coda.” I suppose I must have reached out instinctively, because he moved back gently. “Complete, you’ll be relieved to hear. All yours, if you want it.”
All my life I’ve tried to look civilised and refined, an intellect rather than a physical body. But when I want something and it’s so close I can touch it, I sweat. My hands get clammy, and I can feel the drops lifting my hair where it touches my forehead. “A symphony,” was all I could say.
He nodded. “My fourth. I think you’re going to like it.”
“All mine if I want it.”
“Ah.” He did the mock frown. “All yours if you pay for it. Your chance to be an illustrious patron of the arts, like the Eberharts.”
I stared at him. All mine. “Don’t be so bloody stupid,” I yelled. “I can’t use it. It’d be useless to me.”
He pretended to be upset. “You haven’t even looked at it.”
“Think about it,” I said, low and furious. “You’re on the run from the Watch, with a death sentence against your name. I suddenly present a brand new Subtilius symphony. It’d be obvious. Any bloody fool would know straight away that I’d helped you escape.”
He nodded. “I see your point,” he said mildly. “But you could say it’s an old piece, something I wrote years ago, and you’ve been hanging on to it.”
“Is that likely?”
“I guess not.” He smiled at me, a sunrise-over-the-bay smile, warm and bright and humiliating. “So I guess you’ll just have to pretend you wrote it, won’t you?”
It was like a slap across the face, insulting and unexpected. “Please,” I said. “Don’t even suggest it. You know perfectly well I could never pass off your work as my own. Everybody would know after the first couple of bars.”
Then he smiled again, and I knew he was playing me. He’d led me carefully to a certain place where he wanted me to be. “That won’t be a problem,” he said. “You see, I’ve written it in your style.”
Maybe shock and anger had made me more than usually stupid. It took a moment; and then I realised what he’d just said.
“Hence,” he went on, “the symphonic form, which I’ve never really cared for, but it’s sort of like your trademark, isn’t it? And I’ve used the tetrachord of Mercury throughout, even quoted a bar or two of the secondary theme from your Third. Here,” he said, and handed me a page—just the one, he was no fool—from the sheaf.
I didn’t want to take it. I swear, it felt like deliberately taking hold of a nettle and squeezing it into your palm. I looked down.
I can read music very quickly and easily, as you’d expect. One glance and it’s there in my head. It only took me a couple of heartbeats to know what I was holding. It was, of course, a masterpiece. It was utterly brilliant, magnificent, the sort of music that defines a place and a time for all time. It soared inside me as I looked at it, filling and choking me, as though someone had shoved a bladder down my throat and started blowing it up. It was in every way perfect; and I could have written it.
“Well?” he said.
Let me qualify that. No, I couldn’t have written it, not in a million years, not if my life depended on it; not even if, in some moment of absolute peace and happiness, the best inspiration of my entire life had lodged inside my head, and the circumstances had been so perfectly arranged that I was able to take advantage of it straight away, while it was fresh and whole in my mind (which never ever happens, of course). I could never have written it; but it was in my style, so exactly captured that anybody but me would believe it was my work. It wasn’t just the trademark flourishes and periods, the way I use the orchestra, the mathematical way I build through intervals and changes of key. A parody could’ve had all those. The music I was looking at had been written by someone who understood me perfectly—better than I’ve ever understood myself—and who knew exactly what I wanted to say, although I’ve always lacked the skill, and the power.
“Well,” he said. “Do you like it?”
As stupid a question as I’ve ever heard in my life, and of course I didn’t reply. I was too angry, heartbroken, ashamed.
“I was quite pleased with the cadenza,” he went on. “I got the idea from that recurring motif in your Second, but I sort of turned it through ninety degrees and stuck a few feathers in it.”
I’ve never been married, of course, but I can imagine what it must be like, to come home unexpectedly and find your wife in bed with another man. It’d be the love that’d fill you with hate. Oh, how I hated Subtilius at that moment. And imagine how you’d feel if you and your wife had never been able to have kids, and you found out she was pregnant by another man.
“It’s got to be worth money,” I heard him say. “Just the sort of thing the duke would like.”
He always had that knack, did Subtilius. The ability to take the words out of the mouth of the worst part of me, the part I’d cheerfully cut out with a knife in cold blood if only I knew where in my body it’s located. “Well?” he said.
When I was nineteen years old, my father and my elder brother and I were in the cart—I was back home for the holidays, helping out on the rounds—and we were driving out to the old barns where my father boiled the soap. The road runs along the top of a ridge, and when it rains, great chunks of it get washed away. It had been raining heavily the day before, and by the time we turned the sharp bend at the top it was nearly dark. I guess my father didn’t see where the road had fallen away. The cart went over. I was sitting in the back and was thrown clear. Father and Segibert managed to scramble clear just as the cart went over; Segibert caught hold of Dad’s ankle, and Dad grabbed onto a rock sticking out of the ground. I managed to get my hand round his wrist, and for a moment we were stuck there. I’ve never been strong, and I didn’t have the strength to pull them up, not so much as an inch. All I could do was hold on, and I knew that if I allowed myself to let his hand slip even the tiniest bit, I’d lose him and both of them, the two people I loved most in the whole world, would fall and die. But in that moment, when all the thoughts that were ever possible were running through my head, I thought; if they do both fall, and they’re both killed, then when we sell the business, it’d be just me, best part of three hundred angels, and what couldn’t I do with that sort of money?
Then Segibert managed to get a footing, and between them they hauled and scrambled and got up next to me on the road, and soon we were all in floods of tears, and Dad was telling me I’d saved his life, and he’d never forget it. And I felt so painfully guilty, as though I’d pushed them over deliberately.
Well, I thought. Yes. Worth a great deal of money.
“More the old duke’s sort of thing,” he was saying, “he’d have loved it, he was a man of taste and discrimination. Compared with him, young Sighvat’s a barbarian. But even he’d like this, I’m sure.”
A barbarian. The old duke used to punish debtors by giving them a head start and then turning his wolfhounds loose. Last year, Sighvat abolished the poll tax and brought in a minimum wage for farm workers. But the old duke had a better ear for music, and he was an extremely generous patron. “I can’t,” I said.
“Of course you can,” Subtilius said briskly. “Now then, I was thinking in terms of three hundred. That’d cover my expenses.”
“I haven’t got that sort of money.”
He looked at me. “No,” he said, “I don’t suppose you have. Well, what have you got?”
“I can give you a hundred angels.”
Which was true. Actually, I had a hundred and fifty angels in the wooden box under my bed. It was the down payment I’d taken from the Kapelmeister for the Unfinished Concerto, so properly speaking it was Subtilius’ money anyway. But I needed the fifty. I had bills to pay.
“That’ll have to do, then,” he said, quite cheerfully. “It’ll cover the bribes and pay for a fake passport, I’ll just have to steal food and clothes. Can’t be helped. You’re a good man, professor.”
There was still time. I could throw the door open and yell for a porter. I was still innocent of any crime, against the State or myself. Subtilius would go back to the condemned cell, I could throw the manuscript on the fire, and I could resume my life, my slow and inevitable uphill trudge towards poverty and misery. Or I could call the porter and not burn the music. What exactly would happen to me if I was caught assisting an offender? I couldn’t bear prison, I’d have to kill myself first; but would I get the chance? Bail would be out of the question, so I’d be remanded pending trial. Highly unlikely that the prison guards would leave knives, razors or poison lying about in my cell for me to use. People hang themselves in jail, they twist ropes out of bedding. But what if I made a mess of it and ended up paralysed for life? Even if I managed to stay out of prison, a criminal conviction would mean instant dismissal and no chance of another job. But that wouldn’t matter, if I could keep the music. We are, the Invincible Sun be praised, a remarkably, almost obsessively cultured nation, and music is our life. No matter what its composer had done, work of that quality would always be worth a great deal of money, enough to retire on and never have to compose another note as long as I live—
I was a good man, apparently. He was grateful to me, for swindling him. I was a good man, because I was prepared to pass off a better man’s work as my own. Because I was willing to help a murderer escape justice.
“Where will you go?” I asked.
He grinned at me. “You really don’t want to know,” he said. “Let’s just say, a long way away.”
“You’re famous,” I pointed out. “Everywhere. Soon as you write anything, they’ll know it’s you. They’ll figure out it was me who helped you escape.”
He yawned. He looked very tired; fair enough, after three weeks in a clock tower, with eight of the biggest bells in the empire striking the quarter hours inches from his head. He couldn’t possibly have slept for more than ten minutes. “I’m giving up music,” he said. “This is definitely and categorically my last ever composition. You’re quite right; the moment I wrote anything, I’d give myself away. There’s a few places the empire hasn’t got extradition treaties with, but I’d rather be dead than live there. So it’s simple, I won’t write any more music. After all,” he added, his hand over his mouth like he’d been taught as a boy, “there’s lots of other things I can do. All music’s ever done is land me in trouble.”
What, when all is said and done, all the conventional garbage is put on one side and you’re alone inside your head with yourself, do you actually believe in? That’s a question that has occupied a remarkably small percentage of my attention over the years. Strange, since I spend a fair proportion of my working time composing odes, hymns and masses to the Invincible Sun. Do I believe in Him? To be honest, I’m not sure. I believe in the big white disc in the sky, because it’s there for all to see. I believe that there’s some kind of supreme authority, something along the lines of His Majesty the Emperor only bigger and even more remote, who theoretically controls the universe. What that actually involves, I’m afraid, I couldn’t tell you. Presumably He regulates the affairs of great nations, enthrones and deposes emperors and kings—possibly princes and dukes, though it’s rather more plausible that He delegates that sort of thing to some kind of divine solar civil service—and intervenes in high-profile cases of injustice and blasphemy whenever a precedent needs to be set or a point of law clarified. Does He deal with me personally, or is He even aware of my existence? On balance, probably not. He wouldn’t have the time.
In which case, if I have a file at all, I assume it’s on the desk of some junior clerk, along with hundreds, thousands, millions of others. I can’t say that that thought bothers me too much. I’d far rather be left alone, in peace and quiet. As far as I’m aware, my prayers—mostly for money, occasionally for the life or recovery from illness of a relative or friend—have never been answered, so I’m guessing that divine authority works on more or less the same lines as its civilian equivalent; don’t expect anything good from it, and you won’t be disappointed. Just occasionally, though, something happens which can only be divine intervention, and then my world-view and understanding of the nature of things gets all shaken up and reshaped. I explain it away by saying that really it’s something primarily happening to someone else—someone important, whose file is looked after by a senior administrative officer or above—and I just happen to be peripherally involved and therefore indirectly affected.
A good example is Subtilius’ escape from the barbican. At the time it felt like my good luck. On mature reflection I can see that it was really his good luck, in which I was permitted to share, in the same way that the Imperial umbrella-holder also gets to stay dry when it rains.
It couldn’t have been simpler. I went first, to open doors and make sure nobody was watching. He followed on, swathed in the ostentatious cassock and cowl of a Master Chorister—purple with ermine trimmings, richly embroidered with gold thread and seed pearls; anywhere else you’d stand out a mile, but in the barbican, choristers are so commonplace they’re practically invisible. Luck intervened by making it rain, so that it was perfectly natural for my chorister companion to have his hood up, and to hold the folds tight around his face and neck. He had my hundred angels in his pockets in a pair of socks, to keep the coins from clinking.
The sally-port in the barbican wall, opening onto the winding stair that takes you down to Lower Town the short way, is locked at nightfall, but faculty officers like me all have keys. I opened the gate and stepped aside to let him pass.
“Get rid of the cassock as soon as you can,” I said. “I’ll report it stolen first thing in the morning, so they’ll be looking for it.”
He nodded. “Well,” he said, “thanks for everything, professor. I’d just like to say—”
“Get the hell away from here,” I said, “before anyone sees us.”
There are few feelings in life quite as exhilarating as getting away with something. Mainly, I guess, if you’re someone like me, it’s because you never really expected to. Add to the natural relief, therefore, the unaccustomed pleasure of winning. Then, since you can’t win anything without having beaten someone first, there’s the delicious feeling of superiority, which I enjoy for the same reason that gourmets prize those small grey truffles that grow on the sides of dead birch trees; not because it’s nourishing or tasty, but simply because it’s so rare. Of course, it remained to be seen whether I had actually got away with aiding and abetting a murderer after the fact and assisting a fugitive. There was still a distinct chance that Subtilius would be picked up by the watch before he could get out of the city, in which case he might very well reveal the identity of his accomplice, if only to stop them hitting him. But, I told myself, that’d be all right. I’d simply tell them he’d burgled my rooms and stolen the money and the cassock, and they wouldn’t be able to prove otherwise. I told myself that; I knew perfectly well, of course, that if they did question me, my nerve would probably shatter like an eggshell, and the only thing that might stop me from giving them a comprehensive confession was if I was so incoherent with terror I couldn’t speak at all. I think you’d have to be quite extraordinarily brave to be a hardened criminal; much braver than soldiers who lead charges or stand their ground against the cavalry. I could just about imagine myself doing that sort of thing, out of fear of the sergeant-major, but doing something illegal literally paralyses me with fear. And yet courage, as essential to the criminal as his jemmy or his cosh, is held to be a virtue.
The first thing I did when I got back to my room was to light the lamp and open the shutters, because I never close them except when it snows, and people who knew me might wonder what was going on if they saw them shut. Then I poured myself a small brandy—it would’ve been a large one, but the bottle was nearly empty—and sat down with the lamp so close to me that I could feel it scorching my face, and spread out the manuscript, and read it.
They say that when we first sent out ships to trade with the savages in Rhoezen, we packed the holds full of the sort of things we thought primitive people would like—beads, cheap tin brooches, scarves, shirts, buckles plated so thin the silver practically wiped off on your fingers, that sort of thing. And mirrors. We thought they’d love mirrors. In fact, we planned on buying enough land to grow enough corn to feed the City with a case of hand-mirrors, one angel twenty a gross from the Scharnel Brothers.
We got that completely wrong. The captain of the first ship to make contact handed out a selection of his trade goods by way of free samples. Everything seemed to be going really well until they found the mirrors. They didn’t like them. They threw them on the ground and stamped on them, then attacked our people with spears and slingshots, until the captain had to fire a cannon just so as to get his men back off the beach in one piece. Later, when he’d managed to capture a couple of specimens and he interrogated them through an interpreter, he found out what the problem was. The mirrors, the prisoners told him, were evil. They sucked your soul out through your eyes and imprisoned it under the surface of the dry-hard-water. Stealing the souls of harmless folk who’d only wanted to be friendly to strangers was not, in their opinion, civilised behaviour. Accordingly, we weren’t welcome in their country.
When I first heard the story, I thought the savages had over-reacted somewhat. When I’d finished reading Subtilius’ symphony, written in my style, I was forced to revise my views. Stealing a man’s soul is one of the worst things you can do to him, and it hardly matters whether you shut it up in a mirror or thirty pages of manuscript. It’s not something you can ever forgive.
And then, after I’d sat still and quiet for a while, until the oil in the lamp burned away and I was left entirely alone in the dark, I found myself thinking; yes, but nobody will ever know. All I had to do was sit down and copy it out in my own handwriting, then burn the original, and there would be no evidence, no witnesses. You hear a lot from the philosophers and the reverend Fathers about truth, about how it must inevitably prevail, how it will always burst through, like the saplings that grow up in the cracks in walls until their roots shatter the stone. It’s not true. Subtilius wouldn’t ever tell anybody (and besides, it was only a matter of time before he was caught and strung up, and that’d be him silenced for ever). I sure as hell wasn’t going to say anything. If there’s a truth and nobody knows it, is it still true? Or is it like a light burning in a locked, shuttered house that nobody will ever get to see?
I’d know it, of course. I did consider that. But then I thought about the money.
The debut of my Twelfth Symphony took place at the collegiate temple on Ascension Day, AUC 775, in the presence of his highness Duke Sighvat II, the duchess and dowager duchess, the Archimandrite of the Studium and a distinguished audience drawn from the Court, the university and the best of good society. It was, I have to say, a triumph. The duke was so impressed that he ordered a command performance at the palace. Less prestigious but considerably more lucrative was the licence I agreed to with the Kapelmeister; a dozen performances at the Empire Hall at a thousand angels a time, with the rights reverting to me thereafter. Subsequently I made similar deals with kapelmeisters and court musicians and directors of music from all over the empire, taking care to reserve the sheet music rights, which I sold to the Court stationers for five thousand down and a five per cent royalty. My tenure at the University was upgraded to a full Fellowship, which meant I could only be got rid of by a bill of attainder passed by both houses of the Legislature and ratified by the duke, and then only on grounds of corruption or gross moral turpitude; my stipend went up from three hundred to a thousand a year, guaranteed for life, with bonuses should I ever condescend to do any actual teaching. Six months after the first performance, as I sat in my rooms flicking jettons about on my counting-board, I realised that I need never work again. Quite suddenly, all my troubles were over.
On that, and what followed, I base my contention that there is no justice; that the Invincible Sun, if He’s anything more than a ball of fire in the sky, has no interest and does not interfere in the life and fortunes of ordinary mortals, and that morality is simply a confidence trick practised on all of us by the State and its officers to keep us from making nuisances of ourselves. For a lifetime of devotion to music, I got anxiety, misery and uncertainty. For two crimes, one against the State and one against myself, I was rewarded with everything I’d ever wanted. Explain that, if you can.
Everything? Oh yes. To begin with, I dreaded the commissions that started to flood in from the duke, other dukes and princes, even the Imperial court; because I knew I was a fraud, that I’d never be able to write anything remotely as good as the Symphony, and it was only a matter of time before someone figured out what had actually happened and soldiers arrived at my door to arrest me. But I sat down, with a lamp and a thick mat of paper; and it occurred to me that, now I didn’t need the money, all I had to do was refuse the commissions—politely, of course—and nobody could touch me. I didn’t have to write a single note if I didn’t want to. It was entirely up to me.
Once I’d realised that, I started to write. And, knowing that it really didn’t matter, I hardly bothered to try. The less I tried, the easier it was to find a melody (getting a melody out of me was always like pulling teeth). Once I’d got that, I simply let it rattle about in my head for a while, and wrote down the result. Once I’d filled the necessary number of pages, I signed my name at the top and sent it off. I didn’t care, you see. If they didn’t like it, they knew what they could do.
From time to time, to begin with at least, it did occur to me to wonder, is this stuff any good? But that raises the question; how the hell does anybody ever know? If the criterion is the reaction of the audience, or the sums of money offered for the next commission, I just kept getting better. That was, of course, absurd. Even I could see that. But no; my audiences and my critics insisted that each new work was better than its predecessors (though the Twelfth Symphony was the piece that stayed in the repertoires, and the later masterpieces sort of came and went; not that I gave a damn). A cynic would argue that once I’d become a great success, nobody dared to criticise my work for fear of looking a fool; the only permitted reaction was ever increasing adulation. Being a cynic myself, I favoured that view for a while. But, as the success continued and the money flowed and more and more music somehow got written, I began to have my doubts. All those thousands of people, I thought, they can’t all be self-deluded. There comes a point when you build up a critical mass, beyond which people sincerely believe. That’s how religions are born, and how criteria change. By my success, I’d redefined what constitutes beautiful music. If it sounded like the sort of stuff I wrote, people were prepared to believe it was beautiful. After all, beauty is only a perception—the thickness of an eyebrow, very slight differences in the ratio between length and width of a nose or a portico or a colonnade. Tastes evolve. People like what they’re given.
Besides, I came to realise, the Twelfth was mine; to some extent at least. After all, the style Subtilius had borrowed was my style, which I’d spent a lifetime building. And if he had the raw skill, the wings, I’d been his teacher; without me, who was to say he’d ever have risen above choral and devotional works and embraced the orchestra? At the very least it was a collaboration, in which I could plausibly claim to be the senior partner. And if the doors are locked and the shutters are closed, whose business is it whether there’s a light burning inside? You’d never be able to find out without breaking and entering, which is a criminal offence.
Even so, I began making discreet enquiries. I could afford the best, and I spared no expense. I hired correspondents in all the major cities and towns of the empire to report back to me about notable new compositions and aspiring composers—I tried to pay for this myself, but the university decided that it constituted legitimate academic research and insisted on footing the bill. Whenever I got a report that hinted at the possibility of Subtilius, I sent off students to obtain a written score or sit in the concert hall and transcribe the notes. I hired other, less reputable agents to go through the criminal activity reports, scrape up acquaintance with watch captains, and waste time in the wrong sort of inns, fencing-schools, bear gardens and livery stables. I was having to tread a fine line, of course. The last thing I wanted was for the watch to reopen their file or remember the name Subtilius, or Aimeric de Beguilhan, so I couldn’t have descriptions or likenesses circulated. I didn’t regard that as too much of a handicap, however. Sooner or later, I firmly believed, if he was still alive, the music would break out and he’d give himself away. It wouldn’t be the creative urge that did for him; it’d be that handmaiden of the queen of the Muses, a desperate and urgent need for money, that got Subtilius composing again. No doubt he’d do his best to disguise himself. He’d try writing street ballads, or pantomime ballets, secure in the belief that that sort of thing was beneath the attention of academic musicians. But it could only be a matter of time. I knew his work, after all, in ways nobody else ever possibly could. I could spot his hand in a sequence of intervals, a modulation or key shift, the ghost of a flourish, the echo of a dissonance. As soon as he put pen to paper, I felt sure, I’d have him.
I was invited to lecture at the University of Baudoin. I didn’t want to go—I’ve always hated travelling—but the marquis was one of my most enthusiastic patrons, and they were offering a thousand angels for an afternoon’s work. Oddly enough, affluence hadn’t diminished my eagerness to earn money. I guess that no matter how much I had, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to add just a bit more, to be on the safe side. I wrote back accepting the invitation.
When I got there (two days in a coach; misery) I found they’d arranged a grand recital of my work for the day after the lecture. I couldn’t very well turn round and tell them I was too busy to attend; also, the Baudoin orchestra was at that time reckoned to be the second or third best in the world, and I couldn’t help being curious about how my music would sound, played by a really first-class band. Our orchestra in Perimadeia rates very highly on technical skill, but they have an unerring ability to iron the joy out of pretty well anything. I fixed up about the rights with the kapelmeister, thereby doubling my takings for the trip, and told them I’d be honoured and delighted to attend.
The lecture went well. They’d put me in the chapter-house of the Ascendency Temple—not the world’s best acoustic, but the really rather fine stained-glass windows are so artfully placed that if you lecture around noon, as I did, and you stand on the lectern facing the audience, you’re bathed all over in the most wonderful red and gold light, so that it looks like you’re on fire. I gave them two hours on diatonic and chromatic semitones in the Mezentine diapason (it’s something I feel quite passionate about, but they know me too well in Perimadeia and stopped listening years ago) and I can honestly say I had them in the palm of my hand. Afterwards, the marquis got up and thanked me—as soon as he joined me on the podium, the sun must’ve come out from behind a cloud or something, because the light through the windows suddenly changed from red to blue, and instead of burning, we were drowning—and then the provost of the university presented me with an honorary doctorate, which was nice of him, and made a long speech about integrity in the creative arts. The audience got a bit restive, but I was getting paid for being there, so I didn’t mind a bit.
There was a reception afterwards; good food and plenty of wine. I must confess I don’t remember much about it.
I enjoyed the recital, in spite of a nagging headache I’d woken up with and couldn’t shift all day. Naturally, they played the Twelfth; that was the whole of the first half. I wasn’t sure I liked the way they took the slow movement, but the finale was superb, it really did sprout wings and soar. The second half was better still. They played two of my Vesani horn concertos and a couple of temple processionals, and there were times when I found myself sitting bolt upright in my seat, asking myself, did I really write that? It just goes to show what a difference it makes, hearing your stuff played by a thoroughly competent, sympathetic orchestra. At one point I was so caught up in the music that I couldn’t remember what came next, and the denouement—the solo clarinet in the Phainomai—took me completely by surprise and made my throat tighten. I thought, I wrote that, and I made a mental note of that split second, like pressing a flower between the pages of a book, for later.
It was only when the recital was over, and the conductor was taking his bow, that I saw him. At first, I really wasn’t sure. It was just a glimpse of a turned-away head, and when I looked again I’d lost him in the sea of faces. I told myself I was imagining things, and then I saw him again. He was looking straight at me.
There was supposed to be another reception, but I told them I was feeling ill, which wasn’t exactly a lie. I went back to the guest suite. There wasn’t a lock or a bolt on the door, so I wedged the back of a chair under the handle.
While I’d been at the recital, they’d delivered a whole load of presents. People give me things these days, now that I can afford to buy anything I want. True, the gifts I tend to receive are generally things I’d never buy for myself, because I have absolutely no need for them, and because I do have a certain degree of taste. On this occasion, the marquis had sent me a solid gold dinner service (for a man who, most evenings, eats alone in his rooms off a tray on his knees), a complete set of the works of Aurelianus, ornately bound in gilded calf and too heavy to lift, and a full set of Court ceremonial dress. The latter item consisted of a bright red frock coat, white silk knee breeches, white silk stockings, shiny black shoes with jewelled buckles, and a dress sword.
I know everything I want to know about weapons, which is nothing at all. When I first came to the university, my best friend challenged another friend of ours to a duel. It was about some barmaid. Duelling was the height of fashion back then, and I was deeply hurt not to be chosen as a second (later, I found out it was because they’d chosen a time they knew would clash with my Theory tutorial, and they didn’t want me to have to skip it). They fought with smallswords in the long meadow behind the School of Logic. My best friend died instantly; his opponent lingered for a day or so and died screaming, from blood poisoning. If that was violence, I thought, you can have it.
So, I know nothing about swords, except that gentlemen are allowed to wear them in the street; from which I assumed that a gentleman’s dress sword must be some kind of pretty toy. In spite of which, I picked up the marquis’ present, put on my reading glasses and examined it under the lamp.
It was pretty enough, to be sure, if you like that sort of thing. The handle—I don’t know the technical terms—was silver, gilded in places, with a pastoral scene enamelled on the inside of the plate thing that’s presumably designed to protect your hand. The blade, though, was in another key altogether. It’s always hidden by the scabbard, isn’t it, so I figured it’d just be a flat, blunt rod. Not so. It was about three feet long, tapering, triangular in section, so thin at the end it was practically a wire but both remarkably flexible and surprisingly stiff at the same time, and pointed like a needle, brand new from the paper packet. I rested the tip on a cushion and pressed gently. It went through it and out the other side as though the cloth wasn’t there.
I imagined myself explaining to the watch, no, the palace guard, they wouldn’t have the ordinary watch investigate a death in the palace. You know he was a wanted criminal? Quite so, a convicted murderer. He killed a man, then killed a guard escaping from prison. He was my student, years ago, before he went to the bad. I don’t know how he got in here, but he wanted money. When I refused, he said he’d have to kill me. There was a struggle. I can’t actually remember how the sword came to be in my hand, I suppose I must’ve grabbed it at some point. All I can remember is him lying there, dead. And then the guard captain would look at me, serious but reassuring, and tell me that it sounded like a straightforward case of self-defence, and by the sound of it, the dead man was no great loss anyhow. I could imagine him being more concerned about the breach of security—a desperate intruder getting into the guest wing—than the possibility that the honorary doctor of music, favorite composer of the marquis, had deliberately murdered somebody.
The thought crossed my mind. After all, nobody would ever know. Once again, there’d be no witnesses. Who could be bothered to break into a locked house on the offchance that there might be a candle burning behind the closed shutters?
I waited, with the sword across my knees, all night. He didn’t come.
Instead, he caught up with me at an inn in the mountains on my way home; a much more sensible course of action, and what I should have expected.
I was fast asleep, and something woke me. I opened my eyes to find the lamp lit, and Subtilius sitting in a chair beside the bed, looking at me. He gave the impression that I’d been dangerously ill, and he’d refused to leave my bedside.
“Hello, professor,” he said.
The sword was in my trunk, leaning up against the wall on the opposite side of the room. “Hello, Aimeric,” I said. “You shouldn’t be here.”
He grinned. “I shouldn’t be anywhere,” he said. “But what the hell.”
I couldn’t see a weapon; no knife or sword. “You’re looking well,” I said, which was true. He’d filled out since I saw him last. He’d been a skinny, sharp-faced boy, always making me think of an opened knife carried in a pocket. Now he was broad-shouldered and full-faced, and his hair was just starting to get thin on top. He had an outdoor tan, and his fingernails were dirty.
“You’ve put on weight,” he said. “Success agrees with you, obviously.”
“It’s good to see you again.”
“No it’s not,” he said, still grinning. “Well, not for you, anyway. But I thought I’d drop in and say hello. I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the recital.”
I thought about what that meant. “Of course,” I said. “You’ll never have heard it played.”
He looked as though he didn’t understand, for a moment. Then he laughed, “Oh, you mean the symphony,” he said. “Not a bit of it. They play it all the time here.” He widened the grin. He’d lost a front tooth since I saw him last. “You want to get on to that,” he said. “Clearly, you’re missing out on royalties.”
“About the money,” I said, but he gave me a reproachful little frown, as though I’d made a distasteful remark in the presence of ladies. “Forget about that,” he said. “Besides, I don’t need money these days. I’ve done quite well for myself, in a modest sort of a way.”
“Music?” I had to ask.
“Good Lord, no. I haven’t written a note since I saw you last. Might as well have posters made up and nail them to the temple doors. No, I’m in the olive business. I won a beat-up old press in a chess game shortly after I got here, and now I’ve got seven mills running full-time in the season, and I’ve just bought forty acres of mature trees in the Santespe valley. If everything goes to plan, in five years’ time every jar of olive oil bought and sold in this country will have made me sixpence. It’s a wonderful place, this, you can do anything you like. Makes Perimadeia look like a morgue. And the good thing is,” he went on, leaning back a little in his chair, “I’m a foreigner, I talk funny. Which means nobody can pinpoint me exactly, the moment I open my mouth, like they can at home. I can be whoever the hell I want. It’s fantastic.”
I frowned. He’d forced the question on me. “And who do you want to be, Aimeric?”
“Who I am now,” he replied vehemently, “absolutely no doubt about it. I won’t tell you my new name, of course, you don’t want to know that. But here I am, doing nobody any harm, creating prosperity and employment for hundreds of honest citizens, and enjoying myself tremendously, for the first time in my life.”
“Music?” I asked.
“Screw music.” He beamed at me. “I hardly ever think about it any more. It’s a little thing called a sense of perspective. It was only when I got here and my life started coming back together that I realised the truth. Music only ever made me miserable. You know what? I haven’t been in a fight since I got here. I hardly drink, I’ve given up the gambling. Oh yes, and I’m engaged to be married to a very nice respectable girl whose father owns a major haulage business. And that’s all thanks to olive oil. All music ever got me was a rope around my neck.”
I looked at him. “Fine,” I said. “I believe you. And I’m really pleased things have worked out so well for you. So what are you doing here, in my room in the middle of the night?”
The smile didn’t fade, but it froze. “Ah well,” he said, “listening to music’s a different matter, I still enjoy that. I came to tell you how much I enjoyed the recital. That’s all.”
“You mean the symphony.”
He shook his head. “No,” he said, “the rest of the program. Your own unaided work. At least,” he added, with a slight twitch of an eyebrow, “I assume it is. Or have you enlisted another collaborator?”
I frowned at him. I hadn’t deserved that.
“In that case,” he said, “I really must congratulate you. You’ve grown.” He paused, and looked me in the eye. “You’ve grown wings.” Suddenly the grin was back, mocking, patronising. “Or hadn’t you noticed? You used to write the most awful rubbish.”
“Yes,” I said.
“But not any more.” He stood up, and for a split second I was terrified. But he walked to the table and poured a glass of wine. “I don’t know what’s got into you, but the difference is extraordinary.” He pointed to the second glass. I nodded, and he poured. “You write like you’re not afraid of the music any more. In fact, it sounds like you’re not afraid of anything. That’s the secret, you know.”
“I was always terrified of failure.”
“Not unreasonably,” he said, and brought the glasses over. I took mine and set it down beside the bed. “Good stuff, this.”
“I can afford the best.”
He nodded. “Do you like it?”
That made him smile. He topped up his glass. “My father had excellent taste in wine,” he said. “If it wasn’t at least twenty years old and bottled within sight of Mount Bezar, it was only fit for pickling onions. He drank the farm and the timber lot and six blocks of good City property which brought in more than all the rest put together, and then he died and left my older brother to sort out the mess. Last I heard, he was a little old man in a straw hat working all the hours God made, and still the bank foreclosed; he’s three years older than me, for crying out loud. And my other brother had to join the army. He died at Settingen. Everlasting glory they called it in temple, but I know for a fact he was terrified of soldiering. He tried to hide in the barn when the carriage came to take him to the academy, and my mother dragged him out by his hair. Which has led me to the view that sometimes, refinement and gracious living come at too high a price.” He looked at me over the rim of the glass and smiled. “But I don’t suppose you’d agree.”
I shrugged. “I’m still living in the same rooms in college,” I replied. “And five days a week, dinner is still bread and cheese on a tray in front of the fire. It wasn’t greed for all the luxuries. It was being afraid of the other thing.” My turn to smile. “Never make the mistake of attributing to greed that which can be explained by fear. I should know. I’ve lived with fear every day of my life.”
He sighed. “You’re not drinking,” he said.
“I think I’ve got the start of an ulcer,” I said.
He shook his head sadly. “I really am genuinely pleased,” he said. “About your music. You know what? I always used to despise you; all that knowledge, all that skill and technique, and no wings. You couldn’t soar, so you spent your life trying to invent a flying machine. I learned to fly by jumping off cliffs.” He yawned, and scratched the back of his neck. “Of course, most people who try it that way end up splattered all over the place, but it worked just fine for me.”
“I didn’t jump,” I said. “I was pushed.”
A big, wide grin spread slowly over his face, like oil on water. “And now you want to tell me how grateful you are.”
“Not really, no.”
“Oh come on.” He wasn’t the least bit angry, just amused. Probably just as well the sword was in the trunk. “What the hell did I ever do to you? Look at what I’ve given you, over the years. The prestige and reflected glory of being my teacher. The symphony. And now you can write music almost as good, all on your own. And what did I get in return? A hundred angels.”
“Two hundred,” I said coldly. “You’ve forgotten the previous loan.”
He laughed, and dug a hand in his pocket. “Actually, no,” he said. “The other reason I’m here.” He took out a fat, fist-sized purse and put it on the table. “A hundred and ten angels. I’m guessing at the interest, since we didn’t agree a specific rate at the time.”
Neither of us said a word for quite some time. Then I stood up, leaned across the table and took the purse.
“Aren’t you going to count it?”
“You’re a gentleman,” I said. “I trust you.”
He nodded, like a fencer admitting a good hit. “I think,” he said, “that makes us all square, don’t you? Unless there’s anything else I’ve forgotten about.”
“All square,” I said. “Except for one thing.”
That took him by surprise. “What?”
“You shouldn’t have given up music,” I said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped at me. “I’d have been arrested and hung.”
I shrugged. “Small price to pay,” I said. Which is what he’d said, when he first told me he’d killed a man; a small price to pay for genius. And what I’d said, when I heard all the details. “Don’t glower at me like that,” I went on. “You were a genius. You wrote music that’ll still be played when Perimadeia’s just a grassy hill. The Grand Mass, the Third symphony, that’s probably all that’ll survive of the empire in a thousand years. What was the life of one layabout and one prison warder, against that? Nothing.”
“I’d have agreed with you once,” he replied. “Now, I’m not so sure.”
“Oh, I am. Absolutely certain of it. And if it was worth their lives, it’s worth the life of an olive oil merchant, if there was to be just one more concerto. As it is—” I shrugged. “Not up to me, of course, I was just your teacher. That’s all I’ll ever be, in a thousand years’ time. I guess I should count myself lucky for that.”
He looked at me for a long time. “Bullshit,” he said. “You and I only ever wrote for money. And you don’t mean a word of what you’ve just said.” He stood up. “It was nice to see you again. Keep writing. At this rate, one of these days you’ll produce something worth listening to.”
He left, and I bolted the door; too late by then, of course. That’s me all over, of course; I always leave things too late, until they no longer matter.
When I got back to the university, I paid a visit to a colleague of mine in the natural philosophy department. I took with me a little bottle, into which I’d poured the contents of a wineglass. A few days later he called on me and said, “You were right.”
I nodded. “I thought so.”
“Archer’s root,” he said. “Enough of it to kill a dozen men. Where in God’s name did you come by it?”
“Long story,” I told him. “Thank you. Please don’t mention it to anybody, there’s a good fellow.”
He shrugged, and gave me back the bottle. I took it outside and poured it away in a flower bed. Later that day I made a donation—one hundred and ten angels—to the Poor Brothers, for their orphanage in Lower Town; the first, last and only charitable donation of my life. The Father recognised me, of course, and asked if I wanted it to be anonymous.
“Not likely,” I said. “I want my name up on a wall somewhere, where people can see it. Otherwise, where’s the point?”
I think I may have mentioned my elder brother, Segibert; the one I rescued from the cart on the mountainside, along with my father. I remember him with fondness, though I realised at a comparatively early age that he was a stupid man, bone idle and a coward. My father knew it too, and my mother, so when Segibert was nineteen he left home. Nobody was sorry to see him go. He made a sort of a living doing the best he could, and even his best was never much good. When he was thirty-five he drifted into Perimadeia, married a retired prostitute (her retirement didn’t last very long, apparently) and made a valiant attempt at running a tavern, which lasted for a really quite creditable eight months. By the time the bailiffs went in, his wife was pregnant, the money was long gone, and Segibert could best be described as a series of brief intervals between drinks. I’d just been elected to my chair, the youngest ever professor of music; the last thing I wanted was any contact whatsoever with my disastrous brother. In the end I gave him thirty angels, all the money I had, on condition that he went away and I never saw him again. He fulfilled his end of the deal by dying a few months later. By then, however, he’d acquired a son as well as a widow. She had her vocation to fall back on, which was doubtless a great comfort to her. When he came of age, or somewhat before, my nephew followed his father’s old profession. I got a scribbled note from him when he was nineteen, asking me for bail money, which I neglected to answer, and that was all the contact there was between us. I never met him. He died young.
My second visit to a condemned cell. Essentially the same as the first one; walls, ceiling, floor, a tiny barred window, a stone ledge for sitting and sleeping. A steel door with a small sliding hatch in the top.
“I didn’t think there was an extradition treaty between us and Baudoin,” I said.
He lifted his head out of his hands. “There isn’t,” he said. “So they snatched me off the street, shoved me into a closed carriage and drove me across the border. Three days before my wedding,” he added. “Syrisca will be half dead with worry about me.”
“Surely that was illegal.”
He nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I believe there’s been a brisk exchange of notes between the embassies, and the marquis has lodged an official complaint. Strangely enough, I’m still here.”
I looked at him. It was dark in the cell, so I couldn’t see much. “You’ve got a beard,” I said. “That’s new.”
“Syrisca thought I’d look good in a beard.”
I held back, postponing the moment. “I suppose you feel hard done by,” I said.
“Yes, actually.” He swung his legs up onto the ledge and crouched, hugging his knees to his chin. “Fair enough, I did some stupid things when I was a kid. But I did some pretty good things too. And then I gave both of them up, settled down and turned into a regular citizen. It’s been a long time. I really thought I was free and clear.”
Surreptitiously I looked round the cell. What I was looking for didn’t seem to be there, but it was pretty dark. “How did they find you?” I asked.
He shrugged. “No idea,” he said. “I can only assume someone from the old days must’ve recognised me, but I can’t imagine who it could’ve been. I gave up music,” he added bitterly. “Surely that ought to have counted for something.”
He’d taken care not to tell me his new name, that night in the inn, but a rising young star in the Baudoin olive oil trade wasn’t hard to find. Maybe he shouldn’t have given me that much information. But he hadn’t expected me to live long enough to make use of it.
“You tried to poison me,” I said.
He looked at me, and his eyes were like glass. “Yes,” he said. “Sorry about that. I’m glad you survived, if that means anything to you.”
“Why did I do it?” He gave me a bemused look. “Surely that’s obvious. You recognised me. I knew you’d realised who I was, as soon as our eyes met at the recital. That was really stupid of me,” he went on, looking away. “I should’ve guessed you’d never have turned me in.”
“So it was nearly three murders,” I said. “That tends to undercut your assertion that you’ve turned over a new leaf.”
“Yes,” he said. “And my theory that it was somehow connected to writing music, since I’d given up by the time I tried to kill you. I really am sorry about that, by the way.”
I gave him a weak smile. “I forgive you,” I said.
“Also,” I went on, “I’ve been to see the duke. He’s a great admirer of my work, you know.”
“Is that right?”
“Oh yes. And to think you once called him a savage.”
“He’s not the man his father was,” he replied. “I think the old duke might have pardoned me. You know, for services to music.”
“Sighvat didn’t put it quite like that,” I replied. “It was more as a personal favour to me.”
There was quite a long silence; just like—I’m sorry, but I really can’t resist the comparison—a rest at a crucial moment in a piece of music. “He’s letting me go?”
“Not quite,” I said, as gently as I could. “He reckons he’s got to consider the feelings of the victim’s family. Fifteen years. With luck and good behaviour, you’ll be out in ten.”
He took it in two distinct stages; first the shudder, the understandable horror at the thought of an impossibly long time in hell; then, slowly but successfully pulling himself out of despair, as he considered the alternative. “I can live with that,” he said.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to,” I replied. “I’m sorry. It was the best I could do.”
He shook his head. “I’m the one who should apologise,” he said. “I tried to kill you, and you just saved my life.” He looked up, and even in the dim light I could see an expression on his face I don’t think I’d ever seen before. “You always were better than me,” he said. “I didn’t deserve that.”
I shrugged. “We’re quits, then,” I said. “For the symphony. But there’s one condition.”
He made a vague sort of gesture to signify capitulation. “Whatever,” he said.
“You’ve got to start writing music again.”
For a moment, I think he was too bewildered to speak. Then he burst out laughing. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s been so long, I haven’t even thought about it.”
“It’ll come back to you, I bet. Not my condition, by the way,” I added, lying. “The duke’s. So unless you want a short walk and an even shorter drop, I suggest you look to it. Did you get the paper I had sent up, by the way?”
“Oh, that was you, was it?” He looked at me a bit sideways. “Yes, thanks. I wiped my arse with it.”
“In future, use your left hand, it’s what it’s for. It’s a serious condition, Aimeric. It’s Sighvat’s idea of making restitution. I think it’s a good one.”
There was another moment of silence. “Did you tell him?”
“Tell him what?”
“That I wrote the symphony. Was that what decided him?”
“I didn’t, actually,” I said. “But the thought had crossed my mind. Luckily, I didn’t have to.”
He nodded. “That’s all right, then.” He sighed, as though he was glad some long and tedious chore was over. “I guess it’s like the people who put caged birds out on windowledges in the sun,” he said. “Lock ‘em up and torture them to make them sing. I never approved of that. Cruel, I call it.”
“A small price to pay for birdsong,” I said.
Most of what I told him was true. I did go to duke Sighvat to intercede for him. Sighvat was mildly surprised, given that I’d been the one who informed on him in the first place. I didn’t tell the duke about the attempt to poison me. The condition was my idea, but Sighvat approved of it. He has rather fanciful notions about poetic justice, which if you ask me is a downright contradiction in terms.
I did bend the truth a little. To begin with, Sighvat was all for giving Subtilius a clear pardon. It was me who said no, he should go to prison instead; and when I explained why I wanted that, he agreed, so I was telling the truth when I told Subtilius it was because of the wishes of the victim’s family.
Quite. The young waste-of-space Subtilius murdered was my nephew, Segibert’s boy. I didn’t find that out until after I helped Subtilius escape, and looking back, I wonder what I’d have done if I’d known at the time. I’m really not sure—which is probably just as well, since I have the misfortune to live with myself, and knowing how I’d have chosen, had I been in full possession of the facts, could quite possibly make that relationship unbearable. Fortunately, it’s an academic question.
Subtilius is quite prolific, in his prison cell. Actually, it’s not at all bad. I got him moved from the old castle to the barbican tower, and it’s really quite comfortable there. In fact, his cell is more or less identical in terms of furnishings and facilities to my rooms in college, and I pay the warders to give him decent food and the occasional bottle of wine. He doesn’t have to worry about money, either. Unfortunately, the quantity of his output these days isn’t matched by the quality. It’s good stuff, highly accomplished, technically proficient and very agreeable to listen to, but no spark of genius, none whatsoever. I don’t know. Maybe he still has the wings, but in his cage, on the windowsill, where I put him, he can’t really make much use of them.