A Nocturne in Red

IN THE SMALL HOURS, Sanjen stumbled from the House of Ambrosia, brazen as a boast. The sweet ecstasy of the honey clung to his mouth and laid a gossamer veil across his eyes. The stars danced, and the great Ring leered like a drunken smile across the sky. They sang to him, golden songs like the hum of bees, like the sigh of a woman. He spread his arms and became one of those dancing stars, one of a million, and for a moment loneliness faded.

A voice somersaulted up the street and struck Sanjen in the ear:  “Did you hear what I said, pretty boy? Give me your coin.”

Purple magelight on the street corner glinted on steel. The sensation of almost-pain pricked at Sanjen’s throat. A face, greasy and poxy, floated specter-like through the sensuous contortions of the stars.

In some sober recess of his brain, Sanjen appreciated the situation. Dear gods. Robbed. Me?

Rotten teeth grit. “Dig deep, or I’ll cut you up so small your own mother won’t recognize you.”

Hnh, my mother, gone, she’s gone, you fucking rotgut swine. Joke’s on you. Sanjen shook with laughter, and the almost-pain surged up his jaw. A fist the size of a ham swung out of the dark, but Sanjen was falling before he felt the impact.

A shadow, endless as oblivion, swept past, and the thief too was gone—screaming, screaming, high in the sky. Hallucination? Must be. The scoundrel seemed to have sprouted wings. The bottoms of his naked, street-black feet kicked as he screamed, and the shiv tumbled like a snowflake in the purple lamplight. The blade clattered loud as thunder as it struck the cobbles, and the street raised soft matronly arms to cradle Sanjen from his fall.

The thief flew toward the stars. The screaming stopped on a raw red note.

Sanjen lay in the gutter and chuckled. The stars chuckled back. Funny. His hallucination had saved him from a mugging.

What a disgrace, having to turn out his pockets. He patted down his doublet and his coin purse, just to be sure the thief hadn’t absconded with … well, with whatever the House of Ambrosia hadn’t seen fit to drain. But the honey numbed his fingertips. The few sterlings might be there or not. Hell with it.

Sanjen pushed himself to his feet, or thought he did, and floated home.

* * *

Sun lashed him across the face. Curtains thundered and rings rattled on the rod as his manservant bared the room to daylight. The windowpane creaked as it too swung open, letting in a breath of air that reeked of the River Stoia and shuddered with the noise of carts rumbling along Gryphus Avenue.

“Performance tonight, sir. It’s almost noon. Best wake and stretch those fingers.”

“Ai, gods,” Sanjen groaned and flung an arm across his eyes. Delectable though the honey was, the drug left him feeling as heavy and cumbersome as clay the next morning. Sweat drenched his pillow. Honey-scented sweat.

“People have poured in for the festival,” Belinius added. “Streets are already crowded with revelers. Don’t want to disappoint them, eh? Sir? Bath drawn for you. Er, better toss me those clothes too. They’ll need mending, and your injury might require stitches. Knife fight?”

Memory swept aside the honey-haze. Sanjen jolted awake. His fingers, now throbbing with sensation, discovered a fount of dried blood crusted on his throat. The shiv had opened a finger-long gash under his jaw. “A thief,” he grunted. “There was a thief.”

“Didn’t make off with much.” Belinius had unlatched the coin purse from Sanjen’s belt and upended it over his palm. The coin trickled rather than flowed. “Sir?” The manservant hedged around the word. “The coffer your father gave you is dwindling faster than you might think. The Ambrosia again?”

Sanjen winced and rolled deeper into his pillow. “Don’t scold me, Bell.”

Distilled from special honey made by special Tai-Uran bees, the drug was very rare, very expensive. But Sanjen liked to think he hadn’t fallen so far that he couldn’t treat himself occasionally. Though “occasionally” had become two or three times a week. He wasn’t so broke that he had to settle for molasses that would turn his mouth black with tar, or Powers forbid, resort to necro dust or even plain rum. Not yet.

The manservant heaved a paternal sigh. “Right. Breakfast, er, lunch in half an hour.”

Scrubbed and scalded, Sanjen made his way downstairs. His little house on Gryphus Avenue was a far cry from the palace he’d grown up in. The steps creaked, the roof leaked, and the chimney smoked, painting the ceiling with soot. Mice crept in from some hidden portal on phantom feet, and the furnishings were the mismatched hodgepodge of leftovers that the landlady had seen fit to install. Worst of all, the attic afforded barely enough room (or light) to practice his music, and the neighbors (within arm’s reach of the eave) complained that he kept their children awake at all hours.

Still, his father’s coffer had kept him out of the slums. And the disguise the house provided suited him perfectly, like his alias. The less attention he drew to himself the better. On stage he could turn himself into a mystery, alluring, magnetic, anonymous. But off stage, after the music and the magic ended? If the wrong people came sniffing around, he’d be marched off to the prison barge again.

The odors of garlic and eggs turned his stomach. Sunlight stabbed through the windowpane. He hunched over the breakfast table and gripped his pounding head.

Bell brought him a steaming cup of cinnamon tea. The fragrance brought his mother to mind. Sanjen missed his family with a bone-deep ache. Had his letters traversed thousands of miles and reached Shar by now? Had his family reached Shar? Or had the ship speeding them into exile foundered in the wild waters of the Astrasian Ocean? For nearly a year he had heard not a word from them. Did they blame him for Leno’s death? His younger brother, stretched out in a tomb … unimaginable.

His fault. All of it. So careless … don’t think about it.

“Gloomy thoughts this morning, sir?” asked Belinius.

Sanjen sipped the tea and didn’t attempt a response.

Belinius put the damper on the stove and dished up a plate of eggs. “You won’t have heard, I expect. The markets are abuzz with news this morning. Seems several people were murdered last night.”

“Murder over breakfast, Bell?”

The manservant set the plate of eggs in front of him. They were spiced with peppers. It wasn’t exactly Sharene cuisine, but the man tried. Sight of the squidgy yellow lumps did something horrid to Sanjen’s stomach. He pushed the plate away and breathed deeply to convince the blood to rise back into his head. “Might as well tell me. I can’t eat.”

“Sir, you must. You can’t perform on any empty stomach.”

“My stomach will be empty, regardless.”

“Avoid the Ambrosia afterward, please.”

“I have a mother, Bell.”

“But she isn’t here. I am, and you pay me to take care of you.”

Sanjen glowered. “The killings. Some madman on the rampage?”

Bell pumped water into a basin and began scrubbing his skillets. “Rumor-mill has it that a flying creature abducted four or five souls last night and tore them to bits. Remains scattered from one end of Daskírius to the other. Quite gruesome. But you know how rumors—”

“Flying creature? That really happened?”

The scrubbing paused. Bell peered at Sanjen from under bushy gray eyebrows. “You saw it?”

“I thought I was hallucinating.” True, the visions the honey induced were usually cascades of light, tornadoes of color, not flying thieves. The memory came in snippets:  a shadow under a purple streetlight, a burst of wind, a scream, flapping feet stained with grime. “Was it targeting the criminal sort?”

The scrubbing resumed. “Not at all. Heard one of the victims was a wine merchant out of Akta. Another was apparently a schoolmarm. No rhyme or reason apparently.”

If the thief hadn’t shoved Sanjen into the gutter, this monster might have snatched them both.

“Everyone’s blaming the mage houses, of course,” Bell added, sopping a skillet dry with a ratty towel.

The rumormongers were likely right about that detail. Some novice in House Manticore or House Wyvern had probably summoned a creature too powerful to control. Happened all the time. The masters would rectify the issue, send the creature back to whatever plane it came from, and that would be the end of it.

Sanjen shrugged. Realizing he’d slipped through the jaws of death improved his appetite considerably. He reached for the plate of eggs.

* * *

The populace of Daskírius turned out in droves for the Festival of Fruits. The carousing, feasting, and games marked the Feast of Nuthay and the end of the growing season. Citizens danced amid the streets and copulated in dark corners. All of it with abandon, as if they feared the end of the world. But it was only the onset of winter.

The Arena grounds were full to bursting. Under a lighted tent half the size of the governor’s palace, men boxed. In the sand pit, a Gaethan woman battled a bear. Along the thoroughfares, smiling crowds admired giant pumpkins, painted souvenir scarecrows, and bartered for preserves. Little girls traded coppers for a chance to stomp the grapes in a giant vat. And upon the stage, bards and poets, traveling troubadours and companies of players competed for applause.

Sanjen finagled for a favorable lot. He ascended the stage at a fine hour, shortly after dark when the crowds were thickest, but before they grew weary (or too drunk) and began to drift home. Two trademarks set him apart from the other performers. Wherever his stage, be it the palace ballroom or the lowest tavern in town, he wore always a cloak and hood of black fay silk. Most performers wanted their faces seen, but it was safer for Sanjen if he went unrecognized. From deep inside the hood, he flirted with his audience. A flash of a smile, a glint of an eye. The rest was shadow and speculation.

Multicolored magelight glittered overhead, causing the cloak to gleam with a metallic luster. It was rumored that the cloak was infused with magical properties. Sanjen let the audience believe what they liked.

Against the black silk, his second trademark shined with ethereal beauty. His lute, Luchia, pressed against his chest, and from her belly rose a eulogy to summer. Granted, the song was a trite piece of Mytravean court music, but it’s what the people expected.

Sanjen had fashioned the lute himself, of ghostly white valevari wood found only in the Verdant Plane. Her bridge, nut, and rosette were fashioned from gleaming silver, which caused the notes tripping from her courses to resonate differently than lutes fitted with wooden accoutrements. Hers was a unique voice.

On occasion Sanjen heard from his audience that it seemed the lute alone occupied the stage, that it played itself. That suited him fine. After all, Luchia was the star here.

She won her audience again tonight. Halfway through the first verse, the faces clustered at Sanjen’s feet broke off their chatting, shoving, and laughing, and began to listen, really listen, their eyes fixed, their mouths slightly ajar. The marvel of it never ceased to amaze him. He had bound them to him by a thread of music.



There were often one or two young women who ogled him with a different sort of look in their eyes, a licentious sort of grin. Tonight it was a redhead who liked to bite her lower lip. Sanjen played just for her. As soon as he strummed the final chord, he would hasten away, before the lustful lamb could corner him. Leaving these admirers unsatisfied ensured they came to his next performance—and invited their friends.

But tonight he didn’t have the chance. His fingers were flying through the final refrain, and the girl’s tongue was working against her teeth, when the screams started. People began running. Panic spread in ripples. A vendor’s stall overturned.

“Harpy!” someone shouted. A body plummeted from the sky. Entrails splashed the stage. The redhead shrieked, and a burst of wind swept back Sanjen’s hood. He raised it fast and ducked to his knees, hugging Luchia close.

A shadow raced past, devouring the stars and spitting them out again. The stage lights lit silver feathers, talons steeped in red. Wings slapped at the rising screams and cut a curve upon the sky. Harpy or not, it was veering round for another pass.

“I need a flute.” Sanjen scuttled down from the stage and shouldered through the gathering of mesmerized musicians. “Damn it, I need a flute!”

“Are you mad?” cried a mime in white face paint. “That thing’s going to kill us all, and you want to play?”

“Give me a fucking flute!” Sanjen bellowed.

Someone tossed him a leather case. “Play it and die. We’re getting out of here.”

The players and singers shoved through the curtains, but Sanjen leapt back onstage and slid the flute from its case. It was a fine thing of ivory, long and fat. An alto flute. Perfect. He listened to the night breeze eddying around the panicked revelers. Soft sighing notes swirled past like petals tossed from a maiden’s hand. He collected them, then raised the flute to his lips and began to play the Song of the Wind. Slow and somber the notes rose. The night breeze harkened to him; it and the flute sang in tandem.

Then Sanjen began to change the melody.

By then, the harpy had swept up another victim. Red rain pattered around Sanjen’s feet. Fear threatened to break his breath into short pants and unravel the spell. Don’t look, just play.

The city watch came running. They cranked crossbows and aimed them high.

Sanjen’s fingers moved faster across the holes. Wind began to rise, his confidence with it.

A body struck a nearby rooftop and tumbled into the street like a sack of potatoes. The streetlamps with their auras of magelight revealed the harpy in flashes. Crossbows twanged. The harpy spun in a graceful corkscrew and raced past the watchmen. It laughed, a grating, dark sound, pleased with its taunt.

Sanjen built tension into the song, shaped the wind into a fist, and with a trill, let it fly.

The fist of wind struck the monster full in the belly and launched it toward the stars. A grunt, a wail, a thunder of wings. High over the chimneys, the harpy righted itself. Its glare leveled on Sanjen.

Reddened talons curled into hard-knuckled knots.

“Shit,” he muttered. The wind should have torn the feathers clean off the wings. Too soon, he’d struck too soon, not enough force in the song. He dropped the flute, and swept Luchia off his back. What was that bloody song? He closed his eyes, grit his teeth, and scraped his nails along the strings, then plucked them hard, F, B, A-sharp, a dissonant, painful chord. Bone snapped.

The harpy loosed a screech and crashed into a rooftop, cracking tiles and chimney mortar, then plummeted out of sight. The city watch chased after it.

* * *

“What do you mean it got away?” Sanjen cried. “I gave the harpy into their hands!”

Belinius shrugged emphatically. “That’s what I heard at the butcher’s stall.”

Sanjen fell back in the chair. The rickety dining table wobbled, upsetting the mug of cinnamon tea. “Ai, bloody incompetent…” If those men couldn’t track a great monstrous creature with a broken wing through the heart of Daskírius, they didn’t deserve to wear the white star on their chests.

The manservant sopped up the spilled tea and refilled the mug. “Should you have put yourself in danger?”

Bell, I’m the only one who can do what I can do. I invented it. I had to try.” Luchia had paid the price. The Break Bone Song always cost him the chanterelle. When the string snapped, it had carved a hair-thin gash across his cheekbone. He’d have to send Bell to the luthier’s for another.

A rumble of wheels and hooves interrupted his grumbling. Carts were always passing Sanjen’s door, but these wheels stopped abruptly, commanded by a voice that carried an unmistakable note of authority. A horse whickered testily.

Belinius hurried to the window. “A chariot. The man stepping off it looks pompous enough to be somebody.”

Curiosity dragged Sanjen from his chair. “Do people still travel in chariots?” A glimpse through the window showed him a man, fifty or sixty, tall and broad and certain of himself. Though his hair was gray and thinning, he was as fit as a man half his age. A Tai-Uran slave, skin dark as cloves, hopped out of the chariot to hold the pair of white horses by the harness.

“A soldier, by my guess,” Bell said. A sideways glance warned Sanjen, Be wary.

Was this powerful man here to arrest him? “Should I run out the back?”

“Well, he’s not in uniform, and he’s alone.”

Sanjen felt half a fool for not drawing the same conclusion. Right, stand my ground, play the part. He returned to the breakfast table and made himself comfortable, like any gentleman at his tea. “Have we anything fine to offer him?”

Bell cast him a despairing look.

Humiliating. Once upon a time, Sanjen could have offered a guest a glass of pomegranate wine.

An authoritative knock shook the front door. Head bowed, Bell admitted their guest. The man blustered into the common room as if he’d come to claim the house for his own. He slapped gloves across his palm and raked the two residents with steel-colored eyes. “I’m looking for a bard, Sanjen Laurelius.”

Unhurried, Sanjen dabbed his mouth with a napkin and rose from the table. “I am he.”

“You? But you’re a dar … a foreigner.” The words ‘dark-caste’ and ‘darkie’ hung in the air like grease smoke.

How often had Sanjen heard the slurs? His red-brown complexion and sleek black hair caused many Mytraveans to give him a hard, appraising glance and mutter things like “arrogant slave” behind his back. In his youth, when he and his brother had begun accompanying their father on business, many of their associates assumed he’d been toted along to fetch and carry. Embarrassing for them, infuriating for Father.

Sanjen pretended not to have heard the slip. “No, I’m a citizen. My mother was Mytravean, my father a slave in her house. Quite the scandal, I’m told.” He’d been telling that lie for a year now, and he was sick of it already. Even Bell didn’t know who his family really was, or why they had fled to Shar.

The confession did little to put this guest at ease. The man appraised his host meticulously, like plucking hairs, before he decided to commit himself to the visit. At last he said, “I’m Gallus Auxentus, Lord General of His Majesty’s Thirty-Fourth Cavalry.”

Sanjen called upon every ounce of grace he’d been taught, snapped his heels together and bowed his head. “Lord General, a pleasure.” A wave of his hand offered a chair at the wobbly table.

To Sanjen’s surprise, Auxentus accepted—even if his glance probed each item and corner, exposing the penury of the house with humiliating clarity.

Auxentus eased into a creaking chair and slapped the gloves onto the tabletop. “You’re a hard man to find, Laurelius. Everyone in the city knows your name, but only a shoe shine boy seemed to know where you live. One young woman even insisted you live in the fairy realm.”

Bell delivered a second mug and filled it with cinnamon tea.

The Lord General glanced but did not touch.

Sanjen sipped his own tea, but only because the mug provided some small shield between them. “That I did, for seven years. I’ve only recently made Daskírius my home. If I’ve kept my residence a secret, it’s because I prefer discretion. Screaming admirers, and all that.”

Steel-colored eyes narrowed. The General hadn’t believed a word. “The emperor was seeking a man of your description.”

Darégus’ balls! He should’ve hightailed it out the backdoor. Sanjen forced a bubble of incredulous laughter; it careened across the rising steam. “That goes a way back. Yes, the authorities did arrest me, questioned me—most unpleasant—and found nothing. I believe they were looking for a youth, eighteen, nineteen? I’m twenty-six.”

Auxentus sucked his teeth, unapologetic. “They’ll find him. Whoever got that bastard on the empress, if he’s still alive, they’ll find him. They always do.”

It was all Sanjen could do to bite his tongue. That bastard. Anytime someone referred to the little princess it was always that bastard. “I’m sure. Have you come on official business, General?”

Auxentus broke the blade-edged glare. “No. Personal. You vanquished the harpy last night, did you not?”

This was about the harpy? Powers be praised. Sanjen set down his teacup, trying to rein in his relief.

As soon as the revelers at the festival realized they’d been saved, Sanjen’s efforts had earned him a wild round of applause and howls of praise. Slipping away into the shadows had proven nearly impossible.

“The heart of the matter,” Auxentus added, “is that the creature is not a harpy. She is a shiftskin. She is my property. Her name is Ué. In her true form, she is a small, delicate, sweet thing. She dances for me. My delight. Someone has cast a curse on her, turning her into a mindless, raging man-eater. I need someone to rectify the situation.”

Me? What do I know of curses and monsters? “Why not ask for help from one of the mage houses? Manticore, I believe, dabbles in curses and other dark dwergma.”

“They turned me away. Not their mishap, not their problem, they said. Arrogant cocksuckers, the lot of them. You are not associated with any of the houses?”

Not anymore. “I learned most of my skills from the fay.”

“You’d be paid, of course.” Auxentus waved a hand, taking in the whole of the common room. “Handsomely.”

Giddiness threatened to rise. Sanjen tamped it down. “I’m not a monster hunter, General. I play music.”

“You misunderstand me. I don’t Ué dead. I want her back the way she was. You have skills, you must be clever. How hard can it be to find out how the curse works and undo it?”

If it were easy, any hack mage from a back alley could manage it.

“Does five hundred griffons convince you to try?”

Sanjen nearly choked.

“Another thousand if you succeed. And find the perpetrator.”

* * * * *

Read the rest of the story at AMAZON and AT THESE EBOOK DISTRIBUTORS. First published by The Society of Misfit Stories, August 2018.

copyright 2018 Court Ellyn

None of the text may be copied, redistributed, or reproduced without written permission of the author.