General Tanager pressed a gloved hand to the nearest pillar and studied the lines that formed beneath it as she left a smouldering print. She curled her lip and eyed the swarm of blue and orange birds behind her. Normally she didn’t run such petty errands, but Vidame Shrike had insisted, and here she stood, a hand burning on a singular pillar and a pair of eyes trained on the music school.
“What a remarkable historical monument,” she commented. “Vidame Shrike has rich taste.”
It had once been, she recalled, alabaster white, and stood as a series of buildings with Ionic columns, neat and orderly. Tanager could hear students snoring in the dormitories.
She removed her hand from the pillar and snapped her fingers. Four birds peeled away from the flock behind her. Kaleidoscopic and shimmering, they landed on her palms. Their claws pricked through the gloves. Tanager winced when one found an old scar, digging into it.
“You know what to do,” she told them.
The birds chirped in agreement. Orange and blue flames danced from their feathers. Tanager held them, twitching her nose. They swarmed away, catching fire as the sun rose. The entire flock flew into the buildings, ramming their bodies against the stone columns. Larger birds melted glass windows, creating gaping holes. Birds flew in, leaving trails of fire behind them. She closed her eyes to savour the sound of screaming.
Tanager cupped the smallest bird, a wight with sparkling blue feathers, and whispered to it. It flew towards one of the distant buildings, and Tanager followed.
“Gentle Starling, Vidame Shrike is expecting you,” Tanager called in a low singsong. “Get dressed and come on out.”
The campus’s leafy green bushes clung to the ground. Tanager smirked as the birds set them aflame. Bright embers fell from their iridescent wings.
“Come out, wherever you are,” Tanager whispered, walking into a building that looked like a dormitory. People peered out from the windows, soot-faced and shaking. Tanager wiped a stray ember off her cheek.
She found her quarry sitting in a rigid position, fingers choking a violin and bow. The woman’s roommate was hiding under the bed, coughing up dust bunnies.
“Gentle Starling?” Tanager addressed the woman clutching the bow.
Starling whacked herself on the nose with her bow, dislodging a curler from her copper hair. Rosin dust settled on her face; she blinked to keep it out of her eyes.
“Your presence is requested at Vidame Shrike’s castle,” Tanager declared. “She offers you a court position based on your audition with that original piece, Refrains on a Thunderstorm.”
“Vidame Shrike?” the voice under the bed coughed out. “The evil sorcery conqueror?”
“She prefers the term ‘benevolent magical explorer’.” Tanager nodded at Starling. “Come along now, we don’t have all day.”
Starling didn’t move. Tanager sighed. She examined the sparks on her gloved hands. Then she strode over and gently tugged Starling. The woman stumbled to her feet, shaking.
“You do know the penalty for refusal is being burned alive,” Tanager coaxed. “I’ll do it right here, right now. If you want to save your skin, put away your bow, pack any instruments you need. We’ll take care of the larger ones like the piano.”
Starling, with Tanager still holding her by the arm, packed her violin, taking time to wipe the rosin off it and her bow. They walked outside, Tanager leaving the roommate behind.
“We have no need for the rest of the school,” Tanager told the swarm of birds. “Vidame Shrike gave her orders. Save the instruments.”
Starling gave her a dazed, disbelieving look. Tanager held her firmly by the sleeve and nudged her forward. Starling stumbled. The birds undulated as waves of orange and blue.
“Do you have to watch?” Starling squeaked as a long-nailed seamstress measured her from head to toe. She still wore her nightgown, tattered hem and all.
“Vidame Shrike is very particular,” Tanager told her. “She’s all about making sure the measurements and colour schemes are precise. I don’t like watching, if it makes you feel better.”
“Better than when I was brought to the castle the first time,” the seamstress whispered. “There weren’t any people then, so it was a bunch of birds pecking at me and trying to sew.”
Tanager glared at the seamstress, whose back was turned to her. Starling shrank.
“Your entire wardrobe must fit the colour scheme of the castle, which happens to be deep rich hues that reflect wintry nature this year,” Tanager continued. “It is subject to change, depending on how successful Vidame Shrike’s conquests are.”
“You will need at least one day gown, one evening gown, an elegant performance crinoline, night clothes, and a winter outfit with bloomers and flannels,” the seamstress added. “The others are negotiable, but the crinoline must be stunning. Fortunately, I can work with your figure.”
“The performance crinoline design must be approved by myself and Vidame Shrike,” Tanager said.
“What about for casual wear?” Starling ventured.
“You may have simpler dresses for when you are not summoned to court. Thrush knows the colour palettes,” Tanager answered, nodding to the seamstress. “Unless you have something else in mind, Gentle Starling?”
Starling took a few moments. Thrush gave her an encouraging pat on the shoulder.
“I need a good outfit that will allow me to move and play violin, if I am to compose.” Starling kept her whisper steady. “Corsets I can manage during a performance, but I need a flexible dress that will allow me to stretch before practising.”
“I’m glad you told me.” Tanager nodded. “Expense is not an issue, so you may have as many clothes, tools and instruments as you need.”
She turned away, outfits already in mind, and walked to a large wardrobe that may as well have been its own room. Dozens of dresses hung in neat rows, in various sizes, some with whalebone corsets.
“It’ll get easier,” Thrush said outside the wardrobe. “You also got lured in by the advertisements?”
“The papers just said ‘Royal Court Composer’,” Starling whispered back. “Seventy other people auditioned! How was I supposed to know it was going to be Vidame Shrike?”
“What in the dickens did you audition?”
“Just a berceuse, a tiny lullaby in D minor. It was the only thing I had ready!”
Tanager came out with a deep navy-blue dress, with a bone-corset that ran along the shoulders and the back. The skirt had curlicue patterns.
“If Vidame Shrike liked it, then it was more than a lullaby,” Tanager said.
She tossed the dress at Starling. The younger woman caught it and nearly stumbled into Thrush. Thrush ground her pumps into the tile floor.
“You can wear that for the day,” Tanager said. “It may be a little big, but it ought to do until Thrush has a few outfits done. Given her pacing, I’d give her a few months before you have anything decent.”
Thrush and Tanager exchanged glares.
Starling stroked the rich blue velvet. “Who wore it before?” she murmured.
“The previous composer. Vidame Shrike had them eaten by lindworms.”
Starling dropped the garment. The bony corset banged against the floor, rattling several times. Thrush patted her before picking up the dress.
“You have nothing to worry about,” she said, handing it back to Starling. “They were bad-tempered and stubborn. Just do the music work and you’ll be the darling of the court.”
The other woman nodded. Then she went behind a folding screen, her fingers shaking over the blue velvet.
“You don’t have to scare her, you know,” Thrush said. “Not like she’s going to turn traitor.”
“Being scared is a way of living in the castle,” Tanager said.
“Just because you didn’t want to pick up a delivery doesn’t mean you have to take it out on the recruits. None of us want to be here.”
“Speak only for yourself.” Tanager lifted her nose into the air. “I enjoy my position.”
Because it was magical, Vidame Shrike’s fortress grew and shrank, adding rooms, courtyards and corridors where it seemed fit. The cooks complained that cupboards would swallow their spice jars and orange preserves. Even the birds disliked how Nerium’s Keep kept dislodging their nests.
Tanager expected the woman to take flight as soon as possible. That’s what most wild birds did when their humans unlocked the cage doors. Tanager herself had made it as far as the garden, that first day. Long, white scars still burned on her palms.
Starling didn’t run. She did explore. She got lost in the large corridors and didn’t even make it outside before the clock chimes rang for the evening meal. Tanager kept a steady pace behind, counting twenty paces under her tongue.
It would take Starling weeks before she even made it to the enclosed garden. Thorny hedges surrounded the borders, climbing as high as twenty feet. Any person who attempted to grip or climb the hedge found leaves swallowing them, thorns piercing them from all sides.
Tanager watched, scratching her scars. Starling raised a hand to the thorns. A long, green shard curled towards her. She withdrew and paced around the garden. Her boots clopped against the trimmed grass. She only stroked a vine once; it recoiled from her. The fanged fish in the pond occasionally jumped. Starling sat on a rock and watched. Pond water splashed at her skirts.
When she wasn’t pacing in the gardens, Starling would go to the golden Art Hall, where large, wall-length tapestries dangled. She would study the paintings, whose figures moved and acted out various dramas. Vidame Shrike’s tapestry, which showed the Fay Queen Larkspur wrapping a baby in a shroud and then driving over villages in a winged chariot, entranced her the most. The tapestry also depicted Larkspur charming kings to walk into rivers and stand under the currents until their breathing ceased, or screaming at cattle herds to trample through villages from dawn to dusk. Starling would take notes in a small red book and with a thick black pencil. Her brow would narrow. Her scribbling echoed against the tapestry.
When she practised in her private chambers, which had a separate room for the piano and violin, her pose dropped the tense worry that she had outside in the corridors and at mealtimes. She would tune her violin for half an hour before playing it.
Tanager meant to spend her time spying for Vidame Shrike and creating new campaigns. Instead she lingered outside Starling’s rooms. She’d grab a stool, sit and listen while reading over reports or stroking one of the castle birds. Twinges of pleasure would hit her, occasionally.
“It was just a pickup,” she told the birds. “Nothing more.”
The birds would claw at the scars on her palms, as if to say, “Liar.”
One day, she was reading over a report of Queen Larkspur’s latest activities. Several tiny birds perched on her, cleaning their feathers. Then she heard the door squeak. Tanager looked up.
“I’m almost done with the motif,” Starling said. “Do you think you could give me your opinion?”
Surprised, Tanager stood. The birds flew to a hole in the castle wall. The other woman wore a dress similar to the one that Tanager had told her to wear. This was the same shade of blue, but the corset was lighter and bone-coloured.
“Didn’t you say that you didn’t like wearing corsets while practising?” Tanager asked.
“I thought to make myself look presentable.” Starling wrung her hands.
“You don’t have to please me with your appearance,” Tanager said, allowing herself a smile. “Will you be playing violin or piano?”
“Violin.” Starling picked up her violin and brought it under her chin. She started plucking it, to check the tunes on the strings. One of the strings snapped.
“Take your time,” Tanager said, amused at how Starling’s cheeks went crimson.
The woman got a spare string from her violin case. It squeaked as she hooked it on one end of the bridge and rolled it into place. Then she sat in a chair, and Tanager sat opposite her.
“I composed the motif in C minor, as opposed to D minor,” she said, playing two different chords. “C minor carries the promise of a pleasant E flat major while emphasizing its reverbs.”
Tanager watched Starling’s long fingers pull the bow in a deliberate, slow swing. “What about E minor?” she asked. “E natural minor I mean.”
“I’m considering it.” Starling frowned at the blotchy script page. “After a point the scale only matters for setting the mood, and the tone. What tone does Vidame Shrike want in her motif, and for which occasion?”
“Victory through terror,” Tanager answered. “She wants something that the birds in the castle can echo when they follow Vidame Shrike. A piece that people will find lurking in their heads long after her time on this world ends. A nightmarish melody that will haunt her sworn enemy, Queen Larkspur, and drown out her orders.”
Starling rested her fingers on the violin’s fingerboard. She chewed on her lip. “The other woman in the portrait, that’s Queen Larkspur. Did she put Vidame Shrike in that chariot?”
“Aye. The one with the compelling voice, the fay queen who claims to be the saviour of the land.” Tanager smirked. “Do play for me, Gentle Starling.”
Starling arranged herself in the chair. She arranged her fingers on her bow and made it lie at an angle across the violin strings. A haunting melody, slow and sluggish, came out in E minor.
Tanager cocked her head. Starling’s eyes focused on her bow, forgetting there was another person in the room. The melody lasted for maybe a minute. It was the sound of golden honey dripping onto a square comb of beeswax. Starling finished with an ethereal high E that required her to stretch her pinky across the fingerboard.
“That was remarkable,” Tanager said. “And yet, I can tell it came from a place of fear. Are you scared?”
Starling froze. She didn’t meet Tanager’s eyes. Tanager sighed, stood and walked to the other, moving her chair. Then she sat again.
“The fear is rational,” Tanager assured her. “It will keep you alive. But I’m not going to hurt you for expressing an opinion. I hope you know that.”
Starling nodded. Tanager reached out and patted her shoulder. She made sure her hands weren’t scorching.
Birds started tweeting from outside, like an army of sirens. Starling jumped. Tanager turned. She got up and opened the door. A bird landed on her finger, digging sharp claws into the flesh, and chittered. Tanager listened to it. Starling stared at her.
“It seems Queen Larkspur is trying to storm the castle,” Tanager said. She stood and brushed imaginary dust off her fingers.
“Already? And when Vidame Shrike is away?” Starling unscrewed her violin bow, so that the horsehair loosened.
“If she takes the fortress, which she will not, then she will have gained a symbolic victory.” Tanager’s smile was brittle with annoyance. “But piercing through the hedge of thorns would not be enough. She has to go through me.”
Tanager stood. Starling started packing away her violin. Her hands were trembling again.
“Stay in here; it will be safer,” Tanager ordered. “Vidame Shrike has an interest in keeping you alive; Queen Larkspur doesn’t.”
Starling nodded. Tanager strode out of the room, the birds following, and locked the door behind her. She could hear the squeak of Starling re-tightening her bow. The musical notes resumed.
Tanager hummed the melody as she stomped down the corridors, calling on the birds to fetch her armour and her gloves. The birds picked up the melody, and started echoing each haunting note. The other castle inhabitants listened with fright.
Tanager smirked grimly as she pulled on her gloves and felt the flames fanning within her. She hummed louder. The birds echoed the music with more fire.
In the garden, armed men cut through the hedge thorns and slashed at the fanged fish in spite. The pikes snapped and leaped at the invaders. One chewed on a spear and dangled.
“Oh, so here is the Shrike’s pet songbird.” A cold laugh echoed across the destroyed garden. “Sing for me, dear.”
“It was a mistake to come, Your Highness!” Tanager shouted.
Larkspur was a broad woman in bronze armour, her hair hidden under a round helmet. She crashed her chariot through the hedge. “No, it was a mistake to not surrender when I sent the missives last fortnight,” she retorted, rolling out her compelling voice. “Why don’t you take off those silly gloves?”
Tanager took a step back. The compulsion lay on her. She could see but not feel her gloves sailing into the air, settling on the scorched grass.
Larkspur smirked at her. “Nice scars. My sister did a remarkable job.”
“Shut up,” Tanager snapped. Her hands still hung in the air, revealing curled white lines on the palms. They stung down to the bone.
“No fire, no hiding. Sing for me, Gentle Tanager, and maybe I’ll spare you. That’s all you’re good for.”
Tanager felt the compulsion tug on her throat. She buttoned her lips tight. Birds flew above her. Her mind focused on a face: Starling’s, stricken with terror.
“No,” she said.
The compulsion became stronger. Tanager’s scars seared. Her lips slipped open.
“Sing, songbird, until you run out of breath and reach your death rattle.”
Air forced its way past her teeth. Tanager sang despite herself, while shooting flames at the chariot. It was Starling’s melody, in E minor, but with more fire behind it. She was practically screaming from the pain.
The birds swarmed the chariot. Archers fired so that clumps of feathers fell to the ground. The living and dead birds burst into flame. Larkspur’s expression changed. When she tried to open her mouth, a bird flew and rammed down into her throat. A horrid, choking sound emerged instead.
Tanager coughed for air. “You shouldn’t have told me to sing,” she said.
The birds, dead and alive, increased the embers. Tanager wiped sweat off her face as the archers screamed and Larkspur tried to bat the claws away, coughing and choking. The hedges, also enflamed, regained life and surged forward, piercing any living creature that brushed their thorns.
“Burn them all alive, but leave her head intact,” Tanager whispered, before resuming her song. She burned.
Vidame Shrike returned before the first winter’s frost. Tanager ordered a huge feast, with roasted swans and plump geese that glistened with butter. Vidame Shrike had heard her melody ring through her conquered lands long before her wartime boots had stepped past the stone threshold of her castle. She knew that Tanager had secured victory by using the new royal composer.
The dining hall had swaying bronze chandeliers. A space was cleared for a piano, and for the birds to perch above it. Outside the castle, Queen Larkspur’s head hung on a pike. One could see it through the hall’s large windows.
Starling would have preferred to play without any fancy introduction. But Tanager insisted on crediting the victory against Larkspur to her, thanks to the song that Starling had crafted. She made sure that Thrush the seamstress used the best silk for the crinoline.
Vidame Shrike was shorter than Starling, with waist-length ginger hair braided with gold wire. She wore a scarlet hoop-skirt dress with an engraved bronze corset on the outside. Her black crown was thin and embossed with tiny bird silhouettes.
The two women’s eyes met. Starling made a clumsy curtsy, made clumsier by the large crinoline. Tanager held her arm so that Starling wouldn’t trip over her own heels.
“You have all my gratitude, Gentle Starling,” Vidame Shrike said in an imperious voice. “If not for your song, we would have lost the castle, and the war.”
“Think nothing of it, Vidame,” Starling squeaked.
“In return, your court position here will be permanent,” Vidame Shrike said. “You are going to be staying here for a long time, playing and writing for us, until your death. I hope you live a long life.”
Starling made another awkward curtsy. Tanager’s palm pressed into Starling’s elbow. Then the composer walked to the piano, stumbling over her stiff crinoline.
“You picked a good one,” Vidame Shrike whispered to Tanager. “It’s easier when they are scared.”
“I didn’t pick her, Your Majesty.” Tanager kept her voice level. “I merely picked up a delivery.”
“Liar. But I will forgive you this trespass. Do you remember the tale of Scheherazade?”
“The queen who married a king who wanted to kill her, and saved her life by telling him stories every night?” Tanager murmured. “Yes, I do.”
“I think we have our own little Scheherazade.” Vidame Shrike frowned. “Make sure she stays terrified. Also, make sure she wears that dark blue colour. It goes with her eyes.”
Tanager gave a curt nod. Her scars tingled. Starling settled herself at the piano, took a deep breath, and began to play.
Story copyright © 2019 by Priya Sridhar
Artwork copyright © 2019 by P. Emerson Williams
A 2016 MBA graduate and published author, Priya Sridhar has been writing fantasy and science fiction for fifteen years and counting. Capstone published the Powered series, and Alban Lake published her works Carousel and Neo-Mecha Mayhem. Priya lives in Miami, Florida with her family.
P. Emerson Williams has an extensive background as a multimedia artist whose work synthesizes alchemical musical expressions with visual art, video, and performance. As a member of UK theatrical company FoolishPeople, his work includes the creation of soundscapes and scores, set and graphic design, and live and voice acting. Williams brings his visual work to performing live with Jarboe around the world, expanding these performances with aspects of multimedia, including painted banners, video using footage shot around the world, and animation created from his own visual art.