She's coming down the Chain, they say. They think she's singing a cover of that old song tonight, a vision in black: ebony hair midnight leather jet silk, silver eyes rimmed in kohl and lips smudged darker than bruises. The song is jinxed a hundredfold, blamed for everything from ruined cities to wrecked ships. But they say the Talisman has said she'll sing it. And the city loves her voice, velvety as smoke, floating over drum and bass, guitar and lithophone. So they'll come, standing room only.
You'll be there too, fingers clasping the neatly folded notes to pay the admission fee, exact change. You've selected the clothes you'll wear, shabby enough not to stand out in a crowd of college students, not so disheveled that the guards urge you elsewhere. Most importantly, you have a binder full of sheet music.
You may be the only person attending the performance for ethnomusicological reasons. Strictly speaking, you're not one of the Talisman's fans. You studiously sipped your beer or paged through Compound Time Signatures in Pre-Mrogardien Music while your roommates rhapsodized about the Talisman's extraordinary range or gossiped about the dancers she left scorched behind her: sultry Irissa, fierce Nyar Mai, even the courtesan-dancer Andrieste. This will be the first time you attend one of the Talisman's concerts. Although you've feared that you'd become entranced by her music, you can't stay away from a performance of this of all songs.
You arrive hours earlier than you think should be necessary. Even so, there's a line. The line is funneled through a labyrinth, as is fitting. The Coral and Anemone District is full of such mazes, most of them attached to the theaters and concert halls concentrated there. A performance is a holy experience. It is only fitting that its audience consecrate itself in preparation.
Like most city dwellers, you take this belief very seriously. At each turn of the maze you pause to recite a line of prayer to Veskhaya, Goddess of Forked Paths, and in one case a line to Dzengu, God of Dead Ends. You had looked up the route in advance, but nobody's perfect.
There's a keyboardist alone on the stage, isolated in a pool of pale light, hazy behind the sheerest of curtains, like a veil. He wears a veil himself, not a thick one, and his T-shirt is gray with a faded emblem of a long-stemmed black rose. He plays an orderly three-part fugue, his shoulders slightly hunched in concentration. You don't know who he is. The veil makes you wonder if he'll dance the Senetha with the Talisman. You remember that much about Kencyr, although it's not common knowledge.
You take your seat, which is lined with smoke-colored velvet, the marquetry slightly damaged where some past bored (and sacrilegious) spectator scratched at it with a knife. You could review the scores, but there is no use. The fugue is so different from what you expect of the performance to follow, yet it's making you jittery by itself.
Music is power: music lifted the stars into their places in the sky, music locked each world in sequence in the Chain of Creation. On the day the last song is sung, the silence that lies beyond the stars will surge forward, and the final confrontation between existence and not-existence will take place.
In the binder you have photocopies of lead sheets and scores: music that creates, music that preserves, music that destroys. Not the petty charms that help bread to rise, trains to run on time, or the dead to stay dead. No: what you have are threadbare transcriptions of grander stuff. You have sketches of motifs, yes; you can guess that one's threnody is based in a sawtooth wave honed sharp by filters. You have the bones around which the improvisation builds. But the music always changes, and in the interstices it draws that which will be, that which is, that which will no longer be.
And you know the more fundamental truths: as much as people are used to the hymns that greet each morning from the temples and the laments that grace each night, as much as people are used to hearing music as part of the fabric of their lives, it is more than that. Music changes individuals. Why else would the air be so thick with the exhalations of hundreds of eager listeners here? You can hear them murmuring among themselves about the keyboardist and his possible relationship to the Talisman.
Music changed you, too, drew you here. Your roommates might rib you about experiencing music through tracts and structural analyses when you could simply walk into any bar and listen to the latest band. They've come to the conclusion that your years of study have left you with no taste for anything but polyrhythmic drum ensembles or aleatory concertos. It's not true. If you don't go to concerts, it's out of admiration and terror. You feel both as you glance around at the waiting crowd, most of them dressed in shades of gray and black. They're waiting, just as the Kencyr have awaited the apotheosis of their task, their Tyr-ridan.
At last--there she is! It takes you a full four heartbeats to recognize the Talisman among the others. They don't paint her on posters except as a silhouette. She shouldn't be so tiny, you think; no opera singer's lungs here. But she's black-clad, and that bow, nearly sweeping the floor, is unmistakably, purely Kencyr. Something about the formality of the gesture awakens a warning twinge in the back of your mind. Unfortunately, you're no anthropologist--and then the Talisman starts to sing a low note that rises to a crescendo over the walking bass and the clattering, syncopated notes of the keyboard.
Alone of all the people in that hall, you know that what the Talisman sings, that old doomed song, is not a cover many times removed. Down the chain of years, it's changed and changed again. But her song--it's separated from the original by a veil finer than chiffon.
Afterwards you never attempt to write the words down, because it's not about words. You imagine that the painters and sculptors in the audience will never be able to capture her visage. Nor can you remember what she danced. It flits in your memory like a mayfly pattern, calligraphy strokes of motion. If no one remembers afterward, you wonder, what's the purpose of the Senetha veil?
Only later does it occur to you that perhaps the veil isn't to hide her face. It's to shield her viewers from the effects of the dance.
At some point you think there's thunder. There's a cold wind blowing through starry fissures in the walls. The lights flicker, shifting from blue to red to the inimitable color of storms. Brave as the music is, it's not enough. There's something missing: a dancer, a drummer, something.
"Tori," the Talisman says to the keyboardist. Taking off the veil with a muttered curse, she meets your eyes as the others are stumbling out. The expression in them is strangely rueful. Drawn by the entreaty, you approach the stage. She hops down. "This one knows."
"She's not the third," Tori says. But he, too, clambers down from the stage, just as gracefully, and raises one hand in a salute, soldier to fellow soldier. But you have never thought of yourself as a warrior before tonight.
"Even so," the Talisman says.
Up close, the Talisman is small, but now you know better than to be fooled by her stature. Blinking, you look around at the walls, the starkly empty seats. Wasn't this hall half-full with milling people just a minute ago?
"We couldn't save your world," she says. She looks around and grimaces. For a second, you imagine you see the shades of all the vanished people in her silver eyes. "We're still understrength and missing our third." She speaks to you almost as though delivering a personal apology from all her people. Later you will realize that this is not far from true. "But we'll find him or her, and we'll be prepared."
Then she flashes you a smile, one corner higher than the other. "We could use your help."
You hold out the binder, stammer that it holds all you know.
She shakes her head, not impatient so much as puzzled. "Not that," she says. "Of course it's useful. But the most important thing"--she thumps her chest--"is here. We're poor allies sometimes, to our sorrow, but excellent friends."
Tori laughs wryly.
"I'm Jame," she says. She's weary now. "And that's my brother Tori, and tonight we drink to the lees of a ghosted world." She holds her hand out, palm up.
Tori clasps his hand, and you place yours atop both.
You tell them your name.
She'll be going down the Chain again, and you'll be going with her.