The Span Of Empire – Snippet 36


The permissions and orders advanced to Third-Mordent from Ninth-Minor-Sustained brought her ship directly to the harmony master’s docking stage. She left her ship in the care of the younger Ekhat and entered into the station. Of all the tones she heard when she passed through the entryway, one immediately locked into her mind and drew her forward. She didn’t know the path she followed, but several lengths of hall and several corner turns later she stood before two Ekhat on the edge of entering predator mode, crouched, heads beginning to lower, red-rimmed eyes focused on her as she approached. She came to a stop before them, restraining her own predator instincts with moderate difficulty.

“You are Third-Mordent,” one of them sang in jagged tones.

She said nothing; just let her forehand blades ease out enough to show their gleaming white edges. After a moment, the other sang, “Enter.”

The doors opened before Third-Mordent. She passed between the two guards and entered the great hall, where she was greeted by a towering wave of sound. Choirs of many different types of servients, many of which had been uplifted by the Complete Harmony, were clustered around the periphery of the room, each cluster producing different leitmotivs and harmonies. Any combination of clusters would seem dissonant, yet the complexity of the whole was an aural structure that was nothing less than a buttress of harmony for the Melody. The staccato chants, the screams, the yammers, the soaring glissandos into aria figures; Third-Mordent would have called it all divine if she had had a concept of God.

In the center of the great room, turning slowly from left to right, stood Ninth-Minor-Sustained. For the barest moment, Third-Mordent considered her. The harmony master had wide repute among the Complete Harmony faction; among all Ekhat of any knowledge, for that matter. And she was old; with her own eyes, Third-Mordent saw that the harmony master’s tegument was even darker than it had appeared in the hologram projector of her ship, having moved from white past old ivory and approaching weathered bone. That and the harmony master’s size made her easily the oldest Ekhat Third-Mordent had ever seen.

Third-Mordent remained still as the doors closed behind her. She saw the harmony master’s head tilt suddenly. In the next moment, Ninth-Minor-Sustained had spun and was suddenly confronting her, head looming high. Third-Mordent remained still, every muscle tense under her tegument, the barest edge of forehand blades showing.

They made a tableau filled with menace as the music sounded all around them. Third-Mordent could sense predator aggression tensioned in the great legs of Ninth-Minor-Sustained, could see the left forehand blade start to ease out of its sheath. For her part, the full edge of both forehand blades was exposed, and she could feel her vision beginning to narrow to the form of the harmony master.

Third-Mordent had no idea why she was here. Ninth-Minor-Sustained had ordered her presence without explanation. She had no illusions that she could defeat Ninth-Minor-Sustained if the harmony master’s purpose was to exact a price for being the messenger of dissonant disaster. Ninth-Minor-Sustained was renowned for being a formidable fighter, and her scars and her survival to reach her current size proved that beyond a doubt.

Only the slim thought that there might be another reason for her own presence kept Third-Mordent from springing into an all-out assault on the harmony master, suicidal though it would have been. But she was poised for it, muscles tensed, leaning forward slightly, when suddenly Ninth-Minor-Sustained stepped back once, twice, and again.

Third-Mordent almost fell over as the object of her focus removed herself. Disoriented for a moment, she heard Ninth-Minor-Sustained sing for her ears alone, “So you are not a fool to waste yourself to no purpose. Well.”

The harmony master turned a quarter-turn and passed a manipulator in a motion to draw focus to the choir clusters. “What would you add to this?”

Third-Mordent forced her muscles to relax, and stood straight. Her fore-hand blades folded away; her manipulators were carried high, poised to be of use. She turned her mind to the music again, this time listening to it with all of her attention.

Ninth-Minor-Sustained did not rush Third-Mordent. She was allowed to listen to a lengthy portion of the performance.

It dawned on Third-Mordent that the music was a great canon when she finally heard one of the clusters return to themes they had uttered when she entered the room. She looked around, counting the clusters. If they each had their own theme, this was the largest canon she had ever heard of.

There! Another cluster began its theme again. So many themes; none were familiar. She listened again for a full iteration of the canon, auditory sensors at their most sensitive, hearing as each cluster sooner or later restarted its theme.

Ninth-Minor-Sustained remained silent.

Now Third-Mordent had the whole form in her mind. She saw the structure as she heard it, and there were moments . . . there!

Third-Mordent had an inspiration for a theme–a motif, really–and the moment for it to begin was fast approaching. She gathered herself as tensely as if she were going into predator mode, focused on one thing alone. She even felt her vision beginning to narrow down.

The moment came. Tone erupted from Third-Mordent; high and piercing, it keened and wailed, soaring above the other themes, held by her breath support until it descended in fractal tones to a quavering that morphed into a hard pulse. She broke the pulse at just the right moment, then launched again into her motif. This time it was harder, sharper, containing an edge of rage that she could not suppress, still touched as she was by the disaster she had seen the wreckage of in Descant-at-the-Fourth’s system.

When Third-Mordent broke after the pulse the second time, Ninth-Minor-Sustained raised a manipulator to prevent her launching a third iteration of the motif.

“Interesting,” the harmony master said for Third-Mordent’s hearing only. “It has the virtue of simplicity, but it carries all before it. A worthy addition, I think it.”

Third-Mordent watched, almost appalled, as Ninth-Minor-Sustained stalked over to the largest cluster and divided it in two. At a sign, one continued with its original theme. The other waited until the harmony master, judging the passage of the work, cued them. The new cluster reproduced Third-Mordent’s motif. To perfection, she noted in the haze of surprise that was in her mind.

It came to Third-Mordent that the performance was of Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s work, and that the harmony master had considered her improvisation of sufficient merit to be included in the structure of the canon. Shock followed upon shock.

Ninth-Minor-Sustained turned to Third-Mordent. “Come.” Nothing more than that, but the younger Ekhat followed the harmony master as if she were being towed by a cable.