Am I a villain?
My flute cracks over my knee, and what is left of my heart shatters as if they are one. With the sound of breaking glass, my legs collapse. As my knuckles hit the hard dirt, thunder crawls up from the ground, trying to shake the pipe’s fragments free from my grasp, but my fists refuse to unfurl.
In either hand, the two largest remnants of my flute resemble daggers. Realizing this—that even broken it is still a weapon—is what finally makes me let go.
As the jagged-edged cylinders roll away, tears drench my face, incongruous with the laughing image trapped in my mind.
Barak will never laugh again, and it’s my fault.
I will never play again.
You have to get up, Anastasia. They can’t find you here alongside him, not if you want to live.
I want to live. Death, especially death without a Soul Singer, is a scary thing.
I’m on my feet. My skirt snaps like a flag in the wind, trailing behind as my footfalls count a beat in sixteenth notes.
I don’t make it far.
Men form a wall at the village gate. Because they know I’m a villain?
They are foreigners, bedecked in plated armor that clicks offbeat. Crests of the royal capital adorn their weapons and capes. They are cowards, every one, as bespoken by their heart songs.
“Anastasia has excellent hearing,” our village chief says with a nervous chuckle. “You asked for our Soul Singer, and here she is.”
I step backward, but the mud grabs my heels. They surround me, too loud, too clashing.
Tension dwells in music. Like in a good story, it leads the ear with patterns. It adds interest by subverting expectations. Also like in a story, there is a fine line between exploiting the unexpected and devolving into chaotic nonsense no one wants to hear.
This cacophony is the latter. I reach for my flute. I can fight this disorder. I can sweep it into something of beauty. But the loops of silk ribbon at my hip hang loose and empty.
I shouldn’t attempt to play any part of these men’s heart songs lest Barak’s fate fall upon them as well. My flute is broken.
And so is my heart.
The smiles of the dying haunt my vision as the shackles on my ankles and neck cackle at my every breath. They cannot drown out the ethereal sounds that bounce between this antechamber’s thin pillars. Twelve men. Twelve agendas, lives, hopes, and dreams. Twelve heart songs. The only thing they have in common is their trembling vibrato.
The light streaming through a stained-glass ceiling reveals only eight guards and one steward. Where are the other three? There is no place to hide, not unless their skin can blend with pale green stone. Two corridors skulk in darkness on either side of an ornate chair, but they appear empty.
Despite his lanky, teetering form, the steward is the bravest. He stands closest, within an arm’s reach, if I could lift my arms. The guards force me to my knees by pulling my chains through a ring in the floor.
I don’t kill with my hands, you dimwits. I wish I didn’t kill at all.
“I do not believe in Soul Singers,” the steward claims, “but I need this to work.”
“It doesn’t work, not how you think,” I shrill. My voice clashes with the diminutive, low chords of his song. These tug at me, wishing to be heard aloud. If I listen, if I release them, will this problem go away?
“I know the stories,” he croons.
“Then the stories are wrong. I’ve told you, one who hears their heart song will die.” The crack of my shattered flute recycles in my head, a constant reminder.
“We’re here to test that,” the steward insists. His fingers snap on beat with the castanets of his song.
More chains rattle in response, and the missing men emerge from the hallway to the throne’s right, two guards with a bound prisoner between them.
“You will perform for him, and we will see if he is healed like the stories say or, as you claim, he dies.”
My gaze locks with the prisoner’s as they push him to his knees, close enough the ragged hem of his apron brushes my stained skirt. I hardly hear the clack of his bare ankles against the stone. His song shimmies across my flesh and sinks into my bones.
I never let anyone this near.
As the steward leans over me, his melody tries to take over. The songs are competing shouts in unknown languages; his is louder but no more convincing.
Unfortunately, I do understand his words. “Go on. If you do not play his heart song, I will ensure you die.”
I am not brave enough to face my end, not without another Soul Singer to release my song.
The prisoner looks at me through watery, swollen eyes. He does not see a woman with hair the color of coal and skin the shade of moonlight. He does not see the tears spilling from my gray-green eyes, though I do, reflected in the pupils that have swallowed his irises.
He sees a monster risen from his deepest nightmares, the kind of thing that has no form and cannot be described.
“It will kill him,” I whisper, throat tight. His melody is an ocean swishing within me. I dig my fingers into my thighs so as not to sway with its rolling trills.
The steward shrugs. “He is a criminal. He is sentenced to die anyway.”
“I am not an executioner.”
Careful. The more I speak, the more his chorus slips into my voice.
I have witnessed no trial. I do not know what they accuse him of, if he did it, and why. What I know is that this man lives in fear, every note overwhelmed by the elongated, quivering chime of a bell.
A pipe falls past my eyes, and my hands catch it without my permission, fingers splayed over familiar holes. It is a lost limb returned, a part of me that should never have been thrown away.
I am weak. The flute rises to my lips, and I cannot stop it. But I am not entirely a puppet tossed by the waves of what I hear. From deep within, I scoop up an old melody stolen from the first man I watched die.
It starts slow, gentle bass notes sliding over icy hills. The beat scampers from behind them on weightless wings and nudges them faster with the sharp ticking of its beak. The notes stumble, rolling together, and leap, trapped in an echoic valley.
Painted on the backs of my eyelids, the man’s story flows from his childhood in the glacier-ridden north to the open sea. The sun warms the timbre of his song, salt thickening every pitch. Reversing couplets and triplets become water crashing from either side. My fingers fly faster, spinning the shriek of a thousand hurricanes.
Holding the illusion of life, the song beckons to the incomplete hearts hearing it. Now the tune will always be a part of them. Their unfinished songs swirl around me, finally aligned, yanking at my fingers to play them instead.
Doing so would mean plucking the strings of their souls. Their pain would vanish, their regret and anything that weighted their smiles.
You have a gift, my mentor said when she realized I, too, could hear the songs of other’s lives. You must never play what you hear unless that one is ready to leave this world. When the last note fades, they go with it, existing only in memory.
I should have listened.
My eyes dart between the men. The song holds them rapt and enthralled, but it does not belong to any of them. If there is no change in the prisoner, the steward will know I disobeyed, and he will summon Death to me.
I take the chimes of my target’s fear and weave them into the ballad of the old mariner. As I play, the prisoner grows stronger, spine no longer bent and cheeks no longer sunken. Bags fade from beneath his eyes. Bruises vanish.
Hopefully I haven’t taken too much.
Gradually, I evolve his line until it is no longer recognizable and work it into silence. His fear is released into the world, existing only in memory.
No longer suppressed, his bravery compels him to his feet. His chains jangle as he swings at his captors. Our captors.
Punch. Kick. Not wanting to see, I close my eyes, but I still hear the percussion their skirmish provides, everything on beat. Metal rings against metal, squealing as it scrapes. A gasp. A grunt. A scream.
Is this my fault, too? Another noose of guilt braids itself around my neck. I shrug it away.
I don’t want to hear, but my ears have no lids. Playing louder, I pretend the sounds of the dying man alongside me have always been part of the song.
“He died, just like I said he would.”
My chains rattle their agreement, muffled by the steward’s tight grip as he leads me up wending stairs.
“Your song healed him. It was what he chose to do with that renewed strength that got him killed. That will not be a problem this time.”
Because this time he wants me to play the heart song of a child not yet a year old. The boy is the only offspring of our king, and I am told he burns with invisible flames that cannot be quenched.
We enter a room of windows. They showcase the entire world, more valleys than I knew existed carpeted by stout trees. My village squats on a ridge at the edge of the horizon, little more than a speck in the distance as this castle once was to me.
The sun is not shy here like the skittish shadows hiding beneath metal furnishings—a cradle, a rocking chair, a chain mail rug. Sheer lace softens the aesthetic and adds a hazy blue.
I hear the prince’s song before I see him. Its beat is the feet of a cheetah on the hunt, unrelenting and nearly too swift to distinguish. Each touch is a moonbeam, weightless and cold. The high voice of a piccolo dances above it, twirling in the chaos of a riptide.
The steward hauls me to the crib’s side. Its fabric-wrapped bars cast striped shadows over the prince; he too is a prisoner, but not in any way that can be helped. His song—his purpose and his will—is much too grand for his tiny body. It bursts from him in the only way it can, a fever that tears him apart.
“You will play his heart song and heal him,” the steward instructs.
My fingers tighten on the flute they gave me. I want to play this song. It is an explosion in the night sky, a firework formed of a million dazzling pieces, the flicker of every spark redrawing the scene.
It is filled with so much laughter, adventure, and wonder that it cannot be contained.
Just like Barak’s.
As a child, Barak, too, suffered fevers, but that strong will burning in his song—the very source of his ailment—was what pushed him to survive it.
I was the one who killed him.
I see his sky-colored eyes, somewhere between blue and gray and deeper than the heavens, bound to me by the chords of his song. It had called to me from the day I was born, louder than the other lives of the village. I knew where he was, always. I knew how he felt, what he wanted, the greatness he was destined for.
My mentor noticed how my heart skipped whenever he drew near, how my feet could not stay still when he spoke to me.
“That one is a spiderweb sparkling with dew,” she warned, but I thought only of the beauty in that comparison, not of the danger. I made the mistake of telling him about his song.
Ever curious, Barak nagged me to perform it. I refused.
Then he returned from the hunters’ trial having failed. He would not be allowed the career he wanted. He believed himself worthless and unloved. I didn’t need to hear him say it. His song swelled with the sadness like a broken, sinking ship.
I thought I could be a mirror to show him the work of art he was. I could take his melancholy, release it, and weave confidence in its place. I would see him smile again. I had only ever played the songs of elders already drawing their last breaths. Barak was young and healthy; he would survive.
As I played, time swelled into a tsunami spilling past the edge of the world, huge, fast, and immeasurable. Everything froze, one moment stretched into eternity, but eventually, my fingers flubbed the notes. My lips lost the strength to command the wind, and rather than let the song devolve into a putrid mess, I gathered up its loose ends and wound them into a crescendo, the dregs of my might poured into it.
It was a knot. I thought it could tie Barak here, bind him to me. But as I breathed the last note, all my air gone, Barak’s eyes closed.
A final exhale escaped his smile. “Thank you, Anastasia.” Then he was still.
His song had ended. I had ended it, and along with it, I ended his life.
The steward’s pale gaze catches on my hesitating fingers, on my legs readying to run.
“People have lined up at the gate for a show of some sort. If you play, they’ll celebrate you. If you don’t, they’ll see your execution.”
The threat is a bitter wine scratching at my throat and dulling my senses. They’ll celebrate me? I’ve never had a party in my honor. Barak was the first to thank me for my music. The prospect is a lure. As if a string, it tows the flute to my lips and drags supporting excuses along with it.
The prince’s song is amazing. I would be selfish to keep it to myself. It’s unfair to the world to let it remain hidden. There must be some way I can make this work. The child will not die.
Before I decide how to accomplish that, the melody guides my fingers through quick, repeating notes. A second passage floats in above it and lands like a wave, hitting hard, then receding. Before it can fully fade, the first returns, bolder and churning. Staccato strikes leap between rivers of deep tones.
Gaze locked with the prince’s, I see armored men marching over the mountains, cloaked in a haze of smoke. As the flute trills and the beat grows softer, a beautiful woman laughs on a moonlit balcony.
My brows draw together. A heart song spins the tale of its owner’s life. The images I see are always those of the past, yet this…can this be a song composed by Destiny?
I must stop. The future is not mine to see, not mine to end.
With every ounce of my strength, I tear my gaze from the prince’s and shut my eyes. My fingers waltz through one more phrase before I still them, finishing on a high, sharply cut note. It doesn’t sound like an ending at all.
It is not an ending. It is a cliff, and I dangle from its edge.
Several breaths pass before the steward calls for a nurse. I cannot move. A tiny sun has taken the place of my heart, threatening to explode. I want to let it out. It deserves to be free, yet my unworthy, shaking hands curl against my chest and hold it in place. It singes its prison bars. My bones will crumble as ash, yet I do not let go.
The prince giggles. People gather, shouting about miracles and joy. Their prince is better.
I am not. Past, present, and future flicker before my eyes. The next refrain of the prince’s song reverberates in my skull and echoes in my every joint. It grows louder until I hear nothing beyond it, not even my own screams.
This is insanity.
My chains are gone. As the steward promised, there is a celebration, but though I stand in the middle of it, I can think only of the unfinished song. Though the flute rests safely in the loops of my belt, my fingers rush through unvoiced sequences. I quiver like a pine facing a tempest.
The ditty honked out by the band in the courtyard is a star twinkling in the night. The song trapped within me is a summer sun.
I am weak. I know this. I cannot stop my feet as they carry me to the edge of the dancing crowd. My movements are small at first, stiff like an ancient tree greeting a gale. They don’t match the beat everyone else follows.
I leap with a cymbal clash heard by no one but me. My black hair fans in front of my face, blocking the unsteady light of the torches. If only I could braid it as elegantly as the noble ladies here. Then maybe it wouldn’t look like spilled ink coating my hands as I push it behind me, cover my ears, and close my eyes.
I twirl, legs locked around one another. Someone takes my wrist and my waist, but I swirl away from him in a slight bow. I am no longer a tree; I am a river gliding over and around anything that stands in my way, ever flowing.
Tears give shine to my cheeks. They are an elixir of ecstasy and pain. Even with this release, the sun within me blazes. I am a boiling stream. Though every step transitions seamlessly to the next, tremors bite at the grace of each one. My teeth winnow at my bottom lip to keep my voice from escaping.
On the toes of one foot, I pivot, leg lifted in the slowest of kicks as an unheard chord stretches into the next measure. A timpani flattens it, and I drop low, arms sweeping like a duel-wielding swordsman. Horns dash into a cascade as I rise anew, realizing the band has quieted.
Everyone stares. Why? I am silence. Blood drips down my chin from my efforts to keep it that way.
I don’t stop. I can’t. The burning is only bearable when I move with it.
Others move with it, too. They can’t hear it, but the prince’s unfinished song shines through me, silent yet loud enough to touch their hearts and align them.
It is not enough. The song grows impatient. Is the prince even out here? If I play his song away from his presence, will it still leave him? Or will I only end the him that existed in the moment I last heard his song? Does the melody trapped within me still belong to him?
My flute slides from its loops at the urging of rebellious, reckless hands, but as it touches the blood at my chin, everything stills.
With a glower as fierce as a wolf’s, the chief of my village stands in the arch at the end of the courtyard.
“Fools! This is not what the Soul Singers’ sacred gift is for.”
A crowned man stands alongside him, armored soldiers behind them. The metal of their clothing and weapons glints in the firelight.
The steward speaks, but I don’t hear him. The chief’s heart song rings steady and slow, but it is loud. Alone, it is boring, but he is Barak’s uncle, and their melodies have the same roots. It calls to its kin, the song that is now woven into my soul, and a second sun rises within me. They are twins, alike only in their uniqueness and battling within my core.
Neither should be mine.
My hands fold into my chest, and my legs collapse. My knees strike stone, but I don’t hear the clack. My shoulder hits next, then my head, and there is nothing.
With a Soul Singer present, Death becomes a blanket of the softest fur. Without a Soul Singer, Death wears the face of your every regret, a kaleidoscope of your nightmares.
I see him now, standing amid the crowd. His song consists of every word I wish I never said. Barak’s stormy eyes stare at me from the center of shifting scenes, each one set in my village. Here I was born. Here I live. Here I will die.
People pack the narrow paths between homes as I am led onto the wall. Strangers, here to see a show.
Alongside me, the chief announces my crime. A Soul Singer is not above the law. A life completed too early must be repaid with another. Beyond that, I disgraced Barak’s legacy. No one heard his song but me, and I have no right to be the only one holding him in memory.
I cannot deny his song is within me, beating against my insides like a steady rain. Though I shake, again, I am silence.
As I near the wall’s edge, the wind howls a warning. It is a sheer drop. Darkness cloaks the gorge’s floor, dotted by white where the river grapples with boulders. Like a mother adjusting her child’s attire, a breeze combs my hair and fluffs my skirt as I stand with stone and mortar beneath my heels and nothing beneath my toes.
The chief’s hand will press into my back, and I will fall into the arms of the wind. She is the mother of all music, yet she looks so empty, always carrying the voice of others. She is the original Soul Singer; can she dull Death’s claws?
If I give my song to her, will she remember it when the rest of me is forgotten?
I close my eyes and open my mouth, drawing in the frigid mountain air. Then I sing.
Like my kidneys, my song is always there, but I don’t notice it. It is a difficult thing to grasp, draw up, and push out into the world. The first notes are an elder climbing steep stairs, slow, deliberate, and heavy with familiarity. Each one slides to its true pitch.
It falls and is tangled with the melodies of everyone here. The chief’s tenacious beat. The softer maracas of the woman behind him. Quick arpeggios skip over abysses.
Every heart song I have heard pours into one, an orchestra formed of many pieces all sung with one voice. It is light surging through my veins, and I can’t stop even if I want to.
I belong to the song, not the other way around, and everything else shrinks into nonexistence.
I dance with the wind as my partner, eyes still closed. My hair whips my face as I sway, hips twisting with the jump of three notes, a kick accompanying the delayed fourth. As the melody rises and falls, I bend with it. The cold kisses my wet cheeks.
This is my final song, my last dance. That is the price for sharing this tune with the world.
The finale spirals down, notes hit hard and quickly released. My moves sharpen, resembling a warrior’s strikes. What does it mean that my song ends this way?
As the echoes of the final note ricochet off the mountainsides and fade into memory, I feel the solid stone under my toes, warmer than the emptiness beneath my heels. Brows furrowed, I open my eyes.
There is no sound. Even the wind honors a moment of silence. My heart stops. The flattened crowd must be kneeling, bowed by the beauty of our collective song.
I know that’s not true. They lay in all positions, some on their faces, some on their backs, every one of them empty.
With my heart in my throat, I step over the chief and descend the stairs, accelerating with each husk I pass.
Run, Anastasia. You must flee. Follow the music elsewhere.
I do not kill with my hands. I wish I did not kill at all.
As I plod past the last of the bodies and exit the village gate, again I ask, am I a villain?