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Quartet

[Version 1. 1504 words. Short story.]

She would rise in the middle of the night on some nights, the long nights, and wander to the window. I only began to notice when I started sleeping as much as she did. One night we wandered away down the halls. Our house of a decent size for our degree of wealth, but the property is modestly large. I had to make an addition for her, a room to herself, or rather, a room for her instrument.

I am a musician myself, I play strings. Before we married, she learned from me. But Alexandre did not like the fret board, and fretless instruments frustrated her. I make a good living, I’ve been to the city, I’ve played in the East, and on the Underside too. She has toured with me in the past, but now she does not. Perhaps it is fitting, though, that she has accumulated most of our shared wealth rather than I. While I built the vessel, she inhabited it; I built the room and she built her instrument.

We ambled past the four rooms belonging to the children, and then past the kitchen; past the entrance that led outside, along white-painted walls, finally approaching the door. It wasn’t a good time to go into that room. The nights were long and colder now. She touched the cold metal handle, and then paused, gazing about absentmindedly.

“Oh, you are here also,” she murmured, catching my eye. Her gaze went down a touch, and she stared…at my lips I suppose.

“Yes. Do you intend to light our little stove in there at this hour?”

“I was intending to strike the wires cold, but we might…”

Alexandre, with resolution now, took the knob and turned it. I heard her palm stick as she lets go and pushed the door outward.

The full moon filtered in through the high, thin windows and choice skylights. I had made sure the space remained private for her. Ice-coated metal strings shimmered from wall to wall at varying angles and heights, as if woven day after day by a large spideress without the sense to attach the tendrils to each other. My spideress.

“Oh,” she whispered, “I’ve never seen it sparkle like this.”

“I suppose it only gets cool enough in here during the night.”

“Watch me play, Anselm.” She crawled into the awkward construction, and then stopped half way to add, “Oh, and I think yes to the fire.”

I followed her in and closed the door behind me, silently accepting her bid. I crouched by the little woodstove and filled it with cut logs and small sticks.

I had thought I was paying the larger sum by building the addition, but I suppose I should have expected the extravagance that would result from her particularizing nature. I should not have assumed—I can never assume with her—that she would have simply parked a nice harpsichord in that room and perhaps some semi-ornate furniture. No, instead she created a feat of engineering so demanding that we had to plant the beams in the walls—the beams she tied her wires to—so deep in the ground that we had to get a written exception to prove that we weren’t mining or excavating or whatever the bylaw had forbidden..

It is fortunate that she has in the past worked directly under the King as a sort of Royal Agent. Alexandre has a long past, longer than mine, even though we’re roughly the same age. Not too long ago, we did mercenary work in the east. Her tactical mind rewarded her with the attention of the new King, who she worked for during some…short term projects that required sword hands. The King had known of Alexandre for a long time, and so she put her in a quite high ranking.

The Kingdom is now stable, and Alexandre’s royal work has left her with a sizable lump sum from which we collect dividends. For this project, we pulled from the lump sum, and this is why I say it was her money.

A note rang out.

“Oh, listen!” She giggled. “I knew it! The tuning is a little off on the thinner lines.” She hit another. A deep tune reverberated with the first. “La! It sounds so unusual! And the winding of this one is sticking to my finger.”

I moved from the fire, closing the door, and moving to an armchair on the other end of the room. I watched her put on her playing gloves. Strings wound around her in sets of twenty-four and thirty-six, some comfortably at waist height, others high, near the head, and also a couple sets down below. This almost machine-like construction would be a nightmare to tour with, but it fit her well. We at least made sure that it faced away from the house so that once she was skilled enough, we could install some great doors in the outer wall to allow for an outdoor audience. There was method, though it was quite possibly sourced from her refusal to have certain things done in any way but her own. She didn’t much like strings, at least, not pressing them down on a board. That’s why she’d learned harpsichord, because, as she said, “It’s just stupid to have to mash these dumbass strings down onto a bit of wood in order to change the note!” And then, “I truly do not like these buttons. It is too… distant from the source. I want to see the vibrations! And I want to feel them as I strum.” And, well, for whatever reason, to her the harp was “utterly tiresome!”

What resulted was room-sized instrument that was laid out like a series of harps, strung dangerously from wall to wall. It wasn’t just the metals that cost her—well, really us—it was getting wires of the right size custom crafted and wound.

A tune that I recognised sang past my ears; it was one I taught her shortly before we married. Every single note was off. “Oh my, Anz, doesn’t it sound just awful?” She gushed.

I watched her pale face, shining in the cold natural light, and her contoured, warlike arms as she struck the wires with the hard-tipped gloves.

“Just awful,” I said, “but I think as long as it is you playing, I can perhaps shove cotton in my ears and just look on your form.” I winked in mock, and she, reddening, stuck her tongue out.

Alex used to play bare-fingered, but she decided—and I did not argue—that perhaps now that she wasn’t, as she said, “killing people as much as before,” maybe she would try letting her hands get soft for once. I stitched her some gloves with hardened tips. Well, I made a few. Rather, I sewed together pair after pair until they stopped falling apart from her absurdly aggressive style, and until we found a material that she liked to strike at and silence notes with.

She changed songs almost suddenly, and I had to reach into the past to figure what it was. The room was hot now, and the instrument was back in proper tuning.

“Oh, you started at the end, you cheat.”

“You cheat!” She said, “I don’t know why you waited until after the wedding to teach me this one.”

“Well, I—” The song ended, and she faded into something else, speeding up and coming down harder on the strings.

This was her song now, one of the few she had managed to write. It wasn’t one of the newer ones, one of those written down using the strange musical notation I’d had to invent to accommodate the mass of parts her instrument entailed. This maximalistic spirit that her music had was part of why we chose the name it has now. This quartet, an instrument on which one person can play the parts of two guitars—three if you have a piece with a large amount of sustain notes. But…there is room for two, and I suppose that it isn’t truly a complete instrument without both of us.

She slowed down, tired as one should be in the middle of the night, and then stopped altogether, panting. Drops were running down her face, shimmering bluish against her moonlit neck.

“Oh, the heat. I’ll close the drafter for you, and maybe we can call it a night…again.”

“No, I…like this heat. You remember, we…wash tomorrow, so leave it open for now.” She clawed her way out between the strings, coming out the wrong side towards me, and stepping over sets of wires, until she tripped and fell. I grabbed her arms, and she stood suspended for a moment until she sort of caught herself with her other leg.

“Catch me!” I pulled her out, and then she pushed us onto the armchair.

I did end up closing the drafter before we strode back to bed together, dignified—I pushed us onto that too, and we reciprocated before calling it a night, for the second time.

Daniel Triumph.

Alexandre is featured—younger—as a main character in the serialized novel The Solune Prince (currently free online) if you need some more of this.

You can also see some of her violent exploits in the short pieces Wraith Hail and Raze.

Interestingly, this is one of the few works featuring Alexandre that isn’t from her perspective. (And doesn’t have her causing destruction.)

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