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. I would feel her movement during the lighter portions of my sleep. One night, I woke up and saw her creep out of the room. I sat up and followed her.
We ambled past the two rooms belonging to the children, and then past the kitchen. Where was she going, I wondered. We moved past the entrance that led outside and along white-painted walls. When I saw the key she held, I finally understood. We kept the room locked so that the children didn’t mess about in it.
I felt odd creeping around my wife. I called out quietly, “Alexandre?”
“Oh, you’re here also,” she murmured, catching my eye. Her gaze went down a touch, and she stared…at my lips I suppose. She approached the door.
“It isn’t a good time to go into that room. It’s colder now,” I said.
She nodded, and then grabbed the metal doorknob anyway.
“It is cold,” she said. She let go and her hand stuck to the metal for a moment. But she put the key in and then took hold of the knob again.
This room wasn’t like the others in our home. It was an annexed addition. The house was a decent size for our degree of wealth, so there was enough space for me to add the renovation.
“Are you going to light our little stove in there at this hour?” I asked.
“I didn’t last time,” she said, stepping inside, “but it’s colder tonight.”
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 creature without the sense to attach the tendrils to each other. I followed her in and closed the door behind me.
“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, Anselm.” She crawled into the awkward construction, and then stopped halfway to add, “Oh, and I think yes to the fire after all.”
I accepted her bid, crouching by the little woodstove and filling it with cut logs and small sticks.
“How long have you been coming out here?” I asked.
“Hmm… not too long, and not every night.”
This extra room was constructed her, or rather, a room for her instrument. I thought that I was paying the higher sum, but you can never assume with Alexandre. I had thought that she was just going to buy a harpsichord and park it inside. Maybe add some semi-ornate furniture. Instead, she filled the room with this.
I am a musician myself, I play strings. Before we married, she learned from me. I make a good living, I’ve been to the city, I’ve played in the West, and on the Underside too. She has toured with me in the past, but she doesn’t anymore. Alexandre didn’t like the fret board, and fretless instruments frustrated her. She wasn’t a professional, so she could afford to be picky.
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 sound reverberated with the first. “La! It sounds so unusual! Some of them are still cold and sticking to my finger.”
“Didn’t you say you’ve done this before?”
“Yes,” Alexandre said, “but it wasn’t frozen like this before. The instrument was out of tune from the cold but…tonight it’s more so.”
I moved from the fire to an armchair across the room.
It’s fortunate that she had worked for 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 West. 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 beforehand, and put her in a good ranking when they worked together. Now the Kingdom is stable, and Alexandre’s work has left her with a sum from which we collect dividends. We pulled from that for this project. This is why I say it was her money, even though technically we share it.
And so, in this space, Alexandre created a demanding feat of engineering. The tension of so many wires was so high that we had to plant deep-set beams inside the walls to mount them to. And it wasn’t just the metals that cost us, it was also getting the mass of wires custom-crafted and wound in the right size. At least that, unlike tuning, was a struggle we only had to deal with once.
I suppose a large reason for all this work was so that she could avoid the aspects of musical instruments she didn’t like. She really did like playing music, but she also refused to have certain things done in any way but her own. That’s why she learned harpsichord, because, as she said, when it came to fretted instruments, “It’s irritating to have to mash strings down onto a bit of wood to change a note. It hurts my fingers.” She admitted that she liked the harpsichord, but said, “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 for whatever reason, to her the harp was “utterly tiresome!”
A song that I recognized sang past my ears; it was one I taught her shortly before we married. Every single note was off, but I could tell she was hitting the right strings. “Oh my, Anz, doesn’t it sound just awful?” She gushed.
Her pale face shone in the cold natural light. I watched her 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 plug my ears and just watch.” I winked, and she, reddening, stuck out her tongue.
I knew that despite her disagreeableness, she had talent and potential. I thought, maybe something will come of this, and so we invested in the project. The result of our efforts was this room-sized instrument, laid out like a series of harps, wound almost dangerously from wall to wall. Some came across at a level plane, and others were strung across diagonally on the left or right. Strings lay before her in large sets of twenty-four and thirty-six, and small sets of eight or ten. Many stood comfortably around her waist, others were near her head or down by her thighs.
Alexandre put on her playing gloves. “I don’t know how much I can do if my fingers get stiff.”
“Aren’t you afraid you might wake them up?”
“The little ones? No. They’re not that little anymore anyway.” She hit a note. The room was hot now, and the instrument was back in proper tuning. “We’re on an exterior wall, remember? I know about the volume I can play at safely, after all this time using it during the day.”
Alex used to play bare-fingered, but she decided—and I didn’t argue—that perhaps she should shield them a bit. One day she mused, “Now that I’m not fighting as much as before, I might try letting my hands get soft for once.” So I took her bid, and I stitched her some gloves with hardened tips. We went through quite a few until I figured out a way to sew them tight enough to survive her absurdly aggressive style. I think she is right to use them, now that she has some peace in her life.
The mercenary work and the royal hire weren’t the first time she’d had to do battle with swords. Her fighting skill came from a time in her life that was darker, and I could see that past welling up in her as she played. It seemed to me that, to some extent, she to let herself get sucked into violent situations. Once she was in favour of the King, and once we had children, I think she finally had the excuse she needed to turn down that old work, and do something else with her mind.
Alexandre started playing a tune that was new to me, sombre notes she must have practiced previous nights. She hammered higher notes with her gloved right hand, holding a melody with piano-like sounds. Lower notes she strummed with her left hand. They swept across sets of strings arranged specifically for playing these sorts of chords one-handed. The chords kept rhythm, sounding like an odd guitar underneath the melody. Occasionally, she would find time between longer chords to visit other strings with her left hand and add a few notes to harmonize the melody.
I listened to her, experiencing her emotions sympathetically. I could feel the deep sorrowed chords, and the pain that she sang out with the melody. It was a work unfinished, with great potential. I could tell she’d only practiced a few times, but it was captivating beneath the roughness. And as I listened, I began to also watch. I began to pay close attention especially to the rhythm and incomplete harmony. I started moving my hands along with hers, and apart from hers.
As she played on, I stood. I strode around the instrument and slid in beside her. She, taking my cue, began repeating a portion of her song so that I could find my footing and test the strings. I found an accompanying rhythm to match her chords with my left. My other hand briefly tangled with hers as I took over the harmony, building on what she had struggled to do with two hands. Once we had found our places around each other inside the instrument, she stopped repeating and the song continued. Alexandre’s right hand danced delicately across the melody and I improvised along, keeping the core of the song intact. The strings soothed a melancholy I didn’t know I had. Once I’d gotten involved enough in my portion of the piece, I looked to my side. Alexandre was smiling, and shedding tears, and seemingly keeping her focus on her hands. The two of use completed the instrument. Two people, playing four parts. This was it, this was the Quartet. I am confident that it’s better for us to play songs like these together than for her to do it alone.
Alexandre shifted and her left hand played a new pulsing rhythm as we moved into the last section of the song. We reached the climax, and I adapted as smoothly as I could. It was a little faster now, and the music was less intricate and more intense. I felt the heat of the room and the heat of our motions. When I looked over to Alexandre, I saw that her tears were gone, replaced by perspiration. She pushed into the pulse of the song, over and over until she struck a set of notes three times in succession, and moved her hands to block me from playing further.
“That’s where it stops,” she breathed.
I looked around, surrounded by the Quartet. The stove was running low on fuel. “This room was getting colder. It might be time to return.”
“Yes,” she murmured. We climbed out and she put a hand on her flushed face. “Should we…bring some of this heat with us?”
“Oh.” I paused, and then took her bid. “Yes, if you wish.”
I closed the drafters in the stove, she locked the door behind us, and we crept back to the bedchamber together.
I’ll likely do a third draft of this short story, but this is a pretty strong redraft of Quartet.
P.S. For those who read The Solune Prince, one more chapter is coming out next week, and then it will be on hiatus until Summer 2020.
For more information, you can check out this essay blog on the topic.