This entry is part 09 of 12 in the series Discordant Harmonies 1: A Pitch of the Scale

A while later, another knock came on Géta’s door. He shifted to eye the panel, wary now because of Asthané’s visit. The Mage could have returned. Why, he couldn’t fathom, but he didn’t fancy the idea of opening the door. Still, when the knock came once more, he got up to do so.

Shélan smiled at him. “Hello, Géta.”

Unable to restrain his joy at seeing the Priest, Géta opened the door and beckoned him in. “Hi, Shélan! I didn’t expect to see you again.”

“Why ever not? Did you think I could forget you?”

The tease made him bob his head, cheeks warming. “A little.”

“Well, you made quite an impression upon me, young man. May I sit?”

“Anywhere.” Recalling himself, Géta shut the door. When he turned to face the room, he found Shélan seated where Asthané had sat. He shook himself from the memory and sat down next to the Priest. “Why have you come?”

“To see how you’re doing. Have you managed to make any friends?”

He frowned at his knees, fingers knotting in his lap. “Perhaps. A Mage trainee named Udé Elavée. We spent all morning together after breakfast.”

“Hm. I don’t know him, or of him, but as a Mage trainee, he should be somewhat levelheaded. Certainly not as wild as some of our Novices are. Any others?”

Géta shook his head. “Only him, truly.” He considered telling Shélan about the bullies, then decided not to. He didn’t want to make the Priest worry. “I’ve been doing my best to keep up with all my studies.”

“That doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed free time, Géta.” Shélan patted the back of his shoulder, chuckling. “We understand the vagaries of youth and won’t hold it against you if you take time to relax and play, as long as you don’t get yourself into trouble.”

“No, I don’t want to get into trouble. Just keep up with my studies.”

“Well, take some time away from them. Leisure is just as important as anything else you do, for it reinvigorates the mind.” Shélan nodded as if to emphasize his words. “And how are your studies going?”

This got Géta on his feet, and he crossed the room to fetch the music he’d finished last night before bed. “Here. I did these yesterday for class. I know they’re not the best, but maybe you can help. My first assignment received high praise, and I think it’s because I used bits you’d critiqued before, but this is all new.”

The Priest accepted the pages. There were only three; one song of two pages and a half, another of three pages. There’d been no specific instruction for these except that they must be longer than a page and a half; Master Béelash had actually given the class a bit of a reprimand about the brevity of their typical assignments, and she’d been very firm on the requirement that they be longer in future.

“Would you like to see my first composition for Master Béelash’s class?”

Perusing the shorter of the two new compositions, Shélan shook his head. “I believe I’ve seen it.” He raised his head and indicated the desk. “May I?”

“Certainly.” Géta shifted to perch on the edge of his bed, too eager to read the Priest’s thoughts to relax.

Shélan gave him a little smile and moved to the desk, setting the mathematics homework aside. “When is this due?”

“Tomorrow, but I can skip reading Auben sresaph’s journal and fix them before breakfast instead. I’m meeting Udé at seven.”

The Priest didn’t reply, only nodding as he bent his head over the compositions once more. Géta fidgeted, rose to pace, sat down again, and found himself unable to remain. In desperation, he went to reorganize his stacks of clothes, wondering when his trunk would arrive. Not that he cared much for the clothes in it, but it would have been nice to have had something besides his school uniform to wear today. The thoughts on the wayward trunk reminded him of his letters to Alénil and his mother, and he tried to determine if they’d have arrived by now without any knowledge of how long things actually took to pass from Édalai to his home city in Séona, which was somewhat east of the capitol of the country. The initial letter from his friend could have been held here for a few days until his arrival.

“All right. Come.”

Shélan’s words startled him, and he made a little sound. “Are you finished?”

“Yes. I want to see what you think you can do with what I said.”

He crossed the length of the room as the Priest spoke and accepted the shorter composition from Shélan. These were pages printed with the staffs, thus Shélan’s notes were squeezed between the lines, above and below them, so Géta had to squint to read some of them. As before, the Priest hadn’t altered anything Géta had written, but he had put in suggestions for changes to improve the music. After having had so many such critiques on the trip up here, Géta no longer needed to ask the reasons why most of the suggestions had been made; he could see it in the suggestions themselves. He asked over something he didn’t quite understand, received a response, and nodded.

“I think I can do this, thanks.”

Shélan smiled at him. “The other is done as well. Truly, Géta, if you have any need for critique from me, please visit my classroom. I’m generally there before breakfast so any students I have can find me with their questions.”

“But I’m not one of your students.”

“If your composition skills improve as I suspect they will, you will be one day.”

Géta ducked his head, blushing again. “Oh.”

The Priest grinned now. “If you continue improving, you’ll be taken out of your beginning composition class and moved up to the intermediate level class within a few months. All you need are some small helps, and you’ll be able to see what you can improve in your compositions on your own pretty soon. I am happy to offer these helps you need, as my students are mostly beyond what help I can offer.”

“Are there any other Beginning Music Composition classes?”

Shélan sighed a little. “There are a few, but I feel Master Béelash to be the best of the instructors. In her days, she was quite famous, and still manages to astound listeners despite her growing deficiencies; look up many of the popular songs from your childhood and before, and you’ll find she wrote most of them. Not a Court musician, no, but she found great joy in composing for the Temple as well as for the lay populace.

“But I’ll warn you now, if you’re unable to write well enough, you won’t be passed up to master-level classes. The requirements are quite strict. I suspect you’ll spend some few years at least in the intermediate level classes, but that is normal. Master-level classes are primarily for those who are seeking a position in Court, and competition is fierce. Unfortunately, if you succeed in reaching that level, your efforts will be judged just as harshly as the others’ are, even though you aren’t seeking a position in Court. All the work of Temple composers’ music is judged this way because it makes our religious composers’ music that much better.”

Géta gazed at him, both enthused and afraid. This was more than he’d hoped for, this possibility. Becoming a Court musician—of any noble Court—was what he’d always wanted, deep down in the most secret part of his heart. To learn he still had such an opportunity—and that opportunity offered a place in the Imperial Court—gave him a thrill he couldn’t deny at the same time it made him go cold with the realization he truly could fail.

The Priest seemed to sense his feelings and gave him an understanding smile. “I’m sure you’ll do well. Your compositions are already very good, and you’re learning from my critiques—Master Béelash showed me the one you turned in earlier this week. If she believes you have a chance at making it to master-level classes—she brings to me the music only of students she feels have the spark, I believe is her term—I’m sure you’ll make it. You’ll just have to be patient and attentive in class.” He chuckled.

After a moment, Géta chuckled as well, and the smile remained. “I do appreciate your offer.”

“Good.” Shélan rose. “Now, I see you have mathematics homework to complete, so I suggest you get working on it. Your instructor won’t be pleased if you hand in an incomplete assignment.” He patted Géta’s shoulder. “I’ll see you soon. If not later this week, then next Jalza’s Day afternoon, all right?”

“All right.” Géta followed the Priest to his door.

Shélan turned to face him. “Take some time to relax today, and have a good week. Make sure to ask your new friend to introduce you around to his friends. One can never have too many friends.”

“I will.”

“Farewell.”

He caught the door as the Priest passed through. “Farewell, and thanks, Shélan.”

“My pleasure, Géta.”

With that, Shélan departed, and Géta shut his door. For a minute, he basked in the Priest’s approval, then took a deep breath. He wouldn’t impress anybody positively if he let his homework fall by the wayside, and he’d wasted too much of the day already. Time to finish the mathematics and start work on revising his compositions.

At seven, the tables were mostly full, and Géta followed Udé through the dining hall, letting the older student, who was a good head taller than he was, seek a place for them to sit. Chatter filled the room, an almost overwhelming sound due to the number of people present. Not so many adults, though there were a fair amount, as there were youth. The pair eventually ended up back near the service line, and Udé urged room on the end of a bench by sitting down and scooting to the left until there was just enough space for Géta to perch.

“It’s always a madhouse here this late. You were right, we should have met for breakfast at six. It’s just I’m never able to complete all my homework until morning.”

Géta chuckled. “You procrastinate on it, don’t you?”

Udé nodded with a great sigh. “I wouldn’t have come this early today, except I promised to meet you. Honestly, since my friends left, I don’t often get to breakfast.”

“Who were your friends?”

“One was training in Teesar’s Gift after she got done with Vlantil’s, so she’s off to some hospice or border or something now with her teacher. My other two friends were both a year or so older than me and finally graduated out of their Gift training and are at other Temples elsewhere in the Empire. They both went back to their homelands. I haven’t gotten any of the letters they promised to write, and I can’t write them until I have their addresses.”

Géta stirred his oatmeal a little, then scraped the preserves he’d selected into the bowl. “I’m waiting on a letter from my best friend back home.”

“His should get here before any of my friends’ letters. They’re all pretty far away and the two who finished their training were going to countries a bit distant from the heart of the Empire.”

“That’s too bad.”

Udé’s nod was emphatic this time. “I wish they didn’t float all the mail. It would go faster by train.”

“Perhaps it’s easier to sort if it goes over river.”

The land this side of the Unclaimed Mountains was veritably overrun with rivers and great lakes. A number of the Empire’s countries had taken to building islands in the middles of those lakes as had been done with most of the Capitol City, which had started out as a series of small-to-middling-sized islands and been built upon over the centuries.

“I doubt it.” Udé chuckled and glanced at him. “It just takes longer from the southeastern countries because of distance and the fact the rivers are shallower and not as wide, so it has to go overland in some areas. At least, that’s how Chéedan explained it to me, and she’d know. Her father’s a mail official, forget what exactly, though.”

Géta nodded, mouth full of oatmeal. They ate in relative silence for a few minutes, both too focused on their food for speech themselves. Those seated across from them rose and departed, and Géta relaxed. When he’d finished his oatmeal, he took his orange off his tray and peeled it. This wasn’t like things had been with Alénil, but it was better than it had been all of last week. He recalled his breakdown in Asthané’s presence, expressing his doubt of the offered friendship being sincere, and shook his head a little.

“Why did you befriend me?” He looked at Udé.

The Mage trainee sliced a bite off his apple. “Because you were up in the library reading some Mage’s journal. Don’t get many musicians I’ve seen up there, even though they all have the freedom to go, and I’ve never seen any of them in the section of Mages’ journals. Thought there might be more to you than just music.”

Setting a bit of peel in the empty bowl on his tray, Géta frowned at his friend. “Do you have something against musicians?”

Udé shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. It just seems like all they think about is music and getting some sort of attention for it, even if they’re attached to some Mage. At least, the ones I’ve come across. As if the fact they play music is something so special it deserves recognition just for that. They don’t seem to try very hard with anything else, so you rather surprised me when I saw you come into the reading area. You’re just different. Unexpected.” The Mage turned his head and pinned Géta with a smiling gaze. “So why do you read Mages’ journals?”

Géta pulled apart his orange, shrugging as well. “I just like them. They’re interesting, even the boring bits, and I like learning from what they’ve done. I wouldn’t ever want to be a Mage—because I’d have to give up music—but it’s nice to imagine being one sometimes.”

“I think it’s great you like them. You’ve put yourself on the Path of Wisdom, and my mentor says everyone can benefit from a little wisdom.”

He nodded, hands below the table as he took a section from the half of orange he’d kept hold of. When he glanced up as he bit into the slice, he froze, teeth in the flesh, as he caught sight of Teréesi and her cronies. They’d apparently seen him as well, for they altered their course and walked along the other side of the table behind the people seated there. Géta managed to close his teeth and remove the chunk of orange he’d bitten off into his mouth, but he swallowed with it between his tongue and the roof of his mouth, unable to chew. When the trio sat across from him, the only reason why his tongue was damp at all was because of the juice seeping from that bite.

Teréesi smiled over her tray, her gaze following the fall of his hand below the table with the other. “I see you’ve found a friend.”

He lowered his gaze as Udé tensed beside him.

“What do you want?” the Mage trainee demanded.

There was a sneer in the girl’s voice when she spoke again. “It’s a good idea to keep your hands above the table, musician. Wouldn’t want the Priests to catch you fondling your friend.”

He heard Udé’s gasp, and the trio calmly rose and left the table. For a long minute, Géta sat very still, tears stinging his eyes as he thought of how this just might ruin the friendship, though Udé hadn’t said anything at all about his sexuality. Udé could have somehow simply not seen the earrings he wore in the upper curves of his ears. He hadn’t been making any effort to comb his hair away from the hoops, after all, the past couple days. Not since his last encounter with Teréesi and her cronies.

Udé snarled beside him. “Don’t mind them. They’re just jealous we have a purpose and they’re their parents’ castoffs.”

Géta tucked the bite of orange into his cheek. “I told you I’m an atonement-tithing.” He couldn’t raise his voice above a whisper.

“Yes, but you’re a musician. Those sloughs don’t even have any ambitions. Just to live off their families or the Temple or something. Nothing like real goals. They’ll have a hard lesson to learn when the Temple casts them out when they turn eleven. They won’t survive long on the streets.” Udé sliced several more bites from his apple as he made this little speech, then seemed to notice Géta’s changed demeanor. He leaned over, nudging Géta with his elbow. “Hey, don’t let them get to you. They can’t truly do anything to you. Too many people would see what they did, and if they did try something, they’d be cast out as soon as a Priest found out about it.”

Géta shifted his tongue and chewed the bit of orange in his mouth, uncertain he should be comforted by Udé’s words but taking it nonetheless. After he swallowed, he nodded. “You’re probably right.”

“I know I am.” Udé grinned. “So don’t let them bother you. They’re nothing. Less than nothing.”

“The dirt on the street?”

The Mage trainee laughed around a mouthful of apple, nodding.

Asthané pulled the bell chain. Yesterday afternoon, he’d received a somewhat wary reply from Zéth inviting him to lunch today. He’d rushed through a bath and dressed with a feeling of dread, then deliberately left his sword belt behind, half afraid he’d be tempted to impale either Zéth or himself at some point. Honestly, he’d had half a mind not to come to this lunch, but he’d told Ruphlan’s representative he’d try this, so he felt he had to go through with it.

As before, Zéth himself opened the door. They gazed at each other for a few seconds, then Zéth stepped back, making a sweeping motion toward the room. Asthané entered and halted a few paces in. The condition of the room’s furnishings and rugs hadn’t improved. Perhaps Zéth was struggling for money, but if that were the case, he could have kept the furnishings which had been here. From what little Asthané recalled, many of the nobles in the palace used the furnishings that came with their rooms.

There was a meal set out on the table, the plates’ covers on the tray cart next to it. Zéth joined him, urged him toward the table with a hand on his elbow, and went on to sit in the chair facing the door. Asthané took the opposite seat.

“I almost didn’t respond,” Zéth said as he laid his napkin in his lap.

Asthané shook his head, scowling as he did the same. Boiled turkey, which was a palace staple, with gravy, and a couple of vegetables rounded out the main and side dishes, with two small doughy confections layered with rosefruit slices for dessert. He almost would rather have had the meat pies available in the High Temple, with whatever soup was being offered today, and an apple or orange for dessert. Simpler fare, but no less satisfying than this meal would be. And probably more enjoyable to eat, despite this meal’s richness, because he was here with someone he would far rather not have had to be in the company of right now.

He didn’t have much appetite, but he picked up his fork and knife and cut a bite from the slice of turkey breast. This situation was guaranteed to turn against him, but there was no way to stop it, and he’d have to find some way to force himself to go along with the turn in order to get what he wanted. Never before had Asthané hated politics so much.

Zéth ate some of his vegetables before speaking again. “So what is it you must ask for? Would you like some wine?” He indicated the wine bottle standing in the center of the table, cork already removed.

Asthané set his utensils down and poured himself some wine, then sniffed what he’d poured after, eying Zéth. He wasn’t sure he wanted to trust his old lover, but he hated being mistrustful. It felt wrong. Not wanting to talk was one thing, but this need to be wary just hurt. After a moment, he forced himself to sip as if he’d only been sampling the bouquet of the wine, and set the cup down. “I’d rather not ask.”

A smile briefly crossed Zéth’s face, apparently in response to Asthané’s sour tone of voice. “You never did like asking me for anything.”

It was the truth, but Asthané winced. The only person outside of his family he’d ever been able to accept anything from was Siéda. Well, and Ophelan, too, once they understood one another, but mostly Siéda, primarily because he’d been so insistent. Kind and generous to a fault, Siéda would probably have given every last stitch of clothing to the needy if he’d had the opportunity, then sold his precious lute for money to feed them.

“I need you to speak with the members of the International Council who are resisting the idea of sending an army to the Ruphlan-Inskiti border to cut off a war before it starts.”

Zéth’s brows rose as he chewed. They dropped when he sipped his wine. “I’d heard about that. Honestly hadn’t considered what side I should stand on. You’re saying I should support sending an army?”

Asthané cut more bites from his turkey. “It’s about the best chance the Grand Matriarch, Empress, and a few others can see of nipping this war before it starts. What else have you heard?”

“Vague rumors. Nothing much. Hints of a possible major war with Inski, but it’s only speculation.” Zéth ate a bite of turkey, chewing quickly. “I find myself unable to believe such rumors, however.”

Chewing now, Asthané nodded. When he finished, he stabbed a potato chunk with his fork. “The information’s coming from sresaph Jalza throughout the country. I suspect the vagueness has something to do with how our forthcoming enemy is preparing. Using a lot of magic to hide things, possibly. It’s a blind spot of the Gods’.”

Zéth shifted. “I don’t like the idea of our Gods having blind spots.”

Asthané chuckled briefly. “Most don’t, even the Priests, but it’s a fact. I personally think they choose to be blind, considering they would prefer all us humans to be at peace with each other.”

This got an expression of confusion from Zéth.

“Don’t you remember your history?”

Zéth huffed a breath. “Asthané, I had Imperial History when I was between five and seven. I hardly remember when my own country joined the Empire, much less anything else.”

Asthané scowled. “You need to refresh your memory. Essentially, the Gods gave the world—or at least this continent—one Mage around a thousand or so years ago. Sethe. He lived in some backwater lake country east of here, precisely between a trade ‘road’ from Ghulia and what is now Pilaan on the edge of the Unclaimed Mountains—the area was mostly unclaimed at that time. Then, the Gods told Priests of every country there was a Mage about, where he was, and let us all trek down there to find him. I forget the details, but our Priest representative, acting as a disenfranchised noble or some such to convince these lake people he had no designs on the Mage they’d discovered in their midst, somehow got Sethe out of the country before they could behead him or whatever their favorite method of execution was, and brought him to the Capitol to learn to be a proper Mage. This so angered Ghulia’s ruler, he declared war and sent his army over the plains where the Unclaimed Mountains now are to try and crush Édalai. Sethe wasn’t the only Mage extent at that point, but we won, and the rest is history.”

Zéth blinked, clearly taken aback by the brief history lesson, then shook himself and ate a little. “And what about this gives you the idea the Gods wish to blind themselves to us?”

“The fact they set claiming Sethe as a challenge, a race. According to what we’ve been able to learn, most of the representatives from other countries came as Priests, which meant they weren’t exactly welcome—this lake country was rather atheist at the time. Only we and Ghulia thought to disguise our Priests as nobles or something. Anyway, after doing that, the Gods gave Mages to every country whose people believed in them equally, having, I guess, seen we could find uses for the offerings they’d made. It was just that Ghulia chose to use their first Mages in a war against us, and some of the same things that are happening now happened then.”

“I’m getting the feeling the Gods hate big wars.”

Asthané barked a few laughs. “Many Priests would agree with you, and the going theory is They’re so displeased with such plans that They withdraw from observation, give us all the magic we want, and let us go at it until there’s either a victor or complete annihilation.” He pushed another chunk of potato around in the gravy from the turkey on his plate. “Honestly, I think the sresaph Jalza are getting echoes of whatever our forthcoming enemy is doing with magic, which would likely be the reason why their predictions are so vague right now. If everything’s being hidden, they’re not seeing much more than the shields being used.”

“So they can’t even be certain it’s a war coming.”

He frowned a little, chewing. After sipping his wine, he shrugged a shoulder. “Lots of shields being used, especially to block a wide variety of Gifts either in or out, generally means war.”

“And we’re getting all this stuff from Inski?”

“Oh, we are, I promise you. It’s just that we have a recoded history of Inski’s pre-war habits which helps make it so easy to predict a war’s coming from them fairly soon.”

They exchanged a glance across the table, and Zéth averted his gaze first.

“Could this develop into a multinational war?”

Asthané tipped his head to the side in thought for a moment, then shook it. “Possibly, but not likely. You’ve said yourself, you’ve heard the time predictions. If a war with Inski is going to happen, it’ll happen within the next year, and I doubt that’ll be enough time for Utevsko to repair the relationships he ruined with his neighbors when he tried expanding into their countries.”

Zéth frowned. “Inski’s not our only hot border.”

“True, but most of the others aren’t as bad as Inski can get. Utevsko’s goal is to invade, not ideological disagreements, which is what the other current conflicts are about right now. While ideological disagreements can get fairly violent, most of them are cooling down—they’ve been going for a while. Stamina for outright war over them wears out after a while and the governments have to pull back to consolidate their remaining assets and refresh the people with fervor for their particular beliefs to some extent—and the countries we’re currently at war with are believers in false deities, so they don’t have any Mages who haven’t relocated, and it’s doubtful those Mages are willing to join a war against our Empire—if the Gods haven’t simply removed their Gifts from them. Country whose people have misplaced faith equals no infrastructure for the Mage, and no infrastructure for the Mage means he or she is likely going to be unsupported by the Gods within a few months if not weeks. These countries would have to ally with a nation that follows the True Gods in order to acquire magical assistance, and they’re for the most part such fervent adherents to their own false religions that they wouldn’t do that.”

“The blind spot.”

Asthané nodded. “Is this enough of a lesson of the workings of the Gods and history for you?”

Zéth huffed a breath. “I suppose. I do see the reasoning behind your goal to get an army on the Ruphlan-Inskiti border now, though.”

“Good.” Asthané opened his mouth to ask if Zéth would support it, but couldn’t bring himself to suggest it, so filled his mouth with more food.

He kept an eye on Zéth as they ate. A thoughtful expression had come to his ex lover’s face. It was an indication Zéth wasn’t simply going to refuse without consideration of the request, but Asthané doubted there’d be an agreement. There was nothing he could offer Zéth, and nothing he particularly wanted to offer. Money, perhaps, but he knew even all the money he hadn’t spent on the border wouldn’t be enough to convince Zéth to side with him in the debate. It would take a lot more.

Zéth finished his meal and removed the plates to the tray cart before pulling his doughy confection to rest before himself. Now his expression, as he glanced at Asthané, was unreadable. “I’ll do as you ask, if you do one thing for me.”

Asthané set down his cup, having sipped the last of its contents from it. Zéth’s statement made him wary, and he leaned back in his chair, eyes narrowed. “What?” His tone of voice was flat.

“Eat lunch with me daily, and I’ll speak to the Councilors and Courtiers about supporting an army on the Ruphlan-Inskiti border.”

He winced a little and glared at Zéth, who met his gaze with a level one. They stared at each other for a minute, and the clock chimed the half hour. It took another couple of minutes, during which they fidgeted with their food, for him to come to a decision. It wasn’t easy. He could see the way Zéth wanted this to go—it was obvious from the most recent encounter they’d had. Zéth hoped they could return to being at the very least friends, perhaps lovers once more. It was something Asthané didn’t think was wise at this point in their lives.

“You’re being idealistic.” He didn’t bother trying to make it polite as he snatched his napkin from his lap to toss on the table.

“I don’t think I am.” Zéth met his glare with a steady gaze.

“You know I’m cornered.”

“Your corner is only as closed as you make it, Asthané.”

“Zéth—”

“Do you blame me, Asthané? Can you honestly hold it against me?”

“Yes.”

Zéth scowled, dropping his utensils. “Then leave. You apparently don’t need my support as much as you seem to think.”

Asthané opened his mouth to complain Zéth wasn’t being fair, recalled what he’d said about fairness before, and folded his arms, scowling. Neither spoke for a few minutes, and he finally sighed.

“Very well. Lunch daily, at least until I have to return to the border.” He couldn’t make himself sound happy about it, so didn’t bother trying.

“We’ll just eat and talk. I promise. I wouldn’t dream of putting pressure on you.”

Asthané snarled a little, rising. Zéth didn’t follow, and he departed, somehow not slamming the door.

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