The Queen’s Symphony: Chapter One

More than anything, Lydus wanted to ask God why the sun had to burn so brightly, on today of all days. The windows of the royal carriage that had fetched him from his apartment were thrown open to the morning bustle of Gente’s main cobblestone avenue, leading to Turas’ Bridge and then further north to the palace. His stomach was already feeling flighty at the thought of what awaited him there; the stench of excrement and dried fish along the roadside contributed in no small part. Remembering more from the previous night, he concluded that the wine had also done its share in creating his present state. At least the coat he had snatched in a final, panicked pass by his wardrobe this morning was one that still fit.

A particularly raucous bump in the road indicated that he was now crossing the bridge. To his right, the sun rose as a great, glistening candle on the Lurent. Had he been searching for inspiration at this particular moment, perhaps Lydus would have cherished the sight more. As it was, he reached for the shutters and pulled them closed carefully. After all, it was a royal carriage, with royal shutters. Even the alleviation of this pain did not outweigh the cost of damaging gold filigree likely worth more than one of his recent commissions.

The morning had begun for him as many before it had not. Specifically, it had begun in the morning proper instead of at an hour late enough to miss the screech of Old Gerta the bread seller outside his window but just early enough that he could state truthfully to anyone who inquired that he awoken before noon. Each knock at the door had seemed a cannonade and in his rush to dress himself, Lydus must have considered a half dozen possibilities of who could be calling on him today and what he must tell each of them. His landlady Brena would have her money as soon as he did. He was dreadfully sorry that he had been too inebriated to attend Hiren’s premiere; of course, he would tell Hiren’s father that it was the muse that had taken him that night instead of Ada. As for Ada herself, Lydus’ decision about their future together must wait on the same silver as did Brena.

He did his best to dress himself as if the previous night’s festivities had never happened and opened the door to find that none of his nightmares had come for him. Instead, a royal courier dressed sharply in a fitted Arnossi coat and pointed shoes bid him follow to a carriage waiting down below. It almost made him wish it had been Brena. He begged a moment to prepare himself sufficiently for an audience with the king and the little man thankfully obliged.

This time, Lydus was not taken by his thoughts of possibilities and chances. He knew just as fully then as if he had heard the words from King Edel’s mouth the reason for his summons: a royal commission. To say that he had waited his whole life for such a thing was an understatement. If anything, he nearly believed that such was his preternatural right. He only wondered why it had to come today. Perhaps it was some divine idea of a grand joke to be played on the blessed scoundrel Lydus Bereant. One thing he did know for certain, though, and it was that the string quartet Lord Hylen had requested he compose for his daughter’s wedding night would have to wait. Whether Lord Hylen’s daughter would also wait for her wedding night was a question to which Lydus had already learned the answer.

Now over the bridge, the road widened significantly as it entered onto the great square commemorating an old war with the Ossirians; Lydus could not recall if it was the second-most recent or the one before that. The palace gates stood opposite a towering column of winged stone angels from his spot in the carriage. A few fringed banners in royal colors still hung around the edges of the square, celebrating the end of what the crown had declared yet another victory over their southeastern enemies, though his friend Harman in Meddelburg had generously called it a stalemate. It was not Lydus’ place to judge the comparative successes of military campaigns; he only hoped for another commission on the subject. After the rousing reception given to his symphony memorializing the hundredth year since the Sack of Terestin several months ago, it seemed only logical that the king would come to him for something similar with the latest glories of battle so fresh in the public mind. If there was some other purpose behind his summons this morning, it was not apparent to Lydus.

The carriage stalled for a moment at a pair of sturdy wrought-iron gates as guards with muskets inspected its contents. Lydus may have appeared to them as nothing but yet another ambassador or lordling seeking after a royal boon, and so drew no special notice from the mustached soldier who passed by his open window. More importantly, the man did not seem to remember that he had chased Lydus out of a particularly rowdy inn three weeks prior. Perhaps it was the change of dress that distracted him, or else the gilt-on-blue carriage bearing him now instead of the shoulder of a dusky-haired courtesan whose name eluded him presently. He would either remember later or he would not.

Once through the gates, they rounded Holentin’s new fountain that Lydus had always thought hideous with its flock of gargoyles recoiling from a brilliant, golden star; a superfluous anachronism in the midst of scaffolding and stone that would eventually give way to the most modern palace in all of Corastia. Their hollow, marble eyes stared down at him through the carriage’s open window as they pulled to a stop in front of two towering doors flanked by stone pillars. Lydus flashed them a rude gesture and only barely brought his hand back down before the door opened.

A slender footman was there to greet him.

“If you would follow me,” he said, and Lydus did. Two more stood before the doors and pulled them open languidly, which must have taken some strength given their size. The long hall that met him on the other side had not changed significantly since his last visit, or even in the years since he came here as a boy. Aside from the subdued, youthful portrait of King Edel III of Oravia that had once hung on the opposite wall—now replaced with a more vigorous specimen of masculinity in the flamboyant Taruschkani style—the only noticeable absence on this occasion was Lydus’ own father. Wherever Lord Gerard Bereant was, Lydus was sure that to hear that his eldest son had waited until his twenty-seventh year to receive a royal commission would still disappoint him.

The footman led him through rooms carpeted in Madha’s finest loomwork, lavished in enough goldleaf alone to win the next Ossirian war. Paintings not yet replaced by newer words depicted typical scenes of courtly leisure: absconded lovers in a field of pale lupins; a mounted party hunting a stag with far too many points on his antlers to anything but an artist’s fancy; and even the daringly sensuous portrait of a former princess, with lips parting slightly on brilliant teeth and neckline as low as it was inviting. Lydus wondered what she looked like now, assuming she still lived. He walked on.

When completed, the new palace was rumored to become the most spacious in all of Corastia, flanked on either side by broad wings for housing the currently scattered nobility of Oravia. Such was the plan, at least. While the building may indeed come to fruition, Lydus doubted that even such accommodations as only the king could provide were sufficient to overcome the fierceness of superior breeding. The Arcinans had done it before Lydus was born, and only with much bloodshed, but King Lenas was now nearly ten years dead and King Edel… Well, he was no Lenas. Shrewd, yes, but not as given to conquest when the ambitions of his neighbors proved lucrative enough. And as with any man who came suddenly into great wealth, he sought ways in which to lavish it upon himself and his fellows. Even on a man of such dubious character as Lydus Bereant, for which he would ever be thankful.

They arrived at a high balcony on the north side of the palace, beyond which stretched a paradise of water features, labyrinthine hedges, and even woods where the king’s closest friends could exert their manliest urges without the danger of actual combat. It was here that the king himself waited on Lydus, overlooking a delightful fountain in the shape of a rising swan.

“Lydus,” the king said, his voice pleasant. “So good to see you again, and in better health than our last meeting.”

“Majesty,” he replied, bowing deeply. Too deeply, perhaps.

“There is a matter I wish to discuss with you. I presume you have already deduced its subject.”

He was confident he had, given the rapidity with which word of the previous night’s premiere had likely spread through the city. Lydus would have to ask Ada to remind him what had happened, assuming she had not also forgotten it in the attendant revelry. After such a reception, it was only fitting that the king call the kingdom’s leading composer—and Lydus was certainly that—to further the successes of his symphony on Terestin and yesterday’s work in pursuit of a similarly fitting endeavor. With four years of war against the implacable East Ossirians so recently concluded, it was only logical that such would be the work the king had in mind.

“I have done much in my brief time as king,” he said, turning his eyes back to the gardens. “Not all of it has been welcome, and most has been at least shocking. Religious freedom was proclaimed at Tardascha, primary education has been made compulsory for all citizens of the kingdom, and the High Messenger himself wrote to wish me a happy birthday despite me shuttering more monasteries than he can count. All this I have done not for myself, as some would believe, but for the good of the kingdom.” Edel let out a long breath. “Only one thing I have not done: commissioned a truly magnificent work of music.”

A sly compulsion came over Lydus then.

“Begging your pardon, your majesty, but what of Schaeren’s Fourth Symphony? Surely, it was a masterwork; some would say insurmountable.” Some did. Insufferable was the word Lydus would be more apt to use in describing nearly an hour of frivolity so lacking in substance and abundant in noise that it bordered on flatulence. To hear the king agree to the detriment of Lydus’ antiquarian rival would be a joy he could savor for months.

The king responded with a dismissive grunt.

“While exquisite in its ornamentation, I found it somewhat lacking in execution. There was simply too much for the ear to properly digest. What I crave is feeling. Feeling, Lydus. Let our great nation make its mark upon the world in deeds of passion as it has in deeds of valor. That is what I told myself I would do, and I shall do it. Or rather, you shall. My greatest pleasure in this would be to merely attach my name to a work which shall not be easily forgotten.”

“Only say the word, your majesty, and my faculties are at your command.”

“It shall be a work in commemoration of something so beloved, so necessary to the joy and prosperity of this great kingdom, that I had no other choice but to select you.”

“What is it, majesty?” Lydus felt he might burst with anticipation.

“You are to compose a symphony for my wife. If you would take it, of course, and I have no reason to suspect that you would not.”

Lydus’ heart sank.

“My most recent compositions have been of a more martial nature, your majesty, and so I had hoped to carry on in the same idiom.”

“But this is a time of peace, of thanksgiving. Surely, there is no better way to commemorate it than with a new composition.”

He had no use for the insipid banalities of the Taruschkani composers and their famed love songs, as overwrought as they were overplayed, nor for the tameness of Arcinan melodies which so amusingly contradicted their impulsive nature. Lydus would need to compose something entirely new. Under different circumstances, with a lesser patron or smaller style of composition, risk and newness were expected. To be trite or derivative would engender mockery at worst or at best, being gently but firmly ignored. For a symphony, however, the risk was greater in like proportion to the complexity and magnitude of the work. While failure would lead to certain oblivion, success—especially in the king’s service—was the closest a composer could come to deity.

The prospect did not scare him; Lydus had been training for it since before he could speak. Instead, he paused because all those intervening years made sure his knowledge of the greatness of his task. Other commissions would have to be postponed or even rejected entirely; those patrons who would not accept Lydus’ apologies must then contend with the royal appetite, whose hunger for enlightenment was only matched by the depth of his coffers.

Above all, Lydus reminded himself of a fundamental truth: the world can only remember so many men, and the greater share is reserved for kings and composers. Even then, the voices of every tyrant in history faded in death. It was the composer’s voice, written forever on paper and in hearts, that truly lived forever.

He would accept. Without time to explain all his considerations to the king, he could only offer a summary.

“It will have to be something new, then, majesty. I shall get to work at once.”

“Ah Lydus, I have never known you to take an easy road when a more difficult one presented itself. And I mean that in the best way possible.” While it may not have sounded a proper compliment, Lydus would accept it as one.

The details of the composition would have to come later; only the most important question remained. But how to say it? One did not simply ask the king how much the commission would pay; that must be handled delicately.

“Of course, majesty, this will take priority over all my other commissions. I regret to say that even I can only accomplish so much.” The king caught the little smile Lydus gave him, and chuckled.

“Yes, I considered that. You will find that your needs will be provided for amply in order for you to focus as much of effort as possible on the composition. Distraction breeds delay, after all.” The king waved over a servant bearing a letter sealed in a purple eagle signet of the House of Loresin. Lydus took it carefully, being wary not to snatch anything in the royal presence.

“May I?” he asked.

“Certainly,” the king said, and a smile crept over his face. Lydus broke the seal and perused the paper’s contents, skipping over grand declarations of the king’s many titles and holdings, his beneficence as a patron of the arts, and the naming of himself as chosen subject for the latest work to be written at the king’s request. He nearly choked when he reached the most important line: four hundred and fifty silver Varoschkers, to be paid in monthly installments leading up to the premiere of the piece in three month’s time. To be sure, it was a tight schedule, perhaps the tightest he had ever accepted for a composition of such breadth. But thinking on the promised reward, he knew that if there were a list of deeds he would not commit for four hundred and fifty Varoschkers, it was a short list indeed.

“Why, your majesty, that is nearly triple my yearly salary when I was court composer in Vanterburg.”

“Oh, I know. I cannot allow Lord Alrid to make me look a pauper by comparison. Now then: do you accept?” Lydus wanted to embrace the king in that moment, and preventing himself from doing so required all his remaining fortitude.

“I will, majesty, I will!” he exclaimed. “You shall not regret it.”

“Good. I look forward to it most greatly. Now if you will excuse me, there is much work to do yet. The Eastern Ossirian ambassadors have very nearly outstayed their welcome as it is.”

Lydus bowed again, deeper than before, as if weighed down by all the silver he had been promised. He folded the letter reverently and placed it in his pocket.

The footman from before met him at the door and Lydus followed once again to the carriage that would take him home. Once there, he would need to sit down for a long while and think of what to do with more money than he had ever been paid in his life. Pleasure was certain;  a crucial expenditure if there ever was one. Brena would certainly get her payment and henceforth never see Lydus’ hated face again, for he knew of a recently vacated apartment with an envious view of the Lurent that would serve as an excellent studio where not even the shrill bread seller’s voice could reach.

Last but not least, perhaps it was time to make up his mind about Ada after all.

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