The manor in Darilsheid had been abandoned for only about a year now, but it already felt like one of the houses in a ghost town. Not the haunted kind – just abandoned. The sight wasn’t new, not with roughly a tenth of the earth’s population recently eradicated. Rutee had gotten used to seeing buildings left to crumble away faster than she cared to admit. None of these places held any personal significance for her. Hugo Gilchrist’s manor covered in dust and spiderwebs, however, filled her with longing for something she had never known and now couldn’t place.
Rutee silently followed Marian guiding her through the empty hallways, over ruffled carpets rotting at the edges, over wooden floors that creaked with every step, passing by clouded windows covered in cracks.
“This was the music room,” Marian explained, as if it had been necessary. Nobody had bothered to remove the instruments. There was a grand piano with a violin case leaning against it.
The room was brighter than all the others, with more spacious windows and curtains made of sheer fabric to allow the sunlight to come in even when drawn. By now they were tattered like everything else in the manor, but even abandoned, the room felt warmer for it. The shelves were still filled with books and sheet music.
(Marian remembered the sunny days that nevertheless had felt cold and heavy, days when the sun rays filtered through the curtains and lit up the dust like tiny crystals. Days when the only sound in the manor was Emilio’s violin bow ghosting over the strings. No matter what songs he played, they all sounded like laments for something unknown but lost beyond repair, for something – or someone – broken. It wasn’t the sounds a little child should make. It didn’t get better when the years passed by and she saw him growing up into a teenager trying to mature and age much faster than his body or his mind could catch up with.)
Presumably, the piano had been black once, but now a thick layer of dust coated it. A violet butterfly sat on the edge, languidly beating its wings. It fluttered away in a shaky line as Rutee stepped closer and wiped some of the dust away. She grabbed the chair, opened the lid, and dribbled over the keys. Most of them were terribly out of tune and some didn’t respond at all.
“Do you play the piano?” Marian asked.
Rutee shook her head without checking whether she actually looked at her. “The orphanage in Cresta was nowhere near wealthy enough to afford musical instruments, and I couldn’t exactly have carried a piano around as a lens hunter.”
Marian sat down next to her and gently guided her fingers away. “May I?”
“I had to pick up some basics to help Emilio because he was expected to learn it. It just came with all the other responsibilities in a noble household. It wasn’t anything he enjoyed. Music wasn’t an art for him, it was just another part of a life he never chose.”
Rutee tensed up at that but bit her lip to keep her mouth shut when Marian started playing. It wasn’t good, with the keys being unresponsive or off-tune, and her fingers were hesitant before hitting them; but it was a beautiful, serene song. A song that would have suited a room without dust and the smell of mould, without cracks in the window glass. Where sunlight had been caught in a piece of polished crystal or some more valuable piece of lens, so the colours of the rainbow could dance freely and once in a while come together in a bright flash of white.
Rutee watched Marian’s fingers as they dipped back and forth, and patiently waited for her to finish. “I doubt that,” she finally said at the end of the song.
“I beg your pardon?”
“That he didn’t enjoy it. Or that it wasn’t an art for him.” Rutee picked up the violin case. The leather was dirty and battered, but overall not much worse than the dirty rocks and mouldy ruins she used to run around in. She carefully opened it and took out the violin. Its case had protected the instrument much better than anything else in this room (or presumably, the entire building), and the wood shone in the sunlight like some polished piece of glass. The wood had a beautiful, warm tone, and the elegant curve of its neck put flowers to shame.
Rutee inspected the instrument and the bow carefully, as if looking for something. “I’ve heard Leon play violin once, in Aquaveil’s inn,” she explained while clumsily moving the violin around. It was obvious she had never held one in her own hands.
“We travelled with a bard, back then,” she said and settled the violin more or less comfortably on her shoulder. Marian gently placed a hand on Rutee’s brow to guide her head down and rest it on the chinrest. Rutee gave her a confused look but let it happen as she continued.
“So I thought it was him playing that one night, but when I peeked into the guys’ room, I was surprised to see that it was Leon. I doubt he noticed me. He would have stopped playing immediately if he had. He had never mentioned that he played violin, or any instrument at all. I figured he’d just snap at me and dismiss it if I had tried to ask him about it, but now I wish I had. It was like you said, it sounded… sad. Trapped. Back then I thought it was because we all felt like this. Under pressure because we tried to stop some evil none of us understood. Only later I figured that it was because we all have our different ways of coping, and that was his.”
Rutee put the violin bow into place and moved it against the strings experimentally. First she got no sound, then she got a screech that coursed through her veins like a shock of electricity. She put the instrument down with a slightly abashed look on her face. Thankfully, Marian made no comment on it.
“In any case, I didn’t get the impression that he didn’t enjoy it. None of these feelings were caused by the music. It was just his means of getting them out without expecting anyone to understand. Music doesn’t sound that beautiful if you don’t enjoy playing. I think it helped him, even. He was pretty tame at that time, for his standards. Was even nice to our bard, believe it or not. In his own way.”
(There had been so many times when Emilio thought he was alone and talked to his sword. Marian never even thought of questioning that. At first she had thought the little boy had made an invisible friend who encouraged everything he did tirelessly, including his violin playing, and that was okay. Later as he grew up she had thought it was merely a coping mechanism. From what she could tell, Emilio both loved and hated playing music, just like he loved and hated everything Hugo made him do. Loved the feeling of being successful, of excelling at everything he did, loved being praised by his imaginary friend. Loved the sounds he could make, presumably. Hated being crushed by Hugo’s expectations, hated being alone with that imaginary friend and his personal maid, hated never having known his mother. Hated it so much he was as ungrateful to the music as Hugo was to him.)
“And yet his smiles never reached his eyes again,” Marian said out loud. “All his songs were sad. He could have played the most hopeful and serene hymns, and they would still sound like laments. I tried so hard to teach him hope, to teach him that he was a child, and children shouldn’t go through any of what he went through. He never understood.”
“That’s where you’re wrong again,” Rutee interrupted. “He was afraid, angry, lonely, confused, passionate, all of that. It wasn’t the emotions you wanted to hear from a little child. Or from a teenager. But it was beyond your or anyone’s control, and just because his emotions weren’t the emotions you wanted to see or hear doesn’t make them any less real, or the music he played any less beautiful. Maybe you are just upset because you tried so hard to replace his mother and feel like you failed?”
Marian was very quiet.
(Marian remembered one of those bright smiles Emilio would show her when he was little, and had just done something he was incredibly proud of: won a fencing match, finished a very complicated book that had nevertheless held his attention, or played a particularly difficult violin étude without mistakes. She had missed those smiles dearly because they had gotten rarer by the day. Not because he wasn’t doing well, but because he got too used to doing well.)
“I cannot answer that,” she said truthfully.
“Thought so. Guess what? Stahn had been devastated back then. I think so was I. I didn’t really realise myself until he shook me out of it. But using our own misery as an excuse to dismiss Leon’s feelings isn’t great adult behaviour, either.”
(Marian also remembered the day Emilio had quietly asked her not to call him that unless they were alone. For everyone else, he’d be Leon Magnus from now on. She didn’t question that, nor was she really surprised that he chose a new surname.)
Marian managed a soft smile. “You are right. Again. Are you here to understand him better, then?”
“That’s what it boils down to, I guess.”
Rutee put the violin back into its case and carefully placed it next to the piano again. “Thank you for bringing me here,” she said and meant it.
Marian smiled at her, more warmly than before. “You’re most welcome. Do you wish to see Emilio’s room?”
Neither of them ever returned to the manor in the years to come, and it kept crumbling away; but neither of them would forget the sound of the off-key piano, or the little butterfly resting on it. Or the memory of Leon playing violin, closing his eyes and pretending for a second he didn’t have to do any of this.