Ecca crouched in the shadows of the ship’s hold, trying not to sneeze as some beastsilk rubbed against her face. The thick rug, spun from the fur of an aquatic animal, was part of the heaped gift offerings bound for the Orchestral City – an impressive collection, but most interesting to her as a hiding place from the wrath of the Notetaker. Her back still ached from the last beating, when the tea she had brought him had been too hot.
Footfalls slapped the deck of the ship above. “Have you seen my servant anywhere?” He invested each pitch of his voice with an irritable tremor. “She drenched my staff paper in ink. Ruined it.” She had not, but there was no telling him that ships rocked and one could not leave items unattended.
“Not for some time, Lord Baed,” a sailor replied.
The Notetaker grumbled, a low fugue – but his steps moved away, back towards his cabin.
Ecca edged out of hiding, hand braced on the floorboard to prevent the rug from sliding with her. The ocarina she wore about her neck bounced against her collarbone. The pottery instrument, shaped and painted like a malachite songbird, helped her overcome the handicap she had been born with. She was very lucky to be in the Notetaker’s charge, the women of the palace said. Serving such an important man was a high honor for someone like her.
Ecca scuttled across the hold. She paused when she heard the thick, slurry voices of the Islanders conversing above, their language a cacophony of good-natured discordance. Baed had been unable to communicate with them other than to invite them to the Orchestral City, yet it fell to him to translate between the emissaries and the king.
Perhaps it was understandable that he snapped and lashed out at his servant. The Islanders had welcomed them with great speeches amplified by drums and crude instruments, but instead of looking their visitors in the eye, they pranced and whirled about in bewildering patterns. The difference in language might be greater than any Notetaker had faced before.
The Islanders laughed, as they did often – it was the most evocative part of their exchanges. Ecca climbed onto a barrel and eeled upwards, watching through the gap in the deck planks. A strand of her dull red hair curled over one eye; she brushed it out of the way. The silver-skinned figures leaned on each other and pushed, prodded, nudged with no concern for personal space.
The leggy woman who seemed to be in charge – the tallest person of either gender Ecca had ever seen – squeezed the shoulder of the man next to her and bent close to murmur in an atonal whisper. What was her song? What was she saying?
But Ecca’s attention returned, as it always did, to the boy. She thought he might be a year or two younger than she, with dark eyes like a songbird’s and thick, inky curls – yet the Islanders seemed to treat him as an equal.
The boy played a string game, flipping loops on and off his fingers with startling speed. Ecca craned up against the wood, mesmerized.
He glanced down. His eyes widened, and he flashed a shy smile.
Ecca gasped. Her foot slipped as she scrambled down from the barrel. It rocked and spilled her backwards. She landed with a stinging thump, the breath blown from her body.
She lay there dazed until she heard footfalls. She sat upright. The boy threaded his way through the hold, eyes bright with concern.
Ecca clutched the ocarina. To her relief, it was undamaged. She did not trust her voice, and not having perfect pitch, she might have to use it to start her greeting. Children sometimes made fun of her musical stutter, but Baed had impressed on her the importance of making an accurate first impression with the Islanders.
The boy said something, his voice fluting upwards.
She thought she knew what he meant. She smiled tentatively and blew a reedy note through the flute. “Fine,” she said, drawing out the two pitches of the word.
He bobbed his head, slithering forward to perch on a barrel. He tapped a hand to his chest and made a sound of two distinct pitches, the first high, the second a third down and on the beat.
She assumed it was his name, though it was a short theme. She echoed it obediently, wrapping her tongue around a neutral vowel.
He frowned, shook his head and repeated the gesture – but this time, the name started low and moved up an interval, though the emphasis remained on the second beat. She goggled, bewildered. He had two names? Or did the second sequence mean “boy?” Or “man?” Or even … she looked down at the strings dangling in his opposite hand.
The boy brightened and beckoned her. Warily, she climbed to her feet and approached. He wrapped the string over the thumb and third finger of her right hand, then did the same on his. He pulled the string back to loop over his fourth finger. After a few more movements, he indicated she should remove two of the loops from the back of her hand.
He pulled their hands apart. A star formed in the center. She grinned her approval and twitched her thumb, making the threads dance. He took the hint.
They didn’t need words: he pointed, tugged, tapped, and she wiggled her fingers for questions. They plopped down on the beastsilk rug and looped through the patterns – river, tree, spiral, beast – and back to the beginning again.
This time, she tried to introduce the song for each word as it came around. Her hands were occupied and so her voice quavered. She was proud of herself when the words sound mostly correct – close enough for guessing. He echoed her readily, but his pitch was off – though he had the right beat emphasized most of the time.
She laughed, and he laughed, the sound chasing about the hold. She wondered: did he have as much trouble with tone as she did? Yet his position among the Islanders seemed to be one of honor, not what she would have expected from another who stuttered.
The boy abandoned the strings, leaving them to dangle from her fingers. He hopped up and scrambled towards the stairs, beckoning.
Ecca hesitated. She didn’t want to run into Baed – but her new friend’s smile decided her, and she hurried after.
They threaded up into the fierce sunshine. A cold sea breeze swept across the deck, running across her skin. She pulled her arms close and rubbed them for warmth.
The boy ducked sailors and rigging ropes with Ecca close behind. She drew back as he greeted the other Islanders, the rhythm of his voice slow and calm. The woman replied, tipping her head to regard Ecca.
Ecca glanced at her feet, feeling her cheeks heat. She looked up when a slender hand rested on her shoulder.
The woman spoke a tuneless stream of syllables. Ecca smiled tentatively but shook her head. She fumbled for the ocarina and blew a F note. “I can’t understand you,” she said.
The strong silver hand reached out to intercept the instrument. The woman ran her fingers over the holes, expression puzzled.
She didn’t know what it was? But she had heard the pitch and must have noticed when Ecca matched it with her voice. Could that mean …
Balanced on the edge of recognition, a harsh shout startled her. She jumped, spinning away and hastily tangling the strings behind her back as if they were something to be guilty about.
The Notetaker bore down on her, moderating the invective on his lips only when he saw the Islanders’ curious stares. He grabbed her arm and pulled her away. “I’m sorry if she bothered you,” he said stiffly. “My servant – do you understand?” He mimed sweeping with one hand.
The woman arched a brow. Behind her, a burly warrior nudged his opposite and echoed the gesture. They whispered to each other, one hiding a smirk behind his hand. Ecca felt as if she should feel indignant on her master’s behalf, but couldn’t quite make it there.
Baed sighed. “I suppose you don’t have servants,” he said. “Come, Ecca – you’ve left a mess that needs cleaning.”
She opened her mouth to protest, then saw the rough lines of his expression and decided against it. She bobbed her head and hastened after him with a wistful smile for the boy. He waved, and when she lifted her hand to respond, she realized the strings were still tangled about her fingers. She would have to find time to return them.
That evening, the ship dropped anchor in an island cove – one of the many specks of green dotting this part of the ocean. The cook prepared a hearty meal. By the time the diplomats and sailors finished second helpings, only drizzle and burnt crust remained. Ecca still wolfed it down, but was left with stomach growling.
The Notetaker attempted to converse with the Islanders during the meal, but no one seemed to convey more than the tastiness of the food. Afterwards, the two groups negotiated around each other by mutual, silent consent, the kingdom folk pitching tents and hammocks in the shadow of the ship while the Islanders moved into the embrace of the trees. Voices rose and fell in mismatched rhythms.
Ecca waited until most were settled before she crept away from her mattress – Baed snorted or snored over a book – and slipped across the beach.
The woman sat in earnest converse with warriors, but where was the boy? He was not gathered around the fire with the others. Frowning, Ecca eeled closer.
A crackling of branches made her jerk backwards. She shrieked as a dark shape plunged down in front of her … then realized it was her new friend, dangling by his knees from a branch.
He laughed and caroled a greeting. She pushed his shoulder, hard.
He swung on the branch and spoke, his words mysterious but his expression apologetic. She relented and offered him the string. He waved it off, shaking his head.
Mission complete, she thought she should retreat before Baed noticed she was gone. He swayed forward on his perch, grabbing her sleeve with an imploring look.
“Well, just for a little while,” she said, feeling foolish about speaking when he couldn’t understand.
He hopped down and led her to the Islanders, who smiled and made her welcome – at least, she hoped that was what their warm voices signified. The woman handed her a cup and watched her expectantly.
She sipped and coughed in surprise at the sweet, citrusy brew. “It’s good,” she said. “What –” She stopped the question, embarrassed.
The woman chuckled and tapped the cup, saying something with emphasis on the middle beat. Ecca lifted her shoulders in a helpless shrug.
The boy plopped down next to her with his mug. They sipped in silence as the adults turned back to conversation. Ecca strained, but it still seemed toneless to her.
“Do you want to play again?” she asked, holding up the string. She found she no longer worried about missing a pitch, nor did she feel the need to reach for the ocarina.
The boy grinned and caught the end with his pinky. They played through the pattern while the Islanders talked. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flute materialize, then a stringed instrument and a drum. Curious, she snaked her gaze over, watching their motions. Another attempt to break the language barrier?
She dropped a loop, and the boy pinched her. “Hey!”
The Islanders tuned up, matching pitches. They didn’t use a tuning fork, she noted with surprise, but rather attempted some kind of consensus so they all were flat or sharp together. It was a very odd way of going about it.
They bolted into the music of harmonic debate – lively, rollicking notes that did not always agree with each other. The woman and one warrior did not have an instrument, so she took his hand and they spun around the fire. Ecca tapped her foot and, not knowing the words, got lost in the beat and flow. The string game acquired a snappy, measured tempo.
The boy said something as they played – and the sudden contrast between music and speech made her eyes widen. Was it that simple – and that strange? Of course, sounds had different qualities, the growl of a bear different from the hiss of a snake, but to incorporate that into the human mouth with the tongue seemed bizarre.
Lost in thought, her fingers went slack on the game. The boy squawked in protest. There was no pitch to it.
Ecca looked up suddenly and tapped him over his heart. She hoped the intensity of her gaze would convey the question.
He looked confused, but spoke his name again. This time, she watched the movement of his jaw.
She curled her tongue, experimenting with the shape of the sound. When she thought she had the gist, she tried it out. “Galen?”
“Jallen,” he corrected, emphasizing the movement of his lips. He added an explanation that rattled past too fast to be any help.
After the fourth attempt, she managed it. “Jallen.” She smiled, her voice piping up into, “You’re Jallen.” She sang it and spoke it, weaving the two together. Excited, she tumbled into her introduction. She spoke three times in a row with different vowels each time, waggling at the end to indicate it didn’t matter.
He still looked puzzled, so she lifted the ocarina and played the same notes. The boy’s eyes lightened in recognition. He must have noticed the barrier to communication from the other side – she hoped he saw the same things she did.
Deliberately, he warbled through three notes: one high; then a third below, twice; and then another third down. They weren’t perfect third or exactly timed, but she heard her name in it.
She beamed and hugged him. “You’re brilliant, Jallen,” she said.
She thought – though she wasn’t sure – that he complimented her in turn. He whirled, started to rise … then toppled as the strings still wrapped around both their hands pulled him down. She started to giggle, couldn’t help it, and he flushed crimson.
Once untangled, he hurried over to the woman. Ecca still couldn’t make out more than a few sounds, but she sensed the import in gestures and tone.
The woman strode over and knelt in front of her. “Kessaren,” she said.
That one was more difficult, but Ecca managed it after a few repetitions. Pleased, she cast about for words to exchange – fire. Rock. Sky. It wasn’t as easy as matching one set of sounds to another. She had to think about the words differently.
She glanced over at the kingdom side of the camp, feeling a trickle of guilt. This was Baed’s role, not hers. She had figured it out, but he should finish the work … and would probably do a better job of translating correctly. She rose, though her knees trembled as if by another’s mind.
“I should go,” she said. She made a flittering gesture towards the ship.
Kessaren arched an eyebrow, but nodded. She made a beckoning gesture that, combined with the smile, invited Ecca to return.
“I will,” she promised. She scurried across in the darkness, excitement caroling inside her. She had figured out how to speak to the Islanders – she, no more than a servant! Even Baed could not fail to appreciate the revelation.
She slowed as she approached the space where her cot was set out, rehearsing in her mind how she would express herself. She brought the ocarina to her lips, sounding a tentative note for the first time since her introduction.
Fingers dug into her arm and wrenched her aside. “Where were you?” Baed demanded.
The instrument fumbled out of her fingers. “I was talking with them,” she said – of course, it came out wrong. She tried to correct. “I can talk with them, a little, and –”
He backhanded her. She stumbled and fell. He loomed over her in a black haze. “Don’t,” he said. “None of us need a tuneless commoner making the translation more difficult. And that’s the least that could happen. Do you know the kind of disasters that occur from subtle concepts lost in translation? How many lives have been ruined by the nuance of one word?”
“I’m sorry,” Ecca said, heart pounding, “I know that.” Did she? She had been doing just fine, and it didn’t matter that she was tuneless. She shoved down the surge of rebellion. Her personal pride was less important than reaching across and communicating with them. “I won’t interfere. But I know how they speak. They don’t use pitches and music –”
Baed laughed, low and deep. “Oh, you poor little thing,” he said. He extended a hand down towards her. She flinched, but he cupped her elbow gently and helped her up. “Wishful thinking. I understand how it must be.”
She was still afraid of another blow, but she persisted. “I’m not imagining it. I heard –”
“The ear hears what it wants to hear.” Baed’s face hardened, then. “Stay away from them, Ecca. That’s an order.”
The next morning, after the ship launched, the Notetaker resumed his attempts to communicate with the Islanders. Ecca watched with hopeful desperation. Perhaps the seeds of their conversation would bear fruit … but he never varied his sounds, even as he used handsigns to emphasize pitch and tempo. They shared a few gestures in common, but nothing more.
When Jallen started in her direction, Ecca ducked her head and pretended to be engrossed in studying the waves. She was afraid how Baed would react if he saw her with an Islander – any Islander, even another child.
He tapped her arm. “Ecca?”
She pulled away. “Go away, Jallen. I’m not supposed to talk to you.”
If he didn’t understand the words, the stiffness came through. He stepped back, jabbering a question. She made out the word night – last night?
“No, I’m not mad about last night,” she said, then tipped her head towards Baed. “But my master is.”
Jallen shook his head and caught her elbow. He steered her across the deck. When she objected again, he mimed standing between her and Baed.
“You don’t have to protect me,” she said.
Jallen repeated the gesture – and somehow, she had no doubt that he could. Relenting, she waved a hand. “Lead on.”
They perched in the stern of the boat, out of the sailors’ path. Out came the string, at first with the game she remembered, then a more complicated one that required both to move at the same time. They shared words over the simple shapes, fumbling, laughing, sometimes losing the thread of the game in concentration.
He told her Kessaren was a Speaker – it was a Speaker of something, but she couldn’t grasp what that might be. The word was obviously different from singer – a distinction which didn’t exist in her language – and a ruling title, not an occupation like Baed’s. She tried to ask if she was his mother, and must have botched it, for he blushed fiery.
“No, mother,” she insisted, falling back on music. She mimed rocking a baby.
He blinked. “Oh.” He answered in her language, carefully. “No. Baed?”
She resisted the urge to say the Notetaker was not her mother. It would not be fair, when they were both trying their hardest. “No,” she said. “He was nice enough to take me in.”
The only word Jallen could have picked out from that was “nice,” but he scowled. “No.” He tried to grab for words, then gave up and lapsed into a rapid spate of spoken monologue. She had never noticed how the syllables he spoke were uniquely qualified to snap and jab.
Despite herself, Ecca flushed in pleasure, then felt guilty. She quieted him with a waggle of her bestringed fingers. “No, it’s what I deserve,” she said. “I’m …” She glanced down at the ocarina, but how could she explain that? “This makes me less.”
The last notes, he understood, and his eyes darkened. He sat so tense she expected another diatribe, but all he did was pick up the strings and start anew.
They spoke quietly, sharing words and trying to grasp the little pieces – the, and, his, her. She kept half an eye out for Baed, and when she saw him thump across the desk with a look of frustration on his features, she hastily detangled and scampered to his side … but not too close.
Baed regarded her with a sour expression. “And what have you been doing?”
Ecca very carefully kept her eyes fixed ahead. “Playing,” she said. “But I’m ready to work. Whatever you need me to do.”
Despite her efforts, the Notetaker looked past her and scowled. She winced, hunching in on herself. He snorted, dismissing it with a wave. “He’s just a child,” he said. “Have fun – as long as it doesn’t interfere with your duties.”
Ecca puffed out little breaths to calm herself. “Thank you.”
He nodded. “I expect you to pay careful attention,” he said. “There are lots of notes to transcribe about the Islanders.”
And every one, she realized as she sat listening and writing, was wrong.
It was twelve more days to the Orchestral City, and Ecca spent her free moments with Jallen. Sometimes, when Baed was below deck with his notes or sleeping off a headache, Kessaren sat with them. Other times, when the Notetaker walked by, Ecca tried to speak more loudly, enunciating the foreign words without a hint of pitch … but he never noticed.
Jallen taught her a simple song, a child’s rhyme. It confused her to no end, the tumble of pitches that meant something in her language paired with words that meant something entirely different – but once she had the hang of it, she delighted in the tongue-twisting ability to say two things at once.
“Silly story,” she said in his language. “Cats, moons, dancing raccoons –” she still had not gotten a clear description as to what a raccoon was, but she could make the sound.
Jallen spread his hands. “My mother sang to me.”
“Silly,” she concluded with a smile, though the words made her feel wistful. She had not seen her mother for almost a decade, could remember little more than a gentle hand.
The Orchestral City dominated the horizon with its towers of scarlet and cerulean, scattered greystone buildings at their bases. The city sprawled, streets wandering leisurely and tailing off into cul-de-sacs and mazes. The Islanders stared, their faces frozen with astonishment. The warriors muttered to themselves; now that she had a sense of what their tones did and didn’t mean, Ecca sensed they were displeased by how hard it would be to defend.
As the ship approached the royal dock, a golden canopy caught her eye. A party of dignitaries gathered beneath, the guards polearm-straight and the others attended to by a flock of scuttling servants.
Baed scowled from her side. “I expected to have time to rest and refresh before being bombarded with questions,” he grumbled.
Ecca swallowed and thought she might try one last time. As she shifted to face him, his hand rested on her shoulder, tightening in warning.
“I expect you to keep your eyes down and stay out of this,” he said. “Don’t embarrass me.”
Well, she thought. There it was.
As they docked and the gangplank lowered, she realized the elegant figure with the curly blonde hair was King Ced, known as the Turn King for his achievements in restoring the Orchestral City as well as the musical motif of his name. Ecca had never seen him this close and stared, fascinated. She had not pictured him as being so young.
The Islanders chattered rapidly amongst themselves until Kessaren silenced them with a lifted hand. Jallen caught Ecca’s eyes and smiled cheerfully, no trace of surprise or apprehension on his features. It was as if this was any other day, for him.
The Notetaker descended in front like a man on his way to his execution. Ecca, tasked with carrying his pages, followed, the back of her neck prickling as she heard snippets of Islander speech behind her.
Ced bounded off his throne and strode out from under the canopy. Once near, he clasped his hands together and bowed, then called, “Welcome, welcome to the Orchestral City! We are honored by your presence.”
Kessaren smiled warmly and lowered one knee, upper body straight – their version, Ecca guessed. “Clear waters,” she said, studying him with a flicker of appreciation in her eyes. Ced noticed and blushed like a boy.
“She says she is equally honored,” Baed said. Ecca shot him a startled look. He was going to pretend he could translate?
Kessaren narrowed her eyes at the Notetaker, perhaps wondering the same. She recovered her smile and added, “You’re a handsome man.”
Ecca bit her lip to stifle laughter.
Ced blinked. “Could you ask her –”
“Your highness, it’s been a very long journey,” Baed said smoothly. “Perhaps our guests could be settled into their quarters before we engage in dialogue.”
“Just one more thing.” Ced’s eyes focused on Kessaren’s face. “What is the lady’s name?”
Baed stiffened, but gave his monarch the name he had invented for her.
Ced offered his hand to Kessaren. “I am very pleased to meet you, Defe,” he said.
When he spoke the invented name, Kessaren frowned. “It’s Kessaren,” she corrected, glaring at the Notetaker.
Ced instantly interpreted the nuances of the exchange and flushed crimson. He rounded on the Notetaker. “Baed,” he said softly, “are you …”
“Her name is Kessaren,” Ecca said, stepping forward.
Baed’s mouth opened for a protest, then shut. It made him look like a fish.
Ced turned to her, expression curious. “I didn’t catch the pitches, small one,” he said apologetically. “What was that?”
“There are no pitches,” she said, surprised by how her voice quavered. Was she that nervous? Well, of course – he was the king. “‘Kes’ – with a snake-hiss on the end. Then ‘air’ on the beat. You sort of roll it on your tongue. Then the same roll, and it turns into ‘ren.’ Kessaren.”
Maybe it was his eagerness to communicate with the beauty or perhaps his anxiety to clear up any offense. Certainly it wasn’t the clarity of her explanation. Ced tried a few times, his face tightening when she corrected him – oh, she was criticizing a king! – but as soon as he managed the foreign syllables, he turned to her and bowed.
“Kessaren,” he said humbly. “My apologies.”
She reached out and clasped his hand in a gesture Ecca had come to recognize as their way of forgiving faults.
Ced stared at their intertwined fingers, then pulled away in a daze. “How is it you know their speech, small one?”
Ecca floundered for the best way to explain. “I – that is –”
Baed regained his smile. “She’s been sitting with them on my orders,” he said. “It would seem she neglected to inform me how thoroughly my experiment bore fruit.”
“Wrong.” Jallen sang the word. He might not have been able to follow Baed’s speech, but he had obviously grasped its aim. “We talked.” He gestured to Ecca and then himself. “Baed –” his face creased, reaching for words he didn’t have yet “– stopped Ecca.”
“Ridiculous,” Baed snapped. “I told her she could do what she would with a mere child –”
Ced held up a hand. “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am the Speaker of Children,” Jallen replied, then faltered. He turned an appealing smile to Ecca and chattered a swift explanation, drawing comparisons with their small vocabulary. Kessaren added her own revisions at intervals.
Head spinning, Ecca put the thoughts together. She fumbled for the ocarina to ground herself before she began. “That means, your highness,” she said, “that he represents all the children among the Islanders. He is their voice, the same way Kessaren is the voice of their hunters.”
If she had said something wrong, she hoped they would figure it out soon, but the part about Jallen had been very clear. She had seen the Islanders treat him as a peer, but had never imagined he would be part of their government. She stared at him, eyes wide. He grinned crookedly.
She had never imagined she would find the key to a foreign language stranger than any that had come before. She had never imagined being tuneless might be useful.
“It seems, Baed,” Ced remarked in an amiable voice, “that we have the key to this language despite your efforts. Come, Islanders and Ecca –” he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder to steer her “– we have much to talk about.”
And talk they did, behind closed doors that soon excluded Baed. When the Islanders departed, Ecca went back with them – among the emissaries for the Orchestral City, uniquely suited to find their common song.
LINDSEY DUNCAN is a life-long writer and professional Celtic harp performer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. Her contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available from Double Dragon Publishing. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is currently attending culinary school. She can be found on the web at http://www.LindseyDuncan.com. This story, Note Taking, was originally published at Strange Constellations.