Danielle Martinigol
Cantoria
Commander

Cantoria is a world of singers. Cantoria is a world where the only exploitable energy is the human voice. However, all singers are not equal.

The low-Singers of the people are exploited to produce electricity that powers the singing stations or the furnaces of the steam planes.

The high-Singers of the noble classes dedicate their voices:

-        either to choir masters for the worship of the goddess Astrale;

-        or to princely pilot captains, to propel their space ships - the organ ships - through the solar system.

It is against this inflexibility that Arth, a teenager living in a distant land away from all these people in power, rebels. Arth possesses an extraordinary voice, unique in its genre. And he has lost his heart to young Khena, the daughter of prince Vilanelle. Her voice has been modified to create a Note, a voice adjusted by design for the worship of the goddess Astrale.

When Khena, now an organ ship singer, is obliged to depart for the outer limits of the solar system, Arth and his friends, low-Singer revolutionaries, become stowaways on a incredible trip to the planet Astralia, a mission to discover if magic is of divine or scientific origin...

But there is menace prowling in space, something there that is capable of destroying song and could put even the survival of Cantoria into question.

The time to fight is drawing near; all the more as in the shadows the enChanters are becoming active...

And what if singing proved to be a weapon?

Manchu
Illustrator

Translation Sample

CANTORIA by Danielle Martinigol

© Librairie L'Atalante, 2013

Translation by Galatea Maman

 

 

To my mother, choir singer

 

 

Part One

Symphony no. 1, For the Note

 

"We live our lives in such a way that they will become music."

Book of Scribes, Cantorium Archives

 

First Movement

From Glinka to Villanelle

 

The Day-sound at the Temple of Astral had been ringing for quite some time when the three riders emerged from the forest. To guard against the humidity of the pianissimo hours of the morning, they wore heavy, chiseled-leather capes that swept down onto the backs of their ponies. The smoking breath of their mounts rose iridescent in the first visible rays of the sun Arae.

Riding in front were two men with severe, emaciated faces, who seemed hardly inclined to distraction. Behind them, the young scribe Sotto Ugal was a study in contrast, for he seemed full of curiosity, and constantly looked around with interest.

He slowed to a walk, and then, recognizing the road leading to Glinka, the neighboring district, he indicated the direction to his two elders. The trio urged their ponies forward and soon reached a clearing where, in the center of a circle of adolescent boys, two adversaries were facing each other. The riders reined in their stallions to observe the scene, but their unexpected appearance stopped short the exchange of blows.

The combatants soon realized, though, that the new arrivals apparently did not intend to intervene. They lost interest in them and concentrated anew on their own business.

"You give me back my money this instant, Arth, or I'll massacre you!" shouted the larger of the two, a tall redhead.

He launched his fist in the direction of the above-named Arth's face, but the young man easily sidestepped it.

"For ten lousy coins!" Arth objected. "You're nothing but a dirty miser, Cor."

"You told me the girl would let me do it," said Cor as he hit out again with his fist.

Which met only emptiness. Arth had crouched down a split-second earlier.

"I earned that money!" he shouted as he straightened up. "You paid me to organize a rendezvous. I kept my promise! It's not my fault the girl didn't want to kiss you."

"She slapped me!"

The others choked with laughter on hearing their comrade's humiliating confession. That doubled the redheaded giant's anger.

"Hey, you wimps!" Cor shouted at the members of his band. "Catch this nut!"

They tried in vain to trap the enemy, but Arth was amazingly agile. He twirled first one way and then another to escape his tormentors.

Sotto Ugal, his hands poised on the horn of his saddle, could not prevent a smile of admiration at the kid's mastery in this semblance of a battle. This Arth was no ordinary villager. For one thing, he was dressed far differently. With his remarkable coat of red deerskin and pants of light-colored leather, he stood out vividly from the other country boys, all of whom were encased in heavy sheepskin mantles and rough trousers.

"I'm gonna make you sing out a song alright, Arth the Artist!" threatened the outraged Romeo, as he finally caught hold of his victim's shoulder.

Arth's coat was unbuttoned, though, and with one twist of his arm, he got away from the redhead, who found himself holding an empty coat.

"The deity's ass!" he swore.

Upon hearing this blasphemy against the goddess, the two horsemen with the sinister looks twitched uneasily in their saddles. As for Sotto, he stifled a laugh. Obviously, the villagers had not recognized the men watching them. It was true that visits by Song-masters, grand priests of the Astral, were extremely rare in such remote provinces.

Taking advantage of the effect of surprise at his empty jacket, Arth extricated himself from the circle of boys with a breathtaking sideways plunge. Once he'd rolled out of reach, Arth jumped up, ran across the dirt clearing, then hopped onto a low wall, where he took up an arrogant pose. The sun Arae was higher now, and its oblique rays created a striking fan of light behind the rascal.

The momentary truce gave Sotto time to look around. Wooden structures, a massive cooling tower and amphitheatre-shaped building indicated they were in front of a song-powered electrical plant. These teenagers must work there, although they seemed rather young to be in a Low-singers choir.

In a country like Glinka, though, far from Cantor, the capital city of Cantoria, sparse populations led to a cruel absence of manpower. Because of this, local Choir-leaders had to requisition voices from all age groups to meet the needs of industry.

In a warehouse to their right, Sotto could see lines of concentrators ready to ship out from the plant. These were not destined for the workers who had sung to recharge them. No, that precious electrical energy would go to the nobles, for only nobles enjoyed the luxury of adequate lighting, too costly for peasants.

Sotto turned back to the fight.

Cor had thrown Arth's bright red jacket onto the ground and was about to stomp on it. 

"If you ruin my coat," the Artist said mockingly, "you can be sure I won't give you back your money. It's expensive, that red deerskin, but I only wear that. What can I say, I like that color! It goes so well with my skin tone!"

He stroked his cheek with an effeminate gesture.

The group of boys started to laugh. They were rallying to the Artist's side. Cor started to curse them.

Sotto shook his head admiringly at Arth. Where did this boy come from? His name was unusual, being unrelated to musical vocabulary. Except of course his nickname, the Artist. Longish brown hair, tall and slim, almost willowy, he had a piercing regard and an astonishing voice. He'd heard only a few phrases, but Sotto immediately classified it as "melodious," which, for a Low-born child, was as remarkable as his first name.

From up on his perch, the troublemaker continued to tease his adversary.

"You're not very gifted at springing a trap, Cor. The power plant was hardly the best place to ambush me this morning. Too many passersby. You see?"

He pointed at Sotto and the two religious men, still immobile on their ponies. Vexed, the redhead launched into angry explanations that having found Arth by chance close to the plant, he had come straight at him with his friends to avenge his honor.

"Just like you!" the Artist proclaimed, laughing. "No judgment. Your flawed plans - even the girls smell them out from afar. You have to admit, with that red thatch on your head as a lure, they'd be better off falling in love with a push-broom!"

Arth struck into a devilish sarabande and spun around on top of the wall, showing a stupefying sense of balance.

Then, suddenly, he began to sing.

His voice rose uncannily into the highest notes before plunging down into the lowest. His gestures and the variations of his melody clearly showed he was mimicking Cor at his rendezvous of the night before, whining and begging for a kiss from the girl.

This time, Sotto could not help laughing with the other boys.

Faced with the receptivity of his public, the Artist inversed the roles and, with a clever half-turn, took on that of the little miss pushing away the beggar with disgust. He embroidered his song with little cries of alarm that translated the girl's disdain for the "push-broom" better than any long speech.

Being the object of this masquerade provoked Cor beyond limit. Pushing away his friends, he rushed toward Arth in a rage.

The two horsemen in front exchanged a glance. The older man gestured to his companion, who spurred his mount to place himself between the adversaries.

Seeing that Headmaster Arioso had sent his acolyte Tiento to take the matter in hand, Sotto judged it prudent to remain in the background.

"That's enough! Stop right now," Tiento ordered, putting his hand up in a gesture to stop the aggressor. 

But Cor did not want to listen to reason.

"I'm going to kill him," he shouted, as he darted around Tiento's pony.

The clergyman then swung back his cape and sat up straight in the saddle.

At that, all the boys saw his purple robes, immediately recognizable even in the most recessed parts of the countryside.

Sotto shook his head. Tiento loved that kind of dramatic gesture.

"An enChanter!" murmured the youths, frightened.

The redhead backed away instantly, closer to his band. Tiento then opened his mouth, breathed in and emitted a note that amplified itself astoundingly.

The acutely high-pitched sound reverberated in the clearing and hit the young men full on.

Even though he was backing away, Sotto also took the blow brutally.

The boys plugged their ears and fell to their knees. Arth grimaced in pain like the others, but the sound affected him far less, thanks to his position higher up and farther away.

"A Harm-sound!" groaned the youngest of the kids, then he got to his feet and ran as fast as he could toward the song-power plant.

Sotto frowned. This boy had realized the truth. The enChanter was punishing the Low-singers with a frighteningly effective Harm-sound. The young noble had never heard one so destructive.

An adolescent's hearing, a thousand times more receptive than an adult's, could be damaged for life by such a sound. The young villagers were clearly in agony, so Sotto spurred his pony over to Headmaster Arioso and pointed at his ears. Even though he was older, Sotto knew if he endured much longer the Harm-sound emitted by an enChanter as powerful as Tiento, he would suffer irreversible lesions.

As if with regret, Arioso ordered Tiento to cease his treacherous song. Tiento obeyed his superior. Arioso threw back his cape then, too, revealing his suit of sinister black. He pointed out his belt, showing the youths the handles of two daggers poking out of their holsters.

The kids' eyes became round.

"You, you stay there," Headmaster Arioso ordered Arth, still standing on his wall.

"You too," he added as he turned to Cor.

"And the rest of you, get to work," Tiento adjured the others.

They did not need to be told twice. Confronted with stamping ponies, the Harm-sound and weapons, they immediately fled.

Cor spit in their direction. Courage was evidently not a characteristic of his so-called friends.

Arth, on the other hand, looked more curious than impressed as he examined the two horsemen.

"An enChanter and a cantorium Song-master," he declared.

The two men said nothing to the contrary. Sotto, in his green velvet suit highlighted with shiny thread, could not be taken for either a Song-master or enChanter. He wouldn't have liked being mistaken for a clergyman anyway.

"Who are you?" Arioso demanded of the Artist.

"You heard Cor yelling my name loud enough, no?" said the boy pointedly.

"Who are you?" Tiento insisted as he adjusted his cape.

Arioso was doing the same with his cape, which was decorated with six white stripes, signs of his elevated grade among Song-masters. The provincials had never been confronted with clergy of such high rank. The simple priests of the minor temples of Astral had no stripes, and enChanters had never been common so far from Cantor. Nevertheless, the Artist had immediately known who they were.

"I'm Arth, son of a sorcerer and a charmer," he proclaimed, jerking his chin up in defiance.

This exasperated Tiento even more. Claiming his parentage with mere keepers of Low-magic with such arrogance, in the face of a noble High-magician!

"So you can sing from high to low in the scales," he growled. "What else can you do?"

Arth did not answer. He scowled in concentration and lifted his index finger.

His narrowed his eyes and bent his head slightly.

"Something is emitting a sound up in the sky," he said. "A bass note, a ri." Then he straightened up and stared at the two clergymen before declaring, "I can sing perfectly in three octaves and I have a perfect ear."

The two riders exchanged dubious looks.

Suddenly the pure morning air swelled with a heavy rumbling sound, resonating from its source at the eastern end of the valley.

Sotto looked up in shock. An enormous mass appeared above the roofs of the temple, whose gong-tower was just visible in the distance.

Headmaster Arioso could not hide his surprise.

"Is it back already?" he said, turning to the enChanter. "All the better! The quicker we get out of here, the happier I'll be. Come, Sotto! Let's hurry."

Headmaster Arioso spurred his pony and went off at a gallop. Tiento did likewise. Sotto was about to put his heels to his mount as well, when he pulled back on the reins and looked at Arth.

"You have interesting gifts!" he said. "Too bad I don't have time to stay and learn a bit more about you."

Then, as he took off, he shouted, "My name is Sotto Ugal. I'm a scribe at the cantorium."

The three horsemen disappeared in the depths of the forest and only Arth and his intimate enemy remained in front of the power plant, one on the wall, the other in the middle of the dirt clearing.

Both boys stood looking up at the sky, brighter and brighter now as Arae rose and the mezzo hours approached. The colossal mass of the flying machine was finally becoming distinct.

"By Astral's bum, a giant vapor-plane!" Cor exclaimed. "I've never seen one like that."

He pushed back his red hair to see it better.

"What's it doing here?" he asked Arth.

"It went by yesterday, but you were singing at the power plant," Arth explained.

An enormous smoking chimney decorated with an emblem stuck out of the cabin of the amazing machine, spitting out white steam, that streamed back like a wake. As he stared at the massive silhouette of the vapor-plane, Arth wondered how such a monster could stay up in the air.

"Where's it going?" Cor demanded.

"To the Villanelle castle."

"You think so?"

Arth shrugged. It was obvious. All vapor-planes belonged to nobles, so the story was easy to put together.

Two days earlier, this vessel had brought the men they'd just met to Glinka. The scribe, Sotto (a rather friendly young noble by the way), and the clergymen must be staying at Prince Gam de Villanelle's castle.

Cor kept gazing at the aircraft.

"Are they going to leave today?"

"Most likely. You heard the Choir-master. The vapor-plane is here to bring them back."

"Back where?"

"To Cantor, I suppose. That's where the cantorium is."

Feeling Cor's anger subsiding, Arth came down from his perch, picked up his coat and stopped, keeping a few feet between himself and the sturdy young man.

"Sorry about yesterday, Cor," he mumbled. "I'll find you another girl to give you a kiss."

Now it was Cor's turn to shrug.

"It wasn't a kiss I wanted... it was to give her a squeeze. But not one girl will let me!"

Arth broke out laughing, and a few seconds later, Cor joined him.

"Do you want to go see this vapor-plane up close?" the redhead proposed.

"What about your job at the plant?" objected Arth as he shook the dust off his jacket and put it back on.

"Ah, they can do without me for once. You coming?"

Arth agreed and the two boys started walking in the direction taken by the horsemen. The flying machine was already disappearing at the other end of the valley, where Prince Villanelle's imposing residence looked out over his domain from the side of a hill.

"How does a vapor-plane work?" asked Cor, who had always taken great interest in anything technical.

Arth smiled. Cor wasn't such a bad bugger. Just a bit too hotheaded when he was frustrated. The two had known each other since they were kids and liked each other in spite of their differences. Cor's father was a groom in the castle stables, where he raised ponies for Prince Gam. As for Arth, he had spoken the truth to the clergymen. He was indeed the son of a sorcerer and an enChantress. Because he could sing and hear so much better than anyone else, people in Glinka whispered that his parents had enChanted his voice and hearing at birth, or perhaps even before...

In reality, it was nothing like that. His father used his songs only to cast spells on the natural elements: water, earth, and plants, so they would yield their very best, or if needed, so they would dry up and die.

And his mother could only charm animals with her voice. She hadn't the least power over humans. She was an excellent herbalist, however, and because she was expert at reading the souls of humans, and possessed the art of getting them to talk, her patients shared many confidences with her, and the ensuing wisdom of her counsel could multiply ten-fold her remedies' efficiency.

"I swear to Astral," she often said, "If they believe I'm gifted with the powers of an enChantress, and give me a nice handful of money for it, I'll pocket it without mentioning my limits. We all have to live, and the client is king, especially if he's credulous."

Arth was a petted and happy son. But the confines of Glinka were beginning to weigh heavily on him. He wanted to leave, to discover the world.

Like an echo to his thoughts, Cor declared in a tone filled with longing, "I sure would love to travel in one of those flying machines..."

"Who knows, that may happen one day, and take you farther than you think, my boy."

Arth said this with a pontificating manner, imitating to perfection the style of a professor they both knew. Cor started laughing heartily, and took up the caricature game.

"For Cantoria is a huge planet, my son, and do you know there are three others orbiting around Arae, our yellow star? And of these planets, do you know that two of them, Jaleika and Igil, are habitable?"

Arth clapped at his performance and bowed low. Cor gave him a friendly punch on the arm when he straightened up. Then they took off walking again.

As they got closer to Villanelle, the Artist started to think about those planets. Except for the farthest one, Astral, a gas giant known as the home of the goddess Astral, they were easily accessible. Some nobles, the Captain-princes, travelled there regularly at the commands of their great spaceships, called organ-ships.

"Sometimes," he said to Cor, "I tell myself that one day I'll find my place on one of these new worlds being colonized."

"Hope keeps us alive," Cor said, then sighed fatalistically. "For the moment, we're stuck in the boondocks of Glinka."

Arth admitted that was true. Instead of voyaging, he spent his time reading. He devoured the books of his sorcerer parents, of which only a few spoke of spells. Magic could not be taught, whether it was the High-magic of the nobles or the Low-magic of the people. But among the books gathering dust in the family library he had read all those about the functioning of the principalities, or states of Cantoria.

Each principality was ruled by a sovereign, who retained numerous vassals. The oldest son succeeded to the reign of the father, and among the richest families, certain of these successors were also Captain-princes, because they had their own organ-ships.

All the other children of a prince were called second-borns, and when of age, they entered religious orders and became singers of Astral. Called High-singers, these men and women were the opposite of Low-singers, the multitudes of Song-workers, simple people of the land who had always been forced to devote their energy and their voices to the service of the powerful.

Some High-singers (the strongest believers? the most ambitious?) strove to attain the highest levels within the cantorium, becoming Song-masters or enChanters.

"So, Artist?" Cor insisted, "You know anything about vapor-planes?"

"Well, only noble families own vapor-planes," he explained. "They can cover four to five thousand kiloscales but they have to land frequently to replenish their water supply. It's a vapor device, remember!"

"It works like the electric plant?"

"You know electric plants better than I do," retorted Arth. "The Choir-master fired me because I acted like such an idiot, from my very first day!"

"Yeah, but you're always hanging around the plant, seeing if anyone needs your mother's potions. Without the two of you, a lot of Low-singers would have lost their voices, and their jobs."

"It's slavery, what you're subjected to," Arth grumbled. "Sing, sing and sing some more, for hours on end, into those resonator tubes, just to get water to boil and drive the turbines!"

"Well, how else can the plant produce electricity, and recharge the concentrators?"

"It's inhuman though!"

"Do we have a choice? Wood is only for buildings and instruments for Astral, and no one's ever been able to unearth anything exploitable from the ground. All we have are our voices for energy on this stinking planet!"

"You have to admit yours hardly serve for anything more," Arth said, suddenly mocking him. "All the men in the same pitch, without one variation. All the women in the same key, barely any higher. Nothing but mono-chords, just good enough to heat up the resonator tubes by brute force!"

He stuck out his tongue and pretended to gag. Cor shrugged and gestured to him to drop the subject.

But Arth kept on. "Voices without beauty. Not like those of the cantorium singers, the Notes."

"Yeah, because your voice is so great, maybe?" Cor interrupted.

Arth rose to the challenge by launching into a series of vocalizations whose surprising sonority, leaping from bass to high in a few seconds, resonated in long echoes down Glinka valley.

"Shut up, Arth!" Cor ordered drily. "You're scaring me. Your voice scares everyone, did you know? It's because of that you got fired, not because you acted like such an imbecile."

"And because I acted like an imbecile," the Artist mumbled. After a moment of silence, he added, "If only I knew why my voice is like this."

"A rotten trick of your parents!" Cor replied.

Arth shrugged. That was not the explanation. Everyone in Glinka overestimated his parents' magical powers. He knew that neither of his parents was capable of magnifying a voice, for they were not enChanters. The origin of his voice was a complete mystery.

He cut off these thoughts, which had bothered him for years, to continue his lecture on how a vapor-plane worked.

"Worker-singers live aboard. You know, without you Low-singers, the nobles would have nothing. The workers sing, the water boils, just like at the power plant, and the vapor supplies energy to the motor. The plane takes off and flies."

"I wonder why that one has come," Cor said. "Maybe for Villanelle's daughter. My father says she's going to leave."

"Leave? Which one?"

"The second one, Khena."

Arth's heart leaped in his chest. Khena... Every time he heard that name, a gulf opened up inside him.

"She...she's here?" he stuttered, stopping right in the middle of the road and grabbing Cor's arm.

"Not for long. From what my father says, she became a Note, and she's going away."

"Khena has already been declared a Note?" Arth repeated. He could not believe it, then all of a sudden, he knew.

So that was it! Why hadn't he realized sooner? Khena had officially received her Note, and her new name. She had finished her training at the school of arts in Strette much faster than usual. That was normal, she was so gifted...

"That's why those guys from the cantorium are here!" he exclaimed. "For Khena."

He closed his eyes and murmured, "She's going to leave."

Cor stared at his companion, noticing how pale his cheeks were compared to a second ago, when they had been red from the cold morning air. Surprised, he asked, "Do you know the prince's daughter?"

Arth shook his head to say no, his lips tightly pressed together.

"Well, then, what do you care if she's leaving...?" he continued rudely.

Cor took a few more steps in the direction of the immense valley, where, far off, the vapor-plane must have landed, as they no longer heard the noise of its motor. Then he noticed Arth was not following, and turned around.

"Aren't you coming?"

"No, I just remembered I have to help my mother remove an enChantment from a sick pony at Opus hamlet."

Cor sighed fatalistically at the Artist's sudden change of mind. It was typical of him. He was always so...unpredictable. Cor shrugged and went back to walking toward the improvised landing field. He was not going to miss this chance to get up close to a machine like that. He would probably find his father there. The prince would request all his servants to be on hand for an event like this.

Arth watched him walk off. His thoughts ran a mile a minute. Khena was at the castle. She was now a Note. Which note? He would have liked to know which of the seven notes in the musical scale her professors had attributed to her.

Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la or ti?

A bass do or a high ti?

Not that it mattered. Her future was written. She would be a singer in the main choir at Cantor. She would live in the cantorium, where her voice would be employed in the most noble of tasks: singing the praises of the goddess. For such was the role of the High-singers, to consecrate the energy of their voices to the Astral and only to the Astral.

Daughter of a prince, a second-born noble with a predetermined fate, she would be gone for at least ten years. As long as eternity!

Arth's heart felt tight in his chest. Did he have any right to hope?

No.

Still, he absolutely had to see her again.

 

 

 

Second Movement

From Villanelle to Cantor

 

"Khena, you're as beautiful as a Song-festival queen!"

Little Nai looked up at her sister with ecstasy in her eyes. Khena's image was reflected in the large mirror standing in the middle of the room, and it illuminated the entire apartment. The young woman was flawless, beautiful, in her long blue robe embroidered with tiny pearls. Her wavy hair, the color of warm copper, formed an aureole around her milky-white face, and on her forehead, a diadem glittered brilliantly. It was incrusted with a green crystal as dark as her eyes. Another precious stone, shaped like a drop of water, decorated the young singer's neck.

In spite of the radiance of her sumptuous jewels and the elegance of her gown, Gam and Sarima de Villanelle's second-born was filled with nostalgia. Her sad frown and quivering lips clearly expressed all the pain she was suffering.

Sotto, a little apart, contemplated her. Was she ever pretty! The very incarnation of nobility.

He thought about Klavar, his master, the archivist and scribe who had remained at the cantorium in Cantor. Klavar had pushed him to come with Arioso and Tiento to meet this girl in Glinka and accompany her back to Cantor, where she was to be a Note-singer of Astral. The archivist had hinted that this voyage might prove interesting for him. The young scribe had to admit that it had been. This was the first time he'd ever gone beyond the frontiers of the Capital-State, so he'd learned much since his departure, in particular during these few days with the Prince de Villanelle's family. For example, he had discovered how much the second-born children of the provincial nobles hated spending their entire youth exiled at the other end of the world in the name of the Song-master's law.

Khena spoke softly, as if to herself. "What does it matter being so richly dressed if the price I have to pay is leaving everyone I love for ten whole years?"

Her older sister Dhari, who had been standing near the back of the room, went up close to Khena, still at the mirror.

"But just think, Khena - you're going to the cantorium, the most important place on the entire planet dedicated to singing. You've dreamed about it for so long! In fact, for a singing career in the Astral's service, Cantor is the most celebrated place in the whole Arae system. And in just a few days, you'll be there, part of the group of the best Notes from around the world!"

Khena sighed. She knew all that, but she loved her family, and the perspective of leaving them was breaking her heart.

Suddenly, little Nai exclaimed, "I want a queen-dress, too!"

Sarima de Villanelle, posing an affectionate hand on her youngest daughter's head, said, "Queens of the Song-festival don't wear this kind of gown. On that special day, our queens wear dresses covered with frills and lace. Khena's outfit is completely different."

It was true. The blue cloth, heavy with embroidery, fell straight down the length of the girl's perfectly-formed body, to stop just before touching the ground.

"Well, Khena is as beautiful as...as what, then?" Nai asked her mother.

"She is as beautiful as a Base-choir singer," answered a masculine voice at the door of the salon. "That's the dress of a Note, Nai."

Lady Sarima, Sotto and the three girls turned in one movement toward the man who had just spoken. Leaning against the doorframe, Gam de Villanelle, in princely dress, resembled a portrait ready to be hung in the castle art gallery. The three sisters fell into a bow. Their father gestured for them to rise, then came into the room. He nodded and smiled at Sotto, who had become a familiar of the household during his three days of lodging in the castle.

On returning from his ride that morning, Sotto had held a long conversation with the prince, sipping hot drinks in front of a crackling fire, for the castle was still cold at this mid-season of the year. The archivist's apprentice had assured Prince Gam that a great destiny awaited Khena at Cantor, just as Klavar had announced to him.

Gam de Villanelle had appeared satisfied. The prince had spoken of the difficult time when Khena had fallen ill and remained several days between life and death. She was 12 then.

He'd confided to Sotto the words of compassion of an enChanter from the cantorium who had been visiting the castle during her illness:

"Prince de Villanelle," the enChanter had said, "Grant this child to the Song and perhaps the deity will save her..."

The prince had explained to Sotto that since he had no son, and his eldest daughter's health was fragile, he had been reluctant to irrevocably tie his second-born daughter's fate to the sacred song.

"But I had to, and I swore to the Astral to dedicate Khena to sing her praises if she saved her life."

Khena had lived. She had taken so long to recover though, that it wasn't until she was fourteen that she underwent transvocation, the definitive operation promised by her father during her illness. Ordinarily, children destined for the sacred song were transformed before ten years of age.

Only the children of aristocrats could go through this operation, practiced uniquely by a certain category of enChanters, who were called transvocaters. People said that their capability of modifying and amplifying the power of a person's vocal cords required the most powerful High-magic and indicated an unusual alliance with the goddess. Nothing like the simple powers of most sorcerers among the people. At the cantorium, they executed acts of another scale entirely...

Transvocater enChanters were held in awe, for they claimed the status of Chosen High-singers; alleging they'd received the gift of modifying voices during "personal encounters" with the Astral.

Unbelievers rejected this claim, but had to admit that transvocater enChanters possessed unparalleled magical powers, whether they came from the goddess or...elsewhere.

For Khena, the transvocation had come too late. Khena's throat was that of an adolescent, not a child, and the pain had been terrible. She had suffered and cried for days and days. They thought she had become mute, but when the wounds had finally healed, she was left with an exceptional voice, unique in its genre, absolutely fascinating in its very deep sonority. The prince told Sotto the whole story.

"When we'd thought her irremediably mute, my wife brought in a charmer from Glinka. She arrived with her son, named Arth, who possessed an amazing voice."

"Arth?" Sotto said, astonished. "But I know who he is! I met him at the singing plant."

Avid to learn more, he asked the prince, "And? What happened?"

"The charmer examined Khena and reached the conclusion that there was no malediction involved in the inaction of her vocal cords. But pain, and above all, fear, were blocking her voice. She felt a visceral fear of discovering the consequences of what the transvocater enChanter had made her undergo."

"So Arth had started singing," Sotto murmured.

His guess surprised the prince.

"Exactly! Khena listened to this boy's song, a sweet little melody, amazed at the incredible amplitude of his voice. He sang for a long time, and then, during the third refrain, Khena joined him. For the first time, she heard her new voice. So low, so surprising, so beautiful... In the castle, everyone stopped what they were doing. Everyone was listening to this miracle."

The prince's servants had filled in the rest of this famous episode. Khena and Arth had ended their duo just as evening was falling, and as their last notes died away, the temple gong had tolled out the Night-sound. Everyone had gone back calmly to their work, in spite of the religious ban that said one could not work after the Night-sound had rung. They had all quickly finished their tasks, their nerves vibrating with the powerful emotions of having witnessed the prince's daughter commence her life as a singer.

The nocturnal activity at the Villanelle castle would not anger the goddess that evening, they said. Her new Note was immensely talented.

After Khena was completely healed, she left the castle to attend the school of fine arts at Strette, the principality's capital. Her sole aim was to educate her voice, the voice of a future Note.

At the school, she had worked and worked, for hours and days and weeks. Vocalizations, arpeggios, a Capella solos, accompanied solos, endless exercises to finally become, and this just recently, on her birthday, a recognized artist.

The princess Neume de Strette, responsible for all schools in the principality, had come in person several times to listen to her singing. The day Khena turned sixteen, at the end of her solos, performances that made everyone who listened to her shiver with emotion, the princess had declared, "I, Neume de Strette, congratulate the school of fine arts of the capital for its formidable work with Khena de Villanelle. Following the advice of her teachers, I declare this young woman apt for the cantorium, after only two years of training. Her perfect note being, according to her professors, the note sa, her name as a singer from now on will be Khena-sa. In her quality as finest voice of all our subjects, she will leave in mid-spring for the State-capital of Cantor. There, she will exercise her talent at the cantorium under the direction of the noble Song-masters and thus consecrate her life to singing the praises of the goddess."

Mid-spring was approaching then, so Khena had come home to spend some time with her family before leaving for good. Now the day of departure had arrived. She was going off with the Song-master and the enChanter, who had come with Sotto to bring her away.

She was going to leave without having seen Arth once more. She would have loved to sing with him one last time, to hear how his voice had developed...

But she was a Note-singer of the Astral now. With no hope of a having a personal life for the next ten years. In Cantor, Base-choir singers were forbidden to leave the cantorium except on sacred missions. What good was it to torture herself by thinking of Arth? She would never see him again.

Sotto had felt kindly toward Khena from the moment they met. A friendship shared by the young woman. She had confided her doubts to him about Tiento and her frank dislike for Arioso, even saying that she had no esteem for the headmaster.

And now, taking advantage of the young scribe's presence, she said, "Mother, Father, the headmaster Arioso frightens me. He looks at me in a way that upsets me."

Lady Sarima immediately countered her daughter. "Don't worry, Khena, the headmaster won't be your only contact at the cantorium. As you can see, the enChanter Tiento and Sotto will be there too. And then you will have Song-mistresses as well."

Sotto corrected her. "Men or women, they're grouped under the neutral term of Song-master."

Lady Sarima smiled and continued. "You will make lots of friends, Khena. You're going to experience wonderful things with your fellow singers. Twenty thousand singers, do you realize that?"

Calling on the scribe's help, she added, "Isn't that so, Sotto?"

"Well, they're rarely all together," he said. "Some are sent to the major temples of the Astral, or employed at the semaphores for Far-sound messaging."

He kept to himself the fact that these activities concerned only the older singers, those who had decided to remain sacred singers their entire lives.

"And then there are High-singers aboard the organ-vessels..."

At these words, Khena's face lit up.

"Oh! I know the motto of the organ-vessel singers - one single voice, one single song. They're the best of all the Notes, aren't they? Will I become one someday?"

Sotto contented himself with a small smile. It wasn't for him to venture any promises to Khena about her future as a Note-singer.

Sarima de Villanelle caressed her daughter's hair.

"We are already very proud of you, all of us, your father, your sisters and me. We're going to miss you so much, my darling!"

So Khena brushed away her thoughts about Arioso, deciding it was useless to add to her mother's sorrow with her own worries.

"It's time to leave, Miss Khena," Sotto interrupted gently. "I can assure you you're eagerly awaited at the cantorium, where a grand destiny is in store for you."

As he watched a servant place a heavy, embroidered cape onto the young singer's shoulders, matching her sumptuous blue dress, the scribe ardently hoped he would not be proved a liar in his reassurances.

Deep down, he cursed Klavar and all this secrecy around Khena's future. The archivist would not divulge a word, even at the moment of his departure with Arioso and Tiento. All he would tell his young helper was, "We need her here, it's imperative, and as soon as possible!" Sotto could only guess as to why.

Little Nai ran to Khena and into her arms.

"I'll think about you every day," she said through her tears.

"Do us honor, Khena-sa," declared Prince Gam, as he placed his hands on his daughter's shoulders.

Sotto saw how Khena's mouth trembled. It was the first time someone had addressed her using her name as a Note. It was fitting that it be her father, who had offered her to the cantorium.

"Do you promise, Khena-sa?" insisted Prince Gam. "Carry the name of the Villanelles into the ranks of honor."

"I'll try, father," she murmured in her beautiful alto voice.

"Don't just try!" he said. "Succeed! Be perfect in all you undertake! And don't forget that your voice is your second face."

The prince then offered his raised fist to the new Note. She placed her hand on it. Escorted by her mother, Dhari and Nai, with Sotto behind, Khena went through the castle close to her father's side. At the edge of the park, they joined a group of servants carrying baggage. Together, they followed a path bordered with budding flowers, which led them beyond the gates and over to a grass clearing where the vapor-plane had just landed after a warm-up flight.

The small group accompanying the singer came to a halt in the improvised aerodrome. The headmaster and the enChanter Tiento appeared at the top of the flying machine's access ramp. When Sotto saw them there, perched like two hungry birds of prey ready to rip Khena from her family, he promised himself to do everything in his power, for as long as possible, to protect the young girl from these vultures carrying her off to the other side of the planet.

At a little distance, a gathering of people formed a vast semi-circle. All the castle employees had come to pay a last homage to Khena. Among them, Cor stood at his father's side.

The vapor-plane's boilers were not yet under pressure. A palpable silence reigned over the plains of Glinka. After exchanging her last farewells with her sisters and her parents, Khena looked at the horizon, toward the distant mountains that dominated the castle, her childhood home.

She slipped off the heavy cape covering her beautiful dress, a touching gift from her parents, and held it out to Sotto with a sad smile.

She then filled her lungs and threw her head back, opening her larynx to the maximum, and sang in crescendo the note, her note, a sa of extraordinary resonance. This very deep sa, perfectly modulated, perfectly sung in the pure air of the brilliant fortissimo hours, resonated in the valley with such ampler that up in the vapor-plane, the headmaster received the impact of it like the lash of a whip. The clergyman ground his teeth.

This little girl was going to give him trouble. He'd seen that from the very first, when the archivist Klavar, who was the High-master Ugal-do's aged representative, had commanded him to come here in person to bring her back, out of this deepest corner of this miniscule principality in the West. Klavar's informers had supposedly reported the extraordinary potential of this Khena.

Which made his blood boil.

How could Klavar have been on to this when he, Arioso-mi, headmaster of one of the seven Base-choirs of the Astral, had known nothing of it? Why would such a gift have developed in a girl with such ordinary origins? Oh, it was not going to be easy to force her to fit the mold. But it had never been said that a little provincial aristocrat's daughter had been able to resist him. He would know how to cut her down. And soon this little snot, flaunting her flashy dress, would be no more than an anonymous voice among the hundreds of singers that he supervised.

For the greater glory of the goddess.

And of course for the greater benefit to the Reflectants, the extremist group he belonged to, along with a good hundred or so of his noble friends, all partisans of severity toward non-believers.

He couldn't wait to get back to Cantor. The country air was starting to get on his nerves. These peasants, these vulgar Low-singers he'd met everywhere these last few days had harassed him ceaselessly, imploring him for favors. They wanted to be paid more for the energy produced by their voices. As if he, a headmaster of Cantor, could do something to end the miseries of the world...

He closed his eyes, holding himself back from going out and ordering that idiot girl to stop bellowing the song of adieu she had set herself to perform.

When suddenly another voice arose and superposed itself on the girl's contralto voice.

His eyes popped open. Now what was going on?

From the entry to the vapor-plane, he contemplated the scene on the field. The members of the Villanelle family and the castle inhabitants seemed delighted. Two tall redheads in front, one young, one old - he recognized the muscular one from the power plant - were wearing idiotic smiles out to their ears.

Coming out from nowhere (for no one could see the singer even by turning every different direction), a second superb voice modulated a counterpoint song to Khena's splendid notes.

Sotto immediately understood what was going on, in the light of Gam de Villanelle's confidences. Arth, with his unique voice, had come to sing his own farewell song, but his was addressed to the prince's daughter.

Khena had faltered a fraction of a second in the modulation of her note. But she had immediately recovered. Two years of intensive training could not be swept aside in an instant, even by a wave of emotion.

Time seemed to stand still. Everyone held their breath. The two voices united and blended in perfect equilibrium, and overwhelmed every listener with emotion. It was as if musical plumes and spirals were rising in celestial harmonics in the limpid air of the valley. The listeners could not prevent themselves from looking up at the sky. The song was divine, the voices quasi-supernatural, and their union so exceptional that they felt almost like voyeurs to be witness to such intimacy.

But when the song died away and silence fell once more on the plain, the charm was suddenly, brutally broken by the vapor-plane boilers being put under pressure. Sotto sighed. It was only too obvious that the pilot had just obeyed an imperative order from the headmaster.

The magical instant had passed. Sotto gently put the cape back on the singer's shoulders.

"Arth," she murmured, "did you hear, Sotto? That was Arth..."

Suddenly her eyes filled with tears.

"He's so much better than everyone else! The best!"

This remark made Sotto halt in his tracks. The best? Great goddess! If Klavar needed Khena at the cantorium because of her exceptional voice, then doubtless Arth's amazing voice would be just as useful, seeing how perfectly they harmonized! Together, their voices set off floods of emotion in everyone who heard them. What better for the glory of the Astral? The Song-masters would not fail to be impressed.

"Stay here," he ordered Khena.

He climbed up the ladder into the vapor-plane, taking the steps four by four. At the top, he parleyed with the two masters, who made obvious signs of disagreement, but at a certain instant, Sotto made a definitive gesture with his arm and the others shut up, not without an outraged grimace on the part of Arioso.

Klavar's young assistant had evidently advanced an argument without possible recourse. He came back down the ladder and started to parley with Khena now. The crowd of people from the castle remained standing, looking at each other and wondering what was going on.

At the end of a long moment during which Sotto and Khena stood looking around in every direction, some movement appeared on the hillside facing the vapor-plane. Arth emerged from the bushy undergrowth mounted on one of his parents' white ponies. He slowly crossed the empty space between the castle group and Sotto, standing at Khena's side.

From the moment he was close enough to distinguish Khena, Arth devoured her with his eyes. He dismounted, keeping the reins in his hand. The pony rubbed his nose against his shoulders.

"Hello, Khena," he said.

"Hello, Arth."

The harmonics of their voices pronouncing their names resonated like a love song.

Sotto then launched into a long monologue. The scribe explained that he'd come to Glinka to pick up Khena, with Arioso and Tiento of course, but that he himself filled an additional role within the cantorium, a very special place because he was the godson of High Master Ugal-do. Being under the direct protection of the highest religious authority of Cantoria meant he had important opportunities and great freedom to act. And so, in this capacity, he wished to bring Arth along with Khena to Cantor.

Arth finally turned his eyes away from Khena and stared at him.

"To Cantor? To the cantorium?"

"Yes. I'm certain the High-master will be interested in your voice. I've never heard a counter-tenor like yours."

"Counter-tenor?" repeated Arth.

"The highest possible for

Parution
February 21, 2013
Collection
Pages
256
Type
Grand format
Price
12,23 €
Isbn13
9782841726271
Size
14 x 20 cm

Digital reading copy