Chapter 54. The Bass Drop
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“…And you essentially decided to concentrate on chords with the guitar?”

I shrugged, paying very little attention to Albin’s strumming. “I wouldn’t say it like that. Emanai kitharas do have chords in them, but, since a chord is usually played by three or more strings, it is hard to get a lot of variety if you only have five strings in total.”

I wasn’t surprised in the slightest that Albin ended up turning into a hands-on player. While he was curious about music theory in general, the explosive growth of his practical skills, either fuelled by his natural talent or directly enhanced by his temporal magic, meant that the knowledge I was giving him was woefully lagging behind.

Not that it mattered all that much. Both of us knew that the Speaker of Shebet wasn’t planning on making a career out of playing or composing music. This was just another hobby of a bored noble that spent literal centuries exploring all that Emanai had to offer in entertainment.

Which was absolutely fine to me. Not only did he draw pleasure from an activity that I respected, but he didn’t fake it either. Facing a dilemma where he either had to rely on me playing whatever he wanted or waiting a few decades until the new style of music would become popular, he decided to solve the problem with his own fingers. Well, there was also a potential option of ordering some slave to learn from me, but I would’ve refused outright and Albin was travelling light anyway.

“The number of strings on a kithara depends on the skill of the player, but five is the smallest. The best of the best use seven or even eight strings,” he said offhandedly. “You just don’t see those often at daily feasts, strumming in the background. Aikerim might be wealthy, but her wealth is still incomparable to some, let alone being the only one with money.”

“Makes sense. I was wondering why they would choose five rather than six or maybe eight to make an octave, but my life has been rather hectic recently to bother with such curiosities. Traditions reign supreme, I guess.”

Just like Albin, music was a source of joy to me rather than something requiring immediate study. I was sure that Emanai developed a deep culture around their music but my main drive was to replicate what I wanted to play. Tracing Emanai culture across their history would come at a later time.

I had bigger fishes to fry — Chirp had returned from its latest, longest trip to the northeast and brought rather concerning memories with it. For the first time, even if it was through the eyes of the drone, I saw the Forest itself. A rampant alien growth of white and red that looked like an ungodly mix between a forest and a coral. An enormous net of pale interconnecting trunks and vermilion to burgundy needles hugged the northern slopes of the Babr Plateau and stretched north and east way past the horizon.

There was a reason why even wermages spoke reverently about the Forest and I finally saw it myself.

I wondered about the possible stupidity and rashness of my decision to head there, but I quickly shook that off. Despite their reverence, Emanai arms frequently entered the Forest and, what was more important, they came back. Not just wermages that could ignore the laws of thermodynamics with their Flow, but wer and murks as well. Aikerim did worry about sending her daughter, yet she still sent us without an enormous contingent of warriors. She was willing to entrust the safety of her first daughter to other Pillar Manors maintaining the military institution as well as her husband daimon with high-tech gizmos.

The Forest was a dangerous place. Deadly, even. But it wasn’t at the level of ‘Abandon all hope, who enter here…’ level.

I could work with that.

“I know you are distracted simply because your explanations start to make even less sense than your average sarcasm,” Albin said without stopping his strumming. “I thought you were dividing these ‘octaves’ into twelve parts, yet I remember you specifically saying that the name comes from the word eight.”

I shrugged. “Tradition, really. You create a name out of convenience and a few centuries later it becomes so ingrained into the language that it resists further changes. The name is irrelevant. Neither does it matter what type of string you have, how taut it is, or if it is a string at all. Whatever the sound it makes, if you halve or double the length of that string, you will hear the sound that is the most harmonious to the first. So much so that your mind thinks of it as the same sound. And as long as humans continue to perceive them as such, the octaves will remain.”

A part of my mind couldn’t help but notice that there were limits to his ‘cheating’. Albin could quickly pick up and iterate on a given piece of information, but he needed to know it in the first place. Albin was already tinkering with using magic to fret the strings and other shenanigans, but it only happened after I explained to him the basics. It also took a lot of his attention, as he was nowhere close to his usual sarcastic self.

Or he was simply that into it to bother.

“There are many ways to divide that range as well, infinite even, but once again the human mind dictates the rules.” I put aside a small chunk of basalt from my hand, reached out and plucked two strings for him. “The second most pleasant interval has a ratio of two-thirds. They still sound pleasant together but they are different enough that you hear them as two separate tones. Take another step and you will hear a third. That is where the twelve parts come from — as you continue to discover new tones with each interval, you are bound to notice that after twelve steps you will end up very close to the sound that you started with.”

I picked up the rock once again as I was speaking. The Forest appeared to be extremely homogeneous — all ‘trees’ looked extremely alike to each other and all ‘grass’ looked like an overgrown lawn rather than a field full with wildlife flowers. I was no alien biologist — no one was — so I couldn’t be sure that I was dealing with a few species that formed a symbiotic colony, a colony of one species at different life stages, or a myriad of different ones that I couldn’t even tell apart since I was a murk without the Spark-sight.

Chirp was a murk too.

But I could work with what I had. Their magical properties aside, the Forest reacted rather uniformly to the mundane world. A thick biomat of burgundy ‘grass’ spread out in all directions with ‘trees’ appearing to follow shortly thereafter. With at least one notable exception — the Babr Mountains. The Forest sprawled to the northern hills of the plateau and simply stopped there, unable or unwilling to spread further. I did not know why.

For now, at least.

My fingers crushed the pebble as I thought. Were the heavy elements like cobalt and chromium to blame? Wermages called it badlands for a reason — the ultramafic soil made the area unwelcome to most terrestrial plants as well. While slopes and valleys had sparse vegetation in the form of hardy bushes and pine trees that simply didn’t give a fuck, the highlands were comprised of barren rocks across the entire massif.

Or was it a conscious thought of an alien hive mind that saw these hills as ‘less-tasty’ and ‘not worth expanding into’?

Whatever it was, the Forest had preferences. And I now knew about a range of things that it might not like. It wasn’t immediately helpful, nor was I ready to start producing xenocides just from this knowledge alone, but I was patient. Emanai was facing the alien threat from the moment it was established and was unlikely to resolve it anytime soon. Considering that Lif was somewhere past the red horizon, I would have to solve it myself rather than rely on wermage ‘solutions’.

Especially if Creatures had a lot more in common with the Forest than the colour of their carapace. It was highly likely that the discoveries I would make about the Forest would greatly enhance my ability to understand and counteract Flow monsters as well. Something that would become extremely important to me in a manner of days.

“Yes, I understand the reason for twelve,” Albin said after some testing of his own. “But why eight, then?”

“While twelve gives you an enormous range of combinations, you rarely, if ever, will need all twelve of them for a particular melody. There are historical aspects to it too — for a while, humans had a decent chunk of the population that was really into vocal singing as a crowd or a choir. Picking seven out of twelve gave them a sufficient variety of combinations yet avoided unnecessary complexity that an average human would struggle with. I can’t tell if this system was perfect for its role, or if it was directly affected by the cultural perception of seven as a magical number, but it worked extremely well for what they needed. Considering that said group was extremely influential across the globe, this type of music became ubiquitous if not outright default in a lot of places.”

Albin shook his rabbit ears in amusement. “Heh. Whoever came up with the magical seven clearly drank some spoiled wine that day.”

“Says the guy worshipping five and ten.”

“Hey!” He raised his hands. “I have ten valid reasons right here why my numbers are superior to yours!”

“Uh-huh. They look very mundane and completely un-magical to me, Al.” I snarked back. “The seven is clearly superior and more mystical. If you are going to argue, I will teach you how to count time in sevens rather than tens. Away with tendays — it is time for the week to emerge as the ultimate unit or measurement!”

“Seven days!?” Albin grinned. “Have you been drinking the spoiled wine too, Erf?”

I scratched my chin in thought. “I just need to add two more travelling stars in the sky for you to understand that seven was ordained from above.”

He could only laugh at that statement.

“Say, Albin,” I continued when his giggles tapered off, “did Emanai figure out why the Forest avoids the Babr Mountains?”

He shrugged. “Why does it avoid seas? Badlands. It is not just the Forest that doesn’t grow there. Crops wither and die and the few that survive yield poisonous fruits. If you are asking if we tried to use it against the Forest directly, the answer is yes, but it was useless. Building walls and towers with poisonous soil had no effect while scattering it within the Forest only damaged the land itself. Even if it worked on the growth — what is the point of conquering the land if you can’t grow crops on it anymore? Fire works a lot better and leaves the fertile land afterwards. Even if that often attracts Creatures, the result is well worth it.”

“The land that was well fed by the corpses of naive merks,” another voice entered our conversation.

I glanced around to a sneering wercat. “You are?”

He had human hands, making him closer in appearance to Irje rather than Viter, but that was where the similarities ended. Whoever he was, he had plenty of scars and twin long braids on his chest. A freed wer or a descendant of one. A plain sash made any attempts to identify his allegiance fruitless.

He sniffed, “What? So that the boytoy can run to his mistress and complain? This isn’t the capital anymore, merk, and you won’t hide from the Forest under her kaftan.”

I rolled my eyes, “Says the wer who is afraid to wear his sash in public. You don’t even need to study at the school for artists as you are already a hypocrite.”

Glancing around I noticed other males gathering around us once again, and a completely unperturbed Albin, who continued his strumming.

“The holy order of five is busy.” He winked back at me. “Renounce your heathen ways of seven, first.”

I rolled my eyes even harder. While I wasn’t particularly afraid of getting into a scuffle for I could punch well above my weight and heal most of the damage, I knew that they were unlikely to start swinging either. This was some intimidation or power play for them and a great annoyance for me as I cared little about who was the head honcho or what ‘the most popular male’ clique thought about me.

“Are you a moron?” He tilted his head. “Do you think that a piece of cloth will keep you safe in the Forest? I earned the right to wear braids just as I earned the right to wear an empty sash — with my own hands in battle. Rather than with my fingers on a slavish instrument and my tongue deep inside a cunt.”

I scoffed. “Yet here you are, desperately trying to prove to your gaggle that you are better than me.”

“There is nothing to prove! Anyone who has eyes can see a pathetic parasite corrupting one of the Pillar Houses.”

“You want to get punched in the face?” I cracked my neck. “Just say it straight and I will punch you — why are you dancing around with a dick-measuring contest? Trying to prove to your love that you have the biggest schlong around here?”

Judging by the twitching ears, I hit a sore spot.

“Watch your tongue, merk,” he snarled. “The only one here who has a barbaric dick is you!”

Ah, right. Wrong culture.

“No, it is you who should keep his muzzle shut, half.” I stood up. “Because not only are you itching for a rapid deconstructive face massage, but you also think that you know better than the Domina and Matriarch of Kiymetl together. I am sure that both of them would be quite ‘eager’ to personally hear your advice.”

The wer nodded and struck his chest. “And I will meet them without shame.” My sarcasm flew squarely over his head; Albin was a bad reference. “At least I would bring benefit to their Manor, unlike a parasitic merk.”

I felt my eyebrow rise. “You? They don’t need an amateurish insult-slinger.”

The wercat scoffed. “With real music!”

I almost stumbled “You know what? Fuck it. Go bring your kithara and put your deeds behind your words or shut your lying mouth and get the fuck out.”

He barked a laugh, making the crowd chuckle in turn. “A kithara? Who do you think I am? I don’t play the meek songs of a whore, begging for a dick into his unwashed ass, but the hymns of a warrior that make hearts beat faster and souls burn with righteous fire of victory! Something only war drums can do!”

“You hear that?” I elbowed Albin. “He is dissing us.”

“I do.” He nodded sagely, dropping his ears. “What are you gonna do about it?”

I spluttered from indignity. “Me? You know what, Al-Azhar Mesud, I remember you had drums in your carriage.”

“I did?” The asshole refused to get a hint.

“Yes. Right beside your ass’s ass, where the third ass tends to sit.” I pulled his ear closer to me. “Right where you store that tent of yours!”

“Ah, ‘those’ drums! Wait, you can play the drums too?”

“I can play many instruments — I just have personal preferences. The guitar is one of them.”

“Can’t even pronounce it right,” the wercat tried to remain relevant.

I didn’t bother to respond; Albin was already quite far in his skill and I was itching to see what the two of us could do, rather than put the upstart wer into his place.

“So, you want both of them?”

I shook my head. “Azhar, Azhar, Azhar. Remember what I told you about this style of music? It was designed to accommodate multiple tones at the same time, playing in harmony. Whether you have four people singing in a quartet or four strings ringing in a chord. I don’t need just two — bring me at least five of them with different sizes and don’t forget the guitar either.

“And I will show you real music.”

 

Anaise Kiymetl Hilal

She twirled her wine in the cup, absentmindedly listening to other wermages bicker among each other. Irje squirmed in her seat right beside her and threw a longing glance at the tent entrance. If she was her mother, Anaise would have likely reprimanded Irje for her obvious behaviour but all she felt was jealousy for the inability to act in a similar manner.

Once again the females of their convoy met together to discuss ‘important’ matters and once again Anaise realised that she did not care.

Yes, there were important tasks that had to be completed no matter what, but Anaise was well ahead on her responsibilities and felt no need to clamour for more. The recent events within the Kiymetl ensured that her Manor could not be trifled with. As the first Lady of the House, Anaise had no trouble procuring foodstuffs for everyone since every other Kiymetl Manor was eager to appease her mother and many farm Manors were eager to trade with someone, with gold on her hands.

She didn’t bother with currying favours from others as nothing she could do here right now would measure up to what her mother was doing back in Samat. Anaise had been informed about Yeva saturating Enoch with steel and now she could see the results. The Kausar twins had shown their interest quite early, but it was of a playful kind. Today she saw four calculating eyes of green looking at her instead. No local delicacy could achieve such drastic change. No threat to withdraw food or drinks would cause others to treat her so seriously.

The word had spread quickly across Samat and other Pillar Houses had learnt of ‘the Enoch deal’ shortly thereafter. It was curious to see a hint of uncertainty from Lita’af as the werwolf looked at her and Irje, trying to solve some dilemma deep inside her mind. Mushaf was also more silent than usual as she contemplated whether to oppose Anaise with renewed vigour or trust in her assurances about Muramat.

At least Anaise hoped that was what Mushaf Davlat thought about. There was a lot of play between the three Manors, trying to maintain the existing state of affairs, but Anaise was quite sure that Mushaf knew by now that her ‘refusal’ wasn’t the result of a previous promise or the intent to save the face of the Kishava Manor. Anaise saw Muramat as someone below her status and refused to be burdened by him. The question was whether Mushaf felt relief at the lack of competition or indignation that Anaise valued her chase so low.

Time would tell.

Not that that would mean Anaise would try to accommodate the young Kishava heiress. She stepped onto the path of war to maintain her independence and there was no way that she would start bending her back now!

She harrumphed and glared at the Enoch twins — it didn’t matter if Irje liked to ogle them from time to time or watch them occasionally as they washed each other — if they dared to have even the slightest chance to get close to her sadaq, they would need to work long and hard for that. And offer much. Especially for a chance to have the true children of the Navigator.

If Erf would even bother to entertain them at all.

Other males were even less likely, at least for now. While his camaraderie with Albin Chasya was quite unexpected, Anaise didn’t see him joining. If Erf’s words about his kind were true, it was quite likely that he could sire more powerful children than any wermage that walked the land of Emanai, making the acquisition of other husbands for procreation somewhat futile. And Anaise would not entertain someone of Albin’s character within her sadaq.

But none of this mattered right now. While there were a few individuals who were eager to forge closer bonds or outright join her sadaq, none were desperate enough to agree and influential enough to fulfil the demands that their sadaq would request in return. As the first daughter of Aikerim Adal, Anaise brought in the entire Manor and her future status of a Domina as her dowry and there was no way that she would accept anyone offering less.

Any thieving rats were also out of the question.

“Listening to the stories from Samat, I was afraid that we would be showered in lavish meals and forget how to fight. But Anaise Hilal maintains quite strict food discipline.”

Yet another false praise was thrown her way, making Anaise sigh. “The food is provided according to arm policies and everyone gets their portions of grain, wine, and cured meat. As well as oil and salt. It would be cruel of me to weaken the Emanai warriors before they even join their arms.”

The Hatay girl tilted her head. Anaise didn’t know how Albin managed to change his visage, but the presence of the extremely gifted ‘Hatay’ male emboldened other werrabits. “Please give my praise to your cook — many can tell where your tent is just by the smell alone.”

She swished her tail like shooing away an annoying fly. “He is called the Alchemist of Kiymetl for a reason. I would be quite surprised that someone who can brew the potion to make my hair shine can’t brew something to keep my stomach full. I take the same portions as everyone else, the only difference is that I was prudent enough to bring pepper and spices with me from the city. For they are extremely light and bring plenty of flavour.”

Well, she was only partially honest. While spices and herbs did come from her Manor, they were arriving almost daily as Erf outright refused to eat bland meals and often sent that Chirp of his just to replenish fresh stocks.

“He can cook too?” Kirana Enoch Kausar whispered to her from a nearby seat.

“Yes, to quote his words: cooking is the true form of alchemy,” Anaise murmured back to her.

The werrabit coughed. “Forgive me, I didn’t know that alchemists were judged by their cooking skills in the capital…”

“He tripled the wealth of my Manor within a season,” Anaise interrupted the weak attempts at intrigue, instigated by someone else entirely judging by a few scant glances at Kishava’s table, “and my Manor wasn’t poor to begin with. If such a person was in your Manor, you would call him neither a cook nor an alchemist. Because you would be forbidden to speak with him unless he spoke to you first.”

She ignored the sputtering girl mumbling something about Anaise courting one of theirs. Albin was annoying even when he wasn’t around.

“This should’ve ended a long time ago,” Irje sighed, unable to hold her frustration and somewhat annoyed from the latest barb. While Anaise saw them as irrelevant, Irje still struggled not to take everything that was said to heart.

Mushaf cast a glance at Irje and then looked at Anaise, raising her eyebrow.

“She is right.” Anaise shrugged. “There is another day of travel ahead of us tomorrow and I refuse to waste my time here by drinking wine and trading barbs. Is there anything important that needs to be said? Because otherwise I have missives to write.”

Lita’af opened her mouth but stilled for a moment and perked her ears. As did many other werwolves and Mushaf. Anaise tried to listen but she couldn’t figure out what she was supposed to be listening to.

“What is that sound…” Lita’af murmured. She got up and immediately headed for the door, forgetting the meeting and whatever she was planning to say not so long ago.

Anaise shared a glance with Irje and saw her shrug in return, the Enoch twins looked equally confused just as many other ladies present here. Yet every Kamshad and Kishava wermage started to leave the tent. Unwilling to remain ignorant, Anaise pushed her chair aside and quickly followed the others, dragging Irje with her.

The afternoon breeze was pleasantly fresh after the stale air of the large tent, but now when they left the thick canvas walls behind she could hear the rumbling sound all around her. It was deep and faint, unknown yet somehow familiar…

“Anaise,” Irje whispered. “I think I know who this is.”

She looked up at her wife as her mind tried to solve the puzzle in her ears. Not what but who…and this rhythm…

Oh.

Oh no.

“What did he do this time?” she grumbled to herself and stomped toward the place where their tents were set up and where the sound was coming from. She could feel the headache coming. “I should’ve trusted my heart and left you with them. I knew that leaving both of them alone would lead to nothing good!”

“You know what this sound is?” Lita’af glanced back at Anaise.

A new wave washed over them and she felt the hair on her tail stand up in response. Lita’af shivered.

“I know who this is.” She shook the tingling feeling away and resumed her walk.

“This isn’t some sound, it is music. His music.” Irje clarified.

As she continued to walk, the sounds started to become more and more clear. By now Anaise realised that what she heard before was only a part of the whole melody. The guitar was there, but now it was surrounded by the thunder of drums that somehow enhanced its sounds rather than drown them.

It took Erf a few tendays to build his guitar. Apparently, it took him one afternoon to build his version of drums. And she knew who was the main instigator of this.

Anaise stopped in front of the dancing crowd and sighed in resignation as her fears ended up being true. Grinning ear to ear, the fake rabbit was singing some vulgar song about a wermage girl in Heat. While her Erf…

Between multiple drums, small and large, her daimon was hitting them with abandon, causing those rhythmic sounds that went past her ears and deep into her core, tickling her in obscene ways. This music looked exhausting as he had taken his khalat off a long time ago, choosing to leave it hanging at his waist. Beads of sweat rolled down his face and onto his naked chest just as when they were together…

Anaise looked away with red on her face, only to notice a nearby wermage girl squirming and rubbing her thighs. Fists clenched in outrage, she turned her glare at the culprit.

As if noticing her anger, Albin glanced at her and quickly whispered something to Erf.

Erf lifted his eyes, gave her that damned sheepish smile of his, and blew a kiss in her direction.

Anaise did the only thing she could do in this situation.

She ran.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter was edited by: Xeno Morph and UnknownPlunger.

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