by Tamara Vardomskaya

Aantselitsha,” Eret’s mother whispered as she died in the hospital’s sterile coldness. Keep it alive.

Or maybe “Re-ignite it.” Eret barely knew the word root — life/light — and wasn’t positive on the prefix.

Their language. Mattaghelit. Five millennia of history, and its last speaker now lay dead in a Sunatnight hospital, Atsaldeian voices all around, including her own son’s, who didn’t think of the Mattaghelit response in time.

Eret watched his mother’s body ignite at the funeral, the three lightforger mages solemnly turning Chigiri’s aged bones into a flare of light. He had been ready to haggle, as people with his looks were always doomed to do so as not to be cheated to their last copper rose coin. It was bad enough that he was simply assumed to be ‘Merezenin,’ no matter that the Mattaghelit people had lived on Atsaldei’s territory long before Atsaldei existed, and had never set foot far south in Merezen; two “M” peoples were too much for the Atsaldeians to keep straight. But this seemed to be the one funeral office that would offer a reasonable price. A chorister’s salary was low.

He wondered for a brief second about converting the heat and light of his mother’s cremation into heat and light for his little flat, whether that would get him a better deal than the cost of the funeral took out of his heating budget. He shuddered at the thought, making his voice quaver in the long keening kodara for the dead that he sang almost unthinkingly.

The few other aging Mattaghelits nodded to him, the younger ones murmuring ‘May she be reborn greater’ in the Atsaldeian fashion as well as the Atsaldeian language; the elders still remembering ‘The moon take her.’ One or two even spoke that line in their own language. But that didn’t mean that they could tell long rhyming, chanted stories about what the moon does to lost souls. What remained of those stories in Chigiri’s brain had at last burned brighter than moonlight.

Except that there was one other place the stories could be.

Eret did not weep. The Mattaghelit were not wont to weep over the dead, and weeping would hurt his throat and he had a crucial rehearsal that afternoon, even if he got the morning off. He still had a little less than two hours of free time, and he used them.

Yira still lived where she had lived ten years before, in the block of aging apartments of brown glass off Ringside East. They looked as shabby as his own from the outside, posters of Na-Melei Tro’s upcoming concerts plastered on the facade to cover the cracks and grime. But Eret knew that a linguist made more than a chorister did: Yira only had to share the bathroom with one other flat instead of twenty, a luxury that Eret often dreamed of while standing in line.

When he knocked, it was her neighbour who opened the door on the shadowed landing, light slanting down from the high slits where the brown glass gave way to clear. The older woman’s dappled features reminded him for a moment of his mother, although her face was too pale and too broad.

“Is Yira in?”

The old woman decided, after close and suspicious scrutiny, that in his musician’s greys, he resembled neither the police nor the mages. “I’ll call her.”

He heard a rapid, muffled exchange between the old woman and the crisp strident voice he recognized. Then Yira herself stood framed in the doorway — taut and precise, lines sharp as the ink notations she had made in her countless notebooks.  She had not changed in a single rust-brown hair in the ten years, he thought, while he had transformed completely. Yet now he felt again as a rawboned boy ten years ago, his voice just breaking. Again he felt like a supplicant before this academic Atsaldeian who had seemed to actually care about the Mattaghelit even as the elders had whispered she was stealing their tongue. Well, Eret was coming, humbly, to ask for it back.

“Sunlight on you. I’m Eret,” he said. “Chigiri’s son. I come from her funeral.”

He looked for signs in Yira’s face: sadness, recognition. There seemed to be only closing off, stiff and polite, and a very formal three quick notes of the kodara for remembrance. “Mirror-wise, and may she be reborn greater. Thank you for letting me know.”

“Wait!” he cried as she moved to close the door. “I…I want our language back. From your notes. I want…” he had carefully constructed the words, running them over and checking them again and again in his head. “Litscha-gii aklerents.” I want my children to keep it alive.

He saw her wince before she hid it; so his pronunciation was wrong after all. “And what,” she said, tight voice creaking, “do you need me for?”

Eret took a deep breath, as for a high note, but all that came out was a sigh, touched with a whimper he hoped she couldn’t hear. “Kre, you won’t do it, after all. You are…the best speaker of Mattaghelit left.”

“Well,” she replied, her voice snide and high-pitched, “at last a younger Mattaghelit admits this. Ten years, and they finally come for my help, instead of scrupulously ignoring my advice about the language I had made my life’s study.”

His anger broke through. “You would let Mattaghelit, our people, our language die! After we helped you so much with your doctorate! Just like all the other Atsaldeians!”

His shout echoed down the stairway, probably scattering the wyverns pecking for crumbs outside. He regretted shouting; it had hurt his vocal folds.

“They would let the language die before admitting that an Atsaldeian could speak it better than them, even if they only knew three words,” she said. “Is it for my health and amusement that I’d keep going to people who resent me? You know what, Chigiri-yakler?” her voice had built to a crescendo, and Eret realized that what he’d thought was anger was really bitterness as she called him the son of his mother. “Too little, too late!”

Eret stuck a trembling foot into the door just before she could slam it. The wood was cheap and thin, but still stung against his boot. “Kre, we didn’t do anything like that!”

“Tell you what,” Yira said from the other side of the door. “I’ll agree to be the one Atsaldeian, of those who give a wyvern’s crap, who doesn’t kindly inform you Mattaghelit of your own history, and I’ll thank you for not informing me of mine. I have detailed notes, and better things to do with my life than show them to you.”

Such a situation as this must have occurred before in some story, but the only stories Eret could recall were the plots of cheap comic operas. At last he understood why Yira had quit working with them ten years back, as soon as she finished her dissertation, and had never returned.

He spoke at last, his pride a harsh note going back down his throat. “Yira, I have things to do as well. I have a rehearsal with a guest singer I need to be at in half an hour, and kso, the Transit station will likely have a queue out the door again. But I need my language back. What do you want for it? Money?”

Money is everything with these Atsaldeians, kwalkii, he remembered his mother muttering, as her hospital visits had become more and more frequent and the jingle of their coin box grew higher and higher pitched from lightness. And even though money hadn’t been everything to the friends he had grown up and played and sung with, he had believed her. Even if he had never learned what kwalkii meant.

“A guest singer.” Yira’s voice was in an entirely different, lower register. “Not Na-Melei Tro from Merezen?”

“It is she,” Eret said nervously.

A long pause he counted in heartbeats in the throbbing bruise on his foot. “Kre, I suggest this,” Yira said finally. “You let me into the rehearsal and let me listen to Na-Melei Tro and speak to her, and…” She took the door off his foot, opening it a bit wider.

“And…”

Ayantseq’uria,” she said with the popping burst of ejective consonant. It wasn’t a promise and it wasn’t a refusal. Let us keep speaking.

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Na-Melei alighted from the train, and at once inhaled the smell of steam and heated steel, of savoury five-fold pastries frying.

The conductor had assured her it was spring, but despite the sunlight, she was skeptical. The train had taken them in two days from Cadrazien, Merezen’s capital, already flooded with lush flowers, to Sunatnight, the capital of Atsaldei, where the trees were just beginning to open their tough little blossoms against the wind and rain, and a coat was vital.

The Atsaldeian language had all those subtle gradations of ‘cold’: chilly, brisk, nippy, biting, a variety of synonyms Na-Melei could never sort out. She silently thanked Master Lazhanor for the invitation gift of a leather coat.

Behind her, Fai-rek and Ivuem followed, the boy with eyes like lakes at the Atsaldeian capital, the elder woman immediately tracking the crowds. Ivuem would note who was old, who was young, who wore the leather and sparkling platinum of the rich or the copperbark and duller silver of the poorer, where were the black-clad mages crisscrossed in coloured sashes, and how many raven-haired heads and olive faces there were.

Na-Melei wasn’t sure what Fai-rek was looking at or listening to. She had adopted the boy two years ago, when he was just five years old. Nearly a third of his life had been spent trailing after her singing career: sitting quietly at rehearsals, sleeping in inns and short-let apartments, every month hearing a new accent, or even a new language altogether. With no sense of what was normal and few chances at regular schooling or friends, though, the boy seemed to absorb everything as a new adventure. Every new city, he welcomed as an additional place to call home, not as a forced change tearing him away from the last one.

Or, at least, Na-Melei told herself this in moments of guilt for taking Fai-rek’s childhood from him. She had to. It wasn’t the boy’s fault that the people in his home village, only on the next hill from her own but speaking Vurkh, had said such evil about his parents before their deaths. If no one would take the son of so-called perverts and thieves, Na-Melei, the one Grasshills villager to make it in the big world, would. She would use her fame to shame them for their prejudices, she had thought.

And she had since grown to love him deeply, in her own way.

“Stay beside me,” she whispered to Fai-rek, checking his tight grip on the valise full of performance gowns.

“Mistress Na-Melei Tro!” There was Master Lazhanor, the man she had only known from letters and portraits. The portraits hadn’t conveyed how short and lively he was. She raised a hand of greeting, feeling odd and constrained in her bone-buttoned gloves in the Atsaldeian style.

“Sunlight on you, Mistress Tro, let us get you to the Transit station. I hope you’ve had a pleasant journey. Kso, are these your…attendants?” The music director spoke heavily accented Merezenin, the pace of his words stumbling and tripping like one of his tempo rubato compositions — or one played by an under-practiced musician with the easy phrases coming fast and the difficult ones stuttering and uneven. The purely Atsaldeian particle kso came as a jarring dissonance to her ear.

“Just Na-Melei is fine and I understand Atsaldeian, if you would prefer,” she said smoothly in that language. “Although I shall have to interpret for my companions. This is my aunt Ivuem, and this is my ward Fai-rek. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

The two nodded on hearing their names. Na-Melei gesticulated to compensate for them, her heart aching in empathy with their shock at the cacophony of the train station.

“I felt the same way when I first arrived in Cadrazien. It will be all right,” she whispered to Ivuem in Phang, and added to Fai-rek in Vurkh, “Don’t worry, you’ll learn fast.”

But even the experience of ten years in Cadrazien had not prepared Na-Melei for the Transit station; lost in awe, she let Master Lazhanor deal with the cost of passage for all four of them from the russet-sashed farleaper mages. They do not use horses here, nor carts — they travel over the city by magic!

Maybe there was something to those mage-controlling laws after all, if such power was used in the public’s service. Na-Melei quickly stifled the thought as unfair, and carefully kept her face still. The rumours of dissent between mageborn and realborn in Atsaldei, of a powder keg exploding soon, had gotten as far as Cadrazien, and she wasn’t sure on what side Master Lazhanor fell, but knew that she couldn’t discuss it in public.

“These are the police, the ones over there in scarlet-and-blue,” she said softly to Fai-rek without pointing or otherwise seeming anything but casual; the odds of those two Merezenin-looking women behind them knowing Vurkh were slim, but she wanted no reason for them to listen harder. The police seemed on high alert, and she had heard enough rumours about Atsaldeians saying the wrong thing accused of spreading rebellion and dissent and imprisoned without trial. “Do not draw their attention.”

One step through the gap that the mage opened, and they were in another Transit station. Down the block was the Opera House she had seen in so many engravings, startlingly…matte in solid gray stone, compared with the shining glass buildings all around it.

Fai-rek laughed out loud, and Ivuem shushed him before Na-Melei could. Aunt Ivuem had turned into a nanny, from her old role of chaperone back when Na-Melei was sent to Cadrazien to train. Someone, her family and village all said, should come to protect our singing girl’s virtue. Ivuem had the advantages of being widowed, childless, and a fluent speaker of the city’s Merezenin as well as the villages’ Phang and Vurkh.

Only for the aunt to learn that in the city, among new music and new values, Na-Melei would decide that her virtue did not lie in virginity and who she slept with was her own business, not Ivuem’s. That shouting match, Na-Melei had held in the Merezenin language, refusing to concede to village values on that matter by using their words. And Ivuem yielded in Merezenin and gradually re-defined her relationship with her niece, her niece’s career, and later, her family in the form of the adopted son.

But that had been Cadrazien, much bigger and much more colourful in everything except languages spoken, but still a manageable size for an old lady and a young boy from a cluster of villages of a few hundred souls each. Sunatnight, cold as it was, held a million people, Na-Melei thought.

“Thank you,” Na-Melei turned to Lazhanor. “That was marvelously efficient.”

“On its good days, yes,” he grunted, and Na-Melei thought she must have seemed hopelessly provincial. Very well, hopelessly provincial she must be, for the price of the people of Sunatnight getting their exotic singer. She glanced over at Ivuem. Her aunt could play “hopelessly provincial old lady” with such skill that most city folk never realized it when she had already tied them into knots. Now lay the challenge of whether Ivuem could do it in a city whose official language she did not speak.

Na-Melei mentally placed a bet on her.

“Madam,” Lazhanor continued, “will we proceed with the contract first? Or would you prefer to take some refreshment after your journey?”

“The contract,” Na-Melei said.

The dance began, of Lazhanor laying out the bilingual contract in Atsaldeian and Merezenin before her on his bronzewood desk in his office, her carefully reading it, sounding out some words and asking them to be rephrased in Merezenin, correcting the Merezenin translation.

There was a blank space for the fee. “Twenty royals for the concert series,” Lazhanor offered.

Ivuem rose from the chair behind Na-Melei where she had watched the proceedings, and tugged at the singer’s sleeve, whispering.

Lazhanor sighed. “Thirty royals?”

“What do you want?” Na-Melei whispered to Ivuem in Phang,

The older woman kept whispering, and Na-Melei shook her head.

“Forty royals?” Lazhanor asked, dubious. “Fifty?”

Ivuem kept with her whispers in Phang, growing more and more urgent and distressed, Na-Melei’s head almost splitting with pressure from two sides in two very different languages.

“Mistress Tro, fifty is my absolute best offer. I cannot go any higher, and I have rehearsals starting in an hour, I need your contract!” Lazhanor burst out in a frustrated melange of Atsaldeian and Merezenin.

“Why, certainly,” Na-Melei smiled. “Of course, I will sign.” She bent to write in fifty royals for the fee and apply her signature in the Merezenin alphabet, as the two of them harmonized in the kodara for sealed bargains. Kodaras, of course, were the same in any language. Stoppering the ink, she looked up at him.

“My aunt would just like to know — where is the toilet?”

Lazhanor met her eyes, blushing redder than his lips. He did not see Ivuem’s satisfied smirk.

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The sheet music in Eret’s hand, still warm from the printer’s hot glass, was in no language he had ever seen before, transliterated into Atsaldeian script in what must be Na-Melei’s flowing, looping handwriting. He had sung before in Atsaldeian, Merezenin, Classical Caldamaran, and even Mattaghelit (although he had never seen sheet music of Mattaghelit songs). He paid strict attention to the vowel quality as Na-Melei herself explained the pronunciation from the front of the stage. She was elegant in a deep gray Merezenin-style walking suit whose white trim seemed to almost glow against her dark skin under the magelights.

It was Yira, sitting in the front row, who spoke up: “What language are the words in, and what do they mean?”

Shrook, Eret thought. Kso, the choir was already suspecting that she was an unannounced censor, rare as it was for censors to show up to a first rehearsal; and asking a censor’s question would just make them all the more politely indisposed towards the linguist. Which she would doubtless notice, and repay in antipathy towards the Mattaghelit and his own need.

Na-Melei, however, hadn’t grown up in Sunatnight, and explained with a smile, “No one knows. It is a tradition among our people to sing ‘Aishi Fau’ and keep singing it, but what language and what people it had come from has long been forgotten in the centuries when we had no writing.”

The old woman who was Na-Melei’s companion, her garishly bright shawl incongruous in the somber high-class leather of an Opera House box, spoke up with a few words. Eret guessed that this was a question, but the pitch varied on each syllable, the language obviously tonal, and he knew his was only a guess.

Yira slowly replied in the same language, and a conversation broke out between the box and the censors’ row, Na-Melei obviously following it, the language completely impenetrable to the rest of the Opera House. Lazhanor and the choir exchanged curious glances, and Eret’s shoulders untensed. Ducal censors came in many ages, genders and styles of clothing, but their one consistent feature was arrogant monolingualism. Yira’s question in Atsaldeian had been clearly motivated by xenophilia, not xenophobia.

Tsii,” Lazhanor called the choir to attention, trusting the foreign conversation would die down of its own accord, “let us run through the music.”

All of them sightread to professional standard; the first rendition of the song floated up and filled the hall, voices drawing together in close harmony on chords never found in Atsaldeian music and polyrhythmic fugal counterpoint in a different style than Eret had ever heard. The alien words seemed to twine around the arches of the vaulted ceiling, challenging, seductive. Exotic, Eret thought, and the automatic jerk of disgust at that word reminded him that he was thinking like an Atsaldeian. Na-Melei, as a person whose marvellous contralto guided the voices, luring and seducing them to match her vowels, to whom the incomprehensible song meant so much that she insisted a choral arrangement be included in her concert series — how did she hear it?

The two other songs they rehearsed were standards of the repertoire for contralto and chorus, ones the choir had done with other guest soloists or even used as audition pieces, one in Atsaldeian, the other in Classical Caldamaran. Eret had heard, in the gossip as the choir warmed up, that Na-Melei was going to sing some classic arias in the solo part of her concert, as well as a song or two Lazhanor had written just for her. Now seeing the director’s face as he listened intently to “Aishi Fau,” Eret wondered if the planned draft of Na-Melei’s bespoke aria would be rewritten, the harmonies changed to fit with those of a long-lost culture’s enduring song.

“Mistress Na-Melei,” Yira’s voice rang out as the rehearsal wound down, not as resonant as the professional singers’ but she did know something about making herself heard. “I am Yira Tsilian, a linguistics professor with the University of Sunatnight. Master Lazhanor, I do hope you will excuse my curiosity in coming here. Eret invited me.”

Eret quailed; he was still a very junior chorister and there were many talented tenors eager to take his spot if he displeased the director. But Lazhanor smiled at Yira. “Sunlight on you. You seem to know the language of Mistress Na-Melei’s people well.”

“Not as much as I would like to,” Yira said. “If I may – if you have not yet made plans for the afternoon, Mistress Na-Melei, I would love to buy you dinner.”

Na-Melei hesitated, her large dark eyes moving back and forth. In Merezen, or in her own culture, the purchasing of meals for others must signify something different than it did in Sunatnight. Lazhanor spoke, “Here it merely means that she wishes your company for an hour or two, and would like to recompense. No further obligations.”

Eret dared. “May I come along as well? On my own bill, of course.”

Having more people there would reassure the soloist that Yira was not planning to seduce her after dinner, or whatever the Merezenin practice was. And he was dying to find out what the linguist would talk about with Na-Melei, and whether she would let slip information about her work on the Mattaghelit that she wouldn’t share with him as a member of the tribe. And honestly, with this very long day, he wanted to postpone going home to his mother’s empty flat, now all his, and having to think about his mother and his people. And, somebody should tell this lovely innocent foreigner what the censors were likely to say when they couldn’t get a verified translation of ‘Aishi Fau.’ Lazhanor, never having to think about these things as a Noted Artist of Sunatnight, obviously hadn’t told her.

Na-Melei’s voice was melodious as ever but her vowels were now much more foreign than they had been during her explanation of “Aishi Fau” — weariness from three hours of vocal work, or nerves? “It would be an honour. But, kre, I couldn’t. You see, my companions Ivuem and Fai-rek, they do not know any Atsaldeian at all. I cannot leave them. And I cannot oblige you, Professor Yira, to pay for their meals as well.”

“You can oblige me,” Lazhanor replied. “Professor Yira, if I can come as well, I would consider it an honour to just listen. I will cover your companions’ meal. And Eret’s as well.” In the director’s eyes, there was an unspoken understanding. So he knows. He knows that my mother’s funeral was today, and I came to rehearsal anyway.

“In exchange,” Lazhanor added, “for Professor Yira teaching me enough of your aunt’s language for me to be able to understand requests for basic directions.” His eyes twinkled, and Na-Melei’s cheekbones flushed, changing the shade of her skin.

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She was finished, Yira had repeated to herself as she strode into the Opera House, chewing her lip. With her doctoral dissertation, her involvement with the Mattaghelit was over. And good riddance to them all.

For ten years, she’d had the peace and quiet of not thinking about it. Kso, if the Mattaghelit people wanted to sink themselves and their own shrooking language with their own shrooking hypocrisy, that was their shrooking prerogative. She had a professorship, lectures to give, books to write and committees to serve on. She had no energy to fight the Mattaghelit to save their language, and she was glad there were no language speakers left to save when Chigiri’s son showed up on her doorstep.

Yet the words she had not spoken since her doctoral defence flooded back to her the moment she heard them again.

Why? She needed to figure this out. She needed time. And good music. And the opportunity to see with her own eyes an artist whose career she had followed in the newspaper for years, and see her more often than just at a carefully polished concert that would cost Yira a month’s rent.

And so she bargained Eret into letting her watch Na-Melei’s rehearsals in the hope that the foreign contralto’s beautiful voice would soothe her turmoil. In the hope that the woman who looked a bit like the Mattaghelit, but didn’t speak or sing at all like them, would somehow fix the unhealed Mattaghelit-shaped wounds in Yira’s soul.

Instead, Yira heard the song ‘Aishi Fau.’

Yira had never been able to hear language without analyzing it. She pulled out her memorandum-book to jot down repeated syllables of the strange song, trying to compensate for the inevitable mispronunciation by the choristers in order to figure out the language’s sound structure, how words interrelated, whether it had case endings or not. Some of the roots sounded similar to those reconstructed for Proto-Mattaghelit, or Classical Caldamaran pre-sound shift, but were they evidence of common descent, or were they borrowings?

As Na-Melei sang, Yira felt suddenly star-struck. You are probably a decade older than this woman. You are long past the age of falling for someone just because they speak a new and beautiful language.

But without thinking, she blurted out a question and found herself speaking Phang, the language she had not thought about in nearly three years, the abandoned project that hadn’t set then. Her grammar was rusty but the words returned as the aged aunt spoke to her. And the return thrilled Yira so much that she, again without thinking, asked the singer to dinner. She was glad that Lazhanor and Eret came along. There was a certain joy to talking languages with new people, not with her fellow faculty, whose responses she already knew.

As their small party walked out the stage door of the Opera House (Yira had not known where the stage door was until Eret had shown her), the little boy, Fai-rek, walked beside her.

“Good health to you,” he greeted her in Phang, very politely.

“Do you know Merezenin?” she asked in Phang, on a hunch.

“Oh yes, I do.”

How many times had she heard that pride in the voices of young children, insisting that they “knew” a language even if they knew one word? “What do you know of Merezenin?” she asked.

“What do you want me to say in it?” The child’s Merezenin was smooth and perfect. “I know some big words. Really big words. Like ‘decrescendo.’ Or ‘philharmonic.’ Do you know that word?”

Yira couldn’t help but mirror his grin. “Not only do you know Merezenin,” she happily switched to that language as it was far more comfortable than Phang, “but that means you know Caldamaran as well. These words come from Caldamaran. What other languages do you know?”

The boy said something in a language that sounded completely unfamiliar, so she couldn’t place even the family from that sample. He saw her puzzled blank look, and switched back to Merezenin. “I can speak Vurkh!”

“Vurkh?” She had never even heard of any publications on that language, and Yira assiduously followed new grammars of understudied languages. The Grasshills of Merezen were famous (in the tiny circles she moved in) for their linguistic diversity, and she now appreciated that. Her ongoing project on tracing the development of verb aspect from Old Caldamaran to Classical Caldamaran rolled off into a corner of her mind. The Caldamarans had left their language so well-documented one couldn’t ask for better, and they all have been dead five hundred years and could wait a little longer. She needed to seize this option of Vurkh.

Very carefully, like a hunter trying not to scare off a seven-point stag, she said, “I don’t speak Vurkh. Can you teach me?”

Fai-rek seemed aglow with the notion of teaching an adult, then paused. “If Na-Melei says yes.”

Just then they were at the restaurant door, and Fai-rek was obviously not the kind of child who would tug at his parent’s skirt for assent before she was ready to pay attention to him. Asking her to say yes would have to wait.

But something in Yira’s cold heart lit up, something that completely ignored the scars from the last time, ten years ago, when she had documented a language.

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“Three dishes?” Na-Melei studied the menu. Her companions looked on silently; they will probably just have what she’s having, Eret thought.

“One chal, one sweet, one sour or salty,” Lazhanor nodded. “It is the Atsaldeian way. Not the Merezenin way of one dish per course.”

Eret had eaten at Merezenin restaurants a time or two, and had always felt a certain unbalance on tasting their dishes one at a time, either being overwhelmed with sweetness or the savoury chal taste, or craving it. Perhaps because he could not afford the really good restaurants. This Atsaldeian one was particularly fine, with the tables separated by partitions so one could barely hear the neighbouring diners and their chorused kodaras. He felt a guilty relief that it was on someone else’s bill.

Ivuem, the old aunt, asked a question, and Yira leaned over and evidently translated the three different lists for her.

“I will take the sweet noodles and the salt fish with carrots, and the baked cheese four-corner pastry,” Na-Melei told the waiter after a quick soft-voiced conversation with Ivuem. The wide-eyed boy Fai-rek seemed to only half-listen. “They will each have the same.”

Even though Yira understood the other language that Ivuem spoke, to Eret’s surprise the linguist had clearly not followed the exchange just then.

“What…is your nationality?” Eret asked at last, hoping that he, a lowly Mattaghelit chorister, did not insult an international star.

“My passport? It is Merezenin,” she said, calm if slightly bemused.

Kre, you don’t speak Merezenin,” he blurted, and Lazhanor and Yira stared at him.

Vailio, ik-re,” Na-Melei smiled. Oh yes, I do.

“I think,” Lazhanor cut in, with the kind of firmness that warned Eret to shut up before any more wyverns came out of his mouth, “that we are curious to know what is your mother tongue.”

“Mother tongue? My mother spoke Phang. Mostly.”

“Mostly…”

“The people in the embassy in Cadrazien asked the same question. I finally had to ask them why they weren’t interested in what my father tongue was,” she said. “My father spoke Vurkh to us. The people in my mother’s village spoke mostly Phang, but my father had come from a village that spoke mostly Vurkh. With Ivuem I speak mostly Phang, but she knows some Vurkh and Merezenin; with Fai-rek, I speak mostly Vurkh, but he knows some Phang and is picking up Merezenin and now Atsaldeian. The school and conservatory spoke Merezenin. To get my Atsaldeian and Classical Caldamaran up to standard, my music teacher often conducted lessons in these languages.”

“And…what language do you speak in the market?” Yira was the first to process this.

“You want to cooperate with someone, you speak their language,” Fai-rek piped up suddenly, in perfectly understandable Atsaldeian that had the air of a sentence memorized as a single string. He couldn’t have learned that much in a single day in Sunatnight, Eret thought. The boy must have already inquired how to say that particular phrase.

“Yes. You want to cooperate with someone, you speak their language,” said Na-Melei in her rich voice, finding it strange that they were finding it strange. So unlike the weak cracked whisper of Eret’s dying mother.

“I know Merezenin and a little Phang, but no Vurkh at all.” Yira mused. “So, the language you speak, and your ethnic identity — they have nothing to do with each other. If Phang died out tomorrow, with no more people to speak it with, you will go on speaking Vurkh. And will keep singing Phang songs, the way you sing ‘Aishi Fau’.”

Eret’s chest clenched at Yira’s pointed look. So for some attitudes, his mother’s dead language and the community’s struggle to preserve it, requesting Yira’s help and all — didn’t matter. Kso, they could just swap Mattaghelit for another. Even for Atsaldeian, the conquerors’ language. What did this beautiful, arrogant singer really know of the treasures that Eret had lost with his mother, that Na-Melei had an abundance of, more than she knew what to do with, more than she knew mattered?

With every clonk as their dishes hit the table, earthenware on wood, he hated her more. What had he thought, bringing Yira here in exchange for her giving him back his tongue, only for the linguist to get ideas that if you have many languages, one doesn’t matter. He felt deceived and betrayed.

The six voices joined the waiter in the kodara before the meal: Na-Melei’s wondrous contralto that made the waiter raise his eyebrows; Lazhanor’s baritone that was musical if not soloist material; Fai-rek’s high treble; Yira’s crisp voice but precise diction more suited to lecturing than singing; Ivuem’s cracking age-worn soprano that must have once been quite lovely; and Eret’s tenor, tense throat noticeably warping his pitch.

“But,” Na-Melei continued as soon as the waiter left, “Phang is not dying out tomorrow. I speak it. You speak it. Fai-rek speaks it.”

Fai-rek said something. Yira replied dryly, then chuckled.

Na-Melei translated, laughing, “He said that Yira’s Phang sounds funny, sounding out e-ve-ry syl-la-ble. She said that this is Phang Professor-speak; it’s a different dialect of Phang.”

“And does he accept that answer?” Lazhanor laughed in turn.

Eret bit his lip silently. Lazhanor continued, “Tsii, there will be problems with your companions not being able to speak Atsaldeian. And with you singing ‘Aishi Fau.’ The censors want to completely understand everything that is being said, too afraid that someone would spill out sedition against the Dukes, against Atsaldeian values, in a transparent code that everyone but they can read and which makes them look like fools. Not,” he paused to flick his fork of sweet noodles like a baton, his usually smiling mouth too level, “that anyone has done that, of course. Not in the least.”

So Lazhanor knew. Eret had assumed he wouldn’t know. Na-Melei froze. Then, in quick Phang, or was it Vurkh, she summarized the issue to her companions.

Eret wondered if telling it in her own languages gave her a different perspective. Mentally, he tried rephrasing the problem in Mattaghelit, stumbling over words; the task was difficult enough to push his anger aside, until the envy at her ease returned.

Finally she replied, “I will sing. And I will see what happens. I am, after all, famous; what use is that fame if not to make my language famous with me?”

Lazhanor did not reply, seemingly intent on his salt-sour pudding.

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The waiter brought them the bill, in Atsaldeian script with the looping style that often meant a Merezenin hand. Lazhanor took it and stepped around Eret over to Yira, so as not to burden their honoured guests with petty transactions.

The quick song of the kodara and the rustling paper of the bill dulled the ring of the silvercuts dropped on it, but just by ear, Eret could tell that this was a lot of money. None of the others seemed perturbed except perhaps for the uncomprehending Ivuem and the child. They all casually rose, with straightening of jackets and the small talk of departure. The old aunt Ivuem addressed the waiter in what Eret recognized from many songs as Merezenin. It must have been a witticism — the waiter chuckled in return, and bantered back to her.

“The moon take Chigiri.” At first Eret thought that a strange voice was coming out of Master Lazhanor’s mouth; the changes in tone and phonetics made it almost unrecognizable.

The music director spoke Mattaghelit! With an accent, and that noun ending didn’t sound quite right, but Eret couldn’t possibly have misheard.

At Eret’s shocked face, Lazhanor switched back to Atsaldeian, still speaking softly. “Chigiri was a nursemaid in my parents’ house when I was a boy, long before you were born. She taught some songs to my little sister and me, and some sentences in Mattaghelit. I still remember them, like music. That was why I pushed for you to be accepted into the chorus after your audition,” Lazhanor added. “So I could do something for Chigiri in exchange for these songs.”

Chigiri had birthed Eret late, after she had nearly given up on having a live child. He had never really wondered how old Master Lazhanor was, the gray streaks on the music director’s temples never as important as the mind they framed. And Eret’s mother was always against teaching non-Mattaghelit the language; Yira had argued with her even for the sake of science and saving it. What had been the path from a little boy and a young maidservant to the dignified music master and the faded waxen face on the cheap hospital pillow?

Eret gripped the back of the restaurant chair, the thick leather cushions reminding him he could never afford to eat here on his own. Those Atsaldeians again, always with their smiles hiding secret networks of mutual understanding, that never included people like him. Now, he realized with irony, for once the networks did include him, and it felt worse — was he really a good singer, or had he been taken in as the nursemaid’s boy, out of charity?

Lazhanor must have read it off his face again. “Kso, I would not have done that if you were not good enough to make the grade, and I would have dropped you if you didn’t improve. But it formed part of my choice among many applicants equally good — you meant something to me, because of Chigiri.”

“She always hated my singing in the opera,” Eret said. “She thought I sold out.” Then immediately he clamped his mouth shut again. Shouldn’t have opened it other than to sing.

His graceful hand on Eret’s shoulder, Lazhanor steered him casually out into the street. To onlookers, it would seem merely a friendly gesture: the men heading out, followed by the chatting women and child. “There are more non-Atsaldeians in the Sunatnight Opera chorus,” the music director said softly, “than you could find in any chorus of comparable size anywhere else in Atsaldei.”

Eret remembered noticing that at his first rehearsal. Then he had forgotten it, the different shapes and colours of eyes and hair and skin becoming as normal as they were in the poor blocks of Second Ring Southeast where he lived. He had rarely seen other choruses large enough to compare.

“Not only does that mean that I get the best voices,” Lazhanor said, “but also…”

The music director scanned the darkening street. The blue magelights haloed his profile, making it sharp and eerie. There were no police nearby, though; Eret was already listening for the officers’ firm regular tread.

“The poorer Merezenin, the Thyans, the Mattaghelit,” Lazhanor said, “get tossed in the lower levels of Vingyar Prison all the time. Petty theft, drunk and disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, not having their bribes handy, looking like the officer’s hated superior… Normal stuff.”

Eret did know the Mattaghelit for “police,” and three words for “jail,” and all conjugations and declensions of “Don’t get under the police’s eye.”

“But,” Lazhanor continued, “they are hardly ever pulled in to Vingyar’s upper levels. It’s their own people that the Dukes watch for sedition and rebellion. Foreign strangers, even six generations Sunatnight-born, are beneath their notice.”

“You want me to get involved in politics,” said Eret. “For the rebellion that people say is coming.”

“Na-Melei may be naive about the power of fame,” Lazhanor replied, very soft, “but you should not underestimate it, either. Not with a new song’s measure. If I don’t see what you do as a crime, I will bail you out and make sure you don’t lose your home. I promise.”

Part of Eret was touched by the composer’s gesture, but then another part tensed. In Chigiri’s accented Atsaldeian, he said, “This is not the first time that Atsaldeians had assumed that the Mattaghelit will be their cat’s paws and henchmen and servants. Kre, I may be a chorister, but I have some dignity, sir.”

The older man almost reeled, and Eret, replaying his words in his head, realized how harsh he had sounded — and bit back his automatic apology.

Then Lazhanor stepped into the shadows and Eret could not see his lips as he said, “I think you and I want the same things. But make your own decisions. Kso, I don’t think you are the kind of man to side with the Dukes against me. You are Chigiri’s son, after all.”

Just then Yira nudged them from behind, and Eret found her passing him a heavy solid object: a book, thick and copper-bark bound. He raised it up to the light: A Grammar of Mattaghelit, by Yira Tsilian.

“I’ll keep my side of the bargain,” the linguist told him, crisp and unsentimental. “Take care of it.”

On her left, Na-Melei, seemingly oblivious, said to Lazhanor, “I was thinking about what you said. And despite this, I will hear ‘Aishi Fau’ sung in the Sunatnight Opera House.”

Tucking the book into his coat’s large inside pocket, Eret refrained from muttering that she had a better chance hearing Mattaghelit sung in the Opera House than this. After all, the Mattaghelit didn’t get jailed for political crimes.

He noticed Ivuem behind them, rapidly conversing in Merezenin with yet more strangers at the side door. His own lost language, the only other one he had, nestled against the small of his back.

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There was no other way to explain it, Yira thought, looking at her word lists, at the laborious sound correlations, at the reconstructed and predicted words that over the last two weeks Na-Melei, Ivuem and Fai-rek had confirmed were close to right or would make sense. The boy looked innocent and unsuspecting in the bright light from the rehearsal-room windows, but the last word he had confirmed made it real.

Vurkh was related to Mattaghelit. The language that every linguist had always called a language isolate with no identifiable relations, the last of its line, had a long-lost cousin on the Grasshills of Merezen. Three vowel distinctions had merged while two that Mattaghelit didn’t distinguish, Vurkh did; S’s had changed to Sh’s at the ends of syllables; the preverb for “in’’ instead meant “on”; and the word that in Vurkh still meant both light-blue and green, in Mattaghelit had long been reserved for light-blue only, the word for green borrowed from Atsaldeian. But they were kindred languages, without a doubt.

Fai-rek’s distant ancestors had been Eret’s too. Or perhaps not, with the easy way that Na-Melei’s home village cluster traded languages. Yira wished that she, or some other collector of folklore, had asked Chigiri about any stories of the people splitting, heading north and south. Did a search party go out and never return, becoming a raiding party? The word for the ironseed mango tree in Vurkh was akin to the name for the northern pear in Mattaghelit; it was hard to tell what had come first, which tree had been the one the long-lost people had in mind when they tagged its name to the other. Did they dwell under mango trees, and some rebellious chief’s son had a fit of pique and took his cronies north?

The Mattaghelit language was still dead, she thought.

What did it mean? What could she tell Eret? Or Fai-rek? A common language did not mean a kinship; having a common language with the Mattaghelits of Sunatnight did not bring her any closer to them. When she spoke like them without looking like them, they saw her as not only an alien but also a deceiver. All a common language meant was perhaps a shorter path to cooperation. But only as an option, to take or refuse.

“Here you go,” she said to Fai-rek; he wouldn’t notice her sigh. “A quarter-silvercut. Kso, you can buy candy. ” She realized that she spoke Atsaldeian, already expecting the child to understand her. And he did, scurrying immediately out the door past the arriving Ivuem’s skirts.

“You’re a tight-fisted woman,” Ivuem said in Phang rather than Merezenin, seizing the advantage with her language.

“No,” Yira replied in her accented Phang but striving for cooperation. “An adult I would pay half a silvercut. There is a fine line in how much you pay. Too little, and it’s not worth their time. Too much, and they would be saying yes to everything to please me. Which won’t help anyone. He should get candy money whether I’m wrong or right. This is a science. I am here to be proven wrong.”

Of course, Yira thought, this principle assumed that every speaker of a language rare enough to be worth studying would be as dirt-poor as the Mattaghelit, not the son of a singer commanding fifty royals per engagement and the fame to do whatever she wanted.

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“We understand your passion, Mistress Na-Melei,” the white-mustached censor replied. “What is wrong with doing a contrafactum, simply writing new understandable Atsaldeian lyrics to this lovely melody? If you have difficulty doing it yourself, Master Lazhanor has several talented librettists at your disposal, and with enough persuasion they can probably put a nice love poem together on short notice. Your choir can learn it in a quick rehearsal. The music deserves to be shared, I agree. And if you don’t actually know what the words mean, does it matter?”

If only he fitted the caricatures of the brusque, dominating censor, Na-Melei thought, biting her lip. If only he would be gruff and demand that everything got changed immediately, and yell. She could deal with yelling. She had been yelled at by her vocal coaches in Cadrazien, by her fellow villagers for selling out, by her own parents. By Ivuem. She had been yelled at for the way she dressed, for who she slept with, for singing wrong, for singing what she thought was wrong, for singing what she thought was right. For the language she spoke, for the language she sang in.

She didn’t expect someone so polite, so gentlemanly, so sympathetic — so deceptively firm. Like ironseed mangos, she thought in Vurkh, which Atsaldei was too far north to grow and probably lacked a word for them. Flesh so soft and tender it was almost sweet butter, but bite in too far, and you would learn how the fruit got its name.

She channeled the ironseed within herself as well. “It mattered to the people who wrote the words. To those who are now long dead.”

“Who you claim to not even know the names of,” the censor replied, with an almost friendly smile. “They are not going to sit in the audience and object.”

Na-Melei remembered her first recital at twelve years old, and her being so flustered at making a mistake in the Rallian Cavatina. Rallian is not in the audience so it doesn’t matter, a friend told her — who had been that friend, even? He and his soft tenor voice had long vanished from her life, but the words lingered on. Rallian had died three hundred years before the Great Amalgamation, back when Classical Caldamaran was still spoken. Maybe the friend, and the censor, were right. Maybe.

“We have forgotten their names and where they came from and what they looked like, and all but one thing of what they loved,” she said quietly. “We cannot forget their song too.”

“Mistress Na-Melei,” the ironseed glinted in his voice. “You have the opportunity to spread your art to living appreciative people in a living modern country. I strongly recommend you do not waste it. Make this melody into a beautiful Atsaldeian love song, or by the law of this land I will be forced to ask you not to perform it at all, which I for one would deeply regret. Tsii, I beg your pardon, but I have another engagement to attend now. It has been a pleasure meeting you and hearing your voice, Mistress Na-Melei, and your art is sublime as always, Master Lazhanor.” He bowed and strode up the raked ramp of the Opera House, the tails of his coat floating behind him, his snow-white hair glowing in the theatre lights.

The orchestra pit railing quivered behind Na-Melei as an enormous breath, the kind you would use for a high C fermata, escaped her in a whistle. Fai-rek and Ivuem were downstairs. They had not seen this and her defeat.

In the choir beyond the orchestra pit, she met the gaze of the young tenor who had accompanied them to dinner her first evening in Sunatnight. He stood out, his amber eyes in a narrow face with skin as deep-olive as hers. Most took him for Merezenin diaspora although she had seen no sign that he spoke more of the language than the bare amount necessary for singing, while for ethnic Merezenin, speaking Merezenin mattered. Ivuem could chat up so many of them; even Opera House cleaning maids were already her friends.

Some kind of minority pre-Amalgamation people, ran a few of the rumours she’d overheard, although Na-Melei knew she only heard a fraction of them, isolated in her own dressing room. She made a mental note to confirm the tenor’s ethnolinguistic identity at tea with Yira that afternoon. Eret, that had been his name. She nodded to him, hoping the strain didn’t show on her face, and looked back down into the pit at Lazhanor fiddling with his baton.

“So, what do I do now? Kso, he’s given me no choice.”

“He did give you a choice. A contrafactum. If you agree, ‘Aishi Fau’ will make a lovely one.”

Na-Melei imagined singing ‘Aishi Fau’ with Atsaldeian lower vowels and trilling r’s. Much as she loved Atsaldeian songs written for Atsaldeian, the idea of twisting her tongue and throat like this somehow made her want to vomit. “And if I just ignore him? Sing at the show the way it’s supposed to be?”

The composer stepped up to the railing and she had to kneel to hear his whisper in thick Merezenin. “Na-Melei, I love your music and I wish we could. But…if I throw my career away, I would rather it be for something bigger than this.”

“You know that this is wrong,” Na-Melei replied, same tone, same language.

“Yes. But now is not the time to move against it; we cannot have the ‘Aishi Fau’ be our song of defiance, not in this Opera House.”

“What if I sing it in the public square?” she said perversely. “On the steps of the War Memorial?”

Kre, Na-Melei, do you want to go to…” He didn’t know the word in Merezenin, so he hissed it in Atsaldeian, which somehow made it all the more terrifying. “…Vingyar Prison?”

“I am a Merezenin citizen. And I am here on cultural exchange. There will be a diplomatic incident if I’m jailed. The Merezenin embassy cares.”

“The Merezenin embassy cares about you, but I suspect they don’t care a whit about Fai-rek or Ivuem.”

That was true. Oh, earth below and otherspace, that was true. Na-Melei’s heart pounded beneath her bodice, tight in the alien Atsaldeian style.

“Take the contrafactum,” Lazhanor said. “I’ll have my librettist whip one up tonight; she is good at this. We—you cannot afford to antagonize the Dukes. Please.”

Na-Melei bowed. “I will. Just — have Yira do it. Please.”

All the three thousand seats of the Opera House seemed filled with the ghosts of the composers of ‘Aishi Fau,’ speaking their tongue she could not parse, but she knew exactly what they must be saying.

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By the time Ivuem finally found where she could buy nutbeans, she needed to borrow a giant pot from the Opera House cooks and purchase an armload of sacks of them, just to make enough of the Grasshills nutbean cream noodles for all the Merezenin she had promised a taste to.

And as a rehearsal ran above and she and the waiter from the first night’s restaurant shelled the nutbeans and ground them, most of these people crowded into the Opera House kitchen, commentating in Merezenin on her every move, calling her Iv-Uyem in true Merezenin fashion. The administrator of Transit blended the cream, sugar and salt while the noodles boiled; she was mageborn but her black clothing somehow didn’t matter as much today as the jokes she told in her native language. The Opera House cook made Cadrazien-style meatballs to go with the dumplings. The fathers of two of the choristers and a trader from the Mercantile Exchange helped dice asparagus and the chal-flavoured tubers that none of them were sure had an Atsaldeian name, but certainly had a Merezenin one.

Fai-rek laughed as he set out the plates. He broke one, but Et-poyi, everyone said, it didn’t matter.

Ivuem stirred the pot and thought that in Cadrazien, Merezenin who looked just the same would laugh at her accent and her manners and her shawl. If they could not honestly scorn Na-Melei once she opened her mouth to sing (although some still did), Ivuem had no such protection. She was old, she was ugly, she was widowed and childless, and she came from the Grasshills. Even the nutbean cream noodles would not be able to buy her respect.

But here, among the people who were in denial that their Merezenin sounded a bit funny to her, that their sentences went down in pitch instead of up at the end and they used kre and kso without thinking — here she, Iv-Uyem, was Merezenin enough that they would share noodles with her, because what mattered was that they were not four-corner pastries nor split into sweet, savoury and sour.

Ivuem suddenly noticed a much paler face behind the crowd. Yira, the linguist, was lurking by the kitchen corner, trying not to draw attention. Knowing that these people would laugh about what fools the Atsaldeians were, or what brutes they could be — things they would not say in front of her if they knew she could understand.

“Ready!” Ivuem announced proudly, to keep the others from noticing Yira. “Hand your plate here!”

Yira stayed at the back as the Merezenin men and women of almost all classes gathered for plates, dishes and cutlery, and Ivuem ladled up the fragrant noodles, dripping with bubbling sauce.

“Delicious!” the administrator of Transit said, breaking a moment’s accidental silence. “Show this one to Ve-Kesh, he’d love it.”

The silence stretched further. The administrator smiled awkwardly. Before her mention of the Dukes’ Court Mage, the others had ignored her blacks beneath her cooking apron. Now the name of the highest-ranked Merezenin in the city reminded them that he, and the administrator, were mageborn. And thus potentially deadly despite the laws regulating them.

Ivuem calculated quickly. She needed the mageborn of the Merezenin community on her side as much as she needed everyone else; that was why she had fearlessly invited every Merezenin mage she met. They ate the same food as the realborn. And having Ve-Kesh as a connection would be an enormous advantage in this city. But if she spoke up now, with her Grasshills Phang accent, and allied herself with the mages, it would unfortunately remind the realborn Merezenin that she was different after all. Different in ways that even her nutbean cream noodles would not smooth out.

Where music cannot find commonality, use food. Where food cannot find commonality — use music?

She loudly sang the preprandial kodara. “Come and eat, all. Nutbean cream noodles!”

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So it was done, Eret thought. So the Na-Melei he had admired for a few rehearsals, for her determination to keep her language — the one she herself understood least of her many languages — the contralto superstar whose voice may have had the power to fight the Dukes and this society; even she yielded. ‘Aishi Fau’ would be sung in Atsaldeian. With made-up words. It had nothing to do with assisting the Mattaghelit, but if even Na-Melei’s fame could not save a lost language…

Well, he had nothing to lose, with no family in the world, not even the people who shared his identity as a Mattaghelit but not at all as a singer.

Again he knocked at the door of the luxurious flat that shared a bathroom with only one other. “Yira! Professor Yira!”

She opened the door herself this time, her other hand fastening her worn copperbark coat.

“You are going…” he said, in very careful Mattaghelit.

“To Master Lazhanor’s, to translate the song,” she replied in Atsaldeian, seemingly not noticing the language switch, but without the antipathy of last time. Maybe she was just preoccupied.

“Could you…” Was that Atsaldeian? Of course; Mattaghelit would feel more laborious. He switched into it; he had planned this sentence on his walk. “Could you make the song ‘Aishi Fau’ in Mattaghelit?”

Silence, the kind of pause that longed for echoes, for the yelp of a poorly-muted instrument. The fading sun had moved away from the windows and they cast no shadows in the filtered light.

“What for?” she said, and this time in the same dead language.

He was rapidly mixed the two languages and for once he didn’t care; his mother wasn’t there to tut and frown and shame him, “Because I had asked you to help me, two weeks ago, but I didn’t know how. This is what I want — if nothing else, for our songs to be sung, the way Na-Melei kept singing the songs of the Aishi Fau people. If you are putting Atsaldeian words to it, why not Mattaghelit words too?”

Yira chuckled with dry irony. “Because it’s hard, for one thing?”

“But you can do it.”

“And for another, kso, we haven’t yet decided what our lyrics are even going to be about. You want a simultaneous drafting of an original song. Into a dead language.”

“About spring waking the earth again. Birds and wyverns flying up. Dawns blazing high. Flames rekindling and rising.”

Litsha-elents,” Yira corrected automatically, and Eret realized that this entire flood of words was in Mattaghelit. Mostly quotations from traditional songs and poems, true, but…

Yira looked strangely beautiful, and it took Eret a moment to understand he had never known how warm her laughter could be. “Write it,” she said. “You know the melody better than I do. I don’t know how libretti should work and you do. I’ll correct the grammar. Write it.”

“My grammar was probably terrible,” Eret said, thinking of the delicious, writhing words like sweet noodles on his tongue.

“A dying language always changes rapidly. What was wrong for your mother was right for three out of seven of the elders who died before her.” Yira headed down the stairs, and he followed her into the glass-fractured sunlight.

He thought of Chigiri singing, of his mother nagging him to speak her tongue, to repeat words and phrases after her. He had never made up his own songs in Mattaghelit. Never dared. Not in front of her.

Dropping his postverb endings and over-raising his vowels, he sang in the Atsaldeian street of his mother’s smoke rising to the sky, sending words of her language after her.

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Only the heavy patterned hangings kept the home of a Noted Artist of Sunatnight from being cavernous and echoing. Hangings of real sheep’s wool and leather, not leafwool and copperbark, Yira thought. She had seen such things at the University, but never in a private home. She resisted the desire to caress them.

Obviously, though, the hangings did not mean much to Master Lazhanor beyond their sound-deadening properties; the great piano meant much more.

Lazhanor now sat at that piano. Na-Melei took her accustomed recital spot in its curve, and still managed to look elegant and formal yet relaxed as she sat on the rug, legs folded to one side. Fai-rek silently wandered the room, looking at the wall hangings, the racks and stands of stringed and woodwind instruments that Yira couldn’t even name, the writing-desks scattered with music paper, some printed, some handwritten, some with the ink still wet. The boy seemed far more at ease than Eret, who perched on the edge of the cushioned curve-legged chair, scared of breaking anything. Well, Eret had just learned that Lazhanor’s apartment had the unimaginable luxury of having a bathroom entirely enclosed in it, shared with no one else but guests.

Yira took the couch near the young Mattaghelit.

The five voices joined in the kodara for urgent enterprises, Fai-rek coming in just a beat late and hastily blurting out the syllable he missed. He must have shared the common superstitious fear of missing even a word, even though the kodara wasn’t one he would have encountered often, and the words were as incomprehensible as those of the song they were about to “translate.” If, Yira was almost certain, kodaras were in a different language.

A similar thought must have struck the boy. “Did the Aishi Fau people use kodaras?” he asked.

The lecturer in Yira rose. “Kodaras are used cross-linguistically the world over. An analysis of the word itself, retracing vowel and consonant changes, shows that kodaras are descended from galdorcraft, the magic that vanished when the worlds amalgamated and otherspace magic took its place.”

She realized that the boy, for all his adeptness with Atsaldeian, could not follow such a complex sentence as had spilled out of her in one breath. She rephrased it in stumbling Phang, just to make sure the child understood. “Kso, kodaras are the records of dead magic. Galdorcraft magic. It doesn’t work any more, but we still keep saying it. Without any meaning. They’re like,” she couldn’t remember whether Merezen used death masks, “the death masks of pre-Amalgamation magic.”

It was having to say it again in Phang that made her think: the documentation she had made of Mattaghelit, to preserve it — it too merely made an empty record on the page that was not the language at all, already abandoned by its people and bereft of meaning.

Kre, I’ve said a kodara every day for fifty years, and I never knew that,” said Lazhanor, striking a rolled chord.

“Dead superstitious legacies,” Yira said through gritted teeth, and she herself didn’t know if she was talking about the kodaras or Mattaghelit. But the habits of singing kodaras like everyone else weren’t easy to break. In her youth, when she learned of their origins, she had tried.

“Legacies that connect us to our ancestors,” Na-Melei pointed out, with a firmness in her gentle voice. Of course she would; she would be the one who insisted on keeping up a song that no one knew the meaning of, or even which ancestors of hers had sung it.

“What for?” Yira said. “Ancestors who will never come back. Ancestors who you don’t even know whether they lived under beech or mango trees. What does it help to try to force these death masks on these people, when they resent you all the while for making them? I spent years trying to make death masks for a dead language, thinking that would resurrect it. Now I meet an even deader one,” she waved at the transcriptions of ‘Aishi Fau’ lying on the floor, “without even meaning.”

Eret sprang up, his face as drained of blood as such skin could be. Na-Melei, who had always solved problems with her voice until this very day with the censor, tensed as if she would solve this one with her fists.

Lazhanor spoke up. “There is a poem in Classical Caldamaran that I’ve tried for years to set to music. I will paraphrase it in Atsaldeian for the benefit of the boy.” He left it vague whether ‘the boy’ was Fai-rek or Eret, whose Caldamaran, Yira knew, was minimal. “A man comes to a temple of the Thyan gods, and asks why they still keep it up when its spirit has flown, are they blind and deaf to this? They reply that they know, but if they keep things ready, another spirit can come by and take up residence, and so the temple can awaken again.”

Even though it was prose, he kept a low accompaniment on the piano, as must have been his unconscious habit when storytelling: a repeated little snatch of melody from ‘Aishi Fau.’

Yira began planning how to set those words to the correct metre even before Eret said,  “Can we set that one as the contrafactum?”

“No,” Na-Melei said, seemingly unmoved by Lazhanor’s poem suggestion. “I’ve sung songs in translation, and, no matter what the censor says, I do not want this to be a translation, for people will take the easy way out and override the original. That would not be keeping the temple clean and ready; that would be razing it to the ground.”

She looked at Eret. “For ‘Aishi Fau,’ we will give a translation, but…sabotage it.”

Eret rose and went to join Fai-rek, who had wandered to the window. Yira watched the backs of the man and boy, muscles moving beneath their thin shirts as they sang something softly.

Brother tongues, she thought. Long-lost brother tongues.

Eret turned back. “If you’re not taking it, I will. I will translate this poem into Mattaghelit tonight, even if my Caldamaran is just as bad.”

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Only two minutes left of intermission, Na-Melei thought, rapidly buttoning up her gold-shot red gown for the second set. Ivuem wasn’t there to help her with the buttons on the back. Doubtless she was chatting with the Merezenin staff again. Well, she was Na-Melei’s aunt, not her attendant, as she reminded Na-Melei often in particularly uncooperative Vurkh.

A sip of water, a quick check of her hair and makeup in the mirror, and Na-Melei sang along softly to the kodara for fortune on the stage that all the choristers were singing before their entrance, some in unison, some in an unplanned round.

The applause shook the hall already, and it had only been the first set. So many people — glittering Atsaldeian nobility in the boxes and stalls, elaborately dressed hair above pale faces and silver and gold or even platinum lorgnettes. In the Ducal Box, the Dukes themselves, elegant Duchess Sazherian and shrewd Duke Derghanet and sneering Duke Oresune. Up in the cheap seats, she spotted some Merezenin faces, and there were some in the mages’ gallery where the black-clad mageborn sat like a huddle of crows on a tree branch, yet they too broke into cheers and applause. Including Ve-Kesh, the Merezenin Court Mage, the highest-ranked Merezenin in all Atsaldei.

No matter how big the halls got, how rich, it never stopped mattering that people liked what they heard from her.

She sang the Rallian Cavatina. No mistakes in it this time, every note on precise clear syllables of Classical Caldamaran, another language long dead but a mark of erudition to understand, and so unobjectionable.

And then, while the applause roared like a great wordless sea, she looked at the choir behind the orchestra on stage behind her…and noticed the gray-suited first row of the tenor section was missing Eret.

He had been there during the first set, she was certain. Yira had said something about him and ‘Aishi Fau’…what was it she had said?

No matter, for the opening notes sounded. She had to remember the words, the Atsaldeian words, the cursed compromise words.

But it was not a compromise, really. Yira had put Atsaldeian words to the melody, but words as close to the original as possible, without any concern for it making any Atsaldeian sense. At one point, Na-Melei and the choir sang in intricate counterpoint about unwed bumblebees spinning pearl goats, just because those were the words that sounded the most alike.  It was introduced as a children’s song — because children love nonsense most and learn languages fastest. It was nonsense, a nonsense that broke open the audience’s own language and made it strange and meaningless. And yet beautiful. And more beautiful because it was driven by all the anger and pride in her soul.

In meaningless words mimicking words of lost meaning, “This is who I am,” she sang. “And this is all of me, all the people who came before me.” She wasn’t conceding to sing her song in an alien tongue; she seized the alien Atsaldeian tongue and made it hers, shaped it to her will and her creativity. It was a material like any other. It was part of her as well.

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Rain drizzled onto Amalgamation Square, framed by the Opera House, the Mercantile Exchange, and the Court of Justice, with the War Memorial in the centre. Still, despite the rain, it was more crowded than ever with people trying to overhear the sold-out concert. “Can you hear it? What is she singing?”

“This!” came a voice with years of training on how to fill cavernous concert halls over a full orchestra.

Eret, climbing onto the silvered statue of men and women in military uniform embracing in peace, took an enormous breath and began to sing the tenor line of ‘Aishi Fau.’ In Mattaghelit. In a paraphrase of the Atsaldeian words that had paraphrased the Classical Caldamaran words he did not know. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an exact rendition of anything else, except what was in his soul.

‘Aishi Fau,’ though, was contrapuntal. Only one line, though pretty, did not stand alone, did not approximate its magnificence. It could not be done alone…

And on the third bar, it wasn’t. A soprano — no, a treble voice joined him, perhaps not as strong but remarkably accurate, even though they were singing in different languages. The original words interwove with the Mattaghelit, vowels fitting against each other in ways never heard before, as Fai-rek climbed up to stand beside Eret, the joy in the boy’s eyes bright enough to light up the entire expanse of Amalgamation Square.

How long had the little shadow been trailing me? Eret thought in the instant between one note and another. And then he could not think any more, as the crowd began to clap along to the beat, forgetting the rain, and Eret became a conduit for the Mattaghelit words flooding from his heart and belly to embrace the dead language that poured from Fai-rek with such vivacity.

Inside the Opera House, a seated audience listened to the four-part choir and orchestra and Na-Melei herself sing the same song that the huge standing crowd outside heard a man and a boy belt out under the rainy sky.

Tsii, enough!!” three police lieutenants in scarlet-and-blue roared in chorus, plainly furious that their first four attempts to demand attention had attracted as little of it as the rain.

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And so the audience, Dukes and mages and teachers and tailors, clapped and whistled and cheered for several minutes, while children waited anxiously by the stage, dwarfed by their clutched bouquets of hothouse flowers. But their summons didn’t work: the soloist and conductor did not come out for the curtain call or encore. Until the orchestra concertmistress finally stepped forward, called for silence, and said that Mistress Na-Melei Tro and Master Lazhanor have encountered an unexpected emergency, but are very grateful for all of the appreciation, and the choir will collect the flowers.

Ivuem’s warning ringing in her ears, Na-Melei did not bother to throw her expensive leather coat on as she and Lazhanor dashed out the stage door and across Amalgamation Square. In time to see the police lieutenant’s club whack Eret across the kidneys, once, twice.

“No!” She seized the police lieutenant’s sleeve, and became the regal imperious diva ignoring the rain splattering her gown. “I am Na-Melei Tro, here on cultural exchange with the Merezenin government. The child is a Merezenin citizen. You cannot arrest them. I will call up the embassy!”

The police lieutenant stopped, and looked at her. “Lady, the chestnutface street urchins go to Vingyar for disturbing the peace. Both of them. Kso, seven days, and you’ll get them out just fine. Talk to the judge.”

Her and Lazhanor’s pleas and fury were futile, as the crimson-and-blue led Eret and Fai-rek away.

Eret looked back and grinned. “I’ll be atsh-gii.” The Mattaghelit for ‘fine.’

Lazhanor gave a quick bow in return.

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Ivuem did not watch Lazhanor and Na-Melei go. Instead, she found the back staircase leading behind the galleries.

Trepidation clenched at her throat. No mage had ever truly harmed her, and the law made Atsaldei’s mages better-behaved and more obvious than most. And the Transit administrator had proved a kind woman who liked noodles. But.

Bright shawl and all, Ivuem stuck her head into the mages’ gallery. A wave of stillness washed over the black-clothed men and women there, conversations halting rapidly enough to make Ivuem suspect thoughtsenders were not as rare as everyone claimed they were. All turned to look at the realborn doing what was not done.

Normally, Ivuem would have agreed. All of her experience in acting like she belonged someplace, even if acting mageborn was impossible, she pulled together to calmly scan faces above black collars as if it were all a normal, done thing.

The Transit administrator was adjusting her russet sash over her coat. “Ah, Iv-Uyem. Wonderful to see you.” Even in Merezenin, her tone was stilted and tense, but her polished manners prevailed. She would have immediately demanded what on earth Ivuem was doing here, but if she could not say that in Merezenin that meant there was a stranger nearby who also knew the language.

“So this,” a voice like dark sweet honey said in Merezenin, “is the lady with the nutbean cream noodles.”

He is very beautiful, the rumours had whispered. Young girls, and boys, would lose their hearts to him if he weren’t so dangerous. But on Ivuem’s inquiries of what was specifically dangerous about a Seventh Level Court Mage other than being, well, a Seventh Level and a Court Mage, she had gotten no coherent answers.

Ve-Kesh ro Sazherian, Court Mage to Duchess Sazherian, was indeed darkly handsome, combining rakishness and boyishness in a way that made even Ivuem remember how long ago it had been since her husband died. He gave her a languid smile. She looked below his face, at the crimson sash with seven Level knots unevenly spaced because it was not designed to hold so many.

“She is Mistress Tro’s aunt,” the Transit administrator said, eager to be helpful.

“Indeed,” Ve-Kesh raised his eyebrows. “Would you be so kind as to explain why there was no encore?”

His word choice was aristocratic, but there was something about his vowels and consonants…very, very subtle, showing in only two or three words, but Ivuem was listening closely to his Merezenin and she caught it. She had no doubt that his Atsaldeian was fit for Dukes, even if it was wasted on her as she still barely understood a fraction of the language; but he had learned his Merezenin from the lowest Cadrazien dockworkers.

Do they know? she wondered. Do these second-generation Merezenin who say kso and end their sentences wrong, do they realize their most successful brother learned to speak in the gutter?

She spoke as much like an aristocrat as she knew how. “Magister Ekt.” Few people would even know Ve-Kesh’s surname in this country where honorifics were followed by first names, but she had asked about it. “Mistress Tro’s young son, and a friend, have just been arrested in Amalgamation Square.”

“What?!” All the aristocratic languor dropped for a moment, and the mages watching this scene craned their necks wishing to understand.

Ivuem wondered whether to let them in on it, then decided not, for the time being. She knew nothing of these Atsaldeian mages, and whether letting a Merezenin ascend to Seventh Level would make them sympathetic to the Merezenin plight, much less the plight of a child from the Grasshills and a young man who was not Merezenin at all.

But whatever paths had led from workhouse to Ducal palace, they had clearly taught Ve-Kesh enough that his next question was not Why?Kso, for disturbing the peace or something. The shrooking…” Either he thought Merezenin curse words were too weak, or he hadn’t learned any.

“Well,” he said at last, “she will need help, won’t she? In a land afar, a wyvern from home is a joy. I will look into it. And I look forward to trying those noodles of yours.”

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In all the stories that Fai-rek had read or heard, jail was an exciting place for heroes to be. This was doubtless where they would only stay till midnight before pulling off a daring escape, or where the jailer’s beautiful daughter would fall in love with them and smuggle them out. Fall in love with Eret, Fai-rek supposed. The heroes and heroines rarely had a boy along.

Fai-rek could only read and write Merezenin. Sometimes he played with writing down Vurkh words in Merezenin letters and seeing how strange they looked, or how funny they sounded if one then read them aloud in Merezenin. Phang was even funnier, because the same word as written in Merezenin could look like it meant several different words in Phang. But both written stories in Merezenin and Ivuem’s and his mother’s told stories in Phang and Vurkh featured jail in climactic plot points.

All the benches were already taken by half a dozen sullen men, some very old and some adults like Eret, who eyed the newcomers warily without offering greetings in any language.

Eret slumped down on the floor of their cell and removed his coat. The policeman had hit him across the back there, and he winced as he pulled the coat off. But from the inside back pocket, he drew a thick book.

“Yira’s Grammar of Mattaghelit,” he said to Fai-rek. “Kso, it probably saved my kidneys.”

Fai-rek found their cellmates more interesting. “Will we save them too, when we get rescued?” he inquired very softly. They could not let the guard overhear. He wished Eret knew Vurkh or Phang or even Merezenin, which he was pretty sure the guard couldn’t understand. That way they could have a secret language.

“Rescued?”

Fai-rek gave the same word in Merezenin, just in case Eret could understand; sometimes, it seemed like the man knew it well, while other times he seemed unable to understand the simplest things. “Like Da-Hilai and the bark-tanner’s daughter.”

“I don’t know that story,” Eret admitted.

Atsaldeians were certainly a deprived people, missing out on one of the best stories in the world. So of course Fai-rek sat down cross-legged on the floor, as all the storytellers he’d seen had done, and told it, randomly inserting Merezenin words when there were gaps in his Atsaldeian vocabulary, and Vurkh words where even his Merezenin vocabulary couldn’t suffice.

Noticing that their cellmates were listening, he shifted to the version where when Da-Hilai is imprisoned, all the other people in the prison help him get out, rather than the version where he is in a cell alone. Fai-rek had heard both and often wondered which was true, but right now he decided that having allies and setting a good example mattered more than being truthful.

He finished with the traditional Merezenin flourish. “…And so Da-Hilai and the bark-tanner’s daughter, now a princess, got married and they had the biggest wedding feast all our Alcrist-world had ever seen. And I was there and ate and caroused, but I drank no wine, so what I say is true!” He knew that a nine-year-old boy saying it would get a laugh. He wasn’t sure what ‘caroused’ meant (he’d asked Ivuem once but she told him to wait until he was older) so he tossed the Merezenin verb in wholesale.

Fai-rek, generally shy about meeting people and making friends, was a natural performer, and from his adopted mother he had unconsciously learned that giving people a good performance was what made them like you and give you things.

Their cellmates clapped. “Kre, that was something,” one of them muttered.

“You forgot to say kre-an-kso,” said another one. Fai-rek looked at Eret for a translation.

“In Atsaldeian, you say kre-an-kso when you tell stories. Kso, I suppose kre for you knowing for sure it happened, and kso for you not knowing for sure. I’ve never thought of it before.”

“Where did you get that urchin?” A third man demanded with grudging admiration. Fai-rek wasn’t sure what an urchin was, but rage flashed in Eret’s eyes.

Kre, he is no urchin, he is the guest opera singer’s son from Merezen,” Eret said coldly.

“What’s an urchin?” Fai-rek inquired.

“The poor homeless children with no parents who beg on the streets,” Eret said. But the boy noticed that their cellmates’ attitudes changed more at his question than at Eret’s protest. Urchins knew they were urchins.

“I am one,” grinned Fai-rek. “I’m in disguise as an urchin.” For a prince, or a famous woman’s son, to reveal his identity in jail where guards could overhear was a poor strategic move. “And you need to speak to me in a secret language, so the guards won’t understand. I can teach you Vurkh.”

Eret sighed. “It will pass the time. But I think it would be easier if I teach you Mattaghelit.”

Yet another language, the one that Professor Yira sometimes talked about to herself.  “Done! How do you say We’re in jail in Mattaghelit?”

Yatsaag midaaq’at, that’s the way to say we’re in here,” Eret said. “Yatsaag means jail for small crimes like minor theft and disturbing the peace. Gumagh, that’s downstairs, the jail for murderers and major thieves. Mehaar, that’s jail for rebels, upstairs. Yatsaag midaaq’at.”

Fai-rek pronounced the popping q’ correctly on the first try, and laughed.

And Eret finally smiled.

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Na-Melei, Lazhanor, Ivuem and Yira were standing at the gates when Eret led Fai-rek out, softly humming the kodara for release. Behind them, the sunlight glimmered across the city, again refracting into rainbows at each glass pane. After three long days, it was time to head back to Eret’s appreciably well-lit apartment. Back to sharing the bathroom with twenty flats instead of just ten cell-mates.

Ayaqashai,” was the first word Fai-rek said.

“Mirror-wise,” Yira replied before giving him a look of surprise — he had said ‘Sunlight on you’ in Mattaghelit. she corrected herself to the Mattaghelit answer. “Hatseyal.

“We spoke all these days,” Eret said, “in a mix of Atsaldeian and Mattaghelit. But…he is learning my mother’s tongue, and mine.” Fai-rek was not his child, but in three days in the common all-male cell Eret had grown to treat him as a son. He had never seen a child learn a language so fast, but then again he had never been a child like him.

A steaming four-corner pastry wrapped in gift paper in her hand, Na-Melei knelt to embrace Fai-rek, whispering a few words in Phang or Vurkh or Merezenin. Over her shoulder, the boy grabbed the pastry and grinned impishly at Eret. “Mattaghelit-q’ur efelii.” It was now his most beloved language.

According to the Grammar of Mattaghelit, there should probably be another ending on the noun, but Eret really didn’t care. Eret had never had a favourite language. Chigiri had disapproved of the Mattaghelit language being taught to strangers, yet once upon a time she had taught a few words of Mattaghelit to her master’s son, and these words had kindled a song for her own son now.

“The noun inflection is Vurkh,” Yira said. “But using Vurkh to rebuild Mattaghelit is the only way. We cannot get back your mother’s Mattaghelit. But kso, with hard work, your children may speak a new one.”

As they walked together back out of earshot of the scarlet-and-blue, Na-Melei turned to the smiling Lazhanor and said softly, in Merezenin, “That idea you had, of the right time to use a song to upend this country?”

Lazhanor checked that no stranger was in earshot. “Yes?”

It was in Atsaldeian that Na-Melei said, “Kre, I will stay here. And join you. There needs to be more sharing between our lands and languages.” She looked at Fai-rek and Eret together. Her son spent three days in jail and still returned unbroken and even cheerful. Something about co-guardianship can be worked out. The apartment she’d been given had an extra bedroom that could be put to good use.

Eret began to hum the tenor part of ‘Aishi Fau’ and Fai-rek joined in, humming the treble. Na-Melei smiled and took the alto part, and Lazhanor, the baritone. Yira and Ivuem glanced at each other and started a drumbeat slapping their coat pockets, singing, without words.

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Copyright 2016 Tamara Vardomskaya

Tamara Vardomskaya is a Canadian writer and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has also appeared at Tor.com and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in theoretical linguistics at the University of Chicago.