Angel in the Maze
Author: 3jane

Chapter 1
The end

In the city they call Northbridge, up near the edge of the northern forests, there are one million people packed into an area you could walk across in an hour. It is the biggest city in the known world, bigger than Legrad, bigger than everywhere in the south and east, and of course there is nothing but an endless sea out to the west so that doesn’t count. In a tiny room in Second Ward, a man is dying. He is sick, sick with the consumption that has been hanging around the poor quarters for years choosing its victims carefully, always leaving someone behind to grieve. The room is grey, the walls stained with smoke and age and damp. The man lies in a narrow bed and a boy sits on the floor next to him with his face in his hands. Not long left in the world for Lumen Torresson; wherever he is going, he’s nearly there. Thin, lined, drawn, practically dead already, he coughs and coughs, spraying blood on the sheets, gasping and wheezing. The boy is his son and he cannot look at his father reduced to this, strong harpist’s hands wasted like pale spiders, twitching on the cover. Lips cracked. Eyes yellow like onions, voice gone where once it sang loudest at church. The boy wipes his father’s face tenderly. He knows that it is one of the last things he’ll ever do for him. Of course he knows, he can’t help but know. He’s known ever since it started.

‘Syrus,’ Lumen gasps, ‘it’s time. Come here.’

Syrus, the boy, bends closer to the bed and he is red-eyed from crying. The smell of death hangs in the air over Lumen.

Please, Dad, don’t leave me.

I don’t want to be alone.

Syrus holds his dad’s cold hand in his own, not much warmer.

‘Promise me, Sy, promise me – ’ cough, cough, splutter, oh God he’s gone already, ‘Promise me that you’ll go to the Institute and study music, it’s what you’re born for… take the harp, it’s yours…’ cough, cough, rattling sigh. Syrus squeezes the limp hand. Faint as breath, faint as winter warmth on snow, the final words.

‘I… love you… goodbye’ and that’s it. The hand goes slack, the jaw hangs open and the eyes are glassy. Syrus is numb.

I’m too young for this.

It’s all he’s capable of thinking. He shuts his dad’s eyes and pulls the sheet up over his head, and as the well-known face disappears from sight, he can’t control himself any more. He sits on the floor and howls, praying and cursing and wishing it wasn’t today, wishing his father had never got ill, wishing anything but this was happening.

‘Get me out of here,’ he begs. He doesn’t know who he’s talking to. ‘I can’t take this.’

‘Yes you can,’ says a voice. There is no one there, but he definitely heard it. ‘I will help you take it, Syrus Lumensson.’

Then he realises: the voice is in his head. A man. He shuts his eyes, and there is the man himself – except he’s not a man at all, and not a woman either, but somewhere between the two, androgynous and very beautiful. It has wings, big grey ones like ghosts behind it, and a long mane of blue-black hair. Its eyes are wells of midnight.

Who are you?

I am your guide, Syrus, and only you can see me because you have a gift. You know that, don’t you? Your harp playing abilities. Far better than your father, since always. Play your harp to me.

My dad’s just died, leave me alone!

It will help you feel better.

Syrus opens his eyes, hoping for one mad moment that he has dreamed everything and his dad will come in any minute now and shake him awake. No, nothing has changed, there is his dead father on the bed with the sheet over his face and a cold smell in the tomb, the room, the gloom. Syrus reaches under the bed and gets out a big leather bag. It has an old folk harp inside it, about half the size of a full-length harp and dark with age, which Lumen has played all his life.

Had played. He’s not going to be doing it again.

This nearly makes him dissolve again, but the angel’s calm voice speaks in his head.

Cry if you like, Syrus. You produce your best sounds when you are emotional.

Syrus shakes his head. He will not cry any more. The harp lures him. He loves it, and he sits cross-legged and rests his thin fingers on it as he has done every day of his life. As Lumen had done every day of his life as well, both as a boy in Pernarogar, the forest city, and as a man here in Northbridge. He begins to play a soft, slow tune.

Syrus is a strange looking boy, not much like his father at all. He is little, just a waif, with wild ashy-blond curls of hair that hang round his face like clouds. His eyes are deep, dark grey and his skin is pale, sallow, smooth as paper. The only person he does look like is one of his great-great-great-uncles. Eliar. His dad once showed him a drawing of Eliar at fifteen, and he and Syrus are almost identical. Eliar was an absolutely phenomenal musician, another harper, they all were in Syrus’s family. But the problem was, Eliar was strange and he heard voices in his head, which finally drove him mad and he threw himself off the top of a cliff when he was twenty because he couldn’t take it any more. Couldn’t take what, Syrus always wonders.

Syrus plays with his eyes tight shut. The angel is watching, painted on his closed eyelids, and there is a light in its face that makes it lovely and alien. The music is glorious, haunting, hanging in the air like gossamer, so many layers of chords and tunes and cadences that you can almost see it. He reaches the end of the song without really knowing. Music is his bread and his meat and his drink, his air and blood, and he has a gift for it, strange and frightening and amazing like no one else has. Not many people know this about him and he wishes they did.

You are the one I have been looking for all my life, Syrus Lumensson, says the angel, and it is dead serious. Its eyes glow like dark pools with the moon on them.

Me? Why have you been looking for me?

You have the gift, boy. You are my voice when others can’t hear me, or won’t. And I will make your playing stranger. Madder. Better. Now you know you can never unknow.

The angel is not there any more, left his head and gone who knows where. Syrus can feel a roaring in his ears, his heart is racing and his nerves fizz with pure chemical ecstasy. He takes up the harp again and plays frantically, desperate to express some of the stuff inside him. The world wants it, welcomes it, hungers for it. His father’s dead body has a faint aura around it, but Syrus can see it like a blaze because his senses are overloaded and overdriven. There is so much music in his head that he is almost afraid it will explode, but finally he calms down and stops playing. He is shaking all over and his skin is hot and cold.

Am I mad?

Mad like Eliar?

The aura has faded from his father’s corpse and it lies there waxily, even deader than before. Syrus wants to cry again, the crazy rush has gone and he feels cold, tired, heavy. He wants to sleep and blot out the world.

No, Syrus, it’s the middle of the afternoon, you can’t sleep. You’re totally on your own now. Get the priest, get the doctor, get anyone so you don’t have to be alone.

You are never alone, Syrus. You have me.

He couldn’t see the angel but he recognised its voice.

Where are you?

I am inside you, Syrus. I am part of you, just as you are part of me. Go and follow your father’s dream, since he asked. Go to the Musicians’ Institute. I am leaving you now, but call and I will be there.

Syrus shrugs.

Help me, Dad, stop him talking to me –

He checks himself mid-thought.

Syrus, he’s dead, he can’t do anything.

Crying again, he puts the harp back in its bag and goes out of the tiny flat, taking the key in his pocket. He walks along the passage and downstairs two floors, along to a door with the name plate P Menno. He knocks, wiping his face on his sleeve. His eyes hurt. The door opens and there is Pasani, his best friend’s mother, ever-present cigarette smouldering between two fingers. She looks at him with dark eyes.

‘Sy, what’s wrong? Come in and tell me what’s the matter.’

That sets him off more, really howling this time.

‘He-he’s d-dead, m-my dad’s – he’s gone,’ he chokes. She hugs him, and he presses his face into her shoulder. She smells of cigarettes and tea and spices, like she always does, and he tries to control himself. She lets him go.

‘I’m sorry, Syrus. Poor Lumen. Did it happen just now?’

‘Y-yeah, ab-about five minutes ago,’ he replies shakily. He scrubs at his raw eyes with his frail hands. ‘I should go and get the vicar.’

He sounds hopeless, just like he feels. Nothing is right now he has no dad. No parents at all and no relatives.

Oh my God. I’m an orphan.

His mother died giving birth to him, he never knew her, but his dad was everything to him. Pasani looks at him sadly; she didn’t know Lumen that well, but they got on alright.

‘Oh, Syrus, you don’t have to do that. No fourteen year old should have to do that. Go in, Yorel’s inside.’

He nods. Doesn’t want to speak, doesn’t trust himself not to cry some more. It’s like there’s a tap inside him and he can’t turn it off. Yorelei, his best friend, is sitting there at the little table and writing. She looks up and she knows what’s happened, of course she does, she knows Syrus like a brother. She gets up without a word and hugs him too, and it’s even worse when she does because she lost her dad too, but she was only five – and he ran off with another woman rather than died of consumption. He sits down on the chair and buries his face, covering his eyes with his long tangled hair. She touches his hand, her writing forgotten.

‘Sy, what are you going to do?’ she asks softly, pure dismay. He shakes his head.

‘I don’t know, I don’t know what I’ll do. He wants – wanted me to go to the musicians’ institute and train as a harpist,’ he mumbles, still buried in his hair. ‘I don’t want to go, it’ll remind me of him too much, but I can’t let him down.’

He comes out of his huddle and the world is so desolate he can barely look at it, even in the brightly-painted flat with its fire and cheerful fabrics everywhere. Pasani is in the doorway and he looks up at her with his swollen eyes.

‘I’m going to get the vicar. Will you two be okay here until I get back?’

Yorelei nods and she leaves. Syrus feels like he’s died as well. He can’t think properly, he’s in his own little world and no one else can reach him, however hard they try. Just him and his sorrow, so much bigger and more permanent than anything else.

Why did you have to die?

Why do I have to be alone?

What will happen to me now?

The questions won’t leave him alone, they buzz and flutter and whirl in his brain until he wants to whack his head on the wall so hard he blacks out, just for a bit of peace. Neither of them say anything. There’s nothing left to say, and in Syrus’s every thought there is a Lumen-shaped hole.

‘Why, Yorel, why did he have to leave me? I can’t –  I can’t – it’s like he’s taken half of me with him, and I’ll never be complete again, I’ll never get used to it,’ he wails suddenly. She looks sadly at him with her mother’s eyes, black and liquid.

‘You will, Sy. I promise. I thought that as well, when my dad left, I thought I’d never be happy again now we were a broken home, you know, like you hear in the newspaper where all the problems start, ooh, they’re society’s biggest evil, and so on and so on. But you get to learn that, well, he’s not coming back so there’s no point missing him.’

She pauses, her face bitter.

‘At least your dad told you he loved you every once in a while.’

He loves me. Wherever he is, he still loves me.

Yes, Syrus, says the angel. And Yorel loves you, and I love you. You’re not alone.

A watery smile crosses Syrus’s face; tiny rays of sunlight breaks through his gloomy clouds of thoughts. He nods and Yorelei beams at him.

‘That’s better. Mum will be back soon.’

And, indeed, Pasani is back soon, with the fat little vicar of St Michal’s Church, Second Ward. Father Regan, his name is. He shakes his bald head at Syrus.

‘You poor boy. Tragic, to lose a father like that, and so young too – how old are you?’

Tactless, absolutely tactless. Syrus grits his teeth.

‘Fourteen,’ he mutters. Father Regan nods and his head shines.

Go away, I don’t want to see you. You’re too cheerful. My dad’s dead and all you can do is ask how old I am? You’ve known me since I was six months old, for God’s sake.

‘Fourteen? Terrible, terrible. Fear not, young Syrus, Selen is your father now.’

Syrus nods stiffly. Pasani looks daggers at Father Regan but he does not notice.

‘Well, where is the body?’

Syrus loses his rag. The body? Like a sack of potatoes! He can’t take much more of this.

‘He’s not ‘the body’! He’s my dad, even if he is dead, you stupid – ’

Yorelei shoots him a warning glare and he buries his face in his hands.

Help me, he pleads with the angel, stop me from hitting him, I’m so close to doing it.

‘Sorry. I’m sorry. He’s up here,’ he mumbles, leading the vicar up to his flat. Already the room looks like it’s not had anyone in there for years, even though all their stuff is there and Lumen is still lying under the sheet. All traces of the man have gone, vanished, he took them with him.

‘Ah, I see. Did he leave a will?’

Syrus shrugs. Father Regan goes over and pokes through the desk, then under the bed, and comes out with a crumpled bit of manuscript paper. He unrolls it.

‘Eh hem. The last will and testament of Lumen Torresson is as follows: Item; my savings, to be left to Syrus Lumensson – ’

Syrus inhales sharply.

Of course, I’m Lumensson now, not Torresson, according to Forest custom. He’s dead alright, if he’s called me Lumensson in his will.

‘Item: the furniture, all personal effects, to be left to Pasani Menno, to do with what she will; also to Pasani Menno I entrust the guardianship of Syrus Lumensson until such time as is deemed correct by both parties. Item: my harp, to be left to Syrus Lumensson without question. Item, my savings, to be left to Pasani Menno as token for caring for Syrus Lumensson until aforementioned time. Here ends the will of Lumen Torresson signed, blah blah, witness, date… hmm, it all seems in order.’

Syrus shakes his head. He didn’t even know his dad could write like that, all legal and long words and everything. Lumen always told people he was stupid, and he certainly didn’t believe in school – Syrus had done three years in a little petty-school round the corner, and as soon as he could read, write and count, Lumen told him there was no point being there any more. Don’t coop yourself up in a classroom, he said, discover the world in your own way.

‘So, you are to keep your father’s savings. Where are they?’

Syrus reaches up the fireless chimney and pulls out a dirty tin that once contained tobacco. Inside, four golds, eight silvers and seventeen bronzes.

That’s it? That’s all we had?

Regan makes no comment on the savings; he says instead,

‘It seems that you are to live with Mrs Menno and her daughter until either of you decides that you’re moving out, Syrus.’

Syrus nods.

What the hell am I meant to say to that? You read it to me, I heard, why are you even telling me that? I’m not stupid.

His head prickles with sour thoughts.

‘Now, the matter of burial is still outstanding. Your father was Selenite?’

Of course he wasn’t, you fat old fool. He only went to church for the hymns.

‘Er, yes, but he’d rather have a Forest funeral,’ Syrus says nervously. All Lumen ever said about death was ‘don’t let them bury me, don’t let the worms get me, Sy’ and now is the time to obey. Father Regan seems not to hear at all.

‘I can offer you two types of burial. The first is a standard wood coffin, plot in the Unreserved section of the churchyard, wooden grave marker, and all that including prayers offered will cost– ’

Syrus isn’t listening to what it costs, he is seething.

Why does no one ever listen to me?

I listen, says the angel.

Shut up, you don’t count.

Syrus blots it out and rounds on Regan, all the burning anger of a fourteen-year old who’s only just holding himself together.

‘I don’t care! I’m not paying for my dad to be stuck in the ground for the worms, he’s going the proper way and I’ll do it myself if I have to!’ he shouts. Regan looks taken aback, annoyed, cheated. He thrusts the will at Syrus

‘Alright. Alright. Excuse me,’ and he pushes past Syrus and bangs out of the flat, clumping down the stairs. Syrus watches him go, the will in his hand.

I have to burn you, Dad.

I’ll play the Leaving for you, play it like you taught me. I won’t let the worms get you.

He trails down the stairs to Pasani’s flat. The door is open and he goes in, moving like a sleepwalker. He has to burn his own father, actually set him on fire and stay there with him until there’s nothing left. He can’t believe it’s happening. It’s like a dream.

‘Syrus? Where’s Father Regan?’ calls Pasani.

‘Not here. I have to burn Dad’s body. He would’ve wanted it.’

Syrus’s voice is dangerously wobbly and he comes in slowly, shoulders hunched. He can already see the flames, Lumen roasting like a bit of meat. That’s all he is now, a bit of dead meat. He can’t feel pain any more. He flaps the will in his hand listlessly. Pasani and Yorelei are in the front room, Yorelei still doing her writing. He sits down.

‘I have to build a pyre and set fire to him,’ he says again, tonelessly, handing Pasani the will. It is the only thing he can think, those few words are all that matters. The poor ravaged face crowned with flaming hair, the skin blistering, turning black. And now he’s crying again; it is all he’s capable of today. There’s no happiness anymore, only cold.

‘I’ll help you, Syrus,’ says Yorel tenderly, going over to him and hugging him. ‘No one should have to do that on their own, especially not you.’

 

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