Angel in the Maze
Author: 3jane

Chapter 2
Failing and passing

Syrus sits in a corner, in a little heap on the floor. It is three days after Lumen has gone and he is completely shell-shocked. It started after he’d cremated the body. Nothing could have possibly prepared him for how horrible it was, nothing in the entire world. The smell was the worst thing, it’s still hanging around now and he can’t get rid of it. It’s in his hair, in his clothes, on his skin, everywhere, the smell of his dad’s roasting flesh. He’ll never forget the terrible peace on that dead face as the smoke started to rise, thick and black, from the pyre he built in a patch of wasteland, as Forest funeral custom dictates: not where the passage of the soul can be interrupted by earthly beauty. Yorel and Pasani were with him, both crying. Syrus could not have cried any more even if he’d wanted to. He stood dry eyed and played the Leaving on Lumen’s harp, the best he’d ever played.

My harp now.

It is his only consolation and he plays it more and more; he finds he needs it near him just to feel human.

It’s starting, Syrus. You are becoming addicted to music, just as you should be, says the angel in his head, and it is smiling with its midnight eyes but not its mouth.

Addicted? That’s bad! That’s not healthy.

But it is beautiful. You are going to do great things.

You keep saying this, but you’re wrong. What can I do apart from play the harp? I bet there are millions of people out there better than me, much better.

But I chose you. You will learn, in time.

Why can’t you ever explain yourself? You come out with all this random stuff and you never offer me any sort of reason, you just expect me to understand it all!

No I don’t, says the angel softly. You don’t have to understand anything. Just be yourself, Syrus, because you are the one I love.

Syrus shakes his head and the angel goes away. He remembers about the Musicians’ Institute suddenly, and feels terrible for forgetting.

My dad’s last wish! How could I?

Furious with himself, he gets up instantly. He is stiff from inactivity, he has not been outside since the burning day and he doesn’t really want to face it now. All those people, all those lives.

Why couldn’t one of them die instead, someone I don’t love or even know?

He scribbles a note to Yorel for when she gets back from school: Gone to Musicians institute to sort out Dad’s stuff. Be back soon. Sy xx.

He shuts the door with the harp strapped to his back and goes down the stairs and out into the street. He sees the landlord of the block coming and walks the other way fast, down the road into the bright afternoon, not wanting to hear the words ‘I’m so sorry to hear about it’, ‘are you alright’ ‘that’s a pity’ and all the endless condolences. They have no idea what it’s like. It has been raining and there are puddles in the road, the gutter choked with fallen leaves. Down to Brewery Street, then along left for ever and ever, past the Haimisha factory, through the Ward gate and there right in front is the Musicians’ Institute. He has been here so many times that he barely even looks at the handsome brick building with its ornate arched façade. He goes in the door and sees Mr Hansel the clerk at the front desk.

‘Ah, hello, young Syrus. How are you? You know, we haven’t seen your dad in a while. Is he alright?’

Hansel is far too cheerful. Even his glasses twinkle with happy efficiency.

‘He’s dead,’ Syrus snaps. ‘I don’t want to talk about it, if it’s all the same to you.’

Hansel shakes his head without registering any particular emotion, but the glasses look marginally less shiny. That might just be the light.

‘I see. I shall remove his name from the Register. Are you here to tell everyone?’

‘No. I’m here for an audition for the school, since Dad can’t teach me any more. He wanted me to.’

Syrus’s voice goes a bit quavery but he bites his lip. Hansel nods.

‘Ah, right. You’ll want Mr Bird, then. Second floor, last on the right, I’m afraid there’s a bit of a queue, as usual. Good luck,’ he calls after Syrus who is already halfway up the stairs. Last on the right turns out to be a big waiting room full of kids, most about his age, some younger, some a little older. All have someone else with them. He goes over to the fat man in the corner who has a roll of paper and a pen, sitting in a very old armchair.

‘Name?’

‘Syrus Tor – er, Lumensson.’

Nearly forgot. You’re useless, Syrus. Never forget it again.

‘Lumensson? Lumen the harper?’ the man asks, scribbling. Syrus nods curtly.

‘What’s happened to him, then? You’ve got his harp, haven’t you.’

Syrus shrugs.

‘Are you going to give me a number or not? And before you ask, Lumen was my dad, and I said Was because he died three days ago. Don’t talk about it.’

‘Oh God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t – ’

Syrus shakes his head.

‘Doesn't matter. Can I have a ticket?’

The man holds out a slip of paper torn off the roll and Syrus takes it. It has his name on it and a printed number, 17. Seventeenth in the queue. Wonderful. He is panicky as he sits and waits in the big room. It is much too hot, and somewhere a tiny sister of one of the applicants is screaming and the mother does not have the sense to take her outside. He begins to shake as he unpacks the harp. He’s auditioning for his future and he has a horrible feeling that he’s not going to get in, even though Lumen had always said he was better than most of the qualified harpists at the Institute without trying.

They won’t want me. I’m not educated enough. I can barely read music. Why, Dad, why are you making me go here? It’s completely not my place and you know that.

Just do it, Syrus. Give your old man a chance, says the angel. Syrus nods and the minutes tick by, slower, slower…

‘Number Seventeen, please, Number Seventeen,’ a formidable woman with a bad dye job finally calls from the doorway and Syrus’s legs can barely support him. He’s never been this scared in his life. And there is no one to wish him good luck.

What about me?

Like I said, you don’t count, you aren’t real.

Don’t be so sure, Syrus.

Syrus pushes open the door with a trembling, skinny little hand. There is a long room inside with a chair and a music stand, and a big table with five people on the other side of it. All of them are old, and they are all men. They are the notoriously conservative, uptight Admissions Board, and Syrus wants to run away and hide, do anything but be in this room with these people. A thin man in the middle – Mr Bird, presumably – tells Syrus to sit down, pointing at the chair. The chair is too high and too upright, but he perches on the edge of it and pulls the harp in towards him, his knees up round it. It is the only thing he can be sure won’t let him down.

‘Name?’

And the whole rigmarole begins again. Until Mr Bird asks what Syrus has prepared to play. Syrus looks blank. He has not prepared anything.

What the hell do I play?

Play them The Growing, Syrus. That’s what you do best, big tough flashy pieces.

So he tells them, his voice shaking with nerves.

‘Go on then, in your own time, please.’

He begins, the first soft notes, and he forgets everything besides the sounds that roll off his fingers and he sings the old words that Lumen had taught him when he was little, the Old Forest words that the village bard would sing over children at their first birthday, and again at their rites of passage when they were thirteen or so. His voice has just finished breaking and it is now a clear tenor. He knows nothing of what the examiners are feverishly scribbling. Of course they’ll take him.

Bird is transfixed. How does this little shrimp of a boy have this much inside him? He cannot tear his eyes away from Syrus, who is transported totally away from here. Syrus is glowing faintly, his eyes are unfocused and his voice raises all the hairs on the five necks at the desk.

The boy’s dangerous, thinks Bird, we can’t have someone like him here. Distressingly exceptional. The examiner next to him nudges him and whispers.

‘I don’t like this, it’s scaring me. He’s too strange.’

‘Definitely. We’re not having him here.’

‘What the hell is this piece anyway? No knowledge of composers, that’s clear.’

And that’s it. They’ve decided already, even before they go through the technical tests, the sight reading which he makes a mess of, the aural which is easy as breathing. He is amazing, more instinct than learning – and this is Lumen’s son, plain-as-paper Lumen? What has he done to deserve this as his child, this little scary alien thing, thinks Bird, seeing the utter ecstasy on Syrus’s frail face as his hands dance on the harp strings. In fairness, they should let him in, but who will tolerate him? What sane, rational teacher would take him on?

‘Right, that’s the end of the test. Wait outside please, Syrus, and we will discuss. When we have reached our decision we will call you in.’

Syrus floats out on a little cloud, not really aware of the world. The angel is glowing inside his head, smiling and exulting silently.

‘Oh God, don’t let him in! He’s terrifying – ’

‘I know! Did you see his eyes? He looked like he was bewitched or something – ’

‘Totally the wrong image for the Institute, letting a freak like him in – ’

‘Are we decided then? Refusal,’ says Bird, cutting through the Board’s gabbling. He feels terrible, but he has been examining for years and years, and he knows well that there are people who will be ‘the right sort’ and people who won’t, and if a wrong type gets in they usually make all sorts of embarrassing trouble, like going mad or taking drugs or refusing to learn properly. It can’t be helped, Lumen’s boy is simply the wrong sort. He goes outside and there is Syrus, leaning against the wall with his harp.

‘Syrus,’ Bird says. The boy looks round; he is white-faced, terrified, not glowing now.

‘Come in, please.’

Syrus walks back into the room, only this time he is more afraid than ever. His high has gone and his angel is not there to help him. They are all behind the desk, all impassive, all perfectly composed. He is shaking like a leaf as he sits on the audition chair again.

‘I’m afraid we cannot have you here, Syrus,’ says Bird. Syrus doesn’t move or speak; it hasn’t even hit him yet. Then it comes crashing down like a bomb and his jaw drops.

They won’t have me. I’ve failed.

He shakes his head.

‘What did I do wrong?’ he croaks. He has to ask, there’s nothing else to do.

‘Er…we just feel that the Institute is not the right place for you, Syrus,’ stutters Bird. Syrus gets to his feet jerkily. The one thing his dad asked him to do, he’s screwed it up. He was banking on this all his life, and pouf! up in smoke in ten minutes.

‘Is there someone here to collect you?’ asks another examiner, no doubt trying to be kind. Syrus wants to explode. These people have refused him the right to be a musician. His right to live.

‘No there bloody well isn’t,’ he spits at him, ‘cause my dad’s dead and you just stopped me from doing the one thing he wanted, getting in here! Why have you done this to me?’ he shouts, face hopeless with rage. His angel howls and that is the last straw, he cannot stay here with these people for another second. The room is too small for him and them and this huge fury inside him. He bursts out of the door with wings of anger shooting him down the corridor, storming down the stairs and out past an astonished Hansel at the desk reading the paper. He is panting and his heart is pounding like the timpani in the finale of Bazercak’s Fever Mass for full orchestra and choir.

I’ve failed. I’ve got nothing left to give.

You’ve got everything to give, Syrus. It’s their fault for refusing to have you, and they will bitterly regret that soon enough. You’ll see, crows his angel, and flickers out of his head. Syrus is near Cathedral Square by now, and he can see the cathedral itself with its soaring spire and buttresses, the space he always feels at home in. All the anger that has driven him here has evaporated, and he’s cold and faintly nauseous now.

What the hell do I do now? I’m a failure, angel. Help me.

Play your harp, Syrus. It will make you feel better. You never know, your luck might change, says the angel and it is sad now, its eyes bottomless. Syrus shakes his head, but he suddenly really does want his harp, he wants to play it and just forget everything. He gets it out of his bag and holds it tenderly, sitting down on the ground in the doorway of some clergy clothes shop, and starts playing, and the music that wells up out of him makes him cry; he should be in the Institute, not on some street corner like a tramp, busking without a license so he won’t get any money anyway. He does not notice through his blurry eyes that a slim young man with a violin-case slung over his shoulder is watching him with astonishment.

Theorny Askar has come straight from teaching his rather tiresome beginner’s violin class at the Cathedral school, his ears ringing with dodgy intonation and horrible scraping bow strokes and over-the-bridge squeaks. He is also late getting back to Ethereal House, where he promised he’d find Cassel and tell him about the first edition of Almar’s complete operatic works that he unearthed in the school’s library some weeks ago – all in all, not the greatest day of his life. But as he turns into Cathedral Square the most beautiful sound he has ever heard meets his ears. A harp, on its own, but what a solo! The tenderness, the wonderful centred notes, and why couldn’t he get such purity out of his violin?

Who the hell wrote that piece? It’s fantastic, he thinks as he scans the square for the player – and sees him on the steps of the vestment shop in a dirty huddle, an elfin boy about thirteen staring vacantly at the rose window of the cathedral with tear-tracks on his cheeks. He looks terribly far away and Theorny wonders where he is, and wishes he could be there too, that nirvana-like state of pure creative bliss; he’s never seen anyone quite so deep into it as this boy is. He watches him play with his beautiful hands on the strings, too hooked on the music to stop. The boy lays down the harp and wipes his eyes with his sleeve, and then notices Theorny, his pale skin flushing a little.

‘Who wrote that piece?’ Theorny asks huskily. Syrus blinks, still half in his trance.

‘What piece?’ he mumbles.

Leave me alone, I’m busy. I’m somewhere else.

Who is this? asks the angel, and Syrus shrugs. Theorny points to the harp.

‘The one you were just playing.’

‘I don’t know,’ Syrus says quietly, ‘I just sat down and played, I dunno what came out.’

‘You… you didn’t hear?’

Theorny is amazed. Unless he’s much mistaken, the boy is a proper visionary, not just one of those dissolute artists who pretends to have dreams but really they just take too many drugs and don’t sleep or eat enough.

‘What’s your name, harper?’

‘Syrus Lumensson.’

The name is familiar… Lumen, definitely a Forest name –

‘Like Lumen at the Institute?’

Syrus nods. He never realised his dad knew this many people.

They’ll all go on and on every time I tell them he’s dead. I’m sick of it.

‘I’m his son, at least I was until he died.’

‘He died? Oh God, I didn’t know! Sorry,’ Theorny says frankly, an awkward look on his face. Syrus shakes his head but can’t be bothered to answer. Nothing to say, anyway.

‘Play again, Syrus, you’re absolutely amazing. Tell you what, I’ll get this out and we’ll do a duet,’ Theorny says, tapping his violin case. Syrus nods with a faint smile. He hasn’t smiled in days – well, he’s had precious little to smile about. Theorny gets out his violin and stands next to Syrus on the pavement, putting out a little card that has his license on it, and for the next hour or so they play folk songs and ballads and ditties and hymns and anything they can think of, and the sounds echo round the cathedral square like no other street music has sounded for a very long time. Soon they have quite a large crowd round them, and Theorny’s violin case has a thick shower of coins in the bottom of it. Theorny stops playing – he is very good, Syrus thinks as he watches the violinist’s clever left hand on the fingerboard – and puts the violin down, wiping his face and laughing. The crowd applaud wildly and Theorny takes a big sweeping bow, then hauls Syrus to his feet and makes him bow as well. Syrus can’t help but grin, and the crowd begins to break up once Theorny packs up his fiddle and collects some of the coins, leaving half. Syrus picks them up and puts them in his pocket.

‘That was great! Thanks, Syrus, it was an honour to play with you,’ he says once they are on their own. Syrus smiles back, then realises he still doesn’t even know the violinist’s name. He puts his harp in its bag and stands up, and he and Theorny look hard at each other. Syrus can feel the buzzing in his ear that means his angel is around somewhere.

Take me with you, the angel suddenly screams and Syrus blurts it out as well. He can’t stop himself, he needs to live with music. Theorny looks surprised and pleased.

‘Take you where? Back to the Musilists? I’d love to, Syrus, I think you’re the one we really need around the place.’

‘Y-you want me?’ stammers Syrus, actually realising what he said. Someone wants him. They won’t reject him, the Musilists, they will welcome him with open arms. He thinks guiltily of Yorel and Pasani, of how they’ve been so good to him. How he’ll leave them.

‘Of course we do. You’re the most brilliant musician I’ve ever heard. Come on, you’ll like it.’

An absolute, blissful smile slowly evolves on Syrus’s face like sunshine and Theorny stares, transfixed, at the beautiful thing he has found.

And he doesn’t even know my name.

He holds out his hand and Syrus shakes it.

‘I’m Theorny, Syrus. I should’ve told you before. Do you know anything about the Musilists?’

‘Why do I need to? If they’re like you then it doesn’t matter, they’re who I want to spend my life with,’ Syrus says blankly. It hadn’t even occurred to him that this might have been a set-up, a big lie designed to kidnap him or something, like you read in the papers. He was instinctive, impulsive, and his dad had always warned him against using his feelings rather than his head to control his actions. ‘You’ve got a good brain, Sy, and you should rely on it more than you do to get around in life,’ Lumen used to say. Syrus doesn’t care. He was lost and he’d been found; his feelings were winning this time.

‘Teach me,’ he says softly. ‘Teach me how to be a musician.’

Theorny laughs and laughs.

‘Me teach you? I can’t! You know more than me without trying, Syrus. You are the teacher, and you’re coming with me. I know a lot of people who’d love to meet you.’

Theorny pulls Syrus to his feet and they walk across the square in the direction of First Ward. Syrus feels rubbish now, next to Theorny so lithe and full of bouncy good humour; he feels sick and dirty and he doesn’t know why.

It’s something to do with the playing, Syrus. This is perfectly normal, and I’m afraid you’ll just have to get used to it. It’s part of your relationship with the music in you.

Syrus smiles at hearing the angel; it is happy, its black eyes glittering. It flaps its wings a couple of times then vanishes, and Theorny asks Syrus what he’s smiling about.

‘I’m safe, Theorny. I got failed at the Musicians’ Institute when I went for an audition, and I thought that was it, that I’d never be able to do anything with myself. But then you came and found me.’

‘What d’you mean?’

‘Well, I’ve never really been to school, and I had all my hopes set on getting into the Institute school and being taught properly. And besides, my dad – erm, wanted me to.’

The fact that it was his dad’s last words was still eating him up; he’d failed Lumen and he wasn’t at all sure whether this replacement was good enough.

I want to do it, though, I want to be with these people more than anything else, and if the Institute won’t take me then there’s no other option.

‘Wow. I’ve had a pretty conventional upbringing compared to you. I was studying at the Institute, but it wasn't working for me.’ Theorny sighs, shaking his head. ‘I didn’t fit in at all, and I felt like I was being stifled by the conventions and stuff; but one day I met Cassel and he introduced me to the Musilists, and everything just clicked. My parents weren’t happy, but they said it’s better than me doing no music at all.’

They’re at the Ward gate now to First Ward, and the industrial district looms tall in front of them. Syrus does not come to this Ward much and he is struck by the cold up here; the rest of the city is denser and the crowded buildings keep the heat in. Here there is too much open air and the wind cuts like a knife through the bleakness. Theorny turns down a dark little side-street and stops outside a low grey building and the strangest feeling washes over Syrus, so strong that he has to stop and catch his breath.

You’re home, says his angel.

I’m home.

 

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