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Authors: David Whitley

The Canticle of Whispers (9 page)

BOOK: The Canticle of Whispers
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Lily put down her empty teacup, her head spinning.

“This place is nothing like what I expected.”

“Really?” The Conductor smiled, “and what did you expect?”

“I expected…” Lily frowned, trying to think of how to phrase this. The truth took her quite by surprise. “Answers. I actually expected that all I had to do was to come down the steps, and there would be someone waiting who knew everything. Who could explain why there have been people interfering with my life for as long as I can remember. Why my father sent me to be brought up an orphan, why conspiracy follows me around … It was going to be so very simple.” Lily couldn't help but smile at the absurdity of it.

The Conductor put down his cup.

“You were looking for harmony. That is not terribly surprising. We all are, to an extent—all so overloaded with facts and thoughts and half-formed ideas, and looking for a pattern where they fit. Well, Naru can certainly provide answers, if you are willing to find them.” He smiled. “We must talk more. It would be fascinating to see if I am right about some of the mysteries of Agora. And then, of course, there is the Oracle. She will want to see you.”

Lily wanted to ask about the Oracle, she really did. But right now, there was too much to take in, too many confused thoughts filling her brain. She felt a shiver go through her. Up until today, she had thought of the Conductor as someone to fear—the tyrannical ruler of this dark, claustrophobic underworld. She had clung to this, the one solid fact in this strange new land. And now she had met him, and he was the closest thing she had down here to a friend.

Not for the first time, she wondered what Mark would do.

“I have so many questions…” Lily said, doubtfully. “But I think they can wait.”

The Conductor looked as if he were about to speak again. Then, in the distance, Lily heard something: a human voice, singing a note. Soft and pure, it seemed to resonate through the caverns. The Conductor rose from his seat.

“The Oracle will answer your questions properly, after you have slept. But now, it is time for the rest-tide concert.” He plucked his baton from behind his ear and, shyly, bowed to Lily. “It would be an honor if you would come to listen. No Orchestra member has ever heard the Choir since I became Conductor.”

Lily looked up into his face. So unfamiliar, with his huge, melancholy eyes, but so welcome right now. And she laughed.

“Why not?” she said, quietly. And then, in case she had hurt his feelings. “I mean, I'd love to.”

The Conductor smiled, uncertainly, and then drew aside the curtain at the front of his cave. Lily hauled herself to her feet to follow him. Beyond, Lily could see the other Naruvians beginning to drift toward the central cavern. Lily noticed that the light from the Hub had dimmed. Now she could make it out more clearly, a towering but natural crystal spire, shooting up from a deep crevasse. All around it, on semicircular platforms carved into the cavern walls, the Naruvians were gathering, separating into men and women. Lily could make out Tertius and Septima, finding their places on opposite sides of the Hub.

“I must take my position,” the Conductor said, apologetically. “Please, find somewhere that you are comfortable.”

As he walked away from her, Lily settled herself down, sitting cross-legged on the ground, wondering what was going to happen. She watched as the Conductor climbed up onto a podium of rock, tapping his baton to silence the rumble of chatter.

In the sudden quiet, Lily could once again hear a distant echo of voices. A little like the Cacophony, but more orderly—more controlled. Almost like a heartbeat, or the rise and swell of the tide.

And then, Lily saw Septima begin to sing. Softly at first, and then with growing power, a glorious solo line that rang higher and higher. Then, one by one, the other women joined her, and the men followed in a cascade of sound.

And Lily nearly laughed. Because in all her time hearing Tertius and Septima talk about “the Choir,” she hadn't realized that it was the literal truth.

There were words somewhere in the texture, singing about almost anything. Lily caught snatches of lovers' confessions, of parents' sorrow, of laughter and fear and torment. The light from the Hub began to increase; a million different colors striving for dominance in its smoky depths. And then the Conductor flourished his baton, and the voices blended into one soaring tune, that rose and harmonized and echoed from the crystal walls of the cavern until the whole space thrummed with its vibrations, and the Hub glowed with a dazzling blue that made Lily feel as though she were standing under the summer sky.

And just for a moment, despite her tiredness, and confusion, and apprehension, Lily felt elated. Questions could wait for tomorrow. For now, she was happy just to sit there, and marvel that such a mad, impossible place could produce anything so beautiful.



The Warning

about this?”

Mark adjusted the wide tricorn hat, making sure that it obscured his face, and turned.

“I have to try, Ben. I can't let Cherubina stay with Crede.”

Benedicta nodded. She had come over to visit that morning, apologizing for his father, who couldn't come until the afternoon. She had barely been there ten minutes before Mark had outlined his plan to her in one long, restless gabble.

“I know Crede's dangerous,” Ben said, frowning, “but surely Laud could go and talk to him? Or maybe Theo? What if you get seen by the receivers?”

“The receivers are far too busy with Crede's mobs to worry about me,” Mark said, only a little more certainly than he felt. “Besides, you think I'll be safe once Cherubina really opens up to Crede? He'll probably sell my location to the receivers in exchange for leaving him alone.” He looked at Ben, attempting a smile. “You'll keep Dad distracted?”

Ben nodded, though not happily.

“I'll go straight to the prison and keep him talking. As long as you're back by the fourth hour, it won't be a problem—I'm supposed to be visiting the Sozinhos. But you really should tell Pete you're doing this. None of us want you to put yourself in danger…”

“He's been a jailer for too long,” Mark muttered. “He'd lock me in if he could.”

“He might not be wrong,” Ben insisted. “The receivers are getting really jumpy.”

“Don't you want to rescue her?” Mark asked. Ben raised an eyebrow.

“Do you think she wants to be rescued?”

Mark didn't reply, angrily pulling a scarf up to his chin.

“You don't need…” Ben began, but Mark interrupted her, sharply.

“Maybe not, but I have to try!” he said, hotly. “I have to do
! Cherubina was right; I don't know what I'm doing! I don't have the first idea where to start looking for Lily. I can't even help out at the Temple. And Dad means well, I know, but if I'm supposed to be so important, then I can't keep hiding. I have to do something, and if it means rescuing one of the few friends I have left from the stupidest decision she's ever made, then I'm going to do it!”

Ben stared at him, as he stood, breathless. Then, very carefully, she raised a finger, and tapped the scarf.

“I was going to say that you don't need the scarf. It'll just draw attention to you—it's nearly summer.”

Sheepishly. Mark breathed out and unknotted the scarf.

“Thanks, Ben.” He tossed the scarf to one side, awkwardly. “I know it's a lot to ask. I mean, we barely know each other really…”

Ben shushed him.

“You're Lily's friend, and the Directory's enemy. That's good enough for me.” Her smile faded. “You think I'm helping you out as a favor? Crede had my brother beaten by thugs, the Directory made our parents vanish, and the former Lord Chief Justice himself organized the murder of my sister.” Benedicta looked away. “I don't trust any of them, and if I thought that I could help you today—if I thought Crede would listen to me—I'd be going with you, and nothing in the world could stop me. You and Cherubina are part of the Temple now. Part of
.” Ben turned back, a wistful look in her eyes. “Believe me, Laud and I need all the family we can get.”

Mark stood there, taking in what she had said. He wasn't quite sure how to react, though he felt sure that he would never be able to say how grateful he was. So instead, they stood, awkwardly, and for a moment, Mark thought of asking Ben to come with him after all. He wasn't looking forward to confronting Crede.

But she was already opening the door.

“Remember, I can't keep Pete busy for long,” she said, hurriedly. “Go to Crede, and get straight back here. If you're not back by the fourth hour, I'll get Laud and Theo, and we'll storm the Wheel together.”

And despite everything, Mark laughed.

“Now that's something I'd like to see,” he said.

*   *   *

Mark was nearly at the Wheel when it happened.

It started simply. A squad of receivers passed by and Mark, anxious not to be seen, slipped into a side alley. As he did so, he was jostled by a large man.

“Mr. Crede's expecting you,” he said, softly.

Mark started, and looked up into the big man's face, recognizing Nick, the doorman from the Wheel. He put a finger to his lips.

“No time to chat, boy,” he said with a grunt. “Business.”

“What…?” Mark began, but Nick had already shoved his way out of the alleyway, and toward the receiver squad. In his hand, he held a large cobblestone.

Mark realized what was about to happen a few seconds before it did, just long enough for him to turn and run.

Behind him, he heard the crash of people falling to the ground, shouts and calls. Soon enough, the receiver whistles stung his ears, and the street behind him dissolved into a brawl. Fortunately Mark was far enough away to avoid getting caught up, as he slipped through the gathering crowd, unable to get the sight of that cobblestone out of his mind. He hoped that Nick was planning to put it through a window.

By the time he reached the Wheel, he was not surprised to see the door ajar. There wasn't the slightest chance of gaining the element of surprise.
, he thought, as he pushed the door open and stepped into the darkness beyond,
if he meant me harm, then I'd know about it by now

The interior of the Wheel seemed less oppressive without the crowd jammed to the rafters, but it was still dark and smoky. The shutters were closed, and the room was lit by thick tallow candles. For a moment, Mark thought that he was alone. Then his eyes began to adjust, and he saw Crede—sitting with his feet up on a table, entirely at ease, staring directly at Mark.

“Crede,” Mark said, trying to sound more confident than he felt, “I want a word with you.”

Crede beckoned to him, casually.

“Of course, of course,” he said, “always a pleasure to talk to someone so … infamous.” He added the last word lightly, as though it were a joke. In a way, he was more unnerving now than when he was filled with the fire of his speeches. “Would you like a drink?”

Mark shook his head, tightly. He wasn't going to accept any hospitality from this man.

“Or perhaps something a little more special?” Crede suggested, languidly reaching into his jacket pocket, and pulling out a leather drawstring bag. “Can I tempt you to my own, personal poison?”

He tipped a few milk-colored spheres from the bag into the palm of his hand. Mark recognized them at once, though he hadn't seen them since he had walked among Agoran high society. Back then, they had been in vogue.

“Still taking other people's memories, Crede?” Mark asked, coolly. “They told me you used to be an addict.”

Crede shrugged, careless of the insult, and popped one of the memory pearls into his mouth. He swallowed, and closed his eyes, savoring.

“I prefer to think of myself as a connoisseur. Ah…” he gasped, as the memory spread through him. “The remembrance of a first kiss. So tender.”

Mark felt sick. He wondered how desperate someone would have to be to sell such a precious memory—to have it lost to them forever, so this man could have a few moments of enjoyment.

“You are oddly quiet, Mr. Mark.” Crede said, opening his eyes and putting away the drawstring bag. “Are you waiting for anyone else to arrive? Have you brought any of your friends? Or your father, maybe? I hear he likes to keep an eye on his little boy.”

Mark clenched his jaw at Crede's barbed comment. He found himself consciously deepening his voice as he replied.

“My father knows nothing about this. And in any case, I don't need his permission to do anything.”

Crede smirked.

“Miss Cherubina tells quite a different story.”

And there it was, out in the open. In a strange way, it was a relief. Now Mark didn't have to bring up the subject.

“Where is she?” he asked. Crede waved his hand, airily.

“Somewhere near, I think. I didn't want to take up all her time; that wouldn't be the act of a gentleman.”

Mark refused to rise to Crede's mocking bait.

“I want to see her,” Mark said, controlling himself. “Now.”

“It seems such a shame to disturb her,” Crede said, taking his feet off the table. “She's probably resting. She was up half the night, telling me all sorts of astonishing things. I thought that after she told me about the new Director, nothing she could say would surprise me again, but…” he shook his head, a genuine look of amazement on his face. “The things you have seen over the past year, Mr. Mark … just astonishing.”

“She had no right to tell you that!” Mark said, rather louder than he intended. To his irritation, he heard his voice squeak. It had broken back in Giseth, but he'd thought that it had settled by now. “Those stories were … personal,” he added, gruffly.

BOOK: The Canticle of Whispers
13.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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