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Home Fantasy Stories The Dulcet Heart

The Dulcet Heart

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Sir Deucalion ascended the western stairs of the mountain to the massive central portal of the cathedral and gazed up at the tympanum, where the Lord sat in judgment of the souls of men and women. He had seen no one on the long way up but an old mystic making her way down to the city. He knelt between column statues depicting the ancient kings of the nation’s faith and removed his spurs.

The narthex was dark and silent, hermetic. He passed through another door and into the nave. The vaults high overhead rang with the sound of his boots on the marble floor as he walked down the central aisle toward the chancel. A single candle guttered somewhere in the shadows of the north transept. He was alone.

When he reached the rood screen, he withdrew a key from the purse on his belt and unlocked the lattice gate. In the choir, seraphic faces watched him from the high backs of the stalls. They seemed to be asking, “What are you going to do?”

A second key opened the organ console, and a third, the doors covering the central pipework. The casing rose above and spilled around him, spreading at the ends into enormous wings housing the largest pipes. He ungirted his sword and scabbard and placed them with his spurs atop a ledge in the casing. He sat upon the bench and rested his hands on the manuals.

A long, deep breath brought him smoke and incense over oak and marble, like characters in low relief emerging from stone. He imagined the space around him, the bays and dome over the crossing, and the objects that gave it order, the pillars and pews, and he sensed the hidden machinery at whose venerable edifice he sat. This old house of worship was taking him within its folds.

He pressed down and the mechanical action of the organ, built by the Architects according to arts long forgotten, directed air through hidden mechanisms to emerge through one of the smaller pipes over his head. A tremulous alto parted the silence, gently and swiftly, as lovers embrace. Deucalion listened as this note transformed the ornate interior of the cathedral into something living, and then he continued playing. He knew only one piece, a chorale for worship, and this he played from memory. It was deliberate in composition, but could take on many hues. Today it was meditative and unstable, as if it might culminate in passages he had never heard before.

He opened his eyes to the morning sun shining through the ruby heart of a trefoil in the apse. In the light beneath, a saint in an azure robe held a star over his head. Its beams illuminated a narrow path through unfriendly terrain. Jagged rocks were under his bare feet and a black and stunted bush reached toward the hem of his cloak. One eye expressed confusion, the other terror.

Around this scene, in a nimbus of jewels, crowded an entire host of saints standing ready in the windows that served for walls in much of the cathedral. There were many saints; not only did they occupy the stained glass windows, but they looked down from spandrels, perched on capitals, and stood in dark niches, spent tapers at their feet. Each one had a story, holy and gentle, but if the priests were to be believed, these same men and women had ordered wars and death sentences, even torture. As First Knight of the Realm, Deucalion was their earthly champion.

During the hours of his vigil on the eve of his knighting, he had called upon the saints and felt as if his tongue were on holy fire. The next day, when he spoke his vows and received his spurs, he had imagined his charge from Heaven descending upon him as a resplendent laurel crown, yet years later, when the Order of the Sacred Heart was not debating how much to borrow or how much interest to charge, it was discussing which prince to back and which priest to oppose: counsels and more counsels. When the knights did ride, it was under dubious causes to regions of uncertain administration they had equal reason to protect as pillage. Deucalion had found himself living the hours, days and years of his life in a world in which there was no holy fire, only ash.

Thus he did not believe in the saints any longer, perhaps not even in their Deity, and this had left him empty and dry for many years. Recently, however, something had come to run around the empty spaces in his heart, something that said to him in tones of one announcing a wedding, “Believe!”

In the release between chords, he heard a door open. Tilting his head, he saw Arete come into the choir from the sacristy with a box of candles and an altar cloth. Limned in a faint pink glow from the eastern rose, she stopped before the altar, her upper lip drawn down over her lower in thought. She did not look toward him--probably assuming him to be the organist, who usually played at this time of day--and went into the nave.

Not beautiful by the usual standards, Arete had caused a stir when she was born. Nowhere in her appearance were the noble features of the aristocracy of her race. Even in the bloom of youth she had been decidedly plain in the eyes of most, and now that she was a woman it was clear she would always be considered plain. There had been numerous suitors, but there always would be where there was a future queen.

Deucalion had not known she was in the habit of visiting the remote sanctuary, but he was not surprised: It spoke newly of her character, yet fit what he already knew of her. He guessed she was going to tend a shrine or icon that had fallen into disrepair, a chore far beneath her position. Deucalion wondered how she had managed to get away from the attendants with whom her parents insisted on surrounding her. Perhaps sometime she would tell him her secret.

Deucalion closed his eyes again, letting the music come without conscious thought. The existence of his body and that of his instrument dimmed; they were now merely the route through which two higher poles of existence communicated. No human voices accompanied his music, but he felt that the cathedral and everything in it were singing.

As he played, he imagined Arete in a forgotten corner of the cathedral inspecting the fair face of the Mother of God for blemishes and replacing stubs of old incense with new sticks. She did not move with the bustle of the other women of the castle, and in this he knew his imagination was true. More than once she had come upon him unaware in the halls of the palace to ask some favor or merely to exchange pleasantries. Other times, however, he was immediately aware of her presence by a hush amid the unceasing noise of everyone else.

They had first met nearly ten years ago at the banquet after his knighting. She had been sixteen, appearing amid a swarm of functionaries seeking unsuccessfully to return her to whatever event she had been supposed to be attending.

“I am honored,” he had said, falling to one knee.

“The honor is mine,” she had replied, “for I know you to be a noble knight.”

Rising then, he had met her eyes and been shaken, as if they had removed him far beyond himself to a place without time or space, and when they had put him back, everything had been different. That look would still return to him at times to steal his breath as he tried to sleep, and he would hear her words again.

A handful of suitors had surrounded her that night, tossing about their chatter with facile grace. Some of those same men could still be seen trying to pin her arm at this or that affair of state; some of them were his fellow chevaliers. Arete had resisted them all to this point, but the world would not allow a queen without a king. She would have to choose--and choose soon, for her parents were advanced in years and her father ailed--but there was still time for one more to ask her favor, if he so chose.

Deucalion opened his eyes to the multitude of saints. No, he did not believe in any of them, but he would pray to each and every one if it would release him from the existence he was living. This knight he had been for so long he could not continue to be or the gleaming façade he presented the world would become just that, and his backside be gnawed by toads and adders. No god or saint, however, could save him. He was on his own.

He saw Arete again as she returned toward the sacristy. She stopped and turned as if he had called to her or she had noticed it was he who played--and for a moment it seemed as if she were going to speak, but then, perhaps thinking not to interrupt him, she turned and left.

When the door closed behind her, Deucalion lifted his hands, bringing the music to a halt on the chorale’s penultimate note. It rang throughout the cathedral, making the rim of the chalice to sing and the pyx to tremble, running in vibrations up the mullions and breaking into smaller movements in the tracing, passing up through the vaults, reaching to the spires, and finally falling silent in the crockets and finials.

A tear dropped from Deucalion’s eye onto the keyboard. How everything strives upward in this place! he thought. Even the crucifix over his head, the very symbol of Man suffering, was rising, like some winged creature in flight, and he knew now that he should, too.

 

Author bio: John Werry is a freelance Japanese-to-English translator (www.jwerrytranslation.com) who has translated such manga titles as The Legend of Zelda, Biomega and Karakuri Doji: Ultimo, in addition to co-translating the light novel Hot Gimmick S, all published by Viz Media.

 

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