The stage lights shine so bright upon my face that I can't see a single thing. I hear the rich rustle of my maroon skirts against the handsome wooden floor. It is cold in this performance hall, but They thoughtfully dressed me in velvet, to keep out the chill.
I approach the stand where the microphone waits for me, lonely in this huge space. Sometimes this room is used for dancing and plays, elaborate performances with many people involved. Tonight, it is just me.
My vision is clearing now and I see Them. The auditorium is packed, every last seat filled, and some have brought their own chairs to cram the room to its maximum limit. My throat feels dry and I take a small sip of the water somebody has placed next to the microphone for me.
Setting the glass back down on a floor with a small clink that seems to echo throughout the spacious room, I notice how silent everybody is, inhumanly silent, waiting for me to begin.
I press my gloved hands to my belly and inhale, then exhale, stretching out my diaphragm. I open my mouth wide, feeling my soft palate rise. My tongue feels too large in my mouth and I know that I am nervous, so I take a few experimental coughs right before I hum the first note.
Everybody leans forward in their chairs, their action so in unison that it appears as if a huge wave is breaking right before my eyes. Singing for Them is nothing like singing for a human audience. The intensity that shows in their faces, the pain in their eyes, makes it seem as if my voice is the only thing to soothe their woes away. They hunger for my song as I do for bread. There is nothing to divide their attention from me this night.
I open my mouth, close my eyes, and sing.
A traditional Welsh folk song, "Dacw 'Nghariad" is one of the easiest for me to perform. Not because it is simple—the hard ch sounds appearing regularly throughout it, coupled with the rising notes, cause it to become flat and unpleasant if performed incorrectly. No, it's easy for me to do only because my father used to sing it frequently. He loved the simple story it told, about the young maiden in the courtyard with her harp; said it reminded him of my mother. The image in my mind of him sitting in our garden, sifting the fine granules of dirt through his fingers as he sang this song, is so ingrained in my mind that I could never forget a moment of it.
This really ought to be performed with a harp, or at least a guitar, for the translated lyrics to make sense, but when I sing, They prefer it to just be my voice. They said that anything else distracted them.
There is no applause when I've completed the brief tune, and I clear my throat and pull on the lace collar of my dress, feeling uncomfortable with Their unwavering stares. I bite my lip, and then launch into my second one, a take on Joseph Parry's "Myfanwy". I had to raise the pitch so that it could match my soprano voice and not sound silly, but I felt it was nice.
It was only after I had begun a third folk song, "Llwyn Onn", that They stopped staring so disturbingly at me. Their huge appetites were briefly sated, and now they were finally able to properly enjoy the music. I saw a few of them looking into their programs for the translation of the lyrics. Despite my natural wariness around their kind, I begin to relax a little, to let the music and memories take me.
I sing until my voice feels dry and my legs begin to shake, but they don't let me stop until I finally give in and collapse on the stage, too dizzy from the effort of inhaling and expelling such vast quantities of air for such a length of time. That's what They do to us; They wring out every last drop of our essence and then toss us aside.
I feel calloused hands pulling on my shoulders, helping me sit up, and a glass of lukewarm water pressed to my lips. It is Luke, the carpenter. He is always good to me after draining performances, and tonight is no exception.
"Come on, dove," he says, using his pet name for me. "We'd better get going. They're in a mood tonight,"
I still feel light-headed, but I allow him to slip an arm around my waist and assist me down the steps of the stage and through an exit. He takes me to a little room with cushioned sofas—an offshoot of the ladies powder room, I suspect, as I hear the drip from a leaky faucet—and sits me down on one of them.
I press my cold hands over my face and wait for the blood thundering just underneath my eyes to still. I know I will feel a headache soon, but for now I just try to get my breath back.
Luke touches my wrist, and I open my hand; he drops two medicine tablets in my grip and sets the glass of water back on the floor.
"Oh, Luke," I sigh after swallowing them both. "I don't know what in the world I would do without you."
" S'alright," he says, and without opening my eyes I can tell that he is smiling; that little smile of his that shows off the gold cap on his left canine. "You helped me the other night, when me hands were swollen and blistered."
Luke is a kind man, about forty years old, with threads of silver woven into his sandy brown hair. He is from Ireland and it shows in his accent, the Roman Catholic paraphernalia scattered throughout his bedroom, and his old-fashioned politeness with people like me. Sometimes I think of him as I used think of my father, but such an act almost feels like a betrayal in my heart.
"Oh, you sang like the little songbird you are out there," he said with gusto, interrupting my reverie. "Nearly made me 'art fall right out of me chest, it did. You truly have a gift, little dove."
I smile. It's not nearly as nice of a smile as Luke has, I think. My smiles barely push my lips at all. Once upon a time, I gave full smiles. I hadn't done so in years.
The world slowly stops spinning behind my closed eyes, and I stand on the plush crimson carpeting of the powder room. "This dress is dreadful," I groan, looking at myself in the mirror above the bathroom sink.
"I think it looks nice on you," Luke comments, from where he is seated in a wicker chair next to my glass of water. "Really compliments that pale skin of yours."
I consider this thought, twist a little in front of the mirror and pat down a flyaway curl of my short black hair, but then I say, "Nope. It's hopeless." With a mischievous glint in my brown eyes that I know Luke won't miss, I poke my tongue out at him.
"Cheeky brat," he grumbles, but there's that flash of gold again. I love making him smile.
My ears suddenly catch the strain of somebody tuning a viola, and now that I'm not quite so woozy, I am at once intrigued.
"Want to go see who it is?" I ask, reaching for Luke's hand. He flinches when I take it, and I bite my lip, sorry that I'd slipped up. "Oh, Luke, I forgot; forgive me."
They work him day and night on his masterpieces and hands are forever bruised and splintered. Occasionally They'll give him reprieve on the physical work and instead have him create designs on paper instead, but for the most part they just demand that he carve and whittle and polish various types of wood until his skin cracks.
"It's alright, dove," he says, his voice strained. I sigh and bend forward to kiss the back of his wrist. He sighs, too, imitating me, and pats my shoulder with his fingertips. "I could never be mad at you," he adds, and I know he means it.
Relieved, I reach out again, this time for his elbow. "Come on; let's go eavesdrop!"
But Luke just shakes his head and leans back in the wicker chair. "Too tired."
He does look tired, and so I leave him, following the sound of strings being quietly plucked upon. This is one of the few times I'm allowed to roam free, and I intend to take advantage of it. Soon, the sound of tuning stops and one long, warbling note plays out. I walk faster, round a corner, tracking it down like a bloodhound after a scent.
Finally I reach the open doorway to a practice room, completely empty aside from one lone figure. At first glimpse of him, I hide in the doorway of the room, suddenly very shy. He's not one of my kind, that much is obvious from the first glance. His ears are pointed and angled backwards, and his umber skin is far too perfect. That's the easiest way to tell us apart. They don't have freckles or moles. There is no discoloration or variation to their pigmentation. Whatever color their skin may be- and it ranges from white as paper to black as night, with every shade of brown in between- it is positively solid.
His hair curls around his protruding, donkey-like ears, a deep shade of gold, and his dark eyelashes are startlingly long, brushing his cheeks as he stares at the sheet music before him.
He must have caught my scent, or heard my heartbeat, because his nose twitches and he turns around faster than a whip to face me.
"What are you doing in here?" he snarls, teeth bared at me. All of Their teeth are sharp, always bringing to mind a shark. "Come to make fun of me?"
"N—no!" I stammer. This is bad; if he told my Keeper that I was out wandering after my performance, he could make life very nasty for me. "I just heard music, and I wanted to listen."
He drops the viola on the floor, and I can't help but cringe. Of course he could probably afford to have many more made, but still…
"Well, go on!" he insists, sounding upset. "Go ahead and laugh. I know you want to, a little songbird like you…"
"I don't!" I insist. "Want to laugh, I mean." It's true that it's odd seeing one of Them holding an instrument, attempting to play something when he must know that it's futile, but I don't think it's funny.
Gathering my courage, I step closer to him before kneeling on the ground and pulling the instrument onto my lap. It's a lovely thing, the wood gleaming wonderfully in the low light of the room. One of the strings has come loose from his rough treatment of it and I adjust it, relieved to see that it is otherwise unharmed.
I glance up and see that he is watching me, envy and curiosity waging a battle on his face. Then, looking furtively from side to side, he kneels beside me as well.
"Before anyone comes in," he whispers, "please show me!"
This has gone beyond odd to positively unheard of. Him, kneeling on the floor like a lowly human? And saying please is just unthinkable. Still, I know better to question him.
I take the bow from where he's set it on the chair, touching the horsehair fondly. It needs to be thoroughly chalked, but he seems to be in a hurry and so I draw it across the strings, feeling the hum more than I hear it. It alights a small fire in my belly, and I do it again and again.
His eyes are trained on me with a burning intensity, and I have to gulp. He reaches forward as I play and his thin, long fingers touch one of the strings, feeling the vibration. He is hungry for it, desperate for the music. It's the starvation in his eyes that causes me to pull back, fear quenching the desire to play.
He scrutinizes me with eyes black as pitch. "I heard you sing today," he says, and his voice is now husky. "Will you sing just for me?"
I don't know why I do it. I don't have to. I know I could make up some excuse, but instead I give in. My voice is sore from the performance I'd just given and so I don't project very loudly, but the amplification in the walls of the room make me loud enough.
I sing him one that I usually try to keep to myself. "Suo Gân" is a lullaby. I'm not entirely certain where my memories of that song first began, but they are very faint. I remember darkness, and comfort, and arms around me, and a woman's voice trilling it out to my sleepy ears. I'm not positive, but I believe it may be my only memory of my mother, and I have the irrational fear that if I sing it too often, I will lose the tidbits of recollection.
But right here, right now, it seems appropriate, singing to this strange being whose acquaintance I've only just made. He listens with the attention no human could ever give, bliss causing his pupils to expand and his cheeks to flush. And when I've finished, he leans closer to me, too close.
"Sing that last bit again?" he requests, and it sounds almost like a plea.
I do as he asks. "Ddim i roddi iti fraw/ Gwena'n dawel yn fy mynwes/ Ar yr engyl—"
But I never do get to finish, because as I sing the last word, his mouth comes down on mine. I wouldn't call it a kiss, exactly; he seems to be trying to suck the music itself from my throat. Still, my eyes close and I lean into it, unsure and a little afraid.
After just a moment he sits back. He doesn't look embarrassed over what he's just done; his face seems more contemplative. I am not so unflappable; my face heats, and I have to look away from his dark, dark eyes.
"Tell me," he says, "all of your songs seem to be about love. A mother's love, a lost love… Why does that alone fill your music?"
I have to think about his question for a long time before I can find the right words, but I do give it a try. "To me," I start, and then pause to think again. "To me, music and love are one and the same. It only makes sense that the two would coincide."
"And what of someone like I, who cannot make music?" he asks, looking agitated. "Are you saying that I cannot love?"
I've never thought about this before. Can a monster love at all, and why would he care if he couldn't?
He takes my silence as an answer. "Never mind, human." He stands and begins to walk away, but of course my foolish mouth never knows when to stay shut.
"Please," I say, before I can stop myself, "what is your name?"
He turns and looks at me over his shoulder, and I'm offered a smile which, despite the teeth, is more gentle than anything I've ever seen from one of his Kind. "I am Gideon. But no need to tell me your name, Aderyn."
He shuts the door behind himself, and I am left alone with my jumbled thoughts.