It is easy to make a claim but far harder to prove it.
— Kyōti proverb
Even in the narrow hallway leading to the great hall, Linsan could hear the rapid patter of the auctioneer speaking loudly. “Do I hear twenty-two. Twenty-two. Twenty-three to the lady in the red dress. Twenty-three million folks. Twenty-five! Twenty-six!”
It took all of her effort not to crawl over Lord Xasnal who lead the way or the guard walking behind him and ahead of Linsan. She wanted to scream at them to hurry but Sopenar appeared to have only one speed, a slow walk.
“Thirty million! Thirty-five! Six! Seven.”
Someone called out loudly. “Forty!”
“Forty million cukdins for this priceless treasure.”
She cringed as Sopenar approached the door.
“Forty? Going once. Going—”
Sopenar stepped in the room and held up two fingers, then four.
Linsan's heart skipped a beat.
“Sorry, my lords and ladies, bidding has been halted. I currently have forty million cukdins to the Lady Pinialis.”
A ripple of noise rose up as Linsan entered the room. After the claustrophobic hallway, the great hall felt like stepping outside. In the short period of time, rows of seats had been arranged in front of the stage with a narrow space down the middle.
On stage was a pedestal holding a red velvet pillow. On it was Palisis. The violin had been polished until it shown and lights had been focused on it to show off the delicate hints of purple and red veins that ran underneath the polished surface. Next to it was the bow her father had crafted, a matching pair with the same designs and carvings.
It had been years since Linsan had seen the musical instrument. A longing rose up, a desire more intense than anything she had felt before. The urge to reach out for it and pluck it from the pillow rose up and she struggled being so close.
The gathered people, the high society of Moon Water, looked around in confusion. A few stood up to turn to the back toward Sopenar. Linsan noticed a few just ducked their heads and continued to stare forward.
“There they are!” whispered Brook loudly.
Linsan focused her attention on stage where Tilbin, Mayforn, and Gabaw stood to the side of the violin. All three of them were wearing tuxedos but she remembered their faces from the day of the fire.
Tilbin stood ahead of the other two, his head turning as he scanned the crowds. Mayforn did the same, his face pursed as his head moved from point to point. Gabaw stepped back toward a table barely visible behind the chairs where the musicians had sat.
Sopenar lowered his fingers. “Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to stop the moment right at the cusp of tension, but I have been presented with a credible doubt.”
Whispers and exclamations rose up in a wave across the room. A few of the buyers stepped away from the gathered chairs. Most of them remained in place.
Tilbin stood up. An easy smile crossed his face but it didn't reach his eyes. “Please explain, Lord Xasnal. You have already done a full suite of verifications for this sale was approved.” He had a remarkably cultured voice for a man who grew up at a farm in the middle of nowhere.
The front door creaked open as a man in a deep blue uniform strode into the hall. He had a badge on his left chest and a pair of ribbons on the right. He had a deep tan and a full beard pulled into a braid.
Six other uniformed men filed in after him. They were armed with short swords and all six had their hands on the sheathed weapons.
Tilbin's turned slightly to look at them and his jaw tightened.
“Shit,” Mayforn said sharply and stepped past Tilbin to the other side. His attention focused on Linsan and a scowl etched itself across his face.
Brook shoved her way past Linsan and rushed down the center aisle. Her inarticulate scream rose up to fill the room.
Linsan and Miska charged after her.
Just as Brook reached the stage, one of the buyers who had not looked back suddenly stood up and spun into the aisle. There was a flash of a metal, a knife, in his hand.
“Brook!” screamed Miska.
Brook slammed into the man, her entire body shuddering. She looked up and then gasped. “D-Daddy?” Her voice filled the sudden silence that draped the room.
Linsan slid to a halt as she looked at the man who had stabbed Brook. It was Dukan Kabisal.
He had grown a beard since she last saw him, but it was a poor disguise. There was no mistaking his shoulders or the shape of his face. His eyes were hard as he looked down at his daughter. “You're the reason my code book was burned, wasn't it?”
“D-Daddy?” Brook said in a weaker voice. Crimson droplets splattered to the ground, slashing brightly on the wooden floor.
“Bad girl,” he said. Then he shoved Brook back hard, throwing her into Linsan and Miska.
Panicked, Linsan grabbed at Brook and held her down. There was a growing stain on her abdomen, near her naval. “Brook! Brook!”
Dukan stepped back and tossed the knife to the ground.
On stage, Tilbin's guitar flew in the air. The murderer caught it and slung it over his shoulder in one smooth movement. His fingers dropped to the strings and he strummed them.
A ghostly fire flickered around his body and instrument.
Despite the fear for her friend and the growing terror, Linsan forced herself to her feet. “Dukan! That was Brook! How!?”
Dukan stopped at the bottom of the stairs. His face was a mask of rage, a bitterness palatable in the air. “You were supposed to be the brash one, Lin. That knife was for you, not her.”
“You were going to kill me?” Her world spun but she forced herself to focus on him.
The strum of a guitar string caught her attention and she picked up the opening chords to a popular drinking song.
Dukan's face twisted even more. “Of course I would! You're a Sterlig! You are all fools and idiots. You sit on a priceless artifact because of pride and honor. Your parents would rather starve than give up a memory to some woman who has been dead for decades!”
Behind Linsan, Junith let out a sharp gasp.
Linsan stepped over Brook. “Palisis isn't yours.”
Dukan started up the stairs, one step at a time. “It doesn't have a name, Lin. It's an instrument, something to be played and sold. And for me, that means one more sale of a precious Sterlig before I leave this shitty country.”
“I won't let you,” she announced as she spun the lock on her case. She grabbed the neck of her violin and her bow with one hand as it clattered to the floor.
Dukan smiled and stepped back behind Tilbin. “You have other problems to deal with.”
Tilbin started into a series of high speed riffs. It was the song she had heard, but played at double speed. Fire flared along his guitar strings before it rose to envelope his entire body.
A wave of heat rippled away from his body, visibly distorting the air in an increasing sphere of energy.
The audience screamed as they scrambled to pull away.
Linsan gasped and yanked her violin into place.
Gabaw jumped off the front of the stage and slammed his fist into the floor. A line of fire burst out of the wood straight for her, the heat rising in a wall of fire.
Linsan stepped back, but caught Brook's legs. With a scream, she stumbled back while trying to keep her grip on the violin.
Miska surged up between them and the fire. She crossed her arms and plunged into the flames. With a deafening roar, the line of fire split in half around her body and jetted into the empty chairs on each side.
Whimpering, Linsan untangled herself from Brook's legs. She wanted to check on her friend or at least drag her to safely, but then she heard the riff hit the beat and the distinct sound of fireballs launching. She looked up to see them arcing around Miska and slamming into chairs and people, throwing them aside.
“Fuck,” she screamed. “We need to get these people away!”
“Little busy!” snapped Miska and she struggled against the flames that tore at her body, setting the ends of her hair on fire and burning at her dress.
Brook pushed herself up. Her dress was ruined but there was a bandage made from Miska's dress hastily wrapped around her belly with a knot of fabric pressed directly into the wound. Brook's face twisted into a grimace of pain as she lurched to her knees.
Linsan started for her but flashes of light warned her of two fireballs that streaked toward her and Brook. Without thinking, Linsan swung the violin to block of the first one, catching the searing heat with the back of her instrument and swatting it to the ground.
Linsan jumped over Brook and spun her body to catch the fireball against her back. Her senses exploded into agony as the force drove her to her knees. The smell of burning fabric and hair filled her world.
Brook reached for her. “Linsan!”
“Get. Away!” sobbed Linsan through the pain. She tried to put out her dress and the violin at the same time, but her limbs didn't quite move fast enough. She gave up the violin with a sob and dropped to her back to roll back to extinguish the flames that tore at her back.
Brook's face twisted into a mask of pain and determination. She pulled back her arms to clap and screamed out a warning.
Both Miska and Linsan cringed as Brook clapped her hands together with all her might. The concussion blast exploded from her. It launched chairs, papers, and hapless bystanders into the furthest edges of the hall.
In the corner of her eye, Linsan saw her violin rolling away, the flames flaring up as more of the wood caught. She let out a sob and crawled after it in hopes of rescuing her only chance to defeat the four men.
“No, pick it up! Get it!” bellowed Dukan. His voice had a frantic tone to it.
Linsan looked past Miska's burning dress to see that Brook's concussion blast has knocked Palisis off the pedestal. The precious instrument had landed near a hunk of burning stage.
Dukan struggled with the musician's chairs on the side. They had caught him when they were thrown to the back of the stage and his limbs were entangled. He grunted and thrashed before he managed to crawl out. Frantic, he scrambled across the stage.
“No!” screamed Brook as she clapped again. The explosion tore the ground apart underneath the concussion wave. It struck the stage and the wooden structure buckled from the impact.
A snapping board launched the violin into the air.
Mayforn and Dukan lunged for it.
The violin reached the apex of its flight and came down.
“Palisis!” Linsan screamed desperately with her hand reaching out for the instrument far out of her reach.
The strings of the violin rang out, played without a bow being touched to them. Translucent energies flared around the instrument and enveloped it. It fell only a foot before bouncing off some invisible force inches way from two murderer's outstretched hands.
Linsan froze as the violin bounced again, kicking away from the stage and directly toward her. It struck the ground and then spun and skipped across the splintered wood and exposed rock to stop at her knees.
Linsan stared down at it, her body shaking from her fear and her mind unable to see what had deflected the instrument.
Brook groaned in pain. “Just. Pick. It. Up!”
“You said you played it, so play it because we're going to burn!” She sobbed through the pain as she staggered to her feet. One arm pressed the ruins of Miska's dress against her wound. “Now!”
Linsan reached down for Palisis. She knew that she may have ruined the chance of getting it back if she played it, but Dukan's betrayal couldn't be forgiven.
To her surprise, the paired bow came to a stop next to the Palisis. She hadn't seen it slide toward her, but it was obvious that the violin had demands of its own.
The strings ran out again, dancing and humming the closer her fingers came to the instrument.
When she wrapped her hand around the warm wood, she felt a surge of power rising through her. Energies flickered on the edges of her vision as invisible currents stirred her hair and clothes.
Palisis fit against her neck as if it belonged. She held the bow over the strings for a moment.
Tilbin's next song broke the moment.
With a glare, she drew the bow across the strings and played a single note. It hung in the air, setting off eddies of power around her. With a sad smile, she started one of her own attack songs.
“Yes!” Miska said as she clapped her hands.
Brook joined, the impacts a dull thud that boosted the power that surrounded Linsan. She staggered to her feet but never stopped keeping the beat.
Gabaw struck fire, slamming into the ground and sending a line of fire directly for Linsan and Brook.
In time with Linsan's music, Miska stepped up to Brook and spun her around as Linsan spun in the opposite direction. The flame burst harmlessly against Miska's shoulder in a wave of heat and pressure.
Linsan reached the upward trill that shot arrows of force away from her. The beat of her two friends added to them, increasing their strength and speed.
The arrows slammed into the stage, missing Tilbin but striking Gabaw and Mayforn.
Gabaw fell back in a spray of blood. His back slammed into the wreckage of the stage. He struggled to get back to his feet as his hands burned brightly.
Tilbin's riff slammed the air, punching it with the complex sounds of the guitar. With his fingers sliding along the frets, he summoned dozens of fireballs that surrounded him in a halo.
It was the same attack as the one from the car.
Linsan changed the pace of her song and summoned the power to block his magic. When the fireballs came screaming from all directions, she was ready. Assisted with the steady beat, she launched arrow after arrow into the blasts and they burst harmlessly around her.
Before the fire faded from the air, her defense song reached an inflection point where she could use the power to attack. She launched a single arrow of force directly for Tilbin's chest.
Mayforn caught it with a backhand and then spun to join in the rhythm of Tilbin's attack. Gabaw also added a beat of his own and Tilbin's power grew.
They traded fireballs and arrows for a few seconds.
Tilbin suddenly smiled. He pointed at Miska and then hammered a series of riffs that brought up fireballs launching directly at her.
At the same time, Gabaw slammed his fists into the ground and set another fire burst directly at her.
Miska had to abandon her clapping to block the attack. She groaned as the heat pounded her body, tearing away at with steady thumbs that Linsan struggled to ignore while still maintaining her own song.
Then there were more fireballs arcing from the side but they were aimed at both Brook and Linsan.
With a gasp, Linsan spun away.
Brook wasn't fast enough. All of Tilbin's attacks jerked away from Linsan to drive into Brook. The steady thumps of fire pummeled her body as she lost her balance.
Linsan no longer had the beat. She danced away.
Tilbin and Mayforn followed. The guitar set off bursts that Mayforn's clapping boosted Tilbin's power. They screamed through the air as they streaked toward her.
Without her friends helping, Linsan had to play faster while twisting to avoid the attacks. Sweat burned at her brow as she struggled to block. There was no opportunity to strike herself.
She slipped. With a yelp, she fell back as one of the fireballs slammed into her. Heat crushed against her body and she tried to twist Palisis away from the flames.
To her surprise, the heat didn't touch the violin. A shimmering force wrapped around the instrument and the flames slid harmlessly off the violin.
Hitting the ground with one shoulder, Linsan kicked back and flipped back onto her feet. She landed next to Brook's smoldering form.
A sob rose up. “Brook?”
Brook looked up, her hair smoking. She looked at them and then glared. “Safe Adventures, Our Departed Loves.”
It was a ballad, a song with plenty of opportunity to build up power but there were desperately few places where the song could be used to attack.
“Play it! The cow fuckers don't know it.” Brook wiped her forehead, leaving a streak of blood. She stood up and clapped hard to knock away the attacks. With a powerful step forward, she smacked her hands together again but this time one palm slid off the other.
A narrow wave of force shot out of her hand, narrowly avoided Miska as it cut through Gabaw's line of fire. It struck him and threw him into the stage.
Gabaw's body bounced off the wood before he was propelled into the chairs below.
Sobbing, she stood even with Miska. With a smile to her lover, she began to clap out the rhythm of the song.
Miska joined immediately, her precision pounding fitting with Brook's mechanical timing for a song they had only heard minutes before.
Trusting her friend, Linsan began to play.
As the fireballs came raining down, the three wove around each other. Miska would turn so the fire struck her body and Brook clapped to blow away the fire bursts that reached past.
Only waves of heat struck Linsan as she improvised her dance. All the hours of practice sank in as she took her skill to recreate the song and used it to find a dance that would match it.
Her friends worked with her as they blocked the attacks even as Gabaw returned to strike at her.
Heat and fire raged through the hall.
She danced remembering the purpose of the song, of four lovers that found each other and switched while remaining friends. The happiness of her parents: her father's pride and her mother's resilience. They had suffered for her because of love just as Junith did for her Marin. Linsan has stepped aside for Miska, but she loved them both.
The song grew louder, magnified by dance and beat. She was playing her family's legacy and she would not let their betrayal be forgotten.
When the cusp of the song came, the crescendo that Linsan could finally turn into an attack, she was ready.
Linsan drew the final note with a flourish as the world around her became a storm of shimmering power. An arrow flew out. Then another and another. They came faster and she joined, breaking away from the song as she accelerated her playing.
Miska and Brook joined her after only a feat beats, clapping and pounding faster as each note become a weapon that rained down on the stage.
Tilbin broke off his song to switch to another one, no doubt a defensive one, but the arrows didn't stop. They pounded ceaseless, exploding into brilliant force as they tore apart wood and stone. They tore into the three murderers, sending them back with spurts of blood and groans of pain.
Tilbin's fingers slipped on the strings.
The magic resisting her faltered.
Linsan directed a wave of power toward his guitar.
As the spectral heads struck it, the wood crack before it shattered from the force of its own strings. His hands were lacerated as he fell back to the ground.
Linsan directed the attacks at the other two men as they dove to the side.
The song ended. She tried to stop it but there was no way to keep playing without losing everything. There were no more notes left to play, no more energy to fuel them.
She stopped sharply, her body shaking as all the energy and emotions drained out of her in an instance.
Empty, she stared at the carnage before her as she sucked in one breath after the other. Sweat soaked her skin and her muscles trembled from the effort. The air smelled of lightning and flame, a bitter taste that seared the back of her throat.
She was vaguely aware of the magenta motes that floated in the air. They were the feedback from two power forces colliding with each other. The more power, the more light but she had never seen a cloud filled with the baneful light that scorched the entire hall.
Ahead of her, Brook leaned against Miska. She let out a whimper. “D-Did we win?”
Miska clutched her. “I don't know. We got the three but I don't know where your daddy is.”
“He hurt me. My own daddy,” Brook said as her knees collapsed and she sank to the ground.
Cradling her lover, Miska dropped to her knees to cushion the blow. “I know. But he will never hurt you again, I promise.”
Linsan threw herself to Brook to hold her tightly, Palisis resting in her other hand. “Oh, Brook!”
Brook's bright brown eyes grew cloudy. “It was a good… song….” And then her eyes rolled up and she slumped forward.