“Love?” Drin drops to his knees, straddling Dance’s tail. “What else can I get you? More water?” His hands sweep over Dance’s chest, check his vitals, cup his neck, go back to his chest when he coughs again. It helps.

“Water, yes, please, very good.” The sheer unbelievable amount of water flying past the house while he begs for a cup’s worth, makes him want to laugh.

“Of course, wait here.” Standing, he looks down at Dance, and chuckles, rather wildly. “Really, love, don’t move around much, you’ll go through the damn floor.”

Dance certainly feels heavy enough to go through the floor. His hand responds to his commands, however sluggishly, and he picks up the moleskine notebook and studies the numbers written there. His brain turns stubborn on him. “You know what, Barret? They are K numbers. They’re Mozart. No code, if you are a trained musician, you see? They give some hint at what we want in Locatelli’s catalog. The Sinfonia in D is maybe something in D in Locatelli’s catalog.”

“Well, crap,” Barret says, “what about those modulations I just fucking sang you? Like the throat singers of Tanu fucking Tuva? Why’d I do that? Auren Han doesn’t do anything by accident. I’m serious. Modulation. I’m getting this gut thing of having to, like, rotate the whole thing, like a code where you shift the alphabet forward, based on the key?”

“Yeah, you’re right,” and Dance’s voice sounds to his own ears like a cast skin of sound, “I do think you’re right. Like A becomes E–”

“The circle of fifths–”

major & minor keys in musical notation
diagram of major & minor keys

Drin is back. “You’ve got it, that quick?”

“–and the rest of the alphabet conforms. Yes, I think so.” He feels Drin slide a hand underneath his head.

“Jesus, your head weighs a ton.”

“Full of rocks,” Dance says vaguely. Drin holds the lip of the glass to his mouth, and Dance drinks, and sighs as he gets eased down again. Dance cocks his brows up, still squinting at the Moleskine. “The first one, you sang on the F, and then–” he pauses, blinks. “No, this is not right. This key gets used a lot, you know? And this one, it is not much used in the Art of the Violin. No circle of fifths getting happy all the way. Too simple.” He coughs. “First dead turn, beginners give up now and here. Why use both? Why not the number or the key?”

Barret is making funny little gestures as if he wants to rip the notebook away. “Well, what if… what if… what if we’re supposed to start with the Mozart piece and then shift to the second note to find Locatelli pieces with the same key signature, and then use the number to figure out which one? Say, large or small or medium numbers in the Locatelli catalog?”

“Oh, I know those,” Dance says, off-handedly. His tail offers the notebook over, but is refused with a hand gesture. “Well, most of them.”

Barret makes a fish-face. “‘I know those,'” he mocks, “‘I know everything.'” He snorts. “Jesus.”

The tail gives a little flourish. “Like most humble musicians, I merely–work my ass off.” And he marks the first one. “So how well do you know Mozart?”

Barret’s nervous giggle becomes full-throated laughter.

Köchel’s Savant

The wind scales down completely, and there’s things flapping and racketing slowly away, and then the houses creaks and groans in the quiet. Time to talk while we can, Dance thinks. Be quick. Lots of ground to cover now.

“K Numbers,” Dance says, looking up. “Who came up with this?”

“Auren did. With Simon. Together. We’re supposed to, what, play these pieces now? To do what? What happens then?”

“Well, that’s for million dollar two-cent question,” Dance whispers hoarsely, and grins. “I be easy, but I ain’t cheap.”

“Oh yes you are, sweatshirt boy,” Emma says, and yawns, and stretches very carefully, and grimaces. “So where are we, boys, on unlocking this damn thing?”

“We love you only for your mind,” Barret intones, blinking at her.

She yawns at him.

“C’mon, get your geek on,” Barret says, grinning. “We need Köchel numbers linked to the key of the actual pieces.”

She blinks. “So we’re on Mozart? Hmmm. Usually a bad sign. Means we haven’t got a clue what to put in the holiday program, heading back to Mozart.”

Barret cracks up. “Probably right!”

Dance coughs, flapping his hand. “Please hum it. I’ve heard you do it. Remember, she was arguing and singing, Drin?”

Drin tells Emma, “When you complained about Jim Spaede on NPR, poor guy.”

Dance flaps the tail end instead. “Yes, the getting things wrong.”

“You shouldn’t be talking, you’re losing your voice,” Emma says, and accepts a glass of water from Drin, who is grinning too. She sips at it, making more faces. She has pink crumple marks in her cheek from sleeping on her coat.

The tail pokes Barret. “Watch this.”

“Right,” she says, blinking. “I think we’re in the storm’s eye, now. Get chattering while you can, boys, it’s gonna get noisy again. So what’s your first number?”

“You poked me!” Barret says. “With—with–”

Dance grins at him. “With my ass,” he says.

“Is this where we talk about being grownups again?” Emma says crisply. “Will there be fart jokes?”

Barret is staring at her. “I’m in love. I mean, in a totally platonic intellectual relative way–”

“Join the fucking line,” Dance rasps, and chuckles.

Barret gives him a look. “Potty mouth.”

“That’s a title that has to be earned, young man,” Emma says sternly, “and I am the current recordholder in this pathetic bunch. Are you asking for a duel at dawn, with pistols?”

“That’s another come-on line,” Dance wise-cracks at Barret.

“Well, someone who’s not in my nice polite young men line, that’d be you, Dance. You’re about as platonic as a vibrating butt plug,” Emma says.

Barret gazes at her in awe. Then he starts to laugh, hands wide. “I surrender. I know when I’m whipped.”

“God, you are easy,” Drin says.

“Up against a librarian? They start pulling out that Shakespearean fardling and pootling stuff, it’s over.” Barret shrugs, shakes his head. “Hey, we’re just musicians, man. Out of my league. She may threaten me with Scrabble or something.”

Emma tilts her brows up at him. “You’re inviting me to it? Scrabble, at six sharp, is that it?”

Barret gives her a particularly innocent blink-blink, big wide eyes, that fools no one.

pink bubbles in gold fluid
pink champagne bubbles

“It’s on, Emma the Scrabble Queen in the left corner–” Drin says into his cupped hand, and has to stop talking, he’s grinning too wide. It’s like there’s champagne in the air, they’re all laughing, in spite of aches and pains. It’s so quiet, outside.

Emma says, “Die Chronologisch – thematisches Verzeichnis sämtlicher Tonwerke Wolfgang Amadé Mozarts,” she sips some more water, “or the Chronological, Thematic Catalogue of the Complete Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, is the Köchel catalog you’re talking about. Köchel, the cataloguer, included the opening bars of each piece, a so-called incipit. I can give you that, if you like, more if I remember other bits I’ve read or heard with some kind of labeling I can attach to it. I’m not a great singer, I talk too much and mistreat my vocal cords and so I have a crummy midrange, but I’m sure you’ll notice that.”

“She said it,” Drin murmured. “She talks too much.”

Emma ratchets up a brow. “I could stop, and go back to sleep, and let you get on with your Sherlocking here. Why are we doing this, again?”

“To decipher the musical hints to uncode the message that unlocks the mysterious case that apparently holds something that may be a viola and may not, to figure out how to rebuild and play the missing Locatelli piece that Dance is probably one of maybe four people in the world who could figure it out–” Barret says, grinning.

“Oh, there’s at least a dozen,” Emma says, and yawns. “But they won’t talk to each other. Academia. The arguments are so bad because the stakes are so low. There’s always feuds.”

“You looked it up?”

She just buffs her nails on her shirt. “My guy here Dance starts obsessing on a composer, of course I’m going to find experts in the subject. Local, for preference. Now, there’s Optecno–silly name, there’s a corporate logo involved, but then I guess he needs to prove things. His vowels says he’s from Peoria originally, you can hear it when he lectures. He never talks directly to the public, he has mistake-prone blondes to do that.”

Barret is already laughing.

Emma waves her hand airily. “Petersen up at State loves to talk, he’ll talk to anybody, but he never publishes and he can’t remember what grand idea he told you last week. Yes, I checked.”

Barret is rocking back and forth wiping his eyes by then. “I know these guys, I swear. You know, people just like them!”

“I’m so sorry for you,” Emma says. “Russo knows his stuff but he’s an asshole of the first water. Of course he’s northern Italian, probably more German background with him, you can hear that authoritarian crap oozing out of his pores. Catch a Milanese sounding like that, I ask you. Usually I can get round an Italian professor just by putting on my most barbarous Sicilian accent and pretending to be moderately educable.”

“And you’re not?”

“Of course not. You can’t teach me anything. I’ll listen, but I argue too much. I mean, in my head. Gets in the way of really learning new things. I tell you, working out with Dance in the dojo is an experience. So do you have the numbers already?”

“Yes, please, ma’am,” Dance says, grinning. She’s right about the dojo.

“Are you using the original Köchel listing, or the revised sixth Köchelcatalog? The sixth is more often used, it’s more extensive, the numbers include letters as well as digits.”

They stare at her. Then Barret blinks. “It’s just numbers, no letters.”

She nods, waiting.

“Our first one is 381,” Dance says. He glances at Barret. “Modulated from D to A.”

“Sonata in D for keyboard, four hands,” she says, “not a viola piece. Is it a joke?”

Barret points at the Moleskine. “Try the next one. 158. What, I shifted it from F to B? That’s ugly.”

“Quartet, Divertimento, in F for Strings,” she says, and hums a few bars, tilting her head.

“168,” Dance says, and Drin brings him some more water, kneeling to lift his head and shoulders to drink. Then Drin moves away again, restlessly.

Emma says, “The Quartet in F for Strings,” and sips before delivering herself of a piece of it. Also, Dance points out, modulated from >F. This proves to be a consistent trait. The first note of the modulation always matches the catalogued key of the Mozart.

Every last one of them is a quartet, of some kind, except the last.

“441,” Barret says, reading over Dance’s hand, and accepts some water himself.

She blinks. “Trio for Soprano, Tenor and Bass, ‘Liebes Mandel, wo is’s Bandel?‘ They think written in about 1783, in Vienna. He wrote rather a lot, you know.”

“Modulated from A down an octave,” Dance says. “That was impressive, Barret. But what key is it?”

music score on stand
the piano score

She scowls. “Damn, I’m not sure. Not in the catalog listing, you’d have to check the music. I think you can take it that one is probably a joke too. To cut short on description, ‘a friend and student of the Maestro arrives and helps the Mozarts find the wife’s hair ribbon before going for a drive.'” She puts on a silly voice. ‘…The first line, ‘Dearest Almond, where is my husband?’ indicates the level of nonsense present here…’ her voice trails off, and she scowls at Barret. “Your friends have a very silly sense of humor.”

“You’re a savant,” Barret says.

“No, I’m a cyborg,” Emma says. “Of a sort. It’s cheating, anyway. I hope my evil twin Skippy told them so, too. They should have used a real savant. Do you know that hippy vest you’re dribbling on is probably worth about fifteen hundred dollars? It’s not a copy, I don’t think. You can’t find those buttons any more.”

“You should hear her on antique jewelry,” Drin murmurs.

“I had better close my virgin ears, man,” Barret says, “or this vest will lose its awesome thrift store powers, and I will dwindle back into an ordinary boy.”

She tilts her chin. The glasses are there, whether she has them on her nose or not. “I can see that. I hope you sewed on that shadow firmly?”

“Oh, yes, I keep it attached to my hinder,” Barret answers, eyes wide and sincere.

“It’s a nice hinder,” Drin says.

Dance and Emma look at him.

“What?” Drin says.

“Oh man, you are in so much trouble, young man,” Barret says, grinning.

Emma says, reproachfully, “You damn the guy with faint praise. It’s a wonderful hinder, and that’s all you have to say about it? Nice. That’s it? Nice. Oh boy. Dance, I’d be worried if I was you.”

Barret laughs. “Oh oh, there’s that Shakesepearean thing coming on–”

Dance chuckles, with that gravelly noise that hurts in his ribs.

Consultation of Students

“What’s next?” Emma says, with a glance at the plywooded window.

“I grab what I can of that missing Locatelli–” Dance says, and Drin braces the little notebook with one hand, while Dance’s tail fumbles with the pen. “–and I need Barret’s opinion on the thing. I think–” Dance strains around and looks up at Barret, and beckons him to come closer. The tail makes agitated coils. Dance points at Barret, and he says, “I think this missing piece is not written in the modern temperament. I think it must be written in one of your odd tunings, that you record in. I think it must use old-style meantone tuning!”

Barret grins. “Yeah?”

Dance says firmly, “Locatelli’s history.”

Barret blinks. “He was during that transitional period, wasn’t he? Changing out of old-style meantone into the even-tone we use now, right?”

“The lifespan dates overlap.” Emma nods, rubbing her lower back.

Barret points at the notebook. “You remember all that stuff about Bach pushing our hotsy-totsy new even-interval method, so you can make key changes that sound better across the board–”

Dance nods. “But the tuning, that must drive me crazy. You know, I am this rigid, I am too used to conventional temperament in every orchestra. Not enough practice on our meantone guitar that Drin just got me. Such a beautiful thing, you would like it.”

“Drin got you one that’s built for meantone? Which kind?” Barret says, delighted. “Cool gift.”

Drin makes a face. “C’mon, it’s the least I could do.”

The tail twists awkwardly round the pen like a little kid learning to write, and Dance scowls desperately at the pages.

“You’re doing it left-handed,” Barret says, kindly. “Try tipping the page at a slant, over that way.”

“God, trying to– how can I play it if I can’t even write to this page–” he coughs.

“You can tell me, I can write it out for you,” Barret offers.

Dance looks up at Barret. “It’s so slow if I dictate. I can’t sing it–”

“Dance,” Emma says. “It’s in your underpants. You just gotta reach down and scratch.”

Barret throws back his head and laughs, and it helps.

He breathes. Right. Don’t try to sort out the muscles, that never works. You’re having sex and it just does what it wants and– Oh. Oh. He blinks. Drin strokes his tail, gently, and kisses the tip, and looks at him with a smile.

“I told you he was pretty damn rude,” Emma says to Barret, who just laughs.

“Sorry,” Dance says, closing his eyes. Get those printed staves in your mind. They’re small, in this notebook. What is it, three staves to that page? Dimly he knows where they are, there’s the lines, don’t stop. There’s the cleff, there’s the time, there’s the key signature, there’s the notation: lento. The first bar. The next. The second line.

“There,” Dance says, with his eyes shut. “I need the second-to-last quarter-note in meantone.”

“I’m thinking F-sharp,” Barret says. “It’s in the form of a round, it’s gonna repeat and modulate, so it’s shifting to the key of the next exercise, right?”

“Yes,” Dance says, frowning hard. He’s also transposing to the lower-bodied voice of the viola, just as writing for alto voice differs from soprano, but of course Barret knows that too.

“Try muscle memory,” Barret says then, and pulls up a chair. “Run through the next piece in the Art of the Violin, and we’ll get what this new note should have been all of these years, played in meantone.”

dark red guitar

“When I tried that new guitar–” Dance says then, frowning.

“You liiiiked it,” Barret says, laughing, and reaches out and touches his arm, gently. “You did!”

“Oh yeah,” Dance says, blinking into space. “Yeah. Sweet, like honey, these major thirds. But real. So different as cane sugar from corn syrup. Equal temperament is not even on any same golf course.”

“Satan scores!” Barret says. “You’re mine now, you bad boy, bwahahaa! You’ll never go back to– well, of course you will, Concertmaster, but you’ll bitch about it.”

Dance looks at him soberly, and says, in a broad Dixie accent, “Satan? Satan, I ask you? Now, look here, my man, I be the snake in dis garden. No playin’ with my nekkie humans–”

Barret grins at him. “Feel better?”

“Yes. Thank you.” And his tail goes back to meekly writing down notes.

Barret looks around when Emma starts laughing. “What? I fixed him. What’s wrong with that? He gets stuck, I give him a kick in the pants–erm, well, in the somewhere–and he–”

Emma’s laughing a lot.

It sounds good. It reminds Dance to add that little silly trill that he knows would be there, and there–

“Look at this guy. He’s a brute. A miserable, horrible composer,” Barret says. “Who’s going to play this? Who’s going to survive those triplets? God?

Dance grins, humming a bar of The Devil Went Down to Georgia, while he’s writing down completely different Locatelli notes, just to see the grimacing face that Barret makes at him.

“You thought Mozart was tough, baby,” Emma says, amused.

“He is tough!” Barret exclaims.

Dance points where the transition starts to the fragment from the next Etude, and he murmurs the note, and Barret chuckles, “Of course, yes, that makes sense, see–”

Dance hums it, hoarsely, and he blinks. Something comes free in Dance’s chest. Opens up. God, it feels good. It’s like his upper ribs have been taped down. Now the tape has come loose, and they can open up wide, he can breathe.

Dance feels his hands stir in his lap. Something shifts in his back, it loosens, and he brings up his arms with a sigh. He can hear it now. He’s been playing it just a little bit wrong, all these years, no wonder he was fighting that transition so hard, it didn’t sound right to his ear. “Yes,” he says, with his fingers on strings that aren’t there, and the tail scribbles on of its own free will.

“That son of an Italian bitch,” Barret says. “Is that as tough as it looks?”

“Yes. That’s his show-off student in a good day. But not if he steps off wrong on the last bar. Sixthteenths, yes? Then thirty-second notes. Get your breath right on the timing, ta-da umpty-da–”

“I think that’d be a B-flat, then?”

Dance takes a breath, drops his arms. He’s going so slow, there’s more–so much more–

“Don’t panic, you’ve moving just fine, we’ll get it,” Barret says, leaning close, pushing his surety into Dance, the calm solid knowledge of years of ensemble playing there in the eyes.

“Yeah. It’s a B-flat,” Dance says, and marks the end of the bar. That’s the first motif done. It may be leisurely in this opening section, but the structure is jumping from one technique to the next with that calm economy of movement. It’s brutal. If you haven’t mastered the method in each case, you simply can’t make the shift without blatting out the mistake to the Master. He’s a fiend, damn his unbending standards.

He opens his eyes, and blinks. “Got it?”

“It’s good,” Barret says, and his eyes are intent. “It’s simple, remember. For his students. An exercise for his major pupils to test on. Not for a real pro like himself. Or like you. Simple, right?”

stack of three glass pebbles
trio of seaglass pebbles

Dance blinks at him. “I bet he wrote another one. To audition people on. Tougher, but parallel to this. Maybe another yet, for the Maestro. Could be played with this one, even. A trio.”

Barret stares into his eyes. “I bet he did.”

Dance meets the gaze. “After. I’ll write that part down for you after. And then the third one, his own.”

“Promise?” Barret says, and that’s when Dance learns the big soft eyes can be fierce, too.

“I promise.”

“He’s still an SOB.” Barret sits back, with a sigh.

Dance hears himself give a weak chuckle. “Oh, he is.”

Barret’s muttering. Drin pulls out some pages from the back of the notebook, hands them across. Barret takes the pen. “Thanks, man. Don’t want to forget how I saw the piano transposition. And the sampling it needs–”

“Barret,” Drin shifts, and speaks up unexpectedly. After a moment of Barret’s frantic scribbles, he says it again. Drin’s voice is a jolt, after the intense focus with just two of them speaking. Drin sighs, and lifts Dance’s shoulders into his lap, and he strokes back Dance’s hair, down his neck, across his chest, while the tail sags tiredly in Drin’s other hand. Drin says, “Don’t get lost in it, right?”

“How many motifs?” Barret says, almost panting, like he’s been running a brisk mile.

“Five,” Dance says.

“Oh crap,” Barret says, holding out the pen. “Don’t mind me freaking. I’m just OCD boy here. Okay. Next motif. Etude. Whatever. Same order, through the exercises?”

Dance nods a little in Drin’s lap, and takes the pen with his tail. Drin lifts the notebook, puts it in Dance’s right hand, and with the left, Dance plays more strings that aren’t there. “Got another meantone shift for you, maybe,” he says, and they talk it through, like the first one. Dance frowns. “I fight this too much.”

Barret sings on key, bless his soul.

“Ahh, that helps,” Dance says, and another two bars come flying out, effortless, perfect, little intricate dance steps for angels, because nothing human could keep up with a pace quite that stiff.

“That’s no fucking gavotte to, like, dance to,” Barret says. “Unless you’re a primo at your prime, with glutes like a bull.”

“They had dancers like that,” Dance says. “I don’t recall what time, there, the nasty things at Louie’s court.”

ballet dancer balanced on log in bayou
dancing in the bayou

Barret laughs. “You want something to show off a nice leg for your sugar daddy? Have this, you showy SOB, show us how good your footwork is. Somebody was either real happy, or pissed off, or both.”

Emma stirs, but is silent, poised. Oh, she knows.

“It’s like looking at somebody else’s workmanship,” Drin says.

“It is,” Dance says, and blinks up at him. The tail drops the pen on his middle, and reaches up and touches his husband’s face, lightly, with the scales gone a pale tint that’s more crystalline than color, all scintillating reflections, and then he sighs, and it all turns a sleek, glossy black, and it grabs up the pen and scratches out four more bars, at speed, like it’s angry.

Barret arches a brow. “Got a mind all its own.”

“It does,” Drin says, smiling.

The tail fiddles the pen around, and turns muddy colors, and then settles to blue. Dance closes his eyes, frowning, with his left hand doing fingerings.

It’s Emma who looks at him and smiles, and hums a few notes, badly.

Dance blinks at her. “I’ve been doing it wrong! If you remember practices like that–“

“You read the music like that. I’ve seen you practice,” Emma says calmly.

“But it doesn’t fit!”

“And I’ve heard you bitch about it at least two dozen times,” Emma says.

“It was printed wrong, happens all the time,” Barret says easily. “Do it right. You know the SOB. He wouldn’t do that.”

“You can hear it,” Dance says.

“Oh yeah. Here.” Barret leaps up and fetches his keyboard. His fingers move across the keys with only little clicks of his nails tapping. They still have no power. It doesn’t matter. “See, meantone would be different, but not much–”

“Right,” Dance says, making a face. The tail is faster than writing by hand on a good day. He’s got it. “The ink is going dry,” he says then, blinking.

“You ate my good pen?” Barret says. “Your tail ate my pen!”

“Always something,” Emma says.

“Got more,” Barret says, and he rummages. “Purple do you? Pencil?”

“Pencil,” Dance says. He knows at a glance the purple will be sloppier, tend to blot, and there isn’t time or space. The pencil is dull. He holds the end in his hand and winds a thicker keeled section of his tail around it and pulls at it, so there’s a whirring sound from shavings taken off by slide-coat scales with keels. He squint at the pencil, and does it again. Then he starts writing, sometimes looking at the staves on the page, and sometimes squinting into space with his hand doing fingerings in the air. “What, Barret?” he says, not looking up.

“Nothing, man, don’t mind me,” Barret says. “I just liked the sound.”

“We can sample that for you later,” Dance says absently. “No cartoon slidings on it like a rope, it takes your skin off.”

“Gloves are good too,” Drin says then, and there’s laughter gurgling under the suspiciously calm surface of his voice. Dance knows that tone. “Kevlar, maybe.”

“I might need one of those silicon hot mitten things too, just to play this!” Barret says.

“Ice, maybe,” Dance says, absently. “Afterward.”

“Christ,” Drin says.

“Yeah,” Barret says. “What he said.”

“Please try these four bars on your keyboard. Is it too fancy?” Dance asks then, the tail pointing with the tip of the pencil.

Barret nods his head in time to his fingers across the silent keys. “I’m not sure about that last bunch of triplets. I don’t know strings like you do.”

“Well, the show-off hits again.”

“That bloody boy,” Emma says, with a smile. “You know you want to beat him up after school.”

“Hell, I was the annoying child, and so were you, Barret,” Dance says. Dance’s tail erases it, puts in a simpler version. “But easier, it is not so good with the next motif.”

“It’s a student piece,” Barret says. “Your perfectionist streak is showing again. Put your hand up and say, ‘Hi, my name is Dance, I have Obsessive-Compusive Disorder, you can tell because I play classical music–‘”

Dance cracks up, and the tail makes a knot and thumps Barret on the arm. “Thanks, OCD Boy.”

“Any time. Us compulsives gotta stick together. You’re doing it again, aren’t you, with the triplets again. Is that what I think it is?”

“I dunno. Do you think?” Dance frowns. “I dunno, these cosmic questions.”

Barret makes the frog face again. “That show-off student has a horrible Yiddische mouth on him too.”

“Best to believe it,” Dance says absently. “What was the modulation on that next to last Mozart Quartet? Right. So this has to–”

Barret says, “Yeah. Good. You know I’m gonna have to turn the pages for this when you play this, if you’re doing it now, I mean today?”

“Yes, please,” Dance says. Then he pauses and blinks up at the other musician. “I think I just asked you to do something dangerous. I have no business to be dragging you into–”

“Dangerous how?” Emma says then.

“I don’t know,” Dance says. “I just– I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Barret says.

Dance blinks.

“Write your music,” Barret says, and touches him on the arm again. “It’s okay. I’m cool with page-turning. I am. I wanna hear it.”

The tail flashes back and then pale and then disappears, evaporating like the Cheshire cat, until the pen appears to be floating in space.

Barret looks at the pen sternly. “Hello, Dance tail, don’t be shy, it’s okay, come back and play, we got cool stuff to hear, and after all of this work, a very cool instrument to do it on, if I guess right. You oughta like hearing that.”

Barret is sitting there, mouth open, when the tail sneaks into a very pale blue and the pen lowers to the notebook in an embarrassingly furtive way, and starts scribbling a little bit.

Dance winces and looks at the ceiling, squinting, and tries not to think about anything except the fingerings in his head. The tail scribbles a bit more. There, that’s the fourth motif finished.

“Wow,” Emberley says. “It’s like having your dick on public display, isn’t it?”

“It’s like having your retarded cousin stapled to your back,” Emma says.

Dance clicks his teeth irritably and the tail drops the pen and heads straight for Drin’s lap and curls up there along Drin’s belly, with rapid blurred colors flickering along its back. Of course Drin lifts his hand and pets it, and the colors begin to slow down, and then to fade to a more uniform pale blue. It curls up under Drin’s hands, like a kid sulking.

Emma says, “It gets tired, of course. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dance write with it before. That was impressive.”

“It was,” Barret agrees gravely.

Dance draws in a deep breath. “Okay,” he says, and flexes his hands, and braces the notebook, and begins writing notes slowly, in a perfectly conventional way. He goes back into his musical trance, squinting through the end of the thing, the wrapup. He doesn’t think about it when he finds the pencil dull again, he just braces it out, and the tail zips off more shavings to sharpen it.

“Cool sound,” Barret says loudly, over noises that are far more unpleasant. Tumblings and rattlings, as of things being tossed around again.

Dance blinks, glancing up, to realize that he’s hearing things move somewhere in the far distance. The wind is rising again.

He hurries. “There,” he says at last, and thrusts it out. “See that last key change?”

“Yeah, looks good to me,” Barret nods. Then he looks up at Drin. “Can you copy all that? Get a camera or something and take pictures of it? Stash the copies or the camera somewhere safe. Maybe the root cellar?”


Barret sighs. “I’ll go get Pen, while I’m at it. We need Pen’s help, I think, for opening the viola case. Auren’s friend seemed to think we might.”

Drin beckons, and Emma brings over her coat, and they prop Dance’s head on that, just off the floor. “I’ll bring up more water, too.”

Barret gets up, stretches. “I want to check on things before that eyewall hits, this time. Talk to Pen, see how they’re doing. Estelle wasn’t looking too good, last I saw her.”

There’s something strange about how Drin looks at him. As if he knows that they need Barret’s support to get help from this other guy, Pen, whoever he is. As if they both know Pen won’t come help them on Drin’s word alone. “Thanks, man,” Drin says then. “For everything.”

Barret gives a little shrug, and smiles. “My pleasure, working with Dance. Your Concertmaster is such a kick. We are going to do some fun things with that Locatelli, I swear it. We are.”

Drin smiles broadly. “It’s a date, man. I insist.”

A Gentle Request

Drin hadn’t been sure Pen would come, and Barret had just shrugged. “Anybody’s guess,” he says, as he sits down on the floor, not quite level with Dance, but much closer. Not looming over him.

“Barret,” Dance says, staring mostly at the ceiling. “Whatever is in that case, you take a copy of that missing Locatelli piece back with you, you just give it whatever weird tar-roof noises you like, right?”

He rolls his head over to see Barret grin. “Oh no, you are going play that damn instrument for me like all the fiends of hell, you hear me? All three parts, you know that SOB wrote it as a trio. I have things that need doing with your playing. I’ve got– we’ve got– recordings to make.”

“Sounds like one of those time paradoxes, like one of those silly movie things.” His tail makes a irritable thump on the floor, turning a most remarkable purple with gold glitters, like a drag queen in a fury.

“Silly movie things? I am talking to a guy with– never mind.”

“Besides, you have rock stars. Collaborate with them.”

“Any rock stars who’d have me are boring. I don’t want rock stars. I want you. You and that instrument–it makes my brain itch.”

Dance mutters something rude about where he can scratch, but not very loudly. He coughs, carefully.

“Please, Dance, can I please sweet-talk you into–”

“Yes,” Drin says, and settles down next to Dance. He props Dance’s head and shoulders higher on his own chest. It makes breathing easier, his coughing eases.

“Yes?” Dance says, raspy.

“Yes he can,” Drin says, his voice rumbling in his chest. “Talk you into it, I mean. I for one, would strongly like to hear such a remarkable collaboration, and I’m sure Emma would agree.”

The tail makes a sarcastic little flippy gesture, as if to say, Well then, that’s settled, isn’t it? and thumps Drin on the leg, which only makes him grin, and stroke it until it curls around for more, coiling up shamelessly into what’s left of his lap, where the rest of Dance’s body isn’t taking all of the space.

“Well,” Emma says, “There’s Moses for you. Here’s the tablets, don’t forget the goats. Really. You got it? You have been given the word.”

Barret cracks up.

Then the door opens, and they all look up.

Pen wobbles slowly and carefully across the room, sits down gingerly on an ottoman next to Emma’s bed. Barret, already sitting on the floor, his long legs improbably folded, reaches a hand towards him.

“Pen, how’s Estelle,” he asks quietly.

Dance can hear her harsh breathing in the room beyond one wall, the corner, now he knows who it must be. But she’s not alone in that. There’s a lot of other people in this house who aren’t having an easy time of it, either.

“Bad,” the man, Pen, answers. “She’s bad. I’m sorry. It’s the…it’s the Snake, don’t you know.”

Dance is propped up now, feeling stronger, his head in Drin’s lap, vast length of tail spilled like a prodigious fall of hair, looped on itself, tip waving gently. He’s a little embarrassed by how much of it there is now. Damn thing is still growing.

“Who’s Estelle?” he asks the room, feeling oblivious as dirt, it’s something he missed, somewhere, lost in the last eight or ten hours.

“Jesus, sorry, man, you haven’t actually met. Pen Howell,” Barret says, “this is Dance, Auren Han sent–”

“Show me the viola,” Pen says. His voice is mild, so mild.

“We haven’t gotten the case open, yet,” Barret says, sliding it into the middle of the floor. “Dance found the tune, the Locatelli. But we’re not into the viola case. All these weird-assed numerical trucker’s knots. Why is my boyfriend making recursive code knots all over the place? What’s inside, man, a bomb? Auren said you’d know.”

“Did he.” Pen passes a hand over his face. Dance knows that coloring, the funny ivory tinge, the blood vessels breaking or broken across his high cheekbones; worked with a guy, last year, who looked like that just before his kidneys gave out. Percussionist. Nice guy, always late to a gig. Dead, now, Dance is pretty sure.

“Auren said,” Barret is trying again, softer, more precise, a line between his eyebrows, “you have a lot of experience with using sonority to protect information, to reveal it.”

man in hat praying on lectern
Pen Howell

“Did he tell you why?” Pen’s pale blue eyes are finally on him. Red-rimmed. His hands are folding and unfolding in his lap.

“Said you’d want to help a fellow inmate,” Barret whispers. “Said you wouldn’t let Dance die of it, you’d help him disentangle–”

“Yes, well, let’s get on with it!”

And just like that, with that shout that struck him sharp as the sound of a pistol, Pen’s on his feet, wearing a brilliant smile.

“Put the lady on a table,” he says briskly. “We’ll begin the examination, can’t do it on the floor, that’d be rude, protocol, protocol…”

The battered old viola case is lifted up onto a dainty writing table parked against the wall, under the window, where the old storm-shutter is banging rhythmically in its casement.

Dance sees Pen hesitate a moment, rest his hand against the glass. “We’ll have to wake her gently. Keep her merry. Like the house, and like you,” he whispers. “Tree, stay a bit more. Hold fast. Hold a little more, darling.” Then he gives himself a little shake, flashes a look over his shoulder at Dance.

Pen has an ancient face. His beard, brown and grey, is a little pointy; his features are sharp, could have come off a coin or a commemorative medal for the destruction of the Spanish Armada. Emma will know where this man comes from; Dance can’t quite place his accent, which feels compound to his ears.

“Right, first things first,” Pen says, “it’s not a bomb.”

“That’s…that’s good,” Dance replies, hoarsely.

“Might as well be.”