Lorelay took the stage at the Blueflame Tavern, checked the tightness of the strings on her lyre, and prepared to bore her audience to tears. She plucked the first three slow notes of a religious dirge called Shadowson’s Lament. Three slow notes plucked over and over, with no break in repetition until more than halfway through the song. Her rhythm was sublime; her vocal melody was pitch perfect. She didn’t even have to focus. Playing the same songs every day since she’d begun performing at taverns made it all too easy. She held the entire repertoire of religious songs in the muscles of her hands. The motions had long since become second nature. Faithful words fell out of her mouth, though they occupied no space in her mind.

Instead, as always, she let her attention wander, focused on the crowd around her. Drunk on firewine. Asleep in their cups. The most captive members of her audience were the two armored Paladins at the back of the room. Always the same two Paladins. Lorelay wondered if her brother knew them. But no, he’s never monitored this location. She would know if he did.

Nothing ever changes in Paceeq.

Three descending tones rounded out the first song, ending on a sustained sour note that always sounded like a mistake. She held it out as long as the Church mandated and cut it off a fraction of a heartbeat later. A few hands came together in scattered applause.

“Thank you,” Lorelay muttered.

One of the Paladins gave her a curt nod, lantern flames gleaming in his silver helmet. If she deviated from the sanctioned songs for even a single note, the Church would come down on her hard, as if they had a vendetta against creativity and passion. To uphold the doctrine, Paladins could act with near impunity; she’d seen one man dragged off stage and to the dungeons for confusing the Brightdaugher with the Lightmother. Days later, that guitarist had returned to the stage with one fewer finger and a lifelong fear of blasphemy laws. The Church of Light wouldn’t have it any other way.

When Lorelay finished her set, she bowed and descended from the stage to collect her donations from the crowd. She upturned the painted bowl and a handful of gold coins bearing the Imperial star sigil clinked into her palm. These performances may be boring, but at least they paid well. That was more than Lorelay could say about how most women spent their time. For many, including her mother, the Songs were a personal affair. Things to keep alive should the Dark Era arrive, not merely means for musicians to eke out a living.

The Church evidently disagreed. They indulged the sin of intoxication, but always balanced by musicians filling the venues with Songs of Light and Dark. Lorelay couldn’t imagine staying here all day, hearing the same Twelve Songs over and over. No wonder everyone drank so heavily.

Placing her lyre in its carved lightwood case, Lorelay tensed up when a hand came down on her shoulder.

“Nicely played, Lorelay,” Halnevan said. “Gravis wants to see you.” He pointed toward the bar and smiled. “You should try a new instrument. For the challenge, I mean. You’ve clearly mastered that one already.” Halnevan patted her shoulder kindly and took the stage himself.

Gravis? What did that greasy weasel want with her? Lorelay clasped her lyre case and slung it over her shoulder. She moved toward the Blueflame’s proprietor as Halnevan began tapping his steel drum. At the first three notes, Lorelay winced. Shadowson’s Lament again. Why try a new instrument when she’d just be learning the same songs she already knew? Where was the challenge in that?

“Lorelay!” Gravis greeted her, threw his arms wide for a hug.

Lorelay declined. “Finally decided to pay the musicians, Gravis?”

He laughed. “I have something better. Recognition! You’ll be on at dusk tomorrow.” Gravis made that expression that Lorelay hated. The one he made when he thought he was being subtle, trying to manipulate people. “Unless, that is, some other tavern has already booked you for that span.”

The Blueflame Tavern had a healthy number of patrons now, but at dusk the crowd would be overflowing onto the streets. Thinking of the donations that would bring in, Lorelay almost allowed herself to get excited. Almost. Instead, the sour note that Halnevan struck on his drum reminded her why this restricted set would never be enough. Still, she couldn’t turn down Gravis’s offer.

“I’ll be there,” Lorelay told him, then stepped out of the tavern into the heat of the Brightdaughter’s unrelenting gaze.

The Sibling soared high in the sky today. Lorelay took her time walking home through the wide, statue- and tree-lined streets of Vos. Along the thoroughfare, two mages tempered the archemetal in a statue atop a pedestal between two columned buildings. White marble comprised the statue’s form, except for the Book of Light in Empress Elzia’s hand and the wreath around her head. Those glowed with the golden hue of Archefire. The same as every other statue of this kind. Not a hundred paces away, Lorelay could have seen an identical work of art if not for the olive trees obscuring it. She hesitated to call it art. The sculptors had such talent, but wasted their creativity on replicas.

Noon tolled as Lorelay passed the stadium. The sour and earthy smell of fertilizer laid down for this year’s tournament suffused the whole city block. In the practice yard, several men gathered around two participants in a wrestling match. The loser got flipped and landed hard on his back, while the victor stood to cheers from his companions. One of several women kneeling nearby in noon-time prayer cast a dirty look at the rowdy men. The wrestlers didn’t even notice, and another bout began. Lorelay chuckled. The men have all the fun. She’d have to tell Jenx about this tomorrow.

At home, Lorelay found her mother exactly where she expected: in the prayer room. She wasn’t sure if this was her mother’s noon prayers running late or her half-dusk prayers starting early.

Her mother opened one half-lidded eye on Lorelay, then closed it again. “How were your Songs today? Heartfelt, I presume?”

Lorelay rolled her eyes. “I hardly remember playing them. I was asked to play at dusk tomorrow, so apparently it went well.”

“Dusk.” Her mother scoffed. “I know someone must play in these places after dark, but must it be my daughter?”

“More people will hear my playing at dusk,” Lorelay said, “and I’ll make more money too.”

“The Empire pays your father and Dunnax well enough to support us both.” She went silent and Lorelay thought that was the end of the conversation. As she began walking away, her mother continued. “Dusk brings the Darkfather’s spirit closer. They should close the taverns earlier.”

Lorelay laughed. “The taverns are livelier at night. It seems the people prefer the Darkfather’s spirit.”

Her mother’s eyes snapped open. “Watch your tongue, girl. I would report you for that if you weren’t my daughter.”

Lorelay sensed another lecture coming on and preempted it. “Maybe you’re right. We shouldn’t play the Songs after dark. We shouldn’t play them at all.”

“How many times must I explain this to you before you grasp its importance? The Mother of Light arms women with song as the Father of Dark arms men with swords. We are tasked with keeping the Songs of Light and Dark alive. You may not like this role, but it is not for us to choose.”

Lorelay had heard those same words a thousand times. What made her mother think this time they affect her differently? “We keep the Songs alive, but the men with the Darkfather’s swords keep us alive. Should we not be singing songs for him?”


“I’m serious! Mother, why follow these rules? They make us docile and weak. Extraordinarily unimaginative. What if there was a rebellion tomorrow? What would we do?”

“There won’t be a rebellion if we follow the Mother’s teachings. All of us.”
“You’re so unimaginative you can’t imagine Paceeq in any other way. No matter how hard the Bright Throne tries, they can’t prevent things from changing forever.”

Her mother stood and shoved the Book of Light into Lorelay’s hands. “You need this more than I do. Stay here and recite your prayers. Thrice over, for your blasphemy.”

Instead, Lorelay stormed off to her room and slammed the door. She dropped the Book of Light to the floor and sat on her mattress. She was so sick of reciting these prayers. She didn’t need the book, she could recite them all from memory. She should be filling her mind with the lyrics to her own songs. Something new, not the same tripe as everyone else. Lorelay unbound her lyre and checked the tuning. The sixth string was out by a half-tone, so she turned the screw to wind it tighter. She lay back on her bed and stared up at the ceiling, plucking the strings but playing nothing in particular. Her instrument calmed her like nothing else could.

Lorelay played the Twelve Songs loudly, so her mother could hear and wouldn’t bother her. She rushed through them, and only said them once. Duties out of the way, Lorelay’s fingers played what her heart demanded. They were like lightning on the strings in the privacy of her room, more graceful than the Lightmother, more elegant than the Empress.

It disheartened her to know that no one would ever hear just what she was capable of.

The only notion of time’s passage was the ache in her knuckles. When her fingers grew stiff, she knew it was time to go to bed. Lorelay had a big day tomorrow. She had to be well-rested.

Lorelay woke to the half-noon bells. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she heard voices outside her room. Her mother and… Dunnax! Her brother was back from a stint in Lumeeq, his first assignment as a trained Paladin. She sprung from the bed, dressed, and bounded into the family room to ask him how it went.
Lorelay knew something was wrong at once. She couldn’t see her mother’s expression, but Dunnax held a grave look on his face.

“Is this about me?” Lorelay asked.

Dunnax’s face softened to a smile. “Not everything is about you, sis.”

She noticed her mother wouldn’t meet her eyes. “What happened? Is father all right?”

“He’s fine,” Dunnax said. “I was just telling mother about my assignment.” He sighed. “News hasn’t made it back to the city yet, Lorelay. You can’t tell anyone. There was an attempt to seize the mines in Lumeeq. One of our soldiers was shot.”

“Shot?” That was a strange way of putting it. “By arrows?”

Dunnax shook his head. “We don’t know what it was. There was a sharp crack and a cloud of smoke, and Harzen went to his knees. His plate armor didn’t protect him..”

A weapon that could pierce hard plate? Suddenly, it made sense why her mother wouldn’t look at her. The Lightmother had seen fit to show Lorelay’s mother how foolish she was. “What did I tell you, mother? We’re weak!”

“Lorelay…” her mother said.

“How many Paladins are in the Order, Dunnax?”

“Three hundred. And several in training.”

Three hundred? Lorelay couldn’t believe it. Three hundred men to protect a city of nearly seventy thousand people? Many of the Paladins, like her father, weren’t even in Vos. Those that were spent their time monitoring taverns, not preparing for threats. Lorelay laughed bitterly. “We’ve grown complacent.”

“Paceeq has the strongest military of all the countries in the Empire, Lorelay,” Dunnax said. “You’re overreacting. This was a one-time—”

“How do you know?” she demanded.


“How do you know it’s a one-time thing? And not the start of something worse?”

Dunnax stammered. “I—”

“You don’t.” Lorelay shook her head and retrieved the lyre from her room. She tromped toward the front door, ignoring the pleading look on her brother’s face. With the door open, she turned back to her family. One-time attack, rebellion, full-scale invasion—they had no idea what this was. “If you’re wrong, Dunnax, then we’re not ready.”

“You can’t tell anyone,” Dunnax said. Behind the closed her she heard him shout, “You’re worrying too much!”

Lorelay stalked through the streets of Paceeq, feeling the fire rise within her. She saw boys wrestling in the dirt rather than training with real weapons. Too many sat around laughing rather than sweating. She saw girls so concerned with fitting in to their prayer group that they lost all desire to do real work. Work that would be needed when they found themselves in a losing fight. Everything she saw laid bare the truth: Paceeq was losing the fight already.

The city of Vos stagnated under the Bright Throne’s rule, but Lorelay still loved her home. Birds of every color sang sweetly in the trees planted along the streets, among buildings, and in gardens. The golden archemetal spires contrasted against the city’s white marble took her breath away. Despite her contempt for the royals within, even Lorelay couldn’t deny the beauty of the Radiant Palace visible all throughout the capital. Such magnificent creations were meant to flaunt the Bright Empire’s vast wealth, but they were proof the Paceeqi were capable of greatness. Only, they had been dormant, put to sleep by the Church’s lullabies. She could change things, wake the people so they would fight for their city. An idea came to her, as if from the muse that gifted Lorelay her songs.

For Lorelay to change the people of Paceeq, she first needed to change herself.

“Lorelay?” her friend Jenx intercepted her on the wide marble stairs leading up to a red door set between two thick, white columns. “What are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing?” Lorelay snapped, and regretted it. Jenx hadn’t done anything wrong.

“Something stupid, by the look on your face.” He looked back over his shoulder, toward the entrance to the shop. “By the fact that you’re heading into a weapons shop, even more stupid than usual.”

Jenx was right; this was stupid. No weapons merchant in Vos would sell a woman a blade.

“Here,” she said, and gave him her coin purse full of stars. “Buy me a knife. I’ll explain everything later.”

Jenx weighed the purse in his hands. “This is far too much.”

“You can keep the change. I’ll be waiting in the alley.”

He found her a few moments later and handed her a bag. It had two combat knives in it.

“Two?” she asked.

“Never hurts to have a backup.”

She loved Jenx; he never doubted her, he just helped. The fact that she didn’t have to specify what kind of knife further endeared him to her. Jenx also handed her the coin purse, with several stars remaining. The boy was too kind. He wouldn’t last a day in a crisis.

She’d have to change that.

Lorelay dragged him off to a secluded location, where she often went to practice her music in peace. She’d never been interrupted before, so it wouldn’t matter if the two of them made a little noise. She tossed the bag aside and held the knives. They felt heavy in her hands. When she scraped them together, the metallic tone was music to her ears.

Jenx snorted, then adjusted her grip. That felt better, more balanced. Agile.

“And just what are you planning to do with—”

She swiped at him, playfully, and he flinched back. “Teach me,” Lorelay said.

“Lorelay…” Jenx gave her a concerned look. “You know you’d be punished if someone caught you even holding those. What would your mother think?”

“Since when did you care what anyone thinks?” Lorelay said. “You told me yourself how stupid it is that only half the population fights. If we were invaded we’d need as many fighters as we can get.”

“True,” Jenx said, “but that was just hypothetical. This could get you in real trouble, and an invasion isn’t going to happen.”

Lorelay must have given something away on her face, because Jenx narrowed his eyes.

“Spill it. What aren’t you telling me?”

Lorelay sighed. Jenx wouldn’t let this go. They’d known each other too long for her to keep him in the dark. She told him the news, hoping no one could trace it back to Dunnax.

Later, when the half-dusk bell rang, sweat soaked through Lorelay’s tunic and her hair was a tangled mess of gold and red. Muscles she’d never used before ached; that made her smile. Learning to fight was like learning a new song. At first, her muscles didn’t know the motions, but soon she would perform them with ease. As long as she kept working at it, she would learn fast. She and Jenx promised to meet at this sanctuary every other day. She stored the knives beneath the ruins of a crumbled marble wall. Hidden, like this new part of her life.

Lorelay thanked Jenx and ran off toward the Blueflame Tavern. If she stopped for a change of clothes, she’d be late. When she pushed through the doors, the guitarist on stage strummed the last chord of the fifth Song, Dawn of the Daughter. Lorelay made eye contact with a stern-faced Gravis, then picked her way through the dense crowd to reach the stage.

From up here she could see every face in the room. Most were plastered with the same bored expression as the morning crowd, with a few more people dozing off and many more people heavily intoxicated. She recognized many of them from yesterday’s half-noon performance. They must stay at the tavern all day. Every day. She felt an irrational flare of anger. These were the sleepers. They were too comfortable. They didn’t want to change. But she was going to wake them. One song at a time, she would break Paceeq out of its complacent mold.

Lorelay pushed aside the stool, opting to stand as she played. Her fingers rested on her lyre’s strings and she took a deep breath. She began playing one of her originals. A thirteenth song.

When the first notes of her song filled the room, the crowd became entranced. No one dozed in their cups now. The drinkers put down their mugs. The hall grew preternaturally quiet as all eyes fixed on the stage. Lorelay’s heart pounded. Her fingers almost slipped from the nerves, but she never once faltered. Not even when she spied the tavern’s two Paladins shoving their way through the crowd. She raised her voice and sang even louder. She would not let them stop her. Their metal boots rocked the stage as her fingers plucked the last notes of the melody, a run that traversed all twelve strings on her lyre, starting low and resolving the song on a glorious high note.

When she finished there was an instant of calm. Then, the crowd erupted as the Paladins grabbed her by the arms and yanked her backwards off her feet. Cheers for her, boos for the Paladins. She heard shouting. The people wanted more. They loved it. Consequences be damned, that felt good. A heathenish smile spread across Lorelay’s face as they dragged her off the stage.

Her captors pushed bodies aside as the crowd pressed in.

"What's your name, girl?" a woman asked.

"Lorelay!" Gravis screamed from behind the bar. "Bring her here, Paladins!"

“Get your hands off her!” someone shouted.

“Stay back!” the Paladin warned.

Lorelay saw him, drunk and angry. The man wasn’t alone. The tavern hall was an Archefire bomb, ready to go off. In a heartbeat things turned dangerous. One Paladin let go of her and drew a blade. He raised it in warning.

“Stop!” Lorelay shouted. These people didn’t deserve punishment for what she did.

The sight of raised steel drew the crowd’s outrage and the violence began. A glass of ale exploded on the helmet of the Paladin who had her arm. The shower of droplets felt cool on Lorelay’s face. The Paladin flinched back and released her arm, then fumbled for his own sword as the mob jostled him away.

The spirit of the Darkfather infused this tavern indeed, but the god smiled on Lorelay tonight. She slipped away in the chaos and ran down the street, blending in with several others who fled the scene. Alarm bells rang, garnering more Paladins who ran past her toward the tavern. None of them knew she instigated this mayhem. She’d escaped, but even several streets away she could hear the brawl continuing.

Only now, in the cool darkness of the night, did Lorelay realize how crazy she had been. Her only saving grace was that the song contained no blasphemy, though playing anything unsanctioned certainly bordered on heresy. She would be chained and lashed, but her father’s rank in the Order would protect her from worse. Still, one thing was certain: her days playing the taverns were over. Gravis would see to that.

Lorelay smiled. Perhaps that was for the best. She’d need all her energy to play her own songs without getting caught.

She stumbled through the door to her home, exhausted from the excitement and exercise, head full of ideas about masks and aliases. Dunnax, on the way out in a full set of Paladin’s plate armor, stared at his sister. Her hair a tousled mess, her clothes stained with sweat and dirt, a devilish grin on her face. Tonight, the bells tolled for her.

“What did you do, Lorelay?”

“Nothing ever changes in Paceeq,” she said. “I showed them something new.”

Though the Bright Throne would deny it, she’d seen it in the audience’s faces: this was what they wanted. When the time to fight for the city, the Paceeqi would not be caught sleeping. She had found a way to wake them. One song at a time.