Mother used to tell me stories about the Bleak Lullaby - the haunting melody evil ones heard before death. I heard it once as a small girl, the night our neighbor died, before we moved into the palace, before my father became Prime Minister. Before our lives changed forever. Even now the notes, dark and sonorous, echo through my head - as reminiscent as the tinny smell of blood that surrounds me.
He was an old man, our neighbor, the former Prime Minister. His hands were always dry and scratchy when they touched my face, always getting caught when he rubbed my hair. My father was the Deputy Prime Minister, so we spent a lot of time at his house. Father always made me come along, even though I hated it. At five, the long dark hallways, the creeping shadows, and the strange noises behind closed doors had an alluring appeal, but the old man always wanted me to stay with them. He would pull a chair next to his and lift me up to sit on it, his breath stale and musty when he bent down to whisper in my ear. Father never smiled when we were there, just stared and frowned, his brows creased and his eyes tight.
I press my nails into my arm, trying to feel what I felt that night, the first time I had to stay at the Prime Minister’s house. His hand clenched my arm, nails digging so deep blood formed small crescents. I can’t feel the same pain today - my hand isn’t strong enough to even leave a mark anymore, but somehow there is still blood there.
I remember the weight I felt when the Bleak Lullaby played the first time. The old man’s arms that had been so strong moments before dropped as he fell, crushing me against the stark mattress, the creaks a discordant note against the slumbering song. The warmth fled his body as it flees mine now, following the crimson stain.
The next time my mother mentioned the Bleak Lullaby was the night of my fifteenth birthday. The room was as dark then as it is now, with only the few flickering candles illuminating the women who had come to take me away - payment for my mother’s crime. I try to remember the feel of her soft hand on my face, but it has been too long, and my soul has grown too hard.
I brush my hand against the raised scar on my wrist, hoping to feel the burning pain of the brand again, but even that is muted. The music notes that welcomed me into Bleak Lullaby and declared that I belonged to them are merely another scar now. The women who took me to a forest far from my home and swore familial bonds to me are as broken as the violin that lays silent beside me.
My violin - the beginning and end of my story. How little I understood the day I bonded to it the heights and depths to which it would bring me. The rough words, carved into the otherwise smooth body, are glaring reminders of how far I have truly fallen: To punish the wicked with the swift symphony of justice and to stay true to the melody of the Lullaby.
The cavern had more people than I had seen in it in my five years of training. Every member of Bleak Lullaby, dark cloaks around their shoulders and hands holding their instruments of death, circled silently around the room. The floor, bitter cold and hard against my bare feet, was a comfort in this place that had suddenly become so strange. I followed Ilara’s feet, not daring to look up after my first glance around the room. Although I had been the object of scrutiny many times as a child, it had been years since I felt the stares of so many centered on me. My three teachers, the women who had taken me from my home, were the only people I had seen for five years. Every pair of eyes felt like a stone in my throat, choking off my air. I clenched my hands against my side to keep them from clutching at my throat.
Ilara came to a stop in front of the stone altar. I stood behind her, still not daring to glance up. The chill night air wafted through the cavern and caressed my exposed skin, and I silently begged my body not to shiver. It was a fundamental principle of Bleak Lullaby, that our minds were masters over our bodies. Although my mentors believed I had reached that step, I could feel every lesson leaving my mind blank at that moment, and I was once again the scared fifteen-year-old who had stood here, untrained and unprepared, handed the reins of a life I had never asked nor planned for.
Aline had been the first one to tell me about my mother’s sacrifice. She taught me how to use the melody, how to coax the notes from the strings in such a way that it awakened the magic. I loved the peace I found within the music, but hated the feeling of the magic - it caressed my mind the way his hands had stroked my body, cold and clammy - and so the moment came when I refused to continue learning. And then Aline, her voice soft and sweet, with a warm hand on my shoulder, told me how my mother had exchanged me for the death of the Prime Minister. It had to be done, Aline reassured me. Bleak Lullaby would have accepted no other payment, for girls were needed to continue the magical line. So my mother saved me from one monster by selling me to another.
Ilara’s voice, as calm and deep as her favorite melody, broke through my clouded mind. “Sisters, we are here to add another phrase to our Lullaby. Tonight, a girl walked into this sacred place. When she leaves, it will either be as an instrument in our orchestra or a funeral cadence in our song. Do you accept the responsibility of the Lullaby?”
Each woman in turn voiced her assent. I recognized the voice of one toward the left of me as Aline, and one almost directly behind me as Jenet. Like Ilara, though they had been my teachers, they were now merely witnesses. The refrain had begun.
“Meira, step forward.” I took two small steps forward, forcing my heartbeat to slow. My arms hung by my side, not allowed to cover my body at all. I had to leave everything, all trappings of my former life, behind me, and so I came to them as a child emerges into this life, naked and bared to the scrutiny around me. Even knowing that each of the women had done the same, I still tightened my arms to prevent them from trying to hide myself from their piercing inspection.
“The melody has called you, Meira Fuse. Do you hear it?” I barely recognized the high squeak that passed for assent, but Ilara continued, undaunted. “When you take the violin, the melody will either accept you or kill you.” She held the violin, smooth, polished, and gleaming in the flickering light of the hundreds of candles that surrounded us, out to me.
I stretch my hand out and stroke the strings like I did that day, although the melody that surrounded me then is silent now. It has meted out its punishment, and will never again be heard by my ears. My arm is unable to hold my hand any longer and it drops, hitting the strings with a dissonant thud that echoes in the rocks around me. “M-m-meira,” I gasp out, tongue struggling to form the strange sounds, trying to reclaim some of the girl I once was, but she died the day I was welcomed into the Lullaby, the day Mara was born.
My chest starts to heave, struggling to bring air into my lungs, but it is slowing now. I’ve watched it many times, and the fight will soon be over. But I have never been one to give up easily. I force my hand to move, to slowly creep up my abdomen to where my bow has pierced my heart. My fingers curl around it, the fibers slicing them, but that is as much strength as I can muster. It has grown strong with the taste of my blood and will not yield easily.
As I drift for a moment, a face appears in my mind. Crimson hair with a beard that hid a thickening face. A nose more bulbous than not that went upward into bushy and unkempt eyebrows. I don’t remember the color of his eyes. By the time I saw him, the Lullaby had lulled him into sleep. He was the first man I killed.
After the Lullaby accepted me, I finally learned what I had been training for, why five years of my life were gone. The constant slipping through the woods, learning to be as silent as the shadows I lived in so Ilara wouldn’t catch me, Jenet showing me how to become one with the bow so its deadly fibers would never cut me, and the music, always the music - they now had a purpose. The clinking of the gold coins in the purse told me more than I needed when Ilara agreed to execute the man, a business owner whose fingers had dipped too deep in the wrong pockets. I went on hundreds of other missions, each one blending into the next, but I always remembered him. My bow always remembered the taste of his blood.
Other faces, blurred and indistinct, waft across my mind. Each of them was a person that I murdered. I remember little to nothing about them, but the shape of their faces are always there. They haunted my nightmares. Maybe that was how I came to this point. I didn’t want her face to be one I saw.
Aline was the one who gave me the job. Although I had been an assassin for Bleak Lullaby for twenty years, my black hair hadn’t faded to gray, nor had my skin grown wrinkled, nor my muscles lost their definition. A consequence of joining the melody, Jenet told me once when I asked about it. As our violins are connected to us, so we are connected to our violins. They don’t grow old and so neither do we. It made sense. My branding with the symbol of Bleak Lullaby was when the words first appeared on the wooden face.
In the capitol city where the man I had once called Father was still Prime Minister, there was an old politician who had angered the wrong people. Whether through his politics or his actions, I never knew, nor did I care. The money was good, and so I took the job. But our contact was very clear. None of his household was to survive. It was to be an obvious message, one which would not be as distinct without the blood.
When Aline told me all this, I shrugged and left, caring little who was to die. It wasn’t vital and so I didn’t need to know. The day I arrived in the capitol city was the final day of the Ambrosia Festival. The streets were crowded, bodies pressing into me on every side. I had long since given up the idea of personal space: members of Lullaby are all parts of one song, and nothing but the song is sacred. And so I ignored the pushing and pressure, searching for and easily finding the home of my target. Its shadows were an integral part of me, after all. The curse that lived within those walls was to be visited upon the inhabitants again.
As I waited for nightfall, I wandered the streets that had once been as familiar to me as my own voice. There was the merchant’s stall where my mother purchased my first dagger, imprinted with our family crest. Each noble daughter received one on her tenth birthday - a tradition that had begun centuries ago, in honor of Ambrosia, the young girl who slew the tyrant king. It was also then that the Lullaby began, or so Aline had told me once during training.
Down that street was where my mother took me the day after my father became Prime Minister. The rosy blooms that filled the air with a sickly sweet scent gagged me, reminding me of the doctor’s cold hands running all over my skin. My mother cried when he told her I was still untouched where it mattered. I never shed a tear.
As the light in the streets began to fade, the excitement in the air rose. I have no memory of the Ambrosia Festival when I was a child, so the voices that rose from the human masses now stopped me cold. It was the song I had heard forever, the one that flowed through my veins, that tangled with my every thought. It was the Lullaby, but the words were strange, alien to my ears. Honoring Ambrosia’s fight against the king, one that began with the death of her parents, when the King took her as the Prime Minister had tried to take me, and ended with her death. But as she died, with a final thrust of her hidden dagger, she slew the oppressor and freed her people.
Aline had told me a similar story, however the dagger was not a blade but the first bow, and Ambrosia the first one to play the Lullaby. It was in her honor that Bleak Lullaby began, and her magic that energizes the song. I paused there in the streets, surrounded by strangers, those who knew nothing of the shadows within the Lullaby, and bowed my head in tribute.
But I could not forget my duties. As soon as the song ended, I slipped through the crowds to the stone wall I had dreamed of escaping through when I was a girl. This time, I sought entrance, and as though it recognized the debt it owed me, the wall itself yielded easy stepping blocks to scale. The stones seemed smoother than they should have, but it could have been the song. For those who bear the brand of the Lullaby, the melody is like a drug in our veins.
I sat on the top of the wall, shielded from any prying eyes by a weeping willow, and watched patiently as one by one the lights in the house flickered out. The celebrations within the streets had quieted, and the night had begun its eerie chorus when I moved.
Slipping through the shadows that surrounded the manor, I came to the window that had once been my greatest entertainment as I sat and listened to the drone of business between my father and the Prime Minister. The scrutiny of my childish gaze on the lock yielded positive results as the window swung silently open, the lock easily disengaged. Within moments I was inside, and my violin was out. In the shadows of that room, I caressed its neck and ran my fingers lightly over the tuning pegs before bringing it to rest on my shoulder. Closing my eyes, I carefully rested the bow, its deadly fibers hungry already, on the strings and began to play.
As the notes floated through air, seeking each person, burrowing into their minds and granting them the release of sleep, I began my passage through the house. Each occupied room I entered was running with crimson blood before I left. Each beautiful neck, longing to be played by my bow, was sliced through, and my bow seemed to grin madly.
On the final floor, I left the room where the old man was now in his eternal sleep. There was one last room, the one I had avoided until now: the Prime Minister’s bedroom - the source of my hidden terror. He was waiting for me in there. I knew now how he had died. I knew why he had died. And so did he. His ghost laughed as my shaking hand touched the doorknob. Even after twenty years, I still hadn’t mastered my body. I was a failure to my teachers, and because that was the last thing I wanted to be, I stiffened my arm, narrowed my eyes, and pushed the door open.
The light within blinded me for a moment. It was only a candle, but the flare overwhelmed my eyes for a moment, and so it was my ears that first heard it - the pathetic whimper of a sleepless child and the breathless gasp of her mother.
The baby lay cradled in her mother’s arms, the Lullaby’s magic unable to pierce the fog of a child in pain. The young woman, whose tangled brown hair hid a small portion of her face, struggled to keep her eyes open, hands clutching at her baby to keep her from falling. My heart stuttered for a moment, but my vow to stay true to the melody of the Lullaby took over, and I stepped forward, my red braid falling over my shoulder. And then my heart stopped.
“M-meira?” Her voice was sotto voce, full of exhaustion and tears, as it whispered my old name.
“How do you know that name?” Fear began to creep in, and distantly, I heard the laugh of a ghost. Here was his revenge.
“You haven’t changed at all.” Her voice was soft and I closed my suddenly watery eyes. It was the cadence, or the softness, or even silvery undertone that returned me to the girl Meira, sitting on her mother’s lap, free from the darkness. I thought back for a moment to the family I had left behind, and the child whose brilliant blue eyes hadn’t changed. My sister.
“I knew you would come.” The Lullaby had slurred her words, but there was a hidden strength behind them. “The day I married Ren and moved into this house, the day I learned what happened to you, I knew you would come back here. I feel his spirit sometimes, creeping through the shadows. I’ve always hated this house. It’s why I refused to leave Lilia to sleep alone.”
The Lullaby was still playing in Eva’s ears, lulling her into sleep. “Please, Meira. Don’t let her get hurt.” Eva’s words trailed off as she finally gave into the call and let her hands fall lifeless to her sides.
I knew what she meant. She didn’t know why I was there. She just didn’t want Lilia to fall. But I had a job to do, a duty to fulfill. A vow to keep. And so, as I caught the small body, whose wriggles had pushed her off Eva’s lap, with one arm, the other arm came up with my bow and sliced through the pale neck of the woman who had once followed me gaily through the streets of the city. Once she had sung childish songs of joy with me, dancing through the halls of our house, but that was all over now. I had new sisters, and they depended on me to finish the song.
But as I stood there, baby in one arm, and watched the blood run down Eva’s neck and soak her white nightgown, I found that I couldn’t move. Everything in me rebelled at what I had just done. And the cacophony started.
Lilia’s cries began to drown out every note of the Lullaby, and they became the drug running through my veins. For the first time since the Lullaby had entered my head, I found my heart clear, and I had this tiny person to thank for that. A surge of protectiveness washed over me, and I clutched her tighter. I couldn’t finish the job. She had done nothing, and I would not be party to ruining the life of another girl.
I wrapped Lilia in the blankets I could find in that room and left the city before the first rays of dawn hit the horizon. Our journey took us through forests and over a mountain, and although I travelled as swiftly as I could, Lilia was almost frozen stiff and whimpering in hunger by the time we arrived. It was a small cottage on the outskirts of a village on the bottom of a mountain. The year before, while returning from a job, I had fallen ill, and the couple who lived there had taken me in and nursed me back to health. They had no children of their own, and I knew Lilia would be in good hands with them, far from the influences and evil in the capitol city, far from the ghosts of her real parents.
As I lay her on their doorstep, Lilia’s tiny hand clutched my finger, and the tears began to fall. I didn’t want to leave her. I wanted to reclaim the life that had been stolen from me, but I couldn’t. Even then, it was drawing me home, burning through my veins. I had no choice but to return to the cave, return to the Lullaby. Pure justice, Jenet had once told me. There was no room for mercy. If I betrayed it, the Lullaby would mete out my punishment. And so, after reciting the only prayer I knew over her, I left Lilia there.
Her face won’t leave my mind now, although the edges are starting to dim. Everything is growing cold. The little tuft of black hair on her forehead, her pale skin, and the somber eyes that seem older than they should be - none of it will go away. This must be the final part of my punishment. I betrayed the Lullaby. I betrayed my family. I knew when I stepped into the cave that final time, as the magic overwhelmed my muscles and my hand stabbed myself, that I would never find absolution. The final notes in my song were destined long ago. I gave my life to my instrument, and it will die now too, as soon as it drinks the last drop of vitality in me. But it won’t let me forget why I betrayed it.
A dark shadow breaks free from those around it as Ilara kneels down next to me. “Sister,” she says softly, placing her hand on my forehead. I’m sure it was warm, but I can’t feel it now. I can’t feel anything. “The Lullaby sings a dirge for you, Mara.”
With my final breath, I break the melody for the last time. It is my coda. “Meira,” I say. “My name is Meira.”