This is how it might have gone:
The Circus Tresaulti spent the winter on the road, Ayar the strong man knocking the stakes into the ground when it was frozen over.
They bartered for liquor to keep warm, and when spring came they pushed the trucks through the mud to save oil, and everything went on as before, and nothing broke.
But that was the winter they found the house.
The mansion stands more than two miles from the city walls, far enough that the looters have given up, and it’s been left to rot so long that the city’s children wouldn’t understand it’s a house.
The windows go first, from enemy fire and bad frosts. Then the moss and ivy move in, and the birds, and the rain. At last, the brick begins to crumble.
By the time the Circus comes, it will be a ruin.
But by the time the Circus comes, the storm has been raging for days, and the house rises up from the road, and Boss thinks, We must rest here, there’s no way to go on.
“Stop,” says Boss, and the Circus stops.
The Circus waits in leaking trailers while Boss takes her lieutenants through the house.
Then, her lieutenants are Elena from the trapeze, and Panadrome the music man, who presses his accordion bellows tight to his side to keep it from sharp edges, and Alec, their final act, who folds his gleaming wings tight against his back so he can fit through the hole in the wall.
Inside, the ceiling is waterlogged and sagging, but when Alec opens his wings even the nails sing for him.
Alec laughs, and the birds in the rafters scatter as if he’s called them down.
(Alec will be dead in a year; these are the last birds he sees.)
They split up to cover ground; the house was grand, before it went to seed.
What Boss sees: five rooms with floors that haven’t rotted through; a ballroom with a chandelier still hanging; three bathrooms with copper pipes intact behind the stone. (She can see metal right through walls, by now.)
What Boss does not see: Alec in a dining room with only a sideboard left, silhouetted against wallpaper that was green once. He faces a painting of a banquet, but his head is lowered. His wings are folded; he is still.
Elena stands behind him. Her forehead rests on his bare back, in the cradle between the wings. Her eyes are closed; her skin becomes pinker, as if she’s waking from a long sleep.
(His wings are tall. They swallow her.)
Panadrome is beside the piano when Boss finds him.
One of the legs has collapsed, dropping the higher registers to the ground, and a few keys sank with the impact, but otherwise it’s pristine.
He holds a blanket in his skeleton fingers, and the piano is free of dust; long ago someone, in their terror, still risked a kindness to a beautiful thing.
“We’ll stay here,” Boss says.
He doesn’t think it’s a good idea. He thinks the Circus might fall apart if it stops.
After too long he says, “As you like.”
“You think it’s not safe?”
Alec comes in, and Elena a few moments later.
“If you want us to live in an obstacle course,” Elena says, “you’ve found the right place.”
Boss says, “They can use the mess to shore up the holes, then. Call them.”
Elena scowls and goes.
Alec smiles at Boss, holds out a hand. “Did you see the dining hall? There’s a painting of a banquet, in case you forget what room you’re in.”
A moment later Panadrome is alone, one hand on the piano, pulling in breath he doesn’t need.
Boss has a knack for skeletons.
Panadrome has never asked to have his silver hands covered over (though more than once Boss brought back someone’s hands, still bleeding, and asked, “You need a pair of gloves?”).
He is proud of the slender phalanges, the slightly curved metatarsals, the wrist joints always dark with oil. It is a testament to her art, and he would never dream of covering it.
But it is not a hand.
(A painting of a banquet may be beautiful, but you’re no less hungry.)
They gave him oranges to carry, palm down. It strained very particular muscles so you could hold your hands aloft for the length of a concert.
(You cannot rest your weight in your fingertips when you play; your fingers are puppets, and the palms of your hands are the framework that holds them aloft.)
Now, he can play the accordion just as well as he ever could, though he thinks it’s not as though anyone plays the accordion so much as cajoles a song from it.
But in the crumbling house, he stands beside the piano without moving to the bench.
(Panadrome’s hands are pipes and gears. He does not have the spread between fingers that you need—the spread you could achieve if you practiced hard enough, if you held enough oranges, if you were born with the necessary reach. He could cover thirteen notes, in his prime.)
He has not seen a piano in a long time; winters are hard, and their wood burns as well as any other.
He is the last piano player in the world, the very last, and in the crumbling house he stands beside the instrument and trembles.
The Circus makes a home.
They drag stones to patch up the holes, and bolster the ceilings where they can, and come to blows over who gets the driest rooms, and Ayar the strong man reaches through the brick walls like they’re made of cheese and pulls away long strands of copper. He takes it all; Boss wants it for the things she builds, and there’s no knowing the next time they’ll have a store like this.
“You look like a snake charmer,” says Little George, when Ayar brings them to the workshop trailer for safekeeping.
(Not a drop of rain has gotten into the workshop. The workshop is sealed tight as the grave.)
Elena fights to keep the aerialists in their trailer and out of the house (“Just what I need, one of them breaking and me having to start from scratch.”), but Boss allows no mutinies.
So Elena turns her battle to getting them the driest room, and they all crowd their pallets in, laughing, alongside Ayar and Jonah, whose clockwork lungs are susceptible to damp.
Elena lasts two hours before she moves her things to the third story.
The next day Boss says, “The floors up there are rotted through. You’ll fall and snap your head off.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Elena says.
Panadrome comes back to the piano room, often, and pulls the blanket away like a magician mid-trick.
He thought he was used to knowing that there would be no music that did not come from him, from the brass barrel of his body and the spindly silver lengths of his arms, from the bellows on one side and the keys on the other that make him useless for work.
He thought it would please him, to have power like that. (You think a lot of strange things, before the truth sinks in.)
If he tried, he might be able to play the final duet from Heynan and Bello. If he tried.
The melodies are layered, but the range is not large; it’s an opera expressiva, and those rely on depth over breadth.
It’s a pleasure to conduct. It lacks the classic majesty of Queen Tresaulta, but Heynan and Bello has its own appeal for the musician: Every theme (the bold brother Bello, the clever sister Heynan, the court families, the castle) can be played over any of the others.
During the siege, when all the themes are played at once, the wall of sound is transporting, and even from his harbor on the conductor’s podium there is a sense that the music could break free and swallow them.
The finale is softer. Only Heynan and Bello are onstage, and their separate notes move quietly forward into the end. When they’re about to be discovered, they clasp hands and pitch themselves over the edge of the tower into the sea, to keep their love from becoming known.
After they fall, the love theme plays. It has appeared only once before, in the moment of their first kiss, two bars of music between their own songs like a dream they only remember after it’s too late.
He found himself bent almost double at the end of every performance, as if he could pull every bow over the strings himself.
But he has never understood it.
The music is beautiful enough that he should be able to understand (he’s a musician, that’s his work), but it’s the reverse; their themes are so sad that every time he conducts it, he thinks that this time they will face whoever enters, and triumph, and walk out free.
(If you can make something so beautiful, why would you ever stop?)
This is what he thinks about every time Boss is going to bring someone into the circus.
She takes his hand, pulls him aside (she never hesitates to touch him, the only one of them who does).
Then she asks, “What did you think of that?” and behind her eyes the performer is already taking shape.
“I vote yes,” he says, because if you can make something beautiful, why would you ever stop?
(Her hands are always warm; he doesn’t know how he knows.)
“No fires,” Boss says, the first night.
The house is far from the city, but she knows by now that the kind of city that grows from a prison is the kind that doesn’t like neighbors moving in.
She and Alec make their bed in a room with no windows, just in case. His wings catch any light they can find.
“It’s charming,” he says the first night, as they listen to what might be birds fighting over their heads. “Reminds me of camping.”
(It’s a joke. He was born after the war started; that kind of leisure doesn’t exist anymore. But she tells him what the world was like, and he pretends, because it pleases her.)
“Go to sleep,” she says, smiling, and he settles onto his stomach, his wings along his back.
They each face away from the other, pretending to sleep, for a long time.
He is listening to the little bird-sounds above them that he knows are Elena.
Boss is listening as hard as she can, right through the walls, for the sound of the city coming for them.
For a while, everything is quiet.
The crew sleeps, recovering from the winter. The aerialists sleep, recovering from Elena.
The floors start to fall in, and the Grimaldi Brothers practice by balancing on each other in the weakest points, and leaping away when the boards give in. (Little George stands in the doorways, judges how impressive the tumbling is, and declares winners.)
Ayar and Jonah find a few books under a pile of rubble, read them until the paper starts to flake.
Elena strings up a trapeze in the attic.
“The birds won’t be happy,” says Alec, at dinner.
(Elena still comes down to dinner with the rest; Boss gave the order.)
Elena seems not to hear, and it’s Little George who says under his breath, “She’s probably eating them,” and gets a box on his ears from Boss.
Panadrome watches from his corner for a while before he disappears.
(He’s long ago given up the pretense of food. He tried for a while, to be part of the family, but some things aren’t worth pretending over.)
The house is enormous, but they seem to fill it more as days pass, until it’s a trick to find a room that won’t eventually be hosting the Grimaldis as they play.
There are two exceptions.
The music room they leave alone. Boss gave the order.
The attic is Elena’s, and that’s all it takes to keep them out. Not worth the trouble; she holds a grudge.
No one gives that one a second thought. No one even glances at the attic stairs, growing from a servants’ staircase at the end of some hallway they gutted of pipes.
(No one sees the second set of footprints marking passage, flanked with little sharp cuts in the dust where his feathers have been.)
The city sees them.
When the militia comes, Boss meets them with Little George beside her, and two of the crew in their work clothes, and one of the crew dressed up in bangles and veils. The others arrange themselves inside the house to hide their numbers and look as sweet as possible.
Alec, Panadrome, Ayar, and Jonah crowd into the windowless room where Boss and Alec sleep. Elena stands guard at the door, in case the city people make it that far. (She was a good soldier, in her day.)
Little George comes up to relieve them.
“She said we were happy to put on a week of free shows,” he says, still panting from the sprint upstairs. “They didn’t want any of it. They said we have until nightfall to leave town, or they’re going to burn us out.”
“What did Boss say?” Panadrome frowns.
“She said, Yes of course, no harm meant, we didn’t realize it was city property, thank you for the warning, we’ll start packing right now, and then they left.”
Alec is smiling. “And what does Boss really say?”
Little George grins so hard his ears move up his head.
“She says if they’re going to be rude, so can we. We’re heading to the woods to harvest what we can.”
Jonah and Ayar and Alec walk out smiling.
Panadrome doesn’t move. He stands where he is, and reminds himself over and over that the piano is just another beautiful thing.
They’ve all said goodbye to beautiful things; it’s the nature of the business.
Still, he stands where he is a long time.
(What Panadrome does not see: Elena standing in the attic, looking at Alec’s footprints in the dust, reminding herself it’s the nature of the business.)
Jonah comes back with an armful of potatoes.
“There are more,” he says, “it’s just that the ground cover is so thick, and I can’t reach.”
(His lungs are housed in a gold beetle-dome; he has to be careful.)
Boss organizes a hunting party, and under cover of dusk they slink into the trees to shore up enough food to keep the crew from dropping dead around them.
Panadrome takes the time to look over the house, now that people’s boots have left a trail where the floor is sound. He’d never been beyond the ground floor before; he’s not an adventurer, by nature.
He’s on the second story when the music starts, and he thinks his mind is playing tricks on him.
But there are too many mistakes his imagination would never make, and he creeps downstairs wishing there were a weapon left for him to wield.
Instead he creeps to the doorway, glances inside.
Elena is kneeling, playing a song they use in children’s primers, pausing every few chords to frown and adjust her fingering.
Her hands are strong enough (a lifetime on trapeze), but her fingers are stiff. She had a poor teacher. The piano’s out of tune, which doesn’t help.
But still he rests his temple on the wall, and listens to the first notes in ages that haven’t come from him.
Then she pauses mid-phrase, and he realizes after too long that she’s standing. It’s not absence of mind—she’s given up. The notes are hanging, dissonant.
“You have to finish,” he says, moving into sight.
If she’s startled, it doesn’t show. “I don’t remember.”
“I’ll teach you,” he says.
He must sound too desperate, too eager, because she levels a look at him he’s rarely seen. Cruel, yes, and angry, yes, and terrified, but not this.
“Play it yourself,” she says.
He raises and drops his hands a few inches (it passes as a shrug), says, “I can’t.”
She watches his fingers, glances out the window.
(He can see her thinking, You still could, if you had any courage, but she’s known him long enough to try not to be cruel.)
“Please, just to the end,” he says. “Only ten measures.”
(Before Boss gets back, he thinks. He would never let her see him this way; he would never seem so ungrateful.)
“We’ll have to leave,” she says. “You can’t keep this.”
He doesn’t answer. (He’s asked for so little, in all this time. There must be a way.)
When he doesn’t meet her eye, she says, “This house was a mistake. Don’t let this ruin you, too.”
He doesn’t understand her. He nods to her—manners, always—and goes.
In the kitchen he breathes so deeply that the brass strains against the bolts.
This is what he can’t admit: His body forgets.
The music he remembers; he remembers things he said and did. But he has forgotten the taste of wine, and the pinch of the baton between his fingers, and the itch at his throat from his tie. Thinking back is like watching film, knowing it happened but sensing nothing.
He learned accordion after; for the Circus, he can play.
But the rest was so long ago, he might kneel in front of the piano and not have one note left in him.
(The first thing he sensed was the warmth of the sun rising, and when he opened his eyes Boss was in front of him, standing watch.)
The music comes back after a very long time. It’s halting, and off-key, and she needs an orange under her palm—her fingers will wear out, this way.
But you don’t examine a gift (manners, always), so he stays where he is, closes his eyes, listens until the song is over.
What Panadrome does not see:
The others coming back from the forest in the deep night, with enough plants to survive on. Alec leads the way, wings loose, carrying a blanket filled to bursting.
When he sees Elena in the doorway, he smiles like a crowd is watching.
But then he reaches her.
Then his face softens, and his wings tremble, and she reaches out over his shoulder to touch them.
For a moment they stand in the hall as if on the edge of the castle tower.
Then she pulls back her hand. (Boss is coming, and they don’t dare be seen, and by morning they’ll be on the road and have to leave this behind; it’s the nature of the business.)
She walks alone up to the attic, and Alec stands and waits for Boss and the others bringing in the harvest.
What Panadrome does not see: notes moving quietly forward, into the end.
What no one sees:
Alec emerging from the forest as the clouds thin across the moon, and light flickers off his wings like a signal beacon across the hills to the city.
Little George is on the deep-night watch; he’s the one who comes running inside.
“They’re coming!” he shouts.
The house riots.
The crew knock each other awake and scramble. The Grimaldi Brothers drop through the hole in their floor.
It takes less than five minutes for the Circus to run, when it has to. They’ve made an art of vanishing when the takings go cold.
Panadrome has nothing to gather, but still he cannot leave.
He’s standing beside the piano when Elena finds him.
“We can’t leave it,” he says. “Not for them.”
“Burn it yourself, then,” says Elena.
She’s holding a match; her voice is the kindest it’s ever been.
“What?” he says. “No.”
“Better you than them,” she says. “A funeral or a butchering.”
He looks at her. His face has turned to stone.
“It might be the last one,” he says. His mouth is dry, somehow. “The very last.”
She looks him in the eye. She says, “I know.”
She rests it in the plate of his palm, vanishes.
He closes his eyes, feeling the piano behind him as though it’s moving closer, swallowing him.
Then he opens them, and Boss fills his vision.
(Every time he looks at her is a little like that first time; waking, and knowing he is bound.)
“We can take it with us,” he says. “Please. Ayar can carry it.”
“No time to be careful,” she says. “No spare fuel to carry it.”
Panadrome feels his body is falling to pieces.
“But look at it!”
There are tears in her eyes.
“They’re coming,” Boss says. “We have to go.”
But she doesn’t move.
Even Elena has turned in the doorway to watch, Elena who has never waited.
He looks at the piano as if he could lay hands on it and bring it to life.
Far away come the familiar sounds of a mob.
In another lifetime, someone might come to this house to take refuge from the winter. They might find the piano, and kneel, and play.
But someone is coming now, axe in hand and looking for kindling, and they might not even take the blanket off before they start their work.
Boss hasn’t moved. He realizes this is the illusion of choice; Boss has given her order.
(He doesn’t look at Elena. She gave him the match; there is no question what she would do at the castle precipice, on the verge of being found out.)
When he strikes the match against his palm, his silver fingers do not tremble; he does not feel the fire.
The whole house has caught by the time the last truck is on the road.
Panadrome looks out the grimy window as the fire snakes the ivy, races across the rafters.
He imagines he can see the piano through a gaping window, long past the point he knows it’s gone.
(He ran as soon as he dropped the match inside, and the fire caught. Some things he can, barely, stand; the sound of piano wires snapping is not one.)
Boss sits beside him without speaking.
In their view, the house turns into a hearth, into a lit match, into nothing.
They pass the thin, pale lamp of some other city, far away, but Boss doesn’t give the signal, and so no one turns. The trucks rattle over the rocky ground.
It’s almost a metronome, he thinks as if from some other life; phantom oranges rest in the upturned nests of his palms as he presses his fingers to the keys as long as he can before they fall.
Finally they escape the very last of the city light, and there’s nothing left but the sky, silent and cold and spotted with stars.
(Panadrome hasn’t missed the stars; he’s not an adventurer, by nature.)
“Stop,” says Boss, and the Circus stops.