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"We're getting a what?" Rai said.
"Don't squawk, dear, it's unbecoming," his mother Jenorv said serenely. "We're getting a harmonichron. They're very fashionable right now. It should be delivered in a few days."
Rai's brother Bai wisely said nothing, kicking his heels against the couch where they sat.
"Bai, stop fidgeting."
Rai tucked his chin against his chest to hide his smile. Holiday season always made their mother fussy, but the parties would be a glorious whirl of perfumes and sweets ... and music, he recalled. This could get interesting.
* * *
The harmonichron arrived shortly after breakfast, carried into the house by two delivery men. Jenorv oversaw its placement in the newly declared music room. Bai chattered happily and got in the way until Jenorv made him sit down.
Rai came to the doorway. From there, the instrument was just a big white blur smeared with other colors. His mother led him over to it. Up close, he could make out the smooth pearly finish, every edge and corner lined with swirls of gold. Pastel smudges resolved into small paintings -- flowers, perhaps, or people on picnics. Rai trailed a hand along the upright box, which curved in a long arc, as he tried to memorize its placement in the room so he wouldn't bump into it later. "It's pretty," he said finally.
"Come around here, Rai," said Jenorv. She settled him on the matching bench, its golden cushion perched atop thin white legs. Then she lifted some kind of lid on the harmonichron, two of them side by side. "These are the keyboards." She placed one of Rai's hands on each. "The left one plays the low notes. The right one plays the high notes."
"What makes the notes?" Rai asked.
"When you push the keys, little hammers hit a set of strings inside the box. Slow time crystals make the notes lower on the left, and fast time crystals make the notes higher on the right," his mother explained.
Rai fingered the keys. "They feel different," he said as the notes sounded.
"We paid the crafter to carve the symbols on the keys so you can tell them apart," she said. "The keys also consist of woods in different shades for each octave."
Rai snatched his hands away from the keys. "Wait, why do I need to tell them apart? I can't play!"
"You and your brother are going to learn how to play the harmonichron," she said. "Your lessons begin on the first of Balimev. Another reason we chose the harmonichron is that it's a duet instrument, so you can play together."
"I can't see to read music. I don't want to take lessons. People will laugh at me if I try to play this," Rai said.
"Rai, you belong to a successful merchant family. People of our class are expected to entertain, and a good host plays a musical instrument. Young gentlemen are also expected to perform for young ladies," his mother said.
"But I don't even like girls!" Rai protested.
"At your age, I should hope not. Nevertheless, someday you and the young ladies will discover each other. By then you will be prepared to offer them a pleasant evening of music," she said.
"I don't care. I don't want to learn to play this stupid box. I can't do it," Rai said.
"Well, just give it a year. If you still can't play it after a year, we'll find some other instrument for you to try," she said.
"I won't have time! I have schoolwork -- even with Bai and Methlen reading to me, it takes me longer than the other students," said Rai.
Hearing his name, Bai scampered over to join them. "I'll help you study this too," he said. He banged out a few quick notes.
"You'll get bored and then I'll be stuck trying to figure it out on my own," Rai said.
"Rai, stop whining or I'll make it two years," their mother said.
Rai stopped whining.
* * *
When the music teacher arrived, Rai and Bai were sitting on the floor building towers with blocks. Bai scrambled to his feet. Carefully Rai set his block on the nearest tower, then stood up.
"I'm Teacher Iromala," the elderly woman said. "You must be Bai and Rai." When the boys nodded she said, "Come along to the music room, then, and let's get started."
Bai led the way; Rai followed close on his heels, a trick that let him move at normal speed without bumping into things. The twins stopped in front of the harmonichron.
Teacher Iromala patted the bench. "Rai, I understand that you're to learn the low board while Bai learns the high board. You sit to the left and Bai to the right."
Rai and Bai sat down on the little bench tucked inside the curve of the harmonichron. They lifted the covers off their keyboards. Rai lightly brushed his hands over the keys, trying to feel the carved symbols.
"What do we do now?" Bai asked, kicking idly at the bench leg.
"Play the lowest note on the left of your keyboard, both of you." They did, and the two notes thrummed into the room. "Now play the next note, and work your way to the far end," said Teacher Iromala. "Learn how the instrument sounds."
Rai pushed the keys carefully with one forefinger and then the other, trying to memorize the notes as he felt the symbols under his fingertips. His keyboard held twenty-five keys. At least the harmonichron made a pretty sound, humming at the low end and pinging at the high end.
"Good. Do that again -- but this time use all your fingers," said Teacher Iromala. She showed them how to hold their hands, fingers loosely arched, and press the keys just so.
Rai groaned. He could barely span the keys with his small hands, and that made it harder to feel the symbols.
"It's not so hard," Bai said.
"Easy for you, hard for me," Rai said.
"Don't worry, boys, you'll have plenty of time to practice," Teacher Iromala said. "You don't have to learn everything at once." She didn't push them, but gave them time to explore the instrument. She showed them how to use the pedals to lower and raise the pitch of each octave on the keyboard.
Near the end of the lesson, Teacher Iromala asked them to bring out a set of music booklets their mother had bought. She showed them how the symbols on the keys matched to some instructions in the books -- each key had its own name. "Most performers simply memorize these, but I see that your harmonichron has them engraved on the keys. Lovely work, that! I expect it will help you both learn the names. You'll need those to read the music later on. For now, just read the first section before our next lesson," said Teacher Iromala.
"I can't see to read," Rai muttered.
"We'll just have to work around that, Rai. I understand that Bai will be reading the assignment aloud to you. When we move on to music, I'll teach you some special tricks for learning a song by ear," said Teacher Iromala.
Rai tipped his head. He liked learning ways to mimic what normal people could do. "Yes, Teacher Iromala," he said.
"Keep practicing the fingering exercises I showed you. I'll see you again on the eighth," she said.
Their mother walked Teacher Iromala out, then returned. "Well, boys, what did you think of your first lesson?" she asked.
Rai shrugged. "It was all right." He walked his fingers slowly up the board. It was no more boring than what he did at school, and at least in a private lesson he didn't have classmates teasing him.
"Can we go play now?" Bai asked.
"Close the lids over your boards, and then you may go play," their mother said.
They tugged the lids into place and dashed back to their blocks. Reading the music booklets could wait until later.
* * *
"I hate this stupid instrument!" Rai snapped, throwing the music booklet on the floor. His impaired vision made it hard for Rai to keep his hands in the right position on the keyboard. He had finally memorized all the keys, but moving his hands made him lose his place. Worse, if he lost track of the pedal, groping around to find it sometimes made it shift the octaves at the wrong time.
"Rai, it's okay. We can go over the lesson until you get it. Teacher Iromala says these are easy songs," Bai said. Paper crinkled as he picked up the fallen booklet and smoothed its pages.
"Teacher Iromala says we're almost done with this level, and we have to pick up the next music booklet this weekend," Rai pointed out. "I am going to be so lost."
"Maybe not," Bai said. "The next level splits the lesson booklet and the song booklet. We could ask the shopkeeper at the music store for songs that would be easier for you to play."
Rai snorted. "Easier songs would be ones I pay someone else to play!"
Bai laughed and jostled his brother on purpose. "Yeah, someday when we're grown up we'll hire the best musicians in town to play for us, and we won't even have to touch the keys." Then he flipped open the music booklet to the last lesson. "For now, let's just go over this stupid music assignment one more time."
"Fine," Rai grumbled, and tried to drag his attention back to the lesson.
* * *
Dust tickled his nose as Rai shuffled through the very back of the music store. He didn't want to listen to the conversation at the counter. His keen hearing caught the words anyway.
"My brother and I are learning to play the harmonichron," Bai said. "He's legally blind and it's hard for him to find the right keys. Do you have anything really easy to play where you don't have to move your hands all over the board?"
Rai slouched lower and wished he could just crawl under the floorboards and die. The conversation mumbled on in the background, lower now.
Then footsteps boomed over the resonant wood of the floor. "... just the thing, young fellow! They're in the back room."
Rai tried to scrunch out of the way, but there wasn't enough space in the narrow aisle.
"Oh, there you are, Rai. I wondered where you went," said Bai.
"As I was saying, Terlosh composed many songs for the old tingboards which sound beautiful on these new harmonichrons. Since he was blind himself, I think you may find his music suitable," the shopkeeper said. Paper rustled.
A fresh cloud of dust went up, making Rai sneeze. He didn't care, though. The idea of a blind musician intrigued him more than he wanted to admit.
"Ah, here we are! I recommend starting with this collection -- it contains a dozen of Terlosh's easier songs," the shopkeeper said.
"Thank you," said Bai.
"Raivan! What are you doing back here -- oh, for the love of all that is licensed, you're filthy!" Their mother's voice cut through the warm, dusty air. She batted at Rai's clothes, trying to remove smudges that he hadn't even noticed.
"I'm dreadfully sorry," the shopkeeper said. "I keep the lower-demand items in this room, and I'm afraid it doesn't get cleaned as often as the front rooms do."
"Please don't get mad at us. We found music that Rai can play," said Bai.
"Well ... if he's willing to give it a fair try ..." their mother said.
"I promise," Rai said quickly.
* * *
Carefully Rai picked his way through "Welcome to Music," the first and simplest song in their new booklet. Beside him, Bai plinked out the high notes. They weren't quite in time with each other -- Rai still played slower -- but at least he was hitting the right notes now.
"Well done, boys," said Teacher Iromala. "I wasn't sure if special music would really make a difference, but I think it is. We'll alternate between Terlosh's songs and those in the standard booklet."
"Thank you, Teacher Iromala," Rai said sincerely. He thought that he might get to like the music, if he could ever learn to play it properly. More practice might help.
* * *
The twins sat comfortably on the bench, practicing their harmonichron lesson. They were a third of the way through the little booklet of Terlosh songs. Rai found the music less of a burden now that he didn't have to worry so much about his hand placement. Then Bai hit another wrong note, and Rai winced.
"Do you want to start over, or just back up to the beginning of that line?" Rai asked.
"I want to quit this stupid lesson and go to the park," Bai snapped. "I'm never going to get it right."
Without thinking, Rai tapped out the correct phrase on his own board. "Just play it like that."
Bai twisted to face him. "Rai, I've been thinking," he said. "Maybe we should switch boards."
"Have you lost your brain license?" Rai said. "I play the low board because it's easier on me since I can't see what I'm doing, and most of the songs have a simpler score for low than for high."
"That's why I want to switch. Rai, you're getting better than me," said Bai.
Rai shoved his brother. "Stop teasing me! It's not funny. This is the first song I actually like, because I've finally managed to play it right."
"I haven't," Bai said quietly.
That never happened. Rai always had to work to keep up with Bai, not the other way around. But Bai didn't sound the way he usually did when he was teasing. Rai thought about all the times that Bai had slowed down for him, or reread lessons so that Rai could catch up. His conscience twinged. "But if we switch, I'll have to learn all the note symbols on the high board and the other half of the song."
"Rai, you already know both halves. You just played part of mine."
"We don't have to switch in the middle of this song, though," Bai assured him. "I don't want to relearn it either. We could try with the next song ... if you don't mind."
Rai fingered the keys silently, then realized that he was tracing out the pattern of Bai's score. He put his hands in his lap. "All right. We'll try switching boards, but it has to be the next Terlosh song -- I'm not starting with one of the standard songs."
Bai gave him a quick, sheepish hug. "Thanks." Then he went back to tormenting the music.
After a few moments, Rai resumed playing his own part.
* * *
To Rai's surprise, switching boards had worked. He learned the symbols for the high board faster than the low board. Bai adjusted well to the change too, except for a lingering edginess about Rai's talent for music. In time, their skills settled into a comfortable balance. They did well on the Terlosh songs, and tolerably enough on the standard ones. The current song, "Hurray for Waival Day," came from the standard booklet. They were still practicing when Teacher Iromala arrived for their lesson.
"You're making progress, boys," she said.
"Thank you, Teacher Iromala," they chorused.
"Before we get started today, I want to let you know that the annual recital is scheduled for Marimev 29. The time and venue will be announced later. Meanwhile you can start thinking about what song you want to perform," said Teacher Iromala.
Rai hunched over his keyboard. "I don't want to go to a recital," he said. "People will laugh at us."
"Rai is right. We're not good enough to play in public yet," said Bai. His foot thumped at the bench leg.
"If you want to get your Music Student license stamped for completion of the first year's lessons, you have to perform in the recital," Teacher Iromala said firmly.
"It'll be spring then and the weather will be wet. What if we get sick and can't play?" Rai said.
"Students who miss the main recital have to play in a makeup performance for a smaller audience," Teacher Iromala said. "Now stop trying to shirk your duties like little hooligans and behave like the nice young gentlemen you are."
They sulked through most of the lesson that day. After supper, though, Bai dragged out their music booklets. "Since we can't get out of the stupid recital, we should pick a song so we can practice it extra," he said.
Rai sighed. "I guess. Do you want to play something we already know, or study something new?"
"I'm not sure," Bai said. "I don't want to play a baby song in front of a bunch of people, but I don't want to mess up either." He flicked his thumb along the corners of the booklet he held, an annoying thwip-thwip sound.
Something plucked at Rai's memory. He picked up the booklet of Terlosh songs and silently counted the pages. They had learned most of the songs, except for a few at the back. Rai found the current song and then flipped ahead slightly. Bai had read aloud the whole booklet once, and the second-to-last song had stuck in Rai's mind. "What about this one?" he said.
"Hmm ... 'The Flight of the Rose Butterfly' ... I don't know if I can play this, Rai, it's in the back." Bai leaned over the booklet and tapped his fingers on the page.
"Read it aloud. I think this one has a really easy score for the low board," said Rai.
"It looks awful fancy."
"It gets simpler toward the end," Rai said.
"Does it? Oh. It does." Paper rustled as Bai turned pages back and forth. "Why does it do that?" he said.
"I asked Teacher Iromala, and she said it stands for the way a rose butterfly can fly better as the extra wings fall off," Rai explained.
"I guess that makes sense," Bai said. He read the introductory paragraph, then called out the notes of the song. "You're right, Rai -- it does have an easy score for the low board. Maybe we can play this after all. Do you think it will sound good enough, though?"
Rai shrugged. "We have two months to practice. We can ask Teacher Iromala to play the parts for us in the next lesson, so we'll know what they're supposed to sound like."
"I mean, will it sound like real music and not baby songs?" Bai pressed.
Rai tried to play the tune in his head. He couldn't hold the whole piece at once, only bits of it, but the dancing notes reminded him of a rose butterfly's raggedly beautiful flight. "It will sound like real music," he predicted, "if we learn to play it right."
* * *
The auditorium felt hot and stuffy from too many people crammed together, although Rai's ears told him that the space must be huge. Confusing echoes bounced off the distant walls. The other students filled the backstage area with their whispering. Rai's formal robe itched, no matter how many times he tugged at the collar.
He could hear the music as the students ahead of them played, muffled because the harmonichron on the stage had to face the audience. Every wrong note made him cringe, certain that he and Bai would embarrass themselves when they took the stage. Rhythmic clapping reached his ears as the audience applauded politely.
Rai resented the harmonichron for being such a public instrument, meant to perform for small or large groups. At least tonight marked the end of the year's lessons; he could demand another instrument now. Maybe his mother would let him pick something simpler and more private.
Bai leaned against him and whispered, "Rai, I'm nervous. What if I forget the notes?"
"Then you can read the music booklet," Rai said.
"Oh. Right. Music booklet. I have that," Bai said. Pages flapped as he checked them.
Rai wiped his sweating hands on his robe and hoped that neither of them would forget the song.
"Bai and Rai, you're up next," said Teacher Iromala, urging Rai forward with a hand on his back.
Rai stuck close to Bai as they crossed the stage to the plain brown harmonichron. They sat down, Rai on the right and Bai on the left. The whole auditorium rustled and sighed with the sound of the crowd, all those people out there watching them, and Rai couldn't see them. He couldn't even see the keyboard clearly, but that wasn't as bad; he could position his hands by feel and then move only his fingers to hit the notes.
Rai took a deep breath and tapped his toe against Bai's ankle: three, two, one, begin. His hands found the music. It wasn't so hard after all; "The Flight of the Rose Butterfly" was simple, and it got simpler as the song went on. Rai remembered a long-ago visit to the local butterfly atrium and how one of the creatures had landed on his shoulder. He could make out the brilliant orange blotch of it at that range, and marvel at its odd flight as it took off. The memory flowed down his arms into his fingertips and out through the music, dip and bob and weave, trailing away into silence the way the butterfly had vanished in a blur of color.
The surge of noise startled Rai when the audience clapped with enthusiasm. It seemed shockingly louder from the stage. Bai tugged Rai to his feet and they bowed, then left the stage so the next students could perform. Backstage again, Rai leaned against the wall, gasping as if he had run around the block.
"You okay?" Bai whispered.
"I don't like being on stage," Rai said.
"I thought it was great," Bai said, "or well, it would've been great if I'd gotten to do something I'm actually good at. All those people watching us, wow! I'd love to get back onstage."
Rai just nodded faintly and thought about how nice it would be if a tree fell on their house and smashed the harmonichron.
Finally the last performance ended, and the Teacher Iromala released the students. "Good job, everyone. Go find your families, now. I'm sure they're all very proud of you."
Bai scampered away. Rai hurried to follow him, but the room was crowded and he had a hard time keeping up. Then he heard their mother's voice and headed straight for her. He bounced off someone else and mumbled an apology.
"Goodness, child, watch your step!" the matron exclaimed.
"He's legally blind," Rai's mother explained as she pulled him out of the way.
"Really? I would never have known! He played so beautifully."
From that moment onward, Rai loved the harmonichron.