Sonata by Em Harriett

Lena raised herself on violins in the shadow of her parents’ negligence.

So when the most famous sonata sorcerer in Achaemeni offered her a position at the esteemed Conservatory, her parents didn’t bat an eye. Lena packed her violin in its velvet-lined case and left her parents’ bungalow, met a carriage at the end of the lane, and departed Mehra without a backward glance. She’d written home, of course, but only after she’d settled into her new dorm room half a nation away.

Lena sat with the other recruited musicians in the assembly hall waiting for their formal welcome. Surrounding her were those chosen from concert halls and serendipitous street performances from all corners of Achaemeni, those whose backgrounds varied from professional to amateur to ones who’d practically nursed on woodwind reeds since the day they’d been born. Ninety-nine musicians under twenty, ninety-nine other souls vying for acceptance to the Conservatory’s elite sonata sorcery program.

Ninety-nine people Lena knew she could outplay without a second thought.

Lena folded her legs to one side of the rounded floor cushion; her fingers traced the metal card she’d been handed that identified her as a first-year student and outlined her privileges. Her heart raced reading her mentor’s name in bold letters underneath her own. She ran her thumb over the embossed letters, trying to keep herself grounded—the hall had filled quickly, smothering the air with voices and conversations that quickened Lena’s breaths until she got lightheaded.

“D’you think we’ll see her?” whispered a boy on her right.

“Who, Attar? Obviously,” replied the person he was talking to. Lena craned her neck around to see them better—both were roughly her age, sixteen at the youngest, though the boy had a thick mane of dark hair and the other bore freckles like sunspots across their face. “Attar’s the most famous sonata sorcerer in Achaemeni! She founded the Conservatory; there’s no way we won’t see her at the welcome address.”

“I was just asking,” the boy mumbled, folding his hands over his knees so his bushy hair could hide his face.

The other teen turned their head to Lena and flashed her a grin.

“Hi!” they said. “My name’s Firi!”

“Lena,” she replied, shaking Firi’s hand. “What do you play?”

“Fortepiano,” they said, “but you could probably guess that by my fingers.”

They splayed their hands in front of their chest and hooked their thumbs together to imitate a hawk. Lena whistled.

“Wow,” she said, “I wish I had that kind of reach… it’d make my fingering easier on the lower register, that’s for sure.”

“What d’you play?”

“Violin.”

“Ooh, fancy,” Firi said. “I haven’t seen many violinists around; I’m from Ijan, and it rains there half the year straight, so it could just be the weather.”

Lena nodded solemnly, pulling a strand of deep black hair behind her ear. “Too humid,” she agreed. “No one in their right mind plays rosewood that far south. You’re more likely to get a horse to whicker an aria than keep your wood in tune.”

Firi laughed; even in a room full of ninety-eight other people, Lena clung to this bright bit of laughter like a tether. Her breathing slowed. Firi asked her gentle questions about her violin experience; Lena sheepishly relayed her parents’ lack of engagement and how that had driven her to pursue music on her own. She even found herself telling the more embarrassing stories—like how she’d lost her rosin cake one afternoon and had to chase a street cat to retrieve it. Firi laughed at all the right parts.

A chime sounded from the stage at the front of the hall. Lena’s attention snapped to the front as a tall woman in persimmon seroual trousers stood at its center. The woman adjusted her overcoat’s gold buttons and folded her hands neatly behind her back.

Nazia Attar, founder of the Conservatory and the most famous sonata sorcerer in Achaemeni, had the floor.

“Welcome to the Conservatory,” she announced. Her voice filled the hall from eave to eave, bouncing from its natural acoustics to the very back row where Lena and Firi were sitting.

Lena leaned forward, eyes trained on Nazia like a hunting dog after birds. The hairs on her arms stood stiff.

“I hope you arrived safely and without issue,” Nazia continued, “for your instruction begins today. Our auditioners have hand-selected you from the furthest corners of Achaemeni because you show not only base talent but promise—we are not looking for mere musicians here. We are looking for those who possess the talent to become true sonata sorcerers.”

Lena gripped her metal card tight, hanging on every word.

“Music is magic,” Nazia said, “and, at its heart, music is the expression of the soul. For the next two years, you will be tested and trained in musicianship, musicology, and critical musical theory. Should you demonstrate ability and willingness to learn, you will graduate and be accepted to the Conservatory’s sorcery program. From there, you will train your music to touch not only the ears but the very souls of those who hear it.

“I founded the Conservatory so that Achaemeni could develop its tradition of sonata sorcery without elitism; here you will find youths of all backgrounds from all reaches of the nation. At the end of your two years, your mentor will determine your eligibility for the sorcery program, and all students will be required to perform a piece individually for the Resonance before the graduation concerto. The Resonance will then decide which individual earns the first seat at the performance and a lifetime’s residency at the Conservatory.”

Lena’s breath caught in her throat. Beside her, she heard Firi’s do the same.

The rest of Nazia’s speech was short, and Lena could barely focus on the other instructors’ words of welcome—her heart was pounding in her chest, and she’d gripped her metal card so tightly it dug into her fingers. Even as the post-assembly applause drowned out the rest of her thoughts, even as Lena walked with Firi to get lunch off the street before their first lessons, three simple truths resonated like a tuning fork in her ribcage:

She was going to practice violin until her fingertips bled.

She was going to play for the Resonance.

She was going to win that seat.

Her first lesson with Nazia Attar came at three-thirty that same day. Lena waited in the hall outside Attar’s office, hesitant to use the brass knocker. The hallway was deserted; every other instructor she’d passed along the way had had lines of students waiting for their first lesson, but by the time she’d reached the fifth floor where Nazia worked, not another soul had followed her. Lena held her violin case awkwardly in her arms and waited.

And waited.

And waited until the gong struck the hour, and there was still no sign of other students, so Lena took a deep breath and rested her hand on the knocker.

“Are you going to enter, or will you hover outside my door like a bee?” came Nazia’s sharp voice from inside the room.

Lena blushed and opened the door. Nazia’s office was richly furnished with dyed wall hangings and an elaborate ebony table, but what caught Lena’s eye the moment she stepped inside were the instruments.

Attar was a traveler, and her collection showed it. Each wall boasted instruments of all sorts, from the long-necked rebab to the hide-skinned dunun, the arced harp and clay ocarina. Lena drank in every shaft of wood and every fine-stretched string as if any moment she’d go blind.

“Don’t gawk,” Nazia said, setting down her quill and standing tall as a crane. Her ballooning trousers only accentuated her trim figure as she strode to Lena and stood before her, hands folded neatly behind her back. She’d swapped her overcoat for a fitted vest to combat the afternoon’s dry heat.

“I’m sorry,” Lena said, fidgeting with her metal ID card.

Nazia sighed through her nose. “I would have thought the auditioners would have done their jobs and informed you all of protocol during lunch hour,” she said, “but, apparently, some lessons need reiteration.”

Lena bit the inside of her cheek. The weight of cumin-coated meat was warm in her stomach from her and Firi’s street kebabs, but it did little to combat the embarrassment seeping into her veins.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

“No need to apologize,” Nazia said. “I have not had a student of my own in many years, so I admit I am also somewhat rusty. We’ll simply have to learn together, mm?”

Lena nodded, hugging her violin case to her chest. Nazia looked it over with an appraising glance.

“Show me what you play,” she said.

Lena unpacked the violin reverently, handling the ebony and maple instrument as if it was made from eggshells. She handed it to Nazia, who examined the wood grain closely and tested its weight.

“This is a lovely instrument,” she concluded. “No wonder you were able to produce such melodies when I heard you in Mehra. Now, Lena.”

“Yes?”

“Why did you decide to come here?”

Lena blinked, taken aback. “Because you asked me?” she said. “That day in the Square, I was playing for a crowd around the fountain, and you came up after I collected my coppers and told me about the Conservatory, and—”

Nazia held up a hand to stop her. “I know how I recruited you,” she said, “but what I asked was why did you decide to come?”

Lena rubbed the back of her neck, unsure how to respond. Nazia sighed.

“I picked you from that plaza because I heard your talent,” Nazia went on. “Your skill with the bow has nothing to do with your flexibility, your charisma, or your ability to internalize a key signature without a staff’s mark. You know inside you how to craft the music to make others listen. I felt that pull the minute my carriage entered the Mehran Square. I assume you play there often?”

“I—yes,” Lena replied.

“Why is that? Why not play your violin in the comfort of your own home, or in the dead of night in some secluded cavern?”

“Because no one will hear me that way!” Lena said, fire burning in her eyes. “And what’s the point of playing music if you can’t be known for it?”

Nazia smirked. “You want recognition.”

Lena blushed, tucking her black hair behind her ears, but she did not refute it.

“That is a fine motive,” Nazia said, moving toward her rack of zithers. She ran a finger along the neck of a rebab and took it off its hooks, adjusting the knobs before replacing it. “Many fine musicians with illustrious careers have come through the Conservatory. But…”

She fixed Lena with an intense stare. Lena looked down at her sandals.

“Sonata sorcery is selfless. You will not find a lasting career here unless you learn to put aside your need for praise and embrace creating music for music’s sake.”

Nazia sighed, looking out toward the Conservatory’s inner plaza, where sunlight baked the flagstones in shades of tan and ochre. Spouts of water burst from hidden pipes underneath the stones and glimmered like gems in the air.

“That is all for today,” Nazia said. “The weather is lovely; I suggest you take your new friend and explore the Conservatory grounds. Tomorrow we will begin our proper lessons.”

Lena blushed again, mumbled a thank-you, and bundled her violin away before Nazia could change her mind. Selfless music.

Well, she’d show Attar. If her music could catch the attention of the Conservatory’s founder on a happenstance day in Mehran Square, well, Lena would sway the Resonance for sure. All she had to do was practice.

“You didn’t tell me your mentor was Attar!” Firi exclaimed.

“I didn’t think it was relevant,” Lena said around a mouthful of spiced rice. Firi rolled their eyes. “What! I really didn’t!”

They’d been at the Conservatory for a week now, and Firi always had complaints about their piano mentor, Kiera Esith, who—according to them, anyway—spent ten minutes at the start of every lesson stretching the muscles in every finger until Firi claimed their joints would snap. Lena had helped massage oils into Firi’s fingers just to get them to stop moaning about it.

Lena scooped more rice into her mouth so she wouldn’t have to speak, but Firi’s eyes were sharp as a hawk’s, and she eventually sighed and set her spoon down.

“What difference would it have made?” she said. “I still have to fight for that concerto seat in two years like everyone else.”

“Attar doesn’t take students,” Firi said, gesturing with their own spoon and accidentally getting rice on their blouse. “She’s too busy managing the Conservatory concerts and training higher-level sorcerers.”

“Not according to her,” Lena said. “She said she was happy to have a new student after so many years. She’s spent so long as a traveling auditioner spreading her peaceful sorcery to communities that she’s missed teaching someone one-on-one.”

Firi blew her a raspberry and tucked into their rice with renewed fervor. Lena flicked a bit of candied grape at them and laughed when they had to dig it out of their blouse pocket.

“Come on,” Lena said, setting her finished plate down. “Neither of us will get that residency if we don’t practice.”

“Neither of us will play well if we don’t take a break,” Firi countered, taking Lena’s empty plate and stacking it with theirs. “Dry season’s almost over! We should head to the Serku Market before it closes!”

“But—!”

“No buts! Come on!”

Lena reluctantly let Firi drag her to her feet and chase the sound of bells and horses to the market, but, once she let her focus shift from the repertoire back at the Conservatory to the feel of Firi’s slender fingers in her palm, she found she did not mind the break at all.

Weeks turned to months before Lena could blink. She threw herself into her studies and consistently outperformed the other students in her academics—she breathed musicology, she recited the circle of fifths in her sleep, and even the trickiest modes and scales couldn’t escape her scrutiny.

Even the presence of adult supervision didn’t deter her. Sure, she couldn’t sneak out of the dormitory to watch horse races like she’d used to at home, but she found new delight in sneaking into the library with Firi to read old music, or unlock the practice rooms and play duets until both their fingers were sore. Lena found joy in making Firi laugh. Ever since their first day, that sound tethered her out of panic and grounded her in every assembly and student performance.

Her parents wrote sparingly. Lena barely replied.

Their second year, Lena managed to secure herself a room with Firi, splitting a bunk bed and alternating who slept on the top every new moon. They collaborated on papers and played duets in the courtyard, and even Nazia Attar could not stay mad at Lena’s tardiness when it was from playing such beautiful music together.

“You and Hatari are close,” she commented one afternoon as Lena transcribed her Resonance piece into old Achaemeni notation. Lena dipped the quill in ink and started marking a new row on the staff.

“Yeah,” Lena replied. “I like them.”

“Good. Love is what inspires the music that resonates with us the most. And I mean love of all sorts,” she added before Lena could protest. “Familial love, platonic love, romantic love—all love inspires music.”

Lena huffed and scrawled a new line of notes on the staff, avoiding her mentor’s gaze.

“Where do you find inspiration, Lena?” Nazia asked.

“In my studies,” Lena replied, still focusing on her notation. “In the achievements of every great sonata sorcerer who’s come from the Conservatory. I want to be just as good—better, even—than they were. I’m going to spin music so beautiful it will bend every ear from here to the Capital. People across the world will know my name!”

Nazia was quiet for a spell.

“Well then, do not overwork yourself,” she said finally. “Remember, your recital for the Resonance is in three weeks.”

“I know,” Lena said, setting her quill into its inkwell to examine her work. She traced the music with her eyes, sight-reading and internalizing the melody. The Resonance would have to love this piece—it hit all the elements of old Achaemeni music theory with a touch of modern flair, it sang, it soared, and it would guarantee her a spot in the sorcery program—not to mention the concerto seat at the end of the year.

She could do this.

She would do this.

That seat was as good as hers.

“Are you ready?” Nazia asked, leading Lena along the old clay trail behind the Conservatory library. The Resonance Cavern loomed like a black hole in the earth peeking just behind the library’s patio.

Lena nodded. “I am,” she said. “I’ve been practicing until my callouses had callouses.”

Nazia stopped her at the cavern entrance. Cool, dry air emanated from the long tunnel that led in a spiral below the earth. Twilight dyed the courtyard stones deep lilac and indigo.

“Understand this,” Nazia said carefully. “The Resonance does not respond to disingenuous melody. To be a true sonata sorcerer, you must understand what makes powerful music—not eruditeness, but emotion. Do not play trite rehearsal pieces. Play from your heart.”

Lena nodded, tamped down her nerves, and started down the tunnel.

Light was forbidden in the passageway, so Lena trailed one hand along the wall, following the embossed ridges until she reached the floor of a great sandstone cavern. Lena swallowed a gasp as her eyes adjusted to the dim phosphorescent glow coming from a line of pebbles on the floor that curled toward the cavern’s center. Five stones as tall as the Conservatory itself sat in a patient ring around the huge spiral’s outer edge. Lena didn’t dare speak—she merely walked the spiral path to the raised bump in the center of the stone audience and took out her violin. She waited, bow in hand, for some sort of cue, but the stones were silent and the cavern was empty as night. Lena took a deep breath.

And she began to play.

The instant her bow passed the first string, one of the stones lit up with golden light from within and began to hum along in pitch. The next glowed blue, then red, then green, then all the stones were aglow with song as Lena played. She watched them as she swept her bow across the strings, dancing between intervals and drawing out secondary overtones within the cavern’s acoustics. The stones harmonized with her until the hairs on the back of her neck went stiff as needles. When Lena felt her song wind down, she leaned into the motion and drew her last note reverently from her instrument, letting it sing into the ringing space.

The five stones grew quiet. The Resonance glowed with a faint and holy light.

And then it faded.

And Lena walked back, alone, with the tinny echo of the stones still in her ears.

Two months before the end of their program, Nazia Attar called the Conservatory together for the Resonance announcement.

Lena sat next to Firi—as she often found herself these days—brushing knees and holding hands, both of them almost trembling with excitement. Lena hadn’t heard Firi’s piece, nor they hers, but both knew how hard the other had been practicing. Firi had stretched their fingers until their knuckles popped; Lena had callouses on her left hand so thick that she hadn’t noticed a sewing needle stuck in it when she’d mended Firi’s blouse.

Nazia stood at the center of the stage. Lena strained as far forward as she could. This was it. Every fiber in her muscles yearned for the next words out of Nazia’s mouth.

Her mentor spoke.

She announced the name.

And Lena sat on her cushion, nails digging into her hands, as her best friend Firi Hatari walked up and accepted the lead chair instead of her.

Firi found her after the ceremony staring blankly at her reflection in their shared dorm room. They tried to put a hand on her shoulder, but Lena drew away, spinning so her dyed skirts fanned out around her calves.

“Don’t,” she warned.

“Oh, Lena…” Firi said, “I’m so sorry—”

“I don’t want your pity,” Lena spat. “I want that seat!

The instant those words left her mouth, Lena wished she could bite them back. Firi’s expression fell like stones in a river, and they clamped their mouth shut, sadness aching in their eyes.

“I know,” they said softly. “That’s why I asked Attar and the other instructors to give it to you instead. But, Lena, even if I dropped dead tomorrow and they had to fill the seat, they still wouldn’t—it’s forbidden, it’s a matter of who the Resonance picks, it’s not up to the faculty…”

“That’s not fair!” Lena said. Her stomach twisted with guilt; she knew she was being petulant, whining like a child who couldn’t have sweets. “I was Attar’s only student. She hasn’t taken students in years and I thought I—I thought I was special.”

Firi reached for her hand. Lena twitched her fingers away. She swiped her palm over her eyes, brushing away the tears. Her throat clenched.

“I wanted to be something,” she said, staring at the tiled floor. “I wanted to be so big and resplendent that my parents would have to pay attention to me. I wanted to be noticed!

“I notice you,” Firi said softly.

They took Lena’s hand like it was a sparrow, coaxing her fingers around their slender fortepiano reach, lacing them together like it was the most natural position to be in. Lena held her breath. Firi smelled like rosewater, and Lena could count each freckle spattering their cheeks.

“I’m sorry your parents’ negligence pushed you this far,” they said, their breath soft against Lena’s lips. “But you have worth just being you. You don’t need to be famous to prove that.”

“…I don’t?” Lena whispered.

Firi’s lips quirked into a smile. “No, you silly musician. Here. Let me show you.”

Firi closed their eyes. They kissed her, gentle and reverent.

And Lena understood.

“I get it.”

Nazia looked up from her sheet music and set her quill down.

“Get what?” she asked.

“I get why sonata sorcery is selfless,” Lena said, standing before Nazia’s desk with her violin case shaking in one hand. She’d hiked the five floors up here only when she’d stopped kissing Firi long enough to notice the time, and even then she was still dangerously close to the end of Nazia’s office hours. She hadn’t even realized she’d brought her instrument until she was halfway up the stairs, and by then it was too late to turn around, and having the thing here only added to her embarrassment.

Nazia sighed, shifting her legs to better sit on her floor cushion. “And why is that?”

“It’s not about fame. It’s about love. Just like you said.” Lena could feel her cheeks burning, but she forced herself to keep talking. “Music is like love. You don’t love someone to get something out of it, you love because you care, because you value someone else’s happiness. And a sonata sorcerer plays to heal the hearts of those around them, not to get their money. My parents didn’t love me terribly well, and so I thought the only way to earn that back was to outshine everyone else. But that’s not what music is about. It’s about sharing love to those who need it, to those who, like me, think things are only worth doing if you can be the best and nothing else.”

She took a deep breath and hung her head.

“I resign,” she said. “I don’t deserve a certificate from the Conservatory for treating music like the means to an end instead of as a gift to share.”

“Play me something.”

“Excuse me?”

Nazia nodded her chin at Lena’s violin, still in her hands. “Play me something. Then I’ll decide if I accept your resignation.”

Lena was speechless, but she unlatched her case and withdrew her violin anyway, setting its curved rest beneath her cheek and sliding her leathery fingertips down the neck. She lifted her bow.

And she played.

She closed her eyes so she wouldn’t see Nazia’s appraising look and she played, feeling the vibrations of each string she bowed and every movement of the smooth wood in her hand. She played for Firi, for Nazia, for every other student in the Conservatory, for her parents and Mehra and Achaemeni and even the outer lands beyond. She played for the teachings of the past and the chance to learn for the future. When the last note faded, sweat had beaded at Lena’s hairline, but she refused to wipe it away. She lowered her bow arm to her side and lifted her cheek from her violin.

Lena finally opened her eyes.

Nazia Attar smiled.

“You do understand,” Nazia said, rising from her cushion and clasping her hands together in front of her. Her smile was so unusual that Lena almost thought she was in trouble at first, before Nazia came to her and wrapped Lena in a strong hug.

“I, uh, I withdraw my resignation,” Lena said when they parted.

“As well you should,” Nazia replied, a spark in her eyes. “Lena Naimi, I believe you will make one of the finest sonata sorcerers ever to come through the Conservatory.”

Lena’s heart swelled with pride, but more than that, it swelled with love.

She played violin the rest of the day in Serku Market, Firi beside her, pouring her bliss into every song.

When the concerto came, Lena sat in the front row so Firi could see her over their fortepiano. She stood the instant the conductor lowered their hands and applauded so loudly that Firi’s cheeks turned as red as a cello.

When their graduation came, Lena bowed her head and accepted the tricolor sash with humility and grace.

When she and Firi started their program as sonata sorcerers, Lena wrote home every week, and her parents sent her parcels of belongings in case she got homesick for Mehra.

And every night, Lena would play minuets, Firi would play her bagatelles, and the golden light that spilled from their rooms lit the courtyard into the gray hours of morning.


Em Harriett is a queer author and illustrator from New England. She enjoys writing speculative young adult and new adult fiction when she isn’t knitting. You can find Em on Twitter or at her website.