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WATWWN #03: The Muses and the Sirens
When a song becomes a war and a family is split by strife, can a voyage across the Sapphire Sea help them remember their love?
The Muses and the Sirens is the third book of When All The Worlds Were New and is available on Kindle and paperback.
A long time ago when all the worlds were new and your grandparents were yet young, there lived on the ocean moon Maia VI-b nine beautiful sisters. If they had true names, they have been lost to the Deep of time, so we can only remember them in stories across a thousand worlds. Some called them the Sium, others the Mousai, or the Zanri, or as we shall name them here, the Muses.
Alas, this is not a totally happy tale, but one infused with great sadness. Something terrible happened in those ancient days. There was a war among the Stars of Dream.
This conflict was mentioned in many books across many worlds. Unfortunately, most of these were written ages later and change the story or frame it in terms the writers themselves or their intended audiences might understand, and much of the original tale has been lost. The words you now read are no different.
The war was between the Muses of Maia and another family living among the space stations orbiting a nearby star we now call Electra. They were as beautiful and noble as the Muses; like them, their true names have been forgotten, so in this tale, we shall simply call them the Sirens.
The Muses, in order from eldest to youngest, were the triplets Mneme, Aoide, and Melete, the healer Krittika, sad Terpsika, Datchika the jeweler, star-wise Urani, Cali the poet, and lastly tiny Poli who was likely the wisest of all of them.
The triplets looked very similar in their youth but could not have been more different. They were all tall with sable hair and beautiful, piercing eyes, but there the similarities ended.
Mneme, the eldest by a photon’s heartbeat, was strong of will, sharp of wit, all-seeing and all-remembering. It was believed that no word spoken in her hearing would ever be forgotten; she marked the very waves on the shore one by one and could remember them all. She had sharp black eyes as keen as an eagle’s, and her voice was resonant and commanding.
Aoide was quiet, wise, and gentle. Unlike her sisters, her eyes were pale blue, like the ocean on a misty day. Her voice was soft and musical, the quiet and beautiful voice of an owl singing in the moonlight.
Melete was a skilled hunter and a fierce warrior, well-trained in the arts of all weapons, from hurled stones to star-shattering ylem-wands—but preferring her silent bow. Melete was neither calm and patient like Aoide nor decisive like Mneme. Instead, she was calculating and watchful, a swift, sharp-taloned hawk ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
The younger siblings were content to follow their elder triplets’ lead, so we shall meet them later, save for one who disagreed with the elders—and for good reason. This was Terpsika, the middle Muse. She was the mother of the Sirens. It is said that when the war began it broke her heart and one of the Stars of Dream fell from the sky. Since she could neither fight her own children nor her own sisters, she fled and was never heard from again except in dreams—those sorts of dreams you awaken from to find tears pouring down your face but cannot remember why. Her weeping should have stopped the war before it even began it always thus, with war—tears always flow, but it rarely helps.
The war began innocently enough as a simple contest of the arts. Falcon Swift-Flyer had flown to the Sun and carried its light down on her graceful short wings. She wished to tell the story of her journey, but the young bird was not much of a singer or writer. She spoke to her lore-wise aunt, Owl, the Queen of Night, but her elder just smiled and shook her big round head. “I am the Queen of Night, and this tale of the sun is beyond my ken.” The Muses were widely considered the best songwriters and playwrights in the Galaxy, so Owl suggested Falcon seek their services.
But Eagle, the Queen of Day and Falcon’s mother, disagreed. The Muses were surely skilled at their art, but the Sirens were said to be the best singers. Owl and Eagle quarreled over this—the sisters loved to argue and did so every chance they got—and each made a convincing case.
While the Sirens together were the best singers, Owl argued, silver-voiced Aoide of the Muses was a better solo singer and surely would win any contest of voice. Yet quiet Thelxinoe, the eldest sister of the Sirens, was a more skilled poet and songwriter than all the Muses together, and surely her songs would live on throughout the ages when the words of the Muses had faded into legend.
And so a contest was proposed and a valuable prize promised. The winner’s star—the Muses’ Maia or the Sirens’ Electra—would become the source of the great River of the East, the current that future peoples would follow through the stars and dreams. Falcon’s father, Wolf Far-Traveler warned his family that this contest was a terrible idea and no good would come of it, but his advice went unheeded—as it often did.
The family contacted the Muses and the Sirens, who were excited at the contest’s prospect and the reward. Lots were drawn, and it was decided that they would hold the contest on the Stage of Sea and Sky under the shallow equatorial waters of the Muses’ homeworld (which in later days would be called ‘Aamhaum or Yume or other names meaning Dream). For judges, the Kings and Queens of four of the Great Worlds were invited, including a few of the former Kings and Queens that could still be found.
Eagle, Queen of Day, and Owl, Queen of Night, were grudgingly accompanied by Wolf, King of Dusk, and his brother and fellow King, Bear—who would go anywhere if given a comfortable seat and an ample supply of honey. (The sweet honey-cakes served by the Muses were silly to him—better to eat honey straight from the beehive—but they were delicious, and he ate his fill.) Owl found her reclusive fellow Queen Bat and convinced her to leave her caves to attend, while playful Cat, the retired Queen of Night that Owl had replaced in recent ages, was delighted to come, flirting her tail and cracking jokes with her fellow audience members before the show started.
Red-crested Rooster Morning-Caller and Raven Shadow-Plume, the birds that had replaced Eagle and Owl as Queens of Dawn, arrived and took their seats. Mammoth, the retired King of Day, had to be teleported in because the doors were too small. The gentle, wise old Mammoth could have picked up all the Kings and Queens at once with his massive trunk, and from that trunk, he let out a trumpet of astonishment when his long-lost brother Lion arrived, stalking in through the main doors in a suit of shining armor draped with blood-red standards bearing the crests of warring tribes of men.
Moving too quickly to see, Melete deprived Lion of his arsenal of blades and other weapons and cast them into one of the reflecting pools on the stage, where they disappeared. “One does not carry weapons in this place,” Melete said harshly—and held up her hands and gestured to her empty sheathes and holsters. Lion let out an earthshaking roar, but Mammoth interceded his great bulk between them and glared at his brother. Lion rumbled a bit but subsided.
“I shall not need blades here, I suppose,” he said. “Nor feathered arrows.”
“Silence. I remember your deeds,” Mneme said softly, dangerously. “Even Dragon and Serpent did evil only out of ignorance and pain—you do it knowingly, claiming faith as your justification. Your words have been poison ever since you became the standard-bearer of warring men. Save to cast your vote, you may not speak within these chambers.” Lion felt the power of Mneme’s binding spell, silencing his voice. His fanged jaws clenched with frustration, but eventually, he sighed and sat back on his haunches to await the show… and to cast his vote when the time came.
The ten Kings and Queens took their seats and platforms and perches and nooks.
When artists on the worlds of men write, they take a pen to paper or fingers to keys or perhaps chalk or chisel to slabs of stone. But on a world of spirit, such as found among the Stars of Dream, the process is extraordinary. As the Muses took the stage and the Sirens and the judges watched from the benches encircling the dome, the nine sisters began to create, to weave together a tapestry of sound and word and light of such breathtaking beauty it is almost inconceivable to us—though the end results of the human artistic process can be as beautiful as any songs of the Muses or the Sirens.
To say that Mneme engraved shining letters of blue-white flame in the air with her fingers and staff, or that jewel-wise Datchika carved gemstones from the waters of the reflecting pool and captured the words within them, or that Aoide made the stones change colors and glow with the resonating tones of her voice as she sang the scales she would use in her song, is to touch only the very edge of the magic that went into “The Falcon and the Sun” as the Muses would sing it.
Krittika, the healer with gentle hands, gathered the sparkling fragments of the Song from the air as it took shape and mixed them into elixirs that would heal the hearts of whoever drank them. Even the hunter Melete crafted arrowheads of light and song that, during the performance, she would juggle in weaving, elegant spirals—later, when she hunted, the song-touched arrows would find their way to the hearts of creatures whose times had come and take them to the light of the Sun.
All the Muses had their place in the Song and the writing of it. Cali played with the words so they would rhyme and resonate, while Urani, the astronomer and navigator, crafted holographic maps of the stars and the currents of space where the Song connected the flow of dreams through the universe. Terpsika tuned her sisters into harmonic avatars of one another such that they sang in exquisite chorus, tiny Poli danced, weaving music into motion and innocent joy… and Aoide sang.
Oh, how she sang! There is no room in this tale to do justice to the beauty of her voice. Nay, not if this story was printed on thin pages and stacked taller than the top of great Mammoth’s head! It is said that some singers have voices so powerful and clear that they can break glass—yet if one took a mirror that had been shattered in a thousand pieces and put it in the room as Aoide sang, the pieces would leap back together and rebuild the mirror so perfectly one could not tell its reflections from reality. Indeed, her voice and the song her sisters had crafted were so flawless that the listeners felt surrounded by mirrors—each reflecting the glorious, joyous sound and light, piercing their hearts with the radiance that Falcon had discovered on the day she traveled to the heart of the Sun and found that its light was the same as the Light inside her.
The song did not end so much as fade away like a sunset whispering a promise to rise the next day—and indeed it was sunset when Aoide finished singing. The brilliant light of Maia shined through the clouds and waves above the Stage of Sea and Sky, filtered to gold and surrounding the underwater dome with flickering fire.
The Kings and Queens were struck speechless. Owl was staring raptly at the stage with the memory of the Song burned in her soul; later, she would go home and write pages and pages on her favorite glass-and-plastic book of memories—indeed, her account of the breathtaking song passed down through the ages was my primary source when I started writing this. Wolf, ordinarily quiet, threw back his head and let out a joyful howl, and Mammoth’s trumpet shook the dome. Bat lay twitching happily on the ground, having lost her balance and fallen off her perch as Aoide’s voice overwhelmed her senses with ultrasonic delight. Cat was batting at the stars, letters, and musical symbols still dancing around the stage, purring loudly and rubbing against Muses’ legs. Even Lion seemed happy and at peace, with no menace in his eyes or his soft growl. Melete’s hawklike gaze softened as she gazed upon her quiescent king.
Thelxinoe, the eldest of the Sirens, slowly rose from her seat near the stage. Tears flowed freely from her silver eyes as she climbed up and walked over to Aoide. She seemed to gaze into the reflecting pools on either side of the stage for a moment before she spoke.
“I know not if the five of us together can match the beauty of your voice,” she said quietly. “And I weep to think that such a gift as the song you just gave us should be the subject of something as silly—and corrupting—as a competition.”
Aoide just smiled. “I could not sing such a song—it sings itself, and what we do with it is entirely up to us. But I thank you for your words.” She bowed slowly and deeply, followed a moment later by her sisters. The lights and colors faded, and Datchika returned the jewels to the reflecting pool. As the Muses left the stage, the song seemed to remain, ringing in the air too softly to hear except with the heart.
Except for their leader Thelxinoe, the Sirens were not masters of songwriting, only singing. They were skilled and subtle with their voices in a way that even Aoide, the Muse of Song, could not quite duplicate. Respectfully, the Muses took their seats and closed their ears to the music the Sirens were building.
Complex chords and rhythms danced the molecules of the air when they ran through scales as Thelxinoe wrote the song on a small glass tablet with a flashing screen, showing it to her feathered sisters, who nodded vigorously and incorporated parts of the song into their rehearsal.
After about half an hour, the song was written, and silver-eyed Thelxinoe showed her sisters again. They gathered in a little knot, singing softly to themselves, matching rhythm and tone, nodding excitedly and waving their feathered arms. “This is good,” Thelxinoe pronounced at last and bowed to the crowd. “At your pleasure, we will begin our song.”
There were no theatrics, no special effects or accompaniments. None were needed. The five Sirens stood in a line with their feathered arms waving slightly to help them synchronize, their gold or silver eyes smiling as they watched their sisters and followed their parts.
If the Muses’ song had been a shining sun, that of the Sirens was a silver crescent moon, complex tones interweaving into a whole that seemed shrouded in dark mystery. The Light was there, oh yes, but it wasn’t merely dazzling. Instead, it limned the edge of the song and the listeners’ hearts, the silver lining of a cloud that made them ache to see the full brilliance of the Sun coming out, of the moon’s phase changing to full and lighting up the night. They sang in a slow tempo at first, telling of the Light, of how it pulled the spirit to seek it, of how close at hand it was, until the listeners were leaning forward in their seats as though to burst free of their bodies and fly to the Sun then and there.
The Sirens’ eyes closed, and the feathers on their heads and arms waved gently as they moved. But they didn’t notice—they had caught themselves up in their own song, in their own longing for the Light of which they sang.
It was a long, slow, gentle song.
When it was over, it moved even lazy Bear to tears; he had forgotten his honey-cakes, and his heart was stirred to search all the worlds for the Light even if the journey took him away from honey forevermore—he would even forgo his naps. His brother Wolf sat back on his haunches, pleased and content—an explorer at heart, he already understood the call. Eagle and Owl just looked at each other and gazed upward through the transparent dome into the stars now visible above the waters.
Raven’s feathers had turned to sparkling snow, matching Thelxinoe’s.
Aoide, her eyes filled with tears, was the first to applaud, rising to her feet and clapping while staring star-struck at the stage. Her nieces smiled at her and bowed respectfully, flashing colorful feathers, and after a moment, left the stage to the echoes of the song.
Falcon Swift-Flyer, Queen of the Sun, flew around the dome so swiftly that she seemed transformed into a ray of light spiraling through space. “‘Aia ha!” she cried. “I am joyous! You all sang so well! Muses—when you sang, it was like I was back in the center of the Sun! Sirens—when you sang, it was like I was on my spirit’s journey again, with the Sun in my eyes! Oh, thank you! Thank you all; you’ve captured it so well!” She landed on the stage and danced for a moment, shining with joy. “I cannot vote; you were both so good!”
Sitting in the foremost of the Muses’ seats, Mneme seemed bothered by something. She was shaking her head and looking at Thelxinoe with a hint of annoyance in her black eyes. Aoide glanced at her, glimpsing her expression and raising a questioning eyebrow. Mneme frowned and looked away.
“The voting will now begin!” Falcon said and flew off the stage.
They invited Mammoth to vote first, in deference to his age. He sat thinking about it for a long time. “Mmm, a hard choice. A hard choice indeed. I suppose… slightly, ever so slightly, I must say, I prefer the song of the Muses. I have lived long, and in my youth, I made many journeys. I have finally found my place for my remaining years, and now I am content to bask in the sunlight. Their song was of the destination rather than the journey; thus, I vote for them.”
Owl, said to be the wisest of the Queens, voted next. “Though the songwriting skills of the Muses are incredible, I must cast my vote with the Sirens,” she said after long consideration—much to Eagle’s surprise. “Their voices melted together in such harmony fill me with longing to seek the Sun myself, though I am the Queen of Night.”
Eagle, naturally, broke with her original position and voted for the Muses, and Wolf voted likewise—though he commented that the decision was far too difficult.
Bear, Rooster, and Cat voted for the Sirens and Raven for the Muses—though he thanked the Sirens for his new feathers. Bat, after flapping her wings for a bit, voted for the Sirens but didn’t say why.
Lion was the last of the Kings to vote. He glared at Melete for a moment before he spoke. Mneme frowned at him—the Sirens had likely won the contest, and he would surely vote for them out of antipathy for the Muses.
“I see the votes are four to five in favor of the Sirens,” he said smugly. Aoide looked at the ground sadly. “Therefore, let me vote in favor of the Muses, who craft music so well.” With that, the spell that bound his voice took hold again, and he fell silent. Aoide stared at him in surprise, but as she saw and understood his expression, the sadness retook her—deeper than before. It wasn’t the music that moved him. He just wanted to tie the vote. But why? She looked up at Mneme, who frowned deeply and gave Lion a long, icy stare with one eyebrow arched.
“The vote is tied!” Falcon announced. “As well it should be, as beautiful as both performances were! But we must decide.”
No one spoke for a moment; Mneme looked at the ground, then over at Thelxinoe. Her expression hardened into one of sudden resolve. “There is a matter,” she whispered.
Falcon looked down at her. “Lady Mneme, what is troubling you?”
She looked down, unwilling to raise the point that was bothering her, but the memory of the song was undeniable. “I… I regret to point out that our esteemed opponent has shared with us a plagiarized song.”
“What!” Thelxinoe snapped. Her silver eyes widened with shock and anger, but underneath that, she seemed so deeply hurt and betrayed that Mneme immediately regretted having spoken, but it was too late to take back the words.
“Explain,” Falcon said, raising one wing to forestall the Sirens’ angry protest.
“Perhaps it doesn’t matter,” Mneme said lamely. “But I recognize that song or at least parts of it. Thelxinoe based the song on one from another time. It was originally written by Gabrielle Reyes, an Aretzi—or perhaps a Terran; those worldlines are too tangled to determine which one she wrote the song in—for her beloved, the Sun of her life, whom she lost.”
“Did you know of this song?” Falcon asked Thelxinoe.
“I know not of what she speaks,” Thelxinoe said, her ordinarily silver eyes swirling with black and gold. “I have not heard of this Gabrielle Reyes, and I believe Aretz, Tierra, is home only to cavemen thus far.”
“It is a future worldline, yes,” Mneme said. “But that means little to you or us when it comes to songs. You must have heard it somehow and—”
“Enough of this!” Thelxinoe said angrily. “I came by the song as honestly as you Muses did yours—and we had no need of your dazzling theatrics either! This was a contest of song, not of spectacles! Your charms did not sway the vote fully in your favor, so you resort instead to base accusations and slander!” She had hot, angry tears in her eyes; her sisters talked among themselves, quite disgusted with the Muses, in their high-pitched voices. Melete shot to her feet, gesturing angrily, but Owl interrupted.
“Calm down, Lady Thelxinoe, Lady Mneme!” she cried. “Have you forgotten why we came together in the first place, what the songs you sang today mean?”
“Yes, this strife is unacceptable,” Eagle said, spreading her majestic wings. “This is a celebration for my daughter Falcon, who has flown to the Sun. I understand your concerns, but I believe both of you entered this competition with honest intentions. Therefore, we ask you to settle this dispute between yourselves and choose a winner, since both songs so move us and we cannot decide between them. We will also provide an honorable prize for the team that concedes the contest.”
Grumbling, the Muses and the Sirens subsided, glaring at each other.
“Very well,” Mneme said. “We will discuss this.” Thelxinoe nodded shortly.
“My sister, my daughter, and I will hear your decision when you are ready,” Eagle said. “In the meantime, on behalf of all of us, I thank you all for the beauty of your songs. You’ve brought something wonderful to this stage and our hearts, and we shall treasure it always—whoever you decide to call the winner.” The other Kings and Queens shouted their agreement and thanks; slowly, the great hall cleared. Lion looked over his shoulder and gave Melete a wink; she glared at him and flipped him a hawkish gesture as he sauntered away. Yes, he had known exactly what he was doing with his tie vote.
When the Muses and the Sirens were alone at last on the stage under the sea, they looked at each other for a long time. Conflicting emotions played over the faces of the two families: sadness, anger, apology, and determination.
Everyone present knew there would be no concession.