Ancient Yuletide Carols
"I hate doing Gloriana," Sydney sighed, fretting over his cufflinks. "It's so syrupy and sentimental and over-boiled. Like some kind of bad pudding without enough booze in the sauce."
"You'll have booze enough afterwards," Ashley countered, watching from the dressing room doorway. Visitors were strictly forbidden backstage before performances, but thanks to the power of the Dark, no one but Sydney noticed the broad-shouldered man with his perfectly tailored tuxedo and his somewhat improbable hairdo. "Grissom always lays the good stuff on for his Yule party."
"I'll need it, after this." Sydney raked long fingers through his hair, which fell to his shoulders like a shaft of winter sunlight. He was too vain to cut it or put it back, even when performing. Ashley often wondered how he managed to avoid getting it tangled up in his violin strings, and figured some latent supernatural power was at play. "It's not as though there aren't other, perfectly serviceable songs for Yule," Sydney went on. "But no, it has to be Gloriana, every single year."
Ashley tried, for Sydney's sake, to keep his smile restrained. "You didn't always hate it, you know. And it wasn't always overdone."
"You must be joking. They were already using it in car commercials before I was born."
Ashley arched an eyebrow at him in the lighted mirror, and Sydney made a noise of resignation. "Previous incarnations of me do not count, Riot."
Ashley made a show of adjusting his tuxedo tie in the mirror. "I think this one might."
It was Ashley's turn to look dubious. "They just called the half. You sure you have time for--"
Sydney's penetrating gaze was enough to kill Ashley's argument. Though it had been centuries and lifetimes since he had wielded the Dark personally, he was fully aware of its power. Ashley held out his hand for Sydney to take.
"All right, all right. But no complaints about what I used to wear four hundred years ago, and if you say one thing about my hair--"
"Your hair's strange evolution over the centuries would take more time to explain than even the Dark could provide." Sydney's cold hand--they were always cold, as though in the memory of the time they had once been made of steel--slipped into Ashley's. Electric light whirled away into the darkness of the Rood-bearer's memories, and the two of them stepped into the past.
A blaze of candlelight on varnished wood, the rustle of silk skirts, the murmur of a crowd in refined merriment. They stood in the midst of a party, with dancers whirling through them as though they were not there, because they weren't. Sydney and Ashley were in a memory of an Ivalice centuries gone, where the men wore skirted coats of velvet and dripping lace, and the ladies' hair was powdered into sherbet-like tints of lilac and rose above their white shoulders.
"At least it's not a witch trial this time," Sydney said dryly, as a young woman rushed through him, arms outstretched, to greet a friend on the far side of the ballroom.
"Not your witch trial, anyway," Ashley returned. He scanned the crowd expectantly, and then pointed to a shadowy alcove down one of the side-corridors, away from the brightest candles. "Ah. I think we'll find ourselves over there." He did not bother to dodge the dancers, or even parts of the furniture, striding right through both without a pause.
Sydney trailed after at a slower pace, admiring the dresses and the desserts, the glitter of jewels. But even with his delay, Ashley still gave him an apologetic shrug when he caught up.
"We're a little early," he said.
Sydney glanced into the alcove, and sighed. Ashley's memory of himself was there, in gleaming chestnut velvets and locked in an earnest embrace with one of Sydney's earlier incarnations. Sydney put himself at maybe twenty, in gray silk and clocked stockings, his hair escaping its ribbon.
"Ugh, it's like watching the worst home video in the world," Sydney said, wrinkling his nose as a little moan escaped his past self. "And we're right next to the meringues. Couldn't we go to the gardens, for decency's sake?"
"There's three feet of snow in the gardens," Ashley said. "This is the Queen's personal Yule Ball, three hundred and twenty-six years ago. And as I recall the occasion, you were feeling rather urgent."
Sydney's mouth twitched. "Clearly."
"But what if she hates it?" Past-Sydney said then, in a worried exhalation that his present incarnation thought a strange kind of endearment. The interlude in the alcove had clearly come in the middle of a conversation that was only just now resuming.
"She's not going to hate it," Memory-Ashley said, and pressed a kiss to the pale forehead. "You're the most celebrated composer in the city right now, and you wrote this expressly for her. Monarchs love having things written for them. It wouldn't matter if it was a bawdy tavern roundelay."
"Oh no," Sydney said, with comingled horror and understanding spreading on his face. "Are you saying I wrote this drek?"
"No," Ashley countered, his smile maddening. "You're saying it. But it's much the same argument."
Sydney's groan of resignation was commingled with a similar sound of dismay from his past self.
"I hope it is not so cheap as all that."
"It's not," Sydney shouted, directly into his own disincarnated ear. "But it damn well will be."
"Go and play it, and see for yourself," Ashley said, tilting his head in the direction of the ballroom. There was an excited hush running through the audience, as the orchestra finished the minuet and began an expectant shuffling of sheet music.
Gloriana herself, known to historians as Queen Ashelia XI, took her seat at the front of the musicians. She was nearing forty but was delightfully plump and flawlessly painted, with filigree doves woven into the perfect ringlets of her hair. As beloved as it is possible for a monarch to be, she would plunge the whole country into mourning after her death twenty years later.
Staring at her, Sydney thought she suited the piece, and it wasn't a compliment to either party. He shuddered violently as his past-self walked right through him to the orchestra, and bowed to polite applause.
"So I wrote it," Sydney said, whispering in spite of himself. "Point taken. Can we go now?"
"Wait," Ashley answered, and assumed a patient pose next to his past self, both sets of arms crossed, both hips tilted. It made Sydney feel dizzy, and he looked back at the orchestra.
He knew Gloriana back to front, as did any musician who ever had call to play a concert between the first day of autumn and the last day of Yule. Even if he hadn't been rehearsing it all month, it had been present at almost every winter performance in his life, starting with his first one when, at age six, he had scraped it out of a child's size violin in front of his parents' church congregation. Sydney knew Gloriana because everyone knew Gloriana.
Everyone, that is, except the queen and her attendant guests. When those first notes began, the ones that Sydney knew so well, the crowd drew a breath all at once and held it, rapt. The music was icy as it spiraled upwards, only one violin and one flute twisting around the melody together. Sydney forgot that he knew where it was going, and no one else had ever known it before. When the melody poured down in a rush to meet the rising swell of the other instruments, he exhaled along with the crowd. He forgot the stupid parodies, the insipid attempts to put lyrics to the piece, and he was swept forward in a wave of music along with all the other listeners. This was not the song wheedled out by battery-operated plush bears in the drugstore aisles. It was not even the halting, wheezing notes of his first violin. It was a song of the season and a tribute for a Queen, and Sydney's chest ached and his eyes burned to hear it like this: a thing fearless and new.
The queen and her company faded, whirling away back to the past where it belonged. But Gloriana remained, and Sydney wondered if he would ever be able to hear it the same way again. He certainly hoped not.
Ashley had not moved, leaning in the doorway like he had been leaning in the alcove of the ballroom, his fine velvets traded for black tie. The intercom crackled with the ten-minute warning, and Sydney shook himself like a man waking from a dream.
"You did that on purpose," he said, accusing.
"You asked me to," Ashley reminded him. "And now I'd better get up to the box, before Grissom thinks I've stood him up. Break a leg, or whatever it is violinists are supposed to break."
"Don't tempt me to come up with something," Sydney said, with a dark look at Ashley. But it was an empty threat, and they both knew it. Ashley smiled and was gone, impossibly fast along the paths of the Dark. Sydney picked up his violin and gave a serene nod to the stage hand coming to escort him up to the wings.
When he played Gloriana that night, it did not go unnoticed that there was something different about it. Even Grissom, who attended the symphony more because it was something a man of his standing was supposed to do rather than for any love of classical music, commented on the brilliance of the rendition. And as for Sydney, he was not found to speak ill of the piece again, only of its misuse. Though he performed it many times thereafter, it always sounded like he was doing so for the first time, and that every listener in the audience was a beloved queen.