I was in my dressing room putting on my makeup when Lukas came to tell me about the body in the canals. Lukas, a tenor, is one of the few actual friends I have in the company, although I have no enemies. Also he was the one who found the body.
The opera house has beneath it a maze of canals, which serve as both fire suppressant and a source of special effects. The stage hands can use them to produce cascades and waterfalls to make the most jaded audiences ooh and ahh. Apparently some poor soul had also met his end there that afternoon.
"Do you know who it was?" I asked. I had to put down my makeup brush, for my hands were no longer steady. A dead body in the canals is by no means a common occurrence, and we are shielded from many of the violent and pitiful deaths of poorer folk, in our opera company.
Lukas stared at his hands. Like some other Moors I have seen, he has palms of a much lighter hue than the rest of him, but all his dark skin was ashy with distress. "Someone else might, Udo. I had never seen him. It was a young man, barely more than a boy. Well-dressed. Probably noble."
"Dear God," I said softly. "An accident?"
"There are very few throats accidentally cut."
"Dear God," I repeated.
Lukas roused himself. "Anyway," he said, "they are not telling anyone. The public, I mean. They are not telling the public. But I felt the company should know."
"I appreciate that," I said, and meant it despite the melancholy of the news. Lukas nodded and left—he, too, had to ready himself for the evening's concert.
I could not stop thinking of the dead young man in the canals, as I waited in the wings that evening. The flour in my makeup was caking with my sweat. I had not even made my grand entrance yet, and it was smudging. I comforted myself that even the seats in the orchestra were not close enough to see fine detail, and the ladies in the proscenium boxes would enjoy the touch of reality, but I wanted every detail of tonight's performance to be perfect so my audience wouldn't think so much of the poor murdered youth.
The flutes were flat. My makeup was not the half of it.
The Kapellmeister was going to be furious, but I wouldn't get the brunt of it. I never do, even without the distraction of a murdered youth to think of. He knows I'm always reliable, and also I have a bit of magic I use to make sure I am only really noticed when I'm singing—so as long as I can do that, I'm safe.
I have always been able to do that.
I came to Berlin when they needed a new male soprano. I had started in a smaller opera company, but Berlin needed me. I prefer the term soprano maschio—male soprano—but hardly anyone uses that except our Kapellmeister when he's trying to impress someone. Mostly they call me musico when I'm lucky, which I don't mind,or castrato, or evirato, which I do mind, but what can you say? I was trained in Rome with others like myself, and it was a better life than my parents could have given me, the fourteenth child on a tiny farm.
And moving to Berlin was good. Sometimes in Berlin I could be "the Italian" and not "the castrato." Sometimes. For a few minutes, now and then. My landlady never hears me sing—she couldn't afford a night at the opera even if she had the taste for it, which she does not—and so my spells never touch her, and I pass a lovely evening with her and her daughters now and then, when I don't have a performance, playing a hand of cards, even if they do circle play in the wrong direction up here.
I got through my opening with no problems. I made it through the duet, overpowering the flat flutes. And then it was just a quick segue, and I could deploy my suitcase aria.
Some modern composers are writing every aria fresh for each piece, and this terrifies me. The old way—the right way, the safe way—is for the composers to put a spot in for the singers to sing their aria, the one that goes with them wherever they go: their suitcase aria. In my case, it was the one that kept all attention on my singing and none of it on me personally.
One of the baritones had been trying to convince the Kapellmeister to change the way we do things, to do them the modern way. I wondered about more arias, but I needed my suitcase aria. I had seen too many other musicos exploited, made public figures; I had seen them groped and made figures of fun, or I had seen them borne away on the tides of their own fame, enslaved to passions others had given them. I would not be like them. I would sing, and that would be all they could have of me.
So when the stars of the company joined together with the wilder and younger patrons after the opera was over, I was not in their number. They swept away down Unter den Linden, a mad merry party. I would think that they were trying to forget the body in the canals, but they behaved much the same on any night.
In most cities the central musico would be the center of that rush, but my song had cut me out of their hearts, made sure that they thought of me only as they thought of a candle when they wanted light. "Beautiful, glorious!" they would say, and they would forget that there was a person behind the beauty and the glory.
That was safest. That was best.
And because of the things I do to stay safe, I was left in the opera house with the servants who cleaned it. They knew me well, and we kept a companionable silence, going about our separate tasks. I finished taking off my makeup and changed my glittering costume into a suit that was not yet worn enough to make my landlady sniff and implore heaven on my behalf, which she did regularly.
I was on my way out the back stage door when I heard singing. Not some char humming about her work—professional quality, or possibly even better. It was a soprano, I felt sure, and none of the sopranos in our company could sing like that.
There was an edge to the song that reminded me of my own secret gifts. The day's murder should have made me cautious, but I could not help myself. I turned away from the door and crept, as quietly as I could, towards the singer.
But the song receded ahead of me as I went down the stairs into the bowels of the opera house. This was not the babbling of water. It was very clearly a song—very clearly an enchanted song at that. But the closer I got to the water of the canals, the louder it got.
I was reluctant to interrupt the singer, who was talented if not to my taste, but I had to know who the mystery voice was.
"Excuse me!" I called. The song swelled louder, but I took a deep breath and persevered. "I beg your pardon. Who's there? You're very talented."
The ending was on a throbbingly low note, and then there was one loud splash followed by a series of quieter ones. I walked carefully towards the splash. "Hello?"
The water in the canals was still rippling and waving. As I got closer, I could see that it was waving around a body, floating face down. From the clothing and build it was someone born male. Another young man in the canals. I flipped him over, gingerly trying to keep from wetting more than my cuffs, hoping against hope that this would be different.
His throat was cut, his eyes staring, but I had no way to tell whether he'd been killed while I was there listening to the singing. I hoped not. But it seemed likely there was a murderous soprano somewhere in the basement of the Opera House with me.
I heard footsteps coming behind me and whirled, hoping that I remembered the defensive spells I hadn't sung in years.
"What did you—oh, musico, it's you," said the voice from the shadows. She came a little nearer, and I could see her face. It was Gitte, one of the opera dancers—my favorite of the opera dancers, to be precise. "What happened? Is it—oh, God, another?"
I was intensely grateful that Gitte did not immediately think that I would be the cause of mayhem. "I heard singing—female singing, a soprano—and I came and found him like this. Well, almost like this. I flipped him over."
Gitte peered at the staring eyes. "Do you know him?"
"No. He looks like a patron, though. His clothes are good."
"Should we . . ." She eyed the corpse dubiously. "Should we try to haul him out?"
"I'll stay with him, and you fetch the stage manager," I said. "He'll know which of the servants to ask to help with it. And I imagine His Majesty will have to be told. Two in one day can't be passed off as a coincidence."
"We'll be well out of it by then," I reassured her.
Frederick the Great, long may he reign, was a regular visitor to our place of employ, weighing in on questions from the tedious to the sublime. I have heard him hold forth on the suitability of cavatina arias vs. da capo arias until one could have mistaken the ruler of the land for a director—or worse, a composer.
But that didn't mean he wouldn't have courtiers and flunkeys with him who would have an eye for an opera dancer. I had every sympathy with Gitte wanting to stay out of his way.
Gitte squared her shoulders. "All right, then. I'll go. You didn't see the murderer departing the scene?"
"Not a thing," I said. "There was barely a splash on the water when I got here. But it must have been a woman either as murderer or as decoy, because even if this man was cut as I am, one can hear the difference between kinds of soprano."
She nodded and departed, leaving me alone with the corpse. I took the opportunity to hum a little tune under my breath. To my trained senses, the water lit up with wild magic, but it was fading so fast that it was completely dark and still by the time Gitte returned with the stage manager and a few of the sturdier stage hands and navvies.
"Thank you, Udo," said the stage manager absently. "You can go now. How unfortunate that you had to find him."
The spell in my suitcase aria was working almost too well. Someone—one of the king's men—would ask him why he hadn't questioned me about the circumstances. I said, "I'll go to your office, shall I? To wait to give my report to the king's men."
"Yes, good idea."
It was very late when I got home, but I couldn't sleep. My landlady fussed over me, made me coffee and asked all sorts of questions she must have known I wouldn't answer. The singing and the splashes made me nervous. I wasn't from the German lands originally, but the magic training I had gotten introduced me to all sorts of spirits from all over the continent. And the ones that went splash were mostly not very nice. It seemed unlikely that another human who knew magic would be in the water. I kept trying to think of other alternatives, nicer, saner alternatives. Nicer, saner alternatives that had still ended in a man's death were not thick on the ground.
The next day there was an announcement to the company: that no one should go around at night alone, that one of our patrons (some obscure fellow named Dieter) and a noble in from the provinces (Lord this-or-that, I didn't hear what) had been murdered by person or persons unknown. They acted as though it was ordinary murder, but I knew better.
I had skills no one else had. I would have to investigate.
I have been underestimated my entire life. Even without my spells, I think men would underestimate me, for they are convinced that their virility conveys to them powers beyond the comprehension of women and persons like me. I knew that very few people at the Opera House would be willing to let the eunuch take the lead, so I found Gitte again.
"I need your help," I said. "I don't want to go into the depths alone. I want you to plug your ears with wax so you can drag me out if I need dragging."
She regarded me dubiously. "First, while dancers are stronger than anyone gives us credit for, have you noticed that you are a great deal—a very great deal—larger than I? So that if you have any other options for dragging you out—"
"I don't." Well, there was Lukas, and also I was on good terms with the oldest and most fragile of the charwomen. But Gitte had already been there. I did not want it to have to go farther than Gitte.
She acknowledged this with a nod. "And second—stop my ears with wax? Am I a sailor with Odysseus now?"
"There was a song," I said. "It was—no one from our company could have sung it. I have training, and—I don't know if I can explain. But I am frightened of this song."
"And you are going towards the thing you fear," she mused aloud. "Very well. That sort of courage ought to be rewarded, or at the very least supported. When should I start the dragging?"
"If I go into the canals," I said.
She made a little noise in her throat. "This is sounding more delightful by the moment. All right. Wax? I suppose you have some for the occasion?"
I did. If my training taught me nothing else, it taught me to be prepared.
The cellars of the Opera House are a great deal less terrifying by day and with company than alone and at night, but the recent presence of not one but two corpses—one of which I had come face-to-face with personally not so long ago—more than compensated for that.
"Is there evidence we should be looking for?" said Gitte. "Oh, never mind. I can't hear you anyway. I'll just look for anything strange, whatever that means."
She was only one of a handful of people in my life who thought I was strange because of what I did and not because of my genitals. I valued that more than I could say.
The canals wove through the basement of the Opera House in a way that had never seemed ominous before there were corpses in them. We took slow steps among them, moving cautiously. I heard nothing. Over and over again, we paced the rows.
"How long are you going to do this?" said Gitte.
I held up one hand to signal for patience and then trailed it in the canal. Possibly the thing was nocturnal. Possibly it was only drawn by certain kinds of human scent or movement. Possibly I was imagining it all and the killer was a human with human motives.
I felt a slight stirring in the water. It could have been wishful thinking.
Footsteps in the corridor seemed to make it stop, and someone backlit strode along, clumping happily with the confident stride of a star of the stage.
"Udo? Gitte?" I knew that light tenor well. I had sung high counterpoint to it more times than I could count.
"Hello, Lukas," I said, wishing I was surprised.
"What are you doing?"
I heaved a sigh. I had already brought Gitte farther into this than I had hoped. There was another denizen of the Opera House who managed to see through my protective spells, and I liked him just fine. There was no reason he should have to deal with whatever had caused two murders, just due to the misfortune of having found one of them. "We're . . . handling things. Please, don't worry about us. Go about your business."
He snorted. I should have known. "Udo, you may not let me know you well, but even I know that you are not dallying with the dancer here. Rumors about castrati to the contrary."
"What does he want?" said Gitte.
I sighed. That would have given it away if nothing else did. It would be extremely hard, if not impossible, for a dancer to work in the opera without being able to hear, and Lukas knew as well as I did that Gitte spoke German—and his own German was flawless.
"What's wrong with her?"
"I had her put wax in her ears."
"You—" He stepped closer, so that we could see each other better in the dim light. "You had her put wax in her ears. What sound are you afraid of?"
"I think a sound played a part in the deaths we've had. And Gitte is to drag me out if—"
"If I look like I'm going to join them."
Lukas looked from one of us to the other, more skeptical than was strictly flattering. "I'll help," he said at last.
"You have no wax."
"Be that as it may."
I sighed and replaced my hand in the water, stirring my fingers a little. If I had had another kind of childhood, I might have known how to go fishing, but they do not cut boys in order to make fishermen.
A hum came through the water, vibrating my back teeth. But it was a tentative hum.
My suitcase aria was still doing its work protecting me: the hand in the water said come here, but the lingering effects of the spell said, who, me? No one of interest here.
But I had Lukas and Gitte with me. Whatever it was would not be able to resist forever.
Sure enough, a fishy green-white head broke the surface at the end of the canal, peering through the dim light at us with wide eyes that only—I was almost sure—seemed to glow.
"Dear Lord in Heaven, what is that?" cried Gitte.
There was a hiss and a splash, but I had already had my worst fears confirmed: the Opera House canals had been inhabited by a nix.
"What did you find?" gasped Lukas behind me.
"Do you really want to know?"
"I fear I must," he said. "I have to work in this Opera House, and ignorance will not protect me."
"Come," I said. "Let's get away from the water, and I will tell you all I know."
Safely up in my dressing room, I summoned one of the servants to fetch us hot tea and settled Gitte in my best armchair, as if she was the finest lady of court, to dig the wax out of her ears. "Have you heard the stories of Lorelei? The singing maiden of the Rhine who lures men to their doom, like the sirens of old?"
"Now, really, Udo," said Gitte.
Lukas joined in. "I admit that whatever was down there was—"
"I will be glad to hear other suggestions."
Lukas, leaning against the back wall of my dressing room, flinched. "She's here?"
"Her cousin," I said, smiling without any mirth. "Her sister. One of her kind. Nixes are spirits of the water. Not kind and loving spirits, but malevolent ones. They live in rivers and prey on men. Their lovely voices are the only lovely things about them."
"How do you know all this?"
I hesitated. Lukas looked me over. "I suppose," he said, "a better question might be what else do you know. Do you know how to fix this?"
"The people who taught me did not teach me that," I said. "But . . . I don't know where there's anyone who will be any more helpful. So we will have to come up with something."
"That's very reassuring."
I shrugged. "I can't have you going in thinking that you're safe. You're not safe. I'm not safe. No one is."
Gitte poked desultorily at her now-clear ears. "You know magic."
"I—I don't like to use that word. Please don't use that word."
"You're very particular about words," she said.
"They're important to—" I relented. "To magic."
"You know of nothing to placate this creature?" said Lukas.
"Alas, I do not. We don't have them in Italy."
"Nor in the Empire, so far as my mother ever told me," said Lukas.
"And in Germany, no one knows how to fight against them," said Gitte. "This . . . skill, if you will not call it magic. Is this something you have because you—" She flushed. "Because of what was done to you for your voice?"
A magical castration? I suppose it was inevitable that someone would think it. "No," I assured her. "When I was very small I was trained in singing with the other castrati, but then they saw that I was . . . perceptive. In ways that the other children were not perceptive. So I went to another school. The students there grew into baritones and basses and contraltos and mezzos, not just soprano maschios like me."
Lukas's face lit. "Then you could teach us."
That had not occurred to me. I had spent so much time and energy on keeping myself secret, keeping myself safe, that passing on my knowledge had never been a priority. But then, there had never been a murderous siren in my life, either. It wasn't the worst idea a person had ever had.
"This thing with the Lorelei," I said. "I'll be improvising. I don't want to get you into the middle of that without a lot more practice than you're going to have time to get."
"But after," he persisted.
"After," I agreed. I looked to Gitte, and she was nodding fiercely.
"In the meantime," she said, "we need more of a plan than just using you as bait. But I think Lukas and I can take care of that."
"I will have to use full voice," I said. "Whatever plan you come up with needs to work during a real performance. Because doing it during a rehearsal or at night is going to draw just as much attention anyway, without the energy of the crowd to protect me."
Gitte frowned thoughtfully. "We can make that work. Come, Lukas. We will look in the stagehands' box of treasures."
The new performance was soon enough for our purposes. Everyone was wary for the moment—two corpses under the Opera House would do that. We would have the time we needed.
We were doing a new Märchenoper, an opera based on a fairy tale rather than classical or Biblical literature. I preferred sticking with what I knew, but the audiences loved the Märchenoper's immediacy, its earthy peasant familiarity in the elegant setting.
A new Märchenoper called for a new aria.
Oh, I could stay with my old one. But then the nix would pick off other people one by one, leaving only me disregarded. Perhaps it was time for me to be regarded after all.
I drew in my breath and drew her to me. I could feel the power of the audience looking at me in new light—the master, the soprano maschio extraordinaire, the star—and I hated every minute of it. But the memory of the floating stranger, drawn by her song, pressed me onwards. I finished my new aria—like my old one turned inside out—and the applause washed over me in torrents.
I hummed under my breath as I took my bows, keeping the nix drawn to the pools under the stage, keeping her where we could get at her. I took deep, even breaths, drawing out the spell for longer than I'd ever drawn it out, wrenching myself away from the passionate attention of the audience to walk offstage, trying to accept the adulation in a way that would not make anyone follow me.
Below the stage, down a small flight of stairs, I let my volume increase. I heard Lukas and Gitte behind me and let their footfalls time my song, my breaths.
And there, raising its head out of the pool with fangs bared, was the nix. I had been thinking of the nix as her—legends referred to the Rhinemaiden, and Lorelei was a female name—but I realized that any assumption I made about this sharp-toothed, wild-haired creature would be just that, an assumption. An unwarranted one, most likely. Who knew what it would assume, looking from its watery habitat at me. But its eyes were not human, just hungry.
I let the hum grow to a soft song in my throat, pouring a bit more of the energy I'd gotten from the audience's attention into it. "That's right," I sang at it, interspersing a bit of German with my spell. The nix's eyes never left me, and it crooned in return. "That's right, watch me. Stay with me. Don't think of anything but me."
Its croon grew into a song that wove itself around my song. I took a step forward, involuntarily. I knew that I could not listen, could not let it win, but I didn't see how not. We had drawn it, and now it was drawing me. I took another step. Its song was warping mine, guiding my melody into a path where it was a secondary, subordinate harmony to hers instead. I was nearing the edge of the canal.
A weird tenor bray joined our mix, singing random notes at top volume. I would have known Lukas's voice anywhere, but I had never known him to try to be ugly before, never known him to be disruptive. I took a step away from the canals and then sat down on the floor to make myself harder to pull in. I found that I could refocus, take control of the song again, and with it, wrestle the nix to a vocal standstill.
There was a flash, a sparkle in the low light. Gitte had crept up behind it with what looked like the sword of Damocles—some property sword, anyway, all gilt and flash, or so I thought until it came down on the nix's head full swing. The nix screamed.
I didn't hear anything after that.
I don't mean that I passed out. The nix's fury and pain was literally deafening. It was another week before I heard a word, a week huddling in my room worrying whether I would ever work again, inferring my landlady's weeping from her reddened eyes when she came in with my coffee. A week receiving callers who said I knew not what in tones I could not hear, and who made soggy and horrible faces at me and called it sympathy.
But I didn't need my ears to spring forward and help Gitte. I didn't need my ears to see that the hands on mine, wrestling the nix to the side of the canal, were Lukas's, strong and dark and sure. And then Gitte's property sword was much sharper than it looked, and there was a greenish blood on the water, and the nix was still.
We looked at each other, wet and panting, beginning to stink of nix blood. The stage manager stared down the steps at our little tableau, horror-struck.
"It—here is your killer," I said, unable to hear myself or his answer. "Get the Kapellmeister. Get the king. Get—I don't care who you get, I did what I could."
I found out later that he was praising me as a hero. This was good, in that Gitte and Lukas got some of the regard also—they richly deserved it, I felt, and would not hate it as much as I would. But it was bad, because my entire convalescence was filled with well-wishers, people who were going to have a piece of my fame. I wished they would take it away with them. I had not wanted it.
When I took the stage again, they showered me with flowers, sprays and sprays of the purple wildflowers that grow along the Rhine. I gave them to my landlady, small compensation for the callers that flocked to her doorstep.
And every performance, I sang a different aria.