Mirza’s Strange Sitar
by David Urbach
The world was quiet outside the music hall as Mirza tuned his strange sitar. He sat on a rooftop ledge, having sought the peace of an open sky as he readied himself for the command performance. In the hall below an audience of wealth and power awaited him eagerly, little knowing the sort of music he had planned for them. A November wind slid by him with ice on its teeth, but he did not care. Music for a monarch… He plucked a blue string and raised the instrument to his ear, making sure the B flat rang out as hauntingly as he needed it, before continuing on down the scale.
It was a very odd instrument, this was true. His critics in the human world alleged that he had fashioned it out of scrap found in a junkyard, and they were mostly right. The wooden baseboard had once been part of a child’s science fair project. The miscellaneous strips, screws, cords, and inauspicious doodads, even when polished and cleaned up, looked like they belonged more to the garage of a man with packrat habits than the London music scene. Mirza had picked them out almost carelessly before setting to work shaping them.
In the workshop of a man who owed him a debt – and who left him alone because he knew the gravity of owing a debt to a Fey – he had whistled and sawed and hammered and sang little spells to the pieces of scrap, until they looked even odder than before. They came together in a small square base and a long twisted neck, and some spools and wheels for which only Mirza knew the purpose. And on the front of this he strung his blue and red strings.Like discarded electrical cords they almost looked, but were really the whiskers of a young scopdragon which Mirza had hunted one winter in the middle of the sixteenth century. These humans did not know about scopdragons, despite all their satellites, nor did they really know anything about Mirza, except that he had appeared suddenly in the town of Heswall outside Liverpool a year ago, signed with a record label, and began bewitching audiences with the most wonderful music that drifted out of his sitar-which-did-not-look-like-a-sitar. And this early evening, he would play before royalty.
“How can you, one of the Fey, not be ashamed to call such an ugly thing a musical
Mirza looked up, startled; he had thought he was alone on the roof, yet not two yards away stood Ultan. His eyes flickered from Ultan to the rest of the flat rooftop, then to the silver afternoon sky, and back to Ultan. The slender man stood alone, his peppery gray clothing wrapped tightly around him, his cropped red hair standing a bit wild, and his cloak of moth wings swinging slower and slower and slower. So, Mirza thought, he’s only just arrived on a recent breeze. He answered, “Ashamed of the work of my own hands, which has given me such joy?”
“I do wonder what else it is intended to give you.”
Mirza turned and did not look at the other man, but smiled wistfully, and listened carefully to the next string he plucked. A high note sounded, slightly off pitch, and the one that followed tried in vain to harmonize, leading to an unsettling aural struggle. “It may not look like any instrument in our world or this, and I admit it has certain visual demerits, but all that matters is its sound,” he said, and strummed a disharmonious chord.
A wave of disorientation swept over Ultan, but his mind was too sharp to be so easily
overcome. Before the musician’s finger could move again he thrust his hand forward and a quarterstaff appeared in it; whether Ultan had drawn it from the air or had been holding it the whole time without his noticing, Mirza could not afterwards be sure. The tip touched the sitar—Mirza flinched—and a flick of Ultan’s wrist sent it spinning over the rooftop ledge into the air. Immediately Ultan swung the butt of the staff around and thrust it again at the airbound instrument. Though many feet away, it crunched as if it had received a hard blow from an unseen hammer and fell two stories to the ground.
“Savage,” whispered Mirza, and he grimaced and looked over the edge. Such ingenuity it had taken him to craft out of junk such a tool for beautiful sound. He thought about reaching for the blue knife hidden in his boot, but glanced at Ultan and thought better.
The other man stood calmly now, holding the staff horizontally at his side. “I am sent to inform you that your sentence has been commuted by the Chief Justiciar, and that you have been granted a protected return to court, on condition of good behavior, in order that you may plead once again for a reprieve. However, since you have seen fit to add an assault on a parole officer to your offences, and because you are now suspected in a conspiracy to manipulate a human society—yes, we too have been following your recent musical career with much interest—I must insist you accompany me back wearing a pair of these quite fashionable manacles.” He produced the iron manacles from some pouch on his person and approached.
Mirza gritted his teeth but allowed himself to be cuffed. “And what of my concert? England’s finest have paid a lot of money to hear me play. May I at least—?”
He was led to the brink of the rooftop. The November wind slid by him with ice on its teeth, but he did not notice because his anger kept him warm. Ultan grasped his shoulder and lifted one corner of the moth cloak to catch the wind, and it bore them away into the silver sky, while far below among the fallen autumn leaves Mirza’s strange sitar lay a crumpled heap of scrap, tangled in its red and blue strings made from the whiskers of a scopdragon.