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Phoenix Overture

Newsoul 2.5

by

Jodi Meadows

Dedication

For Kathleen,

Who asked for this.

For Jillian,

Who named Dossam.

And for Gabrielle,

Who’s been answering my music questions for three books and a novella now.

My love and thanks to all of you.

1

“YOU HAVE MUSIC in you, Dossam. Never forget that.”

My mother’s name was Lyric, our family name Harper, and I was born in the wrong time.

When I was small, she took me to a concert hall in the old city. It was remarkably well preserved, though the odor of age and decay hung over it, and the faded red chairs were molded and falling apart.

I drew away from her, farther down the aisle and quiet so my boots didn’t make a sound on the hardwood floor. Arched balconies rose up along the walls, their curtains long ago deteriorated into echoes. Gold paint flaked off the railings, and the marble facades were pockmarked and water-stained, but there were memories in this place, memories of music and longing and emotions that stirred my soul.

“Look on the stage,” Mother said.

The stage stood directly ahead, pitted with age, but strong enough to hold an immense glass curtain, shining iridescent in the light that shot through the colored skylights. And before that, a large black instrument on legs, with a bench that stood empty before the row of keys. Faded gold lettering shimmered on the side of the instrument, too worn for me to read.

“What is that?” I breathed, though I knew. I knew. My heart knew.

I scrambled up the stage, too impatient to bother with the stairs, ignoring Mother’s tiny cry—“Careful!”—and when I stood at last before the piano, chills swept over my body. I couldn’t wait to touch it. I couldn’t bear to risk damaging it, though. Everything here was so old and fragile.

“It’s all right.” Mother stood in the middle of the theater, rows of chairs around her. Light from the ceiling shone on her, making her curly black hair gleam. “Play something,” she said. “You won’t hurt it.”

My heart felt too big for my chest as I reached out and caressed a white key. Though it should have been filthy with grit and age, the key was smooth and clean. The bench was, too, and the rest of the piano wood had been rubbed to a shine, as though someone had prepared it for this moment.

I glanced at Mother, who just smiled mysteriously.

“Play something,” she said again.

A weightless sort of reverence filled me as I slipped onto the bench and let my fingers breeze along the smooth keys. How many people had sat here before me?

“Please never end,” I whispered to the moment, and played a solid, clear note that resounded off the high walls and ceiling. The glass curtain at the back of the stage caught the sound, bounced it back, and my heart felt so wild and free and fulfilled. Music filled me like food or water never would. It filled my soul.

I lost myself, letting my hands explore the keys in search of different notes and patterns and chords, things I only half understood by instinct and by the way they felt right or wrong. I learned my heart there, my hands on the piano, and music flowing all around me, so big and sacred and everything I’d ever wanted.

And when I fell out of the trance, Mother took me in her arms and squeezed. “You have music in your heart, Dossam. I wish this world appreciated that more.”

While I’d sat at the piano, caught in the silver chains of sound, I’d forgotten the outside world. But as we left the domed concert hall, that palace of music, I once again beheld the ruined city, the twisted heaps of metal and memories of another age.

There was music in me, but in this post-Cataclysm world, that didn’t matter very much.

“You’re useless, boy.”

Instinct urged me to duck or run as the belt flew toward my head, but I hardened myself and took the blow; I wasn’t a child anymore, and acting like one would make everything worse.

Thunder snapped in my ears as bright pain flared over my cheek, making my vision white-hot. The world swam around me, but I held myself upright, pushed my shoulders back. I clenched my jaw as Father’s belt retreated.

“Useless and good for nothing.”

I swallowed away the hint of bile in the back of my throat. I wouldn’t speak. Wouldn’t show the way my face stung from the leather strap. Speaking would only make it worse, as I’d discovered years ago. Instead, I gave a shallow nod and kept my eyes down. His grunt indicated I’d done the right thing.

“Do you know what you did this time?”

I glanced at breakfast burning on the wood stove. Fat sizzled in the pan, and the faint scent of smoke lifted through the small kitchen.

“That’s right.” His voice was a growl. A rumble in the earth. “You know how hard I work. You know how the drought is killing everything. And that other people in the Community are starving. And still you have the nerve to burn our breakfast, which I paid for.”

I wanted to apologize, or beg for forgiveness, but I didn’t dare speak. The belt still hung in his grip, like a snake just waiting to strike.

“I work. Your brother works. But what do you do all day?”

Not that it made a difference to him, but I was trying to find a job. It was difficult, though, with the drought and plague and never-ending hunger. No one had anything to spare to hire untrained help, and I couldn’t get training without a job.

“There’s a call for warriors.” Father slipped his belt through the loops of his trousers once more, and I released a held breath. “I want you to go.”

To become a warrior? He didn’t know me at all.

“Janan is calling for the best warriors, which means you won’t be chosen to follow him on his quest, but I want you to volunteer anyway. If you’re not going to work with me, or scavenge like your brother, you need to do something useful.”

I wasn’t suited for repair work—a fact painfully obvious after I’d put a dozen new holes in a wall, trying to keep from hammering my fingers—and my brother never allowed me to go scavenging with him, saying it was too dangerous for me.

But of course, those facts meant nothing to Father.

All this was an excuse, anyway. My jobless state—and the still-burning breakfast—weren’t the real reasons he’d taken his belt to my face this morning.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Mother had kept the house spotless. Today there were dirt smears and handprints on the walls. After Father’s search for his ancient leather flask, cupboards hung open, revealing chipped plates, too few jars of canned vegetables and fruits, and a moldy hunk of cheese. The crooked table held

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