Yesterday I opened this link by mistake - looking for something else under my bookmarks:

Fiction: A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong by K. J. Parker — Subterranean Press

She or he is a great author - highly, highly recommended!
As a side-note - this is a story taking place in an alternative world with a full history and context to it..
Since it is free - I copied over in here - hm - maybe about the half of it - read the rest on the link above, if you like!

A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong

“My sixteenth concerto,” he said, smiling at me. I could just about see him. “In the circumstances, I was thinking of calling it the Unfinished.”

Well, of course. I’d never been in a condemned cell before. It was more or less what I’d imagined it would be like. There was a stone bench under the tiny window. Other than that, it was empty, as free of human artefacts as a stretch of open moorland. After all, what things does a man need if he’s going to die in six hours?

I was having difficulty with the words. “You haven’t—”

“No.” He shook his head. “I’m two-thirds of the way through the third movement, so under normal circumstances I’d hope to get that done by—well, you know. But they won’t let me have a candle, and I can’t write in the dark.” He breathed out slowly. He was savouring the taste of air, like an expert sampling a fine wine. “It’ll all be in here, though” he went on, lightly tapping the side of his head. “So at least I’ll know how it ends.”

I really didn’t want to ask, but time was running out. “You’ve got the main theme,” I said.

“Oh yes, of course. It’s on the leash, just waiting for me to turn it loose.”

I could barely speak. “I could finish it for you,” I said, soft and hoarse as a man propositioning his best friend’s wife. “You could hum me the theme, and—”

He laughed. Not unkindly, not kindly either. “My dear old friend,” I said, “I couldn’t possibly let you do that. Well,” he added, hardening his voice a little, “obviously I won’t be in any position to stop you trying. But you’ll have to make up your own theme.”

“But if it’s nearly finished—”

I could just about make out a slight shrug. “That’s how it’ll have to stay,” he said. “No offence, my very good and dear old friend, but you simply aren’t up to it. You haven’t got the—” He paused to search for the word, then gave up. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “We’ve known each other—what, ten years? Can it really be that long?”

“You were fifteen when you came to the Studium.”

“Ten years.” He sighed. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. But you—well, let’s put it this way. Nobody knows more about form and technique than you do, but you haven’t got wings. All you can do is run fast and flap your arms up and down. Which you do,” he added pleasantly, “superlatively well.”

“You don’t want me to help you,” I said.

“I’ve offended you.” Not the first time he’d said that, not by a long way. And always, in the past, I’d forgiven him instantly. “And you’ve taken the trouble to come and see me, and I’ve insulted you. I’m really sorry. I guess this place has had a bad effect on me.”

“Think about it,” I said, and I was so ashamed of myself; like robbing a dying man. “Your last work. Possibly your greatest.”

He laughed out loud. “You haven’t read it yet,” he said. “It could be absolute garbage for all you know.”

It could have been, but I knew it wasn’t. “Let me finish it for you,” I said. “Please. Don’t let it die with you. You owe it to the human race.”

I’d said the wrong thing. “To be brutally frank with you,” he said, in a light, slightly brittle voice, “I couldn’t give a twopenny fuck about the human race. They’re the ones who put me in here, and in six hours’ time they’re going to pull my neck like a chicken. Screw the lot of them.”

My fault. I’d said the wrong thing, and as a result, the music inside his head would stay there, trapped in there, until the rope crushed his windpipe and his brain went cold. So, naturally, I blamed him. “Fine,” I said. “If that’s your attitude, I don’t think there’s anything left to say.”

“Quite.” He sighed. I think he wanted me to leave. “It’s all a bit pointless now, isn’t it? Here,” he added, and I felt a sheaf of paper thrust against my chest. “You’d better take the manuscript. If it’s left here, there’s a fair chance the guards’ll use it for arsewipe.”

“Would it bother you if they did?”

He laughed. “I don’t think it would, to be honest,” he said. “But it’s worth money,” he went on, and I wish I could’ve seen his face. “Even incomplete,” he added. “It’s got to be worth a hundred angels to somebody, and I seem to recall I owe you a hundred and fifty, from the last time.”

I felt my fingers close around the pages. I didn’t want to take them, but I gripped so tight I could feel the paper crumple. I had in fact already opened negotiations with the Kapelmeister.

I stood up. “Goodbye,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, don’t go blaming yourself for anything.” Absolution, so easy for him to give; like a duke scattering coins to the crowd from a balcony. Of course, the old duke used to have the coins heated in a brazier first. I still have little white scars on my fingertips. “I’ve always been the sole author of my own misfortunes. You always did your best for me.”

And failed, of course. “Even so,” I said, “I’m sorry. It’s such a waste.”

That made him laugh. “I wish,” he said, “that music could’ve been the most important thing in my life, like it should’ve been. But it was only ever a way of getting a bit of money.”

I couldn’t reply to that. The truth, which I’d always known since I first met him, was that if he’d cared about music, he couldn’t have written it so well. Now there’s irony.

“You’re going to finish it anyway.”

I stopped, a pace or so short of the door. “Not if you don’t want me to.”

“I won’t be here to stop you.”

“I can’t finish it,” I said. “Not without the theme.”

“Balls.” He clicked his tongue, that irritating sound I’ll always associate with him. “You’ll have a stab at it, I know you will. And for the rest of time, everybody will be able to see the join.”

“Goodbye,” I said, without looking round.

“You could always pass it off as your own,” he said.

I balled my fist and bashed on the door. All I wanted to do was get out of there as quickly as I could; because while I was in there with him, I hated him, because of what he’d just said. Because I’d deserved better of him than that, over the years. And because the thought had crossed my mind.


I waited till I got back to my rooms before I unfolded the sheaf of paper and looked at it.

At that point, I had been the professor of music at the Academy of the Invincible Sun for twenty-seven years. I was the youngest ever incumbent, and I fully intend to die in these rooms, though not for a very long time. I’d taught the very best. My own music was universally respected, and I got at least five major commissions every year for ducal and official occasions. I’d written six books on musical theory, all of which had become the standard works on the aspects of the subject they cover. Students came here from every part of the empire, thousands of miles in cramped ships and badly-sprung coaches, to hear me lecture on harmony and the use of form. The year before, they’d named one of the five modes after me.

When I’d read it, I looked at the fire, which the servant had lit while I was out. It would be so easy, I thought. Twenty sheets of paper don’t take very long to burn. But, as I think I told you, I’d already broached the subject with the Kapelmeister, who’d offered me five hundred angels, sight unseen, even unfinished. I knew I could get him up to eight hundred. I have no illusions about myself.


I didn’t try and finish the piece; not because I’d promised I wouldn’t, but because he escaped. To this day, nobody has the faintest idea how he managed it. All we know is that when the captain of the guard opened his cell to take him to the scaffold, he found a warder sitting on the bench with his throat cut, and no sign of the prisoner.

There was an enquiry, needless to say. I had a very uncomfortable morning at guard headquarters, where I sat on a bench in a corridor for three hours before making the acquaintance of a Captain Monomachus of the Investigative branch. He pointed out to me that I was a known associate of the prisoner, and that I’d been the last person to be alone with him before his escape. I replied that I’d been thoroughly and quite humiliatingly searched before I went in to see him, and there was no way I could’ve taken him in any kind of weapon.

“We aren’t looking for a weapon, as a matter of fact,” captain Monomachus replied. “We reckon he smashed his inkwell and used a shard of the glass. What we’re interested in is how he got clear of the barbican. We figure he must’ve had help.”

I looked the captain straight in the eye. I could afford to. “He always had plenty of friends,” I said.

For some reason, the captain smiled at that. “After you left him,” he said, “where did you go?”

“Straight back to my rooms in college. The porter can vouch for me, presumably. And my servant. He brought me a light supper shortly after I got home.”

Captain Monomachus prowled round me for a while after that, but since he had absolutely nothing against me, he had to let me go. As I was about to leave, he stopped me and said, “I understand there was a last piece.”

I nodded. “That’s right. That’s what I was reading, the rest of the evening.”

“Any good?”

“Oh yes.” I paused, then added, “Possibly his best. Unfinished, of course.”

There was a slight feather of shyness about the question that followed. “Will there be a performance?”

I told him the date and the venue. He wrote them down on a scrap of paper, which he folded and put in his pocket.


The good captain was, in fact, the least of my problems. That same evening, I was summoned to the Master’s lodgings.

“Your protégé,” the Master said, pouring me a very small glass of the college brandy.

“My student,” I said. It’s very good brandy, as a matter of fact, but invariably wasted, because the only times I get to drink it are when I’m summoned into the presence, on which occasions I’m always so paralysed with fear that even good brandy has no effect whatsoever.

He sighed, sniffed his glass and sat down; or rather, he perched on the edge of the settle. He always likes to be higher than his guests. Makes swooping to strike easier, I imagine. “An amazingly gifted man,” he said. “You might go so far as to call him a genius, though that term is sadly overused these days, I find.” I waited, and a moment and a sip of brandy later, he continued; “But a fundamentally unstable character. I suppose we ought to have seen the warning signs.”

We meaning me; because the Master wasn’t appointed until the year after my poor student was expelled. “You know,” I said, trying to sound as though it was a conversation rather than an interrogation, “I sometimes wonder if in his case, the two are inseparable; the instability and the brilliance, I mean.”

The Master nodded. “The same essential characteristics that made him a genius also made him a murderer,” he said. “It’s a viable hypothesis, to be sure. In which case, the question must surely arise; can the one ever justify the other? The most sublime music, set against a man’s life.” He shrugged, a gesture for which his broad, sloping shoulders were perfectly suited. “I shall have to bear that one in mind for my Ethics tutorials. You could argue it quite well both ways, of course. After all, his music will live for ever, and the man he killed was the most dreadful fellow, by all accounts, a petty thief and a drunkard.” He paused, to give me time to agree. Even I knew better than that. Once it was clear I’d refused the bait, he said, “The important thing, I think, is to try and learn something from this tragic case.”

“Indeed,” I said, and nibbled at my brandy to give myself time. I’ve never fenced, but I believe that’s what fencers do; make time by controlling distance. So I held up my brandy glass and hid behind it as best I could.

“Warning signs,” he went on, “that’s what we need to look out for. These young people come here, they’re entrusted to our care at a particularly difficult stage in their development. Our duty doesn’t end with stuffing their heads full of knowledge. We need to adopt a more comprehensive pastoral approach. Don’t you agree?”

In the old duke’s time, they used to punish traitors by shutting them up in a cage with a lion. As an exquisite refinement of malice, they used to feed the lion to bursting point first. That way, it wasn’t hungry again for the best part of a day. I always found that very upsetting to think about. If I’m going to be torn apart, I want it to be over quickly. The Master and the old duke were students together, by the way. I believe they got on very well.

“Of course,” I said. “No doubt the Senate will let us have some guidelines in due course.”

I got out of there eventually, in one piece. Curiously enough, I didn’t start shaking until I was halfway across the quadrangle, on my way back to my rooms. I couldn’t tell you why encounters like that disturb me so much. After all, the worst the Master could do to me was dismiss me—which was bound to happen, sooner or later, because I only had qualified tenure, and I knew he thought of me as a closet Optimate. Which was, of course, entirely true. But so what? Unfortunately, the thought of losing my post utterly terrifies me. I know I’m too old to get another post anything like as good as this one, and such talent as I ever had has long since dissipated through overuse. I have doctorates and honorary doctorates in music enough to cover a wall, but I can’t actually play a musical instrument. I have a little money put by these days, but not nearly enough. I have never experienced poverty, but in the city you see it every day. I don’t have a particularly vivid imagination—anybody familiar with my music can attest to that—but I have no trouble at all imagining what it would be like to be homeless and hungry and cold in Perimadeia. I think about it all the time. Accordingly, the threat of my inevitable dismissal at some unascertained point in the future lies over my present like a cloud of volcanic ash, blotting out the sun, and I’m incapable of taking any pleasure in anything at all.


He will always be known by his name in religion, Subtilius of Bohec; but he was born Aimeric de Beguilhan, third son of a minor Northern squire, raised in the farmyard and the stables, destined for an uneventful career in the Ministry. When he came here, he had a place to read Logic, Literature and Rhetoric, and by his own account he’d never composed a bar of music in his life. In Bohec (I have no idea where it is), music consisted of tavern songs and painfully refined dances from the previous century; it featured in his life about as much as the sea, which is something like two hundred miles away in every direction. He first encountered real music in the Studium chapel, which is presumably why nearly all his early work was devotional and choral. When he transferred to the Faculty of Music, I introduced him to the secular instrumental tradition; I suppose that when I appear at last before the court of the Invincible Sun and whoever cross-examines me there asks me if there’s one thing I’ve done which has made the world a better place, that’ll be it. Without me, Subtilius would never have written for strings, or composed the five violin concertos, or the three polyphonic symphonies. But he’d already written the first of the Masses before I ever set eyes on him.

The murder was such a stupid business; though, looking back, I suppose it was more or less inevitable that something of the kind should have happened sooner or later. He always did have such a quick temper, fatally combined with a sharp tongue, an unfortunate manner and enough skill at arms to make him practically fearless. There was also the fondness for money—there was never quite enough money when he was growing up, and I know he was exceptionally sensitive about that—and the sort of amorality that often seems to go hand in hand with keen intelligence and an unsatisfactory upbringing. He was intelligent enough to see past the reasons generally advanced in support of obedience to the rules and the law, but lacking in any moral code of his own to take its place. Add to that youth, and overconfidence arising from the praise he’d become accustomed to as soon as he began to compose music, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Even now, I couldn’t tell you much about the man he killed. Depending on which account you go by, he was either an accomplice or a rival. In any event, he was a small-time professional thief, a thoroughly worthless specimen who would most assuredly have ended up on the gallows if Subtilius hadn’t stabbed him through the neck in the stable-yard of the Integrity and Honour in Foregate. Violent death is, I believe, no uncommon occurrence there, and he’d probably have got away with it had not one of the ostlers been a passionate admirer of his religious music, and therefore recognised him and been able to identify him to the Watch; an unfortunate consequence, I suppose, of the quite exceptionally broad appeal of Subtilius’ music. If I’d stabbed a man in a stable-yard, the chances of a devoted fan recognising me would’ve been too tiny to quantify, unless the ostler happened to be a fellow academic fallen on hard times.


I got back to my rooms, fumbled with the keys, dropped them—anybody passing would have thought I was drunk, although of course I scarcely touched a drop in those days; I couldn’t afford to, with the excise tax so high—finally managed to get the door open and fall into the room. It was dark, of course, and I spent quite some time groping for the tinder-box and the candle, and then I dropped the moss out of the box onto the floor and had to grope for that too. Eventually I struck a light, and used the candle to light the oil lamp. It was only then, as the light colonised the room, that I saw I wasn’t alone.

“Hello, professor,” said Subtilius.

My first thought—I was surprised at how quickly and practically I reacted—was the shutters. Mercifully, they were closed. In which case, he couldn’t have come in through the window—

He laughed. “It’s all right,” he said, “nobody saw me. I was extremely careful.”

Easy to say; easy to believe, but easy to be wrong. “How long have you been here?”

“I came in just after you left. You left the door unlocked.”

Quite right; I’d forgotten.

“I took the precaution of locking it for you,” he went on, “with the spare key you still keep in that ghastly pot on the mantelpiece. Look, why don’t you sit down before you fall over? You look awful.”

I went straight to the door and locked it. Not that I get many visitors, but I was in no mood to rely on the laws of probability. “What the hell are you doing here?”

He sighed, and stretched out his legs. I imagine it was what his father used to do, after a long day on the farm or following the hounds. “Hiding,” he said. “What do you think?”

“You can’t hide here.”

“Overjoyed to see you too.”

It was an entirely valid rebuke, so I ignored it. “Aimeric, you’re being utterly unreasonable. You can’t expect me to harbour a fugitive from justice—”

“Aimeric.” He repeated the word as though it had some kind of incantatory power. “You know, professor, you’re the only person who’s called me that since the old man died. Can’t say I ever liked the name, but it’s odd to hear it again after all these years. Listen,” he said, before I could get a word in, “I’m sorry if I scared the life out of you, but I need your help.”

I always did find him both irresistibly charming and utterly infuriating. His voice, for one thing. I suppose it’s my musician’s ear; I can tell you more about a man, where he’s from and how much money he’s got, from hearing him say two words than any mere visual clues. Subtilius had a perfect voice; consonants clear and sharp as a knife, vowels fully distinguished and immaculately expressed. You can’t learn to talk like that over the age of three. No matter how hard you try, if you start off with a provincial burr, like me, it’ll always bleed through sooner or later. You can only achieve that bell-like clarity and those supremely beautiful dentals and labials if you start learning them before you can walk. That’s where actors go wrong, of course. They can make themselves sound like noblemen after years of study so long as they stick to normal everyday conversational pitches. But if they try and shout, anyone with a trained ear can hear the northern whine or the southern bleat, obvious as a stain on a white sheet. Subtilius had a voice you’d have paid money to listen to, even if all he was doing was giving you directions to the Southgate, or swearing at a porter for letting the sludge get into the wine. That sort of perfection is, of course, profoundly annoying if you don’t happen to be true-born aristocracy. My father was a fuller and soap-boiler in Ap’Escatoy. My first job was riding with him on the cart collecting the contents of chamber pots from the inns in the early hours of the morning. I’ve spent forty years trying to sound like a gentleman, and these days I can fool everybody except myself. Subtilius was born perfect and never had to try.

“Where the hell,” I asked him, “have you been? The guard’s been turning the city upside down. How did you get out of the barbican? All the gates were watched.”

He laughed. “Simple,” he said. “I didn’t leave. Been here all the time, camping out in the clock tower.”

Well, of course. The Studium, as I’m sure you know, is built into the west wall of the barbican. Naturally they searched it, the same day he escaped, after which they concluded that he must’ve got past the gate somehow and made it down to the lower town. It wouldn’t have occurred to them to try the clock tower. Twenty years ago, an escaped prisoner hid up there, and when they found him, he was extremely dead. Nothing can survive in the bell-chamber when the clock strikes; the sheer pressure of sound would pulp your brain. Oh, I imagine a couple of guardsmen put their heads round inside the chamber when they knew it was safe, but they wouldn’t have made a thorough search, because everybody knows the story. But in that case—

“Why aren’t I dead?” He grinned at me. “Because the story’s a load of old rubbish. I always had my doubts about it, so I took the trouble to look up the actual records. The prisoner who hid out up there died of blood poisoning from a scratch he’d got climbing out of a broken window. The thing about the bells killing him was pure mythology. You know how people like to believe that sort of thing.” He gave me a delightful smile. “So they’ve been looking for me in Lower Town, have they? Bless them.”

Curiosity, presumably; the true scholar’s instinct, which he always had. But combined, I dare say, with the thought at the back of his mind that one day, a guaranteed safe hiding-place would come in useful. I wondered when he’d made his search in the archives; when he was fifteen, or seventeen, or twenty-one?

“I’m not saying it was exactly pleasant, mind,” he went on, “not when the bells actually struck. The whole tower shakes, did you know that? It’s a miracle it hasn’t collapsed. But I found that if I crammed spiders’ web into my ears—really squashed it down till no more would go in—it sort of deadened the noise to the point where it was bearable. And one thing there’s no shortage of up there is cobwebs.”

I’ve always been terrified of spiders. I’m sure he knew that.

“Fine,” I snapped at him; I was embarrassed with myself, because my first reaction was admiration. “So you killed a man and managed to stay free for three weeks. How very impressive. What have you been living on, for God’s sake? You should be thin as a rake.”

He shrugged. “I didn’t stay in there all the time,” he said. “Generally speaking, I made my excursions around noon and midnight.” When the bell tolls twelve times, there being a limit, presumably, to the defensive capacity of cobweb. “It’s amazing how much perfectly good food gets thrown out in the kitchens. You’re on the catering committee, you really ought to do something about it.”

Part of his genius, I suppose; to make his desperate escape and three weeks’ torment in the bell-tower sound like a student prank, just as he made writing the Seventh Mass seem effortless, something he churned out in an idle moment between hangovers. Perhaps the secret of sublime achievement really is not to try. But first, you have to check the archives, or learn the twelve major modulations of the Vesani mode, or be born into a family that can trace its pedigree back to Boamond.

“Well,” I said, standing up, “I’m sorry, but you’ve had all that for nothing. I’m going to have to turn you in. You do realise that.”

He just laughed at me. He knew me too well. He knew that if I’d really meant it, I’d have done it straight away, yelled for the guard at the top of my voice instead of panicking about the shutters. He knew it; I didn’t, not until I heard him laugh. Until then, I thought I was deadly serious. But he was right, of course. “Sure,” he said. “You go ahead.”

I sat down again. I hated him so much, at that moment.

“How’s the concerto coming along?” he asked.

For a moment, I had no idea what he was talking about. Then I remembered; his last concerto, or that’s what it should have been. The manuscript he gave me in the condemned cell. “You said not to finish it,” I told him.

“Good Lord.” He was amused. “I assumed you’d have taken no notice. Well, I’m touched. Thank you.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked him.

“I need money,” he replied, and somehow his voice contrived to lose a proportion of its honeyed charm. “And clothes, and shoes, things like that. And someone to leave a door open at night. That sort of thing.”

“I can’t,” I said.

He sighed. “You can, you know. What you mean is, you don’t want to.”

“I haven’t got any money.”

He gave me a sad look. “We’re not talking about large sums,” he said. “It’s strictly a matter of context. Enough to get me out of town and on a ship, that’s all. That’s wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.” He paused—I think it was for effect—and added, “I’m not asking for a present. I do have something to sell.”

There was a moment when my entire covering of skin went cold. I could guess. What else would he have to sell, apart from—?

“Three weeks in the bloody bell tower,” he went on, and now he sounded exactly like his old self. “Nothing to do all day. Fortunately, on my second trip to the trash cans I passed an open door, some first-year, presumably, who hasn’t learned about keeping his door locked. He’d got ink, pens and half a ream of good paper. Don’t suppose he’ll make that mistake again.”


I love music. It’s been my life. Music has informed my development, given me more pleasure than I can possibly quantify or qualify; it’s also taken me from the fullers’ yard at Ap’Escatoy to the Studium, and kept me here, so far at least. Everything I am, everything I have, is because of music.

For which I am properly grateful. The unfortunate part of it is, there’s never been quite enough. Not enough music in me; never enough money. The pleasure, emotional and intellectual, is one thing. The money, however, is another. Almost enough—I’m not a luxurious sort of person, I don’t spend extravagantly, but most of it seems to go on overheads; college bills, servants’ wages, contributions to this and that fund, taxes, of course, all that sort of nonsense—but never quite enough to let me feel comfortable. I live in a constant state of anxiety about money, and inevitably that anxiety has a bad effect on my relationship with music. And the harder I try, the less the inspiration flows. When I don’t need it, when I’m relatively comfortable and the worry subsides for a while, a melody will come to me quite unexpectedly and I’ll write something really quite good. But when I’m facing a deadline, or when the bills are due and my purse is empty; when I need money, the inspiration seems to dry up completely, and all I can do is grind a little paste off the salt-block of what I’ve learned, or try and dress up something old, my own or someone else’s, and hope to God nobody notices. At times like that, I get angry with music. I even imagine—wrongly, of course—that I wish I was back in the fullers’ yard. But that’s long gone, of course. My brother and I sold it when my father died, and the money was spent years ago, so I don’t even have that to fall back on. Just music.