Bottles and Boxes by Andrew Crossett

“…But fled the night, and came the light,
He vanished from the glade,
And left no sound but wind and stream,
And I, a weeping maid.”

Her song finished, Lish folded her hands and stood silently.

Renza carefully placed the stopper back into the neck of the little metal bottle she’d been singing into, and fished a silver coin out of his vest pocket.
“That was lovely, my lass,” he told her. “Don’t flash this about, or pickpockets will have it from you.”

Lish smiled gratefully at the payment, displaying as many rotten teeth as missing ones, and ran off down the lane in a swirl of dirty red-blonde hair and a short, tattered dress that should have been thrown away about six repairs ago.

Renza shook his head, then indulged in the coughing fit he’d been holding back all through the girl’s song.

She had the most beautiful singing voice he’d ever heard in all his long years and far travels. But she wasn’t pretty or clean or cultured enough to have any future as a professional entertainer. It would be a shame for such a lovely voice to be lost in obscurity.

Renza had to stop for breath three times as he climbed the stairs to his apartment in the tower of what was once a nobleman’s townhouse. It was tough going for an old and sick man, but his room offered a stirring view of Westcrown, and kept him high above the shadow beasts who roamed these streets after dark.

When he reached his room he opened the window for air. Then he took up his pen, dipped it in the inkwell, and wrote on the label on the side of the bottle:

Lish, maiden of Westcrown
Song, “I Walked a Mile by Clary Stream.”

He blew on the ink to dry it, then carefully set the small metal bottle on a shelf with many others of its kind, all of them inked with notes of their own.

Renza remembered when he had first discovered these magic bottles that could capture sounds and hold them forever, allowing them to be heard again whenever the stopper was removed.

He had been a much younger man then, and second-in-command of the Dire Lads, one of the mightiest and least principled mercenary bands ever to trouble the lands of the Inner Sea.

He remembered the house full of gnome corpses, though he couldn’t recall precisely why the Dire Lads had seen fit to slaughter them. No doubt it was some pretext to make off with their treasure: some gems of middling value, and a collection of these sound-bottles, all filled with curious things… strange songs; wind blowing in trees that might have stood upon this world or another; gnomes making loud, passionate love to each other; and many other far less identifiable sounds.

Renza had taken his fair share of the spoils, but his fellows had not seen fit to look beyond what lay in front of them. Only he saw the potential value in these odd bottles, and so a day later he returned alone to the gnome-house. He searched until he found a trapdoor leading to a hidden basement, and in it he found what he had been looking for.

There were dozens of unfilled bottles stored down there, along with other containers: metal boxes of many sizes, fist-sized cubes made from solid glass, and one cabinet made of glass and brass that was large enough for a man to stand in. All of these he had carefully loaded into his cart and carried off.

It had been his intention to sell all the magic containers, but soon his fascination got the better of him, and he began using them to build his own collection.

His earliest specimens matched the man he had been then: the sounds of vanquished enemies pleading for life, then dying anyway… a string of filthy jokes told by a dwarven comrade of his, along with the deadly bar brawl that followed… the captured drow high priestess who had been forced to sing at Queen Abrogail’s coronation, then been sacrificed to Asmodeus the moment she finished her final verse. She’d had a beautiful voice — even the scream at the end had been music.

The glass cubes, of which he had only a few, recorded sights rather than sounds. One of them recorded the moment he slit his captain’s throat and became leader of the Dire Lads.

He hadn’t listened to or looked at any of these old relics in many years. It did him no good to feel shame over them, and he saw no reason to dispose of them. When he died, those who rooted through his things would make of them what they would.

Renza had simply walked away from the Dire Lads one day. They’d sent an assassin after him, who became the last man he’d ever killed.

The booty he’d hidden away allowed him to retire in relative comfort, if not opulence. He’d travelled to various lands, filling his remaining bottles and cubes with things of beauty rather than horror. Now, the bottles filled with pleasure outnumbered those filled with pain. And yet…

The man-sized glass cabinet stood in a corner of his apartment, a blanket thrown over it. With a sigh, he pulled off the blanket to gaze once again at the life-sized moving image it contained.

Sekhith was her name, but Renza had nicknamed her Beauty, because that’s what she was. Her perfect skin was brown as a nut, her hair as black as the pit, and her eyes as blue as diamonds held up against the summer sky. She was a succubus, and he’d often hired her to deal with those enemies he wanted to murder with style.

He recalled that on this occasion, he had hired her to seduce, drain, and kill the captain of a rival mercenary band. The man had thought their rivalry a friendly one, and had died without ever knowing that Renza was his enemy.

Renza himself was too smart to avail himself of Beauty’s beauty, of course, but he found her a delight to look upon. As she’d assumed her human form and made to leave for her mission, he had stopped her, knowing at last what he wanted to immortalize within the glass cabinet.

Smiling at his request (though demanding extra payment), Beauty had shrugged off the wispy pretense of clothing she’d been wearing, stepped into the booth, and danced the Agony for him.

This dance, she said, was a tradition among succubi, and often used as a tool of seduction. It commemorated the painful writhing of some of the First Harem of her kind, who had had their feet nailed to the floor for the perverse pleasure of their demon-goddess creator.

The image of Beauty’s graceful, muscular body danced forever now within that glass booth, feet planted together firmly on the ground, ankles together, but every other inch of her body wriggling and writhing to a music only she could hear. Such a lovely killer.

“I’ve led a bad life,” Renza said to himself as he watched, then doubled over in a fit of coughing.

“My lady will be the judge of that,” came a feminine voice from behind him.

He looked around to observe a young girl, barefoot in a simple white dress, standing in the room with her eyes closed.

“I am to midwife your final journey,” she told him.

Renza nodded. This, he knew, was the matured spirit of a child who had died in her cradle without ever opening her eyes, sent by the goddess Pharasma to collect the souls of the dead and take them to her for judgment.

“You’re in for a bitter task, looking upon the days of my life.”

She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to me. Only to my lady.”

Renza’s eyes fell upon a certain metal box on a shelf — one he’d found already filled among the gnomes’ treasure. He knew what his last act in life would be.

He picked up the box, set it upon the windowsill, and opened it for the first time.

The sound of singing angels rang out over the rooftops of devil-haunted Westcrown.

Angels singing in chorus on the hilltops of Paradise, according to the runes written on the lid.

Renza threw the lid of the box down into the street below. People all over this part of the city were already looking up, wondering at the source of the glorious sound.

It would be a while before the Dottari guards traced the sound to this window, minutes more before they broke into the apartment, and longer still until they discovered how to stop the angelic singing and retrieved the lid from below. Renza would be of no help to them.

As the midwife took him by the hand, he smiled. He knew it might be the last smile he or his soul ever indulged in, but he smiled nonetheless.