If people knew the truth of the Garden, they would find it far less mythic than the fantastic tales whispered about it – doe-eyed virgins, endless pleasure and ever-flowing wine.
Do not misunderstand me, however. It is a very pleasant place. On a warm sultry night, it is easy to lose oneself in its charms.
There it was again. Altair rolled over and listened. Over the sounds of the cicadas, there came the plaintive music of a harp. He listened a moment longer, then could not resist getting up and going out onto the balcony to see if he could spot the musician.
It was coming from the Garden, but down in the lower terrace as near as he could tell. He closed his eyes. The music was the most melancholy sound he'd ever heard, yet it was transcendent in its beauty. Amazing.
He stood there listening, unable to tear himself away. When it finally stopped, there was a pause in the cicada's song as if they too mourned the loss of it. He smiled and returned to his bed.
The same pattern happened again the next night and the night after. He'd asked around and no one knew who it was that was playing. He began to look forward to the nightly recital.
On the fifth night, he stood as always on the balcony peering down toward the lower Garden, hoping to spy the musician. Finally his curiosity got the better of him and he went to get a closer look.
He padded quietly down the stairs and through the gates of the Garden. The attendant by the door smiled at him. "Would you care for some wine?" she asked.
He accepted the offered cup. "Thank you. Tell me, who is that playing harp?" he asked.
"That? That is Serena. She is new to the Garden. She plays beautifully, but it is such a sad song."
He had the answer to his question, now he wanted to see her with his own eyes. He nodded and headed toward the lower terraces.
At the far edge of the Garden, he spotted the figure of the woman playing, her back to him and the rest of the world. He stopped and quietly sat down on the step. Up close, the music was even more beautiful.
He tried not to stare as he listened, lest she sense his presence and stop playing. What he saw when he did steal a glance was a tall woman with a thick braid of dark hair that hung to the middle of her hourglass shaped back.
"Your name fits you," he said when she'd finished.
She looked back over her shoulder toward him. "I didn't know anyone was there."
"Forgive me, I hope I did not startle you. Must you stop?"
"For tonight, yes," she replied. She stood and turned to face him.
He opened his mouth to speak, but her beauty stole the words. A few awkward seconds passed before he found his tongue. "Then I will trouble you no further. I thank you, and bid you good night, Siren," he said, standing and turning to leave.
"My name is Serena," she corrected him.
He smiled. "I know."
"Ah, I see. And you are?"
"Good night, Altair."
Thus began a new ritual. Every night, he made his way to the Garden, cup of wine in hand, and sat on the step to hear her play. She never turned or acknowledged him until she was finished and he never interrupted her. Every night he would leave her with the same words: "I thank you, and bid you good night, Siren."
It was a small miracle to him, this music. As he sat there he would often close his eyes and let it transport his spirit. He felt at peace with all of the beauty and sorrow in his heart and in the world when he listened to it. Somehow even the thoughts and bittersweet memories of she who held his heart were less painful.
He was sitting with his head bowed one evening when she broke the ritual.
"What do you think about while you listen?"
He looked up, surprised. "Most of the time I think of nothing. I let the music take my mind where it will. It is almost like meditating, in a way."
"And where does it take you?" she pressed.
"Sometimes into memories, both pleasant and otherwise. Sometimes..." he struggled for the appropriate words to describe the feeling. "Sometimes it just takes me."
"What do you think about while you play?" he asked.
"Nothing. It is not thought that drives my fingers."
"What is it then?"
She sighed. "Emotion. Love, loss, longing."
He took a sip of wine as he pondered her words. "Until I heard you play, I would have thought it impossible to so beautifully portray such paradox."
"I thank you for your kind words. It isn't often that my audience has such an intimate understanding of it," she said, rising to her feet.
The moonlight cast a silvery aura around her, making her seem as ethereal as the notes she coaxed from her harp. As she approached and glided up the stairs, he thought it would not surprise him if she suddenly ascended into the clouds, claimed by jealous Gods. He leaned back after her as she passed. "Will you indulge me a little more, Siren?" he asked, unwilling to depart just yet.
She continued on, leaving him wondering until she retrieved a carafe of wine and returned. She smiled down at him and reached out for his hand, which he gladly gave to her.
He sat down in front of her as she refilled her cup and took up her harp. "Close your eyes, listen, then tell me what you feel," she bid him as she began to play.
He nodded and did as she asked, though he was unable to resist peeking now and then. He'd never been this close to her, and the way her fingers moved over the strings fascinated him. The tune they drew from the harp was soft and melodic at first, then it slowly built to a crescendo that filled him with incredibly sad longing, before resolving itself to flowing sweetness. The final note caught him by surprise. He'd anticipated more to follow, but it ended - almost like a question left hanging in the air. It sent chills up his spine. He opened his eyes to find her regarding him curiously, obviously waiting for him to speak.
"Words seem vulgar and crude after such beauty." He refilled his cup of wine and sipped it. The truth was that he was unsure if she would understand how it affected him.
"Still, I would hear them," she said.
He smiled, running his finger around the rim of his cup as he summoned his courage. Taking a deep breath, he answered. "It was like every question that my heart has ever asked that remains unanswered - every love, every fear and every goodbye."
She laid her harp aside. "You have the soul of a poet, Altair," she said with a soft smile.
He reached out and took her hand, turning it over and caressing it with his thumb. Her fingertips were calloused, no doubt from her playing. He didn't know whether he'd go as far as calling himself a poet, but this woman and her sad and beautiful music had moved him. Whether she knew it or not, it was a gift to him. In gratitude, he placed a gentle kiss upon her palm, allowing his lips to linger a moment as he imagined other kisses in other places. He was unable to keep the smile from his face as he finally answered her. "I have the sweetest inspiration," he replied, standing up. He nodded to her. "I thank you, and bid you good night, Siren."
"Altair?" she said, quickly reaching out for his hand again. "Will you indulge me a little more? I find your company comforting."
He reached down and touched her cheek. "While you do bring comfort to my mind and soul, I must confess that at the moment it is something altogether different that you inspire in me."
"Then stay with me a while." The look in her eyes told him that she shared his desire.
"I am intoxicated; with the wine, with the night, with your music and with you. But I would not take advantage of you, or deceive you with promises of tomorrows. There is another, who though far from me in time and distance, holds my heart."
"Nor would I deceive you. It may surprise you to hear a Companion say such things, but someone holds my heart as well. With that understanding, perhaps we can take comfort in each other. The night is beautiful, and your presence here, with me, makes it more so."
He knelt down and looked into her eyes. "Be sure before you unleash this storm, Siren."
She smiled and pressed her finger to his lips. "Speak to me, but not with words, Poet," she whispered.
He moved forward, laying her down with a kiss that, not unlike the song she'd last gifted him with, began softly, but quickly deepened as the urgency of their need took hold. She filled his senses to overflowing; she smelled of myrrh, felt like silk and tasted of cinnamon and wine. Her hands played upon him as masterfully as they played the harp. All was beauty, sensation and bliss.
The progress of the moon was the only evidence of the night passing. Everything else fell away as they lost themselves in each other's arms.
After their own beautiful crescendo, he lay beside her catching his breath. "You have slain me, Siren," he said with a satisfied smile.
"Isn't that what the myths say? That the Sirens lure men to their death with irresistible songs?"
"Yes, but despite popular belief, it was not earthly pleasures their songs promised, but spiritual truths."
"Truly?" she asked as she finished dressing and lay back down beside him.
He nodded. They fell into an easy silence, hands intertwined. He began to feel drowsy and turned over onto his side, gathering her close to him.
"You should retire to your bed, Altair," she said when she realized he was falling asleep. "Think of the gossip should we be found in the light of morning."
"I don't care," he said stubbornly, though he knew she was right. He buried his face in her neck and inhaled the scent of her. "Come with me."
"I cannot. You know it is forbidden. Besides, that would break the spell," she teased.
"Ah, I see. I knew this must be some sort of sorcery," he said with a laugh, forcing himself to release her. He stood and retrieved his pants from where they'd been discarded and pulled them on. "I am loathe to end this night, Siren," he said, taking her hand and kissing it.
She smiled sweetly at him. "I thank you, and bid you good night, Poet."
He stared into her eyes a moment longer. "You have been like ambrosia to my spirit. Good night, Serena," he said softly, then departed their enchanted corner of the Garden.
As he lay smiling in his own bed some minutes later, close to a heavenly sleep, from out in the Garden came the sound of her playing.
A/N - I wrote this from a challenge, the prompt being "The Garden of Paradise." Serena pops up again in the last chapters of "Wisdom, Sorrow", so I thought I'd post this for reference if anyone is curious about her. Thanks for reading!