It was called a Museum, and it served as such to the public in the Imperial Capital.
That is, people could visit and, for a nominal fee, they could peruse the items stored within. They could awe at the sculptures, puzzle at the paintings, meander around the mosaics.
They could read portions of ancient texts, both in the original and in several translations. They could learn from a trained and patient docent why a particular civilization had, for instance, created garments which were beaded over the entire (relatively skimpy) piece with shells and bits of shiny stones, or from another guide why the famed painter Kelizanie Patrischezch had chosen to use only five shades in her The Dawn Comes (Ukethetchesziezie) series.
And, because it was available, because their were discounts for students, and because it insisted on a certain level of quiet but used firm barriers to keep small children from, say, climbing on the statue of The First Empress, it was well-attended, if perhaps not as well attented as it should have been. It was, in terms of museums, quite a success.
All of which did a wonderful job of concealing the original mandate of the building and the organization which ran it.
Mayie Retoziven, lead curator for the Northeast Territories Section of the Imperial Museum of Arts and Culture, was up to her elbows in a box of trinkets and gizmos, objets d’art and fine embroidery when her alarm went off.
As she had both been trained in and then trained countless others in her decade as a lead curator, Mayie froze. “Castellan!” she called to her assistant. “There’s an issue.”
Castellan, a narrow and lean young man who affected the heavy robes of the far North-east and pretended (a pretense allowed by Mayie and encouraged by many of the other Museum staff) that it was because that was his area of study and he wished to immerse in it, hurried over as if his employer was on fire. He was carrying a length of heavy silk that several of the Empire’s Informers might have killed to get their hands on, three charmed necklaces, and an iron box. “I hear it. What were you touching when it went off?”
She forbore to glare at him, because those were the questions that she’d taught him to ask in these circumstances. “Seems like this statue. My left hand, the three leftmost fingers.”
Moving quickly but with precision, Catellan dropped one of the necklaces over Mayie’s head so that the pendant nestled between her breasts. Then he scooped carefully into the box and wrapped the statue in the end of the silk.
The alarm kept going off. Mayie cursed again. “Right hand, the gold thing.”
Again, the piece was retrieved in silk. Again, the alarm kept going.
They looked into the box, both of them trying to ignore the persistent blaring and the warning that it heralded: something they were looking at was cursed.
“That pink thing?” She hadn’t even been trying to pick up the pink thing; as far as initial observation went, it was a garish decoration from an era in home interiors best left in the past or, preferably, burned down.
“I’m running out of silk here,” Castellan warned.
“Should’ve brought more. You know what the Pancherie things can be like.”
“Hold still,” he answered, for revenge, and picked out the pink thing.
The alarm stopped. He dropped the pink thing in the iron box and slammed it shut before dropping the second necklace over his own head and the third over Mayie’s. “Phew! How do you feel?”
“I feel–” Mayie bit her lip as a sensation coursed trough her. Something like song. “–cursed,” she bit out carefully.
“Surprise, surprise. It can’t be too bad if the pendants aren’t stopping it. Study and then cure?”
“Urgh,” Mayie complained. But that was protocol. “Study and then cure,” she agreed in a bit of a sing-song.
“All right. Sensations?”
“Music-” her voice lifted a bit at the end. “And a bit of feet-tapping. Careful to not let me-” she burst into song with the last word, a me that carried for several breaths. “-dance ’til my feet bleed, trot till I can’t stop, hop the Reaper’s hop…”
Castellan frowned. Mayie was, it seemed, unable to frown. “Expression – Ex-presson! It seems to be,” she gasped, “fixed. It’s a cheer sort of thing. With a sort of a ring, a ling, ling… Oh, no.”
“Okay.” He wrote down some notes. “Is it providing the melody?”
“I don’t think so, no,” she grunted as her feet tapped away. “It’s just an urge, surge, surging urge and some rhyming timing…”
“Good, good. And your feet?”
“Well, it’s mostly just – I must – it’s not lust, at least – the ah…” She winced. “Pain if I don’t rhyme, rhyme in the right time, urrgh.”
“I’ve got it.” He closed the notebook.
“No, no, study more, you know. Know.”
“No.” He drew a chalk circle around Mayie’s feet with practiced ease. He might be new here, but the first month of training here at the Museum of Arts and Culture was nothing but warding circles, protection circles, clearing circles. With the things that they handled on a day-to-day basis, even cataloging and preservation were second to the circles — and he had come top in his class from the Silent University with a double major in History and Curses.
“But the knowledge in the – how – ledge….” She winced again. Every time she couldn’t manage a rhyme, it poked her like a bad critic with a jab of pain in her right temple.
“It’s hurting you. The rule is, when it starts to cause pain, we stop studying and start curing. Here, that should be big enough for your feet. now, let’s see, can you do the Asklenscko Chant? It’s all rhyming.”
“Of course – the course – the force-” She stopped trying to answer him and put all of her being into the Asklenscko Chant instead, pleased that Castellan had remembered it (and a little abashed that she hadn’t). Castellan was good at his job, and that was good, even when he was also good at her job.
The Asklenscko Chant was long, but it was not magically all that difficult or physically all that exhausting, and when it was done, Mayie found she could breathe out of rhythm, hum non-musically, and step out of the circle.
“That one,” she decided, “is definitely going into the locked cases. And I think we’re both due a break. Lunch at the Remande is on me today.”
The thing about cursed objects — which made up perhaps seven percent of the items the Imperial Museum of Arts and Culture’s intake and curation teams handled — was that they had a habit of being persistent. And the magic that infused them had a tendency to leak.
The Museum’s new presentation on the Poetry and Music of the Northeast Territories was one of its most popular new displays, and remained on display for a full half-year longer than had been planned. Mayie and Castellan both noticed the toe-tapping and the humming, the new operas in the nearby Cultural Center and the influx of street performers — eventually, after a little after a month. But considering that they both liked their jobs, considering the mildness of the influence (or so they told themselves), they waited until they had a quiet night at the museum, after the close of the new opera, after the wandering barbershop quartet had moved on, after their co-workers had all headed out to a concert, after they’d both fortified themselves with a little bit of Yeforian Brandy, and after they’d sung a quiet dirge to perform another banishment on the curse.
Considering the nature of the Empire, the nature of the Capital, and the nature of the Museum, it was not Mayie or Castellen but an Imperial Informer who noticed that spike in the lost voices,in the cases of exhaustion, and in the foot injuries that suddenly cut off the night two curators from the Northeast Territories Section of the Imperial Museum of Arts and Culture had finished a bottle of Yeforian Brandy.