As night drew in, obscuring the leaf-strewn path, the hill man pointed his stubby finger toward the free city of Arquin. Its towers and spires rose in the middle distance, framed by the first evening stars. “We won’t reach the city before they lock the gates,” he said.
The minstrel could see his guide was right. They stood at the crest of a hill, looking down into a broad valley. The forest behind them was thick and dark, pierced here and there by cliffs of gray rock. A mountain stream burbled invitingly at their feet.
The minstrel said, “Ah, well. I could use a good night’s rest before tomorrow. They say Arquin audiences are hard to please.”
“I’ve heard that.” With a nod, the hill man turned off the path, and led the way to a nearby glade that lay just beneath a wall of rock. There was a gray stone firepit in the center of the clearing. The water of the stream sparkled through the darkness, and the grass was soft and dry. The minstrel slipped his pack from his shoulders and unslung his harp while his guide set a fire to crackling in the bed of stones.
The minstrel filled a cookpot with fresh water and soup makings. He set it on the fire, and settled himself to rest on the grass, enjoying the quiet. The birds had ceased singing some time before, and the night creatures had not yet begun to chitter in the underbrush. The pot had just begun to bubble when he heard a footfall somewhere above his head. “Do you hear that?”
The hill man sighed, and bent to stir the soup. The minstrel peered upward.
It was her hair, silver as a new moon, that made her stand out from the shadows. She stood on a ledge of stone, looking down at them, the flames glimmering on her face. The minstrel saw that she was old, very old indeed. The hand she lifted to push back a long strand of her luminous hair was skeletal. Her body, poised before what he could see now was the mouth of a cave in the stone cliff, was as frail as a bird’s. She gazed down at his cookpot, her eyes darker even than the darkening night.
“There’s a woman up there,” the minstrel exclaimed. His guide only grunted.
The minstrel scowled at him. He called up to the old woman, “Good evening, Grandmother. We’re about to have a simple repast. Would you like to join us?”
“She won’t talk to you,” the hill man said.
“She doesn’t say much to anyone.”
“You knew she was there?”
“We all do. She lives in that cave. Won’t leave it.”
“We can’t just ignore her,” the minstrel protested.
The old woman moved farther out on the ledge, catching starlight in her silver hair.
The minstrel said, “Are you hungry, Grandmother?”
She tilted her head, listening.
He tried one more time. “We could bring the soup up to you.”
She fixed her dark gaze on him, inscrutable through the gloom. After a moment, she crooked a clawlike finger, then turned away with a rustle of robes on stone.
The minstrel bundled the steaming cookpot into a blanket. “Come,” he said to his guide. “You seem to know this woman. Introduce me.”
The hill man rose with obvious reluctance. “She’s just a crazy old woman.”
“I’m a minstrel. A storyteller. I want to know who she is and why she’s there.”
Deep in the slave quarters beneath the Patron’s palace, the slavesinger Linya was watching her mother die. Andri had not opened her eyes since midnight. Her breaths, formerly so long and deep, came in gasps. Her flesh was clammy, and her muscles shivered with an occasional spasm. Linya, resting her weary forehead on the edge of the bed, no longer pleaded with her mother to take some water, or sip some broth.
The Mestro had come looking for Linya in the early evening. He took in the situation, and for once, he let her be. “Get someone else,” he muttered, and went away.
Linya wished Andri would rise from her bed, smiling. She wished the two of them could don their robes, tun their rebicks, gather their triangles and tambours. She wished they could make their way up the narrow slaves’ staircase to the broad passages above, to be led by the Mestro into a gilt parlor or pillared ballroom. She would have been happy to bow to the lords, to sing the airs and ballads of the free until dawn broke over the eastern spires of Arquin. She would have sung without ceasing for days, if only she could stop Andri dying.
But such power was not hers. All power belonged to the lords. Their songs and their language ruled the palace, ruled Arquin. She and Andri were only slavesingers, fated to live in the darkness below stairs except for the brief, gaudy hours they spent performing songs not their own, listening to a language they were forbidden to speak.
In her misery, Linya almost missed the faint pressure of her mother’s fingers on her own. She lifted her head. Andri’s eyes had opened a little. A faint gleam of life flashed from beneath her long lids.
Even in her last hours, Andri was beautiful. Beauty ran in their bloodline. Slavesingers of their line were never sold. The Patron would not give them up. All of them had the almond skin and night-black hair of their forebears, the full lips, the high cheekbones. Andri’s nose, like her daughter’s, was arching and wide-nostrilled, signifying a high palate. Andri was a glorious singer. Linya, the Mestro said, would be even better. He wanted her bred early.
“Mother,” Linya whispered. The rich lashes flickered. “Mother?”
Andri’s fingers pressed hers again, a pressure of feather lightness. “Linya . . .”
“Yes, Mother. This slave is here. Do you want something?”
Andri tried to shake her head, but succeeded only in wrinkling the pillow. Linya seized the cup of water from the bedside stand, and held it out, but Andri murmured, “No. No, darling. Want—” Her breath rattled in her throat. “Want to give you—”
Linya set the cup down hastily, splattering water drops. “Don’t talk, Mother. Rest. Perhaps you’ll feel better in the morning.”
“No.” Andri’s voice had been sweet and strong. It could be slender as a thread of spider’s silk or rich and full as a thundering river. Now it was like a sliver of ice, fragile, diminishing even as she spoke. “Linya, listen.”
Andri’s eyelids fell, lifted, fell again. Linya gazed at her mother through a sheen of tears.
Andri whispered, “Want to give you. . . the Word.”
Surprise–shock–stopped Linya’s tears. She bent over her mother, gripping her hand. “Mother—the Word? Is that what you said?”
Andri’s lips trembled. “The Word. Want to give it to you.”
“There is no Word! It’s a fable.”
Andri struggled for another breath. “No. Listen. This slave has. . . has. . .”
“Mother,” Linya cried, unbelieving. “If you know the Word, speak it! Use it!”
Andri swallowed dryly. Her eyelids trembled, but they did not lift again. “For you,” she croaked. “Saved it. . . for you.”
Linya stumbled up the stairs from the slave quarters to the basement floor. There was a little light there, slanting through high, small windows. The night had come and gone while Andri completed her journey, and Linya was too weary even to weep. Old Terrin found her wandering the corridor, and shepherded her to the kitchens, where several other slaves were gathered.
The cook pressed a cup of hot milk into Linya’a hand. “What’s happened?” she asked. Prash was a kindly woman, with no children of her own. She might have been sold, barren as she was, but the Patron was fond of her fine meringues and rich mayonnaises.
Linya gave Prash a look of utter misery. She didn’t open her mouth. The Word rested behind her lips, poised upon her tongue like a hummingbird on a twig, ready to take flight. She did not dare speak for fear it would escape her.
Someone said, “It must be her mother. Andri is so ill.”
Old Terrin said, “Will go and see. Take care of the little one, Prash.”
The cook nodded. “Have her in charge. If Andri is. . . that is. . .”
Terrin said, “If she has died, this slave will alert the Mestro.”
“Not you, Terrin,” someone said. “This slave will do it. You need to stay out of sight.”
Old Terrin nodded acceptance of this advice, and hobbled out of the kitchen.
“The Patron will not be pleased,” someone else said. “Andri was one of his favorites.”
Prash said, “Hush. Best not to speak of the Patron now.”
Linya understood this. One of the boys, before being sold off to one of the border lords after his voice broke, had told Linya that everyone thought the Patron had fathered her. Linya had not asked her mother if it were true. Such things were better left unsaid.
And now, Linya was as vulnerable as all the other slavesingers, the fresh young girls who had not yet mothered. There was no one left to stand between her and the lords, or the occasional lady with catholic tastes.
It was dangerous to be beautiful in the palace of the Patron. All remembered Lillit, an exquisite child of eight with ice-blonde hair and pale blue eyes, sent by the Mestro to sing for a late-night party of a dozen young lords. A middle-aged slave went along to accompany her on the rebick, which Lillit’s baby fingers could not yet play. The older slavesinger returned the next morning, red-eyed and shaking. Pretty Lillit was never seen again.
Andri had tried hiding Linya’s hair under ragged scarves, smudging her skin with coal, disguising her figure with ill-fitting clothes. But the Mestro, sending them out to sing for a wedding or a funeral feast, made her wash Linya’s face and dress her long black hair with flowers. The singer’s robe, belted in the middle, revealed her slender waist and budding bosom. They made a charming picture, the beautiful mother and her lovely daughter. They were famous for their duets, and they earned the Mestro extra tips.
Linya cringed before the hungering looks of the young lords, and the greedy ones of those not so young. Their words rendered her helpless. It was the power bestowed on them by freedom—freedom to say what they wished to say, to do what they wished to do, to come and go as they pleased. When a noble spoke a command in the language of power, a slave obeyed.
Andri had stepped between the lords and her daughter, and for reasons known only to the Patron—perhaps dictated by the Patron—the lords accepted the substitution. Many times Linya made her way down the stairs alone after a performance, while Andri stayed behind.
Old Terrin came back into the kitchens, and nodded to Prash. “Andri’s dead.”
Prash tutted, and took Linya’s untouched cup away. She tugged her up from her chair with both hands. “Come, Linya,” she said, with sympathy, but firmly. “Come and rest. Perhaps the Mestro will give you a day to grieve.”
Linya followed the older woman back to the room she had shared with her mother. They found the door ajar, and Andri gone. The bedclothes were still rumpled where she had lain, but the warmth of her body had faded from them.
Prash stripped off the blanket and the sheets. Linya hunched against a wall, numb and nerveless, as the cook rummaged through a chest for a threadbare quilt to put on the bed. Prash said, “this will do for now, child. This slave will wash these sheets. You lie down, and close your eyes.”
Linya did as she was bid. She lay on her back in the indentation her mother’s body had left, and she stared in silence at the pitted ceiling.
Prash stood beside her for a moment, arms full of sheets. “Do you want to talk, Linya?”
But Linya dared not speak. She lay stiffly, remembering the voice of her mother as she whispered the Word. The Word, that could change everything in an instant, would not rest in Linya’s mouth and mind, but racketed about, clamoring for release, battering at her tightly-folded lips. She could not think how Andri had kept it in all these years.
There was a room, a dim, echoing space far below the brilliance of the palace halls, forgotten by the lords, ignored by the Mestro. There the slaves congregated to sing their own songs, in their own language. They were ancient songs of hope, of change, of freedom. Though slaves could not read or write, the texts and melodies of these songs had been passed down through generations. They sang them as duets, or trios, or as a great aleatory ensemble, harmonizing according to their own tradition.
One song spoke of a brave Patroness, a strong and noble woman who would one day defy the Patron and free all slaves.
Another promised a great quaking of the earth that would break apart the palace walls, collapse its roofs, burst its windows, open the warrens of the slave quarters to the sun and sky.
Old Terrin, who hid in cupboards to avoid being sold for what his bones would bring, could sometimes be persuaded to chant an epic he had learned as a boy. “The Hero” was a long poem foretelling the end of days. In a voice gone high with age, Old Terrin sang of a glorious leader, a Hero of a noble line, who would overthrow the lords and abash their vain ladies. According to the legend, Arquin would become a vast cemetery filled with noble corpses. In time, fruit trees would grow there to nourish the liberated slaves and their descendants.
There was one song, the oldest of all, that was only sung because of its haunting melody. The text made no sense, a succession of short, strange stanzas pretending the existence of a Word of power. This Word, according to the song, would bring about great change. The lowly would rise, the highborn would fall. The nobles would serve, and the slaves would rule.
Linya lay pondering all this. Everyone knew the stories weren’t real. When a slavesinger was sold, or disappeared after some revel or other, those left behind clustered in the forgotten room to sing their songs for surcease, for comfort. They were fables, elaborate myths meant to give hope where there was none. Perhaps Andri, whispering her secret in her last moments, was no longer rational.
It was the energy of the Word, battering to escape her closed mouth, that made Linya wonder. The lords had such a word in their own language. They used it as casually as they used everything else—things, thoughts, people. But slaves had no such word.
News spread throughout the slave quarters that Linya, daughter of the great Andri, could no longer sing. Prash put it about that she was sorrowing, that when she had recovered, her voice would return. Other slaves cut their eyes at her, and whispered behind her back. Slavesingers who could not sing did not last long in the palace.
The Mestro ordered Linya to appear at the naming ceremony for a lord’s son, and she could not even speak to explain to him. She wore her singer’s robe, and brushed her hair so it hung in a silken black river to her waist, but she stood mute before the entire company. The Mestro was forced to step in himself, to sing her song for her. He was doubly humiliated, because the accompaniment had already begun, and the key was too high for him. He sang badly, and the lord whose son was being named that day had him whipped in the upper courtyard, where all the slaves working on the main level could see.
The Mestro raged at Linya that night. “Will have you sold tomorrow!” he shouted, though Prash tried to calm him with a cup of chocolate. “Will not tolerate this blight on my name!” He sipped from Prash’s cup, and burned his tongue, which made him even angrier. “Don’t care if you become a whore, or a scrubber of chamber pots!”
Linya hung her head. The Word buzzed and hummed behind her closed lips, wanting out, but something in her knew this was not yet the time. She marveled at her mother’s ability to keep the Word as she had.
Prash whispered to her, when the Mestro had stormed away, “You’ll have to sing.”
Linya pled with her eyes for Prash to understand. Prash didn’t, of course. She couldn’t.
Linya looked up to find Old Terrin’s rheumy eyes fixed on her, his white eyebrows lifted in question. A flash of recognition passed between them, and the Word, hovering behind Linya’s lips, quivered with eagerness beneath the old slavesinger’s regard.
Linya had met the Patron once. He had summoned the ensemble to perform for the king, who came with his queen to propose a marriage for the Patron. The Patron had to pretend gratitude, but everyone knew the cost of hosting the king’s entourage nearly ruined the palace. The nobles of Arquin were taxed. The slaves ate half rations for a month, even as they labored from early morning till late at night.
The Mestro perspired with nerves as he looked Andri and Linya over the night of their performance. Their freshly-pressed robes flowed like water around them. Their skin sparkled with a brushing of silver dust. Their hair was studded with fresh rosebuds. Linya had no mirror, but Andri was breathtaking, her hair shining black beneath the scarlet flowers.
An ensemble went up the narrow stairs with them, two rebicks, a harp, a drum, and a fat-bodied vielle. They paraded into the largest ballroom. Linya eyed the king and the Patron on their dais. The Patron had black hair and skin like almond milk. His eyes were dark as midnight. He moved restlessly, changing position every few seconds.
The king and queen were dull-looking, only identifiable by the circlets of gold they wore, but the prospective bride was tall, with pale hair and light eyes. She sat still as stone. She did not so much as blink as the opening chords were struck.
Andri and Linya performed their usual program of airs and lays, the songs of the nobles. Their program ended with a response song in which Andri sang a line, and Linya answered it. Each new stanza was sung a bit higher, a little faster, until their parts tumbled over each other, twining and twisting so it was hard to know who was singing what. When it was over, the company applauded loudly. Even the Patron’s stiff features softened a bit. The king leaned forward to say, in a carrying voice, “Your slavesingers live up to their reputation, my lord. These two would delight my guests at the royal palace.”
The prospective Patroness turned her head to fix her ice-blue gaze on the Patron.
He glanced at her, then, frowning, at the sovereign. He made a sudden, slashing gesture with his hand.
The Mestro stepped swiftly in front of Linya and Andri. “You’re finished,” he hissed. “Go below stairs. And hurry!”
Andri seized Linya’s arm. She propelled her out of the candlelit ballroom, down the carpeted corridor to the dark stairwell. As they tripped swiftly down to the slave quarters, Linya said, “What happened, Mother? Sang well!”
“Yes. Sang too well,” Andri said grimly. “Quiet, now. Change these robes.”
It was only later, in the kitchens with a cup of tea hastily brewed by Prash, that Linya understood. “The king would have taken these slaves,” Andri said.
The Mestro was there, pale and trembling. “The patron is furious with this man,” he said in a shaking voice. “Should have sent someone else to sing. Thought—because it was the king—”
Prash set the teapot down with a clatter. “Hear the king takes whatever he fancies. Furniture. Jewels. Hangings. Guess that includes slavesingers.”
Andri said, “It’s the novelty. A mother and daughter, good singers.”
“Hmm.” Prash poured out the tea. “The Patron doesn’t want to part with you, it seems.”
Andri was called up the stairs in the middle of that night, not to return until morning. The Mestro was whipped the next morning in the courtyard. The king and his entourage, including the proffered bride, departed soon after, and the slaves received extra rations for a week.
Linya was silent for a month after Andri’s death, then two. The Mestro despaired of her, and Prash began concealing her in the pantry whenever he was about. He had been whipped for allowing Andri to die, whipped so thoroughly he had not left his bed for three days afterward. He shouted and scolded at Linya, but nothing more. It was rumored the Patron had instructed him to allow her to sorrow for her mother. It was also rumored the Patron ordered her up the stairs at night, to perform services other than music. Only Linya knew this was not true, but she could not argue with the gossips.
A third month passed. Andri visited Linya in her dreams, stroking her forehead, encouraging her to wait until the moment was right. Linya begged her to explain how she had kept the Word for so long. Andri said, “Love, Linya. Love.” In her dreams, Linya clung to her mother and wept. She woke in the mornings to find her pillow wet and her throat aching. In her mouth the Word grew and grew, until she thought it would burst forth of its own accord.
“Wait,” Andri whispered in her dreamtime visits. “You will know.”
Linya did not see how she would know, but she waited. The Word burned her tongue and her palate and threatened to steal her breath.
Linya’s fourteenth birthday arrived in the middle of her fourth month of silence. On that same day the Mestro caught her alone in the corridor. He seized her arm to drag her into the windowless room that served as his studio. “This slave has worked long and hard to become Mestro of the patron’s school!” he shouted. “You will sing, or you will leave! Will report you to the Patron. Will send you to the slaveseller!”
Linya’s lips trembled, but they held. The Mestro pulled his baton from a fold in his robes and brandished it above her head. “Speak! Miserable chit, speak! There is no room in this school for a mute!”
When Linya only hung her head, he struck her with the baton on her shoulders, on her back. She dared not even open her mouth to cry out.
The Mestro’s shouts brought other slavesingers from the practice rooms to gather in the corridor outside his studio. He beat Linya to her knees, his voice rising higher and higher, breaking on his curses. “You and your misbegotten mother! Favorites of the Patron! How is this slave to keep up the standard, to have singers ready at every moment, to satisfy the lords?” He struck her again, and she cowered with her hands above her head. “This slave could lose everything, and for what? For a girl who won’t sing!”
Linya thought he would break her wrists if he kept up his barrage. Blood began to trickle down her arms. The Word vibrated inside her, thrummed like a string of the vielle. Was it now? Was this the time to speak it, to the Mestro?
No. She knew it was not.
The time was coming, though. She felt it when Prash, alerted by Old Terrin, came to lead her to the kitchen to bathe her wounds. Terrin met her there, and the Word trembled with excitement at his presence.
“You’ll have to sing again,” Prash said as she sponged blood from the backs of Linya’s hands. “This slave has felt that baton, too. The Mestro won’t give up.”
Old Terrin regarded Linya gloomily. He said in his high, thin voice, “The Mestro has other singers.”
Prash paused, the bloodstained cloth in her hand. “Yes. But none like Linya.”
“There is Tander.”
Prash washed out the cloth, and pressed it to Linya’s forehead. “Tander is ugly.”
Terrin blinked acceptance of that fact. “There is Breen.”
“The lords want girls, you know that, Terrin. They wanted this slave, long ago.”
Linya looked up into Prash’s face, and tried to see a girl like herself beneath the reddened cheeks and fleshy body. Prash gave her a grim smile. “Oh, yes, Linya. Once this slave was as lissome as you, and could sing, too.” She rinsed the cloth again, and tossed it into a basket. “All in all, life is easier now.”
Old Terrin said, “Hide her.”
Prash stood up, and put her hands on her broad hips. “Terrin, hiding an old slavesinger nobody wants is one thing. Hiding a beautiful young one is another. The Mestro won’t forget. He has stripes to remind him. And what if the Patron asks for her?”
At the Patron’s name, Terrin fell as silent as Linya.
The ensemble climbed the stairs that night, summoned to entertain during a late supper. The Mestro glared at Linya as he led his troupe away, and pointed a long-nailed finger. “One more day. This man gives you one more day.”
Prash, icing a vast cake for the Patron’s guests, said, “This slave is afraid you’ve run out of time. It could be the Patron has tired of your absence.”
Linya’s throat worked where the Word poised, waiting, between her vocal folds. Old Terrin hobbled into the kitchen, and a light of recognition brightened the clouded depths of his eyes. Linya knew then that the moment was close.
The Patron, having irritated the king by refusing to sell Andri and Linya, was forced to accept the bride the sovereign had chosen for him. His marriage feast was at hand. Everyone would be there, Prash said, all the lords and ladies of the city, the chief landowners, the wealthiest merchants. A delegation from the king had arrived the night before. Prash had not slept. Every shelf and counter in the kitchens was lined with pastries and sweetmeats and intricate confections glistening with sugar.
The Mestro was beside himself, giving orders, checking tuning, lining up his slavesingers at the foot of the stairs. He ran his fingers through his hair until it stood up in every direction. He demanded loudly, “Where is Linya? This day she will sing or be sold!”
Old Terrin had helped Linya to dress, smoothing her robe, pinning flowers in her hair. As he stepped forward, the Mestro’s face purpled. “Terrin! This slave thought you were dead!”
Old Terrin cackled. “Not yet, Mestro, not yet. This slave could not die before this day.”
“This day? This day?” The Mestro advanced on the old man, baton in hand. He might have struck him, but Linya appeared at that moment. There was a general indrawn breath.
She knew she looked very like her mother. Her singer’s robe was belted tightly around her slender waist, and her hair fell like a shining curtain down her back.
Distracted, the Mestro lowered his baton. “So! You have come to your senses.”
She inclined her head, and took her place in the line of slavesingers. They filed up the stairs, their robes whispering on the floor. They took their places in the pillared ballroom, where lords and ladies mingled beneath soaring mullioned windows. A thousand candles flickered in sconces and chandeliers, dazzling their eyes after the dimness of the slave quarters.
Linya stood silent through the anthems, the quartets, the trios, hymns of praise for the Patron and his new consort. The Patron fidgeted with his clothes, crossed his legs, tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. The Patroness, pale of hair and eyes, barely breathed. Linya’s gaze strayed to her again and again, drawn by her stillness and her gravity.
When the program was nearly at an end, the Mestro stepped off his podium, and pointed his baton at Linya.
She stepped forward. She drew a long, lung-expanding breath. The Word circled and circled in her mouth, testing her lips, teasing her tongue, demanding release. She denied it. Not yet. Not yet. A moment more.
The music began, a skirl of harp strings, a passage from the vielle. It had been Andri’s air, her special pride, with a wide range and florid passages. Everyone knew the text, which began with the Patron’s name and went on to list his great qualities.
But Linya, when she opened her mouth at last, did not begin with the Patron’s name. She began with the Word.
The ensemble stopped playing. A shocked silence fell over the noisy assembly. Had they heard right? Had this little slave with red flowers in her black hair spoken a Word allowed only to the free folk?
Linya breathed. The Word came again, louder, higher.
The Patron leaped to his feet. He lifted his arm, and two guards, hard-eyed men with knives at their belts, stepped from behind a pillar.
Linya fixed her gaze on the Patroness’s ice-blue eyes. The Word dictated the pitches she sang, an accented arpeggio, clean and open, full-throated. Free.
I . . . am . . . I!
The Patron roared, “Take her!”
But as the guards lunged forward, the Patroness stood. She had a strange expression on her face, one of surprise, of wonder. She held up a commanding hand. The guards hesitated, looking from one ruler to the other in confusion. A murmur began to grow among the nobles.
The Mestro lunged toward Linya, wielding his baton.
She sang the arpeggio again, higher, louder.
I . . . am . . . I!
The top note filled her chest, sparkled in the bone of her forehead. Wineglasses exploded in the hands that held them.
A great cracking sound rent the air in the ballroom. The high ceiling split from side to side, and the chandelier swayed, spilling candle wax to scald the heads of the glittering company below. Ladies shrieked, and lords shouted. The Patron leaped from his dais, but the Patroness stood still as a statue, her arm lifted. She turned up her palm, as if to receive some gift.
Linya sang the Word again. No one could hear her.
The tall windows shattered, bursting inward with a sparkling spurt of glass. The mullions split, sending panels of glass spinning into the room to slice at cheeks and shoulders and upflung arms. Blood slicked the marble floor, and lords and ladies collapsed, senseless, in jeweled heaps.
The slavesingers scrambled away from the stage, crying out in terror.
Linya held the stage alone. The Word, released at last, would not give up its moment.
I . . .am . . . I!
Beneath the stage chaos reigned, people fleeing, dragging their wounded away, screaming as pillars began to crack and crumble. The Patron went down, felled by a beam that crashed to the floor with a great boom. Fissures appeared in the walls. Sconces swayed and broke. Fires began here and there, and spread from clothes to furniture. Oaken tables burst into flame.
The lords and ladies and servers became a mass of struggling bodies, trapped by great beams lying this way and that, while the slavesingers ducked down into their stairwell. The Mestro’s robe was afire. He danced, wailing, trying to pull it off. Linya paused to swallow. She saw Old Terrin huddled behind a sheared-off pillar, his eyes blazing over the shattered column.
Above the pandemonium, the Patroness gazed at Linya with bemused triumph in her pale eyes, and Linya knew she was as much a slave to the Word as Linya herself.
The cemetery stretched from the city gate to the river, a rolling field of earthen mounds. There were no gravestones, because there were no slaves to cut them. There were no flowers, because those who might have placed them had fled. Here and there slender saplings were just beginning to bud, apple and peach and cherry treelings reaching up to the sun and down to the fertile bodies of the noble dead.
Old Terrin had lived to see the Patroness mount the broken throne of Arquin, and to hear her manumit all slaves with a single command. Terrin was now buried at the highest point of the sprawling graveyard. Prash had planted a crystal pear to mark where he lay.
The king had sent an armed delegation, but the free people of Arquin stood shoulder to shoulder, and refused the soldiers entrance to the city. More died on that day, some of the king’s people and some of Arquin’s. Together they joined the lords and ladies beneath the earth.
The work of rebuilding the palace had begun, but there would be no slave quarters. By order of the Patroness, the rubble of the original palace was allowed to settle into the lower chambers, obliterating the warrens and stairwells. The new palace would be twice as high as the old, rising from the buried history of slavery.
The singers dispersed, some to entertain in taverns and squares, some to take up other work. Many were hired away by the Patrons of other citystates, paid real wages to give concerts or teach students, or to compose music. Offers for Linya, the Hero, came from all over the kingdom. Everyone wanted to hear the great singer who had sung the Word.
But Linya was nowhere to be found. No one ever saw her again in Arquin.
The minstrel climbed to the top of the cliff, and found the crone in a comfortable space, with pillows and stools scattered here and there, and a pallet of straw against one wall. At the mouth of the cave was a litter of baskets. The hill man pointed to it. “Our people bring her food and sundries. There was a woman from the city used to come, but that was a long time ago.”
The minstrel saw now that the woman was more than old. She was ancient, her face a mass of wrinkles, her dark eyes clouded and dim. He inclined his head respectfully. “Good evening, Grandmother.”
She stared at him from behind the silver curtain of hair, her lips working.
He set the soup pot on a stool, and unwrapped the blanket. “Do you have bowls, Grandmother? We can sup together.”
She pushed her hair back with one hand, and her lips parted. In a voice that creaked, as if from disuse, she said, “I—”
The minstrel waited. When she didn’t go on, he prompted, “Yes? Yes, Grandmother?”
His guide said, “It’s no use. You’ll see.”
The minstrel hushed him, and said again, “Yes, Grandmother. You . . .?”
Her lips and her throat worked. “I . . . I . . .”
The minstrel found he was holding his breath. It seemed, somehow, important that she should speak, that he should hear what she had to say.
The crone’s wrinkled lips pursed, pressed together, opened at last. She choked out, “I . . . I . . .” Then, triumphantly, “I am I!”
The minstrel gazed at her, openmouthed. “Is it true, then?” he breathed.
“What?” the hill man asked. “Is what true?”
The crone spun about, her dusty robe swinging. “I am I!” she crowed, like an exultant child. “I am I! I am I!”
“Crazy old woman. That’s all she ever says.”
The minstrel whispered, “The Hero.”
The hill man squinted at him. “What are you talking about?”
“I’ve been collecting the slavesongs. It’s hard, because the slaves have mostly died out. I find one, here and there, but they’re old—decrepit—and they can’t sing anymore.”
“I am I!” the old woman cried, and spun again. Spittle fell from her lips, and her clouded eyes peered at the minstrel as if expecting some response. “I am I!”
“Are you, Grandmother?” he said softly. “I would not be surprised.”
“Fables,” his guide said. “Myths.”
“Perhaps,” the minstrel said. He dipped up a bowlful of soup and pressed it into the crone’s hands. She lifted it and drank, and he smiled. “Sometimes there is truth in fables.”
The crone peered over the rim of her bowl. “I am I,” she said, quietly now. “I.”
Spread the word!