Maps in a mirror, p.100

Maps in a Mirror, page 100

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  At that moment Mikal raised his hand for some wine. Obviously he was as bored as anyone else.

  The Chamberlain poured the wine, tasted it, as was the routine, and then took a step toward Mikal’s throne. Then he stopped, and beckoned to Ansset, who was already moving back to Mikal’s side. Surprised at the summons, Ansset came over.

  “Why don’t you take the wine to Mikal, Sweet Songbird?” the Chamberlain said. The surprise fell away from Ansset’s eyes, and he took the wine and headed purposefully back to Mikal’s throne.

  At that moment, however, pandemonium broke loose. The Kinshasan envoys reached into their elaborate curly-haired headdresses and withdrew wooden knives—which could pass every test given by machines at the doors of the palace. They rushed toward the throne. The guards fired quickly, their lasers dropping five of the Kinshasans, but all had aimed at the foremost assassins, and three continued unharmed. They rushed toward the throne, arms extended so the knives were already aimed directly at Mikal’s heart.

  Mikal, old and unarmed, rose to meet them. A guard managed to shift his aim and get off a shot, but it was wild, and the others were hurriedly recharging their lasers—which only took a moment, but that was a moment too long.

  Mikal looked death in the eye and did not seem disappointed.

  But at that moment Ansset threw the wine goblet at one of the attackers and then leaped out in front of the emperor. He jumped easily into the air, and kicked the jaw of the first of the attackers. The angle of the kick was perfect, the force sharp and incredibly hard, and the Kinshasan’s head flew fifty feet away into the crowd, as his body slid forward until the wooden knife touched Mikal’s foot. Ansset came down from the jump in time to bring his hand upward into the abdomen of another attacker so sharply that his arm was buried to the elbow in bowels, and his fingers crushed the man’s heart.

  The other attacker paused just a moment, thrown from his relentless charge by the sudden onslaught from the child who stood so harmlessly by the emperor’s throne. That pause was long enough for recharged lasers to be aimed, to flash, and the last Kinshasan assassin fell, dropping ashes as he collapsed, flaming slightly.

  The whole thing, from the appearance of the wooden knives to the fall of the last attacker, had taken five seconds.

  Ansset stood still in the middle of the hall, gore on his arm, blood splashed all over his body. He looked at the gory hand, at the body he had pulled it out of. A rush of long-blocked memories came back, and he remembered other such bodies, other heads kicked from torsos, other men who had died as Ansset learned the skill of killing with his hands. The guilt that had troubled him before swept through him with new force now that he knew the why of it.

  The searches had all been in vain. Ansset himself was the weapon that was to have been used against Father Mikal.

  The smell of blood and broken intestines combined with the emotions sweeping his body, and he doubled over, shuddering as he vomited.

  The guards gingerly approached him, unsure what they should do.

  But the Chamberlain was sure. Ansset heard the voice, trembling with fear at how close the assassination had come, and how easily a different assassination could have come, saying, “Keep him under guard. Wash him. Never let him be out of a laser’s aim for a moment. Then bring him to Mikal’s chambers in an hour.”

  The guards looked toward Mikal, who nodded.

  Ansset was still white and weak when he came into Mikal’s chambers. The guards still had lasers trained on him. The Chamberlain and the new Captain of the Guard, Riktors Ashen, stood between Mikal and the boy.

  “Songbird,” Riktors said, “it seems that someone taught you new songs.”

  Ansset lowered his head.

  “You must have studied under a master.”

  “I n-never,” Ansset stuttered. He had never stuttered in his life.

  “Don’t torture the boy, Captain,” Mikal said.

  The Chamberlain launched into his pro forma resignation. “I should have examined the boy’s muscle structure and realized what new skills he had been given. I submit my resignation. I beg you to take my life.”

  The Chamberlain must be even more worried than usual, Ansset thought with that part of his mind that was still capable of thinking. The old man had prostrated himself in front of the emperor.

  “Shut up and get up,” Mikal said rudely. The Chamberlain arose with his face gray. Mikal had not followed the ritual. The Chamberlain’s life was still on the line.

  “We will now be certain,” Mikal said to Riktors. “Show him the pictures.”

  Ansset stood watching as Riktors took a packet off a table and began removing newsheet clippings from it. Ansset looked at the first one and was merely sickened a little. The second one he recognized, and he gasped. With the third one he wept and threw the pictures away from him.

  “Those are the pictures,” Mikal said, “of the people who were kidnapped and murdered during your captivity.”

  “I k-killed them,” Ansset said, dimly aware that there was no trace of song in his voice, just the frightened stammering of an eleven-year-old boy caught up in something too monstrous for him to comprehend. “They had me practice on them.”

  “Who had you practice!” Riktors demanded.

  “They! The voices—from the box.” Ansset struggled to hold onto memories that had been hidden from him by the block. He also longed to let the block in his mind slide back into place, forget again, shut it out.

  “What box?” Riktors would not let up.

  “The box. A wooden box. Maybe a receiver, maybe a recording, I don’t know.”

  “Did you know the voice?”

  “Voices. Never the same. Not even for the same sentence, the voices changed for every word.”

  Ansset kept seeing the faces of the bound men he was told to maim and then kill. He remembered that though he cried out against it, he was still forced to do it.

  “How did they force you to do it!”

  Was Riktors reading his mind? “I don’t know. I don’t know. There were words, and then I had to.”

  “What words?”

  “I don’t know! I never knew!” And Ansset was crying again.

  Mikal spoke softly. “Who taught you how to kill that way?”

  “A man. I never knew his name. On the last day, he was tied where the others had been. The voices made me kill him.” Ansset struggled with the words, the struggle made harder by the realization that this time, when he had killed his teacher, he had not had to be forced. He had killed because he hated the man. “I murdered him.”

  “Nonsense,” the Chamberlain said. “You were a tool.”

  “I said to shut up,” Mikal said curtly. “Can you remember anything else, my Son?”

  “I killed the crew of the ship, too. All except Husk. The voices told me to. And then there were footsteps, above me, on the deck.”

  “Did you see who it was?”

  Ansset forced himself to remember. “No. He told me to lie down. He must have known the—code, whatever it is, I didn’t want to obey him, but I did.”

  “And?”

  “Footsteps, and a needle in my arm, and I woke up on the street.”

  Everyone was silent then, for a few moments, all of them thinking quickly. The Chamberlain broke first. “My Lord, the great threat to you and the strength of the Songbird’s love for you must have impelled him despite the mental block—”

  “Chamberlain,” Mikal said, “your life is over if you speak again before I address you. Captain. I want to know how those Kinshasan’s got past your guard?”

  “They were dignitaries. By your order, my Lord, no dignitaries are given the body search. Their wooden knives passed all the detectors. I’m surprised this hadn’t been tried before.”

  Ansset noticed that Riktors spoke confidently, not coweringly as another Captain might have done after assassins got through his guard. And, better in control of himself, Ansset listened for the melodies of Riktors’s voice. They were strong. They
were dissonant. Ansset wondered if he would be able to detect Riktors in a lie. To a strong, selfish man all things that he chose to say became truth, and the songs of his voice said nothing.

  “Riktors, you will prepare orders for the utter destruction of Kinshasa.”

  Riktors saluted.

  “Before Kinshasa is destroyed—and that means destroyed, not a blade of grass, Riktors—before Kinshasa is destroyed, I want to know what connection there is between the assassination attempt this morning and the manipulation of my Songbird.”

  Riktors saluted again. Mikal spoke to the Chamberlain. “Chamberlain, what would you recommend I do with my Songbird?”

  As usual, the Chamberlain took the safe way. “My Lord, it is not a matter to which I have given thought. The disposition of your Songbird is not a matter on which I feel it proper to advise you.”

  “Very carefully said, my dear Chamberlain.” Ansset tried to be calm as he listened to them discuss how he should be disposed of. Mikal raised his hand in the gesture that, by ritual, spared the Chamberlain’s life. Ansset would have laughed at the Chamberlain’s struggle not to show his relief, but this was not a time for laughter, because Ansset knew his relief would not come so easily.

  “My Lord,” Ansset said, “I beg you to put me to death.”

  “Dammit, Ansset, I’m sick of the rituals,” Mikal said.

  “This is no ritual,” Ansset said, his voice tired and husky from misuse. “And this is no song, Father Mikal. I’m a danger to you.”

  “I know it.” Mikal looked back and forth between Riktors and the Chamberlain.

  “Chamberlain, have Ansset’s possessions put together and readied for shipment to Alwiss. The prefect there is Timmis Hortmang, prepare a letter of explanation and a letter of mark. Ansset will arrive there wealthier than anyone else in the prefecture. Those are my orders. See to it.” He turned his head downward and to the right. Both Riktors and the Chamberlain moved to leave. Ansset—and therefore the guards who had lasers trained on him—did not.

  “Father Mikal,” Ansset said softly, and he realized that the words had been a song.

  But Mikal made no answer. He only got up from the chair and left the chamber.

  Ansset had several hours before nightfall, and he spent them wandering through the palace and the palace grounds. The guards dogged his steps. At first he let the tears flow. Then, as the horror of the morning hid again behind the only partly broken block in his mind, he remembered what the Songmaster had taught him, again and again, “When you want to weep, let the tears come through your throat. Let pain come from the pressure in your thighs. Let sorrow rise and resonate through your head.”

  Walking by the Susquehanna on the cold lawns of autumn afternoon shade, Ansset sang his grief. He sang softly, but the guards heard his song, and could not help but weep for him, too.

  He stopped at a place where the water looked cold and clear, and began to strip off his tunic, preparing to swim. A guard reached out and stopped him. Ansset noticed the laser pointed at his foot. “I can’t let you do that. Mikal gave orders you were not to be allowed to take your own life.”

  “I only want to swim,” Ansset answered, his voice low with persuasion.

  “I would be killed if any harm came to you,” the guard said.

  “I give you my oath that I will only swim, and not try to break free.”

  The guard considered. The other guards seemed content to leave the decision up to him. Ansset hummed a sweet melody that he knew oozed confidence. The guard gave in.

  Ansset stripped and dove into the water. It was icy cold, and stung him. He swam in broad strokes upstream, knowing that to the guards on the bank he would already seem like only a speck on the surface of the river. Then he dove and swam under the water, holding his breath as only a singer or a pearldiver could, and swam across the current toward the near shore, where the guards were waiting. He could hear, though muffled by the water, the cries of the guards. He surfaced, laughing.

  Two of the guards had already thrown off their boots and were up to their waists in water, preparing to try to catch Ansset’s body as it swept by. But Ansset kept laughing at them, and they turned at him angrily.

  “Why did you worry?” Ansset said. “I gave my word.”

  Then the guards relaxed, and Ansset swam for an hour under the afternoon sun. The motion of the water, and constant exertion to keep place against the current took his mind off his troubles, to some extent. Only one guard watched him now, while the others played polys, casting fourteen-sided dice in a mad gambling game that soon engrossed them.

  Ansset swam underwater from time, to time, listening to the different sound the guards’ quarreling and laughing made when water covered his ears. The sun was nearly down, now, and Ansset dove underwater again to swim to shore on one breath. He was halfway to shore when he heard the sharp call of a bird overhead, muffled as it was by the river.

  Ansset made a sudden connection in his mind, and came up immediately, coughing and sputtering. He dog-paddled in to shore, shook himself, and put on his tunic, wet as he was.

  “We’ve got to get back to the palace,” he said, filling his voice with urgency, putting the pitch high to penetrate the guards’ sluggishness after an hour of gaming. The guards quickly followed him, overtook him.

  “Where are you going?” one of them asked.

  “To see Mikal.”

  “We’re not to do that—we were ordered! You can’t go to Mikal.”

  But Ansset walked on, fairly sure that until he actually got close to the emperor the guards would not try to restrain him. Even if they had not been present for the demonstration of Ansset’s skill in the Great Hall that morning, the story would surely have reached their ears that Mikal’s Songbird could kill two men in two seconds.

  He had heard the call of a bird as he swam underwater. He remembered that on his last night of captivity in the ship, he had heard the cry of another bird high above him. But never, never had he heard another sound from outside.

  And yet where the flatboat was the city noise had come loudly, could be heard clearly below decks. Therefore even if the boat was his prison, it had not been moored by that house. And if that were so, the evidence against the former Captain of the Guard was a fraud. And Ansset knew now who in the court had taken Ansset to use as an assassin.

  They were met in a corridor by a messenger. “There you are. The Lord Mikal commands the presence of the Songbird, as quickly as possible. Here,” he said, handing the orders to the guard who made decisions, who took out his verifier and passed it over the seal on the orders. A sharp buzz testified that the orders were genuine.

  “All right then, Songbird,” said the guard. “We’ll go there after all.” Ansset started to run. The guards kept up easily, following him through the labyrinth. To them it was almost a game, and one of them said, between breaths, “I never knew this way led where we’re going!” to which one of the other guards replied, “And you’ll never find it again, either.”

  And then they were in Mikal’s chambers. Ansset’s hair was still wet, and his tunic still clung to his small body where it had not yet had time to dry from the river water.

  Mikal was smiling. “Ansset, my Son, it’s fine now.” Mikal waved an arm, dismissing the guards. “We were so foolish to think we needed to send you away,” he said. “The Captain was the only one in the plot close enough to give the signal. Now that he’s dead, no one knows it! You’re safe now—and so am I!”

  Mikal’s speech was jovial, delighted, but Ansset, who knew the songs of his voice as well as he knew his own, read in the words a warning, a lie, a declaration of danger. Ansset did not run to him. He waited.

  “In fact,” Mikal said, “you’re my best possible bodyguard. You look small and weak, you’re always by my side, and you can kill faster than a guard with a laser.” Mikal laughed. Ansset was not fooled. There was no mirth in the laugh.

  But the Chamberlain and Captain Riktors Ashen were fooled, and they laug
hed along with Mikal. Ansset forced himself to laugh, too. He listened to the sounds the others were making. Riktors sounded sincere enough, but the Chamberlain—

  “It’s a cause for celebration. Here’s wine,” said the Chamberlain. “I brought us wine. Ansset, why don’t you pour it?”

  Ansset shuddered with memories. “I?” he asked, surprised, and then not surprised at all. The Chamberlain held out the full bottle and the empty goblet. “For the Lord Mikal,” the Chamberlain said.

  Ansset shouted and dashed the bottle to the floor. “Make him keep silent!”

  The suddenness of Ansset’s violent action brought Riktors’s laser out of his belt and into his hand.

  “Don’t let the Chamberlain speak!”

  “Why not?” asked Mikal innocently, but Ansset knew there was no innocence behind the words. For some reason Mikal was pretending not to understand.

  The Chamberlain believed it, believed he had a moment. He said quickly, almost urgently, “Why did you do that? I have another bottle. Sweet Songbird, let Mikal drink deeply!”

  The words hammered into Ansset’s brain, and by reflex he whirled and faced Mikal. He knew what was happening, knew and screamed against it in his mind. But his hands came up against his will, his legs bent, he compressed to spring, all so quickly that he couldn’t stop himself. He knew that in less than a second his hand would be buried in Mikal’s face, Mikal’s beloved face, Mikal’s smiling face—

  Mikal was smiling at him, kindly and without fear. Ansset stopped in midspring, forced himself to turn aside, despite the tearing in his brain. He could be forced to kill, but he couldn’t be forced to kill that face. He shoved his hand into the floor, bursting the tense surface, releasing the gel to flow out across the room.

  Ansset hardly noticed the pain in his arm where the impact had broken the skin and the gel was agonizing the wound. All he felt was the pain in his mind as he still struggled against the compulsion he had only just barely deflected, that still drove him to try to kill Mikal, that still he fought against, fought down, tried to block.

 
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