Maps in a mirror, p.101

Maps in a Mirror, page 101


Maps in a Mirror

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  His body heaved upward, his hand flew through the air, and shattered the back of the chair where Mikal still sat. Blood spurted and splashed, and Ansset was relieved to see that it was his own blood, and not Mikal’s.

  In the distance he heard Mikal’s voice saying, “Don’t shoot him.” And, as suddenly as it had come, the compulsion ceased. His mind spun as he heard the Chamberlain’s words fading away: “Songbird, what have you done!”

  Those were the words that had set him free.

  Exhausted and bleeding, Ansset lay on the floor, his right arm covered with blood. The pain reached him now, and he groaned, though his groan was as much a song of ecstasy as of pain. Somehow Ansset had withstood it long enough, and he had not killed Father Mikal.

  Finally he rolled over and sat up, nursing his arm. The bleeding had settled to a slow trickle.

  Mikal was still sitting in the chair, despite its shattered back where Ansset’s hand had struck. The Chamberlain stood where he had stood ten seconds before, at the beginning of Ansset’s ordeal, the goblet looking ridiculous in his hand. Riktors’s laser was aimed at the Chamberlain.

  “Call the guards, Captain,” Mikal said.

  “I already have,” Riktors said. The button on his belt was glowing. Guards came quickly into the room. “Take the Chamberlain to a cell,” he ordered them. “If any harm comes to him, all of you will die and your families, too. Do you understand?” The guards understood.

  Ansset held his arm. Mikal and Riktors Ashen waited while a doctor treated it. The pain subsided.

  The doctor left.

  Riktors spoke first. “Of course you knew it was the Chamberlain, my Lord.”

  Mikal smiled faintly.

  “That was why you let him persuade you to call Ansset back here.”

  Mikal’s smile grew broader.

  “But, my Lord, only you could have known that the Songbird would be strong enough to resist a compulsion that was five months in the making.”

  Mikal laughed. And this time Ansset heard mirth in the laughter.

  “Riktors Ashen. Will they call you Riktors the Usurper? Or Riktors the Great?”

  It took the Captain of the Guard a moment to realize what had been said. Only a moment. But before his hand could reach his laser, which was back in his belt, Mikal’s hand held a laser that was pointed at Riktors’s heart.

  “Ansset my Son, will you take the Captain’s laser from him?”

  Ansset got up and took the Captain’s laser from him. He could hear the song of triumph in Mikal’s voice. But Ansset’s head was still spinning, and he didn’t understand why lasers had been drawn between the emperor and his incorruptible Captain.

  “Only one mistake, Riktors. Otherwise brilliantly done. And I really don’t see how you could have avoided the mistake, either.”

  “You mean Ansset’s strength?”

  “Not even I counted on that. I was prepared to kill him, if I needed to,” Mikal said, and Ansset, listening, knew it was true. He wondered why that knowledge didn’t hurt him. He had always known that, eventually, not even he would be indispensable to Mikal, if somehow his death served some vital purpose.

  “Then I made no mistakes,” Riktors said. “How did you know?”

  “Because my Chamberlain, unless he were under some sort of compulsion, would never have had the courage to suggest your name as the Captain’s successor. And without that, you wouldn’t have been in a position to take over after you exposed the Chamberlain as the engineer of my assassination, would you? It was good. The guard would have followed you loyally. No taint of assassination would have touched you. Of course, the entire empire would have rebelled immediately. But you’re a good tactician and a better strategist, and your men would have followed you well. I’d have given you one chance in four of making it—and that’s better odds than any other man in the empire.”

  “I gave myself even odds,” Riktors said, but Ansset heard the fear singing through the back of his brave words. Well, why not? Death was certain now, and Ansset knew of no one, except perhaps an old man like Mikal, who could look at death, especially death that also meant failure, without some fear.

  But Mikal did not push the button on the laser.

  “Kill me now and finish it,” Riktors Ashen said.

  Mikal tossed the laser away. “With this? It has no charge. The Chamberlain installed a charge detector at every door in my chambers over fifteen years ago. He would have known if I was armed.”

  Immediately Riktors took a step forward, the beginning of a rush toward the emperor. Just as quickly Ansset was on his feet, despite the bandaged arm ready to kill with the other hand, with his feet, with his head. Riktors stopped cold.

  “Ah,” Mikal said. “No one knows like you do what my bodyguard can accomplish in so short a time.”

  And Ansset realized that if Mikal’s laser was not loaded, he couldn’t have stopped Ansset if Ansset had not had strength enough to stop himself. Mikal had trusted him.

  And Mikal spoke again. “Riktors, your mistakes were very slight. I hope you have learned from them. So that when an assassin as bright as you are tries to take your life, you know all the enemies you have and all the allies you can call on and exactly what you can expect from each.”

  Ansset’s hands trembled. “Let me kill him now,” he said.

  Mikal sighed. “Don’t kill for pleasure, my Son. If you ever kill for pleasure you’ll come to hate yourself. Besides, weren’t you listening? I’m going to adopt Riktors Ashen as my heir.”

  “I don’t believe you,” Riktors said. But Ansset heard hope in his voice.

  “I’ll call in my sons—they stay around court, hoping to be closest to the palace when I die,” Mikal said. “I’ll make them sign an oath to respect you as my heir. Of course they’ll all sign it, and of course you’ll have them all killed the moment you take the throne. And, let’s see, that moment will be three weeks from tomorrow, that should give us time. I’ll abdicate in your favor, sign all the papers, it’ll make the headlines on the newsheets for days. I can just see all the potential rebels tearing their hair with rage. It’s a pleasant picture to retire on.”

  Ansset didn’t understand. “Why?” he asked. “He tried to kill you.”

  Mikal only laughed. It was Riktors who answered. “He thinks I can hold his empire together. But I want to know the price.”

  Mikal leaned forward on his chair. “A small price. A house for myself and my Songbird until I die. And then he is to be free for the rest of his life, with an income that doesn’t make him dependent on anybody’s favors. Simple enough?”

  “I agree.”

  “How prudent.” And Mikal laughed again.

  The vows were made, the abdication and coronation took a great deal of pomp and the Capital’s caterers became wealthy. All the contenders were slaughtered, and Riktors spent a year going from system to system to quell (brutally) all the rebellions.

  After the first few planets were burned over, the other rebellions mostly quelled themselves.

  It was only the day after the newsheets announced the quelling of the most threatening rebellion that the soldiers appeared at the door of the little house in Brazil where Mikal and Ansset lived.

  “How can he!” Ansset cried out in anguish when he saw the soldiers at the door. “He gave his word.”

  “Open the door for them, Son,” Mikal said.

  “They’re here to kill you!”

  “A year was all that I hoped for. I’ve had that year. Did you really expect Riktors to keep his word? There isn’t room in the galaxy for two heads that know the feel of the imperial crown.”

  “I can kill most of them before they could come near. If you hide, perhaps—”

  “Don’t kill anyone, Ansset. That’s not your song. The dance of your hands is nothing without the dance of your voice, Songbird.”

  The soldiers began to beat on the door, which, because it was steel, did not give way easily. “They’ll blow it open in a moment,” Mikal said.
Promise me you won’t kill anyone. No matter who. Please. Don’t avenge me.”

  “I will.”

  “Don’t avenge me. Promise. On your life. On your love for me.”

  Ansset promised. The door blew open. The soldiers killed Mikal with a flash of lasers that turned his body to ashes. They kept firing until nothing but ashes was left. Then they gathered them up. Ansset watched, keeping his promise but wishing with all his heart that somewhere in his mind there was a wall he could hide behind. Unfortunately, he was too sane.

  They took the ashes of the emperor and twelve-year-old Ansset to Capital. The ashes were placed in a huge urn, and displayed with state honors. Ansset they brought to the funeral feast under heavy guard, for fear of what his hands might do.

  After the meal, at which everyone pretended to be somber, Riktors called Ansset to him. The guards followed, but Riktors waved them away. The crown rested on his hair.

  “I know I’m safe from you,” Riktors said.

  “You’re a lying bastard,” Ansset said, “and if I hadn’t given my word I’d tear you end to end.”

  It might have seemed ludicrous that a twelve-year-old should speak that way to an emperor, but Riktors didn’t laugh. “If I weren’t a lying bastard, Mikal would never have given the empire to me.”

  Then Riktors stood. “My friends,” he said, and the sycophants gave a cheer. “From now on I am not to be known as Riktors Ashen, but as Riktors Mikal, The name Mikal shall pass to all my successors on the throne, in honor of the man who built this empire and brought peace to all mankind.” Riktors sat amid the applause and cheers, which sounded like some of the people might have been sincere. It was a nice speech, as impromptu speeches went.

  Then Riktors commanded Ansset to sing.

  “I’d rather die,” Ansset said.

  “You will, when the time comes,” Riktors answered.

  Ansset sang then, standing on the table so that everyone could see him, just as he had stood to sing to an audience he hated on his last night of captivity in the ship. His song was wordless, for all the words he might have said were treason. Instead he sang melody, flying unaccompanied from mode to mode, each note torn from his throat in pain, each note bringing pain to the ears that heard it. The song broke up the banquet as the grief they had all pretended to feel now burned within them. Many went home weeping; all felt the great loss of the man whose ashes dusted the bottom of the urn.

  Only Riktors stayed at the table after Ansset’s song was over.

  “Now,” Ansset said, “they’ll never forget Father Mikal.”

  “Or Mikal’s Songbird,” Riktors said. “But I am Mikal now, as much of him as could survive. A name and an empire.”

  “There’s nothing of Father Mikal in you.” Ansset said coldly.

  “Is there not?” Riktors said softly. “Were you fooled by Mikal’s public cruelty? No, Songbird.” And in his voice Ansset heard the hints of pain that lay behind the harsh and haughty emperor.

  “Stay and sing for me, Songbird,” Riktors said. Pleading played around the edges of his voice.

  Ansset reached out his hand and touched the urn of ashes that rested on the table. “I’ll never love you,” he said, meaning the words to hurt.

  “Nor I you,” Riktors answered. “But we may, nonetheless, feed each other something that we hunger for. Did Mikal sleep with you?”

  “He never wanted to. I never offered.”

  “Neither will I,” Riktors said. “I only want to hear your songs.”

  There was no voice in Ansset for the word he decided to say. He nodded. Riktors had the grace not to smile. He just nodded in return, and left the table. Before he reached the doors, Ansset spoke: “What will you do with this?”

  Riktors looked at where Ansset rested his hand. “The relics are yours. Do what you want.” Then Riktors Mikal was gone.

  Ansset took the urn of ashes into the chamber where he and Father Mikal had sung so many songs to each other, Ansset stood for a long time before the fire, humming the memories to himself. He gave the songs back to Father Mikal, and then reached out and emptied the urn on the blazing fire.

  The ashes put the fire out.

  “The transition is complete,” Songmaster Onn said to Songmaster Esste as soon as the door was closed.

  “I was afraid,” Songmaster Esste confided in a low melody that trembled. “Riktors Ashen is not unwise. But Ansset’s songs are stronger than wisdom.”

  They sat together in the cold sunlight that filtered through the windows of the High Room of the Songhouse. “Ah,” sang Songmaster Onn, and the melody was of love for Songmaster Esste.

  “Don’t praise me. The gift and power were Ansset’s.”

  “But the teacher was Esste. In other hands Ansset might have been used as a tool for power, for wealth, for control. In your hands—”

  “No, Brother Onn. Ansset himself is too much made of love and loyalty. He makes other men desire what he himself already is. He is a tool that cannot be used for evil.”

  “Will he ever know?”

  “Perhaps; I do not think he yet suspects the power of his gift. It would be better if he never found out how little like the other Songbirds he is. And as for the last block in his mind—we laid that well. He will never know it is there, and so he will never search for the truth about who controlled the transfer of the crown.”

  Songmaster Onn sang tremulously of the delicate plots woven in the mind of a child of five, plots that could have unwoven at any point. “But the weaver was wise, and the cloth has held.”

  “Mikal Conqueror,” said Songmaster Esste, “learned to love peace more than he loved himself, and so will Riktors Mikal. That is enough. We have done our duty for mankind. Now we must teach other little Songbirds.”

  “Only the old songs,” sighed Songmaster Onn.

  “No,” answered Songmaster Esste with a smile. “We will teach them to sing of Mikal’s Songbird.”

  “Ansset has already sung that.”

  They walked slowly out of the High Room as Songmaster Esste whispered, “Then we will harmonize!” Their laughter was music down the stairs.



  Alvin, he was a blacksmith’s prentice boy,

  He pumped the bellows and he ground the knives,

  He chipped the nails, he het the charcoal fire,

  Nothing remarkable about the lad

  Except for this: He saw the world askew,

  He saw the edge of light, the frozen liar

  There in the trees with a black smile shinin cold,

  Shiverin the corners of his eyes.

  Oh, he was wise.

  The blacksmith didn’t know what Alvin saw.

  He only knew the boy was quick and slow:

  Quick with a laugh and a good or clever word,

  Slow at the bellows with his brain a-busy,

  Quick with his eyes like a bright and sneaky bird,

  Slow at the forge when the smith was in a hurry.

  Times the smith, he liked him fine. And times

  He’d bellow, “Hell and damnation, hammer and tong,

  You done it wrong!”

  One day when the work was slow, the smith was easy.

  “Off to the woods with you, Lad, the berries are ripe.”

  And Alvin gratefully let the bellows sag

  And thundered off in the dust of the summer road.

  Ran? He ran like a colt, he leaped like a calf,

  Then his feet were deep in the leafmeal forest floor,

  He was moss on the branches, swingin low and lean,

  His fingers were part of the bark, his glance was green—

  And he was seen.

  He was seen by the birds that anyone can see,

  Seen by the porcupines that hid in the bushes,

  Seen by the light that slipped among the trees,

  Seen by the dark that only he could see.

  And the dark reached out and stumbled Alvin down,

/>   Laid him laughin and pantin on the ground,

  And the dark snuck up on every edge of him,

  Frost a-comin on from everywhere,

  Ice in his hair.

  Ice in the summertime, and Alvin shook,

  Crackin ice aloud in the miller’s pond,

  A mist of winter flowin through the wood,

  Fingerin his face, and where it touched

  He was numb, he was stricken dumb, his chin all chattery.

  Where are the birds? he wondered. When did they go?

  Get back to the edge, you Dark, you Cold, you Snow!

  Get north, you Wind, it’s not your time to blow!

  I tell you, No!

  No! he cried, but the snow was blank and deep

  And didn’t answer, and the fog was thick

  And didn’t answer, and his flimsy clothes

  Were wet, and his breath was sharp as ice in his lung

  Splittin him like a rail. It made him mad.

  He yelled, though the sound froze solid at his teeth

  And the words dropped out and broke as they were said

  And his tongue went thick, and his lips were even number:

  “Dammit, it’s summer!”

  With the snow like stars of death in your eyes? “It’s summer!”

  The wind a-ticklin at your thighs? “It’s summer!”

  Your breath a fog of ice? “Let it be spring!

  Let it be autumn, let it be anything!”

  But the edge of the world had found him, and he knew

  That the fire of the forges would be through,

  That the air would be thick and harsh at the end of the earth

  And all the flames a-dancin in his hearth,

  What were they worth?

  “Oh, you can cheat the trees, so dumb and slow,

  And you can jolly the birds that summer’s through,

  But you can’t fool me! I’ll freeze to death before

  I let you get away with a lie so bold!”

  And he laughed as he was swallowed by the cold,

  He sang as the ice a-split him to the core,

  He whispered in his pain that it wasn’t true.

  “You can bury me deep as hell in your humbug snow,

  But I know what I know.”

  And look at that! A red-winged bird a-singin!

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