Maps in a mirror, p.98

Maps in a Mirror, page 98


Maps in a Mirror

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  The floor rocked gently as they walked down the wooden corridor. Ansset had long since decided he was imprisoned on a ship. The amount of real wood used in it would have seemed gaudy and pretentious in a rich man’s home. Here it seemed only shabby.

  Far above he could hear the distant cry of a bird, and a steady singing sound that he imagined to be wind whipping through ropes and cables. He had sung the melody himself sometimes, and often harmonized.

  And then Master opened the door and with a mocking bow indicated that Ansset should enter first. The boy stopped in the doorframe. Gathered around a long table were twenty or so men, some of whom he had seen before, all of them dressed in the strange costumes of Earth barbarians. Ansset couldn’t help remembering Mikal’s raucous laughter whenever they came to court, pretending to be heirs of great civilizations that to minds accustomed to thinking on a galactic scale were petty and insignificant indeed. And yet as he stood looking at their rough faces and unsmiling eyes, he felt that it was he, with the soft skin of the imperial court, that was petty and insignificant, a mere naked child, while these men held the strength of worlds in their rough, gnarled hands.

  They looked at him with the same curious, knowing, lustful look that Master had given him. Ansset relaxed his stomach and firmed his back and ribs to conquer emotion, as he had been taught in the Songhouse before he turned three. He stepped into the room.

  “Up on the table!” roared Master behind him, and hands lifted him onto the wood smeared with spilled wine and rough with crumbs and fragments of food. “Now sing, ye little bastarrd.”

  The eyes looked his naked body over, and Ansset almost cried. But he was a Songbird, and many called him the best who had ever lived. Hadn’t Mikal brought him from one end of the galaxy to his new Capital on old Earth? And when he sang, no matter who the audience, he would sing well.

  And so he closed his eyes and shaped the ribs around his lungs, and let a low tone pass through his throat. At first he sang without words, soft and low, knowing the sound would be hard to hear. “Louder,” someone said, but he ignored the instructions. Gradually the jokes and laughter died down as the men strained to hear.

  The melody was a wandering one, passing through tones and quarter tones easily, gracefully, still low in pitch, but rising and falling rhythmically. Unconsciously Ansset moved his hands in strange gestures to accompany his song. He was never aware of those gestures, except that once he had read in a newsheet, “To hear Mikal’s Songbird is heavenly, but to watch his hands dance as he sings is nirvana.” That was a prudent thing to write about Mikal’s favorite—when the writer lived in Capital. Nevertheless, no one had even privately disputed the comment.

  And now Ansset began to sing words. They were words of his own captivity, and the melody became high, in the soft upper notes that opened his throat and tightened the muscles at the back of his head and tensed the muscles along the front of his thighs. The notes pierced, and as he slid up and down through haunting third tones (a technique that few Songbirds could master) his words spoke of dark, shameful evenings in a dirty cell, a longing for the kind looks of Father Mikal (not by name, never by name in front of these barbarians), of dreams of the broad lawns that stretched from the palace to the Susquehanna River, and of lost, forgetten days that ended in wakeful evenings in a tiny cell of splintered wood.

  And he sang of his guilt.

  At last he became tired, and the song drifted off into a whispered dorian scale that ended on the wrong note, on a dissonant note that faded into silence that sounded like part of the song.

  Finally Ansset opened his eyes. All the men who were not weeping were watching him. None seemed willing to break the mood, until a youngish man down the table said in the thick accent, “Ah, but thet was better than hame and Mitherma.” His comment was greeted by sighs and chuckles of agreement, and the looks that met Ansset’s eyes were no longer leering and lustful, but rather soft and kind. Ansset had never thought to see such looks in those rough faces.

  “Will ye have some wine, boy?” asked Master’s voice behind him, and Husk poured. Ansset sipped the wine, and dipped a finger in it to cast a drop into the air in the graceful gesture of court. “Thank you,” he said, handing back the metal cup with the same grace he would have used with a goblet at court. He lowered his head, though it hurt him to use that gesture of respect to such men, and asked, “May I leave now?”

  “Do you have to? Can’t you sing again?” the men around the table murmured, as if they had forgotten he was their prisoner. And Ansset refused as if he were free to choose. “I can’t do it twice. I can never do it twice.”

  They lifted him off the table, then, and Master’s strong arms carried him back to his room. Ansset lay on the bed after the door locked shut, trembling. The last time he had sung was for Mikal, and the song had been light and happy. Then Mikal had smiled the soft smile that only touched his old face when he was alone with his Songbird, had touched the back of Ansset’s hand, and Ansset had kissed the old hand and gone out to walk along the river. It was then that they had taken him—rough hands from behind, the sharp slap of the needle, and then waking in the cell where now he lay looking at the walls.

  He always woke in the evening, aching from some unknown effort of the day, and wracked by guilt. He strained to remember, but always in the effort drifted off to sleep, only to wake again the next evening suffering from the lost day behind him. But tonight he did not try to puzzle out what lay behind the blocks in his mind. Instead he drifted off to sleep thinking of the songs in Mikal’s kind gray eyes, humming of the firm hands that ruled an empire a galaxy wide and could still stroke the forehead of a sweet-singing child and weep at a sorrowful song. Ah, sang Ansset in his mind, ah, the weeping of Mikal’s sorrowful hands.

  Ansset woke walking down a street.

  “Out of the way, ya chark!” shouted a harsh accent behind him, and Ansset dodged to the left as an eletrecart zipped past his right arm. “Sausages,” shouted a sign on the trunk behind the driver.

  Then Ansset was seized by a terrible vertigo as he realized that he was not in the cell of his captivity, that he was fully dressed (in native Earth costume, but clothing for all that), was alive, was free. The quick joy that realization brought was immediately soured by a rush of the old guilt, and the conflicting emotions and the suddenness of his liberation were too much for him, and for a moment too long he forgot to breathe, and the darkening ground slid sideways, tipped up, hit him—

  “Hey, boy, are you all right?”

  “Did the chark slam you, boy?”

  “Ya got the license number? Ya got the number?”

  “Four-eight-seven something, who can tell.”

  “He’s comin’ around and to.”

  Ansset opened his eyes. “Where is this place?” he asked softly.

  Why, this is Northet, they said.

  “How far is the palace?” Ansset asked, vaguely remembering that Northet was a town not far to the north and east of Capital.

  “The palace? What palace?”

  “Mikal’s palace—I must go to Mikal—” Ansett tried to get up, but his head spun and he staggered. Hands held him up.

  “The kit’s kinky, that’s what.”

  “Mikal’s palace.”

  “It’s only eighteen kilometer, boy, ya plan to fly?”

  The joke brought a burst of laughter, but Ansset impatiently regained control of his body and stood. Whatever drug had kept him unconscious was now nearly worked out of his system. “Find me a policeman,” Ansset said. “Mikal will want to see me immediately.”

  Some still laughed, a man’s voice said, “We’ll be sure to tell him you’re here when he comes to my house for supper!” but some others looked carefully at Ansset, realizing he spoke without American accent, and that his bearing was not that of a streetchild, despite his clothing. “Who are you, boy?”

  “I’m Ansset. Mikal’s Songbird.”

  Then there was silence, and half the crowd rushed off to find the po
liceman, and the other half stayed to look at him and realize how beautiful his eyes were, to touch him with their own eyes and hold the moment to tell about it to children and grandchildren. Ansset, Mikal’s Songbird, more valuable than all the treasure Mikal owned.

  “I touched him myself, helping him up, I held him up.”

  “You would’ve fallen, but for me, sir,” said a large strong man bowing ridiculously low.

  “Can I shake your hand, sir?”

  Ansset smiled at them, not in amusement but in gratitude for their respect for him. “Thank you. You’ve all helped me. Thank you.”

  The policeman came, and after apologizing for the dirtiness of his armored eletrecart he lifted Ansset onto the seat and took him to the headquarters, where a flyer from the palace was already settling down on the pad. The Chamberlain leaped from the flyer, along with half a dozen servants, who gingerly touched Ansset and helped him to the flyer. The door slid shut, and Ansset closed his eyes to hide the tears as he felt the ground rush away as the palace came to meet him.

  But for two days they kept him away from Mikal. “Quarantine,” they said at first, until Ansset stamped his foot and said, “Nonsense,” and refused to answer any more of the hundreds of questions they kept firing at him from dawn to dark and long after dark. The Chamberlain came.

  “What’s this I hear about you not wanting to answer questions, my boy?” asked the Chamberlain with the false joviality that Ansset had long since learned to recognize as a mask for anger or fear.

  “I’m not your boy,” Ansset retorted, determined to frighten some cooperation out of the Chamberlain. Now and then it had worked in the past. “I’m Mikal’s and he wants to see me. Why am I being kept like a prisoner?”


  “Chamberlain, I’m healthier than I’ve ever been before, and these questions don’t have a thing to do with my health.”

  “All right,” the Chamberlain said, fluttering his hands with impatience and nervousness. Ansset had once sung to Mikal of the Chamberlain’s hands, and Mikal had laughed for hours at some of the words. “I’ll explain. But don’t get angry at me, because it’s Mikal’s orders.”

  “That I be kept away from him?”

  “Until you answer the questions! You’ve been in court long enough, Songbird, and you’re surely bright enough to know that Mikal has enemies in this world.”

  “I know that. Are you one of them?” Ansset was deliberately goading the Chamberlain, using his voice like a whip in all the ways that made the Chamberlain angry and fretful and so forgetful.

  “Hold your tongue, boy!” the Chamberlain said. Ansset inwardly smiled. Victory. “You’re also bright enough to know that you weren’t kidnapped five months ago by any friends of the emperor’s. We have to know everything about your captivity.”

  “I’ve told you everything a hundred times over.”

  “You haven’t told us how you spent your days.”

  Again Ansset felt a stab of emotion. “I don’t remember my days.”

  “And that’s why you can’t see Mikal!” the Chamberlain snapped. “Do you think we don’t know what happened? We’ve used the probes and the tasters and no matter how skillfully we question, we can’t get past the blocks. Either the person who worked on your mind laid the blocks very skillfully, or you yourself are holding them locked, and either way we can’t get in.”

  “I can’t help it,” Ansset said, realizing now what the questioning meant. “How can you think I mean any danger to Father Mikal.”

  The Chamberlain smiled beatifically, in the pose he reserved for polite triumph. “Behind the block, someone may have very carefully planted a command for you to—”

  “I’m not an assassin!” Ansset shouted.

  “How would you know,” the Chamberlain snarled back. “It’s my duty to protect the person of the emperor. Do you know how many assassination attempts we stop? Dozens, every week. The poison, the treason, the weapons, the traps, that’s what half the people who work here do, is watch everyone who comes in and watch each other too. Most of the assassination attempts are stopped immediately. Some get closer. Yours may be the closest of all.”

  “Mikal must want to see me!”

  “Of course he does, Ansset! And that’s exactly why you can’t—because whoever worked on your mind must know that you’re the only person that Mikal would allow near him after something like this—Ansset! Ansset, you little fool! Call the Captain of the Guard. Ansset, slow down!”

  But the Chamberlain was slowing down with age, and he steadily lost ground to Ansset as the boy darted down the corridors of the palace. Ansset knew all the quickest ways, since exploring the palace was one of the most pleasant of his pastimes, and in five years in Mikal’s service no one knew the labyrinth better than Ansset.

  He was stopped routinely at the doors to the Great Hall, and he quickly made his way through the detectors (Poison? No. Metal? No. Energy? No. Identification? Clear.) and he was just about to step through the vast doors when the Captain of the Guard arrived.

  “Stop the boy.”

  Ansset was stopped.

  “Come back here, Songbird,” the Captain barked. But Ansset could see, at the far end of the huge platinum room, the small chair and the whitehaired man who sat on it. Surely Mikal could see him! Surely he’d call!

  “Bring the boy back here before he embarrasses everyone by calling out.” Ansset was dragged back. “If you must know, Ansset, Mikal gave me orders to bring you within the hour, even before you made your ridiculous escape from the Chamberlain. But you’ll be searched first. My way.”

  Ansset was taken off into one of the search rooms. He was stripped and his clothing was replaced with fresh clothes (that didn’t fit! Ansset thought angrily), and then the searchers’ fingers probed, painfully and deep, every aperture of his body that might hold a weapon. (“No weapon, and your prostate gland’s all right, too,” one of them joked. Ansset didn’t laugh.) Then the needles, probing far under the skin to sample for hidden poisons. A layer of skin was bloodlessly peeled off his palms and the soles of his feet, to be sampled for poisons or flexible plastic needles. The pain was irritating. The delay was excruciating.

  But Ansset bore what had to be borne. He only showed anger or impatience when he thought that doing so might gain some good effect. No one, not even Mikal’s Songbird, survived long at court unless he remained in control of his temper, however he had to hide it.

  At last Ansset was pronounced clean.

  “Wait,” the Captain of the Guard said. “I don’t trust you yet.”

  Ansset gave him a long, cold look. But the Captain of the Guard—like the Chamberlain—was one of the few people at court who knew Mikal well enough to know they had nothing to fear from Ansset unless they really treated him unjustly, for Mikal never did favors, not even for the boy, who was the only human being Mikal had ever shown a personal need for. And they knew Ansset well enough to know that he would never ask Mikal to punish someone unfairly, either.

  The Captain took a nylon cord and bound Ansset’s hands together behind him, first at the wrists, and then just below the elbows. The constriction was painful.

  “You’re hurting me,” Ansset said.

  “I may be saving my emperor’s life,” the Captain answered blandly. And then Ansset passed through the huge doors to the Great Hall, his arms bound, surrounded by guards with lasers drawn, preceded by the Captain of the Guard.

  Ansset still walked proudly, but he felt a hearty fury toward the guards, toward the courtiers and supplicants and guards and officials lining the walls of the unfurnished room, and especially toward the Captain. Only toward Mikal did he feel no anger.

  They let him stop.

  Mikal raised his hand in the ritual of recognition. Ansset knew that Mikal laughed at the rituals when they were alone together—but in front of the court, the ritual had to be followed strictly.

  Ansset dropped to his knees on the cold and shining platinum floor.

My Lord,” he said in clear, bell-like tones that he knew would reverberate from the metal ceiling, “I am Ansset, and I have come to ask for my life.” In the old days, Mikal had once explained, that ritual had real meaning, and many a rebel lord or soldier had died on the spot. Even now, the pro forma surrender of life was taken seriously, as Mikal maintained constant vigilance over his empire.

  “Why should I spare you?” Mikal asked, his voice old but firm. Ansset thought he heard a quaver of eagerness in the voice. More likely a quaver of age, he told himself. Mikal would never allow himself to reveal emotion in front of the court.

  “You should not,” Ansset said. This was leaving the ritual, and going down the dark road that met danger head-on. Mikal must have been told of the Chamberlain’s fears. Therefore, if Ansset made any attempt to hide the danger, his life would be forfeited by law.

  “Why not?” Mikal said, impassively.

  “Because, my Lord Mikal Imperator, I was kidnapped and held for five months, and during those months things were done to me that are now locked behind blocks in my mind. I may, unwittingly, be an assassin. I must not be allowed to live.”

  “Nevertheless,” Mikal answered, “I grant you your life.”

  Ansset, his muscles strong enough even after his captivity to allow him to bow despite his bound arms, touched his lips to the floor.

  “Why are you bound?”

  “For your safety, my Lord.”

  “Unbind him,” said Mikal. The Captain of the Guard untied the nylon cord.

  His arms free, Ansset stood. He went beyond form, and he turned his voice into a song, with an edge to his voice that snapped every head in the hall toward him. “My Lord, Father Mikal,” he sang, “there is a place in my mind where even I cannot go. In that place my captors may have taught me to want to kill you.” The words were a warning, but the song said safety, the song said love, and Mikal arose from his throne. He understood what Ansset was asking and he would grant it.

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