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Orson Scott Card


  Orson Scott Card

  Orson Scott Card


  To Ben Bova,

  a songmaster who takes as much care

  to develop younger voices

  as to sing his own songs


  Nniv did not go to meet Mikal's starship. Instead, he waited in the rambling stone Songhouse, listening to the song of the walls, the whisper of the hundred young voices from the Chambers and the Stalls, the cold rhythm of the drafts. There were few in the galaxy who would dare to make Mikal come to them. Nniv was not daring, however. It did not occur to him that the Songmaster needed to go meet anyone.

  Outside the Songhouse walls the rest of the people on the planet Tew were not so placid. When Mikal's starship sent its savage pulses of energy onto the landing field and settled hugely and delicately to the ground, there were thousands waiting to see him. He might have been a well-beloved leader, to hear the bands and see the cheering crowds that filled the landing field when it was cool enough to walk on again. He ought have been a national hero, with flowers spread in his path and dignitaries bowing and saluting and struggling to cope with a situation for which no protocol had yet been learned on Tew.

  But the motive behind the ceremonies and the outward adoration was not love. It was an uncomfortable memory of the fact that Tew had been slow to submit to the Discipline of Frey. That Tew's ambassadors to other worlds had toyed with the plots and alliances that formed to make a last, pathetic resistance to the most irresistible conqueror in history. None of the plots came to anything. Too many greater leagues and nations had fallen, and now when 'Mikal's ships came no inner world resisted; no hostility was allowed to show.

  To be sure, there was no great terror, either, in the hearts of the officials who rumbled their way through makeshift pomp. The days of ravaging conquered planers were over. Now that there was no resistance, Mikal proved that he could rule wisely and brutally and well, solidifying an empire from which he could reach farther out into the galaxy to the more distant worlds and confederations where his name was only a rumor. As long as the dignitaries were careful, Mikal's government on Tew would be reasonably fair, only mildly repressive, and disgustingly honest.

  There were some who wondered why Mikal would bother with Tew at all. He seemed bored as he made his way along the flower-strewn path, his guards and retainers keeping the crowd a safe distance back. He did not look to the left or the right, and soon disappeared into the vehicles that rushed him to the government offices. And it was not Mikal but his aides who interviewed and fired and hired, who informed and explained about the new laws and the new order, who quickly revised the political system of the world to fit it into the pattern of Mikal's peaceful, well-governed empire. Why did Mikal need to come at all?

  But the answer should have been obvious, and soon was obvious to those who were well-informed enough to know that Mikal had vanished from the building that was meant to house him. Mikal was really no different from the other tourists who came to Tew. The planet was pretty much a backwater, not important to any imperial plan. Except for the Songhouse. Mikal had come to see the Songhouse.

  And for a man of wealth and power, there was only one reason, really, to visit there. He wanted a Songbird, of course.

  You can't have a Songbird, sir, said the diffident young woman in the waiting room.

  I haven't come to argue with gatekeepers.

  Whom would you like to argue with? It will do you no good.

  The Songmaster. Nniv."

  You do not understand, the young woman explained. Songbirds are given only to those who can truly appreciate them. We invite people to accept them. We do not take applications.

  Mikal looked at her coldly. I am not applying.

  Then what are you doing here?

  Mikal said no more. Merely stood, waiting. The young woman tried to argue with him, but he didn't answer. She tried to ignore him and go on with her work, but he waited for more than an hour, until she could stand no more. She got up and left without a word.

  What is he like? sang Nniv, his voice low and comforting.

  Impatient, she said.

  Yet he waited for you. Correction did not give way to criticism in Nniv's voice. Ah, he is a kind master, the girl thought but did not say.

  He is stern, she said. He is a ruler, and he will not believe there is anything he cannot get, anyone he cannot rule, anywhere he cannot fill with his presence.

  No man can travel through space, Nniv answered gently, and not know there are places he cannot fill.

  She bowed. What do I tell him?

  Tell him that I will see him.

  She was startled. She was confused. She abandoned words, and sang her confusion. The song was meek and uncontrolled, for she would never be a master, not even a teacher, but wordlessly she asked Nniv why he would

  even listen to such a man, why he would risk having the rest of mankind think, The Songhouse treats all men alike, judging only on merit, not on power-except for Mikal.

  I will not be corrupted, Nniv sang gently.

  Send him away, she pleaded.

  Bring him to me.

  She broke Control and wept, then, and declared she could not do such a thing.

  Nniv sighed. Then send me Esste. Send me Esste, and be relieved of duty until Mikal leaves.

  Mikal still stood in the gateroom an hour later, when the door opened again. This time it was not the gatekeeper. It was another woman, more mature, with darkness under her eyes and power in her bearing. Mikal? she asked.

  Are you the Songmaster? Mikal asked.

  Not I, she said, and for a moment Mikal felt acutely embarrassed at having thought so. But why should I be embarrassed, he wondered, and shook off the feelings. The Songhouse weaves spells, said the common people on Tew, and it made Mikal uneasy. The woman led the way out of the room, humming. She said nothing, but her melody told Mikal he should follow, and so he pursued the thread of music through the cold stone halls. Doors opened here and there; windows let in the only light (and it was a dismal light of a gray winter sky); in all the wandering through the Songhouse they met no other person, heard no other voice.

  At last, after many stairs, they reached a high room. The High Room, in fact, though no one mentioned it. Seated at one end of the room on a stone bench unsheltered from the cold breeze through the open shutters was Nniv. He was old, his face more sag than features, and Mikal was startled. Ancient. It reminded Mikal of mortality, which at the age of forty he was just beginning to be aware of. He had sixty years yet, but he was no longer young and knew that time was against him.

  Nniv? Mikal asked.

  Nniv nodded, and his voice rumbled a low mmmmm. Mikal turned to the woman who had led him. She was still humming. Leave us, Mikal said.

  The woman stayed where she was, looking at him as if without comprehension. Mikal grew angry, but he said nothing because suddenly her melody counseled silence, insisted on silence, and instead Mikal turned to Nniv. Make her stop humming, he said. I refuse to be manipulated.

  Then, Nniv said (and his song seemed to shout with laughter, though his voice remained soft), then you refuse to live.

  Are you threatening me?

  Nniv smiled. Oh, no, Mikal. I merely observe that all living things are manipulated. As long as there is a will, it is bent and twisted constantly. Only the dead are allowed the luxury of freedom, and then only because they want nothing, and therefore can't be thwarted.

  Mikal's eyes grew cold then, and he spoke in measured voice, which sounded dissonant and awkward after the music of Nniv's speech. I could have come here in power, Songmaster Nniv. I could have landed huge armies and weapons that would hold the Songhouse itself for ransom to work my will. If I
intended to coerce you or frighten . you or abuse you in any way, I would not have come alone, open to assassins, to ask for what I want. I have come to you with respect, and I will be treated with respect.

  Nniv's only answer was to glance at the woman and say, Esste. She fell silent. Her humming had been so pervasive that the walls fairly rang with the sudden quiet.

  Nniv waited.

  I want a Songbird, Mikal said.

  Nniv said nothing.

  Songmaster Nniv, I conquered a planet called Rain, and on that planet was a man of great wealth, and he had a Songbird. He invited me to hear the child sing.

  And at the memory, Mikal could not contain himself. He wept.

  * * *

  His weeping took Esste and Nniv by surprise. This was not Mikal the Terrible. Could not be. For Songbirds, while they impressed everyone, could only be fully appreciated by certain people, people whose deepest places resonated with that most powerful of musics. It was known throughout the galaxy that a Songbird could never go to a person who killed, to a person of greed or gluttony, to a person who loved power. Such people could not really hear a Songbird's music. But there could be no doubt that Mikal had understood the Songbird. Both Nniv and Esste could hear his inadvertent songs too easily to be mistaken.

  You have damaged us, Nniv said, his voice full of regret.

  Mikal composed himself as best he could. I, damaged you? Even the memory of your Songbird destroys me.

  Uplifts you.

  Wrecks my self-composure, which is the key to my survival. How have I damaged you?

  By proving to us that you do indeed deserve a Songbird. You know what that will do, I'm certain. Everyone knows that the Songhouse does not bend to the powerful where Songbirds are concerned. And yet-we will give you one. I can hear them now: 'Even the Songhouse sells out to Mikal.' Nniv's voice was a raucous and perfectly accurate imitation of the speech of the common man, though of course there was no such creature in the galaxy. Mikal laughed.

  You think it's funny? Esste asked, and her voice pierced Mikal deeply and made him wince.

  No, he answered.

  Nniv sang soothingly, and calmed both Esste and Mikal But, Mikal, you know also that we set no date for delivery. We must find the right Songbird for you, and if we don't find one before you die, there can be no complaint.

  Mikal nodded. But hurry. Hurry, if you can.

  Esste sang, her voice ringing with confidence, We never hurry. We never hurry. We never hurry. The song was Mikal's dismissal. He left, and found his own way out, guided by the fact that all doors but the right ones were locked against him.

  I don't understand, said Nniv to Esste after Mikal had gone.

  I do, Esste said.

  Nniv whispered his surprise in a steeply rising hiss that echoed from the stone walls and blended with the breeze.

  He's a man of great personal force and power, she told him. But he has not been corrupted. He believes he can use his power for good. He longs to do it.

  An altruist? Nniv found it difficult to believe.

  An altruist. And this, said Esste, is his song. She sang, then, occasionally using words, but more often shaping meaningless syllables with her voice, or singing strange vowels, or even using silence and wind and the shape of her lips to express her understanding of Mikal.

  At last her song ended, and Nniv's own voice was heavy with emotion as he sang his reaction. That, too, ended, and Nniv said, If he truly is what you sing him to be, then I love him.

  And I, Esste said.

  Who will find a Songbird for him, unless it's you?

  I will find Mikal's Songbird.

  And teach this bird?

  And teach.

  Then you will have done a life's work.

  And Esste, accepting the heavy challenge (and the possible inestimable honor), sang her submission and dedication and left Nniv alone in the High Room, to hear the song of the wind and answer as best he was able.

  For seventy-nine years Mikal had no Songbird. In all that time, he conquered the galaxy, and imposed the Discipline of Frey on all mankind, and established Mikal's Peace so that every child born had a reasonable hope of living to adulthood, and appointed a high quality of government for every planet and every district and every province and every city there was.

  Still he waited. Every two or three years he sent a messenger to Tew, asking the Songmaster one question: When?

  And the answer always came back, Not yet.

  And Esste was made old by the years and the weight of her life's work. Many Songbirds were discovered because of her search, but none that would sing properly to Mikal's own song.

  Until she found Ansset.



  There were many ways a child could turn up in the child markets of Doblay-Me. Many children, of course, were genuine orphans, though now that wars had ended with Mikal's Peace orphanhood was a social position much less often achieved. Others had been sold by desperate parents who had to have money-or who had to have a child out of their way and hadn't the heart for murder. More were bastards from worlds and nations where religion or custom forbade birth control. And others slipped in through the cracks.

  Ansset was one of these when a seeker from the Song-house found him. He had been kidnapped and the kidnappers had panicked, opting for the quick profit from the baby trade instead of the much riskier business of arranging for ransom and exchange. Who were his parents? They were probably wealthy, or their child wouldn't have been worth kidnapping. They were White, because Ansset was extremely fairskinned and blond. But there were trillions of people answering to that description, and no government agency was quite so foolish as to assume the responsibility of returning him to his family.

  So Ansset, whose age was unknowable but who couldn't be more than three years old, was one of a batch of a dozen children that the seeker brought back to Tew. All the children had responded well to a few simple tests- pitch recognition, melody repetition, and emotional response. Well enough, in fact, to be considered potential musical prodigies. And the Songhouse had bought-no, no, people are not bought in the child markets-the Song-house had adopted them all. Whether they became Songbirds or mere singers, masters or teachers, or even if they did not work out musically at all, the Songhouse raised them, provided for them, cared about them for life. In loco parentis, said the law. The Songhouse was mother, father, nurse, siblings, offspring, and, until the children reached a certain level of sophistication, God.

  New, sang a hundred young children in the Common Room, as Ansset and his fellow marketed children were ushered in. Ansset did not stand out from the others. True, he was terrified-but so were the rest. And while his nordic skin and hair put him at the extreme end of the racial spectrum, such things were studiously ignored and no one ridiculed him for it, any more than they would have ridiculed an albino.

  Routinely he was introduced to the other children; routinely all forgot his name as soon as they heard it; routinely they sang a welcome whose tone and melody were so confused that it did nothing to allay Ansset's fear; routinely Ansset was assigned to Rruk, a five-year-old who knew the ropes.

  You can sleep by me tonight, Rruk said, and Ansset dumbly nodded. I'm older Rruk said. In maybe a few months or sometime soon anyway I get a stall. This meant nothing to Ansset. Anyway, don't piss in your bed because we never get the same one two nights in a row. Ansset's three-year-old pride was enough to take umbrage at this. Don't piss in bed. But he didn't sound angry-just afraid.

  Good. Some of 'em are so scared they do. It was near bedtime; new children were always brought in near bedtime. Ansset asked no questions. When he saw that other children were undressing, he too undressed. When he saw that they found nightgowns under their blankets, he too found a nightgown and put it on, though he was clumsy at it. Rruk tried to help him, but Ansset shrugged off the offer. Rruk looked momentarily hurt, then sang the love song to him.

  I will never hurt you.

  I will always help you.r />
  If you are hungry

  I'll give you my food.

  If you are frightened

  I am your friend.

  I love you now

  And love does not end.

  The words and concepts were beyond Ansset, but the tone of voice was not. Rruk's embrace on his shoulder was even more clear, and Ansset leaned on Rruk, though he still said nothing and did not cry.

  Toilet? Rruk asked.

  Ansset nodded, and Rruk led him to a large room adjoining the Common, where water ran swiftly through trenches. It was there that he learned that Rruk was a girl Don't stare, she said. Nobody stares without permission. Again, Ansset did not understand the words, but the tone of voice was clear. He understood the tone of voice instinctively, as he always had; it was his greatest gift, to know emotions even better than the person feeling them.

  How come you don't talk except when you're mad? Rruk asked him as they lay down in adjoining beds (as a hundred other children also lay down).

  It was now that Ansset's control broke. He shook his head, then turned away, buried his face under the blankets, and cried himself to sleep. He did not see the other children around him who looked at him with distaste. He did not know that Rruk was humming a tune that meant, Let be, let alone, let live.

  He did know, however, when Rruk patted his back, and he knew that the gesture was kind; and this was why he never forgot his first night in the Songhouse and why he could never feel anything but love for Rruk, though he would soon far surpass her rather limited abilities.

  Why do you let Rruk hang around you so much, when she isn't even a Breeze? asked a fellow student once, when Ansset was six. Ansset did not answer in words. He answered with a song that made the questioner break Control, much to his humiliation, and weep openly. No one else ever challenged Rruk's claim on Ansset. He had no friends, not really, but his song for Rruk was too powerful to challenge.


  Ansset held on to two memories of his parents, though he did not know these dream people were his parents. They were White Lady and Giant Man, when he thought to put names to them at all. He never spoke of them to anyone, and he only thought of them when he had dreamed the dreams of them the night before.