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The Verb Survives

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After Teal'c turned traitor, Apophis cut out the tongue of every poet and bard who knew the songs concerning him.

The guild was five thousand strong, and the Songs of War were popular. Following the massacre, there was no one left but boys too young and green to memorize the long, intricate lays, and a few ragged poets from outlying planets who could not afford to send their scholars to the capital to learn new songs.

***

Colonel O'Neill hitched his tartan blanket higher under his arm and extracted three twenties from his wallet, waving off Doctor Fraiser, who smiled at him and settled her purse back over her shoulder. A twentyish girl with a long skirt and long, sandy hair dropped the bills into a battered cash box, a second stamped their hands and a third passed them programs photocopied on bright green and purple paper. O'Neill led his party under a beribboned arch, leaned down to consult with Cassie, and picked his way over to a spot a little left of center and several rows of blankets back.

Daniel Jackson and Captain Carter shook open and spread a second blanket on the grass next to O'Neill's tartan. Doctor Fraiser patted the spot next to her, and Teal'c sank down, unhooking the wicker hamper from his elbow. Cassie befriended the elderly yellow dog on the quilt in front of them.

Teal'c perused his program: Monument Valley Shakespeare in the Park presents A Midsummer Night's Dream. Teal'c had not been privileged to attend a live performance in a long time. He had been to the movies only last week: a showing of Galaxy Quest at an independent cinema with Sergeants Huo and Walker and Nurse Chebile. He enjoyed Terran cinema immensely, but he was excited to experience something new.

Looking around, Teal'c saw that the demographics in the park were broad: families, couples, groups of teens spreading jackets on the ground or propping up folding chairs. Near the front, a—bard, perhaps—a man in a checkered shirt and bowtie had parked himself with a notebook. O'Neill spotted people he knew, and wandered over to say hello.

A fairy in bike shorts and strips of tattered gauze came bounding out of the trees, introduced herself as Blackberry, and gave a speech about cell phone etiquette in iambic pentameter. Jack returned. The yellow dog turned politely toward the stage.

"Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes!"

***

"I will commission a new story," said Drey'auc, when Teal'c became First Prime. Teal'c had not protested the expense, because the honour of it would give her pleasure, and Drey'auc loved stories. She settled on a story of victory. Habitually the city of Chulak was spared only minor poets, but because of Teal'c's status, Apophis sent down a good one.

Chulak's bards were the finest in the galaxy. Shap'ur, the eldest, knew five thousand tales word for word; he had never misspoken since he was thirty-five years old, still an apprentice to Om'ur Serpent-Tongued. Even at two hundred, he still moved through the motions of the dances with more grace than any other. Every repetition was perfect.

When the new story was ready, everyone came to hear it. The amphitheatre was kept in handsome repair, with its pale golden stone and woven banners. All the bards with their gold badges sat in their places, and the audience beyond them, divided by sex and status.

The maker stepped out into a hush. "In honour of the God Apophis, whence all Creation flows," he began. The dedication lasted for many minutes.

At last, there was a chime of cymbals, and a sweeping arpeggio from the lyre. The bards tensed and quivered like racers.

The maker lifted both hands, and spoke in a clear, carrying, musical voice: "So." The audience sighed.

***

When Oberon turned the unfortunate Bottom into an ass, Teal'c felt his lips pull into a smirk, because, by unlikely coincidence, the paper mask the troupe had fashioned looked very like the heavy, cumbersome armor of Lord Olokun's Jaffa.

The mortal lovers he dismissed as undisciplined fools.

King Oberon and Queen Titania reminded him of Lords Ba'al and Qetesh, in the days of their courtship.

At intermission, Teal'c watched as people stood and stretched, called out to acquaintances or hurried to the porta-potty set back from the box office. Next to him, a gray-haired couple applied themselves to sandwiches and a thermos of tea. The actors kept mostly out of sight behind their screens, but not obsessively; Teal'c could see two of them setting props and downing bottles of water.

On the blanket beside him, Cassie chattered to Janet about what she'd seen, indignant that a passage she remembered from school had been cut from the production.

"Yes," Janet agreed, twinkling. "They've taken some liberties with the text."

To take liberty, Teal'c thought. Janet was still talking about the length of the original play, how it would have been shown in Shakespeare's time, and other productions Janet had seen. "Right after Star Wars came out, I saw one at the community college where the fairies all had lightsabers," she told Cassie, who couldn't decide whether to respond with giggles or disdain.

Teal'c thought of the Most Glorious Tales of the Divine Court of Apophis, which never changed, even in inflection. He thought of Colonel O'Neill standing before a system lord and saying nothing but, "O most powerfulest one," and causing not satisfaction, but sore offense. He thought of Sha're of Abydos, as Daniel Jackson had described her.

To take liberty

with the text.

***

Everybody piled into three cars and drove to an Tunisian restaurant Janet had heard about. They commandeered a table big enough for the whole party, including O'Neill's friends from across town, and let the waitress order for them.

"It's not my favourite Shakespeare," Daniel was admitting, down at the far end of the table. "I had a mildly traumatic experience playing Cowslip in high school."

"Daniel, you were an actor in high school?" Jack wanted to know.

"God, no. I did a lot of lighting and sound design. Cowslip was an aberration."

"Do you think a girl could play Puck?" wondered Cassie. "Because he's my favourite."

"If Daniel can be Cowslip—an event I am deeply heartbroken to have missed—" Jack told her, "then you can be Puck or Oberon or anyone you jolly well please."

"I think you'd make a seriously awesome Puck," Daniel told her seriously. "But you should read The Tempest next, because your Ariel would draw raves."

"Whadja think, Teal'c?" said Captain Carter.

"I, too, am regretful to have missed Daniel Jackson's Cowslip."

"I think we should do this again," said Janet. "Maybe the fringe fest, too. I like supporting the amateur scene."

"Works for me," said Jack, mopping up garlic stew with his bread. "What else is on this summer?"

Janet rummaged for her program. "It's a pity the Festival's Henrys were last year. This year's history is Richard II...."

***

Cassandra slumped against Teal'c in the back seat of Sam's sedan, muttering to herself as they pulled into Janet's driveway. Sam caught his eye in the mirror and grinned. "Come inside for a minute," Janet requested. "There's something I want to show you." Teal'c thumbed open Cassie's seatbelt and scooped her up, following the two women up the steps.

"Come on, floppy girl." Janet urged her daughter back onto her feet and steered her off down the hall, swaying. Sam wandered into the kitchen and opened the fridge. She pulled out a half-empty bottle of wine and a pitcher of juice, and pointed Teal'c toward the cabinet holding glasses.

After they had settled in the living room, Janet returned, flipping through a heavy, dog-eared brown book. "You know, I was grousing earlier about missing Henry V, because that's the big, splashy one that everybody knows, but I think I might have been wrong. We should go see Richard. I was trying to remember it in the car; it's been ages since I've seen it." Janet sank down in her big armchair and took a sip of wine, smiling at Sam in thanks. Then, "Ah ha!" She balanced the glass on her knee and began to read, her voice quiet, but clear and dignified in the small room.

"No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?"

Janet ceased, leaving silence, save for the quiet hum of the air conditioning and the thump of Teal'c's heartbeat, heavy in his chest.

"William Shakespeare wrote this," said Teal'c, slowly, opening his eyes. He thought back to Janet's mini lecture for Cassandra earlier that afternoon. "And performed it...for his king."

"Queen, I think," said Janet, flipping. "Yup. Elizabeth. Very close to her death."

"Please," said Teal'c. "Read it to me again."

***

"Then sing it to yourself," said Drey'auc, grasping her friend's hand tightly.

"Wh-what?"

"In your mind, where no one can hear!"

"But I can't remember it all! I'll get it wrong!"

Drey'auc pressed her lips together. "Then—then get it wrong. Make up your own verses."

Layl'uc looked at her, shocked. "I cannot—I cannot make a poem. I cannot alter—!"

"You can. Just like lullabies. I've heard you make up nonsense rhymes since we were girls."

"It's not the same! I'm not good enough. I cannot make up real—"

"Real," Drey'auc spat. "Real."

***

"You know, it was sort of like an accidental thing.
There was like a mirror on the floor,
and I walked up and I was like, what, what was that?"

The woman under the spotlight was plainfaced and plainspoken. She sat on a barstool and gestured with her hands, as though she were telling her story to her friends at a pub. Her loud, braying voice carried easily in the small theatre, but was unmodulated, laughably uncontrolled, compared to the masters of Teal'c's homeworld. And her subject—!

Teal'c sank in his seat, mortified.

He had known perfectly well, purchasing the ticket from Vala's father, that he was in for something ridiculous. Teal'c had, especially over the last several years, developed an abiding appreciation for the ridiculous—but he could never have expected this. He saw no other men in the room. Did he even have the right?

There was nothing to be done, not without rudeness. Teal'c put his hands on his knees, and lowered his shoulders, and listened.

His startlement at the subject fell away, leaving him captivated by the format.

"Don't believe him when he tells you
it smells like rose petals."

It was not a song of victory, as Star Wars, or of high spirits, as Spaceballs, or sacrifice, as Richard, or of grief, as Aida. It was many stories. Indeed, most of the play consisted of interviews: ordinary women, recollecting their own victories and sacrifices and griefs, in their own words, which halted and shuffled, then grew surer. Every hitch of breath, every unmelodious cackle and awkward stutter was faithfully reproduced. Teal'c could not think of it as poetry, not as he understood it. And yet... there was music, and power, in those unpolished voices.

"CUN, CUN.
Then T, then T...
Then sharp certain tangy T...
Texture, Take,"

Taboo, truth. It was a play about women speaking words aloud. Speaking truths out loud, and denouncing lies.

On a free and rich planet, it was a story of war.

"Water village,
they invaded it.
They butchered it
and burned it down.
I do not touch, now.
I do not visit.
I live someplace else, now.
I don't know where that is."

***

"I miss Daniel and his gift for interpretive dance."

Teal'c glanced at Sam, lifting one eyebrow. Sam giggled. "Oh, God, do you remember him in the early days? Before he had all the major Gate language variants under his belt? That was so beautiful to watch."

"He would indeed have been useful on today's excursion." They ambled along the green-banked road, successful in spite of Doctor Jackson's absence, though a little behind schedule. Up ahead, Cam and Vala chatted amicably, gesturing with their granola bars.

"Especially when he couldn't figure out how to explain the events of a mission in English, so he had to come home and repeat his interpretive dances for the General."

"Sergeant Harriman has often lamented the killing he could have made from selling tickets."

"Best damned theatre I ever saw."

***

Ishta, standing in the middle of a hotel room in Washington, D.C., did not look out of place. She made the hotel look out of place.

She was stark naked, save for the bone ornaments holding back her hair, staring bemusedly at the mirror in front of the vanity. It was a wide, gilt-framed object, polished to gleaming. Teal'c wondered if he were about to hear another comment on Terran materialism.

"I resemble my mother's mother," said Ishta. "I had not marked it."

Teal'c stepped in behind her. "Do you share her temperament, as well?"

"She was very stern. Very loyal to her lord. Do you know 'The Tale of the Seven Hundred'?"

"Who would not leave their Lord Moloc though it was death to stay, and to reward their loyalty, Moloc changed the course of time to spare them."

"So goes the song. But it was her prayer before the dais that gave the slaves time to board the ship, when Moloc would have left them aground and fled alone. She was his most flawless priest. Yet it was she who made sure the prayer was witnessed and broadcast as it was, so that Moloc would be shamed before his rivals if he did not answer it."

"Perhaps her loyalties were more complicated than you knew."

"I—she," Ishta hesitated. "There is another story about her."

Teal'c held her close, and waited for their eyes to meet in the mirror. "We all have stories within us that should be spoken. I am honoured to hear yours."

"We knew when we formed the Resistance that we had to preserve our heritage in our minds. Those who forget, fall. So..." Ishta's voice grew a little thin, as close to nervous as Teal'c had ever heard her. "So we pooled the stories we had, and retold them with our own voices. We tried to remember where the women and children would have been when the battles were won, and tell it as it would have seemed to them."

"You have these stories."

Ishta snorted softly. "I am no bard. But my friend Ranta is one. She learnt them all."

When he spoke, Teal'c was shocked to hear his own voice shake. "Will you—would she—share them with me? With our people?"

***

"I found my Ariel!" Cassie hooted over the phone. "God, she's perfect, she looks like the lovechild of Zhang Zizi and Tilda Swinton! You'll come see it, won't you, Teal'c? I named you in my director bio, and it's my first show, I'm pretty sure that means you're, like, legally obliged."

***

"—better training for the mediators. I would like to involve the police captains as well, before the last wave of refugees arrives from Haven. What would you say to—" Ishta pulled up short and hissed through her teeth. "Teal'c," she said, pointing, "that is you."

The broadsheet was tacked to a post just a few hundred meters from the judicial complex. It stood out against the smattering of other notices—advertisements for shop openings, requests for labour; it was bigger, for one, printed on folio leaf from Chulak's own paper mill, judging by the color, with sufficient space for a block of text beneath the single, eye-catching cartoon. Kohl-rimmed eyes stared from beneath absurdly long lashes; cheeks bulged and nostrils flared. Below, a brief and pointed screed set forth Teal'c's political sins, his misplaced priorities, his hypocrisy and lack of honor. Elaboration, gestural and musical, was promised later that afternoon in a public square in the Artisans' Quarter not far away.

The sheet was affixed to the post with a tack. Ishta strode forward, tore it free, and made to rip it in half. Teal'c caught her by the wrist. She glanced up, teeth still bared in an irritated grimace. He silently shook his head and opened his hand, asking. She handed it over. There was a small tear at the top, but it was otherwise unharmed.

Ishta eyed him. "You are not going to save that trash," she stated flatly, disbelieving, offended.

"Indeed."

"Why? Teal'c, if your ego ever grows too large, fear not that I shall prick it for you. This is nothing but ignorant slander."

Teal'c studied the broadsheet. Ishta was quite correct. The writer clearly followed Teal'c's career with relish, but without understanding the motives behind a sizable percentage of his actions. Willful ignorance, Teal'c wondered, or bungled PR? A matter for thought. He rolled up the paper and put it in his sleeve.

Ishta still waited for his reply. He looked down at her seriously. "No, I am no masochist," he assured her. He looked down the avenue's broad length, to where the market stall traders were beginning to set up their trinkets and hotpots, shouting and catcalling freely to each other while their long shadows crisscrossed in the morning light. At the other end, the senate building bristled with scaffolding. "This marks our success."

***