The dungeon was filled with the smell of death.
I had been visiting there since I was a child, but I had never ceased to be sickened by the smell of human waste, sweat, blood, and rotting flesh. All of these odors welled out of the darkness as though the dungeon were one giant tomb, trapping live men in its pit.
In stark contrast to this was Sandy, the dungeon-keeper, who was cheerfully prosaic about his work and forever eager to hear about the actions of the living, while he himself worked among the near-dead. He had a solid base of pragmatism that had enabled him to stay balanced through years of witnessing horrors, and also prevented him from ever asking how I entered the forbidden confines of the dungeon. The other guards, who rarely visited the palace above, assumed that I was his niece, and he certainly treated me with an affection normally reserved for kin. I returned the love. I think that either of us would have died for the other.
On this night, I passed unchallenged by the many patrols that circled the dungeon in an ever-changing routine known only to Sandy. I found him finally at his usual central post, supervising the distribution of bread and water.
I waited until the other guards had stepped away before walking over to him. He identified my step before seeing me, and when he raised his head, he was already smiling.
"Hello, Princess," he said. "How is life in the world above?"
I leaned against one of the stone walls, which was bone cold with winter. "Ella has had her baby. Lord Rupert actually came to see it, and now Ella is claiming that he will make the boy his heir."
"Stranger things have happened. Well, what else? Did they catch that runaway slave?"
"They brought back his body." There was no hesitation in my response. I had witnessed too many escape attempts over the years to have expected any result besides capture or death.
"He must have offended the Fates." Sandy fingered one of the many charms at his neck. Sandy was taking no chances of encountering supernatural wrath. He worshipped the gods of every land that he had ever heard of, and took care not to offend any of them. I supposed he knew from his work how much of men's lives lay in the hands of the gods. He asked me, "What Fate has brought you my way tonight?"
"I heard that you have a Koretian spy now."
Sandy raised his eyebrows. "You must keep your ear permanently attached to the floor to hear the footsteps of news so quickly."
"May I visit him? Or is he dangerous?"
"You may certainly visit him. Would you like to do so now?"
"Please. Is one of these for him?" I waved my hand at the remaining hunks of bread and mugs of water.
"No, he has had his already. Help me with these, and I'll take you to his cell."
I bundled the bread into my arms and trotted obediently alongside Sandy as he stooped to slide the food through the slat at the bottom of the iron doors. "Is this all the dinner that the prisoners are given?"
"This is all that they receive for the entire day. Now, don't be tender-hearted, Princess." This as Sandy straightened and saw my expression. "Many of these men are vicious; some are murderers. We don't want them in a condition where they can break out and slit our throats. We give them enough to keep them alive, no more, and some of them don't deserve even that. —Here's where the Koretian spy is." He stopped before a door like all of the others along the damp, chilly passage. "Give me a shout when you're finished in here, Princess."
He unlocked the door, drawing his sword first, lest the prisoner be crouched in waiting. After a swift look into the cell, he waved me inside and closed the door behind me. I heard his footsteps fade away.
Much of the cell was bathed in moonlight from the barred windows near the ceiling, but it took me a moment to locate the Koretian, for he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his right hand stretched out, palm-up. He did not look my way; his concentration was on something at the edge of the cell. As I watched, a large, rough-haired rat darted out – dungeon vermin have little fear – and snatched something from the man's hand before darting back to its home under a crumbling wall-stone.
He looked up then, staring at me expressionlessly as though I were another rat who had come to feed. I said, "You gave part of your meal to a rat?"
"I had a sudden wave of sympathy for my fellow prisoner." He rose to his feet, and as he did so, he touched his heart and then his forehead with his fingers.
It was the free-man's greeting, exchanged only among equals, and, as its name suggested, only among free-men. I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. "Sir, I'm a slave," I said stiffly, recovering, in that moment, my memory of what type of speech was proper between a slave and a free-man.
"I greet everyone that way," he replied.
"Even noblemen, sir?"
"Even them." For a moment I almost thought I saw amusement enter his eyes, but if it appeared, it was gone again immediately, like a death shadow barely noted. "And lay aside the honorific, please. It does not seem appropriate for this setting."
He stood easily, his eyes shifting up and down as he took in my appearance. His own appearance was interesting, though Lady Felicia had clearly exaggerated his beauty. In fact, his expression had a certain repulsive coldness to it that made it seem unlikely any bard would ever choose him as the model for a love-stalked hero in a song.
He was tall, and he had the dark hair and skin that Koretians share with Daxions; it makes it easy for us to spy on each other. He was dressed in a dusky tunic, which must also have been handy for spying. He was only a youth – or so I thought at first, but as I looked again at his steady eyes, I revised my estimate of his age. He might have been as old as me, though it was hard to tell, as his face was shaved in Emorian fashion. Along his bare cheek was the thin red gash of a blade, and he had a second fresh cut along his dagger arm. He spoke good Daxion, using formal, uncontracted speech. His tenor voice possessed an oddly clipped that suggested he kept himself in continual control against something hidden.
"What is your name?" I asked, dropping the "sir," as he had requested.
He considered this question for a while before saying, "Do you wish the truth?"
"I don't want a lie."
"Then you had better call me what you like. Spies don't give their true names."
I had visited a few imprisoned spies over the years. All of them had told me fabricated stories, though a few had recited these tales with a merry look in their eyes that suggested they did not really expect me to believe them. I had never before met a spy who actually admitted to his calling. This one asked, "May I know your name?"
"Meaning 'slave.' Did your mother give you that name?"
"My mother died of childbed-fever. The wet-nurse gave me my name."
"So you prefer the name of Princess?"
He must have heard Sandy talking at the door. I said stiffly, "It's not a real name. Some people call me that because I'm the King's bastard daughter."
"Give your father my compliments when you meet him next. I prefer his accommodations to those of the Chara's palace dungeon."
There was not a trace of irony in his voice. He waved his hand toward the floor, as though offering me a fine chair. Once I was sitting on the filthy straw, he reseated himself. He was still at the opposite end of the room from me; he was taking care not to frighten me by coming too close.
"What brings you to visit, Princess?" he asked.
"I thought you might want someone to talk to."
He had one knee raised, with his arm slung over it. He looked at me steadily before replying, "That depends on the conversation."
"It sounds as though you're bargaining with me."
"That is appropriate, since I came to this land in the guise of a trader. But the goods I have to offer you are not of fine quality. You can offer me truth; I can only offer you half-truths. And you do not strike me as the sort of person to be satisfied with anything less than the full truth."
"When you're a slave, truth is the only belonging you can possess. But give me whatever damaged goods you like. I'll give you the truth back in any case."
"Will you then tell me how it is that a palace slave comes to visit my cell?"
"The guard let me in."
"I heard him. I also heard him say that you had asked for me. How did you know that I was here before you came to the dungeon?"
I felt my heart thumping. I had made careless promises before in my life, and had later felt myself obliged to keep my word. Perhaps it was because of the lectures I had received from my father about the importance of honor. Honor is a difficult lover to accommodate, especially when you are a slave and your very existence may depend on your willingness to discard honor. But I, who had once seen myself as a princess, had always preferred honor over safety.
So I told him the full truth rather than the half-truth that I could have given him. "Somebody told me that you had been arrested. And later I overheard the Prince talking about you."
"Do you normally spend your days among royalty, or did you slip into his chamber as you slipped into mine?"
Again his question came direct. I supposed that he did not expect me to reply truthfully, which made me all the more eager to do so. "I have a place where I can eavesdrop on him. I don't do so very often."
"Princess, you are generous with your secrets, considering that I am a stranger."
His voice was quiet, his face still revealing nothing. I said, "Some of the slaves I know never trust anyone. I'd feel like a corpse if I were to live that kind of life. There have to be some people you are willing to trust."
"I agree with you there, though my beliefs on that subject are precisely what brought me here, since I trusted the wrong person. I must say that I am impressed by the efficiency of you Daxions. I had thought that the Emorians were swift in their justice, but events move even quicker in this land. It took me two minutes to introduce myself to the wrong person, five minutes for her to summon the soldiers, and fifteen minutes for the King's Torturer to wash his hands of me. I hate to think of how long it would take your people to destroy Koretia."
"The Prince said that Warton believed you wouldn't give out any secrets under torture."
"It is hard for me to judge the matter myself, but I am relieved that Warton reached such a conclusion. We settled that issue during the first five minutes of conversation, and then spent the remaining ten minutes having a pleasant debate about whether suffering brings good to men's lives. We were agreed that the gods can use suffering to their own ends, but we disagreed about how eagerly men should offer their services to promote such suffering."
I could not help it; I burst into laughter. The Koretian did not smile, but there was a slight crease around his eyes suggesting amusement. It was his only movement; since we had seated ourselves, he had not stirred. Because slaves do not often speak freely to one another, I had grown used to reading people's thoughts from their expressions and poses, but the Koretian's stillness revealed nothing to me except that he had tremendous control. Warton had probably judged him well.
I said, "You remind me of a song that Sandy taught me; he's the dungeon-keeper, the one who let me in here. It's a dark song, but very funny, about a man who is being tortured to death, and about all the witty things he says as each part of his body is being cut up. I've heard the guards singing it to each other, but I've never learned the ending, because they always dissolve into laughter before they reach that point."
This was a gruesome anecdote to tell a prisoner, and I said it chiefly to see what his reaction would be. Still he did not move, and still his face did not change. All that he said was, "I have yet to meet a Daxion who was unable to make a song out of tragedy. This seems to be a land filled with songs."
"The Song Spirit created it that way. If she took away our songs, she would take away everything that keeps us alive. We are begotten in song, and live in it, and die in it. The Spirit is always there to give us the songs and to tell us when to sing."
"Does the Spirit speak to everyone, or just to the bards?" he asked.
"She speaks to everyone, but the bards know best how to voice the feelings and thoughts she bids them to express."
"Then of what use is the King?"
His question came from nowhere. I cocked my head to one side. "You must know the answer if you know the question. Why are you asking me this?"
"Because the man who first told me about the Song Spirit is a Koretian, and you may be able to tell me things he did not know. How does the King serve the Song Spirit?"
"By using the Spirit's guidance to determine his judgment of the people. Here, I'll show you." I rose and walked over to stand beside him. He raised his gaze toward me, but he did not move, and I saw that his eyes had suddenly become guarded. It made me wonder whether he had stayed far from me less to keep from frightening me than because I frightened him. But I could see no reason why a man who had discussed philosophy with his torturer should be scared of me, so I placed my right hand lightly on his shoulder. He did not stir.
"If someone brought a matter to the King to judge, this is what he would do," I said. "His Bard would kneel before him, and he would touch the Bard so that the two of them were one. All of the other bards of the land choose what they will sing to the people, or rather, the Spirit tells them what to sing. But in the case of the King's Bard, she awaits the King's bidding. The King in turn awaits the Spirit's bidding, to tell him which song he should command the Bard to sing. Then, once he has given his command, he steps back." I did so, and continued to walk backwards until I was standing at the other end of the cell. The Koretian's gaze followed my progress.
"The Bard stands and sings the song, and in that song is the answer to the King's question of how he should judge the matter," I said. "After she has finished, he gives his judgment, but the law is to be found in the song, not in law books, such as Emor uses. Daxis has no other law than its songs." I sat down and added, "My father told me that he never knows why he has chosen the songs until after the Bard sings them. So the King and his Bard are both needed to hand down the judgment."
I paused, and as I did so, the Koretian made his first movement, reaching forward to touch a piece of straw on the floor. This triumph of my story-telling – I could see it in no other way – emboldened me to ask, "Who was it that told you about the Song Spirit?"
The Koretian continued to play with the piece of straw, as though my spoken song had freed him from the prison of his control. He said, "The Jackal told me when he sent me on my mission. The Jackal knows much about the religions of other lands."
I longed to ask him more, since he was now being so candid, but I knew little about the Jackal, other than his name. I said finally, "Is it true that he's a virgin?"
The Koretian had been staring at the straw. Now his gazed shifted up, and I could guess that he was assessing me to discover my motives for the question. I supposed that many people, like the Prince, looked upon the Jackal's chastity with contempt.
The Koretian finally replied, "As far as anyone knows. He was dedicated to the Unknowable God when he was a baby, and he has said that he wishes his dedication to be entire."
"That's a hard promise to make. I know of few men who are chaste."
"Few women either, after a certain age. Are you married?"
I shook my head. "I suppose you could say that I dedicated myself to chastity, too, though for a different reason. My father has always shown special favor toward me, and because of that, the other slaves despise me. If I were to marry, I would always be something above the man that I married, which might sour his feelings toward me. Even if my father freed me, I doubt that I could find a free-man who had respect for a former slave. I seem doomed to be half princess, half slave. I would rather suffer through that on my own than try to pretend that half of me doesn't exist."
The Koretian had a new and peculiar look on his face. I identified it, with some difficulty, as a faint smile. "It is hard having loyalties to more than one world," he said. "Do you want to be free?"
It was a strange question to ask a slave. "I'm not sure," I replied. "If the King freed me, I might want to explore beyond the confines of this palace, where I've lived all of my life, but I feel as though it would be disloyal to abandon my father, when he has done so much for me. He has allowed me to visit him from time to time since I was a child. It was he who taught me my first songs."
"Which songs did he teach you?"
I searched in my mind for a moment, seeking a trifling ditty, but I felt myself being pulled another way. I knew better than to defy the bidding of the Spirit, so I let the matter rest with her. I began singing "The Song of the Lost Boy."
It was a long tale, quite unsuitable to sing to a nursery child, but if my father had cared about suitability, I suppose that he would not have been entertaining his bastard. As I sang it, I remembered his voice, husky and uneven like my own, not a bard's voice, but filled with the passion that seems to overcome every Daxion when he or she is filled with the Spirit.
It tells the story of a boy who wandered from home one day and found that he could not trace his way back. After many dangerous adventures in foreign lands, he succeeded in returning to his home. But he had been away for so long that his parents thought him dead and would not believe that he was who he said he was. The song tells of the many painful trials he endured to show his parents that he was their true and loyal son, but none of his sufferings convinced his mother and father to take him back. And so, racked with grief, he left his home once more, and for the rest of his life wandered the world because he had lost the right to call any place home.
I had not proceeded far in my singing before the Koretian rose, walked over to within a body's length of me, and seated himself once more. I had seen this sort of thing happen on the few occasions I had witnessed Rosetta sing; she drew the people to her like a mother draws her children. It was pleasing to learn that I shared that much of the Bard's power, but I was absorbed in my singing and did not realize until I was done that the Koretian had once more slung his arm over his upright knee. His head was buried in that arm.
I sat there in awe, wondering what power the Spirit was showing this night, so as to cause the man who could not be tortured in body to be humbled by a song. After a while he looked up, and his face was just as it had been before, dispassionate and revealing nothing. He said quietly, "You Daxions are fortunate, to be able to hear songs like that. We have no tradition of such singing in Koretia."
"Anyone can sing, if the Spirit calls to him," I said. "I could teach you some songs to sing."
He was sitting without moving, so I suppose that his eyes must have been what told me that he had suddenly gone rigid. He said, his voice clipped shorter than before, "Thank you, but no. I never sing."
"Not even when you're alone?"
"Not even then."
Being Daxion, this was a great puzzlement to me, that anyone should be afraid of songs. I said, "I would wither away and die if I couldn't sing. I'm surrounded by so many lies and secrets in the palace; almost the only place I can find truth is in songs. Here in Daxis, if the King wishes a bard to make sworn testimony, he requires the bard to sing. It is said that the Spirit will not allow anyone to lie through his singing."
Finally an expression came to his face. I looked at it, and looked at it twice and thrice, but there was no denying what it was: it was anger.
The Koretian said, "I suppose this was the same Spirit who composed the song about the man being cut, the song that made the guards laugh. Some truths are better left unvoiced." He rose then, and moved back to where he had been before.
I stood up uncertainly, gazing at his angry face. "I must go. Would you like me to come again?"
For a moment more the anger lingered, and then it disappeared into his passionless face, like water into the cold earth. He said calmly, "I would appreciate it if you did."
I called to Sandy, and he came to let me out. As I turned to go, I stopped to look back at the Koretian. His face was as it had been when I first entered the cell, but now I wondered what dark emotions it hid.