The Daxion palace slaves like to sing the tale that on the night on which I was begotten, my father took my mother to a dark, hidden passage where no man or woman could find them. There, before he lay with her, the Song Spirit bid him sing to my mother his marriage vow, which he did, as no one could hear them in that place. The song echoed down the empty passage, and none but my mother and the Song Spirit heard him, and so my father was married to my mother in the eyes of the Spirit but not in the eyes of the law.
This is the sort of tale that nurses tell bastard children in order to comfort their pain, and indeed, I first heard the story from my dry-nurse. From an early age, though, I wondered whether there was any truth to what was said. For my father might indeed have taken my mother to some hidden place, since he was the King and she a mere slave-woman. And I thought I knew where that place must be: a place where no man or woman could hear the song echoing down the passage. This being the case, I was sure that the Song Spirit had been with my father that night, for it sometimes seemed to me, lying in the same passage, that I could hear the echoes of that song.
It was not until the time of which I write that I began to realize what song had been initiated that night of my begetting, and that the same song would lead me to the man who was at once my enemy and my deliverer. Not long ago I stood in a similar passage and sang in this man's presence a song that tied me in bonds of marriage – not a marriage to him, but a marriage to Daxis, the land which the Song Spirit has guided since its beginnings.
Songs echo backward as well as forward, as the King's Bard once told me. I can find the beginning echo of this later song in the night seven years ago that I visited the Bard in her quarters.
You may be sure that I did not go up and knock on her door. Though my position as the King's bastard daughter brought me privileges, these did not extend to making visits to the King's Bard. In the ordinary way of things, I would not have been allowed to speak to the Bard, but I had been careless once as a child. Rosetta the Bard had caught me climbing into her sitting chamber from the palace's hidden passage.
I still do not know why the passage was originally made. Perhaps it was built to permit the slave-servants a way to travel from one area of the palace to another, albeit on their hands and knees. Some King or Queen must have sealed it up after realizing that the passage also gave the slaves an opportunity to eavesdrop. At any rate, by my father's time it was forgotten in the memory of all but himself and his Bard. After I stumbled across its existence, I learned, through patient exploration, that it was still open in half a dozen places, one of these being the Bard's quarters. Boldly I had crawled into the sitting chamber one day when I was nine and found myself facing the great Rosetta herself.
She kept my secret, and even encouraged me to visit her. This I did, even after I grew to an age to realize I must be more of an annoyance to her than a pleasure.
I only visited her on nights when she was up late, singing songs to the Spirit alone. On this night, I crawled through the hidden hole to her quarters and found her practicing a song I had never heard. I waited until she was finished, moving far enough forward so that she would know I was there, but not so far forward that I would distract her. For a minute after she completed her tale, she continued to sit motionless, bending over the harp in such a way that her silver hair trailed down beside the gut-strings. Then she turned her head and smiled at me, motioning me to come sit next to her.
I took my place beside her on the cushions. "What was that? The melody is beautiful."
"A song I learned recently from a bard who lives near the Border Port. I remembered it tonight for some reason, perhaps because of the news I've heard."
"News has arrived?" I leaned forward eagerly. Besides songs and much else, news was what drew me to Rosetta, since she heard stories around the palace that did not reach even the slaves.
She laid the harp carefully to one side and then leaned back against the cushions, stretching out of the rigid pose of a singer. "Two pieces of news have arrived. One is that your father has been delayed on his return from Koretia. Rumors are flying that Koretia and Emor are beginning to quarrel about a court case that took place recently. Your father wishes to discover whether this is true."
I could well imagine that he did. Our land had been Koretia's hated enemy since the day when Daxis gave passage to the vanguard of the Emorian army and allowed it to attack the Koretian capital through our neighbor's back door. This had been during the summer that I was eight, twenty-four years before. As a result, the Koretian capital was burned to the ground, and Koretia had surrendered to Emor. For fifteen years after that, Emor had controlled Koretia as one of its dominions, but then Koretia had regained its independence through a rebellion. Ever since then Daxis, feared that Koretia would take its revenge. If Emor and Koretia were quarrelling once more, there was hope that Koretia would go to war and lose its independence to Emor again.
"Do you think that Emor and Koretia really will go to war?" I asked Rosetta.
"It's hard to say. The Chara of Emor is great friends with the Jackal of Koretia, but the two rulers have not always seen eye to eye on matters, and this may be a case where they will fall to quarrelling."
If I had been a palace official, Rosetta would not have had to say any of this to me, but I was as ignorant of high matters as slaves usually are. Slave-servants are less interested in who is going to war with whom than they are in finding out which slave-boy has been beaten and which slave-girl has been forced into bed with a freeman. What little I knew of the outside world came from Rosetta and the conversations I heard in the passage. That knowledge was slight indeed. So I asked, in my ignorance, "But why is the Chara friends with the Jackal? Didn't the Jackal lead Koretia's rebellion against Emor?"
"That is a song in itself," replied Rosetta, which was her way of saying that it was not a matter that concerned her. "In any case, you may be more interested in my second piece of news, which is that a Koretian spy has been arrested."
I smiled. "Rosetta, I have never asked you: How did you find out that I visit the prisoners in the dungeon? Only Sandy knows, and he wouldn't tell anyone."
"Perhaps the Spirit whispered it to me through this song I was just singing. It tells of a princess who happened upon a wounded man who was her father's mortal enemy. She took pity on the man and nursed him, and then for the rest of her life she feared that her father would meet his death at this man's hand."
"The song is only a fragment. I never learned the ending."
I was silent a while before saying, "The song doesn't apply to me in any case. Sandy calls me Princess out of affection, and the Prince calls me that in mockery, but you and I both know that I'm a princess only in name."
"Names can be powerful . . . but I doubt that the Spirit sent me this song as a way to warn you against going to the dungeon. I suppose that you must find some reward in doing so."
It was a question. Rosetta was too polite to ever ask me directly about what I did when I wasn't with her. I leaned forward to touch the tassel on the cushion I was seated on. Perhaps sensing that I needed to be alone with my thoughts, Rosetta rose and extinguished all but one of the candles that lit the room. I watched her as she did so: her skin was stretched across her high cheekbones with a smoothness that belied her real age, but creases next to her eyes told the true tale: this was a bard who had served two kings. Not since my great-grandmother's day had there been a need for a Queen's Bard.
I said, "I suppose that I do like the idea of being a princess for at least a short period. When I was little, my father treated me with such kindness that I always thought of myself that way. It was a shock when I left my dry-nurse and came to work among the other slaves, and found I was no better than them. I would have been happy to be just another slave, but they wouldn't allow me even that, since the King had shown me his favor."
"So you feel like a princess in the dungeon?" Rosetta sat down once more, easing herself slowly into her position.
"Sometimes I do. I don't lie to the prisoners about who I am; they wouldn't talk to me if they thought I was a real princess. But I suppose that you can go no lower than being what they are, and even a slave is above a prisoner. At least, they seem to see it that way."
"Prison is a place of great lies; you bring them truth. So you are a princess, since it is the role of Daxion's ruler to bring truth to the people through song."
"I never sing to the prisoners."
"Nor does your father sing to his subjects; that is my role. But it is he who chooses the songs I sing, and it is you who choose what the prisoners should know about the world outside the dungeon. So keep your eye out for that wounded man of the song I sang tonight. He may visit at any time."
I thought about this a while. Besides Rosetta breathing softly beside me, I could hear nothing. The quarters of the King's Bard was located far from other chambers, so that nobody would overhear Rosetta practicing one of the Forbidden Songs. As far as I knew, nobody ever had, except me.
"What about this Koretian?" I asked. "What is he like?"
"Well, now, my information on him comes from Lady Felicia, who, as you know likes to embellish her song with fancy. She says that the man is as handsome as a prince, and acts like one as well, for when Prince Richard came to visit him, the Koretian gave him the free-man's greeting as though he were the Prince's equal. As a result, the Koretian nearly had his head knocked off by Prince Richard's guard. But Richard stayed the guard's hand, saying that he found the man's behavior amusing. In any case, Felicia adds that the Koretian is certainly not of royal blood, just weak in the mind, for he spoke to a slave with the same courtesy that he used toward the Prince."
"What an odd man. Has he been here long?"
"Only since this morning. Apparently, the King's Torturer was so thunderstruck by the man's appearance that he refused to lay a hand against him. That is the way that Felicia tells the tale. What is certain is that the Koretian has not been tortured."
"He can't be my wounded man, then."
"Perhaps he is your Song Twin."
"A Koretian?" I laughed, but my eye drifted over toward Rosetta's harp.
She noticed and said, "No, no, you have heard my singing for the night. I would rather hear you sing the tale and see whether you still remember the words. Every time I have you sing for me, you seem to have forgotten more."
"My memory is poor, and I'll never be a bard in any case."
"You certainly are not a bard, but it is good to have these songs stored in your heart. I will not be here to sing them to you forever."
She had touched on my worst fear: of the day when she would die, and I would no longer have either her songs or her friendship. I reached over quickly and picked up her harp. It was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, holly wood inlaid with blackroot wood. Even in the years before I realized its sacredness, I had always gazed upon it with awe. I touched the notes one by one, though I knew that Rosetta kept the strings in tune, and then I began to sing the tale of the woman who finds her Song Twin.
I did not have the voice of a bard, but I finished the song creditably, without forgetting too much of it. Rosetta had taught me the tricks bards use to remember these long tales: the key words, the phrases that are repeated over and over, and the passages that bards may vary to add what they like. If anything, I found the inventions as hard as the memorizations, and if I had ever had any illusions as a child that I would grow up to be a bard, they had long since been dispelled.
After I was through, Rosetta showed me how to position my hands better on the strings, and then asked abruptly, "Will you go to visit the Koretian tonight?"
I shook my head. "I ought not even to have come to see you. The Prince works the slaves extra hard when the King is gone, so I must be up before dawn. I'll try to visit the Koretian in a few days, but it is in the Spirit's hands whether I do so. I need all of the sleep I can get."
"Well, you can depend on the Spirit to send you the song you need to decide the matter. Don't bother to visit me till your father returns. The Prince has me busy composing a bawdy tale as a present for the King; you know how your father likes that sort of thing. I have begun to reach the limits of my imagination to figure out what to have the characters in my song do; I've been composing such tales for the King for the past thirty years. But I doubt that he'll notice if I repeat myself. After all, he has been repeating himself for the past forty years."
I laughed at this reference to my father's sleeping-chamber habits. I was far from the only bastard to the King in the palace, though I was the only one in whom he had shown any interest, which had led me to wonder whether he had indeed secretly married my mother. But the answer to that tale was known only to the passage I now re-entered, leaving Rosetta plucking the strings of her harp in apparently aimless fashion.
The passage I called it, but really it was a labyrinth of passages that were located between the floors and ceilings of each palace storey, or against the outer walls. Sandy had gone as an honor guard once to the Jackal's palace, which was built during the time of Emorian rule. He said that it was a long, broad building, with only a main floor and a cellar. The Daxion palace was the opposite: tall and narrow like the mountain that loomed behind it. The passages never went far before they reached one of the outer walls, which was fortunate, because while the vertical passages were easy enough to climb down through iron ladders attached to the walls, the horizontal passages were filled with fallen wood beams and were treacherous to crawl through. I usually took the long way back to the slave-quarters from Rosetta's room to avoid one of these beams, but tonight, by some fancy, I took the short way and so passed under the Prince's chamber in time to hear him speak my name.
I could overhear discussions in a few of the chambers above the passage, but early on I had decided that it was best not to eavesdrop, lest I unwittingly say something later that revealed my spying. To be able to wander the passage at will during the night was a freedom more precious to me than the news I might have gleaned from listening. I usually took special care not to listen at the Prince's room, both because I could understand little of the high matters that he spoke about and also because his very voice was hateful to me.
But when you are a slave, you do not pass up the chance to learn what plans your masters have for you. I paused to listen.
". . . nothing to worry about there," the Prince was saying. "I told you, she has pleaded with her father to be able to keep her maidenhood. She is over thirty years old now, so I doubt that she will be struck suddenly lovesick, as though she were a young girl."
"She could still be used," insisted his companion. I recognized the voice: it belonged to a subcaptain whom the Prince invited to his quarters frequently, despite the gap between their ranks. The man had a moon brand across the side of his cheek, the sign of a murderer who has been let off easy. I suspected that his viciousness had not been burned off during the branding.
"By whom? The Jackal? He guards his virginity as well as she does." The Prince added a coarse joke, and then said, "We're as likely to see him marry her as we are to see his blood brother marry."
The subcaptain laughed. "I will take your word on it. But the King could ease matters much if he named you his heir. A legitimate nephew has clearer rights to the crown than the husband of a bastard daughter."
"By custom, yes. But I can't take the throne without a confirmation from the council, and my uncle knows his council well enough not to present me while there's any chance that they will refuse again to confirm me. Still, I have no doubt that Leofwin's death will leave my rights unchallenged."
"You could arrange that those rights went unchallenged now."
Lying on my stomach in the passage – much of the passage was only a few feet high, too low to sit up in – I held my breath. Knowing the man who spoke, I had no doubts as to what he was suggesting.
The Prince replied smoothly, with a trace of amusement in his voice, "Derek, you are always overeager. The King serves me better with his life than with his death; he cares little about the people, and treats them harshly. When he dies, the people will be so weary of his tyranny that they'll turn to me as their savior. You notice that I take great care always to side with the oppressed when we are in public. It makes the King seem all the more villainous."
"If they are his proclamations, they are his villainies."
"Oh, yes, I haven't forgotten the law. He is answerable to the Spirit for the way in which he has manipulated her Songs. So much the better for me. The Spirit will have plenteous grievances with me once I take the throne, but for now, the King is responsible for misruling, not I."
"Are you serious? Do you really believe there is such a Spirit?" The subcaptain's voice was thick with blasphemous scorn.
"I am sure of it. And I take care to serve the Spirit, in my own way; it is not a good idea to stir up unduly the anger of the bards' goddess. Some day, the Spirit may be willing to help me with my kingdom. That is why I never tell the King what to do. He has enough corruption in him to think of these matters himself, without help from me."
"Is that also why you refused to accept the royal seal when he offered it to you before he left for Koretia?"
"That is why." The board above me creaked as the Prince walked from one end of the chamber to the other. "Have another drink, Derek. Yes, it's inconvenient not having the power to issue commands in his absence. There is this matter of the Koretian spy, for example."
"You can have him tortured in the King's absence."
"Warton advised against it. He said that ninety-nine out of a hundred men he can force to betray their own mothers. This, he said, is the hundredth man."
"Do you think he was being soft?" asked the subcaptain.
"Warton? You must be joking." The board creaked again as the Prince paced back to where he had stood before. "He has enough to do without wasting his time on an inconsequential spy who could probably tell us no more than the previous spies we've captured. The Jackal is too clever to entrust his thieves with much information. No, all that we can do is hang the man, and that will have to await the King's return."
"I doubt that the Jackal will be troubling Daxis in any case, if these rumors are true. Emor is likely to keep him busy for a while."
"If the Chara goes to war against the Jackal, then Daxis will certainly be secure; our greatest ally will be warring with our greatest enemy. The best we can do is hope for war."
"And hope that the Jackal doesn't sneak over the border to snatch the slave-girl for his marriage bed."
"No danger of that, I told you. Come, I'll see you to the gate." The Prince walked toward the door, and I could not catch the fading question of the subcaptain. But the Prince's voice came clear in reply. "No, the Princess serves me with her life as well. Besides, she is an attractive woman, and you know how much I hate to waste attractive women."
I heard the subcaptain's throaty laugh. The door shut. I stayed where I was for several minutes, and then began crawling back the way I had come, toward the dungeon.