"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
"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
"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 over 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
"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
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 asked, 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 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.
"I would rather, my Son Ansset, I would rather meet death in your hands than any
other's. Your life is more valuable to me than my own." Then Mikal turned and went back
into the door that led to his private chambers. Ansset and the Captain of the Guard followed,
and as they left the whispers rose to a roar. Mikal had gone much farther than Ansset had
even hoped. The entire Capital -- and in a few weeks, the entire empire -- would hear how
Mikal had called his Songbird Son Ansset, and the words, "Your life is more valuable than my
own," would become the stuff of legends.
Ansset sighed a song as he entered the familiar rooms where Father Mikal lived.
Mikal turned abruptly and glared at the Captain of the Guard. "What do you mean by
that little trick, you bastard?"
"I tied his hands as a precaution. I was within my duties as a warden of the gate."
"I know you were within your duties, but you might use some common decency.
What harm can an eleven-year-old boy do when you've probably already skinned him alive
searching for weapons and you have a hundred lasers trained on him at every moment!"
"I wanted to be sure."
"Well, you're too damned thorough. Get out. And don't let me ever catch you being
any less thorough, even when it makes me angry. Get out!" The Captain of the Guard left,
Mikal's roar following him. As soon as the door closed, Mikal started to laugh. "What an ass!
What a colossal donkey!" Then he threw himself to the floor with all the vigor of a young
man, though Ansset knew his age to be one hundred and twenty-three, which was old, in a
civilization where death normally came at a hundred and fifteen. Under him the floor that
had been rigid when his weight pressed down on the two small spaced touched by his feet
now softened, gave gently to fit the contours of his body. Ansset also went to the floor, and
lay there laughing.
"Are you glad to be home, Ansset?" Mikal asked tenderly.
"Now I am. Until this moment I wasn't home."
"Ansset, my Son, you never can speak without singing." Mikal laughed softly.
Ansset took the sound of the laugh and turned it into a song. It was a soft song, and it
was short, but at the end of it Mikal was lying on his back looking at the ceiling, tears
streaming down from his eyes.
"I didn't mean the song to be sad, Father Mikal."
"How was I to know that now, in my dotage, I'd do the foolish thing I avoided all my
life? Oh, I've loved like I've done every other passionate thing, but when they took you I
discovered, my Son, that I need you." Mikal rolled over and looked at the beautiful face of
the boy who lay looking at him adoringly. "Don't worship me, boy, I'm an old bastard
who'd kill his mother if one of my enemies hadn't already done it."
"You'd never harm me."
"I harm everything I love," Mikal said bitterly. Then he let his face show concern.
"We were afraid for you. Since you were gone there was an outbreak of insane crime. People
were kidnapped for no reason on the street, some in broad daylight, and a few days later their
bodies would be found, broken and torn by someone or something. No ransom notes.
Nothing. We thought you had been taken like that, and that somewhere we'd find your
body. Are you whole? Are you well?"
"I'm stronger than I've ever been before." Ansset laughed. "I tested my strength
against the hook of my hammock, and I'm afraid I ripped it out of the wall."
Mikal reached out and touched Ansset's hand. "I'm afraid," Mikal said, and Ansset
listened, humming softly, as Mikal talked. The emperor never spoke in names and dates and
facts and plans, for then if Ansset were taken by an enemy the enemy would know too much.
He spoke to the Songbird in emotions instead, and Ansset sang solace to him. Other
Songbirds had pretty voices, other could impress the crowds, and, indeed, Mikal used Ansset
for just that purpose on certain state occasions. But of all Songbirds, only Ansset could sing
his soul; and he loved Mikal from his soul.
Late in the night Mikal shouted in fury about his empire: "Did I built it to fall? Did I
burn over a dozen worlds and rape a hundred others just to have the whole thing fall in chaos
when I die? He leaned down and whispered to Ansset, their eyes a few inches apart, "They
call me Mikal the Terrible, but I built it so it would stand like an umbrella over the galaxy.
They have it now: peace and prosperity and as much freedom as their little minds can cope
with. But when I die they'll throw it all away." Mikal whirled and shouted at the walls of his
soundproofed chamber, "In the name of nationalities and religions and races and family
inheritances the fools will rip the umbrella down and then wonder why, all of a sudden, it's
Ansset sang to him of hope.
"There's no hope. I have fifty sons, three of them legitimate, all of them fools who try
to flatter me. They couldn't keep the empire for a week, not all of them, not any of them.
There's not a man I've met in all my life who could control what I've built in my lifetime.
When I die, it all dies with me." And Mikal sank to the floor wearily.
For once Ansset did not sing. Instead he jumped to his feet, the floor turning firm
under him. He raised an arm above his head, and said, "For you, Father Mikal, I'll grow up to
be strong! Your empire shall not fall!" He spoke with such grandeur in his childish speaking
voice that both he and Mikal had to laugh.
"It's true, though," Mikal said, tousling the child's hair. "For you I'd do it, I'd give
you the empire, except they'd kill you. And even if I lived long enough to train you to be a
ruler of men, I wouldn't do it. The man who will be my heir must be cruel and vicious and
sly and wise, completely selfish and ambitious, contemptuous of all other people, brilliant in
battle, able to outguess and outmaneuver every enemy, and strong enough inside himself to
live utterly alone all his life." Mikal smiled. "Even I don't fit my list of qualifications, because
now I'm not utterly alone."
And then, as Mikal drifted off to sleep, Ansset sang to him of his captivity, the songs
and words of his time of loneliness in captivity, and as the men on the ship had wept, so Mikal
wept, only more. Then they both slept.
A few days later, Mikal, Ansset, the Chamberlain, and the Captain of the Guard met
in Mikal's small receiving room, where a solid block of clear glass as perfect as a lens stretched
as a meters-long table from one end of the room to the other. They gathered at one end. The
Chamberlain was adamant.
"Ansset is a danger to you, my Lord."
The Captain of the Guard was equally adamant. "We found the conspirators and
killed them all."
The Chamberlain rolled his eyes heavenward in disgust.
The Captain of the Guard became angry, though he kept the fact hidden behind heavy-lidded eyes. "It all fit -- the accent that Ansset told us they had, the wooden ship, calling each
other freemen, their emotionalism -- they could have been no one else but the Freemen of
Eire. Just another nationalist group, but they have a lot of sympathizers here in America --
damn these 'nations,' where but on old Earth would people subdivide their planet and think
the subdivisions meant anything."
"So you went in and wiped them all out," the Chamberlain sneered, "and not one of
them had any knowledge of the plot."
"Anyone who could block out the Songbird's mind as well as he did can hide a
conspiracy like that!" the Captain of the Guard snapped back.
"Our enemy is subtle," the Chamberlain said. "He kept everything else from Ansset's
knowledge -- so why did he let him have all these clues that steered us to Eire? I think we
were given bait and you bit. Well, I haven't bitten yet, and I'm still looking."
"In the meantime," Mikal said, "try to avoid harassing Ansset too much."
"I don't mind," Ansset hurriedly said, though he minded very much: the constant
searches, the frequent interrogations, the hypnotherapy, the guards who followed him
constantly to keep him from meeting with anyone.
"I mind," Mikal said. "It's good for you to keep watch, because we still don't know
what they've done to Ansset's mind. But in the meantime, let Ansset's life be worth living."
Mikal glared pointedly at the Captain of the Guard, who got up and left. Then Mikal turned
to the Chamberlain and said, "I don't like how easily the Captain was fooled by such an
obvious ploy. Keep up your investigation. And tell me anything your spies within the
Captain's forces might have to say."
The Chamberlain tried for a moment to protest that he had no such spies -- but Mikal
laughed until the Chamberlain gave up and promised to complete a report.
"My days are numbered," Mikal said to Ansset. "Sing to me of numbered days." And
so Ansset sang him a playful song about a man who decided to live for two hundred years and
so counted his age backward, by the number of years he had left. "And he died when he was
only eighty-three," Ansset sang, and Mikal laughed and tossed another log on the fire. Only
an emperor or a peasant in the protected forests of Siberia could afford to burn wood.
Then one day Ansset, as he wandered through the palace, noticed a different direction
and a quickened pace to the hustling and bustling of servants down the halls. He went to the
"Try to keep quiet about it," the Chamberlain said. "You're coming with us, anyway."
And within an hour Ansset rode beside Mikal in an armored car as a convoy swept out
of Capital. The roads were kept clear, and in an hour and fifteen minutes the armored car
stopped. Ansset bounded out of the hatchway. He was startled to see that the entire convoy
was missing, and only the single armored car remained. He immediately suspected treachery,
and looked down at Mikal in fright.
"Don't worry," Mikal said. "We sent the convoy on."
They got out of the car and with a dozen picked guards (not from the palace guard,
Ansset noticed) they made their way through a sparse wood, along a stream, and finally to the
banks of a huge river.
"The Delaware," whispered the Chamberlain to Ansset, who had already guessed as
"Keep your esoterica to yourself," Mikal said, sounding irritable, which meant he was
enjoying himself immensely. He hadn't been a part of any kind of planetside military
operation in forty years, ever since he became an emperor and had to control fleets and
planets instead of a few ships and a thousand men. There was a spring to his step that belied
his century and a quarter.
Finally the Chamberlain stopped. "That's the house, and that's the boat."
A flatboat was moored on the river by a shambling wooden house that looked like it
had been built during the American colonial revival over a hundred years before.
They crept up on the house, but it was empty, and when they rushed the flatboat the
only man on board aimed a laser at his own face and blasted it to a cinder. Not before Ansset
had recognized him, though.
"That was Husk," Ansset said, feeling sick as he looked at the ruined corpse.
Inexplicably, he felt a nagging guilt. "He's the man who fed me."
Then Mikal and Chamberlain followed Ansset through the boat. "It's not the same,"
"Of course not," said the Chamberlain. "The paint is fresh. And there's a small of
new wood. They've been remodeling. But is there anything familiar?"
There was. Ansset found a tiny room that could have been his cell, though now it was
painted bright yellow and a new window let sunlight flood into the room. Mikal examined
the windowframe. "New," the emperor pronounced. And by trying to imagine the interior
of the flatboat as it might have been unpainted, Ansset was able to find the large room where
he had sung his last evening in captivity. There was no table. But the room seemed the same
size, and Ansset agreed that this could very well have been the place he was held.
Down in the ship they heard the laughter of children and a passing eletrecart that
clattered along the bumpy old asphalt road. The Chamberlain laughed. "Sorry I took you the
long way. It's really quite a populated area. I just wanted to be sure they didn't have time to
Mikal curled his lip. "If it's a populated area we should have arrived in a bus. A group
of armed men walking along a river are much more conspicuous."
"I'm not a tactician," said the Chamberlain.
"Tactician enough," said Mikal. "We'll go back to the palace now. Do you have
anyone you can trust to make the arrest? I don't want him harmed."
But it didn't do any good to give orders to that effect. When the Captain of the Guard
was arrested, he raged and stormed and then a half-hour later, before there was time to
examine him with the probe and taster, one of the guards slipped him some poison and he
drifted off into death. The Chamberlain rashly had the offending guard impaled with nails
until he bled to death.
Ansset was confused as he watched Mikal rage at the Chamberlain. It was obviously a
sham, or half a sham, and Ansset was certain that the Chamberlain knew it. "Only a fool
would have killed that soldier! How did the poison get into the palace past the detectors?
How did the soldier get it to the Captain? None of the questions will ever be answered now!"
The Chamberlain made the mandatory ritual resignation. "My Lord Imperator, I was
a fool. I deserve to die. I resign my position and ask for you to have me killed."
Following the ritual, but obviously annoyed by having it thrust at him before he was
through raging, Mikal lifted his hand and said, "Damn right you're a fool." Then in proper
form, he said, "I grant you your life because of your infinitely valuable services to me in
apprehending the traitor in the first place." Mikal cocked his head to one side. "So,
Chamberlain, who do you think I should make the next Captain of the Guard?"
Ansset almost laughed out loud. It was an impossible question to answer. The safest
answer (and the Chamberlain liked to do safe things) would be to say he had never given the
matter any thought at all, and wouldn't presume to advise the emperor on such a vital matter.
But even so, the moment would be tense for the Chamberlain.
And Ansset was shocked to hear the Chamberlain's answer, "Riktors Ashen, of course,
The "of course" was insolent. The naming of the man was ridiculous. At first Ansset
looked at Mikal to see fury there. But instead Mikal was smiling. "Why of course," he said
blandly. "Riktors Ashen is the obvious choice. Tell him in my name that he's appointed."
Even the Chamberlain, who had mastered the art of blandness at will, looked surprised
for a moment. Again Ansset almost laughed. He saw Mikal's victory: the Chamberlain had
probably named the one man in the palace guard that the Chamberlain had no control over,
assuming that Mikal would never pick the man Chamberlain recommended. And so Mikal
had picked him: Riktors Ashen, the victor of the battle of Mantrynn, a planet that had
revolted only three years before. He was known to be incorruptible, brilliant, and reliable.
Well, now he'd have a chance to prove his reputation, Ansset thought.
Then he was startled out of his reverie by Mikal's voice. "Do you know what his last
words were to me?"
By the instant understanding that needed no referents for Mikal's pronouns Ansset
knew he was talking about the now-dead Captain of the Guard.
"He said, 'Tell Mikal that my death frees more plotters than it kills.' And then he said
the he loved me. Imagine, that cagey old bastard saying he loved me. I remembered him
twenty years ago when he killed his closest friend in a squabble over a promotion. The
bloodiest men get most sentimental in their old age, I suppose."
Ansset asked a question -- it seemed a safe time. "My Lord, why was the Captain
"Hmmm?" Mikal looked surprised. "Oh, I suppose no one told you, then. He visited
that house regularly throughout your captivity. He said he visited a woman there. But the
neighbors all testified under the probe that a woman never lived there. And the Captain was a
master at establishing mental blocks."
"Then the conspiracy is broken?" Ansset said, joyfully assuming that the guards would
stop harassing him and the questions would finally end.
"The conspiracy is barely dented. Someone was able to get poison to the Captain.
Therefore plotters still exist within the palace. And therefore Riktors Ashen will be
instructed to keep a close watch on you."
Ansset tried to keep the smile on his face. He failed.
"I know, I know," Mikal said wearily. "But it's still locked in your mind."
It was unlocked the next day. The court was gathered in the Great Hall, and Ansset
resigned himself to a morning of wandering through the halls -- or else standing near Mikal as
he received the boring procession of dignitaries paying their respects to the emperor (and then
going home to report how soon they thought Mikal the Terrible would die, and who might
succeed him, and what the chances were for grabbing a piece of the empire). Because the
palace bored him and he wanted to be near Mikal, and because the Chamberlain smiled at him
and asked, "Are you coming to court?" Ansset decided to attend.
The order of dignitaries had been carefully worked out to honor loyal friends and
humiliate upstarts whose dignity needed deflating. A minor official from a distant star cluster
was officially honored, the first business of the day, and then the rituals began: princes and
presidents and satraps and governors, depending on what title survived the conquest a decade
or a score or fourscore years ago, all proceeding forward with their retinue, bowing (how low
they bowed showed how afraid they were of Mikal, or how much they wanted to flatter him),
uttering a few words, asking for private audience, being put off or being invited, in an endless
Ansset was startled to see a group of Black Kinshasans attired in their bizarre old Earth
costumes. Kinshasa insisted it was an independent nation, a pathetic nose-thumbing claim
when empires of planets have been swallowed up by Mikal Conqueror. Why were they being
allowed to wear their native regalia and have an audience? Ansset raised an eyebrow at the
Chamberlain, who also stood near the throne.
"It was Mikal's idea," the Chamberlain said voicelessly. "He's letting them come and
present a petition right before the president of Stuss. Those toads from Stuss'll be madder
At that moment Mikal raised his hand for some wine. Obviously he was as bored as
The Chamberlain poured the wine, tasted it, as was the routine, and then took a step
toward Mikal's throne. Then he stopped, and beckoned to Ansset, who was already moving
back to Mikal's side. Surprised at the summons, Ansset came over.
"Why don't you take the wine to Mikal, Sweet Songbird?" the Chamberlain said. The
surprise fell away from Ansset's eyes, and he took the wine and headed purposefully back to
At that moment, however, pandemonium broke loose. The Kinshasan envoys reached
into their elaborate curly-haired headdresses and withdrew wooden knives -- which could pass
every test given by machines at the doors of the palace. They rushed toward the throne. The
guards fired quickly, their lasers dropping five of the Kinshasans, but all had aimed at the
foremost assassins, and three continued unharmed. They rushed toward the throne, arms
extended so the knives were already aimed directly at Mikal's heart.
Mikal, old and unarmed, rose to meet them. A guard managed to shift his aim and get
off a shot, but it was wild, and the others were hurriedly recharging their lasers -- which only
took a moment, but that was a moment too long.
Mikal looked death in the eye and did not seem disappointed.
But at that moment Ansset threw the wine goblet at one of the attackers and then
leaped out in front of the emperor. He jumped easily into the air, and kicked the jaw of the
first of the attackers. The angle of the kick was perfect, the force sharp and incredibly hard,
and the Kinshasan's head flew fifty feet away into the crowd, as his body slid forward until
the wooden knife touched Mikal's foot. Ansset came down from the jump in time to bring
his hand upward into the abdomen of another attacker so sharply that his arm was buried to
the elbow in bowels, and his fingers crushed the man's heart.
The other attacker paused just a moment, thrown from his relentless charge by the
sudden onslaught from the child who stood so harmlessly by the emperor's throne. That
pause was long enough for recharged lasers to be aimed, to flash, and the last Kinshasan
assassin fell, dropping ashes as he collapsed, flaming slightly.
The whole thing, from the appearance of the wooden knives to the fall of the last
attacker, had taken five seconds.
Ansset stood still in the middle of the hall, gore on his arm, blood splashed all over his
body. He looked at the gory hand, at the body he had pulled it out of. A rush of long-blocked memories came back, and he remembered other such bodies, other heads kicked from
the torsos, other men who had died as Ansset learned the skill of killing with his hands. The
guilt that had troubled him before swept through him with new force now that he knew the
why of it.
The searches had all been in vain. Ansset himself was the weapon that was to have
been used against Father Mikal.
The smell of blood and broken intestines combined with the emotions sweeping his
body, and he doubled over, shuddering as he vomited.
The guards gingerly approached him, unsure what they should do.
But the Chamberlain was sure. Ansset heard the voice, trembling with fear at how
close the assassination had come, and how easily a different assassination could have come,
saying, "Keep him under guard. Wash him. Never let him be out of a laser's aim for a
moment. Then bring him to Mikal's chambers in an hour."
The guards looked toward Mikal, who nodded.
Ansset was still white and weak when he came into Mikal's chambers. The guards still
had lasers trained on him. The Chamberlain and the new Captain of the Guard, Riktors
Ashen, stood between Mikal and the boy.
"Songbird," Riktors said, "it seems that someone taught you new songs."
Ansset lowered his head.
"You must have studied under a master."
"I n-never," Ansset stuttered. He had never stuttered in his life.
"Don't torture the boy, Captain," Mikal said.
The Chamberlain launched into his pro forma resignation. "I should have examined
the boy's muscle structure and realized what new skills he had been given. I submit my
resignation. I beg you to take my life."
The Chamberlain must be even more worried than usual, Ansset thought with that
part of his mind that was still capable of thinking. The old man had prostrated himself in
front of the emperor.
"Shut up and get out," Mikal said rudely. The Chamberlain arose with his face gray.
Mikal had not followed the ritual. The Chamberlain's life was still on the line.
"We will now be certain," Mikal said to Riktors. "Show him the pictures."
Ansset stood watching as Riktors took a packet off a table and began removing
newsheet clippings from it. Ansset looked at the first one and was merely sickened a little.
The second one he recognized, and he gasped. With the third one he wept and threw the
pictures away from him.
"Those are the pictures," Mikal said, "of the people who were kidnapped and murdered
during you captivity."
"I k-killed them," Ansset said, dimly aware that there was no trace of song in his voice,
just the frightened stammering of an eleven-year-old boy caught up in something too
monstrous for him to comprehend. "They had me practice on them."
"Who had you practice!" Riktors demanded.
"They! The voices -- from the box." Ansset struggled to hold onto memories that had
been hidden from him by the block. He also longed to let the block in his mind slide back
into place, forget again, shut it out.
"What box?" Riktors would not let up.
"The box. A wooden box. Maybe a receiver, may be a recording, I don't know."
"Did you know the voice?"
"Voices. Never the same. Not even for the same sentence, the voices changed for
Ansset kept seeing the faces of the bound men he was told to maim and then kill. He
remembered that though he cried out against it, he was still forced to do it.
"How did they force you to do it!"
Was Riktors reading his mind? "I don't know. I don't know. There were words, and
then I had to."
"I don't know! I never knew!" And Ansset was crying again.
Mikal spoke softly. "Who taught you how to kill that way?"
"A man. I never knew his name. On the last day, he was tied where the others had
been. The voices made me kill him." Ansset struggled with the words, the struggle made
harder by the realization that this time, when he had killed his teacher, he had not had to be
forced. He had killed because he hated the man. "I murdered him."
"Nonsense," the Chamberlain said. "You were a tool."
"I said to shut up," Mikal said curtly. "Can you remember anything else, my Son?"
"I killed the crew of the ship, too. All except Husk. The voices told me to. And then
there were footsteps, above me, on the deck."
"Did you see who it was?"
Ansset forced himself to remember. "No. He told me to lie down. He must have
known the -- code, whatever it is, I didn't want to obey him, but I did."
"Footsteps, and a needle in my arm, and I woke up on the street."
Everyone was silent then, for a few moments, all of them thinking quickly. The
Chamberlain broke first. "My Lord, the great threat to you and the strength of the Songbird's
love for you must have impelled him despite the mental block--"
"Chamberlain," Mikal said, "your life is over if you speak again before I address you.
Captain. I want to know how those Kinshasan's got past your guard?"
"They were dignitaries. By your order, my Lord, no dignitaries are given the body
search. Their wooden knives passed all the detectors. I'm surprised this hasn't been tried
Ansset noticed that Riktors spoke confidently, not coweringly as another Captain
might have done after assassins got through his guard. And, better in control of himself,
Ansset listened for the melodies of Riktors's voice. They were strong. They were dissonant.
Ansset wondered if he would be able to detect Riktors in a lie. To a strong, selfish man all
things that he chose to say became truth, and the songs of his voice said nothing.
"Riktors, you will prepare orders for the utter destruction of Kinshasa."
"Before Kinshasa is destroyed -- and that means destroyed, not a blade of grass, Riktors
-- before Kinshasa is destroyed, I want to know what connection there is between the
assassination attempt this morning and the manipulation of my Songbird."
Riktors saluted again. Mikal spoke to Chamberlain. "Chamberlain, what would you
recommend I do with my Songbird?"
As usual, the Chamberlain took the safe way. "My Lord, it is not a matter to which I
have given thought. The disposition of your Songbird is not a matter on which I feel it
proper to advise you."
"Very carefully said, my dear Chamberlain," Ansset tried to be calm as he listened to
them discuss how he should be disposed of. Mikal raised his hand in the gesture that, by
ritual, spared the Chamberlain's life. Ansset would have laughed at the Chamberlain's
struggle not to show his relief, but this was not a time for laughter, because Ansset knew his
relief would not come so easily.
"My Lord," Ansset said, "I beg you to put me to death."
"Dammit, Ansset, I'm sick of the rituals," Mikal said.
"This is no ritual," Ansset said, his voice tired and husky from misuse. "And this is no
song, Father Mikal. I'm a danger to you."
"I know it." Mikal looked back and forth between Riktors and the Chamberlain.
"Chamberlain, have Ansset's possessions put together and readied for shipment to
Alwiss. The prefect there is Timmis Hortmang, prepare a letter of explanation and a letter of
mark. Ansset will arrive there wealthier than anyone else in the prefecture. Those are my
orders. See to it." He turned his head downward and to the right. Both Riktors and the
Chamberlain moved to leave. Ansset -- and therefore the guards who had lasers trained on
him -- did not.
"Father Mikal," Ansset said softly, and he realized that the words had been a song.
But Mikal made no answer. He only got up from the chair and left the chamber.
Ansset had several hours before nightfall, and he spent them wandering through the
palace and the palace grounds. The guards dogged his steps. At first he let the tears flow.
Then, as the horror of the morning hid again behind the only partly broken block in his
mind, he remembered what the Songmaster had taught him, again and again, "When you want
to weep, let the tears come through your throat. Let pain come from the pressure in your
thighs. Let sorrow rise and resonate through your head."
Walking by the Susquehanna on the cold lawns of autumn afternoon shade, Ansset
sang his grief. He sang softly, but the guards heard his song, and could not help but weep for
He stopped at a place where the water looked cold and clear, and began to strip off his
tunic, preparing to swim. A guard reached out and stopped him. Ansset noticed the laser
pointed at his foot. "I can't let you do that. Mikal gave orders you were not to be allowed to
take your own life."
"I only want to swim," Ansset answered, his voice low with persuasion.
"I would be killed if any harm came to you," the guard said.
"I give you my oath that I will only swim, and not try to break free."
The guard considered. The other guards seemed content to leave the decision up to
him. Ansset hummed a sweet melody that he knew oozed confidence. The guard gave in.
Ansset stripped and dove into the water. It was icy cold, and stung him. He swam in
broad strokes upstream, knowing that to the guards on the bank he would already seem like
only a speck on the surface of the river. Then he dove and swam under the water, holding his
breath as only a singer or a pearldiver could, and swam across the current toward the near
shore, where the guards were waiting. He could hear, though muffled by the water, the cries
of the guards. He surfaced, laughing.
Two of the guards had already thrown off their boots and were up to their waists in
water, preparing to try to catch Ansset's body as it swept by. But Ansset kept laughing at
them, and they turned at him angrily.
"Why did you worry?" Ansset said. "I gave my word."
Then the guards relaxed, and Ansset swam for an hour under the afternoon sun. The
motion of the water, and constant exertion to keep place against the current took his mind off
his troubles, to some extent. Only one guard watched him now, while the others played
polys, casting fourteen-sided dice in a mad gambling game that soon engrossed them.
Ansset swam underwater from time to time, listening to the different sound the
guards' quarreling and laughing made when water covered his ears. The sun was nearly down,
now, and Ansset dove underwater again to swim to shore on one breath. He was halfway to
shore when he heard the sharp call of a bird overhead, muffled as it was by the river.
Ansset made a sudden connection in his mind, and came up immediately, coughing and
sputtering. He dog-paddled in to shore, shook himself, and put on his tunic, wet as he was.
"We've got to get back to the palace," he said, filling his voice with urgency, putting
the pitch high to penetrate the guards' sluggishness after an hour of gaming. The guards
quickly followed him, overtook him.
"Where are you going?" one of them asked.
"To see Mikal."
"We're not to do that -- we were ordered! You can't go to Mikal."
But Ansset walked on, fairly sure that until he actually got close to the emperor the
guards would not try to restrain him. Even if they had not been present for the
demonstration of Ansset's skill in the Great Hall that morning, the story would surely have
reached their ears that Mikal's Songbird could kill two men in two seconds.
He had heard the call of a bird as he swam underwater. He remembered that on his
last night of captivity in the ship, he had heard the cry of another bird high above him. But
never, never had he hear another sound from outside.
And yet where the flatboat was the city noise had come loudly, could be heard clearly
below decks. Therefore even if the boat was his prison, it had not been moored by that house
And if that were so, the evidence against the former Captain of the Guard was a fraud. And
Ansset knew now who in the court had taken Ansset to use as an assassin.
They were met in a corridor by a messenger. "There you are. The Lord Mikal
commands the presence of the Songbird, as quickly as possible. Here," he said, handing the
orders to the guard who made decisions, who took out his verifier and passed it over the seal
on the orders. A sharp buzz testified that the orders were genuine.
"All right, then, Songbird," said the guard. "We'll go there after all." Ansset started to
run. The guards kept up easily, following him through the labyrinth. To them it was almost
a game, and one of them said, between breaths, "I never knew this way led where we're
going!" to which one of the other guards replied, "And you'll never find it again, either."
And then they were in Mikal's chambers. Ansset's hair was still wet, and his tunic still
clung go his small body where it had not yet had time to dry from the river water.
Mikal was smiling. "Ansset, my Son, it's fine now." Mikal waved an arm, dismissing
the guards. "We were so foolish to think we needed to send you away," he said. "The
Captain was the only one in the plot close enough to give the signal. Now that he's dead, no
one knows it! You're safe now -- and so am I!"
Mikal's speech was jovial, delighted, but Ansset, who knew the songs of his voice as
well as he knew his own, read in the words a warning, a lie, a declaration of danger. Ansset
did not run to him. He waited.
"In fact," Mikal said, "you're my best possible bodyguard. You look small and weak,
you're always by my side, and you can kill faster than a guard with a laser." Mikal laughed.
Ansset forced himself to laugh, too. He listened to the sounds the others were making.
Riktors sounded sincere enough, but the Chamberlain--
"It's a cause for celebration. Here's wine," said the Chamberlain. "I brought us wine.
Ansset, why don't you pour it?"
Ansset shuddered with memories. "I?" he asked, surprised, and then not surprised at
all. The Chamberlain held out the full bottle and the empty goblet. "For the Lord Mikal,"
the Chamberlain said.
Ansset shouted and dashed the bottle to the floor. "Make him keep silent!"
The suddenness of Ansset's violent action brought Riktors's laser out of his belt and
into his hand.
"Don't let the Chamberlain speak!"
"Why not?" asked Mikal innocently, but Ansset knew there was no innocence behind
the words. For some reason Mikal was pretending not to understand.
The Chamberlain believe it, believed he had a moment. He said quickly, almost
urgently, "Why did you do that? I have another bottle. Sweet Songbird, let Mikal drink
The words hammered into Ansset's brain, and by reflex he whirled and faced Mikal.
He knew what was happening, knew and screamed against it in his mind. But his hands came
up against his will, his legs bent, he compressed to spring, all so quickly that he couldn't stop
himself. He knew that in less than a second his hand would be buried in Mikal's face, Mikal's
beloved face, Mikal's smiling face--
Mikal was smiling at him, kindly and without fear. Ansset stopped in mid spring,
forced himself to turn aside, despite the tearing in his brain. He could be forced to kill, but he
couldn't be forced to kill that face. He shoved his hand into the floor, bursting the tense
surface, releasing the gel to flow out across the room.
Ansset hardly noticed the pain in his arm where the impact had broken the skin and
the gel was agonizing the wound. All he felt was the pain in his mind as he still struggled
against the compulsion he had only just barely deflected, that still drove him to try to kill
Mikal, that he still fought against, fought down, tried to block.
His body heaved upward, his hand flew through the air, and shattered the back of the
chair where Mikal still sat. Blood spurted and splashed and Ansset was relieved to see that it
was his own blood, and not Mikal's.
In the distance he heard Mikal's voice saying, "Don't shoot him." And, as suddenly as
it had come, the compulsion ceased. His mind spun as he heard the Chamberlain's words
fading away: "Songbird, what have you done?"
Those were the words that had set him free.
Exhausted and bleeding, Ansset lay on the floor, his right arm covered with blood.
The pain reached him now, and he groaned, though his groan was as much a song of ecstasy as
of pain. Somehow Ansset had withstood it long enough, and he had not killed Father Mikal.
Finally he rolled over and sat up, nursing his arm. The bleeding had settled to a slow
Mikal was still sitting in the chair, despite its shattered back where Ansset's hand had
struck. The Chamberlain stood where he had stood ten seconds before, at the beginning of
Ansset's ordeal, the goblet looking ridiculous in his hand. Riktors's laser was aimed at the
"Call the guards, Captain." Mikal said.
"I already have," Riktors said. The button on his belt was glowing. Guards came
quickly into the room. "Take the Chamberlain to a cell," he ordered them. "If any harm
comes to him, all of you will die and your families, too. Do you understand?" The guards
Ansset held his arm. Mikal and Riktors Ashen waited while a doctor treated it. The
The doctor left.
Riktors spoke first. "Of course you knew it was the Chamberlain, my Lord."
Mikal smiled faintly.
"That was why you let him persuade you to call Ansset back here."
Mikal's smile grew broader.
"But, my Lord, only you could have known that the Songbird would be strong enough
to resist a compulsion that was five months in the making."
Mikal laughed. And this time Ansset heard mirth in the laughter.
"Riktors Ashen. Will they call you Riktors the Usurper? Or Riktors the Great?"
It took the Captain of the Guard a moment to realize what had been said. Only a
moment. But before his hand could reach his laser, which was back in his belt, Mikal's hand
held a laser that was pointed at Riktors's heart.
"Ansset my Son, will you take the Captain's laser from him?"
Ansset got up and took the Captain's laser from him. He could hear the song of
triumph in Mikal's voice. But Ansset's head was still spinning, and he didn't understand why
lasers had been drawn between the emperor and his incorruptible Captain.
"Only one mistake, Riktors. Otherwise brilliantly done. And I really don't see how
you could have avoided the mistake, either."
"You mean Ansset's strength?"
"Not even I counted on that. I was prepared to kill him, if I needed to," Mikal said,
and Ansset, listening, knew it was true. He wondered why that knowledge didn't hurt him.
He had always known that, eventually, not even he would be indispensable to Mikal, if
somehow his death served some vital purpose.
"Then I made no mistakes," Riktors said. "How did you know?"
"Because my Chamberlain, unless he were under some sort of compulsion, would
never have had the courage to suggest your name as the Captain's successor. And without
that, you wouldn't have been in a position to take over after you exposed the Chamberlain as
the engineer of my assassination, would you? It was good. The guard would have followed
you loyally. No taint of assassination would have touched you. Of course, the entire empire
would have rebelled immediately. But you're a good tactician and a better strategist, and your
men would have followed you well. I'd have given you once chance in four of making it --
and that's better odds than any other man in the empire."
"I gave myself even odds," Riktors said, but Ansset heard the fear singing through the
back of his brave words. Well, why not? Death was certain now, and Ansset knew of no one,
except perhaps an old man like Mikal, who could look at death, especially death that also
meant failure, without some fear.
But Mikal did not push the button on the laser.
"Kill me now and finish it," Riktors Ashen said.
Mikal tossed the laser away. "With this? It has no charge. The Chamberlain installed
a charge detector at every door in my chambers over fifteen years ago. He would have known
if I was armed."
Immediately Riktors took a step forward, the beginning of a rush toward the emperor.
Just as quickly Ansset was on his feet, despite the bandaged arm ready to kill with the other
hand, with his feet, with his head. Riktors stopped cold.
"Ah," Mikal said. "No one knows like you do what my bodyguard can accomplish in
so short a time."
And Ansset realized that if Mikal's laser was not loaded, he couldn't have stopped
Ansset if Ansset had not had strength enough to stop himself. Mikal had trusted him.
And Mikal spoke again. "Riktors, your mistakes were very slight. I hope you have
learned from them. So that when an assassin as bright as you are tries to take your life, you
know all the enemies you have and all the allies you can call on and exactly what you can
expect from each."
Ansset's hands trembled. "Let me kill him now," he said.
Mikal sighed. "Don't kill for pleasure, my Son. If you ever kill for pleasure you'll
come to hate yourself. Besides, weren't you listening? I'm going to adopt Riktors Ashen as
"I don't believe you," Riktors said. But Ansset heard hope in his voice.
"I'll call in my sons -- they stay around court, hoping to be closest to the palace when I
die," Mikal said. "I'll make them sign an oath to respect your as my heir. Of course they'll all
sign it, and of course you'll have them all killed the moment you take the throne. And, let's
see, that moment will be three weeks from tomorrow, that should give us time. I'll abdicate
in your favor, sign all the papers, it'll make the headlines on the newsheets for days. I can just
see all the potential rebels tearing their hair with rage. It's a pleasant picture to retire on."
Ansset didn't understand. "Why?" he asked. "He tried to kill you."
Mikal only laughed. It was Riktors who answered. "He thinks I can hold his empire
together. But I want to know the price."
Mikal leaned forward on his chair. "A small price. A house for myself and my
Songbird until I die. And then he is to be free for the rest of his life, with an income that
doesn't make him dependent on anybody's favors. Simple enough?"
"How prudent." And Mikal laughed again.
The vows were made, the abdication and coronation took a great deal of pomp and the
Capital's caterers became wealthy. All the contenders were slaughtered, and Riktors spent a
year going from system to system to quell (brutally) all the rebellions.
After the first few planets were burned over, the other rebellions mostly quelled
It was only the day after the newsheets announced the quelling of the most threatening
rebellion that the soldiers appeared at the door of the little house in Brazil where Mikal and
"How can he!" Ansset cried out in anguish when he saw the soldiers at the door. "He
gave his word."
"Open the door for them, Son," Mikal said.
"They're here to kill you!"
"A year was all that I hoped for. I've had that year. Did you really expect Riktors to
keep his word? There isn't room in the galaxy for two heads that know the feel of the
"I can kill most of them before they could come near. If you hide, perhaps--"
"Don't kill anyone, Ansset. That's not your song. The dance of your hands is nothing
without the dance of your voice, Songbird."
The soldiers began to beat on the door, which, because it was steel, did not give way
easily. "They'll blow it open in a moment," Mikal said. "Promise me you won't kill anyone.
No matter who. Please. Don't avenge me."
"Don't avenge me. Promise. On your life. On your love for me."
Ansset promised. The door blew open. The soldiers killed Mikal with a flash of lasers
that turned his body to ashes. They kept firing until nothing buy ashes was left. Then they
gathered them up. Ansset watched, keeping his promise but wishing with all his heart that
somewhere in his mind there was a wall he could hide behind. Unfortunately, he was too
They took the ashes of the emperor and twelve-year-old Ansset to Capital. The ashes
were placed in a large urn, and displayed with state honors. Ansset they brought to the
funeral feast under heavy guard, for fear of what his hands might do.
After the meal, at which everyone pretended to be somber, Riktors called Ansset to
him. The guards followed, but Riktors waved them away. The crown rested on his hair.
"I know I'm safe from you," Riktors said.
"You're a lying bastard," Ansset said, "and if I hadn't given my word I'd tear you end
It might have seemed ludicrous that a twelve-year-old should speak that way to an
emperor, but Riktors didn't laugh. "If I weren't a lying bastard, Mikal would never have
given the empire to me."
Then Riktors stood. "My friends," he said, and the sycophants gave a cheer. "From
now on I am not to be known as Riktors Ashen, but as Riktors Mikal. The name Mikal shall
pass to all my successors on the throne, in honor of the man who built this empire and
brought peace to all mankind." Riktors sat amid the applause and cheers, which sounded like
some of the people might have been sincere. It was a nice speech, as impromptu speeches
Then Riktors commanded Ansset to sing.
"I'd rather die," Ansset said.
"You will, when the time comes," Riktors answered.
Ansset sang then, standing on the table so that everyone could see him, just as he had
stood to sing to an audience he hated on his last night of captivity in the ship. His song was
wordless, for all the words he might have said were treason. Instead he sang melody, flying
unaccompanied from mode to mode, each note torn from his throat in pain, each note
bringing pain to the ears that heard it. The song broke up the banquet as the grief they had all
pretended to feel now burned within them. Many went home weeping; all felt the great loss
of the man whose ashes dusted the bottom of the urn.
Only Riktors stayed at the table after Ansset's song was over.
"Now," Ansset said, "they'll never forget Father Mikal."
"Or Mikal's Songbird," Riktors said. "But I am Mikal now, as much of him as could
survive. A name and an empire."
"There's nothing of Father Mikal in you," Ansset said coldly.
"Is there not?" Riktors said softly. "Were you fooled by Mikal's public cruelty? No,
Songbird." And in his voice Ansset heard the hints of pain that lay behind the harsh and
"Stay and sing for me, Songbird," Riktors said. Pleading played around the edges of his
Ansset reached out his hand and touched the urn of ashes that rested on the table. "I'll
never love you," he said, meaning the word to hurt.
"Nor I you," Riktors answered. "But we may, nonetheless, feed each other something
that we hunger for. Did Mikal sleep with you?"
"He never wanted to. I never offered."
"Neither will I," Riktors said. "I only want to hear your songs."
There was no voice in Ansset for the word he decided to say. He nodded. Riktors had
the grace not to smile. He just nodded in return, and left the table Before he reached the
doors, Ansset spoke. "What will you do with this?"
Riktors looked at where Ansset rested his hand. "The relics are yours. Do what you
want." Then Riktors Mikal was gone.
Ansset took the urn of ashes into the chamber where he and Father Mikal had sung so
many songs to each other. Ansset stood for a long time before the fire, humming the
memories to himself. He gave the songs back to Father Mikal, and then reached out and
emptied the urn on the blazing fire.
The ashes put the fire out.
"The transition is complete," Songmaster Onn said to Songmaster Esste as soon as the
door was closed.
"I was afraid," Songmaster Esste confided in a low melody that trembled. "Riktors
Ashen is not unwise. But Ansset's songs are stronger than wisdom."
They sat together in the cold sunlight that filtered through the windows of the High
Room of the Songhouse. "Ah," sang Songmaster Onn, and the melody was of love for
"Don't praise me. The gift and power were Ansset's."
"But the teacher was Esste. In other hands Ansset might have been used as tool for
power, for wealth, for control. In your hands--"
"No, Brother Onn. Ansset himself is too much made of love and loyalty. He makes
other men desire what he himself already is. He is a tool that cannot be used for evil."
"Will he ever know?"
"Perhaps; I do not think he yet suspects the power of his gift. It would be better if he
never found out how little like the other Songbirds he is. And as for the last block in his
mind -- we laid that well. He will never know it is there, and so he will never search for the
truth about who controlled the transfer of the crown."
Songmaster Onn sang tremulously of the delicate plots woven in the mind of a child of
five, plots that could have unwoven at any point. "But the weaver was wise, and the cloth has
"Mikal Conqueror," said Songmaster Esste, "learned to love peace more than he loved
himself, and so will Riktors Mikal. That is enough. We have done our duty for mankind.
Now we must teach other little Songbirds."
"Only the old songs," signed Songmaster Onn.
"No," answered Songmaster Esste with a smile. "We will teach them to sing of Mikal's
"Ansset has already sung that."
They walked slowly out of the High Room as Songmaster Esste whispered, "Then we
will harmonize!" Their laughter was music down the stairs.
Ender's Game, Mikal's Songbird, and Prentice Alvin and the No-Good Plow
These works share a common fate -- they were killed commercially by the
publication of a novel that superseded them. Not long ago I wrote an essay about this
process for Foundation, a British literary journal about speculative fiction, and that
essay will serve as a complete afterword to those stories in this collection. So here it is:
I never set out on a regular program of turning my old novelets and novellas into
novels. At the time I wrote most of my shorter works, I thought they were just right at
that length. Yet somehow the expansion of old stories has become a regular feature of
My novel Songmaster was built from the novelet "Mikal's Songbird." Hart's Hope
began life as a novella of the same name. Wyrms was originally written as the novella
"Unwyrm." Eight years before Ender's Game was published as a novel, the novelet of
that name was my first published science fiction story.
In fact, I've gone even further -- I find myself revising my old books. My first
novel, Hot Sleep, and my first book, the collection Capitol, were replaced by the 1983
novel The Worthing Chronicle; it, in turn, will be included in the megabook Worthing
Complete sometime in the next few years. Recently St. Martin's Press brought out
Treason, a reworking of my second novel, A Planet Called Treason.
What's going on here? Is all this meddling with dead works a sort of resurrection
or is it literary necrophilia? Am I making silk purses out of sows' ears, or am I so short
of new ideas that I have to go back to what I did in bygone years? Am I a modest
fellow who, in learning new skills, discovers the inadequacies of early work and tries to
repair them, or am I so narcissistic that I find my past works too fascinating to ignore?
Maybe all of those things, or none of them. Each one of these expansions and
rewrites came about in its own way, not because of any plan of mine, so I doubt they
have any meaning in the aggregate. But perhaps an account of how these stories were
transformed over time will have some value in understanding why they are the way they
Songmaster. Barbara Bova had just become my agent, and I hadn't sent her
anything of novel length to sell. She was not deterred -- I got a phone call from her
saying that she had just received a decent offer from a publisher for the novel version of
my novelet "Mikal's Songbird," which was at the time nominated for the Hugo and
"What novel version?" I said.
"Well, that's the problem," said she. "I need a few paragraphs from you telling
how you'll change it to make it a novel."
"But it's a novelet. It's finished."
"Think about it for a while, dear. Maybe you'll find a novel in there somewhere.
If you don't, I'll just turn down this very nice offer."
Now, you must understand -- I don't automatically say yes just because I'm
offered money. I had already turned down a request for a sequel to A Planet Called
Treason because I couldn't think of an adequate storyline, and I fully expected to do the
same with this proposal.
I thought back over what happened in "Mikal's Songbird" and tried to find a hook
where I could hang new story elements. I rejected at once the idea of using the same
plot and simply taking more words to tell it -- I loathe excess description and empty
writing. Besides, the world of "Mikal's Songbird" was very sketchy and not terribly
interesting. Nor could I think of a subplot that would add meaningful pages.
Then I realized that there might be something worth exploring in how Ansset
became a Songbird. The Songhouse might be developed into a strange and
fascinating milieu. I knew at once that it should be a sort of medieval monastery, at
once a retreat and a school, a place where souls are saved -- and maimed.
Looking back, I can see now that part of my fascination with the Songhouse was
a desire to explore the relationship between the individual and a highly demanding and
rewarding community, which in my case meant the Mormon Church. While Mormonism
has no monastic tradition, a good case could be made for the idea that the whole
church is a kind of monastery, insulating its members from the world behind walls, not
of stone, but of culture.
At the time, however, it just seemed like a pretty good science fiction idea -- one
that I could hang a novel on. At the same time, it involved a structural insight that I
have used to good effect many times since: When expanding a short work into a long
one, the place to go for new material isn't after the initial short story, but before it. By
starting much earlier, and explaining how the characters got to where they are at the
beginning of the short story, the milieu is much richer, the cast of characters much
fuller, the characterization much deeper than it was in the original story.
Much outlining and map-drawing later, I sat down and began writing. The first
section, in the Songhouse, grew to be much longer than I had expected. When it was
done, I realized that it could stand alone quite nicely, so I sent it to Barbara, who sold it
as a separate novella to Stan Schmidt, then quite new as editor of Analog. Word for
word, it was identical with the opening chapters of Songmaster; as with the recent
publication of sections of the Tales of Alvin Maker as separate stories, the novella
"Songhouse" was a case of excerpting from a novel, not expanding a short work after
By the time I got to the events of the original novelet the milieu and characters
had grown and changed so much that hardly a word of "Mikal's Songbird" was usable.
Events had new meanings; characters had different things to think and say. This first
time, it was quite wrenching for me to throw out the entire text of a story that had been,
after all, quite successful. But it had to be done if the novel was to have any integrity.
Songmaster ended up with some serious structural flaws -- for instance, the
"Kyaren" section lags quite badly and the novel seems to end when Ansset becomes
emperor, so that readers often find it hard to figure out why there are still so many
pages left. But these are the product of my unfamiliarity with the novel form, not the
fact that Songmaster was an expansion. Despite its flaws, in fact, Songmaster is my
earliest novel that I am willing to stand by in its original form, so that the editing I did in
preparation for TOR's recent reprint was on the level of tinkering with style. The
structure has problems, but I'm willing to live with them, because the story still feels true
to me as it stands, even if it isn't as artful as I'd like.
Derivations. In a way, "Mikal's Songbird" was an adaptation right from the start.
The novelet was only my fourth science fiction sale. "Ender's Game" had been the first,
a story that was quite easy to write. My next story died instantly; my third and fourth,
"Follower" and "Malpractice," sold -- but only with strong editorial suggestions from Ben
Bova at Analog. The next few stories I wrote, however, went nowhere -- they were so
bad that not only did no one buy them, but also one editor sent me an incredible two-page letter that can only be classed as hate-mail, and followed up by reviewing one of
those unpublishable stories in a fanzine! These stories were so bad that someone had
to drive a stake through their hearts, just to make sure they didn't rise again.
And I was afraid. Though I had done quite well as a playwright in the Mormon
theatre scene in Utah, I had no guarantee that I'd have a career in a genre that actually
paid writers enough to live on. To me, at that bleak moment, it looked as though
"Ender's Game" might be the only successful story I'd ever write.
But I was determined to try again. This time, though, I went back to "Ender's
Game" and tried to determine what it was about that story that worked. In my
ignorance, I saw only the most superficial strengths of the story: The hero was a child
with extraordinary ability, who goes through a great deal of personal pain inflicted by
adults who are trying to exploit him. Maybe this was a pattern I could use again,
There were other patterns, of course, that I might have followed: The success of
"Ender's Game" might have led me to write more military-training stories, for instance,
or I might even have attempted a sequel at that time. Instead, true to a view of
storytelling that I did not become conscious of until long after, I looked to the character's
role in his community in order to find the essence of the tale.
I should point out, too, that I thought of "Ender's Game" as a successful story
only in an artistic sense -- I knew it worked, but because it had not yet been published,
I had no idea whether it would be popular.
When I set out to follow that same pattern, I knew I had to come up with another
way for my new child-hero to be exceptional. I'd used military talent with Ender; why
not musical ability for my new hero? From there it was a fairly simple matter to come
up with Ansset, Mikal's Songbird; though the plot doesn't follow "Ender's Game," the
lifeline of the character certainly does.
I wrote "Mikal's Songbird" quickly, and knew all through it that this story was alive
the way "Ender's Game" had been alive. It was still hot from xeroxing when I stuffed it
into an envelope and mailed it to Ben Bova.
A couple of days later, though, in rereading the story, I knew that there were
serious problems. This didn't bother me -- I was excited about the fact that for the first
time I actually understood narrative well enough to see the flaws. So I did a substantial
revision of the story, and then sent the new version to Ben, with a letter asking him to
toss the first version and look only at this one.
Within a few days I got a check. Ben had bought the first version, flaws and all.
At that moment I knew I had a career -- not because I had found a repeatable formula,
but for in fact I had not; rather because I had found a road into that place inside myself
from which true stories arose. For a long time my stories have grown out of childhood
and adolescence, probably because that was the role in life that I best understood -- it
was not until Speaker for the Dead that I was able to work with truly adult characters,
and even then the story was heavily populated with unusual children.
Schooling Myself. What Ben ended up publishing was, of course, the revised
version of the story -- he had simply bought the first version before the second one
arrived. From the start, however, and at every step thereafter, the story of Ansset was
continuously derived from previous versions, expanding and growing every time I went
back to it. Every version represents another stage in my self-schooling as a writer of
Even in the writing of the novel Songmaster, I was consciously "at school." I
knew that Hot Sleep was a failure as a novel (though, ironically, it remained my best-selling book until the publication of the novel Ender's Game); in order to overcome my
dread of a novel's sheer length, I had conceived Hot Sleep as a series of novelets, not
a true novel. I was also beginning to realize that A Planet Called Treason was rushed,
sketchy, abrupt, not a smoothly flowing work. In other words, I still didn't know how to
write a novel.
In order to try to understand how a novel worked, I carefully examined Saul
Bellow's Humboldt's Gift. I ended up, alas, with little intellectual understanding of the
novel form, but the sheer reading of the book gave me a feel for a novel's pace. It was
as if reading Humboldt's Gift set my metabolic rate; then, when I sat down to work on
Songmaster, I was able to keep up that same rhythm of event, language, and scene.
No one reading my work will ever accuse me of being Bellowesque; nevertheless, his
novel was my touchstone in discovering how to write a true novel.
As a result, Songmaster was my one story with explicit connections with other
works, a clear pattern of growth and change that paralleled my own. Expanding it to a
novel may have come from a commercially-minded editor's suggestion to my agent,
and my own source for the story's idea may have been a deliberate mining of my own
previous work, but it ended up as a story I believed in passionately -- and the process
of writing it was a kind of training ground for my career as a writer, just as my
characters Ender and Ansset had to go through training to become a person capable of
Hart's Hope and Wyrms. The next "short" work I adapted into a novel followed
quite a different pattern. Roy Torgeson had asked me for a fantasy story for his
Chrysalis anthology series, and I began developing Hart's Hope from a map I had
doodled and an idea about somebody whose magical power was the negation of magic.
The story grew in the back of my mind while I worked on finishing the first draft of my
novel Saints and a production revision of my historical Mormon play Father, Mother,
Mother, and Mom; when Saints and FMM&M were finished, I turned with relief to a
fantasy tale as an antidote to the rigors of historical writing. However, having just
finished a sprawling novel of a thousand pages, it's hardly a surprise that Hart's Hope
began growing out of control. Before I had finished the novella, I knew exactly how to
turn it into a novel; I sent a copy to Barbara at the same time as my submission to Roy,
and she soon sold it as a prospectus for a novel. While the novel version went through
a couple of major rewrites over a period of years before it finally was published in 1983,
it remained substantially the same story as the novella -- the novel was not so much an
expansion of the novella as the novella was a compression of the novel.
The same is true of the novel Wyrms and the novella "Unwyrm." I was writing
"Unwyrm" for George R.R. Martin's Campbell-nominee anthology series, and as I wrote
it I discovered that it simply would not stay under 40,000 words. The novella that
George ended up buying was a cut-down version that removed several important
plotlines; I finished the novel version only a few weeks after the novella. (The collapse
of Blue Jay Books killed the anthology, so that "Unwyrm" never appeared in print.)
So neither Hart's Hope nor Wyrms represents an expansion on the order of
Songmaster. The "short" version in both cases was very long, and in both cases I knew
it would be a novel before the novella was completed.
Ender's Game. The novel Ender's Game is the only work of mine, besides
Songmaster, that was truly expanded from a short work that I had not intended to
expand. Indeed, I had never expected to do anything with Ender Wiggin again. A
friend had once urged me to write a sequel to "Ender's Game," but when he suggested
possible storylines, they were lame enough to convince me that a sequel was
In 1980, though, I was beginning to work with a novel idea with the working title
Speaker of Death, a sketchy idea about an alien people who periodically mauled each
other in devastating wars that were, without their realizing it, their means of
reproduction. The truth would be discovered by a human character whose job was
speaking the truth about people at funerals. I couldn't make the idea work, however,
until suddenly it dawned on me that the Speaker should be Ender Wiggin as an adult.
Who better to understand the impulse that made a species nearly destroy itself than a
man who had once inadvertently destroyed another people?
At once the work began to come to life. In 1982 an outline was ready to offer to
a publisher. It was explicitly a sequel to "Ender's Game," which remained my most
popular -- most anthologized -- story. Barbara offered it to Tom Doherty, the former
publisher at Ace who was starting his own company. For financing reasons I got a
request to hurry and write a draft of the book before the end of 1982; I complied, but in
the process learned that this was going to be harder to write than I supposed. There
was more to my story than one human and a bunch of aliens. I was getting involved in
creating a human family in whose lives Ender was becoming deeply involved. And the
story simply wasn't working. I didn't know how to write it.
A few months later, I realized why. In order to make Ender viable as a character
in Speaker of Death, I had to expand on the meaning of the events in "Ender's Game."
I had to deal with the transformation of Ender Wiggin in the aftermath of his xenocide.
And to do that in Speaker of Death meant picking up the story right at the end of
"Ender's Game," showing Ender's self-discovery and his transformation into a Speaker.
Then I'd have to skip three thousand years and begin an entirely new storyline. It was
So when I happened to run into Tom Doherty at the ABA in Dallas in the spring
of 1983, on impulse I proposed to him that instead of the horribly deformed Speaker
that was emerging, all the problems would be solved if I went back and rewrote
"Ender's Game" as a novel, incorporating into it all the changes that were needed to
properly set up Speaker. Tom promptly agreed, and on a handshake I was committed
to my second expansion of a novelet into a novel.
Just as I had studied "Ender's Game" in order to write "Mikal's Songbird," now I
recalled my experience with Songmaster in order to figure out how to write Ender's
Game. I decided at once to begin Ender's Game much earlier than the novelet -- to
start when Ender was still with his family.
In a way, this was analogous to starting Songmaster when Ansset was in the
Songhouse; but it was also a radical departure, because instead of having a protagonist
who was completely cut off from his family -- the standard adolescent hero of most
Romance -- I was now committed to creating a hero whose connections to his family
were still very much alive. I hardly knew how to begin; and so I mined my own life,
looking back at my relationship with my older brother and sister as I had thought it was
when I was about ten years old, then exaggerating it extravagantly in order to make it a
justification for much of Ender's behavior later on. (I couldn't very well use my
childhood as it actually was, since my actual childhood produced, not a twisted military
genius, but rather a bookish homebody.)
As with Songmaster, by the time I got back to the point where the novelet should
have been inserted into the novel, the character and milieu had changed so much that
only the first sentence of the novelet was usable: "Remember, the enemy's gate is
down." However, I felt not a qualm about losing the novelet itself -- I had known all
along that it would be unusable because of my experience with Songmaster. In fact, I
was delighted, because this proved that there was far more going on in the novel than I
had ever conceived of when writing the novelet. And when I got to the payoff scene,
where Ender discovers that he has been fighting the real war, not a simulation, I knew
that there was still one more payoff to go -- the final chapter, entitled "Speaker for the
Ironically, though, this duplicated one of the structural flaws in Songmaster --
once again, few readers could understand why there were still so many pages left when
the story was clearly over. Even this flaw didn't bother me. I had a master's degree in
English by now, so I knew how to excuse it in literary terms: I was making the reader
go through the same kind of revision of the meaning of the story's past that Ender went
through. Ah, how the tools of criticism allow us to justify the lapses of our art!
Other Adaptations. Besides expansions of short works to make novels, I have
also revised my first two novels. Part of my motive was simple literary self-defense --
by revising them, I disarm critics who are apt to scorn them, because I in effect am
saying, "I know they weren't all that good." But much more important to me was the fact
that I still cared about the stories. Jason Worthing and Abner Doon of the Worthing
stories and Lanik Mueller of A Planet Called Treason were once important enough to
me that I wrote books about them; just because I now knew more about writing books
didn't mean that I should care less about the stories I had told back when I was a
Hot Sleep and Capitol, I felt, were bad enough that the need to fix it was almost
an emergency. Even though it was still in print and still selling rather well, I was able to
persuade Susan Allison (then editor at Ace -- and now named Susan Stone) to
withdraw both books and allow me to replace them with a single work to be called The
Worthing Chronicle. Little did she know how hopelessly uncommercial the result would
be -- but I still regard it as one of my best works.
The flaws in Hot Sleep had arisen from my feeble attempts to control the vast
sweep of time involved in the story. With The Worthing Chronicle, I unified the story by
containing it within a frame, the story of a village whose life had been deeply affected
by the outcome of the whole Worthing story. In effect, the new novel was the story of
how people are transformed by stories -- a circularity that still delights me. It's a series
of fictions and dreams and memories all bound up so closely together that it's
impossible even within the story to say what is real and what is not. The process of
adaptation was exhilarating -- but, as with Songmaster and as would later be true with
Ender's Game, hardly a sentence from the original books remained in the new version.
Indeed, if there is anything that I think is the key to successfully transforming one
version of a story into another, it is to completely discard the first text and develop a
new text that contains the same story -- the same causally-related events -- but
enriches them with new characters and relationships, new and richer milieux, and many
more ideas than the original version contained.
That's why I was so frustrated by the fact that St. Martin's Press, in its eagerness
to capitalize on the commercial success of Ender's Game, insisted on going back to
press with a new printing of A Planet Called Treason before I had time to write a
completely new version. I had long harbored an ambition to return to the tale of Lanik
Mueller, but this time tell it in third person, with many more characters and subplots that
would make it one of my deepest novels instead of the shallowest. To my outrage at
the time, Thomas Dunne would not relent and allow me time to do the ideal version of
the book. Instead, all I had time to do was revise the opening and edit heavily
throughout the book. The result was a novel that, while no longer embarrassing, was
far short of the ideal that I had harbored in my imagination. The book remained in first
person and continued to follow the same narrative line, with no new characters or
events. It was and remains quite frustrating, but at present I have no plans to go back
and revise it ever again -- if for no other reason than because there is no reversion
clause in my contract with St. Martin's (the result of signing a contract as a naive youth
without an agent), so that the same publisher would own any revision of the book.
Besides, a third version of the same book is certainly too absurd too contemplate.
The Abyss. My only other venture into expanding a shorter work was my
novelization of James Cameron's film The Abyss. The problems of novelizing a
screenplay are enormous -- they are made virtually hopeless in most cases by the fact
that the novelizer is forced to work from the screenplay, which is not a viable story. A
screenplay is only a plan for a work of art, like a fresco painter's cartoon; it is not until
director and actors interpret the script that it becomes a finished story.
The only reason I agreed to do the novelization was because Jim Cameron was
as determined as I was to make the novel a viable work of art in its own right. Unlike
most novelizers, I had complete access to the film itself, and to all of the screenwriter's
research material. Even more important, however, was the fact that Cameron allowed
me to do to his screenplay what I had done to "Ender's Game" and "Mikal's Songbird" in
order to expand them -- I went back before the beginning of the original story and
developed the earlier lives of the characters.
This time, however, I could not go as far as I had with my own work, if only
because when I got to the point where the film began, the words and events of the film
had to be used. Nevertheless, my preliminary chapters (including a chapter about the
early life of a non-human character that quite properly did not end up in the final book)
became the heart of the novel.
When I gave the early chapters to Cameron, he immediately called them
"backstory," the information about characters that never shows up in a film. I was
content to have him regard those chapters that way. After all, he liked them well
enough that he showed them to the actors, allowing them to help shape their thinking
about their roles. But to me, they were not "background" at all. Instead, they set up
fundamental questions in the readers' minds, questions that are not resolved until the
end of the book. The film is structured as an adventure story that is taken over by the
strong relationship story contained within it. My novel, however, is structured as a
character story from the beginning, so that to me, at least, the novel is truer to the tale
both Cameron and I wanted to tell than the film is.
I don't call this a flaw in the film, but rather a limitation of the cinematic form; and
Cameron would certainly dispute my conclusion that the book is "truer." Perhaps this
idea is merely my way of making the book my own even though the bulk of it is a
retelling of someone else's story. One thing is certain, however -- if this novel
transcends the limitations of most novelizations, it is because I went back to the time
before the story and added new material that transforms the meaning of the events in
the film when we finally come to them.
Alvin Maker. Even my Tales of Alvin Maker -- Seventh Son, Red Prophet,
Prentice Alvin, and the yet-unpublished Alvin Journeyman and Master Alvin -- began
as a shorter work. As I studied the works of Spenser with Norman Council at the
University of Utah, I determined to attempt for my people something of what he
accomplished for his: create a verse epic in the vernacular. Of course it was a mad
enterprise from the start. Who reads long poems anymore, especially narrative poems?
Especially poems written in a folksy mountain-country voice: "Alvin, he was the
blacksmith's no-good prentice boy . . ." But there's something about great works of art
that make the beholder long to go and do likewise. In awe of Spenser, and yet
ambitious to learn from him, I got many stanzas into the story, until I reached a sort of
conclusion when Alvin and his friend Verily Cooper tried out Al's golden plow in the rich
soil near the banks of the Mizzippy. At that point, exhausted, I set the poem aside,
uncertain where the story should go from there.
Though "Prentice Alvin and the No-Good Plow" won a state fine arts contest, I
never did get back to the poem, except to revise it for forthcoming publication in a
Mormon journal. Still, the story of it hung with me, in part because, in true Spenserian
manner, it is an elaborate allegory for some of the most important tales of the epic of
my own people; in part because I fell in love with that hill-country voice and the
American frontier magic I had devised for the story. Here was a fantasy that was
completely American -- no elves, no dragons, no European spells or witchery, and the
setting was a log cabin, not a castle, and the people wore homespun and hunted with
muskets instead of donning armor to go a-tilting with lance and sword. I wanted to go
back and finish it.
The opportunity came in 1983, when I finally realized that while long narrative
poems have no particular audience, long fantasy novels -- or trilogies -- do. The
language would be daring, for fantasy, as would the setting, but at least the ordinary-looking paragraphs between ordinary-looking book covers would reassure the audience
that this story would be accessible.
I wrote an extended outline of the trilogy (supposedly starting with Prentice Alvin)
and sent it to Barbara. As in every other expansion and adaptation, I started the longer
version before the beginning of the original story. I didn't dream at the time that I
wouldn't reach the events of the narrative poem until the middle of the third volume, but
by the time I finished Prentice Alvin in 1988, the world had grown so full and the
characters so numerous that at times I despaired of containing the whole thing in any
finite number of books.
Nevertheless, it was the story that I had begun back in graduate school, even
though the text had changed, the characters had been transformed, and the world had
grown wider and stranger than I had ever imagined at first. Yet it's hard for me to
imagine that I ever thought the story was complete, as far as it went. There was so
much more possibility; in writing the first version of it I had thought I was completing the
story, but in fact I was merely essaying the first rough draft, the first bare outline of what
the tale could be.
I think perhaps that's the case with all my work. At the time I write it, I think it's
complete, I think I have discovered all its possibilities and now am sharing them with an
audience. But the stories that are best, that are most alive to me, I can't leave them
alone. They keep growing whether I like it or not. I keep imagining them without regard
for the fact that they have already been written down, published, reviewed, and
I'm not "expanding" shorter works at all, I think. I'm merely returning to
unfinished acts of imagination, warming myself at fires that only burn the hotter for
having lain dormant during all the intervening years. Each tale finds its own occasion to
come to life and grow again, and what I've been learning is not so much how to expand
novelets as how to tell stories more fully than ever before.
Does the process end? I'd like to think so. There are plenty of new stories to
tell, and I don't have any older works that cry out to me for further development.
Except that I just finished a short story called "Lost Boys" that I once envisioned
as a novel of contemporary horror. Since it's the most autobiographical piece I've ever
written, I know I could expand on it considerably simply by mining my own life -- and so
who knows? Maybe a trend that began quite accidentally will continue deliberately.
Copyright © 1990 Orson Scott Card