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Authors: Sheri S. Tepper

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BOOK: Raising The Stones
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One of the younger prophets had drawn near, and he laid an admonitory hand on Phaed’s shoulder.
“Our
doing, Phaed Girat.”

“You’ve brought her to Ahabar?” Phaed breathed, incredulous. “Why in hell?”

The prophet became threatening. “Enough reason to say the Awateh desired it.”

“Why!” Phaed demanded. “Desired it why?”

“She is to become the symbol of return for the women of Voorstod,” the prophet said stiffly. “If the Sweet Singer returns, so may others.”

Phaed turned away. Jep saw his lips. They did not say the word aloud, but they shaped it several times. “Fool, fool, fool.”

“We didn’t want to tell you until it was time,” whispered Epheron to Phaed. “We didn’t want you bothered.”

“Idiot,” hissed Phaed. “Slob-lipped, turd-sucking idiot!”

Epheron’s face became dead pale, but he turned away with an apprehensive glance at the prophet.

On the stage, the bemedaled officer leaned across Saturday to speak to Maire.

“Karth,” Preu Flandry hissed in a carrying whisper. “Commander Karth.”

“What’s he doing with her?” the prophet asked. “And what’s the woman doing there? She wasn’t supposed to be there! When this was planned, she was expected to come here, to Voorstod!”

The men looked at one another, shrugging.

“Who’s that with her, boy?” demanded Mugal Pye of Jep.

“Topman Sam Girat,” said Jep. “Maire Girat’s son. And the girl is my cousin, Saturday Wilm.”

“Who’s the other girl?”

“I don’t know.” There was another girl, talking to Saturday.

“Why are Sam Girat and your cousin there? Why?”

“Probably to keep Maire company,” said Jep. “She probably didn’t want to come alone.” His heart told him she hadn’t wanted to come back at all, that his capture had brought her.

“Maire’s gotten fatter,” mused Phaed, staring at the stage. She was stouter than he remembered her, but she was still, he thought, a fine woman. Her skin was smooth, her eyes clear, her hair a wealth and a treasure. The bright garments were flattering to her. Something old and mostly forgotten stirred deep inside him. “She’s gotten fatter,” he whispered again, almost fondly.

“She’s older,” said Mugal Pye, angrily.

“She doesn’t look quite like herself, I mean,” said Phaed softly. “My son’s a fine man, isn’t he. But she doesn’t look like the Sweet Singer I remember.”

“The Singer was a young woman. It’s been thirty years,” said Epheron. “What did you expect?”

“What did
you
expect?” snarled Phaed. “You’re the fools who brought her here.”

“We expect she’ll do what we need done. We’ve got it all planned,” said Preu. “Doesn’t matter what she looks like. Or sounds like. It’s her being here in Voorstod that’s important.”

“She’s not here yet. You still think she’ll come?”

“She’s on her way here,” said Epheron. “What do you mean, Phaed! We’ll send out the boy, she’ll come in. Even the prophet thinks so.”

“The boy?”

Epheron pointed at Jep. “This is your grandson, Phaed Girat. It’s how we got the woman here.”

Phaed scarcely glanced at Jep as he sneered at Epheron, shaking his head.

“What’s the trouble?” Preu asked.

Phaed pointed at the stage, where the concert hall was almost completely filled. “None of you expected her to be there, did you? In that particular company? You expected her to be here, where she would see nothing, hear nothing you didn’t control. But where is she now? This minute, where is she? She’s in that concert hall, across from Queen Willy, beside the Commander of the army, where the Gharm’s going to
play the harp
. I ask again, you think Maire’ll come to Voorstod? After what’s been planned?” Phaed was snarling like an animal. He turned back to the stage and stared at it ravenously.

Jep kept his head down, his body quiet, attracting no attention. This man was, by the tenets of Voorstod, his granddaddy. This man had been Maire Girat’s husband, and he had obviously not forgotten her. As for the rest, Jep had no idea what was going on, except that something had slipped up, somewhere along the line. Some plan had gone awry. They had not planned on Maire Manone being at this celebratory concert. Something was going to happen at the concert that Maire Manone was not supposed to see.

THREE

 

Maire and Saturday
were well-dressed at the concert because they had been escorted to a shop by the Commander’s daughter, Eline, where they had selected clothing with Eline’s help and at Ahabar’s expense.

“It’s the Queen’s wish,” Eline had said. “She knows why you’re here. She knows what those vile men in Voorstod have done. She wants you to have a pleasant evening before you have to go there and struggle with those … those …” She shut her mouth grimly, and nodded her thanks to the young woman who was running a heat-seamer along the garments they had chosen, taking them in to fit. “She thought you’d have more fun if you had some Ahabarian clothes. We’ve become very dress conscious here in Fenice. It’s an affectation we’ve adopted from Phansure, this concentration on style and fashion. Unimportant in itself, but we enjoy it, the men as well as the women.”

“It is kind of the Queen,” Maire had said, ignoring nine-tenths of the girl’s chatter. She supposed it was kind of the Queen. Queens could be kind, like anyone else, or think they were. Maire had no wish at all to attend a concert, to appear in public, to see or be seen. Mostly she felt inclined to slink or skulk, to be hidden in some dark corner from which she could spy out whatever trouble was coming, for she felt trouble, as she could sometimes feel a thunderstorm gathering. The air prickled, and her eyes itched.

Saturday, who had said nothing during the shopping expedition, who had tried not even to hear the conversation, laid her cheek against the warm red gown she had chosen and wished more than anything that Jep could see her wearing this dress.

She was dragged out of her reverie by Eline’s hand on her shoulder.

“You’re sure now?” Eline asked her, pointing at another dress, a blue one, with a low-cut neck.

“I’m sure,” said Saturday. Her chemise would show at the neck of the low-cut gown, and she dared not lay the chemise aside until she no longer needed it. Besides, she hadn’t enough breasts yet to go wearing nakedy things. And the red dress was prettier. It was softer and moved like leaves in the wind.

Maire noticed Saturday’s eyes, dreaming and eager. Interesting, she thought, what pretty gowns could do to raise one’s spirits. Would women face death and danger with more aplomb if they could wear beautiful gowns? Perhaps she and Saturday had better wear these dresses when they went to Voorstod, to encourage themselves. But, no. No. The prophets would surely condemn any woman who looked pretty. Women were sinks of sin. They weren’t supposed to look pretty.

They went back through carnival-crowded streets to their hotel, where the Commander, his daughter, and the young subaltern met them for an evening meal. By the time they finished eating, the streets had cleared a little, and they walked among a cluster of guards the short distance to the concert hall. Their place was at the side of the orchestra, at the same level, in comfortable chairs, two rows of three each, separated from the performance platform and the rest of the audience by a low, gilded railing. At their left was another, similar enclosure.

“The Queen will sit there,” the Commander said, pointing to a larger enclosure directly opposite the place they sat. The great lacquered and inlaid Gharm-harp stood between where they were and where the Queen would be, with the chairs of the orchestra arranged in a crescent to the right of it.

Saturday peered at the platform, a little giddy from the unaccustomed wine she had drunk at dinner. It seemed abandoned rather than expectant. The chairs were empty, the music stages turned off so that their lightless frameworks stood like angular skeletons. It was like a battlefield on which an army had fought and been vanquished, leaving only bones. Not a pleasant mental picture. She turned resolutely toward the audience. There, among people, was movement and life. She kept her attention on the movement, on the chatter, on the laughter.

Beside her, Maire watched her with a slightly troubled frown. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“Things keep pushing in,” whispered Saturday. “But Fm keeping them out.”

Maire squeezed her hand. Oh, yes. Things did indeed keep pushing in.

“We are being greatly honored,” said Eline. “These seats are always reserved for the Queen’s guests. I’ve never been so close to the stage. Usually I sit up there with my friends,” and she gestured toward the heavens. “Way up, where the students sit.”

High above them faces seemed to cluster against the ceiling like fruits on a tree, pale blobs, mouths opening and shutting among the rustle and flutter of paper programs.

“For this special occasion, the Queen ordered programs printed upon fine paper,” said the Commander, passing to each of them a folder with a golden cord and tassels and the great seal of Ahabar on the front. “They are to serve as souvenirs of the occasion.”

Sam was between the Commander and the subaltern in the back row, behind the women. Since afternoon, when the subaltern had taken him shopping, he had been delighting in the joyous hubbub of Ahabar. People everywhere. Vehicles everywhere. Laughter and music and

plauded. The conductor bowed as the orchestra settled itself. A door at the back of the Queen’s section opened, and Queen Wilhulmia was suddenly before them, standing between her two sons, her hands raised, smiling broadly. The audience cheered as it stood, the orchestra played the royal anthem, everyone sang. Then everyone sat down again, rustling, the lights dimmed, and Stenta Thilion came onto the stage.

How tiny she was. Like a child, and yet with nothing childish in her manner. Her walk was dignified, her face calm. Her dress glittered, throwing light into every corner of the hall. Her sleeves were deep banners that folded on the floor when she bowed to the Queen, then unfolded into glorious flags when she held out her arms and looked up, up at the highest seats, against the ceiling, where there were Gharm gathered by the hundreds, cheering.

They cheered, the audience cheered, applauded, Stenta Thilion bowed again, the deep sleeves falling in graceful folds upon the floor.

Silence then. She sat at the harp and held out her arms to either side, a beautifully theatrical gesture. A dark-clad attendant came in and unfastened the sleeves, folded them slowly, carried them away. Now people could see Stenta’s slender arms clad in scarlet silk, her gemmed bracelets, the narrow, long-fingered hands. She smiled at the conductor and nodded her head.

And began magic.

There was not a sound in the hall except the sound of music. There was not a cough, not a whisper, not the sound of a shoe scuffing against the floor. The audience sat as though enchanted.

The opening movement began, light as wind. Stenta’s hands and arms moved delicately, swiftly. The wind stopped and something slower, more somber began. Stenta’s foot went down, and augmented bass notes marched into the hall, an army, an army with the wind following, blowing it along.

A murmur went through the audience, a sigh of appreciation. Those who knew harp music knew what she had just done was impossible. Those who did not know harp music knew what she had done was beautiful. The Queen was leaning forward, her elbow on the railing, her hand supporting her head, unconscious of the royal dignity, her face soft.

The bass notes again, a horn announced a new theme.

I know that, Saturday thought. That’s a song Maire taught me. It was a battle hymn, martial and rousing.

The theme built toward a climax. The drums began. The horns in chorus, carefully, not for one moment drowning out the harp. A red-clad man picked up the great brass cymbals and held them above his head. Light danced across them, shivering.

The music built, and built, the cymbals shivered, and at last the climax came as they struck together with a great, brazen sound …

People rising, screaming, crying out at what they saw upon the stage. Maire breathed a word and was over the railing, running toward the tiny woman, the tiny woman who held out her arms and watched the blood fountaining from her wrists, the tiny woman who suddenly had no hands.

The Commander followed Maire. The Queen had been pulled out of her seat and drawn back through the door by watchful guards. The hall was on its feet, beginning to scream, beginning to flee. Maire turned toward Saturday and shouted for her to come, and Saturday was running, listening, the conductor was there, nodding, shouting to his musicians, and then Saturday was at the center of the stage, singing, singing, while behind her Maire and the Commander fought to save the life of Stenta Thilion.

The orchestra played the battle hymn, one Saturday knew, for Maire had taught it to her. Saturday’s voice soared above the confusion like a trumpet calling men to battle. The noise in the hall stopped. Men stood and began to sing. This was a song they knew, one they had marched to, one they had known since they were children. Women sang. High along the walls, the Gharm sang. The huge hall howled with sound, as every voice joined until there was only one huge unison chorus of outrage and fury and determination over the body lying so quietly and the two working over it and the Gharm gathered weeping around them.

•     •     •


In the castle
of the Cause, above Cloudport, there was laughter when the cymbal crashed. Men had been waiting for that crash, tossing their heads to make their coup markers flutter, nudging one another as the time drew near. When it came, they pointed out the handless woman, the fountains of blood, roaring with laughter. When the audience screamed, started to run, the laughter grew in volume.

Then something happened they had not expected. Maire Manone was on the platform beside the fallen Gharm woman, binding up Stenta Thilion’s handless arms. The Commander was beside her. And there was a girl on the stage, turning to face them, as though she saw them, and she was singing the Ahabar battle hymn, with the horns and drums of the orchestra taking up the music behind her. And suddenly, as every voice in the great hall came alive with that same hymn, rising in a torrent of song, the laughter in the castle of the Cause fell away to a titter and then to silence. It was as though every eye in the hall saw through the stage to those there in Voorstod, to those conspirators, to those who had done this thing, and pledged them everlasting hatred and death.

BOOK: Raising The Stones
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