Songmaster

Orson Scott Card

Orb Books

SONGMASTER (Chapter 1:)

There were many ways a child could turn up in the baby market of Doblay-Me. Many children, of course, were genuine orphans, though now that wars had ended with Mikal's Peace orphanhood was a social position much less often achieved. Others had been sold by desperate parents who had to have money--or who had to have a child out of their way and hadn't the heart for murder. More were bastards from worlds and nations where religion or custom forbade birth control. And others slipped in through the cracks.

Ansset was one of these when a seeker from the Songhouse found him. He had been kidnapped and the kidnappers had panicked, opting for the quick profit from the baby trade instead of the much riskier business of arranging for ransom and exchange. Who were his parents? They were probably wealthy, or their child wouldn't have been worth kidnapping. They were white, because Ansset was extremely fair-skinned and blond. But there were trillions of people answering to that description, and no government agency was quite so foolish as to assume the responsibility of returning him to his family.

So Ansset, whose age was unknowable but who couldn't be more than three years old, was one of a batch of a dozen children that the seeker brought back to Tew. All the children had responded well to few simple tests--pitch recognition, melody repetition, and emotional response. Well enough, in fact, to be considered potential musical prodigies. And the Songhouse had bought--no, no, people are not bought in the baby market--the Songhouse had adopted them all. Whether they became Songbirds or mere singers, masters or teachers, or even if they did not work out musically at all, the Songhouse raised them, provided for them, cared about them for life. In loco parentis, said the law. The Songhouse was mother, father, nurse, siblings, offspring, and, until the children reached a certain level of sophistication, God.

"New," sang a hundred young children in the Common Room, as Ansset and his fellow marketed children were ushered in. Ansset did not stand out from the others. True, he was terrified--but so were the rest. And while his nordic skin and hair put him at the extreme end of the racial spectrum, such things were studiously ignored and no one ridiculed him for it, any more than they would have ridiculed an albino.

Routinely he was introduced to the other children; routinely all forgot his name as soon as they heard it; routinely they sang a welcome whose tone and melody were so confused that it did nothing to allay Ansset's fear; routinely Ansset was assigned to Rruk, a five-year-old who knew the ropes.

"You can sleep by me tonight," Rruk said, and Ansset dumbly nodded. "I'm older," Rruk said. "In maybe a few months or sometime soon anyway I get a stall." This meant nothing to Ansset. "Anyway, don't piss in your bed because we never get the same one two nights in a row."

Ansset's three-year-old pride was enough to take umbrage at this. "Don't piss in bed." But he didn't sound angry--just afraid.

"Good. Some of 'em are so scared they do."

It was near bedtime; new children were always brought in near bedtime. Ansset asked no questions. When he saw that other children were undressing, he too undressed. When he saw that they found nightgowns under their blankets, he too found a nightgown and put it on, though he was clumsy at it. Rruk tried to help him, but Ansset shrugged off the offer. Rruk looked momentarily hurt, then sang the love song to him.

I will never hurt you.

I will always help you.

If you are hungry

I'll give you my food.

If you are frightened

I am your friend.

I love you now.

And love does not end.

The words and concepts were beyond Ansset, but the tone of voice was not. Rruk's embrace on his shoulder was even more clear, and Ansset leaned on Rruk, though he still said nothing and did not cry.

"Toilet?" Rruk asked.

Ansset nodded, and Rruk led him to a large room adjoining the Common, where water ran swiftly through trenches. It was there that he learned that Rruk was a girl. "Don't stare," she said. "Nobody stares without permission." Again, Ansset did not understand the words, but the tone of voice was clear. He understood the tone of voice instinctively, as he always had; it was his greatest gift, to know emotions even better than the person feeling them.

"How come you don't talk except when you're mad?" Rruk asked him as they lay down in adjoining beds (as a hundred other children also lay down).

It was now that Ansset's control broke. He shook his head, then turned away, buried his face under the blankets, and cried himself to sleep. He did not see the other children around him who looked at him with distaste. He did not know that Rruk was humming a tune that meant, "Let be, let alone, let live."

He did know, however, when Rruk patted his back, and he knew that the gesture was kind; and this was why he never forgot his first night in the Songhouse and why he could never feel anything but love for Rruk, though he would soon far surpass her rather limited abilities.

"Why do you let Rruk hang around you so much, when she isn't even a Breeze?" asked a fellow student once, when Ansset was six. Ansset did not answer in words. He answered with a song that made the questioner break Control, much to his humiliation, and weep openly. No one else ever challenged Rruk's claim on Ansset. He had no friends, not really, but his song for Rruk was too powerful to challenge.

SONGMASTER Copyright © 1978, 1979, 1980, 1987 by Orson Scott Card