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He put me in here because I’m broken. I used to believe that the rest of the world existed the same way I believed in the gods. Now I’m not sure about either.
Every day, the lights go down, and it’s not the sun’s light. I’m stuck in the suspicious black until the lights come up again. I can’t see straight. My eyes have to look past the spindly bars and stare at the flickering torches. But the wan light isn’t enough to hold my attention. My eyes always seem to slip back into the blank darkness between each point of brightness.
“When will you sing?” he asks me sadly, poking his hand through the bars at me, trying to stroke me. “When will you sing again, dear?”
Sometimes I laugh when he leaves. Me, sing? I’ve stopped trying. Besides, it wasn’t me he heard singing that time so long ago, anyway. I used to attempt it back in the first few days to try to please him. My philosophy was that he might let me out if he heard me, but the songs were sorrowful laments with no spark. They all ended in a sigh.
I remember the sky. You’d have thought that he would break a window into the stone, so I – so we all – could breathe clean air. I would gladly give my very soul for a glimpse of the star-riddled sky and the ghostly moons.
Now, I am hungry and sad – a poor combination. “When will you sing?” I ask myself. “When the room grows light and their hearts shrivel with the wait? When they speak to you as if you’ll answer back? Ha! They’ve stopped hoping, too.” I decide to stop speaking in riddles for the moment. “HELLO?” I call. “HELLO, WHERE IS EVERYONE?”
Someone comes running. There is no light. “She spoke, spoke,” I hear the person mumble. “Water, food,” they grumble at the floor. With a shaking hand, they poke a dish of water in for me, and then a plate of wilted greens. I scoff in the back of my throat.
“Lovely,” I say to the person. “Really generous. Who are you?” I ask when they don’t reply to my sarcasm.
“I am… not to speak to you. Goodbye.” And that’s how it always happens. Once, a girl came with food for me and told me her name: Clea’xa. I thought it was pretty, and asked her to come every day with my fare. In the middle of my question, though, someone other appeared, a large one with a tall, sharp-tipped spear called a kuhol in his hands. He grumbled something at Clea’xa and jabbed her in the back with the kuhol spear to make her leave. She screamed to stop, and that it hurt, but he didn’t stop until she was gone. Then he tromped back and hissed obscenities at me, spitting mad, until I stared at him. He lifted his chin for a moment and went away.
Clea’xa never returned.
I think I scare them.
But why should I? What have I done to terrify them so? The bars will keep them safe and my voice should keep them calm, so how come they shiver when they see me?
I am a caged bird and they are cats, I think. My tongue feels heavy. I fall asleep on cold, hard stone.
I haven’t seen him in quite a long time. I thought for a while that he would visit every day, but he didn’t – his visits dwindled with my speech. He figured that I’d start singing then. Not so. I knelt beside the door and clutched the bars so that my fingers felt stiff and hurt when I uncurled them. I knelt there until my knees froze and my feet prickled. As I knelt I prayed. But nothing happened. I am still here, still freezing and silent – for the most part.
So praying didn’t work. Singing didn’t work. Speaking didn’t work. I have no more options, so I wait to die. I decide now that I will ask for a blade to make the job easier. It will save me the trouble of having to think up some clever self-execution involving choking or drowning myself in my water dish.
“Would you mind…?” I say softly to the next one to come, “Giving me a blade of some sort? This meat is quite tough.” I gesture to the bowl of small-cut bits. The new one gives me a look of confusion blurred by suspicion.
“It is stew,” it says, the voice a cat’s, soft and raspy: a man. I am surprised by his conviction. “There is no need for a blade.”
“Oh, yes there is,” I retort. “I cannot bear the fatty pieces. Please.” I make my voice syrupy to convince him but I hear that it is simply whiny and scowl at myself.
His voice holds a smirk when he replies. “You is a trixy fox, you is. No blade for you.” And he leaves, snickering.
So the blade idea didn’t work. And I didn’t get a dish of water this time. Stew counts as both food and water. I’ll have to wait until next time.
The next time he appears is while I sleep. Not him him – not the one who put me here – it’s the man with the raspy cat voice. “Psst!” he whispers loudly. I blink and wake. “Here,” he says, and slides something through the bars. I think that it might be that blade I asked for, and brighten at the thought. It isn’t a blade, though, but a ribbon.
“What’s this rubbish?” I hiss at him, angry.
“A ribbon, stupid. You tie up your pretty hair with it, or use it as a belt… perhaps a necklace… there is so many uses for a nice strong ribbon like this, there is.” Something in his voice makes me shiver. “There’s a hook up there.” He points to the tippy-top of my entrapment and my eyes follow his crooked finger. “Maybe you is smart and can put two and two together.” He begins to move away, then pauses and looks over his shoulder. “Or maybe you can’t.”
I watch him go, barely able to make him out in the gloom. “Wait!” I call. “Who sent you? Who told you to tell me this? Where is the ribbon from?” But he doesn’t answer, and soon he turns a corner and is gone.
Growling, I spit on the ground outside the bars. “THANKS FOR THE HELP!” I bellow. “THAT’S REALLY HELPFUL, YOU KNOW?”
Shaking, I sink to the ground and rest against the bars, and after a long time, I fall asleep.
I am woken by my dreams. I saw the ribbon come to life like a snake and slip toward me on its belly and wrap around my neck, constricting all the while. I wake with sweat on my brow and an aching throat. What a frightening way to die. I won’t use the ribbon like that man hinted for me to. There has to be an easier way to die.
It feels early, early. Too early to be awake, but soon someone comes with a bowl of water and a flat of bread. I wait until they are around the corner and then lie before the dish and then just let my face sink into the cold water. For a while I hold my breath but then I have to breathe and have to breathe have to breathe havetobreathe havetobreathe. I gasp in a lungful of water, burning my nose and choking myself, but jerk my face out of the bowl, coughing and sputtering and spitting. I gasp and blow the water out of my nostrils and choke until I vomit up water and stew from the last meal. I hack like a dog retching. I shake like a rabbit in a snare. I gasp like a fish out of water. And finally I collapse, hot tears streaming from my eyes, panting until my breathing regulates.
“Well,” comes a soft murmur. I sit bolt upright and it sets my head a-spinning. My eyes blur. Who is that? “That was something else. Rather frightening to watch, to be honest. But not unexpected. You’ve lasted much longer than the others as it is.” The voice moves closer. “Why is that?”
“I don’t know.” My voice is raw and comes out like an old woman’s. “Perhaps I am stronger than them.” I do not know whom these others he speaks of are. I cough because it hurts to talk.
The voice bursts out in ringing laughter that bounces off the walls. It is another man, not the raspy cat-man. Not him, either, the one who brought me here. Another one. “Stronger? I think not. You’ve kept your wits about you for the most part, but you’re skinny as a twig and just as homely.”
I am confused. I never thought twigs were all that hideous, to be honest. This man is too loud, and he cannot understand metaphor. When I said stronger, I was not bragging about physical strength. I know I am not strong that way. I decide I do not like him.
There is a pause, and then I say, “Why am I here?”
There is a flare of red light and I flinch before smelling sharp smoke. In the small light, I see he has hair around his mouth, and his eyes are squinty. He pokes something between his lips. In a muffled voice, he replies simply, “Because you are broken.”
I wait for a moment, thinking about this before asking, “Why are you here?”
He laughs again. “I am not here. Not in the way you’d think.” He puffs, then blows smoke at my face. I cringe.
“Fine. Who are you?”
He inhales deeply and there is a dull red light that brightens at the end of his pipe-stick. “S’pose you can call me Keel’po. Yours?”
It is my turn to laugh. “As if you don’t know it!”
“It is polite to ask, in any case.”
And suddenly he is gone.
Only to reappear on the other side of my vast cage. I squint through the darkness.
“What do you think, witch-girl? How do you find me, survivor? Frightening, intriguing?” In the blink of an eye he is dangling from the hook at the tippy-top of the cage by his toes. I am scared now. No one comes into my prison. I keep my back to the bars. “You are in here…Xasha, because of your will. Tough, you are, and that scares people.” He cackles and falls straight down but doesn’t hit the ground, appearing crouched atop my cage, clutching the bars. I wince at the sound of my name. Most everyone does not speak it for fear of… well, for fear of me. Besides, only he is allowed to speak it openly. They just call me the Last. And I am, I suppose. I never found out how the battle ended. By then I was in here.
I find the strength to answer him. My voice is a peep. “I cannot say I find you either intriguing or frightening. Interesting, perhaps. Confusing, yes. I cannot say I want to know you. But maybe that’s insulting. I should say I am sorry.”
His booming laugh turns to a high-pitched tittering, then a hiss and a pop, then an agonized wail, then back again, and I see him morph and slide like heated sap through the fragile bars of my cage, then drop heavily onto the ground, a man once more. I cannot hide my shivers. “You will never know me, Xasha. That much you may be assured of – because I am not one that you come to know, not in a million years. I am not even one.”
I am confused again. “So you are…?”
“Many. Not one but hundreds. Thousands, even. I am the embodiment of every soul ever to rot in this dank prison. Can you see it now?” he whispers. I feel my eyes widen, my mouth gape in horror. His body is changing in the misty dungeon gloom. One moment he’s the man with the hairy mouth. Then he’s a woman with bags beneath her eyes and holes in her ears – a girl-child with wide white, unseeing eyes – a monk, his hair growing back from his long imprisonment, hands praying – a scrawny man with a maniacal smile on his face; that’s where the high-pitched laugh came from – a boy with no hands and bleeding lips. The faces change faster and faster until I cannot pick one from another and soon they finally blend together so quickly that Keel’po’s face is his own again. Or, at least, the one I am familiar with.
I gasp and sink onto a bench of wire – the same wire the bars are made from. He allows me to sit for a while, then crouches before me and squints. “Why have you come to me?” I ask inaudibly.
He gives a grin. His teeth are brown and slimy, but I do not reel back as my instincts tell me to. “I am here, my dear Xasha… because you will be my next face.” His grin widens when I frown. “Aha – not as brave as I thought, are you?”
“I’m brave!” I spit at his face. He chuckles. I see the edges of him fading but think it might be my brain finally going silly on me after my years in here.
“You’re my next face, Xasha. You are my diamond in the rough. Remember me.” And then he is gone.
It really has been years, I think as I sit waiting for lunch. The last time I saw the sky was years ago. And it wasn’t the sky I want to remember.
My father was the fisherman in our village. We lived in the mountains, so high up that the clouds were in a swirling ring below us and our goats got lost in the fog, but not so high that we were above the palace on the tallest mountain several leagues to the south. Father would bring home the fat, limp red fish on his belt and use the fish-spear – a homemade kuhol – as a walking stick. He never wore a shirt, not even in winter, and he would come up from the snowmelt river with sweat shining on his chest and shoulders. At home, he would gut the fish and tell me to pick the scales out of his beard, at which I would squeal, “Ick!” Then we would go down the rocky mountain path to the market.
It was my job to collect and string up the fish entrails in a net for wild cats that sometimes attacked. If the branch snapped in the night, Father would leap out of bed, knowing the wild animal was batting at the net of entrails, and he would kill the cat with his slingshot, a stone to the skull. Then Mama would tan the hide and we would have a new blanket for winter and for the baby that usually came then.
My big brothers went up the mountain when they were old enough and studied symbols with the monks. They came down every few months. My shortest big brother, called Denz’l, decided after a few years that he wanted to be a monk. Father was so proud, but I was angry and sad.
“Monks are just bald, lonely squirrels who pray and pray and never come home,” I grumbled to Denz’l when he was packing the few things he would need for the rest of his life in the sanctuary. He smiled.
“I taught you your letters, do you know them all, Xasha?” he asked, kneeling down in front of me and holding my elbows. Grudgingly, I nodded, not looking at him. “Good.” He then sat cross-legged on the floor and was silent for a while.
“Xasha. Do you remember when we were young, and the cliff-house was still standing?” He looked out the window, his face soft, eyes wide and dark.
I nodded. “And Mama sent us up there whenever the palace men would come.”
“Remember how we spoke to Mama when we were up there for a few days at a time?”
“You would write down notes to her and Q’il would take them down… to her.” I said the last words quietly. I knew what Denz’l was telling me.
“Yes. We can do the same. Just practice your letters and you can send notes up to me with Q’il and Yosh’e and Gongol when they come back for more training. I know you are a smart girl. You understand.” And then he hoisted his small pack onto his shoulder, and Mama, Father and I would watch the big brothers go back up the mountain. Only one of them we wouldn’t see again. I didn’t cry because it didn’t really feel like goodbye, but Mama did. Father squeezed her shoulders and stroked her long, dark brown braid. There was an odd quirk to his mouth as he waved to the boys, who disappeared into the mist.
Years passed and I was the oldest one in the house for the most part, unless Q’il, Yosh’e, and Gongol were visiting. I followed the goats up the mountain to places where they could graze between the spiny trees and milked the nannies. I sold the milk and soft cheese at the market when Father went with his strings of fish.
Every year the palace people would come, too. Their faces were paler than ours. We spent our summers out in the sun, and our brown skin separated us from them as much as our accents, clothes, and manners. Mama would send the little ones to stay at a camp up where the cliff-house used to be while the palace people took inventory and spoke to the tiny crowd that was our village. I stayed with the children up at the camp but brought back notes from the children like Q’il used to do when I was young. Only Mama, Father, and two of the children were allowed in a house at the same time when the palace people came. It was the law that only four people must live in a house at once. That is why they would kill us all if they found out there were ten children in our family.
They didn’t care if you had more than two children; it was just mandatory that the extras lived elsewhere, in another place such as a monastery or with relatives who didn’t have children. Mama refused to send her children away until Q’il and the others wanted to go up to the sanctuary to learn. Then it was easier to hide the many children from the palace people, but only slightly.
The year I was twelve, the palace people came without warning, in the springtime and not summer, as they usually did. The children were all sitting around the table eating their fish stew and Father was off at the river. Mama sat looking over the window with the new baby in her arms. The horn sounded that meant that everyone had to go to the town square down the road.
The horn sounded often, at least twice a day. Mostly we ignored it. It called the beginning and end of market-time, at least. Sometimes it called everyone together for a birth-prayer or, more often, a funeral. “Mama,” I called that day, when the sky was grey with rain and fog made the roads invisible on our cliffs and ledges. I stopped washing a bowl and set it down. The horn sounded again.
“Hmm?” She didn’t seem quite there. “What are you hollering about, Xasha?”
“The horn sounded.”
She turned, her pretty brown face soft, but a wrinkle of worry between her brows. Her ocean-green eyes were suspicious. “But it’s nearly noon. What is the horn blowing for now…?” I shrugged. “I suppose… let’s go see what’s happening, then. Come on, children.” My young brothers and sisters finished their soup and began fighting over whose scarves were whose in order to go out.
“Xasha!” Mama called to me over the clamor. I turned. “Go get your father.”
I ran through the woods and slipped down the bank where he was spearing this morning. “Father! The horn sounded just now!” I was feeling excited, but Father frowned.
Gathering up his kills and stringing them onto his belt, he followed me back up the hill and onto the path, holding my back when I slipped. When we came in earshot of the village marketplace, Father halted suddenly and pulled me into a little copse of scrubby trees and clamped his hand over my mouth. I was terrified. He motioned for me to be silent, then let go. We listened and watched.
Out in the square, everyone was gathered. I saw Mama and the baby, and my brothers and sisters scattered amongst the crowd, holding hands with their friends and listening with little frowns upon their lips.
“…from this count, I seem to be coming up with something rather strange.” There was a man on a broad yak that was yelling loudly. “It is about time it was straightened out. Mountain-dwellers, hear my words. You are a pack of scrounging, lying thieves, and you will pay the price.” He looked around at the faces that could only register shock at his ugly words. True, we had never been completely honest about the citizen counting, but what else could we do? I watched him, squinting my eyes, then peeked at Father. He shook his head a little, staring at Mama across the square.
I followed his gaze. The yelling man made his yak step a bit closer to the far side of the square. “You there!” he shouted. Mama looked around, then stepped forward.
“What is that in your hands?” he sneered. I thought he was incredibly stupid. Any fool could see that Mama was holding a baby.
“A – it is a child, my lord.” Her eyes never met his. She even hung her head.
He snorted. “And how many of them have you had in your lifetime, woman?”
Father was shaking his head harder now, willing Mama to see him through the trees. I don’t know what made me do it. Looking back, it was the stupidest thing I could’ve done in the situation. I thought I could convince the man on the yak that she was a good woman, and would never disobey the law. Leaping from the bushes, I ran to Mama’s side and held onto her skirt.
“You leave my mama alone!” I snapped at him, curling my hands into fists. All through the crowd, small voices materialized as my siblings, and they stepped forward, saying, “Yes! Let her be! Go away!” and even, “Mama, don’t give them Dija’no!”
The man, who looked incredibly tall to me, up on that yak, smiled like a snake at me. “Well, well, well…” His voice was soft. “What have we here? Several… extras, or so it seems.” His manner turned brisk and he sat straighter on his mount, not looking at us anymore, but addressing the crowd. “Who is the father of this brood? Show yourself! Who is the father?” I willed Father not to appear. He didn’t. I knew he was watching, waiting. He would save us all. “Or perhaps…” he mused aloud, cranking his head to stare at Mama with a smirk, “there is more than one?”
Her head jerked up at that, and I hadn’t ever seen her look as furious in my whole lifetime. It crossed my mind that she might in fact hate that man, and I whirled to look at him, with his two pointy halves of a moustache and his mean slanted eyes, and I thought, if Mama hates him, I hate him, too. “Never,” she spat harshly.
“All right, then.” And he turned his yak around a few times, staring at the crowd that was hushed now that a member of their own was being assaulted. His sharp silver eyes flashed, even in the glum light. Then he said simply, “Seize her.”
There was a commotion, and I know I screamed, and then Mama was in the chokehold of one of the men who held wickedly curved, strange kuhols. He gritted his teeth so I could see that each of them was square and white, and held a sharp blade to Mama’s throat. There was an uproar from the crowd, and several people surged forward to try and protect Mama. They were instantly held at bay by the tips of the curved kuhols jabbed in their direction, and all fell silent. “Master!” the man holding Mama proclaimed, his back straight as a rod, arms almost as strong as Father’s. I heard Mama gag. Dija’no started to wail in her arms, and another spearman grabbed the baby from her. I tried not to cry. I knew I must be strong at this moment, at least for my brothers and sisters.
The man on the yak spoke to the masses. “Let this serve as a warning!” He nodded to the man who held Mama, who lifted a short blade he held and held it high. There was a gasp from everyone, it seemed, and then my ears registered a strange shuffling noise, and I looked up and around, frowning. “No person can pull the wool over the eyes of the crown – His Imperial Majesty will be displeased that it has gone on for this long as it is.” He nodded to the spearman again, and the dagger was about to plunge into Mama’s chest when three things happened: I screamed as loud as I could out of pure terror, Mama elbowed the spearman in the gut with a look of determination, and Father leapt from the trees, roaring, “No!”
The spearman grunted, and his dagger went askew, jabbing deeply into Mama’s side. Blood began seeping through her tunic at an alarming rate, and she sighed. I screamed again, and Father rushed forward, looking stricken. From nowhere, spearmen came to seize him, and pushed him to his knees in front of the man called Master. He fought with all his might, and even shoved the leader’s yak aside to get to Mama, who laid on the ground, panting.
“Sanchin,” he breathed, dropping to his knees and lifting Mama into his arms.
“No, dear,” gasped Mama, reaching up to stroke Father’s cheek. “Go. Take our children. Run. I am lost.” Her head sank against his chest, her eyes wide. I’d never seen Father cry – but then I knew it wasn’t something I’d ever wanted to see. He was saying something that sounded like sonya, my sonya…
All around, panic was breaking out. Now many village men were fighting with the spearmen, and the gentle yak under the leader was rearing and huffing in fright. Father put Mama down in the little copse we had hidden in and came out screaming a battle cry. With his bare hands, he twisted and snapped spearmen’s necks, and I felt blood spatter onto my face. The children were screaming and crying – I needed to find my brothers and sisters – and where was Dija’no? I found some of them, and told them to run back home, but nobody could understand what had just happened, and they just ran in random directions, away from the loud noise and the blood and their frightening father.
Then someone’s roof caught fire, and in a minute, all the fog burned away. Perhaps a spark from some animal’s stamping hoof, maybe a cookfire inside gone wrong had started the blaze. But in my mind, all these years later, I remember distinctly seeing a bit of flaming wood arcing through the air, and that man on the yak brushing his hands together and smiling. Father roared as ash rained down from the sky onto him, burning his flesh, and I jerked my head until I saw him. He was kneeling again, on the ground, and something was in his chest. Something dripping and dark and red was poking out of his sweat-soaked brown chest. I don’t remember screaming, just turning and turning, surveying my village as it fell apart. I saw the leader dismount from the yak, and I ran at him, knowing he had done all of this, kicking in fury at him. He stared at me as if I was something pesky, but then something changed about his face. He looked… frightened. Or I thought he did – until his fist smashed into my temple. The last thing I remember seeing was the sky. It was red and black with fiery soot, and filled with the screams of the dying.
When I woke up, I was in this cage that I am in right now. Its strange, thin bars of gold confused me. They reminded me of a birdcage I had seen often in the big market just down my mountain. There were a few bars inside meant – I assumed – for perching and preening. The doors (one on each of the two sides that weren’t blocked on the outside by stone walls reaching up and up and up…) were made of the same thin gold wires of the rest of the cage, only they curled decoratively and made odd designs around the edges, like ivy. The floor was of cold flagstones, the top of the cage coming to a point a height of six men above me.
I had night terrors whenever I closed my eyes. Things too large or too small to see would attack me in my dreams, biting me and making me itch or bleed until my nails were broken and my flesh torn. I would wake screaming and burning up with fever, though the dungeon floor was cool. No one was around me, and for hours I would scream for someone, anyone, to answer me. I was only given water those first days that felt like they stretched on for eternity, and the people who brought the water wore dark hoods over their heads, excluding me.
It was my fault that my village was gone, and everyone with it. My fault that my parents and siblings and neighbors wouldn’t get proper burials, my fault that my goats would bleat sadly until they realized they were alone, and would have to turn wild. I knew it was my fault, that I could never fix it – there is nothing worse in the world. I remember lying on this floor and crying, “I’m sorry,” for days. Sometimes I still do that, just so their spirits know I’m here and I’m thinking of them.
It couldn’t have been more than a week that I was in the dungeon, though it felt like forever, when finally someone came, and they didn’t have a hood over their face. A man, it was, and I pleaded with him to let me out. He shook his head.
“What happened to my family?” I sobbed, reaching through the bars to clutch at his tunic. The fabric caught on the rough skin of my cracked fingers. The guards that had come with him jabbed their kuhols at me and I fell back.
“Enough,” said the man quietly, and the guards stood back, not abashed at all. “Your family, I was informed, has gone to meet their ancestors.” He had the decency to bow his head. “You will be kept here. You are the Last of your kind.”
Well, I had no idea what this meant. The boy-man told me to call him Plen’je, and then reached through the wires of my cage, willing me to give him my hand. “You are the Last,” he whispered again, nodding solemnly, thoughtfully to himself. I wondered how he could be so calm. If this was who I thought it was, then an entire village had just been obliterated at his command. But I looked at him again and questioned if he even was the emperor. He was rather young, no more than sixteen summers old. And who did I think I was, someone important? The emperor himself would never come to visit me. And yet… this boy had three – no, four guards positioned nearby, in the shadows. He must be royalty at least. I stared at his hand, not wanting to touch the person who had directly caused the deaths of my family, and scooted away on my bottom. He sighed and withdrew his hand.
Then, for the first time, he asked me, “Will you sing for me, at least?”
Sing? I was thinking. What was he talking about? “I – I don’t understand,” I told him, furrowing my brow. My hands were numbing slowly against the stones.
“Sing. You know… with your voice? I remember you; I know you are the one I have been looking for because I recognize your face. You are smaller now, though. I suspect it is from being in this cage…” He squinted with disgust at the very top of the cage, then looked back at his guards and leaned in, face pressed between the bars. “I want to help you – to get you out of here, but my father… I can’t. Not just yet.”
I was nearly on the opposite side of the cage, I had scooted so far away. I shook my head. The boy, Plen’je, gave me a broken look. “I’m sorry, um… what is your name?” Another shake of my head. “I want to help you!” He now bore an expression of frustration.
“Time is up, Highness.” One of the guard’s gravelly voices came from the shadows.
Plen’je – a prince, I knew now, an emperor-to-be, perhaps – groaned. “I will come back, Sonya’ki. As often as I can.” He left then. I was taken aback, and stared at the place where he’d vanished. A sonya is a mythical songbird, a beautiful, berry-colored creature with a voice that is otherworldly, high-pitched and heartbreaking. I couldn’t believe he had decided to give me such a nickname. And ’ki is a feminine addition to a name that one uses if you mean great respect for the person, usually reserved only for royalty or exceptionally elderly folk. (The equivalent, masculine addition is ’ji.)
I liked to imagine that I had heard a sonya before, in the middle of the night when I was out looking for a lost kid and one of my younger nannies. It was like a spirit woman singing, the voice echoing off the mountains in every direction. Strangely, I thought of my mother teaching me to call the goats home, the two-note “ooh-aah” that lingered in the air like summer heat at twilight.
But I refused to be flattered.
When Plen’je returned, I let him do the talking, though all he wanted me to do was sing. He came back every day for months, bringing me gifts of food and handmade things. “Please sing,” he begged. “I have wanted to hear it for years – ever since I visited your village and saw you. It has… plagued me, Xasha’ki.” He had figured out my name from someone, probably the yak-man, but still called me Sonya sometimes, trying to wheedle a smile out of me.
I didn’t answer him. In fact, I didn’t answer him for so long that eventually his visits dwindled and, after a while, stopped altogether. The dungeon was freezing in the winter, cool in the summer. The air was always stale, though I got used to that after a while. What really made it different was not hearing another person’s voice every day. It made everything so much more lonesome, and I regretted not singing, or at least trying to sing, for Plen’je. He’d only ever tried to help me, and I had been surly and uncooperative. My mother’s words came back to me often: “Xasha, you hold hands, you hold still, but one thing you must never hold is a grudge. You will always regret it.”
Months passed in my cell. Every meal was tasteless, everything I smelled was stale. I didn’t bathe – I tried to ask for extra water to do so, but it never came. Mostly I lay there, on the ground, and stared.
I counted every stone on the floor. Each stone was four hands wide and long. It was a round cage, and there were one hundred seventeen and a quarter stones, tightly packed. When I was particularly bored, I would pick at one particular stone and the corner flaked off. As it turned out, the stones were not so thick. I remember I blinked stupidly and stared at the dirt beneath the corner of the stone until my eyes bugged out of my head. Then I began prying in earnest at the stone, peering around guiltily (as if anyone was watching!).
After much struggling and blood from my chipping nails, which had begun to grow back after my fever had disappeared, I finally pried the rock out of the ground. Beneath, I was disappointed. There was nothing but dirt. No secret escape route. But… I thought long and hard. Maybe I could create the escape route.
Carefully, I replaced the stone. I tried to act natural, but my heart was pumping loudly, and I stood to pace, gnawing on my fingernails and running my fingers along the wires of my cage think-think-think-th-think. After an eternity, someone came with my food. I frowned when they left. There was no spoon. I had to eat with my hands and face. And then I’d have to dig using a bowl. I shrugged. Better than nothing.
I drank my water but saved some for cleaning the digging bowl. They took the plates back when they next brought food. Quickly and as quietly as possible, I slid the loose stone aside and began to dig. To my surprise, the ground was rather soft. I had dug probably an arm length down when I heard something and stopped, looking all around with wide eyes. Footsteps.
I groaned inwardly. Dinner already? Where was I going to put the dirt? My hands shook as the footsteps came closer. I spied my excrement bucket and carried handfuls of dirt over, then dumped them into the pail. The steps were just around the corner. Loud footsteps, too, I thought. Normally the people who visit are quiet. When the feet were nearly outside my cage, I shoved the stone back over the hole and scrubbed the remaining dirt around with my feet so it blended in with the rocks.
The footsteps stopped just outside the door to my cage. A grumbly voice said, “Waste and dishes.” With trembling hands I scooted the bucket over to the door and pretended to accidentally tip my water dish over onto my digging bowl. The cold water ran onto the stones and between my toes.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “One minute.” With my fumbling hands, I managed to wipe most of the dirt from the bowl. Then I piled one into the other and set them beside the bucket.
“Step back,” said the grumbly voice, a little suspicious now. I had never needed to be told before. I practically ran to the other side of the cage and watched while he opened the door and took away my dishes and waste bucket and then placed some bread and a new dish of water inside.
No second bowl. I would have to wait until tomorrow to dig again.
It went on like this for some time. Months, I dug beneath my cage. Most of the dirt I would hide in the refuse pail. Eventually, when my feeders were getting suspicious, I had to dig a bit in the opposite direction as a chamber to hide the dirt. I could fit inside easily and was working on the tunnel, which was almost the length of my body when they found out.
They came in the afternoon, and I barely had enough time to cover the entrance to the tunnel before they arrived. I was confused, panting and dirty when they came, but I did see that there were three of them, instead of the usual one. One, oddly, bore a bucket. And, odder still, was that one seemed to wield a strange rope of some sort. They didn’t stop at my door, but opened it wide and called to me.
“Last,” the first, slighter one said, and I had an eerie feeling that I recognized that voice. “Step forward.”
I didn’t want to, but I did so, coaxed by the thin man, until I was outside my cage for the first time in a year. That was when I gasped. “Hello, dear.” It was the yak-man. His hand clamped down onto my shoulder sharply and I gave an involuntary yip. The sound seemed to enrage him and he threw me against the wall. My hands held onto the stone for comfort, my back to the men.
“You tried out your little tricks on us, didn’t you?” said the yak-man. “Trying to dig out of there, were you? Well, His Imperial Majesty found out about that, dear.” There was a stinging, sharp pain on my back as I felt the skin tear and pull away from my body, and I screamed. At that, I knew he’d nodded to the man with the rope, which was actually a barbed whip. Blood dripped down my back and ran down my legs. The grimy tunic I wore wouldn’t last much longer. I tried to run, but the man with the bucket set his bucket down and held me.
I was whipped four more times. The yak-man talked the whole time, though I don’t remember most of it. I do remember focusing on his voice, because somehow I knew that when his voice stopped, so did the pain.
They threw me back into the cage and I laid there, my breathing shallow, my eyes dripping. They left.
I woke when I felt something pull on my foot. I didn’t have any strength in me to scream, so I just let it tug until I heard a vaguely familiar voice.
“Sonya. Wake up.” I tried to move but started crying from the pain when I did. They weren’t poor-me-it-hurts cries, but save-me cries, and they scared me. I don’t remember crying like that ever before. I sounded like a wounded animal, all sighs and squeaks. When he spoke again, I thought I heard tears in his voice, too. “Please stop. I want to help you. Those gashes will get foul spirits in them if we don’t clean them up.”
Somehow I managed to squirm over to where Plen’je was crouched outside of the cage. There was an oil lamp flickering on the stones outside the cage wires. His arms were reaching through the wires. With my blurred vision I saw that one hand held a cloth and the other a little pot. I thought he was giving the tools to me to heal myself. I even reached for them and said, “Thank you,” in a voice so soft it was a miracle he heard it.
He jerked his hands away, and his voice was – of all things – amused. “What do you mean, ‘thank you’? Turn your back to me, Xasha’ki, brave girl. I will fix you.”
The wet rag stung on my long cuts, and Plen’je had to snip away some of the hanging dead skin, but he eventually was able to get them clean enough that he could apply the salve that was in the pot. It stung too, initially, but when it had soaked in a bit the cooling effect was so powerful that I shivered.
“I heard my father’s war-captain talking about you, Sonya’ki. He laughed about your screams. I – I yelled at him and was sent to my room, unfortunately.” Plen’je’s voice was hard and bitter. I couldn’t help liking him just then. “Forgive me. This may hurt a bit, but I want you to stand up and lift your tunic.” I stood, and he was right. My knees buckled when the blood rushed down and I had to clutch onto the cage bars. It was like the cuts were tearing open again. I whimpered, but lifted my tunic up at the back. Moving my arms was torture.
Plen’je reached into the cage and around me with something. His hands were gentle. “This will bind the cuts, hopefully. I’m sorry I didn’t bring any extra clothes. I didn’t think…” He trailed off. Looking down, though the skin of my neck pulled the skin of my back, I saw that he was wrapping a length of white fabric around me again and again. When he knotted it finally, I gasped and a tear escaped. “I’m sorry.” I slumped down against the cage, and felt him do the same on the other side. His back was warm against mine, comforting. “They told me I wasn’t to come down here anymore, but I snuck away. It’s the middle of the night. I needed to see what happened to you.”
“Thank you,” I whispered again. He sighed.
“I just want you to know, because I’m not sure if you’ve heard the stories about your kind before… And I don’t want you to give up. I plan to get you out of here someday. Just remember…” It didn’t occur to me then to ask what stories were told about ‘my kind’. He stood and I turned to look at him in the flickering lamplight. His jaw twitched. “They say the sonya birds are immortal. Now I believe it’s true.” His smile was nice, bright and easy. I almost smiled back. “I’ll try to return, Sonya. Stay strong.”
I watched him as he walked away, and then fell down and into a deep sleep.
A few days later, when I felt well enough to move further than my own body length across the floor, I looked at the stone where my tunnel digging had begun. I lifted it, but it wouldn’t budge. Then I noticed something around the edges. The bucket-man from the whipping day had filled in my tunnel with rock-glue. I could never dig there again. But, I thought as I dropped back onto the ground, the feat having been strenuous for my weak body, if that was the punishment for trying to escape, I wouldn’t try that again even if I wanted to.
I waited in my dungeon for months, taking things day-by-day.
Plen’je never returned.
Well, now I know what a fool I was, to run forward to my mother, to start digging a tunnel in a high-security prison… I probably still am a fool, not that I’ve had much opportunity to test that theory, I think as I eat a gloppy plate of rice. I remember all those days in the beginning when I would sit and cry, crying until I didn’t know if there would be any water left in me. I used to hope that I would just shrivel up and disintegrate, become a part of the dust between the cracks in the stone floor.
Today is just like every other day – well, it would’ve been, if not for Keel’po. Yesterday was just like every other day. Tomorrow will be no different. These dungeons bring on hallucinations – visions that cannot be ignored. But I sit here thinking and remembering, and I feel like part of me is returning. Whenever I think of home, I feel hopeful, like I just might get out of here someday.
I finish my rice – even licking the bowl clean – and drink my water. Then I stand and stretch. I close my eyes because sometimes my mind works better that way, and bend this way and that, remembering that the floor dips here, that a bar is crooked there. I even sing. Not loud, just a few notes my mother would sing to calm me down when I was upset. My heart begins to beat again. I do not want to die. So far I have spent three years in here, and if I’m going to be in here forever, then I’m not going to go down without a fight. I am testing how far I can bend backward when a strong voice speaks. I topple to the ground.
“Prisoner. Exert yourself.” The man who stabbed Clea’xa away from me is back, and I hear a metallic scraping in the cage door. He opens it and stands before me.
“Ow,” I say, rubbing my head where it hit the ground. “What, do you think I’m gonna fall for your tricks? I’m not leaving, sir.” I just decided that I am going to go down fighting, that I am not going to give up, and right away some cruel guard comes to free me? I don’t think so. Still sitting on the ground, I stretch my legs and lift my chin snobbishly, like I am too good to follow some lowly guard from my dungeon.
“You can just leave now, sir, I’m fine here. Don’t think that I’m going to just get up and waltz out of here like some kind of – hey! Ow! No–!”
He walked in and now he picks me up with his hands and flings me onto his back as easy as if I was a bag of rice. And in no time at all, I’m looking back at the cage that held me for three years and having the exceptionally odd feeling in my chest that I just might never see it again.