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Authors: Anne Bishop

Tags: #Fantasy

The Voice (2 page)

BOOK: The Voice
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Perhaps if I had been older, I would have understood. As it was, seven more years passed before I reached that moment of understanding.

2.

 

“You really did it?”

It was the disbelief and admiration in my older brother Dariden’s voice that had me creeping a little closer to his open window. I was seventeen; I knew better than to eavesdrop on my brother’s conversations with friends. I found out too many things about him that diminished my feelings for him and gave me no liking for his friends. Especially Chayne, who had recently married Kobbi and was now one of The Voice’s caretakers—or guards, as I thought of the people who controlled her.

“Wasn’t easy, since Vision is such an unnatural city, but I managed to slip away from my father for an evening and find a particular shop.”

“And the stuff works?” Dariden asked.

Chayne laughed softly. “She’s pretty to look at, but when you spread Kobrah’s legs, she’s a cold piece. So I put three drops of this drug in her wine, and she falls into a sensual haze. I can do almost anything to her. She’s passive on the drug, but her body is so hot and willing it doesn’t matter that her brain isn’t in the bed.”

“A wife needs only enough brains to know when to spread ’em,” Dariden said with a smirk in his voice.

I didn’t dare move. Hardly dared to breathe. If Dariden found out I had overheard this, he would make my life a misery. Or more of a misery than it was.

“Will she do . . .
that
 . . . when you give her the drug?” Dariden asked.

“No,” Chayne replied, sounding disgusted. “Even with an extra drop of it—which is all I dare give her, because I was warned that too much will make a woman’s brains go funny permanently—I can’t make her do
that.
But it doesn’t matter, because . . .”

Chayne lowered his voice, so I leaned a little closer to the window, still not daring to move my feet.

“. . . I put three drops on
her
tongue, give her a glob of that mixture we feed her when we aren’t stuffing her with the offerings, then close her up and wait a bit. Once the drug is working, I can spend hours in her mouth, with her tongue lapping and licking. And I know just how far to open the lever for the right tightness.”

“And then she does
that
?” Dariden asked, sounding breathless.

Chayne laughed softly. It was such a cruel sound. “Well, swallowing is what she does, isn’t it?”

They left Dariden’s room, and I said a hasty prayer to every goddess and god I could think of that they wouldn’t come around to the back of the house and realize I had heard them. My prayer must have been answered, because they left the house through the front door, and I was able to slip in through the kitchen door and reach my room undetected.

My father was a good man. I was sure of it. How could he have raised a son who would think such horrible things were exciting?

Is your father truly a good man?
some part of me asked.
He goes to The Voice’s house with moody cakes when he’s unhappy about something. Does he really not know what he’s forcing her to eat?

He couldn’t know. Couldn’t. But if he did know, that might explain the worry I had seen in his eyes over the past year.

I had kept my secret for five years, dutifully making the moody cakes when my mother felt I needed to visit The Voice, and just as rebelliously eating the cakes myself. During those years I learned that eating pieces of regular cakes and breads that we made at home and gobbling the pastries I bought at the bakery with my spending money absorbed the worst of the effects of the Black Pustules. I still got them whenever I ate a moody cake, but they weren’t as big or as painful. On the other hand, I had plumped to what my father had initially, and teasingly, called a wifely figure—meaning my fat-softened body was not the sleek shape a man looked for in a bride but accepted in a wife after the babies started arriving. After all, a man had to make some sacrifices in order to have children.

Then Tahnee blundered one evening when she told my mother she hadn’t seen me at The Voice’s house at a time when I should have been there. Realizing her error and believing that I must have been sneaking out to meet a boy and had used The Voice as an excuse, Tahnee did her best to deny her own words, but her suddenly vague memory about where she had been on a particular evening didn’t fool my mother, who then saw my days of being slightly ill in a totally different way.

After that, I had an escort for each visit to The Voice’s house, and when I watched the caretaker feed her the moody cake, I felt sick inside—because I felt better. But until I made the trip to Vision, I still didn’t know why.

3.

 

Dariden was wild to go to that place that was considered an unnatural city and something even more, even stranger. In the end, I was the one who went to Vision with Tahnee and her parents.

Despite my mother’s efforts to control what I could eat when I was in the house, and despite the bakery, in an effort to help me regain my maidenly figure, agreeing not to sell me anything unless I had a note from one of my parents (which I never was given), my body remained stubbornly plump. My father, in an effort to be helpful, had taken to whispering to me whenever he escorted me to visit The Voice, “If you don’t stop your foolish eating, you’ll end up looking like that.”

She was huge. When her mouth was forced open to receive an offering, her eyes disappeared within the folds of fat. It hurt me to see her and know I was adding to her pain. It hurt me to hear my father say something so cruel to the daughter he professed to love.

But on the particular day that led to my going to Vision, Chayne was the caretaker on duty when my father whispered his encouragement—and I had what the healers described as a mild emotional breakdown.

I screamed. I wailed. I wept. I sat on the floor and howled with a pain that filled the visitors’ room and frightened all the grumpy-faced children who wanted to feed a moody cake to The Voice so they could leave and be happy, happy, happy while she . . . while she . . . In the end, I went with Tahnee and her parents because they had already planned a week’s stay in Vision and I could share a room with Tahnee—and also because when my brother offered to escort me, I started screaming that he fornicated with barnyard animals and molested small children, and every time my father got near me I began making guttural noises that, my mother told me when I was calmer, sounded like they were coming from a savage animal.

My mother was correct about that. Something was building inside me, and I didn’t know why. All I truly knew was that I hated the village I lived in and hated participating in something that not only violated another person, but violated something in myself as well.

I needed to escape, but I didn’t know how.

Sometimes all it takes is a change of vision.

4.

 

The journey to Vision took two days of steady travel, the only breaks being those required to rest the team of horses. At times, the hills were so steep, we had to get out and walk, because it was all the horses could do to pull the weight of the coach and our luggage up the incline. But when we reached the crest of the last, gentler hill, we looked down on the strange glory that was Vision.

It was a patchwork city that spread out across a vast plain, backed by old, rounded mountains cloaked in the restful green of living things. Some parts of the city dazzled the eye, while others seemed lost in shadow—and still other places must have been farmland and pastures. Not one city, but many. And so much more than I could have imagined the first time I saw it.

So we descended the hill, passing the last crossroad that would lead to other places. After that, there was no destination but the city, which was reached by a bridge that had a peculiar but carefully made sign posted a coach’s length before the bridge itself: A
SK YOUR HEART ITS DESTINATION.

Upon seeing the sign, Tahnee’s father muttered about the need to avoid the “peculiar” folks that inhabited the city. Then, in a heartier voice, he reassured his three ladies that we would not be visiting any of the peculiar places.

But I looked at the sign and, even though I thought it was foolish, shaped my answer as the horses stepped onto the bridge:
Escape. Freedom. Answers.
If my heart had a destination, it was shaped by those three words.

At the other end of the bridge was another peculiar sign: W
ELCOME TO
V
ISION.
Y
OU CAN FIND ONLY WHAT YOU CAN SEE.

As I read the sign, the sun went behind a bank of clouds and everything turned dark and chilling. Then the sun returned and the world looked fresh and dazzling—and not quite the same.

Since I was on this journey because of my lack of mental health, I didn’t ask if any of my companions had witnessed those same moments of dark and light. I just watched the city as we journeyed for another day to reach its center, barely listening to the comments of the other people in the coach. And while we journeyed, I considered the significance of the words if that sign meant exactly what it said.

The first two days, I found nothing of interest and tried not to resent the hearty comments that came too often about how a change of scenery could do a person good. I
wanted
a change of scenery. I had been searching for that change for two days.

And I almost missed it when it finally appeared on the third afternoon of our visit.

The bazaar in the center of the city took up entire blocks, almost ending on the doorstep of the rooming house where we were staying. Having tramped through it with us the first two days, Tahnee’s parents left us on our own that third afternoon, convinced that two girls from a small village would come to no harm despite the cacophony of sights and sounds. And no harm
would
come to us, because the white-robed Shamans walked the crowded streets. Their pace steady, their faces serene, they walked among the buyers and sellers, sometimes stopping to accept a slice of fruit or a cup of cool water. They seldom spoke to the people around them, but when they smiled and said “Travel lightly,” it always sounded like a blessing.

So on the afternoon that changed so many things, Tahnee was cheerfully haggling with the son of a merchant, more to have a reason to remain close to the handsome boy than because she was seriously interested in whatever she had found to haggle over that day. I wandered down the row of booths just for something to do while I waited. Then I saw a flash of white disappearing between two booths. No, more than that. In a place that was crowded and where every merchant jealously guarded his allotted space down to the last finger length, there shouldn’t have been a space that would have easily fit four booths.

That was the moment I realized I had passed that gap in the booths more than once each day without really seeing it—or wondering about it.

I stepped into that gap and saw something else that had eluded my eye during those first two days.

The bazaar backed up against a white wall. The gap in the booths matched the width of the archway leading into . . . The streets, gardens, courtyards, and buildings might have been another world. For all I know, they were. The place was white and clean, and with every breath I breathed in peace. And with every step I took, a pain grew inside me, as if a Black Pustule had formed deep within my body and was festering.

Still within sight of the archway, I stopped moving. Then I looked up and something shivered through me, as if I were a bell that had been struck and somehow retuned to match the resonance of the building in front of me.

T
HE
T
EMPLE OF
S
ORROW.

I walked up the steps and pulled the rope beside the door. Heard the bell calling, calling.

A Shaman opened the door. His hair was grizzled, his face unlined. I have never seen anything before or since that matched the beauty of his eyes.

He smiled and stood aside to let me enter.

“Is this your first visit?” he asked.

I just nodded, struck dumb by the odd sensation of feeling too gaudy and too plain at the same time. It was my first experience with having a crush on a man, and I didn’t know what to do or say.

Then I remembered I was wifely plump rather than maidenly sleek, and there was something festering inside me.

“I see,” he said softly, and I was terrified that, somehow, he had. Then he said, “This way,” and led me to a pair of doors on the left side of the building.

He opened the doors and the sound . . . “No,” I gasped. “No. I can’t. That is—”
Obscene. A violation.

Something that sang in my limbs.

He closed the doors. “That is sorrow.” His voice was quiet, gentle. “That is why this temple is here. To give it voice. To set it free. Sorrow should not be swallowed. It will linger in the body, cleave to the flesh, long after the mind and heart have forgotten the cause.”

Each word was a delicate blow, a butterfly tap that reverberated through my heart.

“What do I do?” I asked.

He opened the doors again and we stepped into the room.

It sounded like the entire city was in that room, but in truth, there was no more than a double handful of people, and the room could have held twice that many. Some were wearing a hooded robe that had a veil over the face, which allowed them to see and breathe but obscured their identity. Others sat with their faces exposed to the world.

The sound in the room rose and fell, sometimes barely a hum and other times crescendoing to be the voice of sky and earth and all living things.

In one of the quieter moments, the Shaman whispered, “The gongs provide a tone. If the first one you try does not fit the voice you need today, try another.”

“Then what do I do?”

His hand rested on my shoulder for a moment, the warmth of it a staggering comfort. He smiled and said, “Then you release sorrow.”

Too self-conscious to really try the available gongs to test their sound, I chose one based on the pleasing simplicity of the frame that held it. It did not produce a sound quite as deep as what I wanted, but having timidly struck it once, I wasn’t about to get up and move to another place in the room.

I kept my eyes fixed on the floor just in front of my cushions, sure that it would be terribly rude to look at the other people in the room. I hummed, fearful of being heard, while something inside me swelled and swelled until it was ready to burst.

The voices around me rose and fell. Sometimes a gong would sound and one voice would be raised in a wordless cry. Other times each gong was rung and the accompanying voices filled the room. Over and over until, at last, there was only one voice still keening, only one heart not yet purged of sorrow.

Mine.

But I, too, fell silent, too exhausted and hollowed out to go on. I had lanced my well of sorrow, but I had not extracted the core.

One by one, the other people stood up and left. I was the last person in the room, and by the time I reached the door, the Shaman stood there, a question in his beautiful eyes.

“If you need us, we are always here,” he said. Then he escorted me to the outer door and added, “Travel lightly.”

“Oh, my friends and I are staying in the city for a few more days,” I said, wondering if that was considered flirting or too bold—and wondering if Shamans even had such interests in the flesh.

His eyes smiled, though his expression remained serious. “Some journeys can be made without setting a foot outside your own room.” He paused. “If you need us, we are here. Remember that.”

It wasn’t until I returned to the friendly cacophony of the bazaar that I noticed the sign above the archway. It said T
HE
T
EMPLES
, as if nothing more was required in identifying that island of peace.

“Nalah!” Tahnee rushed up to me. “Where have you been? I almost went back to the rooming house without you, but . . .”

The day before I might have stammered something or become defensive because I was unwilling to tell anyone where I had been. But that day, I saw something in Tahnee’s face, in her eyes.

“We’ve spent the afternoon wandering around the bazaar, looking at so many things.”

“Yes,” Tahnee said, wary but willing to hear me out. “We have. But . . . you haven’t bought anything.”

“I don’t have as much spending money as you, so—”

“Oh, I can give you some if—”

“I’m looking very carefully before deciding what gifts to purchase for my parents and brother as a way of thanking them for allowing me to see Vision.”

“Oh.” Tahnee nibbled her lower lip. “It would be better if we both came to the bazaar, don’t you think? Safer that way. Ah . . . how much longer will you need to decide on your purchases?”

“There is still so much to see, I think it will take at least another day or two,” I said, linking arms with Tahnee as we headed in the direction of the rooming house.

She gave me a sidelong look. “You are all right, though, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I replied honestly. “I feel better than I’ve felt in a very long time. Perhaps the best ever.”

“I feel the same.”

I didn’t think we had the same reason for the feeling, but I was glad to hear her say it. And for me, it was true. I felt better. Much better.

I felt the same way I used to feel after making a moody cake and bringing it to The Voice. But that was something I didn’t want to think about. Not yet. So Tahnee and I returned to the rooming house and endured a mild scold from her mother about almost being late for the evening meal. But her father looked at us and said with a wink, “Had a little adventure, did you? Nothing wrong with a little adventure—as long as it doesn’t go too far.”

Too far?
I thought about what the Shaman had said about making a journey without leaving your room and realized I already had gone too far—because now there was no going back.

The next two days were deceptions tacitly permitted by Tahnee’s father, since he knew we were up to something but figured that being together, neither of us would go too far in our little adventures. And there was a tacit agreement between me and Tahnee that neither of us
would
go too far and put the other’s “little adventure” at risk.

I don’t know where she went, but I guessed that a handsome young man had been given some time off from work in his father’s booth. I went to the Temple of Sorrow.

The gongs reverberated in the air. Voices rose and fell. And the sounds and the tears lanced a pain deep inside me that had been growing and festering since the first time I had eaten a moody cake and had gained an inkling of what it meant to be The Voice.

I lanced the pain, knowing there would be scars. But I wasn’t able to extract the core of that pain until later that evening when Tahnee and I were in our room, not saying much as each of us contemplated how to spend our last day in the city.

“The boys at home,” Tahnee said, curling up on the bed and fixing her gaze on the wall rather than look at me. “I mean no criticism of your brother. He seems nice enough, although it will be years yet before he is considered of marrying age. The ones who
are
of marrying age . . . They’re all like Chayne, and I don’t want to live with a man like Chayne. Kobbi . . .” Tahnee licked her lips, a nervous gesture. “Kobbi thinks Chayne is doing something to her when he wants to do the marriage thing. You know. In bed.”

Since she seemed to expect it, I nodded to indicate I understood.

“She’s not sure, and it isn’t every time they . . . do things. But sometimes she doesn’t feel right in the head the next day. Chayne was real worried the day she had a bad spell after one of those nights, and that’s when she began thinking that maybe he was doing something. Before she could get up the nerve to tell her father, Chayne began making cutting little remarks, especially around her father, saying that a good wife would not begrudge giving her husband little pleasures when he had to work hard to provide her with a home and clothes and food. So when Kobbi finally got scared enough to tell her father . . .”

BOOK: The Voice
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