Today Sarrai had to move again. She’d stopped asking why; the explanation was always the same. People form emotional attachments by proximity, and a smart girl should have learned by now that those can kill you. The trick is to keep moving, young lady. Always keep moving.
If she pressed the matter, she’d get another history lesson. Those never varied much, either. Before the child-rearing institutions, children had only two caregivers, the male and female who were also their lifegivers. They had siblings, other children who lived with them all the time, and were under a spell called love that made them hurt when the others did. In the early days after Arasu’s Plague, lifegivers had cried themselves to death over harsh words exchanged with their offspring. Men had stopped breathing when separated from their mates. Even now, with all the precautions taken, danger lurked around every corner. Just last week, a merchant had a heart attack while arguing with a customer. Would she like that, because that was what relationships did. The commoners of Calibei were a gentle, sensitive people since the Plague, and if she didn’t start packing her things this instant she wouldn’t get any dessert.
So she packed, and together with forty-nine randomly-assigned children, started the march toward the next institution. This one was halfway across the city. The sun blazed brightly today, and everyone carried umbrellas in addition to the scarves draped over their heads. The instructors had forced Sarrai to put on a visor so the brightness wouldn’t blind her, but now she couldn’t see much of anything at all. She kept tripping over her feet.
“Are you thirsty, child? Is it the heat?” came the instructor’s voice. Sarrai wasn’t allowed to know the instructors’ names before her tenth nameday, when she’d apparently be emotionally stable enough to handle such intimacy without getting attached. She squinted up where she thought the instructor’s face might be.
“It’s not hot, and I can’t see.”
“Ah, you need a darker visor.”
“A lighter one.”
The instructor paused. “That’s enough trouble from you, young lady. Come along.”
Hands pushed her into motion again. Sarrai sighed but said nothing. She could just yank this thing off when no one was looking, but they’d only force her to put it on again. They didn’t know that every time she went out to do her chores, she didn’t wear one. She didn’t need to cover her skin, either; the sun didn’t burn her like it did everyone else. When it thundered outside, she didn’t wear earplugs, and she doubted a simple argument would –
The queue stopped. People started muttering, and Sarrai pulled off her visor without thinking in her haste to see what was happening. The motion yanked down her head scarf, too, but she barely noticed.
A man in uniform stood ahead, speaking with one of the instructors. He was big, broad-shouldered, at least a head taller than the instructor. He wore no visor, no scarf, and his skin was golden rather than the milky white of everyone else on the street. She’d heard about the Imperial soldiers being giants, but she’d thought that a figure of speech.
“You can’t pass this way.” He spoke loudly, not in that whispering voice most people used. The instructor winced as if he’d shouted. “The road’s closed.”
“Is there danger?”
The soldier frowned. As a direct relative of the emperor, he didn’t have to answer to anyone but the governor. The road was closed if he said so and that was that – but after a moment, his face softened and he muttered, “We’ve had reports of a rogue Siren.”
“Arasu have mercy,” breathed the instructor. Some of the younger children started crying. The instructors ushered them together and turned them around, and Sarrai let her visor drop from her numb fingers as she followed. Was there really a Siren out there? She’d never seen one, but legend had it they were Arasu’s chosen people, here to bring pain to those the devil-goddess hated. The terrible sounds they made could drive a man mad with grief or make him laugh until he died. She shuddered thinking about it.
“Quickly, children, quickly!” shouted the instructors, nearly tripping over the long hems of their dresses as they ran. You didn’t want to be caught within hearing-range of a Siren. Sarrai reached for her earplugs, but someone jostled her and she dropped them. Her pounding heart mingled in her ears with the trampling of feet.
And then she heard it.
A soft, trilling sound, like the calls she’d once heard from a bird at her windowsill. Back then she’d thought she was dreaming – everyone knew birds were bred without vocal chords – but she had no doubt about this sound now. It moved with purpose, with power. It lifted something from Sarrai’s heart even as the children around her shrieked and wailed. It was a sad sound, yes, but Sarrai ached in a way that didn’t hurt, if that made any sense. The pain felt…human. She tried to slow, but an instructor grabbed her hand and hurried her forward until the sounds stopped vibrating in the air.
It didn’t matter. They continued vibrating in Sarrai’s ears, her heart. For the first time since she could remember, she felt alive.
Feet paced outside her room. They’d been doing that for hours. Sarrai went to the door and peered through the keyhole again. The two instructors who’d been muttering together had become a group of at least eight. They looked like giant bats, all swathed with fabrics to avoid exposing their sensitive skin to the elements. As if there were any “elements” indoors. Sarrai slumped down with her back against the door, fighting back tears.
So she’d taken off her visor. Big deal! That was no reason not to feed her all day, or to lock her in a dark and lonely room away from all signs of life. It wasn’t like she’d caught some disease – was it? Were her eyes infected from the sun? Fear pumped through her again, but she refused to cry because she couldn’t hear the instructors’ whispers over her blubbering when she did. She wiped her nose on her sleeve and strained her ears, pressing her face to the door. It was made of smooth petrified wood; regular wood gave off splinters no matter how polished it was. People were such big crybabies. She wouldn’t be like that.
“…no head scarf. The girl should have been affected by sunstroke within minutes. We traveled for a half hour before I noticed the state she was in. She didn’t even seem aware that her eyes and head were unprotected! Look at her face. No sunburns, nothing at all.
“She told me her visor was…too dark.”
Gasps. Sarrai scoffed to herself.
“And the Siren’s song didn’t frighten her. She didn’t seem to be in pain at all.”
“Is it possible…?”
“No. Don’t think it. There’s no way we could have made such a mistake.”
“We have to think it, Semisola. The consequences could be grave if this goes uncorrected. Who collected her from her lifegivers seven years ago?”
“The records name an Instructor Aduvari.”
It took three days for Instructor Aduvari to arrive from the other end of town. The two head instructors whose names she’d learned were Semisola and Neera awaited him in one of the spare classrooms. Sarrai stood in the corner; Semisola had insisted she be here so they could cross-reference her features with those of her lifegivers. Whatever that meant.
Aduvari studied the papers in his hands, looking from them to Sarrai and back again. Sarrai had never liked being the center of attention. Now she just wanted to sink into the ground. The instructors’ gazes bore into her with scrutiny.
“She certainly resembles the woman,” Aduvari murmured, stroking his chin. “And she has her father’s eyes. It’s their child, no doubt. She’s the baker’s daughter – nothing more, nothing less.”
“But she has the royal strength, Instructor,” said Neera in her nasal voice. “I bore witness to it. The sun doesn’t hurt her and neither does music. Perhaps a royal baby went missing seven years ago and the baker found her? She could be the governor’s own daughter, for Arasu’s sake! We must investigate.”
All three pairs of eyes latched on Sarrai again. She struggled not to squirm. “Do you consider yourself special, girl?” Aduvari asked. His beard was so long he tucked it into his belt. Trembling, Sarrai shook her head. She’d never thought of herself as special so much as normal. Was normalcy special when you were the only normal person around?
“Have you no tongue?” Aduvari demanded.
Sarrai stepped forward. “Apologies, Instructor. I’ve never considered myself anything.”
Aduvari nodded, but he looked displeased. Neera and Semisola shared glances. Before she could stop herself, Sarrai blurted, “What did I say?” and all three instructors winced.
“She speaks loudly,” Semisola muttered. “Like the Imperial soldiers.”
Sarrai’s fear turned into an urge to laugh. She certainly wouldn’t discourage the notion that she was royalty, if they wanted to believe that, but how could such a small-boned, pale, timid creature like herself be related to the emperor and his bronze men? Imperial soldiers were fearless, strong of body, heart, and mind. Sarrai was too shy to even ask for seconds at dinner. It had taken her years to work up the courage to remove her visor when she went out alone, even though she’d known she didn’t need it. Part of her had been terrified her eyeballs would become scorching cinders in her head as soon as the sunlight struck them. For years she’d lived in a dull, colorless world of whispers and shadows because of it.
The Imperial soldier I saw today didn’t need a visor. I’ve always known I was strong of body like them. Maybe the heart and mind parts can be learned.
“Have you tried feeding her milk?” Neera was saying. “We’ll see if she’s lactose tolerant.”
“I wouldn’t want to make the child sick…”
“That’s a small price to pay for our peace of mind.”
“The governor will suspect something when we request milk from the garrison’s provisions, Sola –”
Royalty! Sarrai couldn’t help smiling. They would send her to the citadel to train as an Imperial soldier, and she’d be allowed to do whatever she wanted without anyone breathing down her neck. She’d learn to protect both herself and the district of Calibei with sword and shield. There would be no more whispering, no more swathing herself in fabrics, no more squinting to read in the dark, no more tasteless foods.
“Take her directly to the governor. He can test her at the citadel.”
Sarrai gathered the three long dresses she owned and stuffed them into the leather rucksack she normally used to rotate from one institution to the next. Her insides squirmed with excitement and trepidation.
In another year, she would have had to pick a trade and start her apprenticeship. She’d actually been considering becoming a baker, for Arasu’s sake. She would have gone back to her lifegiver without even knowing it. It had been a brilliant idea of hers to liven up the food around here by slipping in a few extra ingredients, but now that she knew she was royal, she was glad she hadn’t done it. She could’ve made people sick. She was different from them – stronger. Royal. A bastard daughter of the king’s second cousin, perhaps, but still! She laughed to herself and continued packing. The instructors had let her open her windows, and the sun blazed brightly into her room, warming her bedsheets. She wanted to jump into bed and roll in them, but the instructors had told her to hurry. The coach would be here any minute to take her to the governor’s citadel.
Without these soundproofed windows closed, Sarrai could hear the sounds of Calibei as people bustled in the streets. There weren’t many – just feet, the occasional voice, and the wind – but to Sarrai they seemed to have a sort of harmony. The wind was clear and high-pitched, reminding her of that trilling sound she’d heard from the Siren. Someone beat a rug in half-time to the wind, and a boy carrying two water jugs ran in double-time. The sounds coursed through her like the blood through her veins. Every part of her ached to touch them, to join them. She left her rucksack and began beating on the windowsill like the carpet-beater, then added more beats when she realized she could while still keeping time. She just had to make them shorter. A smile touched her lips.
Then a thought struck her. What if she used her voice to imitate the wind? Sometimes, when she was alone, she would imitate the sound of the crackling fire or scraping chair, but they were just sounds. The wind’s noise was something different, more like an equation. It made sense.
Sarrai listened for another moment. She could do it. Now that she was royal, she didn’t have to be quiet anymore. She took a deep breath.
And alone in her room, she sang.
It could have been minutes. It could have been hours. Sarrai had gotten so lost in the music that she didn’t remember herself until a booted foot kicked down her door. She yelped, whirling around so suddenly she nearly fell out the window. The two Imperial soldiers facing her had chiseled jaws and low, heavy brows and eyes that narrowed at the sight of her. They wore high-collared, sleeveless tunics belted at the waist with leather.
Behind them, Instructor Semisola sobbed into her hands.
Fear gripped Sarrai so powerfully she couldn’t move. One of the soldiers stomped toward her and grabbed her arm, forcing her away from the window. His fingers were impossibly strong, and for the first time in her life, Sarrai felt her flesh bruise. Tears streamed down her face as he took a long piece of cloth from his pocket.
“Please don’t,” she pleaded, cringing away from him. “I haven’t done anything! I’m – I’m royal!”
“Don’t let it speak,” said the second soldier, who Sarrai noticed kept a wary distance from her. “It will put a spell on you. Gag it.”
She opened her mouth to plead again, but the soldier holding her struck her across the face. She fell to the ground, dazed. A powerful hand lifted her and forced the gag on so tightly she felt it cutting the corners of her mouth. Then the soldier grabbed her by her hair and forced her out of the room.
“Did you hear what the hellspawn said, Malik?”
The carriage moved smoothly on Calibei’s paved roads toward the governor’s citadel. Sarrai’s eye had swollen shut, her lips had cracked from thirst. The soldier named Malik forced a chuckle but made no other response. He still held his hand on the pommel of his sword, though his companion had hung his weapon – sheath and all – upon the wall. Sarrai had spent the last three hours plotting how best to grab it with tied hands the next time one of them stopped to relieve themselves.
“Said she was royal,” the first soldier continued. “Fancies herself our kin.” He turned a steely gaze on Sarrai. “You are the devil’s daughter, Siren. The Imperial soldiers are man’s protectors – your kind, man’s torturers. Do you enjoy causing pain? Is that why you do it?”
Sarrai just stared back at him, tired of trying to negate accusations she didn’t understand. If she could speak, she would have screamed, “Do what?” ten times already, but they wouldn’t even take off the gag to give her water. Her face felt very dry from the salt in her tears. She wished she hadn’t cried so much. Maybe she would’ve been less thirsty now.
“Leave it be,” Malik muttered. “Don’t bait it. The governor will discipline it as he sees fit.”
It. In the blink of an eye, she’d gone from royalty to a monster undeserving of the most basic human titles. It didn’t make sense; how could she be a Siren? She didn’t want to hurt anyone, and she didn’t think what she did with her voice was hideous. How could it hurt others when it made her feel so peaceful? Was it true, then? Did she like causing pain?
“It watches my sword, Malik.” The words jolted Sarrai out of her reverie. “It’s a survivor. These types usually are.”
She averted her eyes, though she knew they’d already seen her looking and, worse, read the fear of being caught on her face. Malik tightened his grip on his pommel, but the other just laughed. “Worry not, little beast,” he said. “You’ll have your chance to fight. After the governor cuts out your tongue, he’ll put you in the ranks and send you to war. Sirens are placed anywhere deemed too dangerous for an Imperial soldier to venture. Our lives are too precious to waste, but yours…”
“Quiet!” hissed Malik.
“Would you be more comfortable on patrol duty, my friend? Or back in the capital, hiding behind your mother’s skirts?”
“You’re a fool to taunt Arasu’s Chosen–”
“Ah, I told Koph you fret like a commoner –”
The carriage jumped suddenly, throwing Sarrai from her seat. She tumbled into the soldiers and all three fell to the ground in a tangle of fabric and chains. The carriage leaned heavily to the right as if a wheel had come off; Sarrai could hear the driver yelling somewhere far away. Her head swam with pain – had she hit it? – but a primal part of her stored that information for later. Injury didn’t matter now. The carriage was tilting both her and the soldiers toward the door.
She grappled for the handle, but a hand clamped her ankle and dragged her back. The jumping wood beat her body mercilessly; these benches weren’t rounded like the ones at the institution, and they had no cushions. She felt her gag slip down her neck as the soldier pulled her back toward him. The driver slowed and soon the carriage came to a halt, and without the confusion of motion, Sarrai knew she had lost. One of the soldiers came behind her, grabbed her about the waist, lifted her and threw her back onto the bench. She couldn’t hold out her hands to stop her fall, and pain erupted in her body from the contact with the hard wood. The other soldier cursed under his breath.
Facedown on the bench, angry and terrified, Sarrai did the only thing she could think of – the thing that came more naturally than running, fighting or crying. She used her voice. Despite the wild pounding of her heart and the ringing in her ears, it came out clear. It didn’t shake like her body did, and she realized after a few moments that she was repeating what she’d heard from the Siren all those days ago. She recalled every note, the way they interacted with and answered each other, every fluctuation in beat. Alone they were nothing, but together these sounds meant something. One day she would figure out what.
The soldiers didn’t scream out in pain. They did nothing at all. Sarrai started to wonder if they’d run away or just dropped dead at her feet, but she couldn’t convince herself to turn around. Sirens weren’t supposed to be capable of hurting royalty. She remembered that now.
So what were they doing?
Slowly, carefully, she turned. The soldiers faced her, swords dangling by their sides in loose grips, identical expressions of puzzlement on their faces. They didn’t seem to be in physical pain, but one of them – Malik – had tear tracks down his cheeks. Both looked pale and weak. She was hurting them, she realized.
And this thing that gave them pain made her happier than she could ever remember being. She was a monster.
Without looking back, Sarrai slipped out the window and ran.
The baker was not a horned, scaly beast, and the evilest thing about him was a tendency to overeat. Sarrai knew, had been watching him for weeks. He had a large belly and smiled at everyone who entered his store. The monster must have come from her mother’s side, but it would be impossible to track her down without snooping into the public records, which were kept away from all but royal eyes. It didn’t matter. She was what she was, and knowledge wouldn’t change that.
Another mating season had come and gone, and today a woman came into the shop with a baby in her arms. Both lifegivers had to be present to sign papers and formally give the child over to the empire. The mother looked anxious; she had already grown attached to it. Sarrai didn’t see why. From the glimpse she’d caught up in the trees, it looked like a mix between a rodent and a monkey. Had she been that ugly as a baby?
The door closed behind the mother, and the people from the child-rearing institution arrived a short while later. Sarrai couldn’t see much through the window – they kept it so dark inside – so she waited until the door opened again and two forms stepped past the threshold.
“Sunrise tomorrow,” one of them called back to the baker. Then they pulled up their visors, wrapped the scarves around their heads, and were gone. As soon as they were out of sight, Sarrai jumped down from the tree and yanked on her visor. She didn’t want to stand out – not here, anyway.
She entered the baker’s shop.
He emerged from the backroom, wiping his hands on his apron. He looked up at her, smiled. It was the same smile he gave everyone, and Sarrai had expected nothing else. She smiled back at him.
Then she started singing.
After he’d run from the shop, clutching his ears and sobbing so hard he could barely draw breath, Sarrai entered the backroom and went directly to the cot with the black bundle on it. Black meant it was a boy. The thing made hardly a sound when she approached it, and cooed softly when she picked it up. A spit bubble vibrated at the corner of its mouth, and it squirmed as if it were trying to escape its own skin.
But it wasn’t crying. It would be a monster like her.
Sarrai held the baby to her, felt the life emanating from it. Imperial soldiers would come after this boy as they’d come after her, but she would never let them have him. Even monsters needed a little protection. The trick was to keep moving, to just keep moving until your transience became as natural as the changing seasons and no one thought to ask about you any more than they thought to ask why summer turned to fall. Finally, now that she had someone to move for, Sarrai understood.