Though once I was a singer of tales, they were not very good, for I always put too much of my heart in them, and never enough (I was told) of calculation. Where others would captivate and entertain, I would only sing a simple song that bent its head as if in prayer before time and truth and love. It was all I could do, and all I wanted to do, and I don’t know why. I followed nature’s wild rivers and God’s glittering lights, and they led me into a land where I was alone.
I was neither afraid of my solitude nor unhappy about it, but, lacking an audience, I could no longer be a singer of tales, and I became what I am now, which is I don’t exactly know what. Perhaps I am a kind of sentinel. My little house is high on a hillside overlooking the village, and from only mediocre height it has a commanding view of the great march-lands and the Veil of Shadows. But though a sentinel, I do not merely watch. I wait, and I have formed an image of exactly what it is I hope to see.
Long ago, in the time of the old emperor, I was young and just beginning my profession. The usurper was there, and one could not escape his evil presence. With his inexhaustible schemes, numerous agents, and terrific powers he often seemed about to prevail, but the old emperor, who had been through many more battles than he, always held him in check. That there was a struggle between what was, in the main, good, and what was in the main, evil, and that time after time the good prevailed, made all the children born in my time believe that this was the natural order of things, that even if it took a great deal of effort, effort would always find its reward and the just would triumph, as would the innocent.
I still believe, which is why I am on a hillside waiting. And I certainly believed then, even as the usurper began to gain the upper hand. Surely, I thought, the crimes that bring him to power will soon bring him down. Waiting then, as now, I did not change my songs, as did the other singers who listened carefully to everything that was new, and soon I found that I was nowhere, they were everywhere, and the usurper had taken the throne.
Can you imagine my surprise the day that he sent for me? Why would he bother with a singer of the old songs? Why would he bother with me? But he did bother. He cared inordinately, as if his life depended on it, as if I were his most vexing opponent. This I could hardly believe, and not only was I flattered, I was so afraid that my heels shook as if in an earthquake. As soon as he began to speak, however, I realized that I need not have feared. Either he would kill me, and I would have eternal peace, or I would beat him with courage alone. Were he not actually three times my size, he certainly appeared to be, and this was multiplied by his rank and disdain.
“You are still singing tales in the old style?” he asked, his voice as sharp as the point of a lance and as deep as the beat of a drum.
“Well,” I said, “times have been rather tough. I sang by a merchant’s campfire not so long ago. A caravan was taking empty lard cans to the nether outskirts of Zilna.”
“How many lard cans?”
“No, idiot! How many merchants?”
“You said a merchants’ campfire.”
“Yes, a merchant, and his campfire.”
“You sang to one person? Isn’t that demeaning?”
“I’ve had worse.”
“You’ve had audiences of less than one?”
“My career has had its ups and downs. It is possible to sing to no one, and lately I’ve been doing that quite a lot.”
As if remembering his own difficult times, the usurper nodded. For my part I prayed that I would not begin to like him, although I cared very little if he like me or not, for I knew that even were he extremely fond of me he could have me dispatched as easily as cracking a pumpkin seed. He had passions, and he sometimes killed for them, but he killed most often and most vigorously out of calculation, for to him all of life was a battle, and the object of the battle was to conquer all.
“Why is it then, that my agents call you a threat?”
I suppose he wanted me to write my own dismissive obituary before he killed me, but, in defiance I would not. “They tell you, Emperor, that I am a threat, because I am a threat.”
“Singing to a single merchant about to journey a thousand miles with a bunch of empty lard cans?”
“Even had I sung just to the cans themselves.”
“And how is that?”
“As long as I sing, a song is there. And if a song is there, someone might hear it and sing it to someone else, who would in turn sing it to someone else, and so on and so forth, until eventually it might become the anthem of the armies that will send you to oblivion.”
“Then I shall have you killed.”
“I was not expecting otherwise, and it hardly matters. My songs, though not very popular, will remain. The Damavand sing them even now. And someday their horsemen, riding at the head of the armies, will have cause to sing indeed. You are using actualities to fight potentialities, and that, Emperor, is a worse nightmare than any you can visit upon me.”
“We’ll see,” he said, in a voice so deep that the chalices shook.
I was expecting to die right then and there, but he said, “I order you to unravel your singing.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your songs,” he said, impatiently. “Undo them.”
“I can’t. They’re already sung.”
“Then sing them again, differently. Sing them so that they are about me. Sing them so that when people hear them they will weep for my sacrifices and admire my powers.”
At this I laughed, which must have astonished him, knowing as he did what he had in mind for me. “I would not laugh if I were you,” he warned.
“Why not laugh?” I asked. “I know how you will torture me, but I know that I will not sing the songs as you would have me sing them. You might as well try to burn water, because I’m water, and water doesn’t burn.”
A Kingdom Far and Clear, “The Veil of Shadows” p. 205-11 Mark Helprin