A Song's Loss (Ahante)
[Muse Story Contest 1st Place Winner: "A Song's Loss" by Ahante.]
Quato settled himself on a stool facing the novices' hall. The bonfire had already been lit, and its leaping flames lit the journeyman's face as he gazed at the students seated on the flagstones before him, waiting eagerly for his tale. He plucked a few dissonant chords on his lute to set the mood, and spoke....
Many, many years ago, before you or I or the Elders were born, a poor couple in a nameless village north of Buya gave birth to their second child, a daughter. Their son, Sapo, was six years older, and already showed unusual talent in the High Art of music, so they named their newborn Utako, or Song's child, in hopes that she would be the same, and gain honor for herself and her family.
But the fates had played a cruel joke on little Utako. For when the midwife brought her into the world and patted her to take her first breath, the baby opened its mouth to wail--and no sound came out. Soon it was apparent to her dismayed parents that their new child was not only mute, but deaf as well. And they despaired for their daughter's sake.
Little Utako grew, as babies are wont to do, and she was just as active and curious as any other toddler of the village. But what she loved the best was standing on her short little legs in front of the hearth, mesmerized by the dancing flames of the cookfire. Again and again, she would reach out pudgy little baby hands towards the warmth and the light, until she touched the flame and snatched them back. But she never cried, never opened her mouth in a silent scream of complaint. And five minutes later, would reach out with her yearning hands towards the life in the flames. Her mother, worried beyond words for her daughter, finally was forced to put up a grate to keep little Utako from further hurt.
But Utako found other fires. She reached for flickering tallow candles, for the family's one coveted oil lantern. Several times her father caught her wandering towards the village smithy and carried her back, less angry than frightened of his daughter's obsession with fire.
In a village, nothing is ever unnoticed, and soon all were whispering about the fire demon that inhabited a girl-child's body.
"She will bring bad fortune to us all! If the fire demon is not driven away, it will burn the whole village out of spite!"
The whispers grew, and Utako's parents hid her in their hut to protect her. Utako loved to wander, and would have been unmanagable but for Sapo. Instead of playing with the other boys, Sapo spent his days in the vegetable garden behind the hut with Utako, holding mock swordfights and wrestling matches, and the loving brother always let her win. Patiently, he spoke to her though she could not hear, until she learned to read his lips and understand the speech of others. So the bond between them grew and strengthened as the seasons passed.
On Sapo's twelfth birthday, news came to the village of a new guild in the great city of Buya. The Muses, the messenger said, supported all the High Arts, be it music, poetry, painting, or any others. Sapo knew that his day of destiny had come, and when the messenger left, Sapo went with him.
Four more years passed, and Utako turned ten. She was not a beautiful child, but in the sun, her skin seemed to glow with life, and her black eyes smoldered as if they were two coals in a fire. The rumors had long since died down, and she was free to wander as she pleased, but the other children mistrusted the silent, "stupid" child who watched them with such burning eyes. The girls would run away from her while the boys, eager to prove themselves, would try to beat her down. But the flame-child fought back with a ferocity and skill (learned from her older brother) that shocked the villagers, and soon the boys left her alone as
That summer, Sapo returned from Buya. He had made Journeyman Muse, he said, and had been given a month off freedom to visit his family. For his parents, he brought delights from the city: a bolt of fine red cloth, a gourd of moon wine, and a beautiful scroll depicting the Secret Garden. But for Utako, he brought the greatest gift of all: a few sheets of parchment, a vial of ink, and a single white quill. He was going to teach his sister how to write!
They began the very next day. Sapo cleared a patch of dirt where he and Utako had wrestled, and, using a branch as a stylus, began teaching her the alphabet. Utako had a quick mind, and a way to communicate without pantomining like an idiot appealed to her pride. Before the month was over, she could write as well as Sapo, and their written conversations covered the garden. But the pieces of parchment were not covered in words. Instead, Utako found a greater use for them. Using pieces of charcoal from the fire, she drew lines and curves and shadings, rubbing out mistakes until she emerged from the hut triumphantly one day and showed her brother her creation: a life-like sketch of his face! Sapo was shocked. Utako, without any training at all, had managed to convey a sense of life to the drawing, when well-taught artists sometimes spent their lifetime trying to capture that elusive spark.
That night, Sapo spoke with their parents, and asked if Utako could return with him to the Muse guild, so her gift could be shared with the world. They were overjoyed, of course, that their silent daughter had a blessing that could overcome the solitude of her silence, and Utako would do anything to stay with her brother. So Utako's mother sewed a new dress for Utako out of the bright red cloth Sapo had brought, and the two returned to Buya.
The teachers were amazed at the gift that burned brightly and Utako's heart, and they welcomed her into their classes. The inconveniences of reading her questions were nothing to the paintings that she made even in her earliest projects. Soon she was a favorite of all the Muses, but only her brother could make her laugh.
Utako was proud of her paintings, but she wanted something more. In all her finished paintings, there was not even a tiny sketch of a fire, for all her attempts to capture the light and movement of flame had been unsatisfactory. One night visiting her brother in his room, she told him that she wanted be working on a project, and if he could help her get out of classes. Without a word, he took her out with him into the gardens surrounding the Muse halls, until they came into a tiny grove with a beautiful bamboo and rice paper house. It was a temple to the gods that people used to pray for inspiration at, but it was too far away from the main buildings, and had fallen into disuse.
For the next month, Utako did research. She lit candles, lanterns, even risked a bonfire so she could gaze into its depths and trace its life. She snuck out into the city to ask mages to summon the fires of magic for her study. But nothing worked. Every sketch she made was nothing but an ordinary picture, without the energy that she yearned to touch in each flame.
As she trudged dejectedly back to her hideout, she didn't notice the shadowy figure standing ahead of her until it grabbed her and dragged her into a nearby alley. Anger surged up in her, and she kicked and clawed and bit. Her attacker, not expecting a fight from the girl, let go and tried to flee. But Utako tackled him as he turned to run, and they went tumbling further into the shadows. The would-be assailant pulled out his knife, but she bit his hand, drawing blood, and it fell to the dust. The man finally pulled free, and sprinted towards the street. Utako, the fire of her anger burning deep, threw the item closest to hand at the retreating figure. Too late, she saw the glint of metal as it flew true and embedded itself in the other's back.
Back in her hideaway, Utako realized that she did not feel even the slightest guilt over the murder. Instead, she was filled with a sense of exhilaration from the danger of the fight. The tiny flame that burned within her, that had drawn her closer to all those other fires for as long as she could remember, had suddenly flared into a raging inferno when she attacked her attacker, and was slowly dying down only now. But that fire had made her feel more alive.
Inspiration struck. The girl put out the dozens of candles and lanterns that lit the room, and feverishly began mixing paint. To the bright colors she had mixed before, she added a tiny droplet of her own blood. The pigments, infused with the fire flowing in her veins, swirled and glowed in the darkness. And she began to paint.
For another month she painted, barely remembering to eat some of her stores of food, completely unaware of the passing of the seasons, as the warm summer faded into the bright colors of autumn. Completely unaware of events happening outside her haven.
Finally, she was finished. She gazed in satisfaction the twilight darkness at her painting of Fire, a chaotic dance of light and heat and beauty. As she rolled up the scroll, she knew who she wanted to see her masterpiece first. She grabbed her red robe and strode outside. The full moon had just peeked over the roof of the journeymen's building when she arrived.
But something was wrong. In the courtyard, dozens of bonfires burned, and an unfamiliar stench permeated the air. Unheeding, Utako rushed in towards her brother's room. Firelight streamed through Sapo's open doorway. As she entered, the three servants inside looked up, and their eyes widened in recognition. The tallest straightened and glared at her.
"Where have you been? All the servants have been ordered to look for you ever since you ran away two months ago! Why come back now? Is it because you heard about Sapo?" At Utako's, frightened, wide-eyed stare, the servant realized her mistake. She softened her voice and told the girl of the plague that had claimed the lives of hundreds in the city. That had claimed the life of a brother already weakened by worry for his gifted younger sister.
The scroll dropped from her fingers and slowly began to unroll as she slowly shook her head in denial. Sapo couldn't be dead! He was her brother! The scroll lay open on the ground, light seeming to stream from its depths. Suddenly, the fires in the room all flared out, lighting the curtains, the scattered papers, the bed, and the scroll itself burst into flame. The servants screamed and fled, but Utako still stood, head bowed, unmoving, uncaring, until a slender column of flame streaked up from the scroll and seared her throat.
And Utako screamed. Her newfound voice wailed her loss as it soared upwards with the flames, seeking the night sky.
The students and Muses gathered in front of the Journeyman Hall saw a figure come through the flames wreathing the main doors. Her beautiful robe was blackened by the smoke, but she was unharmed, save a tiny flame-shaped scar on her throat. In her hands she clutched a tiny scrap of parchment, holding a simple charcoal sketch of someone's face.
Utako never made another work of art. The glow that lit her skin faded, and the fire in her eyes burnt out. The fire returns only when she finds the heat of violence, then her eyes sear, and someone dies. Perhaps she truly is a spirit of fire, for she has not aged a day since that night of flame. She will rarely speak, but sometimes you can catch a glimpse of her, for the Muse elders let her stay on in honor of Art lost.
The novices sat in awed silence as Quato finished his story. Finally all dispersed to find comfort in their beds. Soon, silence reigned. From the shadows a figure robed in black crept out toward the remains of the bonfire. Silent tears streamed from its coal-black eyes as it gazed at the few flickering flames.