Songbird

Leila waved Marya off on her errands from behind a small mountain of assorted vegetables. She settled into a rhythm of chopping and scooping, from pile, to board, to pot; soothed by the easy repetition and the quiet, comfortable noises of the kitchen, punctuated by bursts of conversation from the public eating room as the connecting door opened and closed on the servers.

She was jolted out of her flow by a commotion at that door. She’d yet to go through it, but had seen glimpses of large sturdy tables with large, sturdy men sitting at them, talking and laughing.

A woman, similar in age to Juanita, but more angular in both face and body, entered, scolding someone or something behind her.

“Stop behaving like puppies after food and sit back where you’re meant to be.”

She closed the door behind her and surveyed the kitchen, hands on hips.

A brow went up when her gaze found Leila but she said nothing, walking forward to greet Juanita and accept the offer of peppermint tea.

Juanita turned to Leila. “Leila, this is Mistress Gallo, who made your dress.”

Leila stood, half trapped between table and bench, and gave a short little bow, hand to heart. “It’s an honour to meet you, Mistress.”

Mistress Gallo nodded back, lips nearly softening in a smile. “Sun Empire eh? Not been many through recently. Although your girl said this one had Temple problems, rather than political.”

Juanita replied. “Seems the new Emperor has some different opinions to his mother, but power corrupts in every place.”

She added. “What was the kerfuffle at the door?”

Mistress Gallo snorted. “Half your patrons clustered around the door, trying to hear the ‘voice from angels’ coming from the kitchen.”

Leila sat down again, hard. “I’m sorry, I’m so used to singing when I work, I didn’t even realise I was. I hope it hasn’t been annoying.”

Juanita choked, then laughed. “You have the loveliest voice I’ve ever heard. Most certainly not annoying.”

Mistress Gallo shook her head. “You should be out in the front room, singing there for a proper audience. You’ll make far better money out there than as a kitchen helper back here.”

Leila paled. “I can’t. I can never sing when people are actually listening. Everything chokes up and I can’t even speak.”

Mistress Gallo humphed. “That’s a pity. It’s something you should work on. Is that what the Temple wanted you for? Your voice?”

Leila replied. “No. Officially it was for my weaving, but Priest Gasin had other things in mind as well.”

That earned her a sharp look from the dressmaker. “Tall man, talks through his nose, dark hair, would be good looking if his face wasn’t stuck in a permanent sneer?”

Leila gulped and nodded.

Mistress Gallo said. “I’m going to bring one of my assistants for you to talk to. He’s been at my shop three times in the past two days, getting in the way and filling her head with promises of easy living and luxury.”

Marya returned before Leila could reply.

She burst into the room, calling out. “Mama, why are the patrons convinced you have a princess in golden robes back here? They’re getting all offended when the servers insist it’s only a girl in a brown dress.”

She paused. “Which would be Leila I suppose. That’s a bit rude.”

Juanita rolled her eyes. “It turns out Leila has a lovely singing voice and you know those men, dreamy romantics, the lot of them. They’re building palaces in the sky again.”

Marya rolled her eyes in turn, then darted back out of the door, returning an instant later pulling a large man in rough, working clothes behind her.

She turned to him. “See? I told you so. Where would we fit a princess in amongst all this. It was Leila singing, that’s all.”

The man cast a nervous glance around the kitchen, blinked at the sight of Leila behind her vegetables and jerked an awkward combination of nod and bow before disappearing through the door again.

Mistress Gallo said. “No doubt there will still be a princess. She will have fled through the back door when I came in.”

Marya took a seat next to Leila grabbing a second knife and reaching for a carrot. “So you can sing?”

“It’s just to set and keep a rhythm for my work. Never when people are listening.”

Juanita said. “Are you sure that’s not what the priest wanted you for?”

Leila shook her head. “The Temple only wants artists whose work delights the eye of the sun when it lights on them. Weaving, dancing, pottery, painting; those sorts of things. Singing is only used to lull and soothe the ire of the Moon Goddess’s hounds.”

She looked around at the disbelieving faces. “That’s what the Temple says anyway.”

Marya frowned thoughtfully. “So does that mean you’re only meant to sing at night?”

“No, because the moon is sometimes visible during the day. Plus, so many of us use song to help guide a rhythm for our work. Weavers, sailors, potters, dancers; we all have our chants and songs to help the work go better.”

Marya stopped chopping and rested her chin on her hand to watch Leila. “That Temple of yours sounds very different to us. We just have the Pledge Tree in a Sacred Grove on each island. There’s no priests or anything.”

Juanita said. “And what would you call Mother Eulogia?”

Marya paused, thought, then answered. “The wisest person on the island?”

The two older women laughed and Mistress Gallo said. “Good answer. She is also the tender of the Sacred Grove and a source of wisdom and guidance for others. That is what we look for in a priest or priestess.”

Leila considered this. “The High Priest is very wise, and kind as well, but it’s difficult to see or speak with him. Most people go to more junior priests for advice.”

Marya started chopping again. “If he’s so high and wise, why is he letting that nasty priest here get away with things.”

Leila sighed. “I don’t know. I hope it’s because he’s not aware of it.”

Mistress Gallo returned to the question of Leila’s occupation. “So if you’re not going to earn coin from your voice, what will you work as?”

Juanita answered. “Marya’s looking out for roles as a shop assistant, now she has her job at the bakery. She suggested Miklos.”

Mistress Gallo asked. “Know your fabrics do you?”

Leila replied. “My parents were master weavers and I trained under them since I was tiny.”

Mistress Gallo nodded thoughtfully. “Miklos is a very good notion then. Especially considering his mother-in-law.”

Juanita exclaimed. “I hadn’t even thought of that, it’s a very good placement.”

Marya and Leila looked at each other, shrugged, and returned to chopping.

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