"If he'd been taken," Thomas suggested, "we'd know his whereabouts. He'd be there with us in the Council Edifice."
Kira nodded. "And with Jo. Although maybe they'd have locked him up, like her. He'd hate that."
"Matt would find a way to get free," Thomas pointed out. "Anyway," he added, helping Kira find her way around a puddle with a dead rat in it, "they wouldn't want Matt, I'm afraid. They only want us for our skills, and he hasn't any."
Kira thought of the impish boy, of his generosity and his laughter, of his devotion to the little dog. She thought of him now, wherever he was, on his quest to bring a gift to friends. "Oh, Thomas," she said, "he does. He knows just how to make us smile and laugh."
There seemed no hint of laughter or any history of it in this terrible place. Making her way through the squalor, Kira remembered Matt's infectious chortle. She thought, too, of the clear purity of the small singer's voice, and how the two children must have been the only elements of joy here. Now Jo had been taken away. And Matt was gone as well.
She wondered where he could have journeyed, all alone but for the dog, to search for blue.
The day of the Gathering was approaching. Its nearness was palpable in the village. People began to finish projects and delayed the start of new ones. Kira noticed that in the weaving shed fabrics were folded and stacked, but the looms were not restrung.
The noise level subsided, as if people were distracted with preparations and didn't want to waste time with the usual bickering.
Some people washed.
In his room, Thomas was meticulously polishing the Singer's staff again and again. He used thick oils and rubbed them into the wood with a soft cloth. Smooth and golden, it began to take on a glow and fragrance.
Matt did not return. It had been many days now since he had disappeared. At night, before she slept, Kira held the scrap of cloth that had so often assuaged her fears and even answered her questions. She wrapped it around her fingers and concentrated on Matt; she pictured the laughing boy and sought some feeling of where he might be and whether he was safe. A feeling of reassurance, of solace, came from the scrap. But no answer.
They could occasionally hear the voice of the small singer, Jo, during the day. The crying had ceased. Most often they heard repetitive chanting, the same phrases over and over, though sometimes, as if she were allowed a moment of her own, the high lyrical voice soared into melodies that made Kira hold her breath in awe.
She crept down at night with the key in her hand and visited the tyke. Jo had stopped asking for her mother, but she clung to Kira in the darkness. Together they whispered little stories and jokes. Kira brushed Jo's hair.
"I could thump with the hairbrush iffen I needed," Jo reminded her, looking up at the ceiling.
"Yes. And we would come." Kira stroked Jo's soft cheek.
"Want I should make a song for you?" Jo asked.
"Someday," Kira told her. "But not now. We mustn't make noise in the night. It must be our secret, that I come here."
"I be thinking up a song," Jo said. "And someday I sing it for you horrid loud."
"All right." Kira laughed.
"The Gathering be soon," Jo said importantly.
"Yes, I know."
"I be right up front, they say."
"Good for you! So you'll be able to see everything. You'll be able to see the beautiful Singer's robe. I've been working on it," Kira told her. "It has wonderful colors."
"When I be Singer," the tyke confided, "then I can make my own songs again. Iffen I learn the old ones good."
When Jamison came to her room, Kira showed him that the repairs to the robe were complete. He was obviously pleased with her work. Together they spread the fabric across the table, turning it, unfolding its pleating and cuffs, examining the intricate stitches and the scenes they created.
"You've done a fine job, Kira," he said. "Particularly here."
He pointed to a place that she recalled had been difficult for her; though tiny in size, as each embroidered scene was, it was a complicated portrayal of tall buildings in shades of gray, each of them toppling, against a background of fiery explosions. Kira had matched oranges and reds of different shades and had found the various grays for the smoke and the buildings. But the threading had been hard for her because she had no sense of what the buildings were. She had never seen anything like them. The Council Edifice in which she lived and worked was the only large building she knew, and it was small compared to these. These, before they toppled, had seemed to extend up into the sky to amazing heights, much, much higher than any tree she had ever seen.
"That was the hardest part," she told Jamison. "It was so complicated. Perhaps if I had known more about the buildings, about what happened to them —"
She was embarrassed. "I should have paid more attention to the Ruin Song each year," she confessed. "I was always so excited when it began, but then my mind would wander a bit, and I didn't always listen carefully."
"You were young," Jamison reminded her, "and the Song is very, very long. No one listens carefully to every part, and especially not the tykes."
"This year I will!" Kira told him. "This year I'll be paying special attention because I know the scenes so well. I'll be listening especially for this scene, with the buildings falling."
Jamison closed his eyes. She could see his lips move silently. He started to hum, and she recognized a recurrent melody from part of the Song. Then he began to chant aloud:
Burn, scourged world,
Inferno impure —
He opened his eyes. "I believe that's the part," he said. "It goes on and on after that — I forget the next words - but I believe that's the part where the buildings toppled. Of course I've listened to the Song for many more years than you."
"I can't imagine how the Singer remembers it all," Kira said. For a moment she thought of asking him about the captive child below, the Singer of the future, who was being forced to learn the interminable Song. But she hesitated, and the moment passed.
"Of course he has the staff as a guide," Jamison said. "And he began the learning when he was just a small tyke. That was a very long time ago. And he rehearses constantly. While you've been preparing his robe, he's been preparing this year's Song. The words are always the same, of course, but I believe he decides, each year, to emphasize certain parts. He studies all year, planning and rehearsing the singing of it."
"He has special quarters in a different section of the Edifice."
"I've never seen him except at the time of the Song."
"No. He stays apart."
They turned again to the robe, examining each section to be certain that Kira had missed nothing. A tender brought tea and they sat together, talking of the robe and its stories, of the history it told, of the time before the Ruin. Jamison closed his eyes again and recited.
Totoo now gone...
Kira recognized the lines, some of her favorites, though she didn't understand them. As a tyke the rhyming sounds had charmed her out of the boredom she often felt during the interminable Song. "Bogo tabal, timore toron," she had chanted to herself at times.
"What does it mean, that section?" she asked Jamison now.
"I believe it tells the names of lost places," he explained.
"I wonder what those places looked like. Timore toron. I like the sounds."
"That's part of your job," Jamison reminded her. "You use the threads to remind us of how they looked."
Kira nodded and smoothed the robe again, finding the tragic toppling cities and the interspersed meadows of soft greens.
Jamison set his teacup on the table, went to the window, and looked down. "The workers are finished. After the Gathering and this year's Song, you'll be able to start dyeing new threads for the robe."
She looked up, dismayed, hoping to see by his expression that he was making a small joke. But his look was solemn. Kira had thought that when this work was complete she could turn to her own projects, to some of the elaborate patterns that she could feel and see in her mind. Sometimes her fingers quivered with the desire to make those scenes. "Will the robe become so damaged during the Song that it will need repairing again?" she asked him, trying not to show how distressing the thought was to her. She wanted to please him. He had been her protector. But she didn't want to keep doing this forever.
"No, no." His voice was reassuring. "Your mother kept up with the small repairs each year. And now you've very capably redone the places that needed restoration. After this year's Song there will probably be only a few scattered broken threads for you to fix."
"Then —?" Kira was puzzled.
Jamison reached toward the robe and gestured at the empty unadorned expanse across the shoulders. "Here lies the future," he said.
"And now you will tell it to us, with your fingers and your threads," he told her. His eyes had a piercing, excited look.
She tried to conceal her shock. "So soon?" she murmured. He had referred to this enormous task before. But she had thought that when she was older — when she had more skill — more knowledge —
"We have waited a long time for you," he said, and looked at her firmly as if he dared her to refuse.
It began early. At dawn Kira could hear the sounds, even from her room on the opposite side of the building, as the people started to gather. Quickly she finished dressing, pulled the brush through her hair, and ran to Thomas's room on the other side of the corridor. From there they could look down at the plaza where all large gatherings took place.
Unlike the day of the hunt, this crowd was subdued. Even small tykes, usually so unruly, clung to their mothers' hands and waited quietly. The sound that had awakened Kira was not shouts and jostling but simply the tread of feet as the people streamed up the narrow lanes and moved into the throng waiting to enter the building. From the Fen path came a steady flow of silent citizens clutching and leading their tykes. From the opposite direction, from the area where Kira and her mother had lived, came others whom she recognized from her old neighborhood. There was her mother's widowed brother with his boy, Dan, but the small girl, Mar, was not with him; perhaps she had been given away.
On a typical day, families were scattered and apart, tykes scampering unsupervised, parents at work; but today hubbies stood with their wives and tykes with their families. The people seemed solemn and expectant.
"Where's the staff?" Kira asked, looking around Thomas's room.
"They took it yesterday."
Kira nodded. They had come and taken the robe yesterday as well. Weary though she was of the work, her room seemed diminished with it gone.
"Should we go down?" she asked him, though she didn't relish the prospect of joining the crowd.
"No, they said they'd come for us. I asked the tender who brought my breakfast.
"Look!" Thomas pointed. "Over there, way in the back. See, by the tree just before the weaving shed? Isn't that Matt's mother?"