Solea had assumed that most of the girls could barely speak the Swan’s language. After all, when Madam Burl had each of the girls speak the various dialogue prompts that she always made them practice, everyone seemed to have a strange and stilted way of talking that was painful to listen to, even beyond the awful accents.
But, when they were allowed to speak about things that they were interested in, suddenly the words poured out. Through their stories, Solea learned that many of the girls — whom she had assumed were mostly just interested in boys and marriage, since that’s what they mostly talked about — were quite accomplished young women. Uleda, whose father was involved in logging, knew how to operate a variety of different saws and had free-climbed pines and attached ropes to the very tops to help fell the trees for her father’s logging company. Another girl, Jarista, whose father was a restaurateur for an upscale restaurant chain, developed some of the desserts that were now some of the most popular picks. Kyrie, whose family was involved with pipe manufacturing, knew how to design piping systems for homes.
They spoke, at first their sentences stilted and strange, for most of them only knew a couple of words, and Cyrus would listen to them patiently with a gentle smile. Then they would talk in their own language, and the words would come out more fluidly, and Cyrus’s face would beam. And then finally, in the third retelling, Cyrus would guide them along and help them find the words and phrases to tell their story in the Swan’s language. By the end of each of their stories, they were able to clearly tell the class a marvelous thing about them.
And Cyrus was a great teacher. He seemed to know each of his students and their stories. Every prompt he gave each girl allowed them to shine. Girls that had previously been unwilling to even attempt speaking in the language suddenly found their voice. And, the more they spoke, the more excited Cyrus became. His eyes positively sparkled as each girl told their story. After they finished their third and last retelling of the story, he would eagerly ask detailed questions about their stories. He asked Clarise about how she chose the perfumes that she did. He asked Uleda about the differences between pine trees and which ones were best for lumber. He asked Jarista about her favorite ingredients and flavors. He asked Kyrie about the materials used in the pipes, and whether they differed, depending on the pipe's purpose. They were smart questions that showed that he not only listened to their stories, but he personally regarded the girls as experts in their fields.
And the girls loved it.
Even Solea was starting to get excited, though she had no idea what he would ask her. The more she thought about it, the more worried she became. She had not done anything special, like the other girls, and she suddenly felt woefully inadequate because of it. When she was very young, her childhood had been full of playing and exploring the woods around her, for they had lived in the woods back then and not the marshlands. But there was no grand aim or purpose to her play, nor did she have any notable accomplishments to speak of. And when she became older — when her father turned from a simple merchant to the much more prestigious position of being Uclepidies’s Voice — it had felt like her childhood had completely shattered apart and the only real accomplishment was that she somehow survived it all.
At least she wouldn’t have to go first. Her seat was toward the middle of the classroom, not to the left.
However, just as it was Alainna’s turn, Cyrus suddenly turned to Solea and gave her a warm smile. “We shall hear the Lady speak in just a moment, never fear! But first, I would like to give Solea a chance to shine, before she is inevitably shadowed by the Lady. For they are sisters, and I am sure that Solea has always felt that she has lived in the shadow of the Lady. And so, perhaps the Lady wouldn’t mind letting her sister tell her story first for this one time.” With that, he took out a sheet of paper and scanned it briefly before glancing up at Solea. He gestured to the paper. “It is a list of possible prompts!” he said. “I made a list of questions for each lady after I had spoken to each of your fathers during my interview. However, the question that makes me the most curious right now is unscripted: what is the story behind that interesting cloak that you are wearing?”
Solea felt her face grow bright red. She grabbed at the cloak automatically, glanced to Alainna, who had also turned red, and swallowed hard. “I do not feel comfortable answering that question.” Then, when Cyrus frowned, she said, “It was a bit of an embarrassing situation, and I would prefer not to think about it at the moment.”
Cyrus nodded slowly and bowed to her. “Please forgive my inquiry then. I was merely curious.” He glanced once more at the paper in his hand and frowned. Then, very slowly, he read, “Out of all the ladies here, you are the one who has arguably spent the most time with the Swans. Your father has a very close relationship with the Black Swan, Uclepidies, and I understand that you view Uclepidies as part of your family as well, like an adopted uncle.”
Solea drew a quick breath and stared at Cyrus in disbelief. With all his research — and everything so far had suggested that he was extremely meticulous in everything he researched — Cyrus had thought that Uclepidies was only an adopted uncle to her?
Not noticing her discomfort, Cyrus continued reading, “Your godparents are Archondid and Eurodities, and from what I can tell, they spent several summers with you when you were a child. You speak and understand the Swans’ language fluently. I can only assume that you can read and write it at an advanced level as well.” He looked up at her, his eyes intense. “Have any of these Swans taught you their songs?”
Solea took a deep breath and closed her eyes tightly as Cyrus began to repeat himself twice more. And never was she more grateful for this repetition than she was now. She felt dizzy.
There was only one possible reason that Solea could think of why Cyrus wouldn’t know that Uclepidies was her father. Uclepidies must have denied that she was his daughter. After all, how else would Cyrus know who her godparents were and how they used to visit in the summer, but not know the simple fact that she was a Black Swan’s daughter and Uclepidies was her real father? Not that she was thrilled with Uclepidies being her real father, of course. She would have preferred to have Theron as her father. But for Uclepidies to outright deny her?
The thought made her sick.
Of course, if Cyrus were actually the Conqueror, it would make perfect sense why Uclepidies would do this. After all, perhaps he was afraid that there was a possibility, however remote, that the Conqueror would want to hurt her in some way. And perhaps he thought that initially denying her as a daughter was one way in which he could protect her, at least at first until the Conqueror would find out.
But the words still stung and made her feel as if her heart had split.
When Cyrus concluded his third repetition of the question, Solea took a deep breath, feeling strange as if she weren’t quite in her own body. “You want to hear a song?” she said suddenly, feeling suddenly bold in the reckless sort of way that you feel when you also feel as if you have nothing else to lose.
Cyrus frowned. “Well, if you would like to sing us one, that is fine, though I didn’t expect you to sing anything for us. I know I would be uncomfortable if someone new asked me to sing for them,” he said, suddenly laughing nervously. “And I would never ask you to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself, of course. I was mainly interested in seeing if you had grown up hearing their songs.”
“Of course I know their songs,” Solea said quietly, thinking about how she would sit on her father’s lap and listen to him mumble songs to her late at night when she was too terrified to sleep. That was Uclepidies, she suddenly thought, and suddenly tears sprang to her eyes. She felt like screaming.
Cyrus waited for her to expand on her sentence. Then, when he realized that she wouldn’t say more, he said, “Can you please tell us more about the songs?”
“I shall sing you a song,” Solea declared, springing up with a nervous energy that surprised her. She glanced around the room quickly — most of the girls, including Alainna, looked surprised, Cyrus looked alarmed, and Sergius looked annoyed. Only Archondid seemed to not care — he was too busy watching Cyrus. Solea took a deep breath. Then, before she lost her nerve, she began to sing the first song that came to her mind:
Hush my child, go to sleep,
As I stay here to weep and weep
The storm has come and it won’t pass
And we stand doomed as it lasts.
Your father, he has gone away
His blood’s been spilled; he lies in his grave
His grave that lies far in the deep
His eyes closed in forever sleep.
The storm rages and the winds they blow
The water surges and swells and grows
But his body lies down so still and deep
While I, above, can only weep.
So hush my child, go to sleep
Dream of dreams so good and sweet
While down below your father dreams
Of unfinished songs and broken wings.
Solea finished singing and looked at Cyrus. He stared at her, his eyes dark and clouded, while Archondid stood behind him, his neck oddly arched and rigid with all his feathers standing on an end. Behind her, she heard someone sobbing. She spun around and found Sergius with his head buried in his hands, sobbing bitterly.
“An interesting choice for a song,” Cyrus finally said, his voice strange and choked. Then he nodded to her. “The diamond on your cloak is glowing blue. Diamea has heard your song and he weeps along with you.”
Solea looked down in surprise to find the diamond brooch glowing a deep midnight blue, almost black, with little silver fissures everywhere. She grabbed it with her hand and looked back up at Cyrus in surprise.
Cyrus was smiling sadly at her. He gave her a deep bow. “You sing beautifully, Solea,” he said. “But your song will be a sad one.”