ESSTE Prologue

Nniv did not go to meet Mikal's starship. Instead, he waited in the rambling stone Songhouse, listening to the song of the walls, the whisper of the hundred young voices from the Chambers and the Stalls, the cold rhythm of the drafts. There were few in the galaxy who would dare to make Mikal come to them. Nniv was not daring, however. It did not occur to him that the Songmaster needed to go meet anyone.

Outside the Songhouse walls the rest of the people on the planet Tew were not so placid. When Mikal's starship sent its savage pulses of energy onto the landing field and settled hugely and delicately to the ground, there were thousands waiting to see him. He might have been a well-beloved leader, to hear the bands and see the cheering crowds that filled the landing field when it was cool enough to walk on again. He ought have been a national hero, with flowers spread in his path and dignitaries bowing and saluting and struggling to cope with a situation for which no protocol had yet been learned on Tew.

But the motive behind the ceremonies and the outward adoration was not love. It was an uncomfortable memory of the fact that Tew had been slow to submit to the Discipline of Frey. That Tew's ambassadors to other worlds had toyed with the plots and alliances that formed to make a last, pathetic resistance to the most irresistible conqueror in history. None of the plots came to anything. Too many greater leagues and nations had fallen, and now when 'Mikal's ships came no inner world resisted; no hostility was allowed to show.

To be sure, there was no great terror, either, in the hearts of the officials who rumbled their way through makeshift pomp. The days of ravaging conquered planers were over. Now that there was no resistance, Mikal proved that he could rule wisely and brutally and well, solidifying an empire from which he could reach farther out into the galaxy to the more distant worlds and confederations where his name was only a rumor. As long as the dignitaries were careful, Mikal's government on Tew would be reasonably fair, only mildly repressive, and disgustingly honest.

There were some who wondered why Mikal would bother with Tew at all. He seemed bored as he made his way along the flower-strewn path, his guards and retainers keeping the crowd a safe distance back. He did not look to the left or the right, and soon disappeared into the vehicles that rushed him to the government offices. And it was not Mikal but his aides who interviewed and fired and hired, who informed and explained about the new laws and the new order, who quickly revised the political system of the world to fit it into the pattern of Mikal's peaceful, well-governed empire. Why did Mikal need to come at all?

But the answer should have been obvious, and soon was obvious to those who were well-informed enough to know that Mikal had vanished from the building that was meant to house him. Mikal was really no different from the other tourists who came to Tew. The planet was pretty much a backwater, not important to any imperial plan. Except for the Songhouse. Mikal had come to see the Songhouse.

And for a man of wealth and power, there was only one reason, really, to visit there. He wanted a Songbird, of course.

You can't have a Songbird, sir, said the diffident young woman in the waiting room.

I haven't come to argue with gatekeepers.

Whom would you like to argue with? It will do you no good.

The Songmaster. Nniv."

You do not understand, the young woman explained. Songbirds are given only to those who can truly appreciate them. We invite people to accept them. We do not take applications.

Mikal looked at her coldly. I am not applying.

Then what are you doing here?

Mikal said no more. Merely stood, waiting. The young woman tried to argue with him, but he didn't answer. She tried to ignore him and go on with her work, but he waited for more than an hour, until she could stand no more. She got up and left without a word.

What is he like? sang Nniv, his voice low and comforting.

Impatient, she said.

Yet he waited for you. Correction did not give way to criticism in Nniv's voice. Ah, he is a kind master, the girl thought but did not say.

He is stern, she said. He is a ruler, and he will not