Descant

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Descant by Piers Anthony

It was an occasion of truce, as King Hubert of Xonia and his retinue attended the annual ceremony hosted this time by the Kingdom of Yostec. A number of other kingdoms were also participating, but the focus was on Xonia because they were the closest and fiercest rivals to Yostec, with a decades-long border dispute, and their king was young and untested. Would he make his mark here—or fail to?

There was all manner of feasting and discourse as normally hostile royals socialized. The high point of the occasion was the singing contest. This was limited to royalty, the performances judged by a jury of specialists from a distant neutral kingdom, whose decisions were inviolate. Victories here counted for nothing but pride, but pride was one of the most important features of royalty. Participants were said to prepare as diligently for this as for battle.

Actually, some of them were not at all bad. Young princesses tended to make up in appearance what they lacked in musical ability, hoping to impress young princes, and the converse was true. Many royal romances originated in these events, and some royal alliances were forged.

At the end of the day only one event remained: the new King Hubert was to sing. He had been in power only half a year, since his father died, and had not before sung at such an event. It was rumored he had a bad voice, so was embarrassed to display it. But as king he was required to perform, however reluctantly, lest his kingdom be shamed by his default.

Hubert strode to the central dais. He was best described as an unhandsome young man, though of course no ordinary person would say so. “My entry will be a duet,” he announced.

There was a titter of surprise among the princesses, more than one of whom had her eye on him as a prospect. He would not risk singing alone? But maybe it made sense: a companion singer might to an extent mask the deficiencies of Hubert’s voice. That was surely better than fouling it up by himself. But where was his descant singer? Surely it would be royal and female, as singing with another man would be wickedly suggestive. Even if he were gay, he would not advertise it in such manner. Did he have his eye on one of the pretty princesses who had performed? Was this his way of making an overture? If so, which one? There was a widespread bating of breath. True, he was not handsome, but he was powerful, and that was what counted in a man. A princess who latched on to him early could pretty much shape him to her preference, and her kingdom would benefit significantly.

The king looked around. “I choose for my partner the Princess Hertha of Yostec.”

All eyes swiveled to focus on the section where the four princesses of the host kingdom sat. The three younger ones had already performed, and most appealingly; there was already a lineup for dates with them. The eldest sat a little apart, masked by a full hooded cloak. She had returned from the Kingdom of Xonia earlier that day and kept completely to herself. What had happened during her month’s tenure there? Cloaking was unusual at an event like this. Was it to conceal bruises? She was not considered an attractive woman, but she was the eldest princess, and if she had been abused, there would be war the moment the truce ended. Now she sat with hands clasped before her, not visibly responding.

Hubert crossed to the princesses’ section. “If you will join me, Princess,” he said formally, extending his hand to Hertha.

Many eyes turned to the King of Yostec, her father. Would he tolerate this crossing of the line? The singers were supposed to represent their own kingdoms. If the two of them sang a duet, for whose kingdom would it count? This was distinctly awkward.

The King of Yostec shrugged, not protesting. He seemed not to care. That was odd, for he was widely known as a fierce and cunning competitor, a man who was dangerous to cross. Surely he did care, intensely. Was he giving Hubert rope to hang himself?

Thus allowed, Princess Hertha stood. She took Hubert’s hand and walked with him to the dais, still fully cloaked. Strange indeed.

The two of them took their places on the stage. She was almost as tall as he, and not because of elevated heels; her feet, just visible beneath the cloak, were sandaled. Her height was just one of her turnoffs as a prospective bride, helping to account for her reaching the age of twenty-four without yet marrying. No one would point out the obvious: that she was an embarrassment to her father, and her very existence blocked the marriages of her younger sisters. Tradition prescribed that the eldest marry first.

“We shall sing the song ‘Generation,'” Hubert announced.

Now there was mild confusion. Only the oldest, whose mouths opened in surprise and wonder were familiar with that particular song. The King of Yostec nodded to himself, unsurprised. What was there about this one?

Had anyone been able to peer into his mind, they would have seen that he knew what the others did not: that “Generation” was perhaps the most challenging song extant, so difficult that it was believed that only one pair of singers in a generation could sing it competently, if at all. There were treacherous aspects lurking to foil one singer or the other. That was why it was little known. Yet that was just the beginning of its mystery. These two were rash enough to try?

Hubert and Hertha sang, starting together and continuing with confidence. They had evidently practiced it together. But it remained odd, because his tenor was high, and her alto was remarkably low. Indeed, their ranges overlapped. That should have been extremely awkward, throwing their masculine and feminine identities into question. But it wasn’t.

Because they were good. Both turned out to be excellent singers, and they complemented each other perfectly. In fact they supported each other; it was doubtful whether either could have handled its nuances alone. They must have spent their entire month together rehearsing, getting it just right. All who heard it were held in thrall. It was intimately intricate, utterly lovely, supremely potent.

Then it got strange indeed. The entire audience listened and stared, hardly believing. How could such a thing be?

The month before the event, King Hubert of Xonia went personally to greet the arrival of the Princess Hertha of Yostec. She had been sent to negotiate the border dispute, in the faint hope that it could be resolved before the gathering of kingdoms.

He took her hand as she stepped down from the carriage. She was tall, solid, and plain, not at all the traditional image of a princess. But there was no doubt of her identity; she wore the little feminine princess gold crown of Yostec, just as he wore the larger king gold crown of Xonia.

As her feet touched the ground, he formally lifted the hand he held and kissed the back of it. The attending courtiers kept straight faces; it would be a serious violation even to hint that there was no other part of her a man would care to kiss.

The two walked to the palace entrance, while the attendants consulted, arranging to convey the princess’s baggage to her designated suite. The king guided the princess to a private chamber. Only when they were alone together did he speak. “Your father must really value this negotiation, to send his eldest daughter rather than a functionary.”

“May I speak candidly, sire?”

“By all means. And don’t call me sire; I am only three years older than you. We are essentially equals, apart from my unfortunate ascension to the throne. Call me by my name, Hubert, and I will call you by yours, if you are amenable.”

She nodded. “I am. I know you loved your father, as I do mine. His untimely death put you in a difficult position.”

“You do understand. You would be no more comfortable had it been your father’s death.”

“True. But I have been well trained for governance, should the unlikely occur, as I’m sure you were.”

“May I be candid, Hertha?”

She glanced at him with surprise. “You hardly need my permission, Hubert. You are king.”

“This is personal. You are of the line of a person my father considered an enemy, and I should be painfully cautious in dealing with you. But I discover to my surprise that I like you.”

“But I’m not a pretty little thing!”

“Neither am I. We do not make a beautiful couple. I think that is what makes me feel that we have something more in common than ordinary.”

She shook her head, bemused. “I am uncertain how to respond to that, Hubert. Except to agree that it is true. We seem to be unified in our lack of appeal.”

“Does it occur to you that there may be a certain mischief in our meeting?”

She paused. “I hesitate to answer that, Hubert. It would not be kind to either of us.”

“Why so?”

“Because I know nothing about the border dispute I have been sent to negotiate. I am wasted here. I fear this is an insult to you.”

“Your father is notoriously cunning. I do not believe that he would put his daughter at risk for nothing.”

She looked troubled. “Must I spell it out?”

“I think you must, for I am at a loss.”

She nerved herself visibly and proceeded. “I thought my father favored me, and wanted what was best for me. But now I fear that I have become a drug on the market. My attractive younger sisters can’t marry until I do, though they have many prospects. I am holding them back. I-I need to be removed from the scene. So my father must have made a practical decision, to cut his losses, as it were. I am expendable.” She wiped away a tear. “Must I continue?”

“Yes,” he said grimly.

“You have a certain perhaps undeserved reputation for temper.”

He smiled. “Delicately put. I do not suffer fools or rascals gladly. This is a necessary quality for a king.”

She nodded. “Having observed my father, I am obliged to agree…” She paused, focusing. “I suspect the hope is that you will be so angry at being thus insulted by my presence with a mock offer that you will lose control and do me harm, perhaps killing me. That may precipitate war, but once that clears, I will be gone and the younger princesses will have their chance to marry and form useful alliances. It is a desperate but perhaps necessary measure to solve an intractable problem.”

Hubert gazed at her, his face studiedly neutral. “You believe this?”

“I fear it. It is the way my father schemes.” She spread her hands, embarrassed. “I love him, but I know him.”

“You are mistaken, Hertha. Your father is many things, a number of them bad, as our sometimes bitter experience has taught us, but he has never been disloyal to his own. Neither has he ever been one to waste a potential asset. He loves you and wants the best for you.”

She did not look at him. “You believe that?”

“I do. Still, I am reminded of the children’s game, wherein a boy takes a girl into a dark closet, and for that minute he must kiss her or hit her.”

“I know that game. I never dared play it myself.”

“You fear your father sent you to be hit.”

“I do.”

“I think he sent you to be kissed.”

She shook her head, dismissing the notion. “Either way, he is bound to win his case.”

Hubert took her hand again. “To allay your doubt about my belief in your father’s intention, I will swear it. By what oath would you have me bind myself?”

Now she looked at him in wonder. “You’re serious?”

“I am.”

“Then I invoke another game that children and some adults play. Make it the oath of the kiss.” It was clear that she did not believe he would do it.

He did not speak. He took her in his arms and kissed her firmly on the mouth.

Then she broke down and openly wept. “I would have given anything to have such a gesture be other than a formal challenge.”

“But now you believe that I believe.”

“Now I believe,” she agreed, amazed. “You made the oath.”

“Then accept this informal repetition.” He took her in again, and kissed her again.

“You did not need to do that,” she said faintly.

“I wanted to. You did not need to accept it.”

“How could I refuse?”

“You did not refuse, even in inner tension.”

“I did not,” she agreed. “I confess that I long to be a romantic object. But I am not, and will never be. I am a realist.”

“So am I. There is something about you that appeals to me.”

“But I can’t believe that you actually desired it.”

Hubert nodded. “We will return to this anon. Now we have more pressing business. We have merely to discover in what manner your father believes you will successfully negotiate an end to the border dispute. There has to be a way.”

“Oh! In the press of circumstance I forgot. My father sent a gift for you. I know not its nature.” She proffered a small package. She had been carrying it all along, unnoticed.

He accepted it. He unwrapped the binding strap, and it opened. It was a book.

“Perhaps the demands for the negotiation?” he said, perplexed.

“I do not know. He said it contained the answer.”

He opened it. “It’s a book of songs!”

She was as surprised as he. “Could he have given me the wrong package?”

“Not him.”

They examined the book together. The marker indicated a page with a song titled “Generation.” They read it, noting that it had only two parts, alto and tenor.

Hubert glanced at her. “Do you sing?”

“I do, but not in company. My range is too low.”

“It is similar for me. My range is too high.”

“You are a tenor?”

“Counter tenor. You are alto?”

“Contralto.”

“Could you sing this part?”

“I think I could, with practice. It is rather challenging.”

“Yes; it is the same for mine.” He closed the book. “Sing a note.”

She sang a note, sustaining it. Her voice was steady and resonant. After a moment he joined her, singing the same note. It matched hers in quality.

“My father wants us to sing together?” she asked dubiously. “How could that accomplish anything meaningful?”

“You are not familiar with this song?”

“I am not.”

“I have heard of it, from my grandfather. It is considered magic. If two people can sing it correctly, the magic will manifest. At least that is the story.”

She considered. “Maybe I have heard of it, at least by reputation. A song almost impossible to sing properly, but magnificent if managed.”

“There is something else my grandfather mentioned, though I doubt I believe it.”

“That only a person capable of singing it can even see the notes?”

“Yes.” Hubert snapped his fingers, and a courtier entered the chamber. “What do you think of this?” he asked, showing the open book.

The man looked at him in perplexity. “Sire, that page is blank.”

“So it seems. Thank you.”

The courtier departed, mystified.

“So it’s true!” Hertha said in wonder. “It’s magic.”

“Sit by me,” he said. They took seats on the couch. “Do you think we could sing it correctly together?”

“We might. It might take some practice.”

“It might indeed,” he agreed. “If we can handle the finale, we can do the complete song. Let’s try that much.”

They sang the finale. At the end, their voices quavered, straining. Hubert took Hertha’s hand and squeezed her fingers lightly, encouraging her. Then they managed the final note.

“Oh!” she said, sinking down as if exhausted. “That was special.”

“It was,” he agreed. “I think this is the answer to the problem between our kingdoms. Your father wants peace as much as I do, because war is expensive. This may be the mechanism.”

“I do not understand.”

“We are well matched musically, at least in our difference from others. Your voice is low; mine is high. I do not think your father is mocking us. You are my descant singer, whom I have long sought, as it seems he knew.”

“Descant? I still do not understand.”

“He believes that we should be together. That would of course render the boundary dispute academic.”

“Together?”

“I may choose to marry you.”

She shook her head. “Tease me not, please. I do not look or sound like a nubile princess!”

“I agree. You do not look or sound like a princess…” He paused, taking her hand again. “You look and sound like a queen.”

She gazed at him in dawning wonder.

Above the two as they sang, swirling colors formed in the air. It had to be magic. The others stared, amazed. They all knew that magic existed, but it was rare and generally practiced only by specialists who had the talent and dedication. For amateurs to do it was remarkable. They had of course won the singing contest, for whatever kingdom it counted for; the virtue of their performance made that clear. But to evoke magic—that was something else.

The song continued, coming to its finale. The colors intensified, forming into a picture of two people. The two of them, singing! Except that in that image he was handsome and she was lovely. It was like a painting that flattered them.

Then came the conclusion. His voice rose, and her voice fell, until they crossed each other, she entering the tenor range, he the alto. This inversion was almost unbelievable: that they could do it, or that they would do it.

The figures in the image came slowly together as if about to kiss.

A shift, as he rose one more note and she fell another. Now they were a full octave apart, he above, she below. As they held it, the surrounding theater seemed to vibrate. There was, indeed, magic.

The figures in the image kissed. The song ended. The picture exploded into a shower of sparks.

And, below, Hubert and Hertha kissed.

There was dead silence as the audience realized what was happening. Nobody kissed a princess without her father’s permission, because that suggested that she belonged to someone other than her father. Eyes turned again to the King of Yostec.

The king simply sat there as if oblivious. How could this be?

The long kiss finished. Then Hubert slowly put his hands to Hertha’s hood and drew it off her head. There was a collective gasp.

She wore the crown of Xonia. Not her own.

Hubert put his hands on her cloak and drew it off. Her gown came into sight.

It was the gown of betrothal. The two were to marry. No one was more astonished than the younger princesses.

Now at last the King of Yostec stood and spoke, “We will presently adjourn to the royal hall for the betrothal party,” he announced. “I’m sure everyone will want to congratulate the happy couple, not to mention the magical alliance between our kingdoms. Fear not; we have kegs of wine.”

Clearly he had known all about it, and approved. It would be long before others fathomed how he had engineered this coup. Which hardly mattered, considering the wonder of the magic and the allure of those kegs.

end article

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Piers Anthony

About Piers Anthony

Piers Anthony is one of the world's most popular fantasy authors, and a New York Times bestseller twenty-one times over. His Xanth novels have been read and loved by millions of readers around the world, and he daily receives hundreds of letters from his devoted fans.In addition to the Xanth series, Anthony is the author of many other best-selling works. Piers Anthony lives in Inverness, Florida.