Yes, I went walking with him near the Deaf King Inn.
There are some in Quadril who will call that my first mistake.
They’d be wrong, my child. It was my fifth.
I need you to listen, as best you can. I want you to hear me out.
Let my flaws show you the way,
from my bed on the ground, to your house in the town,
I am singing heartbeat and melody.
A deep vein runs near,
I need you to hear,
To find me before it’s past late.
Poppa always called himself an honest man. This, he told us, was why he prospered.
He said it so often, people began repeating it. “Ramond Vorendt has the honest trade shop. You’ll get your value there.” People like to know things like that.
And so Poppa did prosper. And so he was an honest man.
To find his shop, come through the city gates as if you’re home for a visit. Follow Market Street past the square and down the hill until you can just see the masts from the dockyard. At the bakery, go under the archway to Victor’s Alley. There are three pawn shops on the Alley, plus a seamstress. A jumble of swinging brass signs and spinning iron vanes hang above their doors. Only Poppa’s sign stands steadfast, bracketed against the wall: Vorendt’s Trades.
Alternatively, if you come to the city from the river—as if you’re here to make your fortune—go straight from the docks. The cobbled lane branches left and right, but do not turn until the road narrows, until there’s no way out. That’s us on the end.
If you come from inside the city, listen for whispers about Poppa’s two daughters, and how one disappeared. You can follow those rumors all the way to the brick house with the thick door and the small inset hatch, the balcony above, all watched by the old silent cat.
About the whispers: I’m all that they say. Headstrong. Willful. Wild.
What they don’t say, because they don’t know: I’m a good listener. Poppa tried to keep that quiet.
They say I was headstrong because I ran away at eight. Left my sister alone in the shop and followed the lane down to the dock. The baker shouted at me, but I kept going.
That’s how they knew.
That’s how Poppa knew I was a good listener too. How he knew I could hear a melody few could, coming from the river.
When I chased it the first time, they said I was wild. I’m sure they say much more now.
I heard the song and followed it. Was carried home by a stevedore. Later, Poppa went back the way I’d gone, coins jangling his pockets. He returned with a sack full of rubies and one sapphire. I could hear them coming all the way up the street. The same song I’d heard before.
One I’d hear again.
“Your girl has an ear for trouble,” the baker said as Poppa passed by.
Poppa lied, of course. “I don’t know where she gets it.” But he knew where. I found that out later.
The next day, he started me sorting gems in the shop; my sister too. Small fingers can pull stones from their settings much faster than grown ones. I’d hum as I put diamonds in one pile, rubies in another; arranged by size and cut.
Sometimes the gems sang back—hints of music filling the workroom, surrounding me. “Do you hear that?” I’d ask.
Father, in the shop beyond the door, would quiet, then grumble about his ears going bad. Dea, my sister, would tilt her head and lean toward me. “Nothing, again,” she’d pout. She’d look at me strangely. “You’re lucky.”
I felt lucky, because she said so. Because the song was beautiful. Because it filled the quiet that surrounded us with Momma gone.
When Poppa bound the gems again, the song would hush and I’d hunger for it.
“You’ll hear it again,” he promised. And Poppa was honest about things like that.
But when I heard it, I chased it. The song a heartbeat, the words just out of reach and I desperate to know them. The baker caught me that time, helped Poppa put the first locks on the door. Of course the neighbors talked. That poor man. Bereft and now a headstrong child.
“It sounds like sweets,” I told Dea later, because she loved sweets. “But the licorice ones. The ones you have too much of, and they hurt your stomach.”
She nodded, solemn in her black dress, which was exactly like mine. She watched me prize more gems from their cheap settings. “Then I don’t want to hear. I don’t like the licorice as much.”
Poppa gave us sweets on Momma’s deathday, which was our birthday also. Licorice, because it was black, for sorrow. The jellied ruby candies for joy—he said they’d been her favorite. That’s all we knew about her. Sometimes, hard striped suckers too.
Dea would hold the sweets until they stuck together in her hand. I’d keep mine hidden, to make them last.
“You don’t have to listen, do you?” Dea asked when we were fourteen. She twisted her sleeve in her opposite hand. She’d piled opals together with sapphires. Silver findings mixed with gold.
“You don’t,” I agreed, re-sorting the piles before Poppa saw. Meantime, I waited for the music like a becalmed boat waits for wind. Sometimes I thought I heard it, but I didn’t. Sometimes it was whispers instead.
Motherless children seemed a special risk to the neighborhood. “We’ll keep an eye on them,” many promised. So the baker squinted at us. The sailors gazed at us each day as we walked out with Poppa to school in our matching dresses. The entire alley followed our path when we came home. They meant well, I’m sure. But our reputations hardened like shells: Dea, the good one, the simpler one. Mira—me—the wild, headstrong, willful one.
So that’s what we became.
The winter we were fifteen, Poppa closed the doors after too many ships came to port with sickness in the hold. But not before Dea began to cough.
I thought we’d lose her when the fever hit. I sang her back to me, sponged her forehead. Poppa’s stoop grew with the weight of worry.
When she woke, the fever broken around her like a river, she clasped my hand. “I heard the music. I wanted to go.”
I couldn’t let go of her hand for a week. I fed her broth and jelly candies.
Our elbows and knees showed through the thinning cloth of our dresses before the sickness was done town. We stopped going to school for good. We couldn’t afford it.
We grew thin, like everyone, and I didn’t mind missing school. I hadn’t been able to stay seated; was always in trouble for tapping my toes. But now our townhouse admitted neither wind through its thick walls and latched windows, nor many people from the street through the double-barred door. “Cannot be too safe,” Poppa said. And no one was there to check him.
That was a silent season. No music. No rumors.
Poppa read by the fire. Quizzed me on my letters while I tended Dea. She recovered and I didn’t sicken, but without the town to tell us who we were, we began to change. We grew whimsical. Made up stories.
“What if Momma could hear the gems, like you?” Dea whispered. “What if she wandered away and got lost.”
“She didn’t get lost.” I laced my fingers in Dea’s. “I won’t get lost.”
“What if Poppa can hear the gems, but won’t tell us?” She sounded like she might cry. “What if I’m the only one who can’t?”
But Poppa couldn’t hear much after that winter, unless you were standing right in front of him. I vowed to help him more.
When the sickness broke, neighbors brought the last of their treasures out to trade. They bought flour with gold rings and meat with emeralds, not because those things weren’t precious, but because nothing else was. Silently, the baker brought these treasures to our shop, because he knew Poppa was an honest man.
The workroom grew loud again with gems, but not enough of them. Poppa couldn’t hear which gems to buy, which not; we couldn’t afford new clothes. The bakery stayed open, but the dressmaker closed.
That spring, we were sixteen. We leaned on the balcony, over the quiet alley. “Listen,” Dea said.
And out on the street, I heard a familiar tune whistled. Sweet in the ear, then too sweet.
“I hear it too.” She was so excited.
A few notes, that was all. Then a stranger followed it up the alley, whistling. “Oh,” Dea said. “Not a gem.”
Not a gem, but a song so familiar I forgot to blink.
There wasn’t much to the stranger when he arrived at my father’s door. Skinny and bright-eyed. Mining dirt beneath his fingernails and etched deep in his skin. “Unfinished rubies,” he said through the hatch, “From upcountry; the creek bed revealed them after the floods.”
When I didn’t reply, he added, “I’ve come here because they say your father is honest.” His voice was rough, but when I still hesitated, he whistled nervously.
“Where did you hear that song?” I asked. The music made my heart kick like a sail.
“By the creek,” he replied. “With the rubies.”
I can tell you what I know now: he lied.
At the threshold, one hand on the wrought iron latch, the other on wood carved long ago and soft with use, I let the evening breeze kick dust into the house. “I’ll get him.”
I could have let the door swing shut, leaving him outside, and I could have gone back to my work, my sister. Kept the house closed to him. That was my first mistake.
“Someone to see you.” I crossed into the shop. Said my words carefully. “With gems.”
“Tell them it’s late, we’re closed.” Father’s voice had a day’s wear on it. His words were lost faded ghosts in the thick paneling of the shop, its cluttered shelves. “My money’s in the safe already, Mira.”
Headstrong, I sent Dea to the kitchen to make tea for four.
“He came because you’re honest. The stones are raw, not set.” I said. Because I wanted to hear more about the river, the creek bed, I repeated what the stranger said. My father pushed his chair back, intrigued. “I can hear them, Poppa. He says there’s more where those came from.”
“Send him through.” Father waved. “Bring more firewood, and your shawl when you return, there’s a chill here.”
I’d worn dark muslin all day, but now, I wanted my last good dress. The shawl was silver. The dress, the color of garnets. I dressed, thinking of the stranger’s song. Came below just as he revealed the rubies.
The man spoke of ancient mines and lost jewels as he held out his hands. A gnarled rock, fire sparked when the light hit it. Not ancient, not lost.
But oh how it sang.
Standing beside my father, my sleeves tucked up, shawl wound tight around my shoulders, I leaned toward it, listening. Father tensed, watching me, then covered the stone with his hand.
“Haven’t been rubies from upcountry for generations,” my father murmured, fetching his scales. “A new mine. Where?” He weighed the stone. Tapped the dirt off. Weighed again.
When he was finished, I put the scales back in their velvet-lined drawer. A piece of rock rolled glittering from the tray to the dark fabric and I left it there.
He looked at the man from under his thick brows. “What’s your name?”
“Brac,” the man said. It was a mountain name. He looked at my father, unblinking. His eyes were green with hazel flecks, his cheekbones high. “The creek had a hint of riches. If you can help me fund a search for the mine, I would give you a share of the profits when I find it.”
“Have you no family to invest in a scheme?” Poppa said.
“They are all gone,” Brac answered. “I need someone who knows gems.”
He seemed much younger now. But there was something on him, in his shirt pocket, sounding a small, broken melody. “There’s a vein, somewhere up above the creek, I’m sure of it,” he continued. “I want a partner, to help me search it out. We are both honest men. We would work well together.”
I blinked and shook my head, like a cat might with a fly buzzing. The sound stayed.
“Poppa,” I said, leaning close to my father. “He’s got more gems he’s not sharing.”
The young man’s ears were sharp. His eyes narrowed and his lips tightened to a thin smile.
“Mira, see to supper.” Father waved me away. I’d been leaning on the counter, and my elbows with the shawl cushioning them left small circles of heat in the wood. “Brac will eat in the kitchen.”
The man left late that night. His shoes scuffed the dust all the way out of town as I watched from behind the parlor curtain. He was whistling. His pocket jingled.
I am an excellent listener.
And my feet arched high inside my shoes, aching to follow.
Let this song be a map for finding me.
Go out of the city, into the Valley, and past the Deaf King. Through the woods, to the creek. That’s how far I got, eventually.
By the time we were eighteen, Dea and I spent our days melting down metal findings and sizing gems in the shop. We loved the gems, especially the spinels and rubies, but all of them. Shapes and glitter. When we traded cash for a cut stone, I could hear how it should be set.
Brac’s raw rubies had come in looking like soap and dirt, heavy in your hand. But I’d heard how they wanted to be cut; Poppa had known how to bind them. When we had them cut and polished, they turned light and blood-bright. We sold them well. Dea had a new dress, and then I did too.
It wasn’t enough, but it was a start.
“You’ve a calling, Mira,” Poppa said. “You could take over the shop with Dea’s help.” I was my father’s assistant, though no one said I was honest. Dea was, though. The whole neighborhood knew it.
I hadn’t strayed from her side since that once when I was eight. Though I would someday; everyone said so. The neighbors who kept an eye on us were happy to make it known. When someone decides who you are for your whole life, it works like grit on a gem. Polishes you up a bit. Or breaks you.
I was determined not to break.
Brac returned that year, with three more rubies. Small ones. My father had grown weaker, but he weighed the stones, invited Brac to dinner. “Still no mine?”
Brac shook his head. “But I’m close. I’ll find it.”
“How are you sure? I won’t give you more money on a whim. Can you hear the mines or not?”
Dea and I sat at one end of the table, listening so hard I thought our glasses would crack.
“Sometimes,” he said, speaking loudly. “And I have a map from someone who could.” He tapped his pocket. Pulled out a shard of etched amethyst. “This is very old.”
The amethyst was what I’d heard in his pocket, years ago. Poppa looked at me, and I nodded. I realized later that my father needed to believe Brac’s story. He couldn’t stand in the shop for more than a few hours; his eye for gems was gone. But he lived for this kind of discovery. This last search was keeping him alive. I didn’t want him to die disappointed.
Dea and I had to help. She in her way, me in mine.
“Poppa,” I began. But he shook his head. No.
I stared at Brac from the end of the table, down my nose. And the strange man brought out another handful of rock. “There’s more,” he said. “I know it. This was once a map of all the gem mines in the valley,” he said. “I won it at cards at The Deaf King.”
“The Deaf King is no good to discuss at a table with young women.” Poppa tried to rise to show him out, but Brac held up his hand.
“I’m telling you because it’s important,” he said to Poppa. But I sensed he was really speaking to me now. “Most mountain mines are clearly marked along the roads. But Quadril’s valleys and gullies are overgrown. Some say they’re haunted. I’ve searched dozens of caves, but there are still so many left. This map could be the key. I won a mixed bag of stones and shards, including the amethyst. It’s rough and broken, but look at what’s etched on one side.” He held the amethyst and a ruby up to the light. I could see the path. Hear the melody.
“I followed it and thought I heard something. A whisper of song. And I found the creek and the rubies. Now I just need a little more time.”
I heard the whisper. Thought he told true.
I thought father would sit back and scoff, since he’d already given Brac something and seen nothing in return. But he leaned forward instead, his elbows on the table. “What guarantees this time?”
Brac waved his hand. “I have others investing now. A banker in Riverward, a family in the Western Mountains. But having someone close at hand, who can sell what gems I find, remains useful. Another investment will guarantee I’ll bring my finds here.“
Father looked at Dea, at me. “We need something to secure your futures.”
He was right. But guarantees and security were only as good as Brac’s ability to find the mine. Dea needed this. I did too.
“I am an honest man,” Brac continued. He didn’t look at either of us. “If you know of someone who can hear the gems better than me, I’d appreciate it... I’ve heard rumors.”
Father stayed seated. “No one I know,” he said quietly. He looked at the table as if forbidding it to speak.
But I’m headstrong. “Let me go, Poppa,” I said. “I’ll watch out for our interests.” I wouldn’t say more.
He looked hard at me. “You are needed here.”
Brac said nothing, but he smiled for the first time. He had dimples, like you do, child. And that was my second mistake, noticing them. For Father’s eyes narrowed further.
“I think not.”
He slid coins to Brac for shovels and picks.
“Our bills will be slowly paid this month,” Dea whispered, dismayed. “I hope it works.”
How could it work? I would stay with the shop. Brac would return empty-handed. The songs would stop.
I was needed, but not here.
When the door closed loud between us, with Brac whistling goodbye, I could hear the neighbors’ thinking about me. The things they’d said behind my back.
My third mistake was going out the window that night, instead of the door. I tore my dress, my good one, as I dropped over the sill. But the sheets I’d tied together held firm, and Dea waved from above. She understood me, at least, though she couldn’t hear the music. She tossed down my small sack: food and money, a change of clothes.
“I’ll come back,” I said.
“Or I’ll find you,” she promised, leaning out the window. Dea was the honest one. “Or father will.”
“He might not forgive me enough to look,” I said. I didn’t care. I was following the music.
It was deep night as I walked the bridge out of town. The neighbors had been right, after all. But they’d also been wrong: they weren’t keeping an eye on me at all.
From the townhouse, walk through the city gates, when the guards aren’t looking, then slide down the embankment to the river.
Brac was waiting by the river’s edge, as if he knew I’d follow. I saw his thin shoulders, his sharp cheekbones, brushed silver by the moonlight. His dimples when he greeted me. He whistled, but not the gemsong. A long, low tone of surprise.
I should have stopped there, but I kept going, wild and willful. Following this stranger all the way to the river, then up to the creek.
I’d spent so much time in the house on the Alley, in the back room of the shop, that the night felt expansively large. I spread my arms wide as I walked. There were no walls, no locks.
Brac walked again, a winding route, saying nothing. Not looking back. But he slowed his pace.
Finally, he whistled the song I’d half-heard all my life. Relieved, I cautiously whistled back.
“That’s a minesong,” he said. “For those who would listen. Perhaps you can hear more than that.” If he thought I could, then I would. I hoped.
Hope is a risk one takes when one doesn’t know any better. I know that now.
We walked all the way to the Deaf King, my shoes wearing first blisters then raw spots in my feet on the rough road. But I didn’t mind. The fresh air, the broad open space. The lack of neighbors telling me who I was. I kept up with Brac.
The creek trickled past the Inn’s stone walls. Tugged at its mill wheel, grown with moss. The pre-dawn light made it sparkle, a little like magic. I was too tired to know those were spider webs, decked with dew.
The Deaf King’s owner stank of moonshine and asked few questions. He didn’t ask if I would like my own room. That unsettled me, at first, but just then, Brac handed me the amethyst he’d told father was a map. The intaglio etchings edged my fingertips.
“Somewhere, there is a mine with a vein of rubies. If we find it, we become kings,” he said.
The amethyst sang. Right and true. I heard it. He saw my head tilt towards the stone. “You can hear them,” he said. His dimples showed again. “Talented girl.”
The praise filled me up. To say otherwise would be dishonest. I nodded. “It sings. So few things do.”
To tell the truth was a relief. To see Brac accept it, a delight.
The amethyst’s wasn’t the song I’d followed so long ago, but I could hear echoes of that as well, somewhere nearby. I didn’t mention that then, because I thought Brac could hear it too.
He understood what had been tugging at me my whole life. He whistled the melody.
“I think the mine is here. ” He pointed at a rough mark near the break. “I’m pretty sure. When we get close, we’ll hear it.“
We again. So he hadn’t heard the nearby song yet. But he knew the broken melody, from the amethyst. That, at least, was true. I stayed with him. There at the Inn. Held close to him, for warmth, he said. He whistled merrily and swung me around, and it made me laugh with the freedom of it.
And when he asked me to carry the shovels my father had bought while he walked on ahead, scouting the riverbed, I did.
That was my fourth mistake.
I carried them all over the valley. Carried and dug while I waited for Brac to hear the minesong too. To make sure I wasn’t imagining things. I wanted us to hear it together. To prove my father’s investment right and the neighbors wrong.
Our shoes wore straight through, our supplies dwindled while I waited. Brac stopped whistling. Began grumbling. We searched for days, weeks. The few caves we found held bats or spiders but not gems; the creek bed revealed no more rubies, even after it rained.
The cave that had spilled the stones remained hidden.
“Can’t you hear anything?” he finally asked, ankle deep in the mud of a ravine. “You can’t be this useless.”
You. Not we.
In the silence that followed, I knew what he hadn’t told my father: Brac had been looking for the mine for a long time. Longer than he’d said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I meant I’m angry. But I was afraid to say so.
He spun on me, spat his words. “Don’t be sorry, be right.”
We walked through the undergrowth back to the path in silence. It dawned on me. He couldn’t hear the songs I heard. Not one.
Not the minesong, not the gemsong, not the lullabies I hummed in secret.
The expanse of the valley closed in around me. When next I listened for the cave, I could not hear it.
And if I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t return home. Not without a vein of gems that would redeem me and save the shop.
Above us, the clouds broke open and the evening grew cold. Snow began to fall. Silently, Brac and I returned to the Deaf King. We ate in silence. He had me sleep on the floor for my failures.
In the morning, he woke me with the toe of his boot nudging my backside. “We’ve nearly run out of money. I’ll find more investors. I’ve paid for the weeks ahead, for you.” I felt this as another punishment, but his tone was kind. He kissed my cheek. “For luck, for the child,” he said. For there was to be a child. A you.
How the neighbors would love to discuss that. How Dea, and my father, would not.
But you were what I had left to me in this world. I hummed your lullaby, the gemsong, as he packed. And as I sat on the wood floor, I thought I felt you shift in recognition. I gasped at the motion and then at the return of the melody, all around me.
When Brac pocketed the broken amethyst, I worried. How would I search without it? What if the music went away? How would I protect us, secure your future? “I’ll come down with you too.”
“You’re too ill to travel.” His dimples disappeared as he kissed me. But he left the shovels, the gear with me. A guarantee of his return. “Keep looking,” he said.
I held the kiss close, the truth closer: he did not want me along but knew I couldn’t leave him. Not like this.
“I’d like to write my sister,” I said, though I had nothing to write with.
“I’ll pass on a message,” he promised, and then was gone.
Once he left, the Innkeeper all but ignored me. His wife, however, kept a close eye out. She frowned at me often. Slipped me cheese to go with my bread. “I remember your mother,” she said. “She was from up this way. She was headstrong. Was good with the tourists, took them gem hunting.”
The words gave me courage, and sadness in equal parts. I hadn’t known her, except for the taste of licorice and rubies.
The woman covered my hand with hers. Ducked her head. It was a kindness.
“You should walk, as much as you can,” she said. She loaned me scarves and boots. She might not have minded if I kept walking straight and did not come back.
But I remained in the Valley, too headstrong, too wild, too willful. Like my mother. And I walked the paths around the Deaf King for you, then, through the Valley trails, singing to you, my child.
And it wasn’t long before the mines sang back.
From the river, follow the path high into the woods and keep going past where you think you should stop.
In the spring, Brac returned, whistling a different music. He had enough money to pay our lodging.
“Any response from my sister?” I asked, hoping.
He shook his head as he eyed me, noting that I’d grown enormous. “Which is well, as we can’t send you home like this.”
This I now knew all too well.
He’d changed too. His shoulders had thickened, his chest grown broad, his beard filled in. His cheekbones were less prominent below his eyes. He’d eaten well, wherever he’d gone.
Meantime I was always hungry. Always tired. You grew insatiably. And with you, the talk at the Inn. The men clapped him on the back and made crude jokes. They said nothing to me. Their silence said it all.
How did I feel? Angry sometimes, sad others. When we were alone, I was happy. I could sing.
But with Brac back, we weren’t alone any more.
“We’ll find the mine, my heart,” Brac whispered. “You’ll feel better then. We’ll find it and be rich and well, while they will still be here.” His voice had layers. Flaws. Annoyance and hunger.
But he walked with us. Steadied us if I stumbled on the path. Asked me now and then if I heard anything.
But I didn’t take him to the mine, did I.
Too soon for him, I asked to turn back to the Deaf King. To the tick-ridden mattress stuffed with moldy straw. Or to the floor, if he was angry.
“You cannot let the child distract you.” He stopped on the muddy trail. “You must listen harder. You claimed you could hear it. It could be close now. You’ll hear it.”
He was wrong. I’d already heard the mine, on my walks with you. I’d heard it sing. We’d crawled inside, the mud squelching between my fingers. I’d seen fire glittering in the rich vein that water running the cave walls had revealed.
You’d kicked in time to the melody.
I just wasn’t ready to tell Brac.
It was our secret, between us, my child. Because I’d heard his tune change. Because I’d slept on the floor.
Once you find The Deaf King, you’ll know you’re heading the right direction. Find the smaller creek, follow that.
But when Brac next prepared to leave again, he packed the shovels, the supplies. Preparing to search in a different place, or to disappear. He sized me up. “You’ll stay here.”
I refused, headstrong as always.
“One more walk, then,” he said. His voice lifted. “Just near the Inn.”
The Innkeeper’s wife frowned. “She’ll fall.”
Something inside me, sounding the old songs, wanted to hear the rubies up close, once more, for you. “All right.”
That, as I’ve told you, was my fifth mistake.
To find where we walked, go up from the Inn, take the rightmost trail to its end. Walk toward the creek.
As we came close to the cave that I knew was there but he didn’t, I couldn’t stop myself. Couldn’t stop us. We whistled, you and I, the song of the creek bed. The song I’d heard first as a child, that had led me down to the river. The song of the gems Brac had carried to my father.
He didn’t notice at first. He’d gone on ahead, talking to himself. “The Deaf King is the worst kind of lodging. Vipers and rumors everywhere. Someone told one of my investors I’d cheated them. Told them about you. Now my reputation in Riverward is ruined. Do you know what that means?” That was why he had to find us a new place, he explained, and then come back for me. “Are you listening?”
I was not listening, and I was.
I was lost in song. In heartbeat and melody. My ears roared with wind and my nose filled with the smell of wet leaves and mud. I whistled faint and far away.
He noted my quiet. Saw me staring, but couldn’t see the cave entrance. “Do you hear something? Maybe?” Hopeful, after all this time.
And I couldn’t turn away. The gemsong was so loud. How could he miss it? “Shhhh.” In the open, he was a distraction when I wanted silence. We would go back soon, and then, perhaps, I would meet my mother’s fate. I put a hand to my belly and felt you keep the beat of the song.
He didn’t hush though. “Maybe if you sit a spell.” He pointed to a log by the creek.
“Shhhh,” I said again. I wanted to hear the cave, the gems, unfinished inside, one last time. I wanted to remember the place you and I had gone and listened so many times in his absence. Surrounded by the mine’s song. By heartbeats. By the pulse of new veins.
Brac turned to where I’d been staring. Pulled me, his feet moving easily over the hidden stones while I stumbled beside him. He made a small sound. “You are a gem, Mira,” he said, as he ducked inside the cave. His eyes adjusted. “This is it,” he murmured. His smile broadened. He whistled again, a hand gripping my shoulder. He took the shovel from me and gestured me inside. “Finally. I found it.”
The gemsong quieted when we stood up inside the cave.
The rock walls gleamed, the rich vein of rubies revealed by the trickling water. The forest outside the cave mouth looked too bright once my eyes adjusted. Then music filled my ears, louder than before.
I was staring open-mouthed at the walls, waiting for Brac to say how beautiful it all was, when he hit me with the shovel.
The forest dimmed. The minesong grew louder than anything else. I fell and fell, turning to cushion you when I hit the ground. Curling around you, like a cave, like a fist, as if I could catch you.
A tugging on my arm, and the wet leaves and mud squelched beneath my body. Brac pulled me deeper into the mine. Then his shadow blocked the light from the cave, and then he was gone.
Tell Dea that I found what Poppa long sought. A cave sunk beneath moss and vines and shadows, along a creek bed so overgrown we’d missed it before. Glittering with gems.
To find me, to find us, go most of the way through the forest. There’s a gully marked with a fallen tree. Go down the hill until you think the trail ends. It doesn’t. Keep going.
I didn’t die, not then.
Once you’re in the gully, look left. That low ridge? Look under it. The entrance is sunken, but once you’re in, you can stand.
In the cave, I woke, surrounded by music. By heartbeat. By rhythm. My eyes grew used to the dark, pressed it aside for the glimmer of light. I heard water beside me, gems far beneath me.
I slept and woke to the sound of rubies whispering raw in my ears. I was never alone.
I grew bigger there. Monstrous. Waiting for him to return. A fortnight, and by the time I had you, so small and squalling, I could catch anything, eat anything. The rubies told me how. The cave suited me. The rubies taught me to sing.
They told me many things. Taught me a baby is not like a ruby. A cave is no place for one.
I listened, I think. Or I dreamed. I protected you from the gems as best I could.
But in the end, I took you to back to the Deaf King. A cave is no place for a baby.
That? That was my first not-mistake. Though I wish you were here. I wish Dea were here too. It is so dark.
I dreamed the Deaf King’s wife offered to hide you away, so that no one would know.
I dreamed my insides went hollow, a cave filled with stones.
I dreamed I’d become everything the neighbors said I would. A girl, wayward. A note, skipped.
I dreamed Dea found you and kept you safe.
“You can’t stay here.” I dreamed the innkeeper’s wife sang her words, and that her skin sparkled with diamonds and opals. She looked over my skin, its hard red veins and scars. “People will talk.”
But she smiled when you squalled. Whispered, “She’s good, she’s kind, she’s perfect.” So I dreamed that I gave you to her, to the innkeeper’s wife.
How could I, you’ll ask. They’ll all ask that. They’ll tell you the truth about me, and in saying it, it will become so.
Because I was wound up in minesong. Because I knew how this would end already. Or thought I did. You belonged outside, in the light. I belonged hidden away.
I asked the innkeeper to write your aunt, to write Dea. He promised. His wife swaddled you tight and nodded and took you. Good and kind and perfect.
They left me alone.
When I returned to the mine, the rubies were silent. The amethyst broke its song again and again.
My feet pulled leaves along with me, covering my tracks. By the time I got to the cave, it was dark.
I undid the bedroll I’d stolen from the inn and lay down. The dark didn’t bother me any more. Closer to the ground, I heard the singing louder. Let it wrap around me.
In the darkness, with nothing to distract me, I followed the sound. Into the ground.
It sang to me, I heard it. I reached for it.
It was like a brittle lullaby, like wind through trees if the trees were made of glass.
And I followed it like I want you to do now enough time’s passed. Come find me.
In the morning, I took the small pick and chisel and began to tap.
Go all the way to the back of the cave. Don’t be afraid.
When Brac returned, which I knew he would, with more tools, empty bags, I hid there, in the shadows. Watched him move into the cave, sniff the air, then whisper, “Can you hear anything?”
And I was about to say no. Can you believe it? I would have said no if another fair voice had not said so first.
Dea’s voice. My sister.
He’d brought her here.
We couldn’t be more different, and yet there she was. “Or I’ll find you,” she’d said. I listened, but I braced to grab her away.
“What should I listen for?”
“Her ghost, perhaps. She went missing from the Deaf King, and I searched for her. What can you hear?”
Their voices like water, like air. Like music.
“Father’s given you the money to find her. Shouldn’t you be listening? I’ll talk to the innkeeper. Him, I can hear.”
Dea was always the sharper one of us. The one who refused to listen. And father—he’d sent her to find me. My heart lifted, though the shadows held me back.
“We’ll talk to him soon.” He stepped a ways down the cave, and I saw him note the dug-up places.
Would Brac let her speak to him? Would he give my message to her? I doubted either.
Brac’s eyes stalled at the chunks of mineral I’d eased from the vein. He spun a circle, staring at my work.
The vein had opened wide. It gleamed. It sang, though neither of them could hear it.
Was that fear in his eyes? Joy? I couldn’t tell in the shadows, though I was used to the dimness. His face was unreadable until he stopped, gaze locked on the pile of gems. The soap-rubies, the fire-lit rocks. “Mira,” he whispered. A blessing. A curse.
Raw stones. Unfinished. Singing, so softly only I could hear. A lullaby. A finding song.
“Dea, you should go to the Inn,” he said, “Before it gets dark. I’ll follow.“ And Dea believed him. She stepped from the cave, safe. I breathed relief.
I prepared myself.
When Dea stopped at the inn, did she see you? Did she know you?
If you’d say you recognized her voice, I would believe you.
Look under the large pile of stone and dust at the back of the cave. Bring a shovel and a sieve. Don’t forget.
“Mira,” Brac whispered again, “You’d best be dead if you’re still here.“
That was his first mistake.
His voice echoed in the darkness. He stumbled on the uneven ground. But I could see him just fine. “I’m here.”
I let the silence build behind my answer. His voice came quieter then. “You are?”
“Don’t you want to see your sister?”
I’d seen her. I wasn’t sure I wanted her to see me. I didn’t want to see her in danger, with Brac. “You brought her here to see if she could hear the stones too?” He must have figured he killed me too soon.
He was right about that.
“She wanted to find you. Your father could pay. You should be glad.”
“I am not.” I let the shadows fall from me. His eyes widened to see me. I must have been frightening. Pale and splotchy and dressed in rags. “I wanted your return.”
Did Dea recognize you as mine? Did the innkeeper tell her? I could hope. For that and later, perhaps more. Perhaps one day you would hear me singing.
“Show me where the gemline is, Mira, and I’ll take you home. Your father’s heart is broken.”
So said the man who helped break it. He wasn’t wrong.
I felt a twinge in what was left of my heart. The part that hadn’t turned to stone and ruby, calcite and spinel. This cave does things like that, especially when you sing. “Be careful, there.”
For a moment, I thought I could give him a few rubies and send him on his way. But when he saw my outstretched hand, his eyes glazed with greed. “You’re—”
I was. I would continue to be. The rubies kept me alive and I—well I gave them something too. An audience, a voice.
“I had no idea they could do that. Nothing in the books says they can.”
“Will you take my sister home if I show you?”
He smiled that smile again. “I will, I promise.” He stepped closer.
But he twisted and struck fast, his hand across my mouth. That was his last mistake.
He screamed, for my skin had hardened there, and he bled into the ground. Around us, the walls rumbled. The creek began to run backwards. The hem of my ruined dress brushed the water and darkened with clay.
Dea, I hope you can get yourself home.
I turned to him, smiling also. “You said you were honest. You said you could hear.”
He tried once more to strike me. Down to the ground, but I twisted away from my shock and grabbed his arm instead. Pulled hard. He fell. We fell. He hit his head. I hit my arm and it shattered.
And his knife was against the still-unencrusted, unprotected skin of my neck in seconds.
Look under the pile of stone and dirt, beyond the raw stones. Move it all away.
As he was killing me the second time, I began to sing. The cave walls echoed with my voice. I did not feel the blows. I felt the rubies sing back. They sounded sweet, too-sweet, like licorice.
When the mine roof fell, when dust filled our mouths, we were trapped there together in the darkness, pinned by the weight of the cave.
And the years have passed as the rubies make more of me each day and his skeleton falls apart. I cannot be sad that the water chews at his bones.
They speak of me now in the city. You’ll hear it if you make your way to the shop, if you come into town in just the right way. But that isn’t the real story. It never is. Because that story hasn’t ended yet, and the words they use are fixed and sharp.
Come find me, my daughter, and bury me deep.
Let the rubies whisper your way:
You are good, you are kind, you are perfect.
Father come find me headstrong and wild,
Come say your goodbyes, sister mine.
The rubies call to you sweetly
From my bed on the ground, to your house in the town,
I am singing to you heartbeat and melody.
I’ve killed a man now and a child I’ve left,
And I don’t want anything from you.
But a grave and a stone, a place to call home.
And the memory of someone come to bind me.