Diamond Raven was fussing at her as she walked over to the veiled Tzarin – but he walked with her the whole way. Raizel didn’t listen so much to his words as she listened to his tone. He wasn’t happy with her, no, but he was also worried for her. Worried about her? What could be all that dangerous about singing to a Tzarin? He might laugh at her. They all might. Courtiers, she had heard, were like that.
She stepped into the brilliantly-veiled tent – as covered and as decorated as the Tzarin himself – and bowed. “Prince, I hear you would have me sing for you.”
“Yes.” The voice was raspy and strange. The Prince lifted up the veils to reveal a visage that had been burned and scorched so badly that it was hardly a face anymore. His left eye didn’t appear to work correctly and his lips were curled in a permanent sneer. “Yes, if it woudl not hurt your eyes or your voice to do so.”
His accent, too, was strange, but that, at least, could be explained by him being a foreigner. Raizel bowed again and looked the man in the face. “I would love to sing to you, Tzarin – that is, Prince.”
“Are you not horrified?” asked a courtier from behind her.
“It is sad that one so young was hurt so badly, of course. But do you think I haven’t seen burns before? The wilds of the mountains have forest fires. A child can fall into a fireplace or against a forge. The world is not a safe place.”
“Are you saying,” asked another one, the voice higher and a little bit sharp, “that our Prince was out fighting forest fires or working at a forge?”
“Were you, Prince?” she asked politely.
“No.” His lips were still sneering, but she thought she saw something of a smile there as well. “No, I was touched with a potion when I was very young, a potion meant for someone else.”
“It was meant for someone, at least,” tittered a courtier. Raizel was beginning to dislike them strongly.
“Such things are awful,” she agreed. “You wish me to sing for you?”
“I would like that very much, yes, please.”
“Then I will sing for you, Prince.” She set her feet carefully, closed her eyes for a moment, and hummed a couple bars.
“Is that what counts for singing in the mountains?” sniggered one of the audience. Raizel paid them no mind.
The song she thought of might offend, but it did not seem as if the Prince worried too much about being offended, what with the company he kept.
She opened her eyes, looked at the Prince, and sang.
She told the song-story of the One-eyed Fox, a man so stubborn he’d never die. She told how he climbed up the tallest tree in the middle of a forest fire and pissed down on it. She told about him loosing the waters of Pouifeson Lake down into the Valley, so that now there is only Pouifeson River and the fires no longer burn there.
It was a long song, and she knew all the verses by heart, including the ones her grandfather and great-grandmother had made up. When she was done, she had made her audience laugh and cry by turns, sniffle and sob.
She found the Diamond Raven pressing a cup into her hands. “Drink,” he murmured.
She bowed first to the Prince and then drank.
“A lovely song.” His voice was a little rougher, she thought, but no tears touched his cheeks. “Tell me, honored tradeswoman, is this a true song of the mountains?”
“My people have been singing it as long as they know, and the mountains…” SHe hesitated and looked at the Diamond Raven for a moment before glancing back at the Prince. “We are all mountain folk, in a way,for the mountains stretch nearly to the capital. But I suppose I’m as mountains as they come, sir.”
“Your highness,” hissed one of the courtiers.
“Your highness,” she corrected herself, before shooting that courtier a look. “His title matters but his comfort doesn’t? Don’t you people have trade accidents, down in Mipodek?”
She was startled to hear a raspy noise like a cough come from the Prince. It hacked on for a moment before settling into laughter. “Arutep, give this tradeswoman a ring. The one with the opal stone. Honored singer,” he said, pausing to chuckle again, “should you ever need anything from Mipodek, show them this ring. It is my sigel and seal, and my promise.”
She took the ring from a distressed Arutep — the one who had corrected her on the Prince’s title, who had to strip it off his own finger and press it all unwillingly into her hand.
“Thank you, your greatness. That is how we address a Tzarin, a Prince, in our land,” she added, “and while you are visiting, your greatness, maybe I could suggest something?”
“As a fellow traveller, you can suggest anything,” he told her grandly.
She hid her amusement — Princes and Tzarins were not much different, it seemed, if the stories about Tzarins were true. “Take the veils off, your Greatness. People will stare — but they stare at the veils, too. And here, we understand trade accidents. We understand pain.”
She caught the Diamond Raven eyeing her strangely, but now was not the time. The Prince was nodding solemnly, and that was what was important.