Telling Tales 119
Adaptation of a Quiet Sort
The soldier suspected that he knew what the queens meant about his breath not being his own. As deeply as he inhaled, he never felt like he could fill his chest with air. As full as he could get his chest, he never felt like he got the full use of the air before he to take another half-hearted gulp. It was a far cry from walking up copper stairs for three days with Prince Ivan and then running back down them, pursued by a giant serpent. He knew that there was another explanation for his endurance in those days, the fact that he had worn the skin glove of the great horned spirit that had given him great strength. Still, he’d had a good run being strong before he’d handed the glove to – which queen, Ahtna or Nuviya – and had been killed by Yumni. Had he really died? And how had they known he was dead? And how to find him? And how to bring him back to life?
“Good thing I’m on their good side,” he said to Cardinal, “the three queens, I mean.” Cardinal didn’t answer. His morose expression didn’t change. He might as well have been a sad, moving statue. “I know ‘queen’ is the word from my language, but what do you call them?”
Asking Cardinal questions didn’t help. He didn’t respond to compliments about the red of his leather or to his physique. He didn’t acknowledge it when the soldier mused about the weather. He didn’t utter a word when the cat-that-was-not-a-lynx disappeared. When the soldier extolled the benefits of conversation masking the passage of time, Cardinal only walked forward.
The soldier heaved a sigh and kept walking. In his taciturn way, the other man reminded him of a lieutenant he served under once. The lieutenant had at first been scorned by the whole company for his arrogance, but eventually one or another of them had realized that not only did he rarely speak, but he never yelled. Nearly overnight, their impression of him changed for the better.
Cardinal did not even respond to the soldier’s story about the lieutenant, although the soldier admitted to himself it was not one of his better or more interesting ones. Besides, he decided, not talking was perhaps better in his condition. If he talked while he walked, he lost his breath even more quickly. “I hope I’m working with a time limit and not with a limited quantity! What if I’m going through it too fast?” And so after the first days of attempting to draw out his quiet companion, he gave up and fell back into silence as well.
Silence, he discovered, had its own special qualities. At first it was an insult, the reminder that Cardinal was not speaking to him. Then it was a symptom that perhaps he was like the lieutenant and he had his own reasons for not talking, or like that one little mermaid he’d heard about, had lost her tongue entirely. As he grew tired and his breath got shorter, he would find himself unable to do much more than focus on where his next step would fall, to this side of a rock or to that.
In these instances, silence was only the lack of speech, for there were all sorts of other sounds to hear, the crunch of sticks, the whisper of a breeze, the call of a bird. He was so focused on considering these other noises, in fact, that he walked straight into Cardinal’s outstretched hand.