This week, another early story of mine. This is one of the earliest stories I sold, to a long-defunct Canadian children’s magazine called JAM. In fact, it was the cover story, and if I ever figure out where I put the magazine I’ll post the cover art here.
It’s of roughly the same era as “Janitor Work,” which I posted here a few weeks ago.
The other interesting thing about “The Minstrel”: it was the basis for my first post-university novel, a book that never sold…but that came agonizingly close, as I found out at the World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg in 1994. Josepha Sherman was editing science fiction at Walker & Co. in the late 1980s early 1990s (I don’t remember the precise dates) and I’d sent the novel version of this story to her. She liked it, but said it needed quite a bit of additional work…which I did, adding several chapters, in fact. I sent it back, but again it was turned down.
What I found out in Winnipeg, as she recounted the tale while on a panel, was that she’d been “ready to make an offer”…but then the publisher died and his replacement decreed that Walker would no longer publish science fiction. And so my novel-writing career remained stalled for many more years.
Such is life, and writing. But I’ve got plans to go over Star Song (as I eventually titled the novel) and release it myself as an ebook. So I may yet have the last laugh!
For now, enjoy “The Minstrel.”
By Edward Willett
The music sang of the infinite Dark and the suns that burn within it. It shimmered like starlight on alien seas, and whispered with the voices of strange winds.
Kriss stopped playing, and as the last chord died slowly away, sat quietly with his head bowed, cradling his touchlyre in his arms. The orange glow of the oil lamps gleamed on the instrument’s polished black wood and burnished copper.
One by one those in the smoky bar, mostly offworlders, rose from their tables and came to the low platform where Kriss sat to drop coins into the wooden bowl at his feet. The murmur of their conversation was slow to resume.
When the last had come and gone Kriss stood, bowed, and left the stage. He divided the money with the innkeeper, then slipped the touchlyre into its soft leather case and went out into the chill night air.
In the cobblestoned street he stopped and looked up at the stars blazing in the night sky, as he did every evening when he finished playing, burning into his mind’s eye the goal for which he had striven, it seemed, forever.
Two local men staggered by. One poked the other with his elbow and nodded toward Kriss. “Uppity offworlder,” he whispered loudly. His companion made an obscene gesture at the boy, then, laughing, they weaved on down the street.
Kriss clenched his fists, then spun and strode in the opposite direction.
Where the cobblestones ended and concrete began, artificial lights banished the night. At the sight of them Kriss forgot the drunks’ insults and broke into a run. In a moment he reached the tall wire fence that surrounded the spaceport and pressed his face against the cold mesh, peering through it at the starships, silver spires that seemed to soar skyward even though standing still. The lights glittered on their mirrored sides.
There lay the path to the stars, away from this hated planet where he didn’t belong, couldn’t belong, though he had been raised on it. The drunks had known; they had seen his height and his blonde hair and had known he came from the stars.
Somewhere out there must be his true home; somewhere out there he had to have a family. His parents were dead, but they had to have had parents of their own, brothers, sisters…
He blinked away tears, and, disgusted with his own self-pity, turned away from the fence and set out along a dark, garbage-strewn alley for his barren lodging, a tiny attic room above a seamstress’s shop. He was fooling himself if he thought he would ever leave Farr’s World, he thought bitterly. The spacecrews called him “worldhugger”; neither Union nor Family, and without contacts in either of those spacefaring groups, he could never gain a berth as a crewmember, and he could entertain in spaceport bars for the rest of his life without raising enough money to buy passage into orbit, much less to another world.
Lost in dark thoughts, he didn’t realize he was being followed until a hand touched his shoulder.
He instinctively spun away from that touch and pressed his back against a rough stone wall, his heart pounding, his arms wrapped protectively around the touchlyre.
“I mean you no harm,” said the man who faced him. Shadows hid his features. “I only want to talk.”
Kriss did not relax. “Then talk.”
“What is your name?”
Kriss said nothing.
“Perhaps if you knew mine…? I am Carl Vorlick, a dealer in alien curiosities.” He waited.
“My name’s Kriss Lemarc,” Kriss said finally. “Why?”
Vorlick ignored the question. “And how old are you?”
“That would be just about right.” Vorlick’s eyes glinted faintly in the starlight. “I heard you play in Andru’s—remarkable. Almost as though you projected emotion, not just sound.”
Pleased despite himself, Kriss shrugged. “My instrument is…special.”
“Indeed it is. And very beautiful. May I…?” He held out his hand.
Kriss looked up and down the alley, but saw no hope of rescue. Slowly he unfolded the leather covering and took out the touchlyre. The copper fingerplates and strings shone even in that dark corner.
Vorlick took a handlight from his pocket and played the beam over the instrument. Kriss caught a quick glimpse of a lean face with thin lips and ice-blue eyes before the light switched off. “Lovely,” the man murmured. “How does it work?”
Kriss hesitated. “I hear music in my mind, and the touchlyre plays it,” he said finally. “I can’t explain any better than that.”
“That’s what I call it. I don’t know what its real name is.”
“Where did it come from?”
“It belonged to my parents. But I don’t even remember them.”
“Your parents, yes.” Vorlick paused for a long moment, then said, “You desire to leave this world, don’t you?”
Kriss said nothing. This stranger knew too much. Once again he glanced up and down the alley. He would have welcomed even the two drunks who had insulted him earlier—but there was no one.
But Vorlick took his silence as consent. “I own a ship.”
Kriss stiffened. “What do you want from me?” he demanded; but inside he already knew.
“The price is small: your instrument. Give the touchlyre to me, and I will take you into space.”
Kriss looked down at the touchlyre. “It’s that valuable?”
“To the right person, everything is valuable. Your music spoke of your longing for the stars—some of those hardened spacefarers in Andru’s were near tears. You value the stars, I value your instrument. A fair exchange.”
“A musician once told me there isn’t another instrument like this one in the galaxy.”
“But there are other instruments. You could choose from those of a thousand worlds. Surely one construction of wood and metal is not so different from another?”
To go to the stars, Kriss thought. To cross the great Dark, to breathe the air of alien worlds, to perhaps touch Mother Earth herself…
…to find a family…
Almost unconsciously, his arms loosened from the touchlyre. He looked up again at the stars, drank in their light with his eyes—and made up his mind. “Agreed.”
Vorlick rubbed his hands together. “Excellent! Come to the spaceport gate at dawn. Bring the instrument.” He turned and vanished into the darkness.
Kriss listened to his footsteps fade, then turned and walked slowly on toward his room. He climbed the familiar, rickety wooden stairs on the outside of the old brick building, past the dingy window through which shone a faint yellow light from the seamstress’s lantern, unlocked his door and went in. Lighting his single candle, he looked around the tiny chamber. The ceiling with its small square skylight was simply the underside of the roof, and so low on one side he had to stoop to get to his bed, the only furniture aside from a rough-hewn table and rusty metal chair. I won’t miss this, he thought. I won’t miss anything on this planet.
But he didn’t feel euphoric, as he had always expected to feel when he finally found a way to fulfill his dream. Instead he felt—numb? No, not numb—depressed.
Why? he asked himself. I’m going to the stars—all my dreams are coming true!
But the feeling persisted. As always when his spirits needed lifting, Kriss took out the touchlyre. Playing it was cathartic; he could lose himself in music as so many others on this impoverished planet did in wine.
He held the instrument in his lap for a moment, running his fingers over the sinuous curves of its velvety, unvarnished wood. Then he raised it and placed his hands on the copper plates.
The strings screamed: discordant, angry, ear-shattering. Kriss snatched his hands away. The touchlyre had never made a sound like that before! Had he broken it? He touched the plates again, cautiously, and again the instrument howled.
Disgusted, he tossed it on the table. If it was broken, he was well rid of it. He’d find himself another instrument, from one of those thousand worlds of which Vorlick had spoken. He undressed, blew out the candle and crawled into bed.
Just before sleep claimed him, he thought he heard the instrument’s strings softly humming; but of course that was impossible, with no one touching the plates.
He dreamed. He was performing in Andru’s, as he had done so many times, playing of his longing for the stars. That longing filled him with almost physical pain, but pain he could bear as long as he kept playing.
But suddenly the touchlyre disappeared, and he stood on an alien planet, strange and beautiful. Then another new world surrounded him, and another, and another, flashing past faster and faster, but no matter how exotic, how wonderful, they did not satisfy his longing, and the ache grew ever more acute.
And then he came to a world where dwelt a man who, he somehow knew, was his father’s brother. His uncle rose to greet him, laughing, and hugged him, welcoming him to his family…
…but still the longing burned within Kriss, stronger than ever, so strong he suddenly knew it could never be quenched, and he broke away and screamed and screamed and—
—woke, gasping, bathed in sweat, his blanket a tangled heap on the floor and the scream echoing in his ears. His scream—or—he glanced sharply at the touchlyre, barely visible in the faint illumination from the skylight. It seemed to him he could hear the strings vibrating down to stillness, as though a mighty chord had just been wrung from them.
Nonsense, he told himself. He retrieved his blanket. No dreams troubled him the rest of the night.
In the morning he rose very early, put the touchlyre and the few clothes he owned into a backpack, and headed down the stairs and through a thin morning mist to the spaceport. The mountains towering above the city still hid the sun, but light filled the sky.
Vorlick waited at the spaceport gate. “Did you bring it?” he asked at once.
“Yes,” Kriss said, startled by the blunt question.
“Take it out. I want to see it in the daylight.”
Nonplused, Kriss did as he was told. But as he took the touchlyre from its case it hummed to life in his hands, and from it crashed a single explosive chord that echoed through the silent streets. Vorlick stumbled back as though slapped. “What—”
Kriss didn’t hear him. The chord had sent the whole dream of the night before flashing through his mind, and it suddenly made perfect sense to him. His longing wasn’t so much to see the stars, or even to find his family, but to find himself. He was doing that, bit by bit, through the touchlyre, journeying into his own soul to find out what kind of person he was, healing the wound made when he was orphaned on Farr’s World.
Without the touchlyre, he could never finish that healing process. Wandering around the stars with the touchlyre lost to him forever would only hurt him worse; and even if he found a family, he would have lost something just as important.
Kriss’s eyes suddenly focused on Vorlick. “No.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I’ll keep the touchlyre. I’ll find my own way into space.” He started to turn away.
Vorlick reached into his pocket and pulled out something metallic and deadly looking. “Stand still,” he said, his voice as cold as space. “That’s not one of your options. You don’t even know what you have, but I do. It’s a working artifact from an ancient, alien civilization, uncovered by two archaeologists on a planet we may never find again. They fled here with it when they realized someone knew they had it and was out to get it.” He smiled humorlessly. “Me, of course. It was almost fifteen standard years ago. I tracked them here, only to find they had died in an aircar crash. I assumed the artifact was destroyed with them.
“But then, just a few months ago, a spy on this world told me of a strange instrument in the hands of a boy—an instrument unlike any other.
“I did some checking. I found that the archaeologists had an infant son shortly after they arrived here, who was not in the aircar when it crashed—a baby who has become a young man—the minstrel with the unique instrument.
“So now, Kriss Lemarc, though I must withdraw my offer of placing you in a ship’s crew, I give you your parents: Jon and Memory Lemarc, archaeologists. And I also give you knowledge of what your ‘touchlyre’ is: the only relic of an ancient alien culture, and worth a fortune you cannot imagine.
“In exchange for that information, you will now give me this instrument.” Vorlick put his hand on it. “Or I will kill you.”
Kriss tore the touchlyre away from him. “No!”
And from the strings that cry of defiance exploded again, with a force that surpassed sound. Kriss, paralyzed, felt all his violent emotions, fear, awe, defiance, hatred, pouring through his hands into the touchlyre, adding to the force it hurled at Vorlick like a weapon. The power coursed through Kriss like a cleansing tide—and he knew he couldn’t stop it if he wanted to.
Vorlick’s face paled and slackened and his eyes glazed, then closed. The gun dropped from his nerveless hand as his legs buckled, and he fell to his knees and then to the ground.
Finally it ended. Kriss felt, not empty of emotion, but as if he now had room to truly experience and understand his emotions for the first time, as though a gritty residue clogging his mind had been washed away.
He looked down at Vorlick and pitied him. The man lay unconscious, and Kriss knew he had nothing more to fear from him.
Then he raised the touchlyre, silent again, and held it at arm’s length, studying it in the first rays of the sun, streaming through a cleft in the mountains behind him like searchlights. The orange beams made the wood and copper glow, reflecting the power hidden inside the ancient artifact. Just what that power was, and where it came from, he might never know: but he knew it was on his side.
He let his gaze travel to the tall starships beyond the gate, stark against the brightening sky. Above the tallest a single star still outshone the dawn light.
Someday, Kriss thought. Someday I’ll make that journey.
That dream was still his: but now he knew the real journey lay within him. He turned his back on the spaceport and walked back to his attic room.
In a bar called Andru’s, near the only spaceport of an obscure planet, starship crewmembers come to sit quietly and listen to a boy play a strange instrument of space-black wood and burnished copper.
His music sings of the infinite Dark and the suns that burn within it. It shimmers like starlight on alien seas, and whispers with the voices of strange winds.