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Elizabeth Prosper

"Our Nightingale sings from the highest point in the city no more. Last year, Rumen Tsor replaced her with a doll of gold-dressed porcelain: a doll who, according to the first precepts of the Mundites, has no mind and no soul..." A "refresh" of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale "The Nightingale", written for the "Refresh Button" summer contest. (


Our Nightingale sings from the highest point in the city no more. Last year, Rumen Tsor replaced her with a doll of gold-dressed porcelain: a doll who, according to the first precepts of the Mundites, has no mind and no soul. The Tsor's new pet sang to him for nine months, and resides with him now on the top of his tower, built as a gleaming, jagged finger of warning to the Supari he rules in the city below.

The Nightingale has returned to the Supari streets she came from, where schools of irridescent fish dart between grim iron effigies of trees (a state-imposed gift of Rumen Tsor's father) and tender-footed porcupines clamber from window to window, across hacked-up telephone lines used for hanging washing, with messages in lace pinned to their mottled gray spines. The resentful whimsy of her people knows no bounds: witches, magicians, and mountebanks all, Rumen Tsor used to called them before he bought her, to the great amusement of his court.

In the jagged canyons north of our city, which in their immensity rival all towers but Rumen Tsor's, the young Supari still gather in secret to rehearse the use of swords, pistols and knives. Their uniforms are of dark red leather trimmed with rusty ribbon and ancient family lace. They skirmish whenever chance allows with the Tsor's soldiery, at the city gates: in the past year, these skirmishes have become more and more violent.

The Nightingale never earned a rust-colored coat, and the only weapon she ever tested, in her youth, was an outlandish flail that was also a flute. Afterward, the witch who made her was obliged to sell her to Rumen Tsor before she lost the use of any more fingers: the spell he'd used to make her was the sort that doesn't allow for repairs, or so I understand from what she told me. Whether this was corner-cutting on his part or lack of talent I don't know: like his lack of attention to comeliness when shaping her fleshly form, it ended up causing the Nightingale considerable grief.

In any case, her voice was what she'd been made for, and with it she rose quickly in the Tsor's favor, before several of the more traditional of his courtiers gifted him with her replacement.

The city knows now that Rumen Tsor is dying, because the song of the porcelain doll has changed key, and has rung out over the city discordantly for the last week, worsening every day. In temper and spite, the rumor goes, he has neglected to break the dying thing: he forces us all to listen, and the sound is enough to drive the city mad, each repetition a little more out of key.

The witches in their walled neighborhoods festoon his father's trees with poison ivy and netted lace. Outside, the coated militia duel with new fervor, and injuries multiply, to the point where they are obliged to call a Mundite doctor to tend them, one who had recently tried and failed to cure the Tsor.

The doctor is less unsettled by the Supari than he was by Rumen Tsor, who would not let him remove the clamorous doll when he paid his visit: at least the injuries they've done themselves are within his ability to heal. He'll pass the story on, after they release him, after all the fighting is done: more specifically he will speak of the real Nightingale he saw among them, and the words he heard her say before she left.

"I am going to the Tsor's tower," said the Nightingale, "Clearly the Mundite doll has broken, and no one in the court dares to turn it off."

The young Supari men and women were greatly pleased to hear this, for they thought she had finally grown a spine and was going to bite her thumb at the Tsor on his deathbed. They clustered around her and pressed on her a richly embroidered frock coat with impossible tailoring. It had been cut in a style which had been favored in the past by several of their most ill-favored martyrs.

But the Nightingale shrugged off the frock coat at a witch's counter in the city, several hours before midnight, and the witch, who was also her father, burst into laughter at the sight of it.

"How well they love you now!" he exclaimed, and he looked her over with sharp and unloving eyes. "Death hovers over the white-green tower tonight: she's come for Rumen Tsor. I can give you a charm to win his favor again, if you like."

"But will it cure him?" asked the Nightingale.

Her witch-father only laughed, and the Nightingale left him empty-handed.

A jester at the tower, who'd never been enough in Rumen Tsor's favor to fall out of it, and never quite essential enough to him to be ousted, put her on a lift usually reserved for drugged wine and dancing girls, and brought her up to the Tsor's apartment.

Now Rumen Tsor lies on a divan on the top of his tower, and listens to the last sour notes of his doll's song repeating, again and again.

Below in the city, magic smoke wreathes between the street blocks in a hundred colors, all but green and white: the witches are already celebrating his demise. Already there is clamor to be observed at the city gate closest to the Supari canyons: tomorrow will be Tuesday, but jubilant at the prosper of the Nightingale's last joke, the Nightingale's peers have begun their attack early.

But the city could be burning for all the heed Rumen Tsor pays it: his eyes, huge and shadowed, are fixed on the doll.

He felt much better, in the months after he had first sent the Nightingale away. I expect he felt as if he had averted some great and terrible turning point, the potential for real entanglement and disaster. Moreover, the songs the doll sang were fashionable among his people, as the Nightingale's were not: and his courtiers were just as pleased by them as they were by her strange improvisations. Or, at least, none of those who weren't had the courage to object.

Once, before Rumen Tsor smashed its fingers in a fit of brutal melancholy, the doll had used to accompany itself on a little golden lyre and sing at the same time. Once the voice-box in its ivory throat had been capable of reaching a range higher than the most priceless of human singers: before one night, a week since, he had tried to throttle it, and cracked the casing soundly.

Hours have passed, or moments: it is hard to tell. Rumen Tsor lies in the dark on his tower-top with open eyes, waiting. The doll's voice winds down tortuously into silence.

The Nightingale hops out of the lift on light feet, bare-armed and marred in the un-whimsical light.

Wordlessly, she perches on the divan at Rumen Tsor's feet, and begins to sing.


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