“Me for? For…me…only? No, not. For all.”
Quin peered at the man who was her mentor, her friend, and now, her charge. It was late, and they were both tired. But she believed that she understood what he was trying to say, as he took in the flurry of effort that was being directed toward the singular aim of helping him.
Just me? he was saying. What about everyone else?
She had learned to listen to more than just his words in the five years that she had been studying with him, or rather, he had taught her to listen to more than just his—or anyone else’s—words.
“All benefit,” he said. “All.”
Quin nodded. “What is a benefit to you is a benefit to all. You’ve saved countless lives and who is to say how many more you can save—millions, billions, entire worlds full of people—if we could just find a cure?”
Quin first noticed the symptoms a month or so past, but when she looked through her notes, she found that she had noted suspicions far earlier than that, half a year past. The sharp chill of anxiety fell upon her the day that she realized she might have prevented what happened to her teacher, the man renowned for being the “greatest orator in the known worlds,” and in his later years, a renowned ambassador of peace, but known to her only as Milo.
By then, he had already lost the ability to form coherent sentences. He understood every word she said, as he still did. Even though he could not speak words of comfort when she confessed her realization, he had pressed a hand to her shoulder and squeezed. And she imagined him saying “steady” so clearly that she could almost hear the word.
Since then, Quin had spearheaded the efforts to both discover how Milo had been contracted the ailment and how best to treat it so that he could continue his life’s work.
Lexinkeo syndrome was a common childhood illness in their region of their native world. Quin herself had contracted it when she was an older child. And thus she was now immune to it. But it rarely existed outside of their world. It affected no other peoples the way it affected her own. And no other people carried it. It had never occurred to her—would have never occurred to her—to expect it, to fear it outside of their home world.
The syndrome rendered speech into a jumble of nonsensical words. When it struck in childhood, the effect was mild in most and rarely required interruption in a child’s usual activities. If a child misspoke, all she needed do was stop and concentrate, and she would be able to correct her own words. The ailment would pass in due time, and the child recovered speech within one or two months. But if the syndrome developed in adulthood, the effects worsened, until a person’s speech could not be understood at all. Sometimes, even written words began to jumble. Yet the person’s mind remained clear. No cure or treatment had been discovered.
The effects never faded.
The morning after the last conversation she’d had with her mentor to convince him that the efforts being taken on his behalf were worthy, Quin walked through what she had come to call “central command.” She had reserved an entire floor of a small administrative building on the Academy grounds where everyone who was trying to help Milo gathered to share information and discuss solutions. Because the syndrome was progressing so quickly in the great orator, Quin called meetings every day. Most worked from their own laboratories and offices, but a few worked from the computing stations on the floor.
Quin approached one such station as her assistant, Lenore, a language technician, waved her over. Milo was standing behind the woman, watching her work.
“I’ve tried every translation matrix twice,” Lenore said, turning in her chair. “Nothing is working.”
“Is drink tea good,” Milo said, and he put a hand on Lenore’s shoulder.
“I think he’s saying ‘thank you,’ or ‘thank you for trying’?” Quin guessed, reading his inflection and cadence.
Lenore smiled. “You are welcome, sir.”
“That’s it then,” Quin said, crossing her arms. “For that method, anyway.” She turned to look at Milo. “I only wish I could do more. I wish I could take your place, and you mine, so that the worlds would have your words.”
Milo frowned at her and shook his head.
“Lenore, stay here and take charge,” Quin said. “I’m going to go to the surgery and to check in with the inspectors.”
“Should I continue making preparations for our part of the Honorium?” She glanced between Milo and Quin.
Quin wrapped her hand around Milo’s upper arm and squeezed gently. “Yes, we are all still attending. And yes, the Orator is still giving his acceptance speech.” Milo’s sleeve felt cool to the touch. It was, perhaps, too chilly in the room. She asked Lenore to adjust the temperature and asked Milo to stay where he was while she went to check with their other collaborators.
Lenore nodded and left her station to begin her work.
Milo narrowed his eyes and peered at Quin. He knew what she would encounter when she went out of doors on her own. He’d wanted to come with her for protection, not out of curiosity. Milo had no interest in subjecting himself to surgical methods. But Quin believed that was only because no viable methods or outcomes had yet been suggested. And strangely, he seemed to have no interest in the investigation into how he contracted Lexinkeo. Perhaps because the outcome would make no difference to his condition.
Milo cleared his throat in that familiar way he did before commencing a lecture.
“Arms. Too many,” he said.
Quin laughed aloud and glanced at her arms. When she looked up again, Milo was frowning at her, his lips pursed professorially.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I will be careful.”
She nodded to him and left the command center.
As Quin walked down the corridor to the lift, she encountered the very thing she had dreaded moments earlier, the very thing she had encountered almost every day since the great orator’s illness was announced.
A young woman was striding toward Quin. The mild expression on her face hardened as she glimpsed Quin. She had a paper in her hand that she held out as they stopped before each other.
“Hello,” Quin said. “What is this?”
“A labor requisition,” the young woman said with a heavy sigh.
Quin raised a brow. “For our team?”
The young woman sighed again. “Professor Gost sent me. He thought I could be of assistance.”
Quin spoke the words before she could stop herself. “You don’t seem interested in being of assistance,” she said.
The young woman blinked. She straightened her back and shoulders. “It is the highest honor to be of assistance to Orator Milo.”
Some sudden feeling swelled within Quin. She tipped her head to indicate the room behind her. “Give the requisition to my chief assistant, Lenore. She will get you settled.” She caught her breath and raced down the corridor before that feeling spilled over. She rushed to the private lavatory, fearing that she would cry out in a rage or burst into tears at any moment.
But once she was behind the locked door, away from the sight and the hearing of others, she just began to perspire profusely. She took gasping breaths and felt an unbearable heat pulsing from her face, her neck, her arms, her entire upper body. She removed her outer tunic and cast it aside on the counter. She grasped the counter and reached out to touch the wall before her. The image of the decorative vines shimmered away and a mirror took its place.
Quin gazed at herself and slowed her breaths. And when she was calm enough, she spoke to herself.
“I am lying to myself. I am not just doing this for him, but also for me. To clear my name. I did not do this to him.” She stared at her reflection. Or did I? she thought. She was not just his student. She was his Heir Apprentice. She was the guardian of his person, his property, and his legacy.
Of course she had not harmed him on purpose. And even among most of those who believed she was to blame, like that young woman whom she would now face day after day, Quin was blamed for carelessness, not malice.
She wanted to know. For someone to tell her that it was not her doing. Knowing would do her teacher no good. It would change nothing about his condition. But perhaps if her name were cleared, a burden would be lifted from her, and the effort required to carry that burden could be directed to a more worthy pursuit, such as finding a cure.
So, she found herself heading first to the office of the inspector who was charged with investigating how Milo had contracted the syndrome.
On a world where the illness did not exist, a world where Milo had been living for the better part of his life, the authorities had deemed the incident a potential crime and assigned an inspector to investigate.
“Are you certain?”
The inspector nodded. “We will release our official statement once the results of duplicate tests are concluded. But we have already closed the case. I was hoping you would bring Orator Milo with you. So I could tell him in person.”
Quin rose from the uncomfortable chair in which she’d been sitting, across from the inspector. “I asked him to stay behind today. I thought it best that I come alone, and…”
“Subject yourself, to the glaring accusations in the eyes of the strangers you pass on the streets?” the inspector said, his gaze following Quin. “There are better ways to test your own sanity, Orator.”
Quin smiled, but could not hold back a tired sigh. “Milo is well, but I judged that he could do with some rest.”
“Perhaps that was wise. I don’t know how he will react when he hears what we found out.”
Quin nodded. “I will tell him.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“Thank you, Inspector. I regret that you’re not meeting the Orator under pleasant circumstances.”
The inspector nodded. “This may be hard on him. Maybe not. But I expected that you would be pleased, or at least relieved.”
Quin felt that swell of emotion again, emotion she could not identify. It faded and the chill of anxiety once again filled her chest. “I thought so too,” she said. “Maybe I will be, once the news has spread.”
Amidst arguments of whether or not Milo was purposefully exposed to the syndrome by those who wished to prevent his work in diplomacy, or enemies with more personal vendettas perhaps, or even close acquaintances with unbridled ambitions, the inspector had discovered the tragedy of the truth.
Milo was exposed by a man who had contracted Lexinkeo and knew he had. And yet, the great orator was not exposed on purpose. This man had a mild case of the syndrome. When Milo visited his own home world, as he sometimes did, this man broke a quarantine to see the great orator in person, to shake his hand, and thank him for what he had done, for Milo’s orations had meant a great deal to the man.
This exposure happened many years in the past, before Milo ever met Quin. The orator had been carrying the protein that caused the syndrome since then. He might have carried it for the rest of his life if not for a confluence of events that created the right environment for the syndrome to manifest. A bout of a common viral infection caught while on a world that was not humid enough for his vocal apparatus causing him to try a special kind of tea he’d never drunk before. All of it together triggered the syndrome. And now the orator, who had so enjoyed his profession and who longed only to keep speaking to the hearts of his fellows, faced a lifetime of utter silence.
Milo said nothing in response to the inspector’s revelation. So Quin continued with the rest of her report on that day’s progress.
“My visit to the surgery was promising,” she said. “They’ve learned of a prosthetic tissue that could be overlaid on your brain and may aid in greatly reducing the symptoms. I admit it’s not ideal. The surgery has only been performed on a handful of people and of those, half have noted no difference in their symptoms.”
Milo reached for the slate and stylus before him on the table around which he, Quin, Lenore, and the inspector sat.
He scrawled on the slate and turned it around.
You act as if I were dying, he’d written.
Quin gulped with difficulty. Her throat was dry. “The surgery carries some risk, as all surgeries do. But it is minimal risk. The surgeon could explain in detail and answer any questions you may.”
Milo huffed out a humorless laugh and scrawled another line.
But will I still be able to ask them?
“You still seem to have control over your written faculties,” the inspector said.
For how long? The effect on my speech has been sudden and relentless.
The inspector glanced down as if humbled. He gathered the pages of the file he had prepared for the orator.
Milo wrote furiously on his slate and tapped the table before the inspector, who raised his eyes.
Forgive my rudeness, Inspector. You have solved a most difficult mystery. And I wager there are people in greater need than I, whom you have been forced to neglect while you chased it. I am happy you can now return to serving them. And I am grateful for what you have done for me.
The inspector gave a single nod.
Quin glanced over to Lenore. “If surgery is not to your liking, Lenore has another way.”
Lenore’s eyes sparkled as she leaned over the table toward the orator. “A new technology has been developed that might translate your thoughts into words as you think them, and not just your words, but the force of your words, and the subtleties of your emotions.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “Orator, you spent many years studying and practicing your craft. You did not emerge from your mother’s womb spouting great speeches. Perhaps, in time, with study and practice, you can learn to speak through this new tool as well as you have spoken through your natural voice.”
Milo smiled at her, then he dropped his gaze to his slate and wrote.
Perhaps. And I will hear you speak more of it tomorrow. Tonight, I adjourn this meeting. And I entreat you all to join me for dinner. The Honorium approaches, and we have been hard at work of late. We deserve a lovely meal and a lovely rest.
Quin grinned. “Well spoken, Orator.”
Early the next morning, when Quin walked into the command center, expecting to be the first to arrive, she found she was not the first.
You never came to any of my lessons this early.
Quin laughed and dropped her gaze.
“I am well-rested thanks to you and your insistence,” she said, and she gazed at his face. He was not old, she thought to herself. Not old at all. It was not yet time for him to retire. Not yet time.
I enjoyed your singing, as always.
Quin laughed again. She was a terrible singer. But at least she had made everyone laugh. And there was more than her due of applause when she’d finished. Perhaps the crowd at the tavern was kind that night. Or perhaps there was some contrition in that applause. Word had spread of how Milo had contracted Lexinkeo syndrome.
She had expected she would still carry the blame. After all, hadn’t she allowed him to contract that virus? Hadn’t she allowed him to drink that unfamiliar tea? Hadn’t she failed to talk him out of speaking in a climate that was unkind to his throat?
Perhaps people had realized that being his Heir Apprentice did not make her his keeper.
Dinner had been delicious. And though he hadn’t spoken a word, Milo had seemed joyful, eating and humming along.
Two more days remained before the day that was to be Milo’s greatest triumph to date, the awarding of the Honorium Oratorium.
Only orators who had achieved a lifetime of exceptional speeches, particularly those that advanced and improved the conditions of many people, received the honor.
Quin certainly never hoped for nor aspired to the award. Those who did were often disappointed and soured on the craft of oration. She could not imagine turning away from the craft she so loved. She hoped to be the best orator she could be, to inspire, to move, and to revel in her craft always.
As Quin set her bag and papers down, Milo approached her. He handed her a sheaf of papers that was folded in threes.
She accepted the papers.
“Read,” he said, startling both of them. It had been some time since the words he spoke were the words he meant to speak.
He opened his mouth and spread his fingers before it, wiggling them. She understood. He wanted her to read the words aloud. He wanted to hear his own words, even if not from his own voice.
She nodded to him and unfolded the papers, feeling slightly nervous at what message they might contain. She expected this was his speech, and perhaps he wanted to hear how it sounded if she were to deliver it on his behalf.
She began to read his words. “I have tried to listen, as I’ve taught you to do.” She stopped, looked up at him, and smiled, before continuing her reading. “But I have never only listened. I have always balanced listening with speaking, until now, when I’ve had no choice but to simply and only listen. And I have been struck by what I hear. By the meaning of what I hear. All speak of how special and great I am, and how no one else can do what I can do. I have always been proud of my accomplishments, but I have also been humble, or so I thought I have been. But in truth, I swallowed the notions of my own greatness that others expressed. I swallowed them early and I have never quite let them go.”
Quin frowned in confusion. If this was his speech, it was not quite what she expected. She continued. “You have been watching over me, ready to leap in and save me should I show any signs of despair, is that right?” She glanced up at Milo, who tilted his head to the side and gazed at her. And she understood. This was not his speech. It was a letter to his Heir Apprentice.
“I expected to feel despair. My purpose has been taken from me. My love. My joy. My destiny.”
Quin stopped reading. That sharp chill of anxiety that had been piercing her chest from the inside out, ever since she discovered her mentor’s ailment, prickled the hairs on her back and sunk into her gut.
“Perhaps despair is still to come. I hope not, but if it does, we have made ready for it. It is all we can do. But perhaps it will not come. My voice has been silent, but my mind has not been so. I have thought much upon my destiny. And I have realized that the journey of destiny—like any journey that is long enough—has many a detour, and many pauses for rest, and on occasion, a departure from the trodden path. I fear this challenge I now face. I fear it greatly. I fear it because it is unknown to me.”
Quin looked at her teacher, the great orator Milo. He was holding up his slate.
You once said something similar to me. Did the words I spoke to you give you any comfort?
Quin searched her memory. And the words rose to the surface of her thoughts. She smiled. “Not at the time,” she said. “But afterwards, and many times since, yes. They have.”
She set the papers in her hands down, and took the slate from her teacher’s hand and set that down. She clasped his hands in her own. “Knowing may not save one from fear,” she said. “And fear is not always an enemy. When fear comes, especially if you are alone, ask it why it has come. Ask it to stand beside you, so that you are no longer alone. And if fear comes when you are not alone, let it know that it may depart now, for you are not alone.”
Milo shook his head as if to say that the words gave him no comfort.
Quin smiled and shook his hands. “My friend, you are not alone.”
Quin stood alone on the stage before the thousand or so who were present in the room. A tense murmur had replaced the excited murmur that had rippled through the crowd thus far during the Honorium. A poet had been honored with the award. A philosopher. An occultist. A machinist. And many others.
Typically, the orator who was being honored would have been among the first to come to the stage, for the orator would be expected to give a most spectacular speech. But for this Honorium, the orator award was among the last.
The crowd was nervous. Perhaps even fearful. When Quin stepped toward the lectern, the crowd silenced almost at once.
That sharp chill that Quin had been carrying in her chest dispersed. She took a deep and calm breath.
“To all those who are gathered here tonight, I thank you for your presence. And I understand your…concern. My teacher, the man we are here to honor, was struck speechless by a common childhood ailment that has robbed us of the best gift he can give the world, his words. And yet, he has come here tonight to do what he has always done.” Quin smiled. “He has come to speak to you.” She half-turned and flourished her arm to her left. “I present to you the greatest orator and ambassador of our time, Orator Milo.”
The gathered many cheered and hooted and thunder-clapped, and they did not do so out of duty or obligation. Quin glimpsed shining eyes just dripping with tears, and people lifting their children up to see, and couples clasping and raising their hands.
Milo strode onto the stage as he had done many times before. But he did not take Quin’s place at the lectern.
“Firstly,” Quin said, once the applause had died down, “if you will indulge it, I will speak on the orator’s behalf.”
Quin delivered the speech that Milo had written. His speech included admonitions and assurances. Expressions of his sadness and regret and frustration, but also how he did not yet feel he could give up on trying to speak again.
“Even if I managed it,” Quin spoke, “mine must not be the greatest voice in the world. No one person’s should be. There must be many voices of compassion and reason and wisdom. Only then will they be strong enough, so strong that when one is struck silent, the others may continue speaking. So strong that even when all can speak, they are silent when silence is needed. I learned these things during my time as an orator. I also learned that I would never stop learning, and that I must always strive to improve. But never have I truly understood the truth of my own sentiments until now, when I cannot speak to you as I truly desire to. Thank you for the Honorium. I will thank you by enduring. For I do not believe I have yet accomplished my greatest deed. Though, I will try, tonight.”
Now, at last, Quin stepped aside. And as Milo took her place at the lectern, she heard a collective gasp from the gathered crowd, and then, she heard almost nothing. It was as if they were all holding their breaths.
The night before, she had practiced the speech, and he had practiced his words. He was able to say the three words he hoped he could say in the proper order. He had practiced. If he paused long enough, he could trick his mind, or his tongue, or whatever confounded combination caused his ailment, into expressing what he hoped to express.
And so, the greatest orator of their time uttered the final words of his speech.
“You. Speak. Now.”
He crossed his hands over his mouth and stepped back and down from the lectern. He kept the pose as Quin placed the badge of the Honorium upon his lapel. Before she could step aside to let him take his bows, he dropped his hands and placed them on her shoulders.
He said nothing, and neither did Quin. But she smiled a calm smile, and she nodded, as if to say, “I understand.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel