“Time is like a strong breeze. You can try to resist it, but each gust brings with it a new challenge.”
-Parson Dalton Ascot
“Taja, here are some candied violets,” one of the dancers slipped into her palm. “They are from Lady Ranseur. But keep them out of sight of your mother, Yasmine. She insists that sweets ruin the voice.”
Taja smiled and accepted the treat, but nevertheless gravitated toward her two guardians where they stood backstage. She ate the treats before they could notice.
The festivities of the afterparty were in full swing when Lady Tarot Ranseur appeared in front of her with a smile.
“I’m sorry,” said Ranseur. Her tone was gentle. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Slowly, the little girl reached into the air with an empty hand. From the tentpoles flew the little golden bird the woman had conjured for her, and it landed in her palm. She smiled back at Lady Ranseur and guided the bird to sit on her shoulder.
At the slightest wave of the hand from Lady Ranseur, the bird began tweeting a melody that parroted Taja’s nightly song. Taja laughed in delight and hummed along. After a few moments, Taja peered up at Ranseur with a shy smile.
Ranseur smiled back and quietly produced another violet for her.
The little girl was munching on the sweet when the formation of their growing friendship was interrupted.
“Lady!” called the voice of Allerban, the drummer, who had accosted her once or twice during the party as he grew less sober.
Ranseur rolled her eyes at Taja, who giggled, and then pulled an even more incredible magic trick: with a swift wave of her arm and a quick muttering of words, she vanished.
Taja’s eyes went huge.
“Little singer!” Allerban cried at Taja, who recognized that she was being addressed and looked at him. “Have you seen the lady? The –” He made coquettish gestures to represent her height, her beauty, and her long hair. “The lady?”
Ranseur flickered into Taja’s vision behind Allerban, then out again, a finger to her lips, and Taja burst out into golden peals of laughter. Allerban flapped a hand at her and went to search somewhere else.
Ranseur reappeared and ruffled the little girl’s hair with a grin. “I think I have plans for you,” she informed the child. Taja was still laughing, starry-eyed.
“She follows you like a little duckling,” Uli said to Lady Ranseur. “We’ve been on the road for a month with you and in the time she spends with you before and after the shows, she’s grown enamored with you.”
“Little duckling,” Ramsay whispered to Yasmine. “More like the little fish.” He held his tongue and laughed along with his wife.
“It’s very sweet,” Ranseur confided in Yasmine. She looked genuinely touched, beaming a little and averting her eyes to the ground. “I treasure such admiration, partly because I know it cannot last. Children grow so quickly.”
“We are truly blessed,” Yasmine said. She had never had children of her own – she and Ramsay were unable – but she had seen enough young performers come and go with their families that she had to agree.
As the party began to wane, Lady Ranseur dipped away from the festivities and fell into her curious habit, which was to seek out a slightly more secluded spot in the back of whatever theater they found themselves in. There she would simply sit quietly for minutes or hours at a time.
Yasmine noticed Taja began to follow her, at first returning to her side when she realized Lady Ranseur was doing nothing interesting, but then she sat next to the Lady and began to imitate whatever it was Ranseur was doing.
“Is the lady thinking… or napping?” Ramsay asked quietly.
“I wonder,” Yasmine smiled back. “I’ve grown to like the lady. And, in spite of her obvious wealth, she has been as humble and uncomplaining a benefactor. We could not have wished for a better supporter for the Symphony of Daydreams. But…”
“Do you find it a little unnerving that Taja is attached to her and not me?” Yasmine asked.
“Jealous of the time she spends with Ranseur?”
“Of course not,” Yasmine almost spat at Ramsay, but managed to keep her voice quiet. “Yet more and more, Taja follows her after every show. But I know she would readily come to me if I called for her.”
“She’s only a child,” Ramsay said through a furrowed brow and with a furtive glance, “Our little duckling is just that. We cannot expect her not to act like one, siren-pup though she might be.”
Yasmine rolled her eyes.
“I am not being dismissive of your worries,” he said, as he gently caressed her arm.
“But do you understand them?” she asked.
“The gods aren’t frowning upon us, love,” Ramsay kissed her on the forehead.
“But they must be squinting with pursed lips.” Yasmine said. “I am sorry, Ramsay, but there is something deep in me that I cannot explain. A feeling. Perhaps the intuition of a woman.”
“What is it that you feel?” Ramsay asked. “A little uncertain of the intentions of our generous benefactor toward our daughter?”
“Don’t you feel it too?” Yasmine paused. “There’s a curious atmosphere in the air of late. During certain hours of the day, time seems to slow to a crawl, and not in the way it does when we had to listen to the parson preach. I swear, Ramsay, I might move my hand in front of my face and see five shadows of it vanish in quick succession at times. Or I can pick up a lock of my hair, only to watch it float down as if I were in water. Am I losing my mind?”
“My love, no one, to my knowledge, seems to be feeling out of sorts.”
“Did you ask?” Yasmine pressed. “Once, I saw Uli staring confusedly at one of her scarves that had fallen to the ground, as though she had thought it ought to fall towards the sky.”
Ramsay half-smiled. “I will, if it will make you feel better.”
“Please,” Yasmine said. “If just to allay my fears.”
“Get some sleep,” Yasmine said, while tucking Taja into her bedroll. She hummed a little tune for her with a smile. At last, the girl sighed peacefully, and her eyes began to drop closed. “Good night, little duckling,” murmured Yasmine with a light touch to the girl’s nose. She stood and began to walk away, hoping to find Ramsay already in bed.
“Good night,” echoed Taja sleepily in her pretty flutelike voice.
Yasmine spun; Taja was already snoring. With a stunned look, she left to find Ramsay.
“Taja spoke in the common tongue?” Yasmine shook Ramsay awake.
Her husband rubbed his eyes. “Perhaps your lessons have been working?”
“Her first words, Ramsay,” she smiled, a tear forming in one eye. “She’s learning!”
Ramsay reached up and kissed Yasmine. “Your persistence is paying off.”
“But she never even tries to talk to us, except in her siren-speak.”
“I know,” whispered Ramsay. “She was bound to come ‘round.”
“Come with me,” Yasmine grabbed his hand and tugged him out of his bedroll. “We are going to wake her and see what else she knows.”
“Yas,” Ramsay resisted but relented a moment later. In seconds, the two stood at the foot of Taja’s bedroll. Yasmine nudged her awake. The girl rubbed her eyes and looked up at her foster parents.
“Taja,” Ramsay asked, “can you understand me?”
“Yes, Father,” Taja spoke the common tongue as if born to it.
The coupled smiled.
“What else can you say? Have mother’s lessons been helpful?”
The girl seemed to pause, a vexed look on her face. For a moment, Yasmine thought Ramsay may have pushed her too far.
“Will we be taking to the road again in the morning?” Taja asked.
Yasmine couldn’t contain her smile, but the clarity with which the child spoke startled her. She turned to Ramsay.
“Yes,” Ramsay muttered. He ran his hand across his balding scalp, a gesture Yasmine recognized as confusion from her husband.
Taja rose and walked over to get one of her dolls. “I forgot to bring Dolly to bed with me.”
As she walked away from them, both Yasmine and Ramsay noticed that Taja’s sleeves seemed a little short on her wrists, and her hair brushed her shoulder blades where it hadn’t before.