I meander through the shelves, the microchip reader in my hands. The connected earbuds dangle to the floor, swinging centimeters from my feet. I stop at random and squint to read the labels.A wrinkled hand reaches over my shoulder, presses one of the buttons. The microchip slides out of the slot with a hissing sound.“I think you will find this one acceptable,” my grandfather smiles at me, then shuffles off. I watch him turn the corner before I reach up and, pinching the microchip between my fingers, pull it from its place.I put it in the reader. I start down the row, thinking about where I might go to listen to the story, when I stop and rush back. This label is especially hard to read, the words almost not able to fit. “The Story of the Princess and the Words that Needed to be Spoken, but Couldn’t Be.”I snort. It’s a typical grandfather made title.I decide to stay in the library to listen and settle down into one of the big chairs. A sigh escapes me as its cushions hug my back. When I was little, I would pretend I was sitting on my mother’s lap as she told me stories. Those feelings of safety and comfort still linger in the fabric.One of the servants appears, sets a cup on the small table beside me.I smile. “Thank you.”She smiles back and nods, but leaves the room immediately.I insert the buds in my ears one by one and put the player on the arm of the chair. Then I press play and close my eyes, the middle-aged voice of the narrator sweeping over me.
“Our society had four tiers. My family was assigned the label of tier two. We could not speak more than 500 words a day.“My father was gardener to the royal family and sometimes he took me to work with him. He knew I liked the plants. The roses were my favorite. One day, I went to the place where the bushes were kept and found a girl sitting on the only bench.“‘Who are you?’ I demanded.“‘Alysa,” she told me.“‘What are you doing here?’ I asked, looking down at her.“‘I live here, hon.’“I was more curious then angry so I sat beside her. My next question was asked not out of ignorance, but because her feet were bare.“‘Are you one of the slaves?’ I whispered it because if she was it meant she was a first tier. First tiers were not allowed to speak. I liked her. I didn’t want to turn her in.“She laughed. Someone else of her status would have yelled at me for such an offense. ‘No. I’m the princess, silly.’“My father called then. Princess Alysa grabbed my hand when I tried to stand. ‘Will you be here tomorrow?’“I had no definite answer so all I said was, ‘I’ll ask if I can.’“I couldn’t. And I couldn’t. And I couldn’t. It was another week before my father took me back to the palace. And she was sitting there waiting. And the next time, too.“‘I wish you could come over every day, Stephn.’ She always added some kind of tag to her sentences when she talked.“‘Me too.’“She smiled when I said that.“Within a few weeks, my family moved right into that palace, the servant quarters. We all got jobs. Mine was just the oddball kind, for the cook, the stable hands, anybody who needed it. None of them were allowed to keep me long though. Everyone knew what my real purpose was.“‘I can’t wait ‘til I’m queen, my darling Stephn.’ We were teens.“‘Why’s that?’ I was lying in the grass.“She swung her feet when she answered. They passed right over my face. ‘Because then I’ll be fourth tier. Then I won’t have to make sure I say at least 1,000 words a day. Then I won’t have to draw out what I want to say to make sure I’ve said enough.’“I was silent for a minute. I leaned up on my elbows. She stopped swinging her feet. ‘I would give anything to be able to say 1,000 words a day.’“She blushed, red as the roses. ‘I’m sorry, Stephn. I just didn’t think.’“I stood up. ‘I know. You don’t ever have to think about anything that comes out of your mouth.’ Then I walked away.“I didn’t go out to the garden the next day. But the day after that I did. And she was waiting. Just likes always. But she refused to talk.”
There is a long pause. So long I’m about to hit the eject button.
“They gave her a warning. But still she refused to talk. They threatened her tongue. No words passed her lips. I begged her to talk, wasting all the day’s words. The small word counter around her throat, the symbol of two and three tiers, remained at zero. They cut out her tongue. She smiled when she showed me. I cried.“She was demoted to first tier automatically. She lost everything. Her throne. Her home. Her parents. Her roses. Me.“I was ordered not to follow her. Was told they’d take my tongue, too. So I didn’t. But I had someone watch her. I paid high for it. No one wants to spend their words on another man’s business.“All was good. She was happy, if lonely, I was told. And then came the day. The memory of it is etched onto my brain.“My informant rushed through the door and told me in broken sentences that Alysa was dying. At that moment I did not think about my tongue. I just ran.“I remember the feel of her forehead, how hot it was. When I touched her, she opened her eyes and smiled. Then she pointed to a cradle in the corner. I crouched over it. A baby, a girl, was inside, sleeping. She chose that moment to awake, crying. I picked her up and turned to Alyssa. But she was already gone, her lips turned up in a forever smile.“I rocked the baby in my arms until she fell back asleep. My tears hit her face. I took her with me when I left. Took her far away. I swore she would have freedom of speech.“So far, I have achieved my goal.”
The story is over. I know it. I feel it. But I keep my eyes closed. My eyelids start to itch. I sigh and open them. Grandfather is sitting in the chair across from mine.I laugh, but it’s a small, awkward sound. “Glad our world isn’t like that.” It’s a feeble attempt to keep things normal. To keep things the way they were before. When everyone could say what they wanted and when my mother and father died in an accident and when my grandfather was really my grandfather.“Why are you showing me this now?”His whole body sinks a little lower into the chair. “You needed to be prepared.” His voice is aged, dry, but it matches the one on the microchip down to the syllable.“For what?” My heart starts pumping so loud that I look down at the reader, thinking the thumping is coming from inside it.The chimes of the door bell echo through our house, bouncing up stairs and down hallways to reach us. We’re quiet as we listen to the maid pad across the floor, the creak of the door hinge, the maid’s scream.“For that.”