This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Homicides and accidental deaths always increase in our city this time of year, as you would expect. We’re ten days away from voting on who has earned the most Fame over the last year, a universal vote that results in a highly exciting reshuffling of goods, housing, and families. It’s at this time those lowest in last year’s votes and those eager to flare in the memories of their neighbors are desperate for votes to improve their Status and earn them Fame. Recklessness begets murder, and accidents are the consequence of the desire to impress the fortune-favored.

Our city’s quadrants encircle the civil district, which is four blocks long and four blocks wide. At the center is Inspiration Square, a green space lined with orange, magenta, and gold flowers this time of year, where the whole city will gather for the current Most Famed to announce the outcome of the Status vote. The Vendors have been improving their stands night and day, bringing in exotic and colorful goods, even hiring buskers to increase their Fame, in hopes of impressing onlooking voters. The Vendors that line Inspiration Square have it easiest – they’re already well thought of, though they live in another district. To see them exchange goods for votes in the unusual heat of this October is enchanting. And the buskers seldom fail to impress, or they wouldn’t have made it this far – I would know, as their story is mine, separated by a handful of years. Now, they vie for my vote and anyone else’s that can be gleaned by catching the right eye in the well-heeled neighborhood around Inspiration Square known as the Fours, exclusive residence to the most Famed of the Famed.

Outsiders (the few we allow in, mainly traders) assume that Fame is hard to quantify, perhaps because of how isolated our thriving city is from its nearest neighbors. It’s not difficult, and the system is elegant, and effective. Every citizen is allowed to vote for thirty people who deserve Fame. They cannot vote for their own families or people with whom they reside. If greater than three people vote for the same person, that person gets those votes; if a person only receives one or two votes, the votes are declared null (false Fame is frowned upon) and the voter—for their attempt to subvert the process—has one vote subtracted from whatever they’ve earned. Because there is a penalty for voting for those who shouldn’t really receive Fame, people are disinclined to vote simply because someone has asked them, lest their vote be counted against them. So, you see, the system truly measures the value of those who have accumulated honest Fame over the past year.

As for what acts garner someone Fame – they fall under two main categories: heroic and villainous. Each noble act casts a light on a hero’s name; each heinous act ensures a villain’s name is writ indelibly in the minds of the citizens. We are a city of opposites and surprises built on stories of meteoric rises and heartrending falls. We all dance to Fame’s eternal beat and relish when our partners’ faltering steps highlight our own graces.

Those who have fallen from Fame’s storied ladder forever—a slim percent per year—are cast out of the community. You may think it cruel, but we allow them to change into slacks and a shirt, and we provide a bedroll, sandals, a container of water, flint, and a knife before they are sent beyond the walls. I think it’s rather nice that, unlike the old days, we allow them to survive and give them the tools necessary. We then have no obligation to them, and we erase their names from all monuments and records. They walk into the sand and stone to find Fame in other lands, or to die along the path. The knife we give is always a choice, a kindness.

When you get as Famed as I am, you are known not only by your given name, but by the epithets the newspapers and District Criers apply to you. Romanticized or accurate, hyperbolic or sincere, we wear and respond to these monikers as if our own mothers on those venerable beds of birth and death had applied them to our newborn, bawling, blood-streaked bodies. My name is hard to pronounce in your tongue, so tell your readers I am known as The Golden Voice.

I said I had busked in Inspiration Square, but the truth is I’ve risen from much lower than that. As a young boy, I’d lived in the lower-left quadrant of the city, which we call Hope, what the Famed sneeringly refer to as Hopeless. Think of Fame like a spinning wheel – the Inspiration Square is the pin that secures the hub, which is the Fours; then, in descending order of Fame, there is the upper-left quadrant, Fortune; the upper-right quadrant, Ambition; the lower-right quadrant, Health; and then, Hope. The city, as you saw on your way in, is surrounded by a high and impenetrable wall.

I’d started my life in Health but found myself in hardscrabble Hope when my father was murdered by a rising villain. That affected our whole family’s Status at the next yearly Fame vote. You see, all scores from a family are ordered, and the top four are summed. That is the Fame that determines your Status. We were well enough off as three, and children are given charity votes from the Famed and Fortunate – often to the point that they boost the whole family’s score. But when the next vote came, we discovered that pity at my mother’s grief had not brought her any Fame, and we were reassigned clothing, housing, and Status in Hope.

How did I get my epithet? I’ll get to that, sir.

My mother, a Tailor, set about boosting her name and reputation, lest we fall further in the next Status vote. I wended my way through the leering and unsteady-looking four-story structures that oversaw the alleyways and streets of Hope. I would come back to our cramped, one-room flat to find my mother amidst scraps of leather and colorful strips of cloth, mumbling in the dim light of a lantern over her stitches. I did not have the patience to learn the trade, so she suggested that I set about exploring the streets to see what skills I could pick up there.

Before I left, that first day, she held me briefly to her chest and said, You have a choice before you: avenge your father’s death or learn a skill that will grant you Fame. Either way, remember that all heroes have the hearts of villains, and all villains possess souls that yearn for peace. A slim, knob-kneed boy at thirteen, I was bored and itching to start contributing to our family’s fame. I was wise enough to know I couldn’t take on the villain that had slain my father, so I set off in search of my talent.

People in Hope are strange. Strange in that some will give you food for nothing more than a smile and a thank you, and laugh when you come back the next day, hungry and wide-eyed. And others will smile as they pick your pocket and run a slim, silvery knife through your gut until you fall to the ground. Some are angry and many are desperate, but they wear their desperation well, or maybe weariness softens the grinding surety of a low-Famed life. Quite a few Vendors and other skilled workers pushed me out of their stalls and shops once they saw I was trying to learn. Between fruitless conversations, I spent many hours throwing rocks off the southern wall and whistling at stray dogs, who were my only company.

Time seemed to pass slowly, but a day came when my mother greeted me with a frown and a finished dress of suspiciously fine material that she had been placing, folded, into a sack for delivery. The twine she tied around it was tidy and attractive. She’d been up the night before plaiting it.

You have not found a skill to focus on yet, have you? She inquired. I shook my head no and felt shame bloom deep in my chest and spread its heated fingers up to my face.

Here, she said, gesturing at the neat package. At least your face should be seen around Hope. Exposure can lead to Fame. Deliver this for me.

And so I found myself looking more presentable than I had since my father’s death, my mother having forced me to clean and put on a fresh shirt before leaving, the delivery bag slung around my shoulder, whistling as I made my way to the residence. The light in Hope rarely reaches the ground, but I was cheerful enough. I was midway through a sweet, sad song my father had taught me (I was already forgetting the words) when I heard a girl’s voice from above.

Can you whistle that again? I think I know the song.

I obliged, though there was little in it for me. This time, as I whistled, she sang out softly, like a bird that cooed at morning’s first light, still sleepy but growing stronger and more certain with each syllable. I finished on a low note that lasted a moment longer than her singing, and she sighed.

Perfect, she said. And that’s how Guhra and I started performing together. She was about two years younger than I was and looked even younger due to her short stature. Still, when she sang and opened her large brown eyes while I whistled and played a small drum my mother had made with wood and spare leather, people would stop and listen.

By the next year’s vote, my mother and I found our Status numbers had increased, although not enough to be assigned to Health again. Guhra was in a similar situation, Fame-wise, having lost her mother to sickness. Her mother had been a Singer in Health, and the family had thought their stars blessed when she took a job singing for private parties. She contracted a fever that left her vacant of liquids and unable to eat; less than a week later, she passed.

Did my mother and her father fall in love? No, and I never thought to introduce them until years had passed and we were back in Health. Who knows what our story would have turned out to be like if they had. You may think me foolish, but my mother and I were doing well in the interim – well enough that customers from Health descended to the fringes of Hope to promise votes for party attire.

When we rose in Status the next year, I brought Guhra up with me, sneaking her into Health for street performances. My voice got lower, and once it ceased cracking embarrassingly, I joined her in singing. The duets we sang – love and Fame lost, the stuff of the heart – moistened eyes and sweetened aspects and brought us Fame.

When we weren’t singing, we were helping our parents. I regularly gathered my mother’s orders and delivered the products. Guhra did comparable tasks for her father, who was a skilled woodworker. I was delivering a wedding party several suits and dresses (the wedding announcements had been everywhere, the bride and groom hoping to increase their Fame) when I heard something that turned my heart against Guhra.

It was a hot day, and the bride invited me in for some cold water. I could not resist and accepted it with thanks as she and her mother looked over my mother’s work. Her mother had a critical eye and looked over the stitches, the fabric, and the flow in silence before declaring them beautiful, and her daughter beamed in response. The mother’s eyes landed on me then, and the critical look returned.

I know you, she said slowly, squinting at me. I put on my best smile – my mother had told me to always use statements such as I know you and don’t I recognize you from somewhere as an opportunity to make a good impression and increase my Fame.

You’re one of the singers, she said, her eyes easing in recognition. This next part is where my heart was twisted, was made bitter. You sing with the girl with the golden voice, she said decisively.

My smile did not falter. Years of performing gave me a mask, but also a mind to form quick responses.

I have a new solo I’ll be performing soon I said to her with a wolfish wink. Hope to see you in the audience soon! They both laughed and said they looked forward to it, and I was soon on my way back to my mother. But with each set of steps, I heard the praise that should have gone toward my Fame – golden voice, golden voice, golden voice. I knew my voice was better. I just hadn’t been singing as long as Guhra and didn’t have much time to practice outside our sessions.

I thought back on my mother’s words, when we’d been forced into the grit of Hope – heroes and villains. With a golden voice, I could become a hero, rise in esteem and Fame, start working parties and large performances and ---

Something stopped me there as hard as if I’d run into a waist-high branch, and I felt the wretched, gut-twist of certainty: if my Fame was always attached to Guhra’s I would never rise above her. I knew the phrase golden voice had the ring of a future epithet, and I needed it to be mine.

The next night after finishing a performance punctuated by the promising delivery of a rose for each of us from a repeat patron, I held my hand over Guhra’s small, dulcet mouth, silencing that golden voice, and dragged her over to a rainwater bucket in an alley, where I drowned her. When I was sure she was dead, I emptied as much water as I dared and fastened the top on the old wine barrel. I’d borrowed a cart I used sometimes for my mother’s deliveries, and soon I’d gotten her over the boundary into the dark dingy realm of Hope, where I left her. I know not the further fate of her body. Hope eats its own and spares no thought for those higher Famed than them.

You hide it like any good newspaper man, but I can tell I’ve shocked you. But this one event had such a positive affect on my Fame that I never looked back. Without Guhra, I had to learn all the songs, and even wrote one about her, where she had left me, her scorned lover, behind. My Fame grew and I brought my mother along with me. Her work became increasingly lavish and respected. She met my stepfather, a rising professor who modeled theoretical structures of Fame, and our ascendancies were tied to one another.

Everyone started to recognize my face, my name, and yes, I got the epithet I desired when newspapers started to give me my due attention. My mother created custom looks for me, and men and women began to court me, hoping to attach themselves to my fame. I can now have whoever I want, but I am choosy about who I will be seen with in public. I make exceptions of course for the people of the press, and am thrilled that you, an Outsider no less, are here to promote me.

Ah, Guhra’s father. No, he never found her body, or at least I never heard of it. And of course he never knew I had killed her, I’m smarter than that. He fell back into Hope and was eventually outcast many years ago. Such is the way of Fame, and he was never very good at earning it.

You have a secret? Alright, I do like riddles – it’s my esteemed stepfather’s doing, I suppose. I would like to hear it, especially if it’s a good one. Then I can tell it at parties, and maybe you’ll see your little riddle in a write-up about me! Wouldn’t that be charming.

Who am I, and what do I have in my hand?

Vaguely put. I’m guessing it’s not so easy as “air”, the answer to the second? Well, I give up, as I do have somewhere to be after this interview. Who are you? And what do you have in your hand?

The answer to the second question: kindness. The answer to the first: Guhra’s father.

August 19, 2022 20:44

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Jocelyn Nelson
23:21 Aug 26, 2022

I like this concept a great deal! Very intriguing, especially the twist at the end, you had me going. Personally, the first half or so was a little too much of an "info dump" for me. I would have preferred more displays of talent and how people garnered Fame and worshipped those who had it. I also struggled a bit with the tone of the dialog. I liked that I got a really strong sense of the main character's snobbery, but I felt the author's hand in it a little too much; rather than it really giving me the sense that this was a real person tell...


Jen La Plante
19:57 Aug 30, 2022

Thank you, Jocelyn! I did worry about exactly what your excellent criticism touched on - that the piece was more explanatory than it was exciting.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Rachael Parks
00:27 Aug 25, 2022

Hm. This is so relevant. Makes me think a lot about what we value today. Great work. Keep writing for sure ! :)


Jen La Plante
19:58 Aug 30, 2022

Thank you! I will :-)


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.