Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tales From the Trunk: "Heartless"


Not every unpublished story made it into Irregular Verbs, and there's a good reason for that. "Tales From the Trunk" looks at those stories that didn't quite make it: today it's "Heartless."

Though I've said that one of the things I like about this collection is how different the stories are from each other, there are also a lot of connections between them. Many of the stories share common settings, even if those are only alluded to: "Lagos" and "The Last Islander" are in the same future (as is "The Ninth Part of Desire," which was left out of the book) and all of the time travel/time alteration stories have a rough connection to each other. Most of the secondary-world fantasy stories also take place in the same world, though quite different parts of it: there's one textual connection between "Closing Time" and "Irregular Verbs," while the Dead Men in "The Dragon's Lesson" are called that because there's no H sound in the language spoken by the people in "The Wise Foolish Son." (Long story.)

Aside from "Public Safety" and "Au Coeur des Ombres," "Heartless" is the story I've written that has the nearest connection to another one: it's actually set in the same part of the same world as "The Wise Foolish Son" and, like that story, involves two characters from the same two different cultures. While I think it's a modestly moving little story, I decided to leave it out because, unlike "The Wise Foolish Son," it doesn't really connect to anything bigger than itself.

But hey, what do I know? Judge for yourself.

HEARTLESS

  Welcome to you all, my brothers. It is an honour to have you all here, where I might show you those workings of which I am most proud; a rare honour, indeed, since we who make study of the Lord of Lightning and his substance are not, as a general rule, sociable in nature. I well remember the fear and suspicion that had to be overcome to organize our first meeting -- and the treachery and theft that nearly made the second the last. We guard our secrets jealously, as craftsmen will, but still we have pride, and a wish to show our workings to those that can appreciate them. And so here we are.
It is on that very matter -- our solitary nature -- that I mean to speak to your today. For all that I agreed to host this meeting, I am not immune to the suspicion of which I spoke. Rightly so: for while you have all been, I hope, impressed by the workings I have shown you -- I am particularly proud of the bottomless chalice of wine I passed around earlier, though I fear Atan may have drained it -- nevertheless I will tell you today that I once nearly lost something more precious than any of those, indeed my very greatest treasure.
This story begins on a winter afternoon, in a wood between Kaman and the civilized lands. I had heard, some bells earlier, the cry of a she-bear giving birth -- if you have never heard it, it is a sort of rONNNk! -- and had gone in search of it. It is a widely known fact, of no great value, that the young of bears are grown unformed, and do not take their shape until the she-bear licks them into it. The she-bear, after giving birth, is very thirsty, and must go in search of water to lick its young into shape. If a boltforge can acquire the mass while the she-bear is absent, it can be shaped instead into a little servant, most clever with both domestic tasks and duties of enchantment; Kuyurken, who was passing the chalice earlier, is one such, whom I crafted much later.
On that day, however, I was unsuccessful, and the she-bear returned to her cub before I could find it. As I made my way back to my home, though, I heard another sound, not unlike the she-bear's cry but much quieter. Curious, I followed it; in a clearing I saw the dead bodies of a man and a woman. Each was clad in Kamanai skins and jackets and their throats were torn out, their blood staining the snow for poles around. The only question was where the sound was coming from. I had no doubt this was its source, but could not see what was making it. I had left my ghost-seeing eye at home, not expecting to need it, and so was momentarily perplexed; after a moment I saw, hidden under snow in a small cave made by a deep tree root, a girl. She was crying.
My curiosity satisfied, I turned back towards home, but called out. "Help me, please," she said.
This was a surprise. I had been wearing, for protection from the she-bear, a bronze mask of my own devising, shaped with the eyes of a hawk, the ears of a cat and the nose of a dog; this was meant to hide me from all sight, hearing and smell, and it had done so successfully earlier. How then did she know I was there? Clearly she could not, and I took another step away.
"I can see your footsteps," she said. "Please, whoever or whatever you are, help me."
A-ha; of course I still left traces, in the snow -- something a bear might miss, but a child would not. I turned back towards her, removed the mask. She betrayed no surprise when I appeared in front of her, but squirmed out of the space under the tree. Clearly she was the child of the dead man and woman: she had on the same clothing, and was tall and thin, with bright red hair that fell straight to her shoulders. She was, to my eyes, rather tall to be a child, but her slim frame and unlined face, as well as her voice, showed that she was. "Is that your bear?" she asked.
I frowned. "My bear?"
"Did you send it to kill us? You look like a spirit-man." She spat at my feet. "Did you come to kill me too?"
"Why did you call out to me, if you thought I would kill you?"
She threw her head back, no doubt trying to look defiant. "I'm dead when night comes anyway, in this cold. Maybe if I face you I can kill you and take your magic, like in the stories." She balled her small hands into fists, stood ready to strike.
I smiled, looking at the bundle of bone and skin that faced me. "I'm afraid I am not one of your wild spirit-men, child, nor did I control that animal. Your parents simply ran afoul of a she-bear protecting her young."
"Oh," she said, looking deflated, and her hands relaxed. "But how did you keep me from seeing you?"
"It is my craft to do such things." I put the mask back on, was rewarded with a gasp as I disappeared, then took it off again. "I am a boltforge; my craft is that of Tivakar of old, and it is the blood of the Lord of Lightning that powers my workings." A bit overstated, I admit, but it is rare enough in my life of solitary study that I get to enjoy the awe I create in others.
"Are you going to save me, then?" she asked.
"Save you?"
"If you're not going to kill me, are you going to save me? In the stories, if a girl meets someone in the woods they either try to kill them or save them."
"This is not a story, child," I said. "Go home."
"I don't have a home," she said, her eyes moistening. "We were on our way to our spring camp. Baba and Papi were all I had."
I looked at her, unnerved as she began to cry.
"I'll freeze out here tonight," she said. "Can't I stay with you, just for one night?"
Frowning, I looked her over again; thin to the point of starving, but clean enough for a Kamanai, and she did not seem louse-ridden. "How old are you? What is your name?" I asked.
She paused for a moment, no doubt counting in her head. "This is my fifteenth winter," she sniffed. "My name is Vasilyusha."
"I can't say that," I said, "It's not a proper name. My name is Erkekan, and I will call you Tikasai."
"What does it mean?"
"It means this," I said, turning the mask around to show her the amber stone set into the forehead. "That is what I came to this land to find, so that is what I will call you."
We soon arrived at my home, which at that time was within the trunk of a hollow oak; she was properly impressed when the space within opened up to us, and she found herself in the anteroom. There were some blankets there which I often used to warm myself up after I had been outside, and I gave her those to make her bed. Then I called upon the door that led further in and retired to my chamber.
I found her awake in the morning, and led her to the kitchen so she could have a small breakfast before going. The appearance of a door in the formerly smooth wall startled her, and I admit to some pleasure at that.
"You may have another helping, if you wish," I said after she had finished a deep bowl of porridge. "I cannot promise you will find any food on your journey."
She looked up at me, porridge still on her lips. "I thought -- you said --"
"I said you could stay here for a night, and you did. Now you must go."
"No," she said, crossing her thin arms. "I've got nowhere to go to. If you let me stay, I'll -- I'll do your cleaning, your cooking."
"I have no need of that," I said.
She frowned at me. "I can tell just by looking at you, you don't know how to cook."
"Nor do I care for cleaning. But it gets done; look at your bowl."
"Why?" she asked, then near to jumped from her chair; six of my ai gimerkai, tiny bronze men just a finger high, were turning the bowl over and cleaning it with wire bristles on their hands. Her surprise gave way to wonder, and she reached out to touch one.
"So you see," I said, smiling, "I have no need for housekeeping. There is --" I stopped. Now it was my turn to be startled: one of the gimerkai, which should have been cleaning the bowl, had instead climbed onto the finger she had reached out with. It stood in her palm, holding itself still for her to look at it. "What did you do?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. "I just wanted to see it better, and I touched it -- then it climbed up with its bristles. They sort of tickle..."
"You made it come to you," I said. "Perhaps -- perhaps you have a place here after all. I made the ai gimerkai to be sensitive to command by one with the touch... here." I picked up the gimerkai, drew the tiny chip of amber out of its lone eye with my fingertip. It fell still, lifeless once more.
"What did you do to it?" she asked.
"This is the power in it," I said, holding the stone out to her. "It will revive once I've replaced it. But right now I'd like you to hold this, concentrate on it."
"Concentrate?"
"Close your eyes. Imagine a little fire inside the stone."
I watched carefully as her eyes closed, wondering if the gimerkai's action might have been a fluke. Shortly, though, the chip flashed with a tiny light. "What was that?" she asked.
"Your future," I said. For I had, after all, been looking to make a servant to help me with my workings; by the Lady's grace it seemed I had.
I taught her the door charm first, so she could get into the kitchen; when I thought she was ready for another working I made her a room and showed her how to call a door to it. When she had done so I taught her to call the door to my outermost workroom, and she began to assist me with my less difficult workings. If I had doubted at first that she had the Lord of Lightning's touch, I surely did not now. She advanced quickly in her skill and knowledge, and as the years passed she learned much of my art, and learned to call on more of the doors in my house. In that time she showed no interest in leaving, being fully absorbed in her studies. I raised the matter once or twice more, but before long I thought her help invaluable to my work.
Time, as we here all know, passes swiftly when one is at work; the space of ten years was nothing then, and before I knew it Tikasai was a skilled boltforge in her own right. She had grown, too, into a woman. Though she had always a slender frame, a steady diet helped to fill her out so she no longer looked to be on the edge of starvation, and for the first time in many years I wondered if she might be better to leave. She had not learned enough of my craft to give away any of my true secrets, and I knew -- or remembered, from my youth -- that by her age most women were married, and often had borne children. One night at supper, therefore, I asked her if she wished to return to her people, or journey south to civilized lands.
"Why?" she asked. "Are you unhappy with me?"
"No, no," I said. "But this is a lonely life -- I wished only to know you had a choice, now that you are grown."
"I don’t find it lonely," she said. "Besides, why would I want the life I would have had? Married young, children at my breast, moving from camp to camp with the tent on my back -- no, thank you."
I smiled. "There are more doors open to you now. Not all boltforges live as I do, in study; many serve captains and princes, or even themselves, and many of those are very rich. It might be a wise thing to do, before you get too much older."
"Do boltforges grow older?" she asked, laughing. "I was starting to think we didn't. You don't look a day older now than you did the day you found me."
"That's none of your business," I said -- a bit fiercely, I realized by the look on her face.
"I'm sorry," she said after a moment. "I didn't mean to..."
I felt sorry for having snapped at her. "Forgive me," I said. "You're right; I do not age, and though I feel pain and cold, neither can kill me. You must swear, now, on the Lord of Lightning, that you will tell no-one what I am going to tell you."
"I swear," she said.
"I have done a thing greater than even Tivakar himself ever crafted. Each of us has, within us, a death. I drew my death out of me, and hid it, so that so long as its vessel is intact I will live."
"Could I do that?"
I shook my head. "It took me a lifetime of study to learn it. It is my greatest working."
She smiled. "Then," she said, "I suppose I had better get to work."
Her words inspired me. In the years since I had accomplished that working, my studies had become arcane and obscure. Now, in her company, I again became ambitious. Endless hours we worked, struggling to recreate the great legendary workings and to break new ground of our own. Her learning progressed quickly, the charms to the various doors in my home serving as benchmarks; when she learned to open each one she was permitted to work in that room. So it was that she saw more and more of my workings, learned more and more of my secrets, as the doors opened to her. Finally came the day she surprised even me -- or rather, the night; for it followed the day we recreated Teken's Atomile Tempest, a working thought lost to time. It was a triumph for us both, and on that night she showed she had learned the charm to my door.
Oh, it was never a great passion, I suppose. Not the stuff of ballads or legends, certainly. But we cared for one another -- or at least, I found I cared for her, and believed she cared for me. Our work continued, more and more now as equals (or nearly so) than as master and student. Many and happy were the years that followed, and many were the great workings we made.
Love, though, is no bar to time; it is a thing of mortals, not the Powers, and has no force outside the heart. So it was that I, ageless through my art, did not notice the days that were laid upon her one by one, until finally they weighed so heavily she could not even leave our bed.
"My time is almost up," Tikasai said to me as I sat by her side. "But my life has been full of wonders. I think sometimes perhaps I am still in the snow, and all this has been a dream of my last moments."
"If so, then I am dreaming too," I said.
"If all the things I have seen and done were real," she said, "let me see one more. Teach me the charm to that last door that is unopened."
She meant, of course, the door to my innermost room, the door where lay my greatest working -- that with which I had drawn out my death. At that moment I could not bear the thought of seeing her die, so I taught her the charm, which she mastered easily. That door then opened for us, and I carried her into the workroom.
There it sat: still my greatest working, even after all we had done together, untouched for years past counting. I cannot tell you how it works, of course, but suffice to say that at its core was a suit, close like a stocking, stitched of copper thread, which was to cover the whole body, and though Tikasai could barely stand I fitted it onto her. Her life was clearly ebbing, and I began to teach her the charm that would call the working into life.
As I did I began to reflect that when I taught her this, I would have no more secrets from her. She would know all that I had ever known. Nothing but her love would keep her from leaving, teaching those secrets to others; and love, like all mortal things, dies in time. But she would never die.
"What's the matter?" she asked when I hesitated. I saw on her face, with eyes clear for the first time in scores of years, the look of a thief about to escape. "Erkekan?" her fading voice called. "Why are you stopping?"
All of you here know how precious are our greatest treasures; I am amazed, still, when I think of how close I came to losing that which was mine...



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