By Chris Willrich
A king of Swanisle delights in rue
And his name’s a smirking groan.
Laughgloom, Bloodgrin, Stormproud we knew
Before Rainjoy took the throne.
IT WAS SUNSET in Serpenttooth when Persimmon Gaunt hunted the man who put oceans in bottles.
The town crouched upon an islet off Swanisle’s west coast, and scarlet light lashed it from that distant (but not unreachable) place where the sunset boiled the sea. The light produced a striking effect, for the people of Serpenttooth were the desperate and outcast, and they built with what they found, and what they found were the bones of sea serpents. And at day’s end it seemed the gigantic, disassembled beasts struggled again toward life, for a pale, bloody sheen coated the town’s archways, balustrades, and rooftops. Come evening the illusion ceased, and the bones gave stark reflection to the moon.
But the abductor meant to be gone before moonrise.
From the main town she ascended a cliffside pathway of teeth sharp as arrowheads, large as stepping-stones. The teeth ended at a vast, collapsed skull, reinforced with earth, wood, and thatch, bedecked with potted plants. There was a door, a squarish fragment of cranium on hinges, with a jagged eyeslit testifying to some ancient trauma.
Shivering in the briny sea-wind, Gaunt looked over her shoulder at the ruddy sunset rooftops. She did not see the hoped-for figure of a friend, leaping among the gables. “Your last chance to help, Imago,” she murmured. She sighed, turned, and knocked.
Blue eyes, dimly glowing, peered through the eyeslit. “Eh?” wheezed a harsh voice. Gaunt imagined in it the complaints of seagulls, the slap of breakers.
“Persimmon Gaunt,” she answered. “A poet.”
“A bard?” The voice snorted. “The king exiled those witch-women, ten years gone.”
“I am not a bard! My tools are stylus and wax, paper and quill, not voice and memory. I have the distinction of being banished by the bards, before the king banished them.”
Gaunt could be charming, particularly in such a setting: her specialty in verse was morbidity, the frail railing of life against merciless time. Serpenttooth suited her. More, she suited Serpenttooth, her fluttering auburn hair a wild contrast to her pale, angular face, the right cheek tattooed with a rose ensnared by a spiderweb.
But these charms failed. “What do you want, poet?”
“I am looking for the maker.”
“Maker of what?”
She lifted a small, corked bottle. Within nestled an intricate, miniature sailing ship fashioned of bone. Its white sails curved in an imaginary wind; its banners were frozen in the midst of rippling. Yet the ship was not the extraordinary thing. There was water below it, not bone or glass, and the water moved: not the twitching of droplets but the roiling of a shrunken corner of the sea. It danced and flickered, and the ship heaved to and fro, riding the tiny surge.
Gaunt waved the bottle in various directions, but the ship cared nothing for gravity, forever hugging its tiny sea.
“Exquisite,” Gaunt murmured, and not for the first time.
“A trinket,” sniffed the other.
“Trinket? For four years these ‘trinkets’ have been the stuff of legend along the coast! And yet their fame does not travel further. Most who own such bottles — sailors, fisherman, pirates, and all their wives, lovers, and children — will not sell at any price. It’s said these folk have all lost something dear to the sea.”
“Nothing to do with me.”
“There is more.” Gaunt unstoppered the bottle. “Listen. Hear the sound of the sea. Hear the deep loneliness, and the deep romance. To know it is to know mischievous waves, and alluring shores. To brush raw fingertips against riches and fame. To wrap scarred arms around hunger and harm. To know the warm fantasy of a home long abandoned, and the cold acceptance of a five fathom grave.”
And there was a susurrant murmur from the bottle which held all these things, and more which Gaunt, too chill already, would not say. There came a long answering sigh from behind the door. It blended with the murmur, and Gaunt could not distinguish them.
Weakly, the voice said, “Nothing to do with me. Go.”
“I cannot. When an… associate of mine procured this item, he found the private memoirs of the owner. We know who you are, Master Salt.”
A pause. “You are base thieves.”
Gaunt smiled. “Imago would insist he is a refined thief, I’m sure. And our victim was a dying lord who had no further use for the bottle.”
“What do you want?”
“I bring you greetings,” Gaunt said, “from your own maker.”
There was silence. The door opened on creaking hinges. A figure stepped aside, and Gaunt entered.
The room resembled a captain’s cabin, though it filled a sea serpent’s skull, not a vessel’s stern. Two oval, bone-framed windows overlooked the ruddy sunset sea. Underneath, shutters covered twin ventilation passages to the skulls’ nostrils. Nearby, a spyglass rested atop a bookcase of nautical texts. But the other dozen bookcases cradled dozens of ships-in-bottles, each bearing its own churning, miniature sea. Half-constructed vessels listed upon a vast table, pieces scattered like wreckage.
Gaunt plunked her bottle upon the table, ship sailing forever ceilingward.
Master Salt bent over it. “The Darkfast Dreamweaver. Fitting. Named for a great philosopher-thief of Ebontide.” A smile sliced his face.
He was built like a sea barrel, yet possessed delicately shimmering blue skin. His bald head resembled a robin’s egg gleaming with dew. “Her crew captured the hatchling of a Serpent of the Sunset. Quite a story. But they overfed the child, to keep it from thrashing. It outgrew its bonds, fed well indeed.”
He nodded at the shelves. “Lost ships, all of them. I see their profiles in my dreams. Hear their names on the morning wind.”
“They are astonishing. The king will be enthralled.”
“Him,” muttered Salt. “He neglected me, my sisters. Left us eight years in our tower, because we dared remind him he had a soul. We resolved to seek our own lives.”
Gaunt said, “Now your exile is ended.”
“Not exile. Escape.”
“Surely you cannot abandon him,” Gaunt persisted, “being what you are.”
“If you know what I am, poet, you should fear me. Inhuman myself, I read the sorrow behind human eyes.”
His gaze locked hers. Gaunt shivered as though a westerly wind scoured her face, but could not look away.
Salt squinted, then smirked. “You say I abandon? I see what you’ve left behind. You forsook the bards for the written word. And now you even neglect your art… for the love of a thief.”
Master Salt’s eyes changed. One moment they glowed a pale blue; then they resembled blue-sheened, mirrored glass. Yet the person reflected in them was not Gaunt, nor was the moment this one. Instead she beheld a scene from an hour ago.
A man leapt to and fro upon buildings of bone. There was a strange style to his movements. Though he chose his destinations in a boyish rush, his rooftop dance obeyed a strict economy, as though an old man carefully doled out a youth’s energy. When he paused, Gaunt could see the two scars of his lean, ferretlike face, one made by steel, one by fire. He gazed out from Master Salt’s eyes as if searching for her. Then he leapt to a new height.
“The thief Imago Bone, your lover and sometimes your mentor, prancing about on bone rooftops. Suppose he couldn’t resist.” Salt blinked his eyes back to their former, glowing state. “But you knew he might be gone for hours. Impatient, you continued alone.”
Gaunt’s breathing quickened. She found she could not evade Master Salt, nor lie. “Yes. For all Bone’s skill…”
“…he is a boy,” Master Salt said. “Yes, I see. I can taste sorrows, poet. Imago Bone’s life is an accident, is it not? Bizarre magics stretched his adolescence nearly a century. Only now is he aging normally. He is a great thief; but he is a child in many ways. You fear for him. You are as often his guardian as his student. An unlikely pair, following foolish quests.”
“They are not foolish.” Gaunt shivered, staring into the shimmering blue eyes. “Not all…”
“Quests are excuses, poet. You must live as you wish. As I have done. You do not need bards, or Imago Bone, or King Rainjoy to justify your wanderlust.”
Gaunt imagined she felt the tug of the trade winds. Or perhaps it was the clatter of a horse beneath her, the taste of bow-spray from a river canoe, the scent of a thousand fragile mountain wildflowers.
“A true wanderer,” Salt said, “needs no nation, no captain, no hope of gold to answer the siren lure.”
And Gaunt wondered, why had she tried to refashion Bone and herself as heroes, when they could simply travel, drink in the world?
But no, this quest was not foolish. She must resist Salt’s words. “There — will be war,” she stammered, “unless Rainjoy can learn compassion… And he never can, without you.”
“I see also,” Salt said unmoved, “why you help him.”
Gaunt lowered her eyes.
“Abandon that guilt, poet. Abandon all that imprisons you! Leave this quest; join Bone as a thief if it suits you, or shirk him as well — either way, seize your freedom, and do not abuse mine.” Salt lifted his hand to Gaunt’s mouth. “I did not ask to become a someone, any more than humans do. Yet here I am, and I will set my own course. I will hear the sea, and trap its cries.”
Now Master Salt scraped a thumbnail against the tip of an index finger, and a blue droplet fell against Gaunt’s lips. As the salty tang kissed her, she imagined the rocking of a deck underfoot, heard the songs of seamen raising sail, smelled the stinging brine upon the lines. Her heart skipped once and her eyelids drooped, as she slipped toward a dream of adventure in distant waters, not merely losing her existence, but casting it aside like soiled clothes.
But then from somewhere came Imago Bone’s easy voice. “You should listen to him, Gaunt,” Bone said. “He makes perfect sense.”
With a start, Gaunt opened her eyes. Bone crawled through the passage leading to the dragon-skull’s nostrils, face blue from the cliffside winds and sweaty from carrying his many pouches of esoteric tools: ironsilk lines, quicksap adhesive, a spectrum of camouflaging dyes.
As Master Salt turned, Bone sprang to the bottle sheltering the miniature Darkfast Dreamweaver. The thief shattered it against the table’s edge.
Salt cried out.
So did the broken bottle.
The miniature ocean within the glass spilled onto the dirt floor, foaming and dwindling like a tendril of surf dying upon shore. A chorus of drowning sailors arose, dimly, like an old memory. Then water and voices were gone.
“Curse you,” spat Master Salt, and the spittle boiled upon the table, and gave a sound like maddened seagulls as it vanished. He seized the thief, pressing pale blue thumbs against Bone’s throat, thumbs that grew foam-white even as Bone went purple.
“Allow…” the thief gurgled, “allow me to introduce…”
“No,” said Master Salt.
“Rude…” Bone’s voice trailed off, and he flailed uselessly in Salt’s grip.
Bone had saved her. Bone was friend, lover, companion on the road. Nevertheless Gaunt hesitated one moment as he suffocated; so much poetry did the the shelves of bottles hold, they might have cradled densely inked scrolls from ancient libraries.
But she knew what she must do. She shut her eyes and yanked.
The shelves toppled, shattering glass, breaking small ships, spilling the trapped substance of Master Salt. The room filled with the despairing cries of lost sailors.
Master Salt shrieked and released Bone, who crumpled, hacking saltwater. Salt knelt as well, trying to clutch the tiny oceans as they misted into nothingness. His knees crunched glass and crushed ships.
Gaunt trembled with the destruction she’d caused. But soon the sailors’ voices faded to dim wailing, and she regained her voice.
“Dead sailors move you?” she asked. “Expect more. War is brewing. To prevent it, King Rainjoy will need the compassion he lost. The compassion you bear.”
“You speak of compassion? You, who can do this?”
“These voices are of men already lost. But if war comes, they will seem just a drop in a surgeon’s pail.”
Salt lowered his head.
“I will go,” he said at last. “If only to prevent your crushing more dreams.”
Imago Bone rose with a look of gratitude, put his hand upon Gaunt’s shoulder.
“I regret I did not arrive sooner,” he whispered, then smiled ruefully. “The skeletal rooftops, they beckoned…”
“We’ll talk of it later,” Gaunt said. “No one can help being who they are.” She leaned against him, but could not bear to look at him, nor at Master Salt, who gathered broken ships, tenderly, bone by scattered bone.
“The first is found,” sighed the man upon the ivory chair.
An older man, shuffling through the chamber of mists, stopped and coughed. “Majesty?”
“Persimmon Gaunt. And her companion thief.” The voice was dim, and flat. “They have found the first. Soon, all will be well.”
“The reports I bring, ah, belie such optimism.” The older man scuttled closer. His robes fluttered with no regard to the drafts. “The nobles, hm, demand war with the Eldshore, if you cannot secure an alliance by marriage. I suggest you build ships, raise troops.” He raised a wrinkled hand before the king’s nose, then snatched at something only he could see.
He inverted the hand, revealing an enfleshment from the king’s memory, the tiny image of a red-haired woman, proud and bejeweled. She spat in the king’s direction. Her voice rose dimly: You are cold, with no soul within you. You shall never have me. Turning on her heel, she stalked off the palm and into nonexistence.
“Eldshore’s princess will marry me,” said the king, “once I am a better man. Once they make me a better man.”
“Strange, mm? — that you can sense their doings while I cannot.”
Mirthlessly, the king smiled. “You may have made them, sorcerer, but they belong to me.”
“Do not hope for too much, my king. War is in the air.”
“When you are here, Spawnsworth, the air smells of worse. Leave your reports and go.”
When the older man had retreated up a staircase, the king said in a toneless voice without conviction, “I will feel again.”
From the staircase descended the sounds of tortured things.
The journey to Lornbridge took two weeks, but they felt like two years to the thief Imago Bone.
Master Salt spoke only in grunts. Surely thousands of subjects were capable of grunting for their king; why should Rainjoy need this entity in particular?
Gaunt walked as though shouldering a treasure chest of guilt (Bone often pictured metaphorical treasure chests, feeling deprived of real ones) and there was a distance in her eyes even as she lay nights upon his shoulder.
So it was a relief, finally, to risk his neck reaching a well-guarded noblewoman noted for feathering suitors with arrows.
Seen through tall grass, the battlement looked sickly and moist in the moonlight. (Bone’s cloak, after a treatment of saps and powders, matched it.) He slithered beside it, scrambled halfway up, paused for heavy bootfalls to pass, then scurried atop. Time for one gulp of manure-scented air, then he was over the other side, hurling a ball of sticky grain as he dove.
He thudded onto a haycart exactly as the pigpen filled with squealing. By the time the guards investigated, the animals would have devoured the evidence. He slipped into courtyard shadows.
This was more like it: sparks of danger against the steel of brilliant planning. A shame he wasn’t stealing anything.
My beloved’s doing, Bone thought as he climbed atop a stable. When they met he was a legend, perhaps the greatest second-story man of the Spiral Sea. (The higher stories went of course without question.) Though she could pay little, he’d accepted enormous risk recovering a manuscript of hers from a pair of sorcerous bibliophiles, a task that had required another book, a tome of the coldest kind of magic. That matter concluded, he’d undertaken an absurdly noble quest, the accursed tome’s destruction.
Absurd nobility impressed Persimmon Gaunt.
Bone smirked, reversed his cloak to the side stained with berry juice, then leapt from the stable roof onto Duskvale Keep itself, clinging to irregularities in the russet stone. His slow corkscrew toward the highest window allowed him time to review six months of inquiries along the Spiral Sea, a process garnering nothing but scars, empty pockets, and a list of enemies who wouldn’t at all mind the damnable book for themselves.
Half jesting, half desperate, Bone had proposed consulting the court wizard of Swanisle.
He’d expected scowls. Swanisle was notorious for persecuting the bards of its county Gaunt (a society of women compared to witches, and similarly treated) formerly by burning, today by exile. He’d assumed Persimmon left with her teachers, would seethe at the thought of returning. But she had assented with a strange look.
Bone should have worried more at that look.
Distracted by such thoughts, Bone froze upon hearing a bright swish. Presently, from afar, came a dim thunk.
Lady Duskvale was firing off correspondence.
There was not one keep at Lornbridge but two, separated by the narrow, abysmal Groangorge. Westward stood Duskvale Keep and eastward rose the sandstone tower of Mountdawn. For generations, Gaunt had explained to Bone, the youth of Duskvale and Mountdawn had swooned for each other, sighing and pining across the impassable deep.
Then, four years ago, the keeps’ masters paupered themselves constructing a bridge. The fortresses became one small town. Not merely did a stone span connect the castle; dozens of hundred-foot ropes, cables, and pulleys twisted overhead with messages, squirrels, nobles’ drying underwear.
Yet today the bridge was guarded, the ropes cut, the youth forbidden to mix.
Bone smirked and climbed beside the topmost window.
“Oh, why does he not write me?” he heard a voice exclaim.
Bone craned his head. “Perhaps because —”
An arrow shot past, a roll of paper wound upon the shaft.
This time there followed no thunk but a dim clatter upon the stone bridge.
“Perhaps,” Bone said, heart pounding, “because he is not as good a shot as yourself. Though I am pleased even you must aim.”
“Who are you?” the voice demanded
Bone crouched upon the sill, and bowed. “Bone: acquirer of oddities.”
Lady Duskvale regarded him with hawk-dark eyes framed by stern cheekbones and black rivulets of hair. “Do you plan mischief? I warn you, I will tolerate mischief with but one man, and he I fire arrows at. For you I have a knife for stabbing, and lungs for screaming.”
“I have no wish for mischief, stabs, or screams.”
“Are you… are you a messenger from Lord Mountdawn?”
“Better than that, my lady. I am Bone. I and the poet Gaunt have come to comfort Lornbridge. May I enter?”
“I would be more comforted with you outside.”
“Even a footpad’s foot may fall asleep.”
“One moment.” She nocked an arrow, drew, and aimed. Then she backed into the room. “All right.”
Bone leapt inside. “I admire your caution — and more, the strength of your arm — but it is not thieves at your window you must fear. It is the embodiment of sorrow.”
She raised her eyebrows, and Bone helped himself to a chair beside a small table serviceable as a shield. He drummed his fingers upon it. “Consider, my lady. In your father’s day, these keeps were famous for romance. Men and women pined hopelessly from across the gulf. But that has changed.”
“You mock me, thief?” Duskvale’s fingers quivered upon the bowstring, as did Bone’s upon the table. “Of course it has changed.”
“Very well, though my arm grows weaker. Four years ago my father and old Lord Mountdawn, rest their souls, heard identical whispers in their sleep, imploring them to build the bridge. For a time all was glorious. Yet if there are whispers now, they implore weeping. Bravos duel for damsels, spurned paramours hurl themselves into the gorge. Only I and my love, young Lord Mountdawn, are spared these frenzies, for we are calculating and circumspect.”
A carrier pigeon fluttered through the window, alighting upon a perch near Duskvale. She regarded it and Bone, then sighed and set down her bow. (Bone released a long breath.) Removing a note from the pigeon’s foot Duskvale read, “`Soon I must fight my way across the bridge to your side. Each arrow is a caress, but I would kiss the callouses of the hand that fired it. Dear one! Alive or dead, my bloody hide arrives in the morning!’” She looked up in vexation. “You are interrupting a private conversation, you know. Explain your purpose.”
“Are you aware,” Bone asked, “that your monarch was once called the Weeping King?”
“Rainjoy?” she mused. “I heard Father say as much. A sensitive boy crushed by the crown’s weight, weeping at the consequences of all commands.” She crushed Mountdawn’s note. “Men can be overwrought at times. But the king has changed. Now they call him Rainjoy the Stonefaced. What does it matter?”
“Did your father speak of the Pale Council?”
“Everyone knows of them,” Duskvale said impatiently. “Rainjoy’s wise advisors. They came from far away and never went among the people. But the people loved them, for they counseled compassion, and kept the king’s cruel wizard at bay. But they departed four years ago and this is of no consequence and my beloved is about to die for me.”
“Hear this: the Council did not come from a far land, nor did they return there. One member dwells nearby.”
“They are creatures of magic, my dear, born of a bargain between Rainjoy and his wizard.”
“That Rainjoy, so wracked by conscience he could not function as king, should weep but three more tears in his life. Yet those tears would be given human form, so when Rainjoy wished he could safely seek the insights of sorrow.”
Duskvale fingered her bow. “Impossible.”
“No, merely quite ill-advised. I’ve met one such tear. Another dwells here. We will need your help, and your paramour’s, to snare it. Tell me, do you retain builders’ plans for the bridge?”
In the end it was the sincerity in Bone’s eyes, or (more likely) the desperation in Duskvale’s heart, that bade her send a pointed message to Mountdawn and then summon servants to make certain preparations. Bone was relieved not to relate stealing her father’s ship-in-a-bottle and rifling his memoirs. For it was Lord Duskvale who had owned the faux Darkfast Dreamweaver, its surging in harmony with the whispers of Lornbridge.
Soon the moonlight found the thief whistling, strolling across that great stone arch. At midpoint he squeezed a tiny sack of quicksap, which he smeared full across his gloves then applied to his shoes.
He descended the bridge’s side, enjoying the brisk mountain air, the churning murmur of the river far below, the tickle of vertigo. Presently there came a swish from the west and a thunk to the east.
At this signal Bone crawled underneath the span, hairs pointing toward watery, rocky doom. Where the plans indicated it would be, he discovered a square opening. He crawled inside.
Blue light surrounded him. “Who?” called a bleak voice, like a hollow wind through a shattered house.
The chamber was like a monk’s cell, a cold stone sitting room with a few books (with such titles as Ballad of the Poisoned Paramour and The Tragickal History of Violet Swoon), some decoration (withered roses), odd mementos (lockets with strands of hair inside), and a lamp (bearing not oil but a pale blue liquid glimmering like glacial moonlight.)
“I had gambled,” Bone said, shedding his gloves, “you would not wish to miss the romantic play of light upon the river. I am Imago Bone,” he added, changing his shoes, “and I bring greetings from the king.”
The quicksap discarded, Bone gazed upon Rainjoy’s tear. She resembled a spindly, large-eyed maiden in a white shift. She shimmered gently in the blue light, reflecting and echoing it. Her long white hair fluttered and frayed, blending into the chamber’s dim mists.
She regarded Bone with incomprehension. “Rainjoy abandoned us.”
“He would enjoy your counsel again.”
“I cannot give it. I am not his anymore, a slave, nameless… now I am Mistress Mist. This is my home. There must be love in the world, you see. Lonely were these keeps, but I whispered of this bridge, and they are lonely no longer. Still do I whisper of love.”
“You whisper of more than that. Men and women have perished.”
“I do not slay them,” Mist answered sadly. “In my presence they sense what purest love could be, and how far short they fall.” She frowned at Bone. “But you — why are you here? When your true love is elsewhere, waiting and worrying. Why while your precious moments with me? Do you abandon her for me? Do you betray?”
A chill enveloped him; he could not evade those eyes.
He thought of Persimmon Gaunt. Of course he would not betray her for this apparition. And yet — was he not flippant, unheedful of her? His dallying upon the rooftops of Serpenttooth nearly caused her death. Did he not repay devotion with childish disregard? Was he not cruel?
He did not deserve her, he realized, nor life. Better to end his existence now, than risk wounding her further. Bone yearned for the abyss at his back.
But even as the impulse for annihilation took over, his old lust for living cried out. He could not prevent his leap, but he modified the angle and, falling, grasped the ironsilk strand fired by Lady Duskvale.
The thread bent, rose, bent, held. It sliced his palm, and he trembled with the urge to release it, dash himself to bits far below. Fortunately the impulse weakened away from Mist.
He saw Gaunt leaning over the bridge’s side. “I am sorry…”
“What?” she shouted.
He shook his head, cried instead: “Pigeon!”
Gaunt raised her arm. From the Mountdawn side of the chasm a pigeon fluttered to alight upon Bone’s shoulder, a poem of Gaunt’s affixed to its leg. Bone shrugged the bird upward and it fluttered into the hidden chamber. Presently Bone heard a sad voice, reading.
“Love floating skyward is earthly no longer
Braced with selfishness, ardor is stronger
On solid ground let rest love’s wonder —
And so your bridge we break asunder.”
“Picks!” Bone shouted, and at once there sang a chorus of metal biting stone.
A large silvery blob, like a pool of mercury ignorant of gravity, flowed from beneath the bridge and oozed upward to the span. Blue light rose from that spot, and although Bone could not see her, he heard Mist shout, “I concede! The bridge will be mute without me. Please do not break it. Keep it, and find love if you can. I will go.”
A voice like lonely seabirds answered, “They snared me likewise, sister. For we cannot destroy as they do.”
“Yes, brother. They ruin themselves, and each other. We only awaken their sorrow.”
“But the last tear will defeat them, sister. The last is the strongest of all.”
“The second is found,” said the king in the room of mists.
Framing the ivory throne, twin pillars of rainwater poured from funnels and spilled into a pool with a swan’s outline, wingtips catching the water, nose aimed at the throne’s foot, a drain where the heart should be. Just as they believed distress strengthened the spirit, the royal house of Swanisle believed chill weather quickened the flame within a man.
The king rose, undressed, and waded in, his pensive expression unchanged.
From beside the throne his companion said carefully, “This poet is, ah, resourceful.”
“Of course. She is a bard of Gaunt.”
“Mm. Never forget, majesty, her ilk caused you great pain.”
The king shivered in his pool. It gave him a look that resembled passion. “Great pain. And great wonder. I remember how every spider in its shimmering, dew-splattered web was an architect of genius to be cherished, not squashed. I remember a defiant spark in the eyes, a stony strength in the limbs of every maiden men declared ugly. I remember the disbelieving child in the faces of condemned men, a child whose mind might yet encompass creation, were that infinite head still upon that foreshortened neck. I remember knowing these things, Spawnsworth, but I can no longer feel them. But they will help. Soon.”
“Soon,” the wizard murmured, scratching his chin. His robe quivered, jerked, as though pained by needlepricks.
Nightswan Abbey formed the outline of a soaring bird, and although its crumbling bulk no longer suggested flight of any kind, the music pouring from its high windows did much to compensate.
A crowd of the young and elderly gathered beneath the sanctuary windows every evening to hear the sweet polyphony, as the purple sunset kissed the first of the night’s stars. The sisterhood could sing only within these walls; all else would be vanity. Even so, during the last four years their music had rekindled some of Nightswan’s fame, long dimmed in this age of grim, conquering kings.
It was as if those hundred mortal throats conjured the spirit of the Swan Goddess of the Night and the Stars, she who plunged into the sun, seawater glistening upon her wings, to cool its fire and make the earth temperate and fit for life, she whose charred body fell back into the sea, to become Swanisle.
The music ceased and the listeners drifted away, murmuring to one another — all save four, who slipped among the bushes. Soon, two reemerged, one casting a line to a window, the second glancing backward. “They will not flee,” Gaunt whispered. “They are contemptuous, certain their sister will humble us. I am uneasy.”
Bone shrugged. “We will handle her. We’ve seen worse, we two.”
Gaunt did not reply.
They ascended to the vast sanctuary, slipping behind the winged marble altar of the Swan. In the pews a lone nun prayed. Her white cap, cut in the outline of a swan, enhanced the rich darkness of a robe embroidered with tiny stars. The intruders made hand signals: they would pause until she departed.
Then the nun looked up, her face still shadowed by her hood, and sang in a voice sweet as any of the abbey’s chorus, yet with an unexpected pain, as though a delicate aperitif were served too hot. The first stanza was muted, but her voice rose with the second:
King Stormproud fell to war’s caress,
Left Swanisle to his boy,
Who had not learned to love distress:
Soft-hearted was Rainjoy.
Gaunt gave Bone a sharp look, listening.
His shivering toes just touched the floor
When he claimed his father’s chair.
When the sad queen’s heart would beat no more
He tore his silky hair.
The nun rose. The intruders hid themselves behind the onyx, speckled pulpit as she approached the altar, still singing.
Yet when a wizard of county Gaunt
(Spawnsworth was his name)
Tried his wicked strength to flaunt
The boy king’s heart took flame.
For all Gaunt’s fear, and all its horror
Marched as Rainjoy’s foe.
Enfleshment was the wizard’s lore —
To fashion warriors from woe.
The sister knelt where the wine was kept, the wine that symbolized the goddess’ blood, shed to make all life possible. She cast a surreptitious glance over her shoulder. Her face was a pale, dimly glowing blue, growing brighter as she sang.
Rainjoy led his armies north,
Felled the work of Spawnsworth’s hands,
Yet surely more would soon ride forth
‘Till they conquered all his lands.
Now the bards of Gaunt were rightly known
To clasp old secrets to the breast.
So the army overturned every stone
‘Till the king beheld the best.
The nun passed her hand over the wine vessel, and shining droplets fell into the dark liquid. They quickly dimmed, and the wine appeared as before.
“Gaunt’s ancient thanes,” King Rainjoy spoke,
“The very land would quick obey.
“To free it from the wizard’s yoke
“I must know Gaunt as did they.”
The woman said, “What you seek takes years,
“A lifetime spent in Gaunt,
“A knowledge born of woe and tears,
“Not a young man’s morning jaunt.”
“My father died on Eldshore’s strand.
“My mother died of loss.
“A wizard makes to seize my land —
“This die I’ll gladly toss.”
At last Gaunt could stand waiting no more, and stepped forward. The nun ceased singing, caught her breath.
Gaunt curtsied. Meanwhile Bone leapt forward, tumbled, rolled, and stood where he blocked the nun’s best retreat. He bowed low, eyes upon her.
In a hot, dusky voice more evocative of tavern than tabernacle, the nun said, “You are agents of the king, I take it?” She raised her head, showing a weary blue face and sapphire smile like a dagger-cut. “I’ve sensed my siblings being gathered.”
“You are correct. I am Persimmon… of Gaunt. A poet. This is my companion, Bone. We bear Rainjoy’s plea for your help. He must marry Eldshore’s princess to stop a war, but she refuses. She senses Rainjoy feels no sorrow, knows no compassion.”
“A wise woman.” The tear laughed, one sharp, jarring note. “I am Sister Scald. You are a poet of Gaunt? Did Gaunt’s bards train you, before Rainjoy exiled them?”
“They did,” Gaunt said, “before exiling me.”
Glimmering eyes widened. “Did you learn ‘Rainjoy’s Curse?’”
“Yes,” Gaunt said. And she did not sing, but continued Scald’s song in speech.
She led him then, where doomed ships had lunged
At cliffs where white foam churned;
To chasms where young suitors plunged;
To pyres where bards had burned.
She wooed him with rhymes of sailors drowned,
And songs of lovers dead,
And poems of bards long in the ground,
Until she wooed him to her bed.
Into a fevered dream he fell
Of the web that snares all lives —
One soul’s joy breeds another’s hell.
One suffers, and one thrives.
He woke to slaps: For bedding her so,
She offered jibe and taunt.
He trembled chill as she did go;
For now he knew the soul of Gaunt.
And when the nightmare horde returned,
Raised from Gaunt’s old pain,
He told it, “Sleep, for I have learned:
“Let the land swallow you again.”
The warriors melted into earth
And the wizard quick was seized.
Spawnsworth said, “O king of worth,
“How might you be appeased?”
Rainjoy trembled. “I feel each death.
“All paths shine slick with blood.
“I cannot bear to end your breath.”
The mage swore fealty where he stood.
A king of Swanisle delights in rue
And his name’s a smirking groan.
But in Rainjoy endless tears did brew
And he longed for eyes of stone.
Scald’s voice bit the silence. “He has those eyes now. The bards gave him knowledge of all life’s woe, but Spawnsworth tricked him out of his tears. For a time he still consulted us, but who willingly seeks out sorrow? At last he consulted us no more. He became the sort of king Spawnsworth could control.”
“He senses what he’s lost. Serve him again.”
“I serve others now.”
Bone broke in. “Indeed? Your brother served others with bottled grief, your sister with a bridge of doomed desire. We threatened these contrivances; the tears surrendered. I say good riddance.”
“You mock their work, thief?” Scald seized Bone’s chin, locked eyes with his. “I see into your soul, decrepit boy. You’ve begun aging at last, yet you fritter away your moments impressing this foolish girl. And you —” She released Bone, snatched Gaunt’s ear— “youforsook the glory of voice and memory for clumsy meanderings of ink. Now you neglect even that dubious craft following this great mistake of a man.” Scald stepped back, dismissing poet and thief with a wave. “What a pair you are, what a waste of wind your love! Who are you, to lecture me?”
Shivering, Gaunt looked away, toward the tall windows and bright stars. But she replied. “I will tell you, tear of Rainjoy. I was a girl who saw the boy king rescue county Gaunt from the creatures who tore her family to bits. I was a bard’s apprentice who loved him from afar. And when my teacher boasted of how she granted his request by breaking his spirit, I knew I’d follow her no more.”
She looked at Bone, who regarded her wonderingly. “I’d not guard secret lore in my skull, but offer my words in ink, telling of grief such that anyone could understand. I would tarry in graveyards and let tombs inspire my verse. For if the bards hoarded living song, I would peddle the dead, written word.” Gaunt returned her gaze to Scald. “When Spawnsworth made an end to Rainjoy’s weeping, the king’s first act was to exile the bards. And how I laughed that day. Come, tear. You cannot shame me. I will repay my teachers’ debt.”
“You surprise me,” Scald said, “but I think you will not take me. I have no bottles, no bridge to harm. My substance passes into the sacramental wine, inspiring the sisters’ music. Would you destroy all grapes in the world?”
“I do not need to.” Gaunt gestured toward the door.
Scald turned, saw a cluster of black, star-speckled habits underneath white swan hats.
A nun with a silver swan necklace stepped forward, old hands trembling. “We have listened, Sister Scald. Gaunt and Bone sent warning by carrier pigeon that they would seek a king’s tear this night, unaware we’d knowingly given you sanctuary. I have been torn, until this moment. I might defy even Rainjoy to honor our pledge, Scald… But you have meddled with our sacraments. You must go.”
“Oathbreaker,” Scald snarled. She looked right and left. “All of you — all humans are traitors, to yourselves, to others. Listen then, and understand.”
And Scald sang.
This song was wordless. It was as though the earlier music was simply the white breakers of this, the churning ocean, or the moonlit fog-wisps crossing the lip of this, the crevasse. Now the cold depths were revealed. They roared the truth of human treachery, of weakness, of pain.
Before that song the humans crumpled.
“No…” Gaunt whimpered, covering her face.
“Nothing…” whispered Bone. “I am nothing… not man, not boy. A waste…”
Somehow, Bone’s anguish bestirred Gaunt to defy her own. “You are something.” She wrenched each word from her throat like splinters torn from her own flesh. “You are not a waste.”
The sisters knelt, some mouthing broken regretful words, some clawing for something sharp, something hard, to make an end. But Gaunt raised her head to the singer. “Scald…” It should have been a defiant cry, but it emerged like a child’s plea. “Look what you do, to those who sheltered you…”
Scald’s eyes were hard, lifted ceilingward in a kind of bitter ecstasy. Yet she looked, and for a time watched the nuns cringing upon the stone floor.
She went silent.
She walked to one of the high windows. “I am no better than you,” she murmured. “I sense my siblings, like me born of regret. It seems we cannot escape it.” Scald removed her swan cap and lowered her head. “We will go.”
Gaunt helped Bone to his feet. He clutched her shoulders as though grasping some idea rare and strange. “Why did you not tell me,” he said, “of your family?”
She lowered her gaze. “When you suggested Spawnsworth might deal with that accursed tome we’ve locked away, Bone, I believed his skills were not appropriate and his character untrustworthy. But I realized we two might somehow repay the debt I felt to Rainjoy. It was a deception, Bone, one that deepened with time. I feared you would be angry.”
He nodded. “Perhaps later. Now I am merely glad there is still a Gaunt to perhaps be angry with. It is done. For better or worse, we’ve recovered Rainjoy’s tears.”
She met his look. “Are they, Bone? Are they Rainjoy’s? Or are they more like grown children? I think whatever their faults, they have seized control of their existence. I think they are people.” She scowled in frustration. “I fear Scald is right; I am never consistent.”
“You cannot deliver them up, now, can you?”
She shook her head. “Forgive me, Bone. We’ve gained nothing.”
“I disagree.” He leaned forward, kissed her.
Startled, she kissed him back, then pulled away. “You are changing the subject! You can never focus on one thing; you are forever a boy.”
“Fair enough, but I say you are the subject, and you are what I’ve gained. I know you better, now. And I would rather know you better, Persimmon Gaunt, than plunder all the treasure-vaults of Brightcairn. Though I’d cheerfully do both.”
She gaped at him. “Then… you have your wish. Whatever Scald may think of us.” She gazed at the bent figure beside the window. “To risk losing you three times this journey — it makes me care nothing for how odd is our love, our life. It is ours, and precious.”
“Then my dear,” Bone said, “let’s discuss how we’ll evade the king’s assassins, when we break our pledge.”
“How precious…” Gaunt murmured, still watching Scald, and her eyebrows rose. “No, we will not break it, Bone! We will fulfill it too well.”
A storm frothed against King Rainjoy’s palace, and the hall of mists felt like a ship deck at foggy dawn. Salt, Mist, and Scald stepped toward the ivory throne, knelt beside the swan pool. Behind the Pale Council stood Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone.
Upon the throne, the king studied his prodigal tears.
“So,” he said.
The tears blinked back.
“Gaunt and Bone,” said the wizard Spawnsworth from beside the throne, his cloak twisting as though with suppressed annoyance. “I, ah, congratulate you. You have accomplished a great deed.”
“Not so difficult,” Bone said easily. “Send us to fetch the morning star’s shyer cousin, or the last honest man’s business partner, and we might have surrendered. These three were not so well hidden.” He smiled. “Anyone might have found them.”
“Whatever,” Spawnsworth said with a dismissive wave. “Your, um, modesty covers mighty deeds. Now, majesty, I would examine these three in private. They have dwelled apart too long, and I fear they might be, ah, unbalanced. It might be years before I dare release them.”
The tears said nothing, watching only Rainjoy.
“Yes,” Rainjoy murmured, staring back, agreeing to something Spawnsworth had not said. “Yes, I would… speak with them.”
Before the sorcerer could object, Gaunt said, “Alas, my king, Spawnsworth’s fears are quite justified. I regret where duty leads.”
With that, she drew a dagger and stabbed Sister Scald where her heart ought to have been.
By then Bone had sliced the glistening throats of Master Salt and Mistress Mist.
The king’s tears lost their forms, spilling at once from their robes, flowing like pale blue quicksilver into the swan pool, where they spiraled down into the drain and were lost to sight.
“What?” King Rainjoy whispered, shaking, rising to his feet. “What?”
“It was necessary, majesty,” Gaunt said. “They had become mad. They meant you harm.”
“We suspected,” Bone said, “that only in your presence could they die.”
“Die,” echoed Rainjoy. He sank back onto the throne.
Spawnsworth had gone pale, his cloak twitching in agitated spasms. But his voice was calm as he said, “I will wish to investigate the matter, of course… but. It seems you have done the kingdom a great, ah, service. It is not too late, I would say, to consider a reward. You sought my advice?”
Rainjoy cradled his head in his hands.
“Alas,” said Gaunt, her eyes on the king, “our time with the tears has been instructive regarding your art. It is powerful, to be sure, but not suited to our problem. No offense is meant.”
Spawnsworth frowned. “Then gold, perhaps? Jewels?”
Bone swallowed, but said nothing.
“My king,” said the sorcerer, “what do you…” Then he bit his lip.
“My king,” repeated Spawnsworth, looking more nonplused than when Salt, Mist, and Scald vanished down the drains.
It was little more than a sparkling wetness along the left eye, a sheen that had barely begun to streak. Rainjoy wiped it with a silken sleeve. “It is nothing,” Rainjoy said, voice cold.
Gaunt strode around the pool and up to the throne, ignoring Spawnsworth’s warning look. She touched Rainjoy’s shoulder.
“It is something,” she said.
He stared at her wide-eyed, like a boy. “It is simply… I let them go for so long. I never imagined I would lose them forever. They did not obey.”
“Oh my king,” Gaunt said, “my dear king. Tears cannot obey. If they could, they would be saltwater only.”
He held up the sleeve, dotted with a tiny wet stain. “I have tears again… I do not deserve them.”
“Yet here they are. Listen to them, King Rainjoy, even though these tears are mute. And never be parted from them.”
The king watched as Gaunt returned to Bone’s side. The poet gave the thief one nod, and Imago Bone offered the king an unexpectedly formal bow, before the two clasped hands and walked slowly toward the door. Rainjoy thought perhaps he heard the thief saying, Your penance, Gaunt, will consist of a six-city larcenous spree which I shall now outline, and the poet’s answering laugh. Perhaps she cast a final look back, but the mists embraced her, and he would never be sure. He regretted it, that he’d never be sure.
“I am sad, Spawnsworth,” he said, wondering. “I do not sense life’s infinite sorrow. But I am sad.”
But Spawnsworth did not answer, and the light in his eyes was not nascent tears but a murderous glint. He stalked up the stairs.
In his tower there twitched a menagerie of personifications: howling griefs, snarling passions, a stormy nature blustering in a crystal dome, a dark night of the soul shrouding the glass of a mirror. In places there lurked experiments that twitched and mewled. Here a flower of innocence sprouted from the forehead of a gargoyle of cynicism. There a phoenix of renewal locked eyes forever with a basilisk of stasis.
Spawnsworth arrived in this sanctum, teeth grinding, and began assembling the vials of love’s betrayal and friendship’s gloom, the vials he would form into an instrument of revenge upon Gaunt and Bone.
There came a cough behind him.
He whirled and beheld three shining intruders.
“We are not easily slain, as you should know,” Master Salt said. He opened a cage.
“We, clearly, are more easily forgotten,” said Mistress Mist. She unstoppered a flask.
“But we will see you never forget us,” said Sister Scald, pushing a glass sphere to shatter against the floor. “We believe you could use our counsel. Ah, I see there are many here who agree.”
As his creations swarmed toward him, it occurred to Spawnsworth that the many grates in the floor, used to drain away blood and more exotic fluids, fed the same sewers as those in the hall of mists. “You cannot do this,” he hissed. “You are Rainjoy’s, and he would never harm me.”
“We are Rainjoy’s no longer,” the tears said.
He turned to flee, and felt his own cloak tremble with excitement and spill upward over his face.
Of the many voices heard from the sorcerer’s tower that hour, the one most human, the palace servants agreed, was the one most frightening. When they found Spawnsworth’s body in the room of empty cages, all remarked how the face was contorted with sorrow, yet the eyes were dry.
First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 2002.