By Aaron Safronoff
Copyright © 2017 Aaron Safronoff
All Rights Reserved.
Story by Aaron Safronoff
Edited by Someone Not Me
For information address:
All characters and events in this book are fictitious. All resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
Chapter 01: Dust to Dust
“You are precious, young one.” Master Shaper Brindel submerged her hands in a bowl of tepid water, careful not to wet the sleeves of her robe where they’d been folded, neat, above her elbows. Her delicate fingers, long and nimble, danced with her thumbs in turn, testing the slick in the wet. The residue dissolved, small eddies swirling, milky around her wrists. She clamped her hands around opposite arms, one after the other, plowing the remaining water into the bowl in two soft splashes. Snatching the mud-caked dryskin from where it hung heavy against her left hip, she dunked it, and wrung it out a few times before folding it over a wooden dowel mounted horizontally at the front of her table.
Tremmel sat on the floor with his legs crossed beneath him. He wore the dark robes of a neophyte, a Shaper in training, a dramatic contrast to Brindel’s, Master White. His robes distinguished him from the instructor in many ways, including the proscription of unnecessary conversation; he didn’t understand her comment, but he kept quiet about it. The Master would continue in her own time, and not be rushed by a child, even the oldest in the class. The Caste of Shapers had discovered Tremmel’s gift late: beginning his studies at eleven when most began at six or seven, and he suffered for it. He was behind; everyone knew. He waited patiently for her to continue.
Master Shaper Brindel spoke with the same grace and ease with which she moved, “Practice is the only way.” She rinsed her hands a last time, and dried them on the clean dryskin that still hung from her right hip.
The right is clean. The right is always clean. Tremmel remembered.
“There is a vocabulary, a language that your hands must learn. Then, your hands will teach your mind. Over time, you will see the whole world in terms of the shapes you can create, and then,” she paused to finish blotting away the damp from her skin, and turned the dryskin down to the right of the first, “there will be no memory that you cannot cast in clay.”
Master Brindel faced her pupil.
It was important to maintain eye contact with the Master Shaper; Tremmel had been instructed many times. It was disrespectful to look away, a sign of either weakness or deceit, and neither trait would be tolerated in a Shaper. So, Tremmel held her eyes in his, her cold – dark brown, almost black – Master’s eyes. Old eyes, knowledgeable and perspicacious: Tremmel felt transparent beneath their scrutiny, no doors hiding his skeletons, only windows. As scared as he was looking into her eyes, he feared the lashings for looking away even more. Brindel’s power might be more his imagination than anything else; the lashings he knew to be real.
A slight smile softened the Master’s wrinkles as she regarded her student, “You may be raw, unformed by all comparisons, but you have promise. I will have shaped nothing in my life, if I cannot mold you into a prize.” In fact, she considered him her greatest challenge. His gift required her personal attention.
The Master was tall and thin with long black hair softened occasionally by lengths of grey. She stepped forward and knelt down in front of Tremmel, “Your hands?”
Not knowing that he was doing it, Tremmel was wringing his hands in his lap. Her tone and piercing gaze startled him into stopping. He waited, stone still, unblinking.
Brindel rolled her eyes, and she shook her head, “Your hands, please,” she said. Impatient, she riffled her fingers, deceptive, quick, “Here-here, give me your hands.”
Obliged, Tremmel held his hands out. He expected painful retribution. Bracing himself, backs of his hands exposed, he awaited his punishment; the sound of his last still ringing smart in his ears.
Brindel made a clucking sound with her tongue against the roof of her mouth, The boy is so slow. “You haven’t done anything wrong.” She sighed, and then continued, “Palms up, palms up! Let’s have a look.” She held each of his hands in each of hers, and inspected them with great interest. Her sinewy hands trapped his without the slightest hint of give, no chance of escape. They were also, however, exceptionally smooth.
“These hands—your hands—will be great one day. Great! If and only if, you are willing to dedicate yourself to the practice.” Her dark eyes piked him, and though he remained sitting, he felt his legs dangling as the ground went out from under him. She urged, “Will you dedicate yourself?”
“Yes, Master Brindel.” Tremmel could not remember a time he’d ever been so close to the Master Shaper. He was terrified.
“Don’t placate me with an automatic response, child,” disgust obvious in her voice, “Tell me, Tremmel, are you willing to do this, to embrace our craft?”
He blinked. He looked away, over the Master Shaper’s shoulder, and his anxiety spiked knowing he couldn’t recover from the mistake. His eyes flitted about the room struggling to find an excuse.
Sharp. Black. Stinging.
The slap knocked Tremmel onto his side. His eyelids clenched against the tears, and as quickly as he could, he scrambled back up to the proper seated posture. Brindel stood over him, poised to strike again, but Tremmel forced himself to look. The left side of his face burned, and his hearing was muffled from the blow. His own voice seemed distant as he spoke, “I will dedicate myself, Master Brindel. I will practice. I will make you proud.”
The boy had shown her so little in the realm of emotional fortitude during her short time with him, that this momentary strength impressed her; she had begun to think he had none. “Good… very good.” She unrolled her sleeves, “Now, off with you. We’re done for today.”
The very second he realized he was being dismissed, Tremmel broke eye-contact, gathered himself up like his body was a sack full of apples, and then tumbled toward the entrance. He remembered to turn, bow slightly, and say farewell, “Good day, Master Brindel.”
“Good day, Tremmel.”
He ran from the Master’s igluu back to the orphan’s hovel without slowing.
His face remained tender to the touch that night when he went to bed, and so, he slept on his other side. It would heal. He’d learned that much in life for certain. He would always heal.
Chapter 02: On the Job
Veyla approached the iglu at a little past zenith, the sun-baked surfaces throwing off the heat in ribbons of distortion. The domed house smelled like mid-summer beach sand, except the underlying essence of decay was more forest floor than salted sea-life, unique to iglus in Cota. The walk-up consisted of two paths branching from the main, concave curves completing a triangle, converging on the entrance.
A Hand of the Magistrate sauntered down the main, heading opposed to Veyla. In typical form, the Hand wore the light blue tunic of his order, a thin but opaque fabric that fell to his ankles, sweeping after each step just above his sandals. Walking tall, hands hidden within loose sleeves behind his back, the Hand approached with the confidence of authority, the comfort of the righteous. Austere shadows underlined the carved sinews of his chest, exposed in the ‘V’ of his collar. His Eyes marched ahead of him, plying the many fingers of their star-nosed snouts to the main road in energetic fits, opposite the calm demeanor of their keeper. Each of the shaggy, dirty white quadrupeds stood as tall as the Hand’s knees. The Eyes checked in with their keeper as they walked, regularly brushing their long noses against his robes; deft snout fingers scrunching and releasing the material several times a second. Veyla knew they passed information in that way, that they shared their observations of the world, of her, with the Hand. She didn’t fear them. The Hand, on the other, could be a problem.
Veyla whistled to herself and kept the attitude of her direction, focused on some distant destination.
“Fine day,” the Hand greeted her, his eyes almost the blue of his robes, clear and unassuming. He stopped several feet before her. One of the Eyes sat back on her haunches, showing the dusty orange trim of her fur, stained from scraping the ground. She stuck her nose high into the air, star-nose fingers sampling aggressively; the stubby talons of her forepaws twitching unconsciously, endearing but clumsy imitators, cute under other circumstances.
“Fine day, to you,” Veyla said, lilting. “And to you,” she nodded to the Eyes, each in turn.
“What brings you to the outskirts?” he spoke the words without insinuation, but his gaze dropped briefly to her garb, implying that her reply should offer a lawful explanation for the extensive ties and folds in her clothes.
Veyla wore an oversized cream and brown robe meticulously folded and tied around her body with leather and twine. Any number of objects could be secured and hidden within the many ad hoc compartments. In addition, a wide satchel hung by a strap from her shoulder. She undid the tie that kept it in position, and swung the satchel around to rest it against her belly. Reaching inside, she removed a small pouch. “For Shaper Hargan,” she read, and then turned the fist-sized pouch toward the Hand, pointing to the name hastily sewn there.
The Hand, deliberate, slow, unclasped his hands from his back, and marked her reaction. She smiled her biggest, witless smile. He extended one hand forward, showing the deep scars in his palm; the raised tissue running the length of each finger from tip to palm where they intersected, forming a crude, angry-looking star. The rough tissue was cracked and stained chalky white from setting clay into the wounds, wounds that had to be re-opened and re-administered often. If he extended his hand to her, she’d have to take it: take it, or run. An intimate thing to shake the hand – he’d know she was lying at least, if not more. Luckily, decorum prevented a Hand of the Magistrate from reaching too often, or without reason.
The Hand didn’t reach out to her. Instead, he smiled and crouched. His sharp gaze remained levelled on her as he stroked the shag of the sitting Eye. “Shaper Harger? He lives off Center Circle, near the bazaar – pretty far if you intend to make it before sundown.”
“He?” Veyla thought the Hand was testing her. Harger was a common enough name, and in fact, exactly why she’d chosen it. Probably more than a few in Cota. If he really knew one at all, she wagered he wouldn’t claim to know them all. “Alizi Harger? Outskirts, second spoke?” She acted miffed, but only slightly. “That’s where I’m bound anyway. If she’s not there? That’s okay. I still get paid,” she shook the bag once, and the coins inside snapped against each other. A dangerous gambit, joking about breaking the law with a Hand, certainly not something a criminal would do.
The Hand stroked the Eye under the chin, and cupped the fingers of her snout with his palm, and rubbed gently. The silence begged for sound, pulled at Veyla’s tongue, demanded more explanation. She knew better than to fall into that trap. She waited.
Finally, the Hand stood. He placed his hands behind his back again, “I don’t know an Alizi Harger, but best be sure she gets her payment. I will remember you.” The last he spoke with a flirtatious smile, but Veyla knew the only thing a Hand loves is the law. “May the end of your day find you home, and well.”
“Thank you. And may yours,” Veyla nodded as she dropped the pouch into her bag and fastened the tie again.
As though the thought had only just occurred to him, the Hand said, “Who can afford a long distance messenger, but hires a Shaper from the Outskirts?” His tone was almost rhetorical, but not quite.
“Vendor Prau. In Relikesht. I don’t often work for her, but she pays well enough. I don’t ask questions,” she shrugged.
The Hand wrinkled his nose, sniffed once, and nodded. He appeared to dismiss his suspicions, but Veyla kept that happy thought buried. She would have gladly paid a hundred silvers or more to know what had made him think to question her.
He invited the Eyes to lead him away, “Ladies?” Their response came at once, the many fingers of their snouts grasping at the air, excited. As they shambled forward, they swept their heads left and right, their fingers running along the ground like the legs of headless dancing puppets. Drunk puppets, Veyla thought, as the Eyes split and passed to either side of her. The Hand nodded a last farewell, and moved on.
Veyla walked a bit before circling back to the iglu. She’d lost some time with the Hand, but not much, and she’d plenty of buffer; the owner wasn’t expected to return until the following afternoon. Still, there was nothing more suspicious than being out after sundown. Only thieves and killers played in the dark – and the Magistrate’s people of course, but Veyla didn’t think the distinction important.
The large, dirty orange iglu stood thirty bodies wide and four tall. The forests of Cota only grew three tall at their highest, so the domes of most iglus barely crowned through the low canopy, bald spots in an otherwise contiguous umbrella of glossy, batik blue leaves. Different leaves grew beneath the canopy, long tubular strands that brushed the ground.
Veyla picked her way through the curtain around the iglu, checked one more time for passersby, and seeing none, set to work.
Her hands blurred as she exchanged and flipped various ties and fasteners all over her clothes. She looked suspicious before, but not unlike any other messenger who would have dressed for speed. Now, with every loose bit of cloth tied down, studs secured to the bottoms of her sandals, and gloves, she couldn’t pass for anything but a thief. She waded back into the forest’s weeping curtain to give herself some runway.
Just before making a dash for it, she noticed an odd hump in the otherwise uninterrupted curve of the iglu’s exterior. Curious, she moved to get a better look; a back door. Pretty uncommon, but Veyla should have guessed there’d be one, knowing the owner’s profession. She stowed the climbing studs from her hands and feet, and, picking the lock, let herself in.
Veyla found herself in a dark boudoir immediately on the other side of the door. She guessed its purpose and doubted the owner kept any valuable objects in the room. Interior doors almost as rare as back doors, Veyla picked one more and went deeper into the iglu. The wall of the central room was a continuous concavity becoming the ceiling and floor without hard edges or corners. Three breatheways cut through the roof, each hole only a couple bodies across; the sun came in, slanted and austere prisms of light burning bright trapezoids onto the floor.
A shelf ran shoulder-height halfway round the room, and Veyla marveled at the numerous invaluable objects displayed. The objects had been placed so that each stood a respectful distance from the next. No crowding. Hundreds of pieces — some, impressively detailed and ornate, others, primitives: pyramids, spheres, and rectangles— all arranged by the inscrutable whim of the owner. No discernible logic to their order existed, at least not one Veyla could intuit from the shapes.
Veyla basked in the quiet lonesomeness of so many memories not her own; a lifetime displayed without the owner present to define it and give it context – an opportunity to solve the puzzle of that person, untainted. Each object was a connection, but without the owner there to light it up, the connection was dull and difficult to see. She walked around the room admiring the silent nervous objects. She felt more like a thief in this moment than any other, even when she had no intention of pilfering anything material; she was stealing time with other people’s private lives. Veyla felt great: right at home in someone else’s.
Still, if she wanted to get paid…
Her employer hadn’t offered even a single clue to the shape that held the memory he wanted. Or maybe he knew exactly, but didn’t want to tip his purpose to the hired help. Probably the latter. That’s why he’d chosen Veyla: no questions. Gloves on, she pulled the pouch he’d supplied from one of her side pockets, and undid the twine that pursed it closed. Within was the dust of a destroyed curio, infused and set with her client’s version of the memory, a memory he and this woman had shared, a memory she’d also cast; a remembrance of something he’d prefer she didn’t, at least not with the incriminating clarity of clay.
Veyla went from object to object. She pinched bits of dust from the pouch and sprinkled miniscule amounts to the side of each salt-white statue. The shelf had a fine layer of innocuous dust, so she didn’t have to worry about cleaning as she went. Finally, the dust slanted as it fell through the still air of the room, drawn to a figure of a sleeping tiger. Veyla tested the result with another pinch right over the top, and sure enough, the dust clung to the statue, and held strong even when she blew on it.
Turning the tiger around, upside down, inspecting it closely, Veyla felt the shape through her gloved hands. Satisfied, she set the figure back down on the shelf. She pulled a thick square of clay from her tunic, and then another. The clay, though it gave off no smoke, little light, and was cold and damp to the touch if not for her gloves, seemed to smolder like molten metal. The weight didn’t need to be exact, but the closer the better. She pulled a fraction from one of the squares, and then made the larger portion disappear into her clothes. Veyla smashed the rest together, and with tiny carving tools appearing in her hands like magic, made a rough imitation of the tiger. The clay lost color with every adjustment, and soon, became as austere white as the original.
She placed the fake on the shelf and sized it up. Maybe it wouldn’t pass sharp scrutiny, but it didn’t have to. The owner only needed the confidence that her memory was safe; she wouldn’t touch it to test it and risk dulling the memory, whatever it was, not until she needed it, and only then would she find it empty.
Veyla swapped the objects, took one last look, and left the way she’d come in.
Time to get paid.
Chapter 03: Collecting
“A tiger?” Keln leaned forward in his seat, but his arms remained by his sides, his hands beneath the table.
Veyla sized him up, the cacophonous bazaar fading and flattening to a background. Keln had dark hair that swept right to left over his head in dozens of tight braids, each tied with variegated loops of thread. A thin arc of metal, not more than a silvery hook and tines, held the dangling braids in a bunch against the side of his face. A twist of leather weighted only by three loose rings of bone circled his neck — a token of love among the youth in Cota, though he wasn’t young; he played in a range closer to Veyla’s than his own. His tunic, loose and linen, shifted from blue to green in the evening breeze; deliberately faded colors made vivid by contrast to his pumpernickel skin. The fine tailoring was his only mark of affluence, and a subtle one at that. He fit in, savvy. Nothing that should worry Veyla, but his attitude pricked at her skin. Clients were generally over-eager to verify her deliveries, but Keln held back, more concerned with her than the figurine.
Veyla shrugged, “Yes. A tiger.” Not that it could possibly matter. Almost everyone purchased clay already shaped; generic, empty vessels prepared by strangers to house even the most intimate, and unique memories.
Keln elaborated, “I suppose it could be a compliment, but that’s not what I meant.” His eyes hid his thoughts from her, and his composed expression suggested he’d had some practice keeping secrets. “She sculpted this herself.”
Veyla felt like she was being tested. That was twice in the same day for a job that should’ve been as easy as found-money. “I wouldn’t know about that.”
Veyla sat diagonally from Keln at a four-seater, though the restaurant was overcrowded with diners, who stood or shared tables with strangers. The empty seats seemed a weight held by the silence stretching between them. Unblinking, Veyla decided to clarify the arrangement, “I don’t know you. I don’t know if you’ve ever done this before. I don’t care.” She leaned forward, and Keln met her gaze without flinching. “I’m a messenger. I pick up packages. I deliver packages. That,” she pointed to the salty white tiger, “belongs to you.” She rolled her shoulders one way, and then the other, and then pushed her finger into the table. “Please, confirm the contents.”
A trio of Shapers in stark white robes, hoods back, strode passed their table in good spirits, radiating a hush of celebrity as heads turned to follow.
Keln narrowed his eyes and smiled, slowly nodding. He produced a small leather and twine satchel from beneath the table, and pulled two small, silk pouches from it: one fat with coins, and one flat. He placed the full beside the figurine, and turned the empty inside out around his hand. “No need,” he said, and then sucked the tiger up without touching it.
Veyla snatched the purse and checked the contents; stamped metal, not the flat discs she carried around. Keln reclined, satchel and statue gone from sight. The table was empty save for their drinks. Veyla tossed hers back like a shot, and changed her mind about staying the night in Center Circle somewhere between swallowing and the after burn. She’d rather brave the dark and go home: put this strangeness behind her. She placed the glass back on the table, nodded thanks, and stood to leave.
“We’ll be in touch,” Keln stirred his drink with his finger.
She didn’t know what he meant by ‘we,’ but she answered to no one, and decided against keeping it to herself. “I doubt it,” she said, smug bunching her face.
Keln sucked the alcohol from his finger with a pop.
Veyla shook her head, and turned to leave, but in her rush, face-planted hard into the chest of a large woman barrelling through the bazaar in the opposite direction.
“Oh! Excuse me—,” the curvaceous woman began as Veyla lifted her head from between her breasts, dazed. “What a startling creature you are.” The woman pinned Veyla’s limp arms to her sides, holding her like a doll with both hands. Her eyes juicy and wide, she ogled Veyla from her short, unkempt, tufted locks to her plain brown sandals and back again. “Irises like honey,” she intimated, and then louder, “Keln, tell me beauty is not with you.”
Veyla came to her senses, shaking her head before the woman’s obvious thoughts got the idea they could become plans. “No. No, I was just leaving.” She squirmed free.
Keln raised his voice over the din, “Plenty of edibles in the bazaar tonight, my friend. That one needs to be somewhere... else.”
The woman’s excited sparkle faded, and she said, “Oh.” She flattened Veyla’s garb where she’d mussed it. “Well, business doesn’t have to be without pleasure, right? I’m Prin. Forgive my... enthusiastic approach.” Her smile waxed again, “But you must get that all the time, especially here. The Center Circle Bazaar is where Cota comes to play.”
“Don’t worry about it. I don’t come here often,” Veyla muttered.
“That’s a shame,” Prin tilted her head.
About as uncomfortable as she could be, Veyla pointed to the sky, and said, “I gotta go.” She slipped into the crowd, and flowed away from the table.
Far from the bazaar, the sun banding the horizon in colored ribbons, Veyla regretted leaving. She’d had time to pore over every detail of the delivery, and looking at it from a distance, there was nothing wrong with it. She’d planned to stay, and yet here she was, pushed from her plan by a little discomfort. Drawing figure-eights with her nose, she drew a long breath, and then let it out all out once, disgusted with herself. “Shit.” Nothing to do about it but move a little faster. She picked up the pace.
Twilight music swelled from the trees, crepuscular creatures calling out to one another in ecstatic trills, howls, and intermittent chirps and clicks. Veyla slid into the forest, weaving through the curtain of hanging leaves. She kept the road close as she picked her way north, the light from the Sisters a glowing blanket on the smooth-packed ground; the twin moons unable to penetrate the canopy. Besides, she knew she couldn’t trust her vision: too many predators had tricky shapes and lures. Even the trees themselves could not be trusted, she thought, as she watched a leaf snap into the boughs, not a leaf at all, but a tongue, trolling. She moved a little closer to the road.
The going was slow. She approached an outer circle intersection, finally entering the Outskirts, and saw two pairs of gold-glowing discs swinging low not far down the crossing road. She retreated into the forest and held still as a Hand of the Magistrate passed her, turned and continued south. The patrol’s footfalls and huffing diminished to nothing after a bit, and Veyla surveyed the road again. A few of the iglus’ windows shone bright, soft orange here, blue-grey there, but most sat like giant sleeping turtles.
Veyla was in the middle of the road when a sudden rush of footsteps froze her in place. A tiny figure, a child, ran toward her, head bobbing and arms swinging wild. The awkward gait stunned Veyla, and she gawked instead of moving out of the way. Too late to dodge, she braced herself, and the boy collapsed into her, light as a kitten. Veyla scooped him off his feet and turned him around in one motion. She palmed his mouth, and though squirmed a bit, he let out no more than a squeak. Her lips to his ears, she breathed, “Shhhhhh. Stay calm. Stay calm. I’ve got you.”
He hung limp, no fight in him. Veyla asked, “Will you stand still and be quiet if I let you go?” The boy nodded.
“Good. Very good.” She set him down, and spun him around to face her, his eyes melted caramel in the moons’ light. Veyla didn’t enjoy the company of children; too leaky, and this one seemed ready to crack. “Not so bad, right?” she reassured him.
Beyond the spot where the boy first appeared, a cloaked figure emerged from the forest dragging leaves into the road. Stooped, and lumbering, it might have been a giant Cotan in black robes, but Veyla wouldn’t have thrown a silver down on it; the thing walked like a sack of clothes animated by a rampaging, but also, narcoleptic, gorilla. With what Veyla could only imagine was its fist, it stomped the ground, perched all its weight on that one limb, and then collapsed, rolling forward onto the next without making a sound. Its head swivelled toward them. Veyla bit her lip. On instinct, she gripped the child’s shoulders and drew him close. She squinted, but the hood obscured every detail of its face. It crossed the road to a lightless iglu, and stood before a window.
Veyla took five measured breaths. The shadowy thing didn’t move. She tapped the boy, took his hand, and then led him to the edge of the road. She guided him through the veil of leaves, careful not to disturb a single one.
Believing they’d gone far enough to be well-hidden, she knelt down close and said, “Stay here. Understand?” He nodded. Not enough. Veyla asked, “What’s your name?”
“Tremmel. Nice name.” She glanced over her shoulder, toward the road, “I need you to stay right here. I’ll be back.” He nodded. “Right here. Not deeper into the forest, not closer to the road. Understand?” He nodded again. “Say something!” she said, low but harsh.
“Yes, Master… Master…” he trailed off.
A Shaper apprentice. Great. Useless. “I’m Veyla. You don’t have to call me, ‘master,’ anything. Okay?” He nodded.
Veyla pressed a finger against his chest, raised her eyes, and then jerked that same finger toward the ground causing Tremmel to flinch. He nodded several times, blinking rapidly. Veyla sagged, defeated. She reached out, patted his head, and said, “I’ll be back.”
Turning toward the road, Veyla cleared her mind. She swayed like a blade of grass, feeling the rise and fall of the breeze. She danced out of the forest; changing partners, tree to tree, stepping lightly between. The thief was gone. Well, the thing, whatever it was, had left. She walked up to the iglu where she’d last seen it. Nothing. No tracks. But Veyla didn’t leave tracks either, or so she liked to think. She had to tippy toe to peer inside the window where the creature had almost to squat to look in.
Inside, Veyla spied the hunchbacked thing contemplating a bureau of clay figurines. She struggled for a better view, pulling herself up by her fingertips. A smoldering red hand extended from the cloak, took one of the statuettes, and then ate it.
Veyla’s fingers slid from the sill, and she heard herself make the unmistakeable sound of someone getting caught spying. She sprinted; two iglus down the road, and then around the third, she hugged the wall out of the light. Catching her breath, she watched for anyone to follow. She hoped she’d spooked the thief more than the other way around.
After a bit, she picked her way back toward Tremmel. She passed the spot the first time, mostly, she realized, because he wasn’t in it. She circled back a few times, and ducked out to the road to check: she was sure, it was the right spot. Tremmel was gone.