Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise

Rudolfo’s Gypsy Scouts found the metal man sobbing in an impact crater deep in the roiling smoke and glowing ruins of Windwir. He crouched over a pile of blackened bones, his shoulders chugging and his bellows wheezing, his helmet-like head shaking in his large metal hands. They approached him silently, ghosts in a city of ghosts, but the metal man still heard and looked up.

Gouts of steam shot from his exhaust grate. Boiling water leaked from his glassy jeweled eyes. Nearby lay a mangled metal leg.

“Lla meht dellik ev’I,” the metal man said.

The Gypsies dragged him to Rudolfo because he could not stand on his own and refused to be supported. Rudolfo, from his tents outside the ruins, watched them return just like the message bird had promised.

They dragged the metal man into the clearing and released him, dropping the leg as well. Their bright colored tunics, cloaks, and breeches were gray with ash and black from charcoal. The metal man gleamed in the afternoon sun.

They bowed and waited for Rudolfo to speak. “So this is all that’s left of the Great City of Windwir?”

To a man, they nodded. Slow, deliberate nods.

“And the Androfrancine Library?”

One of the Gypsy Scouts stepped forward. “It burned first and fastest, Lord.” The scout stepped back quickly, head bowed.

Rudolfo turned to the metal man. “And what do we have here?” He’d seen mechanicals before. Small ones, though, nothing quite so elaborate as a man. “Can you speak?”

“Llew etiuq kaeps nac I,” the metal man said.

Rudolfo looked again to his Gypsy Scouts. The same scout who’d spoken earlier looked up. “He’s been talking since we found him, Lord. It’s no language we’ve ever heard.”

Rudolfo smiled. “Actually, it is.” He turned back to the metal man. “Sdrawkcab kaeps,” he told him.

A pop, a clunk, a gout of steam. The metal man looked up at Rudolfo, at the smoke-filled sky and the blackened horizon that was once the world’s largest city. He shook and shuddered. When he spoke, his voice carried a depth of lament that Rudolfo had only heard twice before. “What have I done?” the metal man asked, his breast ringing as he beat it with his metal fist. “Oh, what have I done?”

• • • •

Rudolfo reclined on silk cushions and drank sweet pear wine, watching the sunset wash the metal man red. His own personal armorer bent over the mechanical in the fading light, wiping sweat from his brow while working to re-attach the mangled leg.

“It’s no use, lord,” the metal man said.

The armorer grunted. “It’s nowhere close to good but it will serve.” He pushed himself back, glancing up at Rudolfo.

Rudolfo nodded. “Stand on it, metal man.”

The metal man used his hands to push himself up. The mangled leg would not bend. It sparked and popped, but held as he stood.

Rudolfo waved. “Walk about.”

The metal man did, jerking and twitching, using the leg more as a prop.

Rudolfo sipped his wine and waved the armorer away. “I suppose now I should worry about escape?”

The metal man kept walking, each step becoming more steady. “You wish to escape, lord? You have aided me. Perhaps I may aid you?”

Rudolfo chuckled. “I meant you, metal man.”

“I will not escape.” The metal man hung his head. “I intend to pay fully for my crimes.”

Rudolfo raised his eyebrows. “What crimes are those exactly?” Then, remembering his manners but not sure if they extended to mechanicals, he pointed to a nearby stool. “Sit down. Please.”

The metal man sat. “I am responsible for the razing of Windwir and the genocide of the Androfrancines, lord. I do not expect a trial. I do not expect mercy. I expect justice.”

“What is your name?”

The metal man’s golden lids flickered over his jeweled eyes in surprise. “Lord?”

“Your name. What is your name?”

“I am Mechoservitor Number Three, catalog and translations section.”

“That’s no name. I am Rudolfo. Lord Rudolfo of the Ninefold Forest Houses to some. General Rudolfo of the Wandering Army to others. That Damned Rudolfo to those I’ve bested in battle or in bed.”

The metal man stared at him. His mouth-shutters clicked open and closed.

“Very well,” Rudolfo finally said. “I will call you Isaak.” He thought about it for a moment, nodded, sipped more wine. “Isaak. Tell me how exactly you managed to raze the Knowledgable City of Windwir and single-handedly wipe out the Androfrancine Order?”

“By careless words, lord, I committed these crimes.”

Rudolfo refilled his glass. “Go on.”

“Are you familiar, lord, with the Wizard Xhum Y’zir?”

Rudolfo was. He nodded.

“The Androfrancines found a cache of parchments in the Eastern Rises. They bore a striking resemblance to Y’zir’s later work, including his particular blend of Middle Landlish and Upper V’Ral. Even the handwriting matched.”

Rudolfo leaned forward, one hand stroking his long mustache. “These weren’t copies?”

The metal man shook his head. “Originals, lord. Naturally, they were brought back to the library. They assigned the translation and cataloging to me.”

Rudolfo picked a honeyed date out of a silver bowl and popped it into his mouth. He chewed around the pit, spitting it into a silk napkin. “You worked in the library.”

“Yes, lord.”

“Continue.”

“One of the parchments contained the missing text for Xhum Y’zir’s Seven Cacophonic Deaths—”

Here Rudolfo’s breath rushed out. He felt the blood flee so quickly from his face that he tingled. He raised his hand and fell back into the cushions. “Gods, a moment.”

The metal man, Isaak, waited.

Rudolfo sat back up, drained off the last of his wine in one swallow and refilled the glass. “The Seven Cacophonic Deaths? You’re sure?”

The metal man shook in one great sob. “I am now, lord.”

A hundred questions flooded Rudolfo. Each shouted to be asked. He opened his mouth to ask the first but closed it when Gregoric, the First Captain of his Gypsy Scouts, slipped into the tent with a worried expression on his face.

“Yes?” he asked.

“General Rudolfo, we’ve just received word that Overseer Sethbert of the Entrolusian City States approaches.”

Rudolfo felt anger rise. “Just?”

Gregoric paled. “Their scouts are magicked, Lord.”

Rudolfo leaped to his feet, reaching for his thin, long sword. “Bring the camp to Third Alarm,” he shouted. He turned on the metal man. “Isaak, you will wait here.”

Isaak nodded.

Then General Rudolfo of the Wandering Army, Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses, raced from the tent bellowing for his armor and horse.

• • • •

Battlefields, Rudolfo thought, should not require etiquette nor be considered affairs of state.

He remained mounted at the head of his army while his captains parleyed with the Overseer’s captains in a moonlit field between the two camps. On the horizon, Windwir smoldered and stank. At last, they broke from parley and his captains returned.

“Well?” he asked.

“They also received the birds and came to offer assistance.”

He sneered. “Came to peck the corpses clean more likely.” Rudolfo had no love for the City States, hunkered like obese carrion birds at the delta of the Three Rivers, imposing their tariffs and taxes as if they owned those broad, flat waters and the sea they spilled into. He looked at Gregoric. “And did they share with you why they broke treaty and magicked their scouts at time of peace?”

Gregoric cleared his throat. “They thought that perhaps we had ridden against Windwir and were honoring their kin-clave. I took the liberty of reminding them of our own kin-clave with the Androfrancines.”

Rudolfo nodded. “So when do I meet with the tremendous sack of moist runt droppings?”

His other captains laughed quietly behind their hands. Gregoric scowled at them. “They will send a bird requesting that you dine with the Overseer and his Lady.”

Rudolfo’s eyebrows rose. “His Lady?”

Perhaps, he thought, it would not be so ponderous after all.

• • • •

He dressed in rainbow colors, each hue declaring one of his houses. He did it himself, waving away assistance but motioning for wine. Isaak sat, unspeaking and unmoving, while Rudolfo wrapped himself in silk robes and scarves and sashes and turban.

“I have a few moments,” he told the metal man. “Tell more of your story.”

Light deep in those jeweled eyes sparked and caught. “Very well, lord.” A click, a clack, a whir. “The parchment containing the missing text of Xhum Y’zir’s Seven Cacophonic Deaths came to me for cataloging and translation, naturally.”

“Naturally,” Rudolfo said.

“I worked under the most careful of circumstances. We kept the new text isolated in a secure location with no danger of the missing words being added to complete the incantation. I was the only mechoservitor to work with the parchment and all knowledge of my previous work with prior fragments was carefully removed.”

Rudolfo nodded. “Removed how?”

The metal man tapped his head. “It’s . . . complex. I do not fully understand it myself. But the Androfrancines write metal scrolls and those metal scrolls determine our capacity, our actions, our inactions, our memories.” Isaak shrugged.

Rudolfo studied three different pairs of soft slipper. “Go on.”

The metal man sighed. “There is not much more to tell. I catalogued, translated, and copied the missing text. I spent three days and three nights with it, calculating and re-calculating my work. In the end, I returned to Brother Charles to have the memory of my work expunged.”

A sudden thought struck him and Rudolfo raised a hand, unsure why he was so polite with the mechanical. “Is memory of your work always removed?”

“Seldom, actually. Only when the work is of a sensitive or dangerous nature.”

“Remind me to come back to this question later,” Rudolfo said. “Meanwhile, continue. I must leave soon.”

“I put the parchment in its safe, left the catalog room and watched the Androfrancine Gray Guard lock it behind me. I returned to Brother Charles but his study was locked. I waited.” The metal man whirred and clicked.

Rudolfo selected a sword in an intricate scabbard, thrusting it through his sash. “And?”

The metal man began to shake. Steam poured out of his exhaust grate. His eyes rolled and a high-pitched whine emanated from somewhere deep inside.

“And?” Rudolfo said, sharpness creeping into his voice.

“And all went blank for a moment. My next memory was standing in the city square, shouting the words of the Seven Cacophonic Deaths—all of the words—into the morning sky. I tried to stop the utterance.” He sobbed again, his metal body shuddering and groaning. “I could not stop. I tried but could not stop.”

Rudolfo felt the mechanical’s grief, sharp and twisting, in his stomach. He stood at the flap of his tent, needing to leave and not knowing what to say.

The metal man continued. “Finally, I reversed my language scroll. But it was too late. The Death Golems came. The Plague Spiders scuttled. Fire fell from sulfur clouds. All seven deaths.” He sobbed again.

Rudolfo stroked his beard. “And why do you think this happened?”

The metal man looked up, shaking his head. “I don’t know, lord. Malfunction, perhaps.”

“Or malfeasance,” Rudolfo said. He clapped and Gregoric appeared, slipping out of the night to stand by his side. “I want Isaak here under guard at all times. No one talks to him but me. Do you understand?”

Gregoric nodded. “I understand, General.”

Rudolfo turned to the metal man. “Do you understand as well?”

“Yes, lord.”

Rudolfo leaned over the metal man to speak quietly in his ear. “Take courage,” he said. “It is possible that you were but the tool of someone else’s ill-will.”

Isaak’s words, quoted from the Whymer Bible, surprised him. “Even the plow holds love for splitting the ground; and the sword grief for spilling the blood.”

Rudolfo’s fingers lightly brushed a polished shoulder. “We’ll talk more when I return.”

Outside, the sky grayed in readiness for morning. Rudolfo felt weariness creeping behind his eyes and in the tips of his fingers. He had stolen naps here and there but hadn’t slept a full night since the message bird’s arrival five days before, calling him and his Wandering Army south and west. After the meal, he told himself. He would sleep then.

His eyes lingered on the ruined city painted purple in the pre-dawn light.

“Gods,” he whispered. “What an unexpected weapon.”

• • • •

Sethbert did not meet him at the edge of his army; instead, Rudolfo rode in escort to the massive round tent. He snapped and waved and flashed hand-signs to his Gypsy Scouts, who slipped off to take up positions around the tent.

Sethbert rose when he entered, a tired smile pulling at his long mustache and pock-marked jowls. His Lady rose, too, tall and slim, draped in green riding silks. Her red hair shone like the sunrise. Her blue eyes flashed an amused challenge and she smiled.

“Lord Rudolfo of the Ninefold Forest Houses,” the squire at the door announced. “General of the Wandering Army.”

He entered, handing his long sword to the squire. “I come in peace to break bread,” he said.

“We receive you in peace and offer the wine of gladness to be so well met,” Sethbert replied.

Rudolfo nodded and approached the table.

Sethbert clapped him on the back. “Rudolfo, it is good to see you. How long has it been?”

Not long enough, he thought. “Too long,” he said. “How are the cities?”

Sethbert shrugged. “The same. We’ve had a bit of trouble with smugglers but it seems to have sorted itself out.”

Rudolfo turned to the lady. She stood a few inches taller than him.

“Yes. My consort, the Lady Jin Li Tam of House Li Tam.” Sethbert stressed the word consort and Rudolfo watched her eyes narrow slightly when he said it.

“Lady Tam,” Rudolfo said. He took her offered hand and kissed it, his eyes never leaving hers.

She smiled. “Lord Rudolfo.”

They all sat and Sethbert clapped three times. Rudolfo heard a clunk and a whir from behind a hanging tapestry. A metal man walked out, carrying a tray with glasses and a carafe of wine. This one was older than Isaak, his edges more box-like and his coloring more copper.

“Fascinating, isn’t he?” Sethbert said while the metal man poured wine. He clapped again. “Servitor, I wish the chilled peach wine tonight.”

The machine gave a high-pitched whistle. “Deepest apologies, Lord Sethbert, but we have no chilled peach wine.”

Sethbert grinned, then raised his voice in false anger. “What! No peach wine? That is inexcusable, servitor.”

More whistling and a series of clicks. A gout of steam shot out of the exhaust grate. “Deepest apologies, Lord Sethbert—“

Sethbert clapped again. “Your answer is unacceptable. You will find me chilled peach wine even if you must walk all the way to Sadryl and back with it. Do you understand?”

Rudolfo watched. The Lady Jin Li Tam did not. She fidgeted and worked hard to hide the embarrassment in the redness of her cheeks, the spark of anger in her eyes.

The servitor set down the tray and carafe. “Yes, Lord Sethbert.” It moved towards the tent flap.

Sethbert chuckled and nudged the lady with his elbow. “You could take lessons there,” he said. She offered a weak smile as false as his earlier anger.

Then Sethbert clapped and whistled. “Servitor, I’ve changed my mind. The cherry wine will suffice.”

The metal man poured the wine and left for the kitchen tent to check on the first course.

“What a fabulous device,” Rudolfo said.

Sethbert beamed. “Splendid, isn’t it?”

“However did you come by it?”

“It was . . . a gift,” Sethbert said. “From the Androfrancines.”

The look on Jin Li Tam’s face said otherwise.

“I thought they were highly guarded regarding their magicks and machines?” Rudolfo said, raising his glass.

Sethbert raised his own. “Perhaps they are,” he said, “with some.”

Rudolfo ignored the subtle insult. The metal man returned with a tray of soup bowls full of steaming crab stew. He positioned the bowls in front of each of them. Rudolfo watched the careful precision. “Truly fabulous,” he said.

“And you can get them to do most anything . . . if you know how,” Sethbert said.

“Really?”

The Overseer clapped. “Servitor, run scroll seven three five.”

Something clicked and clanked. Suddenly, the metal man spread his arms and broke into song, his feet moving lightly in a bawdy dance step while he sang “My father and my mother were both Androfrancine brothers or so my Aunty Abbot likes to say . . .” The song went from raunchy to worse. When it finished, the metal man bowed deeply.

The Lady Jin Li Tam blushed. “Given the circumstances of our meeting,” she said, “I think that was in poor taste.”

Sethbert shot her a withering glare, then smiled at Rudolfo. “Forgive my consort. She lacks any appreciation for humor.”

Rudolfo watched her hands white-knuckling a napkin, his brain suddenly playing out potentials that were coming together. “It does seem odd that the Androfrancines would teach their servitors a song of such . . . color.”

She looked up at him. Her eyes held a plea for rescue. Her mouth drew tight.

“Oh, they didn’t teach it that song. I did. Well, my man did.”

“Your man can create scripts for this magnificent metal man?”

Sethbert spooned stew into his mouth, spilling it onto his shirt. He spoke with his mouth full. “Certainly. We’ve torn this toy of mine apart a dozen times over. We know it inside and out.”

Rudolfo took a bite of his own stew, nearly gagging on the strong sea flavor that flooded his mouth, and pushed the bowl aside. “Perhaps,” he said, “you’ll loan your man to me for a bit.”

Sethbert’s eyes narrowed. “Whatever for, Rudolfo?”

Rudolfo drained his wine glass, trying to rid his mouth of the briny taste. “Well, I seem to have inherited a metal man of my own. I should like to teach him new tricks.”

Sethbert’s face paled slightly, then went red. “Really? A metal man of your own?”

“Absolutely. The sole survivor of Windwir, I’m told.” Rudolfo clapped his hands and leaped to his feet. “But enough talk of toys. There is a beautiful woman here in need of a dance. And Rudolfo shall offer her such if you’ll be so kind as to have your metal man sing something more apropos.”

She stood despite Sethbert’s glare. “In the interest of state relations,” she said, “I would be honored.”

They swirled and leaped around the tent as the metal man sang an upbeat number, banging on his metal chest like a drum. Rudolfo’s eyes carefully traveled his partner, stealing glances where he could. She had a slim neck and slim ankles. Her breasts sloped up rather than down, pushing against her silk robe, jiggling just ever so slightly as she moved with practiced grace and utter confidence. She was living art and he knew he must have her.

As the song drew to a close, Rudolfo seized her wrist and tapped a quick message into it. A sunrise such as you belongs in the East with me; and I would never call you consort.

She blushed, cast down her eyes, and tapped back a response that did not surprise him at all. Sethbert destroyed the Androfrancines; he means you harm as well.

He nodded, smiled a tight smile, and released her. “Thank you, Lady.”

Sethbert looked at Rudolfo differently but Rudolfo made a point from that moment forward of looking at the Overseer’s Lady. Dinner passed with excruciating slowness while banter fell like a city-dweller’s footfall on the hunt. Rudolfo noticed that at no point did Sethbert bring up the destruction of Windwir or the metal man his Gypsy Scouts had found.

Sethbert’s lack of words spoke loudest of all.

Rudolfo wondered if his own did the same.

• • • •

Rudolfo slept for two hours in the back of a supply wagon, dreaming of the redheaded Lady, before Third Alarm woke him. He leaped from the pile of empty sacks, drawing his sword and dropping lightly to the ground.

He raced past mustering soldiers and stopped at his own tent. He’d long ago learned the value of not using his own bed or tent in the field. Gregoric stood waiting.

“Well?” Rudolfo asked.

Gregoric grinned. “You were correct, Lord. Entrolusian scouts. Magicked.”

“Did they see what they came to see?”

Gregoric nodded. “And left quickly when I called the alarm.”

“Very good. That will give them cause to scamper quickly home. And our own scouts?”

“Also magicked and right behind them.”

Magicked scouts were nearly impossible to spot when you did not expect them. But Rudolfo had expected them. They had come. They had seen Isaak. They had left. And five of his best and bravest Gypsy Scouts had followed after.

“Very well. I will want to hear their report personally.”

“Yes, Lord.”

Rudolfo turned and entered the tent. The metal man’s eyes glowed softly in the dark. “Isaak, are you well?”

The metal man whirred to life. The eyes blinked rapidly. “Yes, Lord.”

Rudolfo walked over to him and squatted down. “I do not believe you are responsible for the devastation of Windwir.”

“You indicated that may be the case. I only know what I remember.”

Rudolfo thought about this for a moment. “What you don’t remember is possibly more relevant. The missing time between seeking Brother Charles and finding yourself in the streets uttering Xhum Y’zir’s spell.” He looked at his sword, watched the light from Isaak’s eyes play out on its burnished surface. “I do not think it was a malfunction. Sethbert—the Overseer of the Entrolusian City States—has a man who knows how to write those metal scrolls. He even has a metal man of his own.”

“I do not understand. The Androfrancines and their Gray Guard are so careful—”

“Guards can be purchased. Gates can be slipped. Keys can be stolen.” Rudolfo patted the metal man’s knee. “You are quite a wondrous spectacle, my friend, but I suspect you understand little the capacity we humans have for good or ill.”

“I’ve read about it,” the metal man said with a sigh. “But you’re right; I do not understand it.”

“I hope you never do,” Rudolfo said. “But on to other things. I have questions for you.”

“I will answer truthfully, Lord.”

Rudolfo nodded. “Good. How were you damaged?”

Isaak’s metal eyelids flashed surprise. “Why, your men attacked me, Lord. I thought you knew this.”

“My men found you in a crater and brought you to me straightaway.”

“No, the first ones.”

Rudolfo stroked his beard. “Tell me more.”

“The fire had fallen, the lightning had blasted, and I returned to the library seeking Brother Charles or someone who could terminate me for my crimes. Nothing remained but ash and charred stone. I began calling for help and your men came for me with nets and chains. I sought to evade and they attacked me. I fell into the crater. Then the other men came and brought me to you.”

Rudolfo offered a grim smile. “I wondered. Now I know more. By morning, I will know all.”

Isaak looked up. “Lord, you bid me remind you to return to your question about the removal of my work-related memories.”

“Ah, that.” Rudolfo stood. “Perhaps it will come to nothing. Perhaps tomorrow, we will go down an altogether different path.” He extended his hand to the metal man, who took it. The metal fingers were cool to his touch. “But if the winds of fate allow it, I would have work for you in my forest manor, Isaak.”

“Work, Lord?”

Rudolfo smiled. “Yes. The greatest treasure in the world lies between your metal ears. I would have you write it all down for me.”

Isaak released his hand. His eyes went hot and steam shot out from him. “I will not, Lord. I will not be anyone’s weapon again.”

For a brief moment, Rudolfo tasted fear in his mouth. A metallic taste. “No, no, no.” He reached out, took up the hand again. “Never that, Isaak. But the other bits. The poetry, the plays, the histories, the philosophies, the mythologies, the maps. Everything the Androfrancine library protected and preserved . . . at least what bits you know. I would not have these pass from our world because of a buffoon’s ambition.”

“That is a monumental task, Lord, for a single servitor.”

“I believe,” Rudolfo said, “that you may have some help.”

• • • •

The magicked Gypsy Scouts returned from the Entrolusian camp before dawn. They carried a bound, gagged, hooded man between them, deposited him in a chair and removed his hood. Another scout put a large leather pouch on the table.

Servers laid breakfast to the table—oranges, pomegranates, cakes made with nuts and honey, berries with liquored syrup—while Rudolfo studied their guest. He was a smallish man with delicate fingers and a broad face. His eyes bulged and veins stood out on his neck and forehead.

Isaak stared. Rudolfo patted his arm. “He looks familiar to you?”

The metal man clicked. “He does, lord. He was Brother Charles’ apprentice.”

Rudolfo nodded. He sat at the head of the table and nibbled at a cake, washing it down with chilled peach wine.

The Gypsy Scouts gave their report; it was brief.

“So how many do they have?”

“Thirteen in total, lord,” the chief scout answered. “They are in a tent near the center of his camp. We found him sleeping among them.”

“Thirteen,” Rudolfo said, stroking his beard. “How many mechoservitors did the Androfrancines have, Isaak?”

“That is all of them, lord.”

Rudolfo pondered for a moment why they’d been spared in Y’zir’s spell but the realization struck him quickly. The ancient desert mage would have known nothing of such scientific wonders. If they’d stayed out of the way, huddled in their stalls beneath the library . . .

He waved to the nearest Scout. “Remove his gag.”

The man blustered and flushed, his eyes wild and his mouth working like a landed trout. He started to speak, but Rudolfo shushed him.

Rudolfo stabbed a slice of orange with a small silver fork. “I will ask you questions; you will answer them. Otherwise you will not speak.”

The man nodded.

Rudolfo pointed at Isaak with his fork. “Do you recognize this metal man?”

The man nodded again, his face now pale.

“Did you change this mechoservitor’s script on the orders of Overseer Sethbert of the Entrolusian City States?”

“I . . . I did. Overseer Sethbert—”

Rudolfo snapped his fingers. A scout drew a slim dagger, placing its tip at the man’s throat. “Just yes or no for now.”

The man swallowed. “Yes.”

The knife eased up.

Rudolfo selected another slice of orange and popped it into his mouth. “Did you do this terrible thing for money?”

The man’s eyes filled with tears. His jaw tensed. Slowly, he nodded again.

Rudolfo leaned forward. “And do you understand exactly what you did?”

The Androfrancine apprentice sobbed. When he didn’t nod right away, the scout refocused him on Rudolfo’s question with a point of the blade. “Y-yes, Lord.”

Rudolfo chewed a bit of pomegranate. He kept his voice level and low. “Do you wish mercy for this terrible crime?”

The sobbing escalated. A low whine rose to a howl so full of misery, so full of despair that it lay heavy on the air.

“Do you,” Rudolfo said again, his voice even quieter, “want mercy for your terrible crime?”

“I didn’t know it would work, lord. I swear to you. And none of us thought that if it did work it be so . . . so utterly, so . . .”

Rudolfo raised his hand and his eyebrows. The man stopped. “How could you know? How could anyone know? Xhum Y’zir has been dead five thousand years. And his so-called Age of Laughing Madness has long passed.” Rudolfo carefully selected another honeyed cake, nibbling at its corners. “So my question remains: Do you wish mercy?”

The man nodded.

“Very well. You have one opportunity and only one. I can not say the same for your liege.” Rudolfo looked over at the metal man. His eyes flashed and a slight trail of steam leaked from the corners of his mouth. “In a few moments, I am going to leave you here with my best Gypsy Scouts and my metallic friend, Isaak. I want you to very slowly, very clearly, and in great detail, explain everything you know about scripting, maintaining, and repairing Androfrancine mechoservitors.” Rudolfo stood. “You only have one chance and you only have a few hours. If you do not satisfy me, you will spend the rest of your natural days in chains, on Tormentors Row for all the known world to see, while my Physicians of Penitent Torture peel away your skin with salted knives and wait for it to grow back.” He tossed back the rest of his wine. “You will spend the rest of your days in urine and feces and blood, with the screams of young children in your ears and the genocide of a city on your soul.”

The man vomited now, choking foul-smelling bile onto his tunic.

Rudolfo smiled. “I’m so glad you understand me.” He paused at the tent flap. “Isaak, pay careful attention to the man.”

Outside, he waved for Gregoric. “Bring me a bird.”

He wrote the message himself. It was a simple, one-word question. After he wrote it, he tied it to the bird’s foot with the green thread of peace, but it felt like a lie. He whispered a destination to the bird and pressed his lips briefly to its small, soft head. Then he threw it at the sky and the sky caught it, sent it flapping south to the Entrolusian camp.

He whispered the question he had written. It sounded empty but he whispered it again. “Why?”

• • • •

It took less than two hours. When Rudolfo returned to his tent, the metal man sat at the table, sifting through the pouch of tools and scrolls, and the man was gone.

“Do you know enough?” Rudolfo asked.

Isaak looked up. “Yes, lord.”

“Do you want to kill him yourself?”

Isaak’s eyelids fluttered, his metal ears tilted and bent. He shook his head. “No, lord.”

Rudolfo nodded and shot Gregoric a look. Gregoric returned the nod grimly and left in silence.

The bird had returned in less than an hour. His question had gone unanswered. Sethbert’s reply had been terse: Return to me the man you took. Surrender the servitor that destroyed Windwir.

He’d had an hour to ponder the why. Ambition? Greed? Fear? The Androfrancines could have ruled the world with their magicks and mechanicals and yet they hid in their city, sent out their archeologists and scholars to dig and to learn, to understand the present through the past . . . and to protect that past for the future. In the end, he found it didn’t matter so much why the City States and their mad Overseer had ended that work. What mattered was that it never happen again.

“Are you okay, Isaak?”

“I grieve, lord. And I rage.”

“Aye. Me, too.”

A Scout cleared his voice outside. “Lord Rudolfo? We’ve taken a prisoner at the edge of camp.”

He looked up. “Yes?”

“A woman, lord. She came magicked and asking for your protection under the Providence of Kin-Clave.”

He smiled but there was no satisfaction in it. Maybe later, when all of this unpleasantness had passed. “Very well. Prepare her for travel.”

“Lord?”

“She is to be escorted to the seventh manor. You leave within the hour. The metal man goes with her. Select and magick a half-squad to assist you.”

“Yes, lord.”

“And fetch me my raven.” Rudolfo fell back into the cushions, exhaustion washing over him.

“Lord Rudolfo?” The metal man struggled to his feet, his damaged leg sparking. “Am I leaving you?”

“Yes, Isaak, for bit.” He rubbed his eyes. “I wish for you to start that work we spoke of. When I am finished here, I will bring you help.”

“Is there anything I can do here?”

The realization fell on him. I could ask him, Rudolfo thought. I could ask him and maybe he would go for me now. I could send him south and west, following the Three Rivers until he reached the walled cities at their deltas, speaking his words and bringing down death. But the thought fled as quickly as it arrived. “I’d be no better than Sethbert.”

“Lord?”

He rubbed his eyes again and yawned. “Pack your tools, Isaak. You’re leaving soon.”

The metal man packed, then swung the heavy pouch over his shoulder. Rudolfo climbed to his feet.

“The woman you will be traveling with is Jin Li Tam of House Li Tam. I would have you bear a message to her.”

Isaak said nothing, waiting.

“Tell her she chose well and that I will come to her when I am finished here.”

“Yes, lord.”

Rudolfo followed Isaak out of the tent. His raven awaited, its feathers glossy and dark as a wooded midnight. He took it from the scout’s steady hands.

“When you reach the seventh manor,” he told his scout, “tell my steward there that Isaak—the metal man—bears my grace.”

The scout nodded once and left. Isaak looked at Rudolfo. His mouth opened and closed; no words came out.

Rudolfo held the raven close, stroking its back with his finger. “I will see you soon, Isaak. Start your work. I’ll send the others when I’ve freed them. You’ve a library to rebuild.”

“Thank you,” the metal man finally said.

Rudolfo nodded. The scout and the metal man left. Gregoric returned, wiping the apprentice’s blood from his hands.

“Sethbert wants his man back,” Rudolfo said.

“I’ve already seen to it, lord.”

Somewhere on the edge of camp, Rudolfo thought, a stolen pony ambled its way home bearing a cloth-wrapped burden. “Very well. Magick the rest of your Gypsy Scouts.”

“I’ve seen to that as well, lord.”

He looked at Gregoric and felt a pride that burned brighter than his grief or his rage. “You’re a good man.”

Rudolfo pulled a thread from the sleeve of his rainbow robe. This time, no other message. This time, no question. He tied the scarlet thread of war to the foot of his darkest angel. When he finished, he whispered no words and he did not fling his messenger at the sky. It leaped from his hands on its own and sped away like a black arrow. He watched it fly until he realized Gregoric had spoken.

“Gregoric?” he asked.

“You should rest, lord,” the chief of his Gypsy Scouts said again. “We can handle this first battle without you.”

“Yes, I should,” Rudolfo said. But he knew there would be time enough for rest—perhaps even a lifetime of rest—after he won the war.

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Ken Scholes

Ken Scholes

Ken Scholes is the critically acclaimed author of four novels and over forty short stories.  His series, The Psalms of Isaak, is being published both at home and abroad to award nominations and rave reviews. Publishers Weekly hails the series as a “towering storytelling tour de force.” Ken’s eclectic background includes time spent as a label gun repairman, a sailor who never sailed, a soldier who commanded a desk, a preacher (he got better), a nonprofit executive, a musician and a government procurement analyst. He has a degree in History from Western Washington University and is a winner of the ALA’s RUSA Reading List award for best fantasy novel, France’s Prix Imaginales for best foreign novel and the Writers of the Future contest. Ken is a native of the Pacific Northwest and makes his home in Saint Helens, Oregon. You can learn more about Ken by visiting kenscholes.com.