January 2008 Volume Two Issue One
The Anadem - Sharon Mock
"I have a question to ask of you," the nobleman said.
The man before me was either young or ageless, I couldn't tell which. Rosewood velvet and perfumed hair and not a care for social convention. He hadn't even granted me the courtesy of his name. If he'd come for a commission, he was making a bad start of it.
I nodded for him to continue, and begrudged him even that much of a response.
"Is this your work?" He held out his hand, manicured and unadorned. In his palm rested a brooch in the shape of a dobsonfly. I didn't recognize it, but it certainly looked like something I might have made.
I put on my glasses and took the brooch from his hand. There was the atelier's mark, underneath the pin. Student work, and old enough to be mine. The juxtaposition of coarse steel body and long opal wings, so witty to a youth, so obvious to one who's learned better. A hairline fracture ran the length of one wing, probably from the inlay being cut too thin. I'd use enamel now, if I were foolish enough to make ornament out of such an ugly beast.
Any jeweler in the city could have told him who had made this piece. But I had too much pride to lay claim to it. "I don't remember it," I said, holding it out to him. "But it certainly could be."
He didn't take the brooch. He stared down at me patiently, as though he were waiting for me to notice something.
I looked closer. The workmanship was reasonable, the subject matter anything but. I'd clearly had some point to make, probably something about the tyranny of ornament, the contrast between delicate wings and vicious pincers. They shouldn't have let good opal go to such waste. Its patterns matched an insect wing so closely, it should have gone to a nice gold dragonfly, something a fashionable woman would actually wear.
It took me that long to realize what I was supposed to see. Opal didn't come in patterns like that straight out of the ground. The stone had changed--or something had changed it.
The dobsonfly rested warm in my hand. Too warm, like a living thing, and lighter than steel. And as I watched, its slender, rigid mandibles twitched.
I looked up at the man, and he smiled. Not young, then. Not young at all.
"I would like to offer you a commission, my lady," the sorcerer said.
The portrait of my commission's recipient sat on my workbench to inspire me. Delicate, fashionably pretty, though I suspected a fair bit of her beauty came off with the cosmetics. I had been her age, when I had first come here to study. I'd not had her advantages, but I considered that a blessing. They'd make a matched pair, the two of them, like a set of earrings.
For all I knew the woman was a sorceress in her own right, the gift an offering to her power. But I doubted it. A headpiece -- I knew little about matters of magic, but even I could guess at its intention. Something to control the mind, to make the wearer docile and obedient.
This is why an artisan never takes commissions from a sorcerer. Magic draws great power from creative energy, manipulates it to mirror the artist's will. The workshop floor was filled with cautionary tales. What had possessed me to think myself above them? I should have refused the commission. My patron might not have allowed me, of course, but at least I'd have my pride.
I refused to be paralyzed by thoughts of my patron's intentions for my work. The sorcerer had given me free rein and I used it to my fullest, the image of his supposed fiancee gazing always down at me. I set aside all other commissions, neglected the daily business of my shop. The sorcerer's payment would cover months without sales. Each day I wove gold into threads, threads into links, links into chains. I carved, I pounded, I laid down acid and paste. A month's solid work, a month's solid concentration. My patron would accept no less. And whatever else I might do, I intended not to disappoint him.
My hands trembled in my pockets as I led him to the finished piece. A spider's web of gold and platinum filament, decorated with skeletal leaves and enameled feathers. Moonstones carved into the shape of snowdrops dangled from its edge.
He examined my work for a long time, not saying a word. He knew what it meant. He had to have known. How dare you. How dare you use my work for your slavery. If I caused him offense, I'd receive no more than I deserved.
But when he turned to me, he was not angry. If I hadn't known better, I would have said he was in awe.
He did not invite me to the wedding, thank the gods. For all I knew, there was never a wedding at all.
Having completed my mysterious commission, I set myself to replenishing my shop's inventory. Bizarre images came out in those first weeks, creatures of the sea and of the air, of shadow and of fairy tale. No spiders, no insects of any sort, though I was tempted more than once. I kept thinking of that poor misbegotten dobsonfly. A creature dedicated to bloodshed, without question. Would I have made it if I had known what it would become?
Then, late one night, there came a banging on the door of the shop. I woke up in terror, certain for a moment that the sorcerer had come to murder me in my sleep. But if that was what he wished, he'd have no need of noise. I looked out my window, saw nothing in the street. If he had used my work to commit some especially deviant crime, the guard might arrest me as an accessory. At least then my retirement would be marked by a satisfying scandal.
I pulled a cape around my nightgown and made my way downstairs. A young woman stood at my door. She was dressed much the same way as I was, except for the bejeweled web she wore on her head. I knew her face, of course, though I'd returned her portrait several weeks before.
What had I done?
It would do no good to show my alarm and distress. The poor girl was scared enough as it was. "Come in," I told the sorcerer's bride. "There's a fire in the kitchen. And here, let me get that thing off your head."
We waited together for the sorcerer to come. There was no question that he would, only how long it would take him, and what he would do when he got here.
The girl told me her story while we waited. The only daughter of a family of sorcery now much reduced, brokered into marriage with a man half a continent away, whom nobody knew except through letters. He had not lied to me, at least, though at this point it was small comfort. "Do you want to stay with him?" I asked her. She didn't answer. I don't think she realized she had any other option.
Dawn came, and he still had not arrived. I dressed hastily, dismissed my salesmen for the day. I gave no explanations, they demanded none. And as the city bells rang in the day, so the doorbell rang as well. His attention to etiquette surprised me, given how careless he had been before.
Even as I opened the door the sorcerer was bowing to me. "I am -- most impressed, my lady. Astounded, one might say. But still, there is business we must conclude."
He was the expert in the ways of magic. He had the advantage of me still.
I nodded and led him to the kitchen.
"I first came across your work nearly thirty years ago," he said. He looked like he should have been no more than an infant, but I had no idea of his true age. "Such a curious thing, so plain, so close to life. I swore I saw it move in the case."
"I thought of making my introductions then. But your reputation was rising so quickly, even as an apprentice --"
"Student," I corrected him. Apprentice was a magical word. It had nothing to do with me.
He nodded with cold grace. "I knew my attention would interrupt your career. I had no intention of making you my creature."
I looked over at his fiancee or wife or whatever she was. She sat by the fire, back turned to us, pretending not to listen.
"I knew," he continued, "that in time my patronage would be a story no more or less remarkable than any of the others you'd collect around yourself. Even then, it took me a while before I had a reason to commission you. But the results, I must say --" He picked up the headdress from where it lay in a careless pile on the table. The leaves and stones rang like bells as they dangled from his hand. "Did you know what you were doing?"
"I'm not a sorcerer," I pointed out. "I had some idea of your intent. I thought perhaps I could subvert it, if I was honest enough. I never thought --" I left the sentence unfinished. I had no language for what I had managed to do.
"You must hate me very much."
"I hate that -- thing. I hate what it was meant to do. I'm not so stupid as to hate you."
He looked down at the chains in his hand and smiled. "And yet it's the most beautiful piece you've done."
"How much of my work have you collected?"
He only smiled at me, and did not answer.
He took the headdress with him, and his bride. Perhaps I could have stopped him if I'd tried. But that would have taken a level of arrogance even I couldn't manage. I had turned his magic against him; that didn't mean I could repeat the results at will, even if I wanted to.
In what I think was his idea of honor, he left the dobsonfly brooch with me. I had no idea what he had done with it in the thirty years since I had created it in naive, bitter frustration. Such a vicious, ugly insect. How could I have been so reckless as to create such a thing?
I picked it up off the table. It was still warm, still light, still far closer to life than an object of metal and stone should have been. I stroked its long opal wings, far more beautiful than those of its living kin.
I'd use enamel next time, definitely.
- END -