It was all I dreamed about, nine years later, as I constructed a gift for Princess Emera’s seventeenth birthday:
I sat beneath Father’s booth, dust covering my pants and boots, getting into all the gears and elbows of the tiny silver toys. I had a shallow tin bowl of water and a delicate wand tipped in cloth. Father would hand me down a mechanical frog that had stopped leaping or a whir-ball refusing to spin, and I cradled it in my hands, using the damp wand to clean away the summer grime.
Sweat stuck my hair to my neck and the air beneath the stall grew stale, but I couldn’t lift the curtain for a breeze or all my hard work would be destroyed by a single gust of wind from the wide market lane.
“Siah,” Father snapped on the hottest day of the hottest month, “stay where you are, no matter what you hear.”
I shrugged, unconcerned by the tension in his voice. It was probably a noble lady from Haria Street, come to peruse the wares of Clockwork Square, hoping for a new gadget to make her toilet flush faster. We knew they disliked my pale skin and ravaging freckles. Bad luck, and all that, to have a face the color of the dawn desert and black stars scattered across my nose.
But I heard no cool voice and it was not the silky slippers and lace hem of a lady that I glimpsed from beneath the table-cloth. Horses snorted and stamped, a sharp yell to make way, clattering bells and the pretty grind of silver-iron wheels. The carriage halted some distance away, but my attention was drawn away from the little clockwork horse in my hands as the entire market lane fell into a quiet deeper than a drought-dry riverbed.
Pressing myself to the ground, I peered through the crack between cobbles and curtain. The horses stood so still, their white legs made yellow by kicked up dust, and the carriage wheels glittered with glass and crystals of red and orange: the royal family.
A footman hopped down and pulled aside the tassels shading his noble passengers from the heavy sun. It was a man in blue, with sword and jeweled belt cinching closed a white jacket, holding the hand of a little girl. Her name whispered around the square: Emera, the favored daughter of the King. She was my age, or a little younger, thin and delicate like a baby ibis. Barefoot, her toes never touched the dirty cobblestones, for a second and third footman placed long, thin pillows before her. I watched the shine of toe-rings as she moved forward, directly to us. To Father’s booth.
The man in blue had tattooed knuckles, marking him as one of the battle-mages dedicated to the protection of the King’s family. “Clockworker Sand,” he called to Father in a voice like a lion, “Princess Emera has heard of your toys, and would like to see your day’s offerings.”
Father stammered a reply, apologizing for not knowing the princess was coming, and so he did not have all his best to display.
“I have heard that your least is counted against the best of others,” Emera said. She stood too close for me to see higher than her ankles. I wanted to watch her lips, to see if they matched the sweetness of her tone. Instead, I stared at her feet. Black lacquer stained her tiny toenails, like obsidian flakes, and the rings were set with precious gems in the shape of stars and diamonds. She wiggled them gently as Father presented her with his favorite contraptions: a flying bird with wings that beat gently while it sang a seven-note melody, a circle of children dancing, several cavorting cats, and his masterpiece, the tree that grew from yearling to mighty oak.
She gasped at the smooth movement of tiny silver leaves, and I felt her joy in my fingertips. It stuck in my throat, and I squeezed so hard the little horse in my hands creaked, pinching the softest part of my palm. I yelped and dropped the copper horse.
“Who’s there?” Emera asked as she knelt on her pillows, despite protest from all her footmen.
Father’s boot nudged my back, and I knew he was warning me to be careful.
I pushed the curtain aside, and crawled out, kneeling in the dust beside her. Emera’s hands flew to her lips as she took in my face, and its fine layering of dust and sweat. “Are you clockwork, too?” she asked, her finger skimming down my cheek, tracing a pattern through my freckles.
“No, princess,” I whispered, though at that moment if I could have turned into a machine and gone home with her I would have. “I am the clockworker’s son.” I held out the copper horse, which she took. Blood had smeared in my palm. Hastily, I curled it against my thigh.
“This is perfect!” Emera declared, running a tiny finger against the shining flank. “Did you make it?”
“Yes. With Father.”
“May I purchase it?”
“You may have it. It is my gift.”
I heard Father’s sharp intake of breath, and the battle-mage shifted in his stiff leather boots. I was not supposed to presume to give the princess anything. But she smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
As she climbed into her carriage, my copper horse cradled in her lap, I whispered, “My honor, princess.” My cheek tingled where her finger had touched. My name is Siah, and I love you.
In Master Far’s workshop, I spend my days laying spirit into swords.
It isn’t a dark closet that doubles for sleeping and eating, like my Father’s workroom was. Master Far owns a magnificent home in Majiker’s District, made of marble and wide pink tiles. The workshop has a vaulted ceiling held up by bulbous stone pillars, and each of his three apprentices have a station of our own. Mine hangs with tapestries woven with colorful geometric designs, and is tucked in a back corner. We have no windows, but stained glass skylights that create a mystical underwater atmosphere as the sun progresses overhead. Master Far calls it “good spirit air” because it relaxes the eyes and mind so we can better access our power.
I am seventeen, and five years into my apprenticeship. Far came to the Clockwork Square and bought me for enough that Father barely managed to look guilty. “You have skilled hands and powerful spirit, boy,” Master Far said, in the delicate way of his, putting a long-fingered hand onto my bony shoulder. “You will make a fine Spirit-Maker if you apply yourself.”
We are the ones who purge metals and stones and cloth of their impurities and give them a sheen of spirit so that a magician might create them into fabulous tools for kings and heroes. All the battle-mage swords, I know, come originally from Master Far’s workshop, and we make enough money to live as well as nobles. Far frequently invites royal guests into his hall, and foreign guests, too, with their feathered hats and velvet capes.
But never my Emera.
The others apprentices often go out with Far to purchase base materials or to present our makings to clients. I am not allowed, for Far says my freckles will turn them away from us and all his house’s wares. Only when I am a master myself, and have a great work to prove my skill and luck, will they look past the devil-stars on my cheeks.
The announcement came from the sky-carriers. I was with Master Far when the bells rang and he reached out of the wide windows of our breakfast room. He plucked the gilded envelope from the tiny silver claws of the mechanical car, and sent it zipping down the wire to the next house.
He sat up in his tall-backed chair and read the notice while sipping delicately at his coffee. His lips pursed and he sighed softly. “Alas, but I think this is not for us, gentlemen.”
Marcis and Blur took his word, but I held my hand out for the parchment. It was dry and stiff in my hand.
Her Favorites shall be Rewarded Mightily, and Receive Her Personal Benefaction.
My cheek burned where she’d touched it oh-so-long ago.
Master Far was watching me with narrowed eyes, and when I opened my mouth to beg permission to invent something, he held up one slender finger. “Siah,” he said, but did not continue.
I leaned on my elbows and asked, “Let me try. I can make more than spirit, more than weapons and tools.”
“The princess is rather old for toys.”
“No toy,” I promised, and idea forming in my mind as though it had always been there.
“In your free hours only.”
“Yes, thank you.” I clutched his hand, and then fled to scour the cellar for scraps.
In all the best stories, it is someone like me who wins. Not boys with long histories of riches and power, but hostlers and lowly apprentices, tailors and orphans. And the princess would remember my freckles.
For seven weeks I worked in a fever. Before the dawn I began, and never quit until I fell asleep on the floor of my workspace, hidden from the other apprentices by the geometric tapestries I pulled all around me. I used copper and steel, thinly pounded silver, and the softest gold. For hooves I found iron so black and perfect I might have pulled it from the night sky. Its eyes were chips of green glass and its long mane braided silver. For the tail, I chose soft, gilded thread that would flow in wind. Each piece attached to the next with rolling sockets and joints, and in its chest a massive heart-gear that could be set to churning and drag all four legs into motion.
My metal horse was as exact as the tiny copper one had been, but life-sized. When fitted with a saddle, it would carry her with a gentle stride through the streets, or gallop over the hard desert floor. She would adore it, and remember me. Emera would touch my cheek with her finger and we would live happily ever after.
Master Far shoved aside my tapestries three nights before her birthday. He studied my creation, standing there in his robe, feet bare and dark hair braided back for sleeping. “Do you know, Siah, how I found you?”
Expecting compliments or awe, I frowned. “What do you think, Master? Will it be the best?” I had no doubt, of course.
He ignored my question and glided forward, placing his hand on the horse’s silver rump, fingers splayed. Warmth from his skin cast a foggy aura onto the metal. “I was at the palace to heal the spirit of a battle-mage’s sword. He had burned it with a spell to save the princess’s life. She was there while we spoke, for he is not allowed to leave her side. It was a brief conversation, and as I was leaving I noticed that from the center of her pillows, she played with a clockwork toy. A horse. And the most curious thing happened. While she petted it, the thing pranced and tossed its head. She whispered to it, but never wound any keys or gears; she did nothing to make it function. I asked Sir Leef , and he told me she’d been given it by a dirty boy, and that it never needed to be wound, but behaved as though it were alive. I acquired permission to approach her, and Emera told me that I could hold it. I did, and can you guess? The toy had spirit. Strong, blood-born spirit. Perfectly married to the metals and gears.”
My knees broke, and I sat. My heart roared as I imagined her with my copper horse, and remembered how it bit me and I bled.
Far twisted to face me, glancing down with eyes promising pity. “I am certain she will love this, Siah. Be certain you want to gift it again.” And before I could choke out my assurances that I did, Master Far brushed out past my tapestries again.
I did not have to wait in the line of artists on the morning of Emera’s seventeenth birthday. When I arrived atop my clockwork stallion in the great palazzo, all the men parted for me. The pulled aside firebirds and magical mirrors, statues that told the future, miniature elephants and cages of singing glass larks. There were gowns made of feathers and spidersilk, a necklace of living flame, earrings that sounded like the mythical sea. The whole place smelled of heat and animals and cinnamon, and I could hardly hear myself breath over the squawking and yells of competing artisans.
But all of it moved aside for me, in a sky-blue robe and green sash, high atop the horse. It moved with a high mechanical whir, and its iron-hooves clanked heavily, beautifully, on the stone tiles of the palazzo. In the brilliant sun, its body sparkled and gleamed like the treasure it was, and all the amazed faces reflected back. Their awe flared in my chest and I lifted my head, a smile on my lips. My hair fell all around my shoulders, dark against my face, and I was not worried about the devil-stars sprinkling my cheeks. What were they, compared to my stallion?
I shifted a gear and the stallion sprang into a light cantor. Gasps and applause echoed off the courtyard walls, and I looked ahead to where Princess Emera waited beside her father’s palazzo throne, the same blue-clad battle-mage behind her that I recalled from our first encounter.
Emera clapped her hands lightly, her jeweled toes glimmering in the sun. My cheeks tingled at the sight of her thin, curving lips. “Great artist,” she called as my horse stopped at the base of the wide white steps.
I leapt down, and with a long silver wand, I pressed the button-knob in its neck to make the stallion bow with me.
“Oh,” she said, rushing down the stairs too fast for her pillowed footmen to anticipate. She stood beside me, on the bare ground. Her scent of lily-soap and sandalwood stuck to my nose and the roof of my mouth as I smiled. Her beauty had not faded, but stayed smooth and simple, and her eyes sparkled darkly while she stared at the horse. “May I?” she asked, though the stallion was my gift to her and she needed not to ask.
I bowed. “Highness.”
Her fingers grazed its golden nose and down over copper lips. “I had a toy horse like this once, from a clockworker in the market.”
“Yes.” I couldn’t help leaning toward her, my hand hovering just beside the ends of her silky brown hair. Her battle-mage stepped closer.
“My thanks, sir. This is perfect, and beautiful.” She still did not look at me.
“You may ride him,” I said, offering her the silver wand for changing gears. “The controls are easy to manipulate.”
“He does not move on his own?” A tiny frown puckered her mouth.
I recalled Master Far’s story. My heart pinched and I leaned a hand on the clockwork stallion’s flank. “N-no, Princess. He does not.”
“Ah. I see. He is still quite amazing, sir. And beautiful. Certainly you will have my benefaction.” Emera stroked his nose again, a fondness smoothing out her frown.
“I can make him live, the way that old copper horse did.”
Finally, she glanced at me. “Can you?” She was breathless.
I nodded, waiting as she looked, waiting for her to remember my face, that I had given her the toy. But despite my telling freckles, her eyes only skimmed over me, not her fingers. Not her memory.
“I swear it, Highness,” I said through a tight throat. She did not know me. Had she ever thought of me? How could she forget me? My damned freckles? I bowed, hands shaking. Are you clockwork? she’d asked. I’d been only another toy to her. It was the horse she loved, would always love.
Sweeping up, I climbed back onto the stallion and spread my arms. “So he shall return to you, at your wish, Emera,” I called, shocking all with my use of her name. I turned his gears and threw the stallion into a gallop.
Out of the palazzo we fled, iron hooves cracking on the streets and sending up sparks. People dove out of our way, crying and wondering at the metallic demon racing through the city. My eyes burned and my cheeks were hot with sun and love and fury. Out through the wide-arching gates we drove, and pounded onto the sand.
The horse never tired, not even with wind blowing sand into its gears and elbows. I breathed it, the harsh sand scouring my throat and face. I only had to cling as the clockwork stallion galloped, sliding on the dunes, finding harder rock roads and leaping over dried creek beds.
Into the night we rode, and when the stars crept out, I stopped. I sat upon its back with my head tilted up. The millions of stars winked at me, calling out to their black cousins on my face. Cold wind drew the pale purple twilight all around me. Emptying my thoughts as Master Far taught me, I prepared to make spirit into the horse. To awaken the power in the metal bones, ready it for magic.
When I was pure and as empty as the stars, I closed my eyes and pressed the silver wand to my chest. The end was not sharp, but it was thin and strong. With a great yell, I drove it through flesh and between bones.
Blood blossomed and I was awash with a dull, aching, paralyzing pain. I could not move. My fingers slipped from the wand, numb. I could not feel my thighs, or my lungs. Was I breathing? Was I –
Spirit. I focused my torpid thoughts on laying spirit. It flowed out with my blood, languorous and heavy. The clockwork stallion shuddered with the first touch of it.
On the third day after Princess Emera’s seventeenth birthday, a clockwork horse gleaming with copper fire, cold silver, and warm, gentle gold, walked alone into the city and lay itself down at the foot of the palace stairs.
image by John Bauer, for our common prompt this week!