Saturday, May 31, 2014

In tribute to Jay Lake

Jay Lake is in hospice care now, so it's probably only a matter of time before he leaves us. Back in 2007, when I published my on-line e-zine Sentinel Science Fiction, I bought and published a short story of his. I went and found the floppy disk it is backed up on and and I'm republishing it today. I don't know that it's available anywhere else, and my feeling is that the best way to remember Jay is to read his stuff.


So here's ...


---

Fire-Heart and Rose-Lips

by Jay Lake


 They're all crazy for stories here, even my maid Fuega.  She's my best friend, too, mostly 'cause I don't really know any other princesses.  Plus we're exactly the same age.

Ever since I was twelve, His Majesty Dad has made me wear these stupid gloves -- two layers of dragonscale with a silver and copper mesh between, crafted by some one-eyed dwarven smith, half mad and all drunk.  "They'll keep you safe from cuts," he'd said.

Gee, thanks Dad.

At least I can take the gloves off in the big copper tub in the Maiden Tower, but only with Fuega watching me and one of the upstairs maids, plus the girls with the water buckets and scrub brushes.  If Momma would let him, law or no law Dad would have two guards in the room to keep an eye on me, too.

Out of the gloves, my hands always look like withered prunes!  They'd be so pretty and, well, normal, if they ever saw the air and light.  No prince is ever going to marry me.

But Fuega says I don't need a prince since I have her.  She holds me most nights, and sometimes we practice kissing, but that's all.

Everyone's always scheming about me.  One of the worst was when that little toad Palancier came to court.

"Your majesté," he said in the fake little accent that drooled through his nasty mustache.  I swear, a whole hive of fairies could live for a year on the food crusted in that man's beard.  "I have ze proposal for your daughter's perm--, eh, how you say, durable?"

Only he pronounced that word like 'Pablo' instead of 'bubble.'  You get the idea.

So, he said, "To preserve your daughter's hand for le mariage."

Then he chuckled up half a gut at his own wit.  I looked mariage up later, too.  I don't think he was using the word right.  Fat old fraud.

Well, Palancier chuckled until His Majesty Dad was laughing too, up there on the Ivory Throne, so then all the courtiers were laughing.  You'd have thought Dog Pie our court fool had found a whole new way to pretend to be a woman.  Even the silks hanging from those fire-scarred oak beams were waving down like they thought it was funny too.

"I'll chuckle him," I whispered to Fuega.

She took my hand, stroking the palm of my heavy glove with her fingers.  "Hush, Rosita.  Let's hear what the man has to say."

"In my travails," Palancier was spouting, "I have zeen ze finest work of ze smiths of Copper Downs and Chalk Hill.  Zo I propose zat we chop," and he stabbed his porky little hands down like a pair of cleavers, "ze riskmost parts at the wristmost parts..."

He paused for a laugh, but His Majesty Dad had the look Fuega called 'lightning-strikes-the-tower,' so the court wasn't even cracking a smile now.  Even the silks above us were still.

"Eh, you take my meaning," Palancier continued with much less enthusiasm.  "Zen we replace zem wit' zese beautiful, tres cher bonne, silver hands from ze uttermost East, enchanté par les ascended masters in ze prime of zeir powers!"

I rubbed my wrists, which suddenly ached something fierce through the heavy gloves.

Dad leaned forward on the Ivory Throne, one hand propping his jaw.  He had a narrow beard that year.  He fancied it made him look like an epic hero, but mostly it made him look like a giant leprechaun.  Dad had the pommel of his old sword Megrim in his other hand, holding it like a cane.

Dog Pie says Megrim was forged from one of Coalheart the Undying's claws, but then I asked how the smith had got the claw off a live dragon, and Dog Pie had just looked at me funny.  Later Fuega told me to stop acting too smart.

Anyway, I don't know where Dad pulled Megrim from all by himself up there on the throne.  A minute earlier his hands were empty.  One of those king tricks my future husband will have to learn.

God, I hate being a girl.

Once he spotted the sword, Palancier looked nervous.  Dad just kind of grinned into his fingers.  Don't-speak-until-spoken-to got tangled up with self-preservation in the fat man's mouth, and his lips flapped like a carp tossed out of the pond.

His Majesty Dad finally took mercy.  "It would seem that you are suggesting that I have my daughter's hands removed so she cannot prick her finger on a spinning wheel."

"Exactly!" shouted Palancier, forgetting his accent.

Dad tapped Megrim a couple of times on the marble dais beneath the Ivory Throne.  He tugged his beard.  He looked up at the silks.  He winked at me and Fuega, though old Palancier was in too much of a twitchy swivet to see it.

Serves the dumpling right, I thought with my best nasty.  Cut off my hands, will you?

"M'sieur Palancier," Dad said.  "Your plan has merits."

Palancier bounced as if his feet had grown springs.

"Grant me a demonstration," Dad continued.  "Have the magicians chop off your own hands and replace them with these magic silver hands.  If I am fully satisfied with their performance on your wrists, you shall have your weight in gold for performing the same service for my lovely daughter."

Palancier hustled himself out of court so fast the guards had to run to catch up in order to thrash him.

Stuff like that is funny, except it's my life.  My hands.

#

Thing about stories is, they're almost always true.  Somehow, some way.  Maybe Megrim was forged from Coalheart the Undying's claw and maybe it wasn't.  But I've seen Dad use the sword in battle outside our castle walls against the Red Magician's Horde.  Megrim called lightning from a summer sky, I swear.  So if the stories about Megrim are true, sort of, couldn't the story about the Witch of Wearyall and the spinning wheel and me someday doomed to pricking my finger be true, too?

Could it?

"Don't be a baby," Fuega laughs as she scrubs my back.  "You're scared of some old bat no one's seen for almost sixteen years."

"It ain't you that's going to sleep until the end of time," I grumble, splashing her.

"It's a story.  A fairy story."  She laughs again.  "Besides, the real message is obvious.  Even you can get it.  Come on, Rosita."

I lower myself in the tub until just my nose and lips are above water and Fuega's voice echoes through the copper plating.  It makes her into a sort of burbling ogre that I can barely understand.

Sometimes that's for the best.

She tweaks my nose, bringing me up shouting and cursing words I'm not supposed to know, only how I can live in a castle full of men with swords and not know them?  If they don't have knives and swords, men just grab themselves all day long like the stableboys -- as Fuega tells me -- so they may as well play with weapons and shout bad words.

Which makes me feel funny about watching His Majesty Dad practicing in the sparring yard with Megrim.

"Listen," Fuega hisses.  She grabs my ear, but not hard like she really means it.  "It's all cock and bull.  The witch, the blood.  They're just scared spitless of what happens when you become a woman.  Once you get your courses, they just wish you'd sleep chaste and beautiful until the perfect man comes along, kisses you awake and takes you away.  No teenage woollie-woollies for their majesties.  No fooling around with the stableboys."

I get tired of her words in my ear like a boiling kettle, so I slap her hand away.  "Stories.  Everyone loves those stupid stories too much.  I've had my courses since I was twelve.  You've seen enough of those stupid bloody cloths to prove it.  The rest is horse poop."

"Sym-bol-ism," she says primly.  That's one of Dog Pie's words, when he thinks no one's listening but us.

"Symbol this," I say.  "My sixteenth birthday is tomorrow.  I'm tired of these stupid gloves.  There's not a spinning wheel within ten leagues of the Maiden Tower.  They were all burned years ago.  Plus Dad has archers and wizards on watch for the Witch of Wearyall.  I want out.  I'm done."

Fuega glances around the room, making sure none of the other maids are too near.  "Remember the plan," she hisses.

What does she know, anyway?  She's not any older than me, but Dog Pie and the soldiers tell Fuega everything, while I just sit around with my thick gloves and try to play the harp and do needlework and stupid stuff like that.

Fuega wasn't there for sake of the Witch of Wearyall's prophecy, anymore than I was.

Well, I was there for the prophecy, actually, but you know what I mean.

#

Fuega planned like she did everything else -- life's a story, life's a game, just puzzle out the rules and figure what you have to do.  We had secret passwords and signs and countersigns, all the game stuff that anyone plays at when they're kids.

Except hers were for serious.

When we were nine, she showed me a hidden passage behind the hearth in the balneary of the Maiden Tower.

"How'd you know about this?" I asked.

"I have my ways."  She was a high-nosed snit even then.

Later, I figured out that Dog Pie had shown it to her.

Fuega wouldn't ever let me go down the passage.  "Just in case," she told me.

"In case of what?"

"I don't come back..."  Arch, conspiratorial.  She was everything I wanted to be.  Most of all, free.

"We can trust Gunther in the stables, and Red Jon, sort of, but never talk to Strawhead Steven about anything."  She glanced up from her crude map of the castle, drawn with water and fingertip on the stones beside the tub.  "Steven would lie about the time of day."

"What will we be running away from?" I finally asked one day in the west rose garden.

"Whatever comes," said Fuega.  "You're a princess.  Bad things sometimes happen."

Well, the worst was about to happen.  I was going to turn sixteen, go to my first ball as guest of honor, and wear these horrible gloves to protect me from spinning wheels that didn't exist.

If I couldn't get rid of the gloves for good, I was going to run away.

#

That night, before the party, His Majesty Dad comes into the Maiden Tower.

Now, it's death for a man to be in the Maiden Tower, so the castellan even keeps woman carpenters and stonemasons around.  Husky women with hairy lips, but Fuega gets along real well with them.  Since Dad's the law and the sword of the law in these parts, I guess if he wants to come to the Maiden Tower no one else is going to say much about it.

I'm up in my room reading Lives of the Saints, which is even less fun than you think.  Dog Pie made me learn to read.  It does help pass the evenings when Fuega is out and only the stupid upstairs maids are around fussing with my clothes.

Dad comes in and he's got Megrim with him.  I immediately think of Palancier, not to mention all the other hare-brained schemes that have come to court since I was old enough to toddle in there and listen, and get a chill ache in my wrists.

"Hey, Rosita," Dad says.  He's got a goofy smile, not an I've-come-to-cut-your-hands-off look.

"Hey."  I pretend to be real interested in St. Poikilo and the fishes.

"Tomorrow's the big day."

I wonder if ordinary girls have these stupid conversations with their parents.  I thumb the page of the book with my big heavy gloves, smearing an illustrated trout.  "Heard from the Witch of Wearyall?"

The snick of Megrim sliding from its manskin scabbard catches my complete attention.  I look up, my breath sharp and shallow, to see Dad kneeling before me with his naked sword.   He's got both hands on the blade, just past the pommel and there's already blood leaking between his fingers.

Oh, God, this is worse than that time with the Red Magician's Horde.  Where was Fuega?

"I swear," says Dad, and he's panting, "by the breath in my lungs and the blood in my veins and the steel in my hand, that the Witch of Wearyall will not harm a single, perfect hair on your head, Rosita my daughter."

Oh, crap, I think.  Story time again, and he's deep into it.

#

You know what happened the next day.  It's a tale everyone tells their children in the cradle now.  That one about the witch and spinning wheel and the beautiful sleeping princess.  Stories, nothing but stories in this world, I swear, and even where they're right they still get it wrong.

Ask yourself how Dad got hold of a claw from Coalheart the Undying.  Why everyone was so afraid of me pricking my hands.  What the roses were supposed to guard around Dad's castle.  Did the Witch of Wearyall lay a curse?

Or a blessing?

Here, I'll help.  I'll tell you a story of my own.  Once upon a time a dragon went walking in the world clothed in human skin.  He was a handsome man, and clever besides, but a chink of fear had lodged in the heart of his new body, as it does in the hearts of all men.  He prised a claw from his sleeping true form and took it with him.  Over time, that claw won him a kingdom.  The kingdom won him love.  Love won him children.

But dragons always birth in pairs, so the queen had twins.  One of them was dusky as dirt and earthy besides, with fire in her heart.  Truly the dragon's daughter.  The other was pale as a summer rose, with lips like the spring dawn, her mother's image.  Truly a woman of the world.

An old lady with Second Sight saw through the fire-heart and the rose-lips and knew which daughter would someday take wing and wreak havoc as is the nature of her kind.  She placed a blessing on the girls, sealed with a blooming hawthorn branch, promising eternal sleep to the dragon's trueblood daughter in order to save the kingdom and the dragon's earthly love.

Just like in all the stories the blessing was misunderstood and the old woman driven forth with sticks and dung and threats.  Then came the fateful day when the blessing was broken.  The fire-heart fell asleep and the rose-lips took wing and flew.

They were all looking in the wrong direction.

My sword is sharp and I have deeds to do.  If I live as long as Dog Pie promised trueblood dragons can, some day I'll go back and set fire to the thorns and free my sleeping sister.  Maybe Palancier was right.  Too bad.  When I finally caught up to him, he tasted fine, roasted on the run.

Sometimes the stories come true, no matter how crazy they sound.

No matter how crazy they are.


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