The woman who comes in is no lady nor a lord, but my master sucks air between his teeth and nods at her with a respect he doesn’t show ladies or lords either. My master is a proud man, top of his craft, and ladies and lords are the ones who respect him, not twistwise round. This deference is strange enough that I stop grinding the hollow bones beneath the stone.
It’s loud work, raspy and deep, and the lack of it rings. My master cuts eyes at me but says nothing in front of this stranger, and that’s strange enough too. I catch her eyes glittering deep inside the black hood she wears pulled over her face, and I look back to my work. Ground ruby, weedwind, platinum, iron, canyon dust, a brewer’s flower—all these go in with the bones, break piece to piece, make something new for my master to breathe will into.
He bows—bows! Not even to kings does he bow, he always says, having won through a clever application of his art the whole planet for the current king to play god on, and besides, isn’t he bound to spend every third Sunday cask-deep in good whiskey with the king? Weren’t they brothers, king or no, and he the elder?—but to this not-lady clothed in cloth glossy as a green raven’s wing and deep as the noonday shadows, he bows. It takes all my focus to count the tens and grind widdershins lest I ruin everything.
She sweeps by him towards the back of the workshop, where my master meets those who have come to beg his artistry, gliding more than walking. She is large, bulky, gliding light despite that. As soon as the velvet cloth hanging over the back room drops into place, I give the bones one more good grind, scraping all the pieces into dust, and quick as quick can I’m listening at the curtain.
Still, I’ve missed something. She’s already speaking, sharp as teeth, answering my master.
No. I’m not here for you, she says. You had the chance you had once and did what was done. No one promised you a second.
Chances can be taken when they are not offered. I would give everything, and more, to undo what has been done.
Her laugh breaks like glass shattering on the workshop floor, and there is no lightness in it. Your everything would not be enough.
A deep silence, and then:
Fine, my master says. Why should you trust? Tell me, then, what you have on offer.
If you do this thing for me, you will never see us again.
A scrape of chair. A soft huff, something that might have passed for amusement among smaller men.
If that’s what you think I desire most, you truly know nothing.
After a moment, he says:
You know there is no one else, on this world or another, who could do this thing but I.
If I am to do this, I need something in return.
What happened to your everything, your desire for atonement? Her voice curdles, hot as the blistering canyon wind.
The stars. That would be enough.
This is insolence, she says finally. Even from you. Especially from you, and her voice drops to whispers, the way they all start to whisper when they come to the heart of their need, and in a moment or two my master’s voice answers her, fine and formal and cold enough for me to know he must be heartbroken. So it is.
When will it be done?
Next week. One day or another. You’ll know.
I’m calibrating the forgebox and preparing my master’s tools when she brushes by me and is gone, scenting of dewdown and smallfruit and the stretch of darkness between stars, or something spacewise anyway.
I was born on Galilei, and like all my kind will die here. I will never go to the stars. I have never smelled anything quite like her before, and I wonder if I will ever again.
My master watches her go, stops next to the pestle, dips a discerning finger into the mix. The bow, the strange longing in his voice when he spoke with her, these things seem impossible the farther from the moment we travel. He’s back in his full mantle of glory: the creator, a peerless artisan, a craftsman of infinite value, the silver-tongued liar who defeated the fierce winged termagants and handed the rule of Galilei to his brother. He is comfortable under these titles. This is, I think, how he can pretend so effortlessly that nothing real has happened.
“Yes, Master Damon.”
“Is the grind complete?”
“Yes, Master Damon.”
He stops for a moment and looks out at the view from atop our towering spire, the light dropping off the edge of the cliffs, the steep winding path the not-lady must be walking from our peak to the red canyon below, before he moves to the cabinet where artifacts and additives are stored.
Hidden at the very back of the middle shelf is a small black chest, and he presses his finger to the top to unlock it. I have never seen him use these ingredients before. He moves quickly to the grind, tilting a plain glass vial until two drops of a glittering substance fall into the pestle. I have been told it is not for me to know the ways of the masters, even of Master Damon.
He takes the grind and tips it through the sieve, runs it through a series of his devices, mixes it with blood from a tiny vial. From there it goes into the melter and turns golden with heat. I have seen him do this mundane alchemy many times.
“The reactor and crucible?”
“Ready, Master,” I say, when the fusion is precisely calibrated to his needs, and this is when the real work starts.
He gathers the material on the end of his iron rod and breathes it to life.
He once told me that this takes enormous concentration. After the calculations are done and the material prepared, the most important part is to come. He must believe his work has the ability to hold; that his calculations will result in each thin line of information accurately placed in a nexus of complexity the likes of which I couldn’t hope to understand. This, he says, is the work of gods, and he is the only god of the universe who can do this.
What I know is that it is beautiful, this work Master Damon does.
He directs the gathered fire with one long intention, his eyes closed and his face peaceful. It swells larger moment by moment until it is a giant yellow-green egg, breathlessly delicate, shot with traces of gold. In the depths of the egg, sparks ignite. Something begins to twist and take shape.
When the glass begins to cool I take it into my hands and warm it with my own heat. When it needs to be cooled instead, I pull the heat out with my touch. We work this way, twisting it round and round, for hours until Master Damon is convinced the job is done to his satisfaction.
The eggs are always the same size, nearly as tall as me and half the height of Master Damon, but this one stretches above my head. It glimmers, yellow shot with brilliant gold where the late afternoon light catches it. I cannot reach around it with both arms, but I want to hold it, to put my body against it and feel it dreaming.
When we’re done, dripping with sweat and panting in the heat of creation, Master Damon points at the shape coalescing in the interior of the egg.
“See, Dim,” he says. “It’s another one of you, made from raw sand and bone. With necessary differences, of course. A gardener would have no need for your thermoreactive hands, would she?” He claps me on my shoulder.
I say nothing, too busy watching the face of my sister grow out of the darkness inside the egg.
“You’ll make delivery to Court tomorrow,” he says. “My work is too important for petty interruptions. I’ll stay. Take yourself to rest, Dim. Tomorrow we start something very new.”
The next morning I come in before the first of our suns splits the canyon to make the strong drink my master craves above all else at dawnlight, but he is already up. I think he has not slept at all. His robes are wrinkled and covered in stains, but his eyes are fever-bright and glittering, the way my people’s eyes get at the end of our life cycles when we return to dust and bone.
“I’m fine,” he says, surprised that I have noticed at all. “Better than fine. Superb. Exalted. This, Dim—this commission will be the crowning achievement of my legacy, the glory that writes my name larger than crude Galilei and these arrogant swine who call themselves masters. This will set me amongst the stars for eternity.” And my master, ignoring the usual repast set under his jeweled awning in the morning sun, bends himself to work.
He works like a man possessed, but today nothing is good enough. We smash five or six creations before Galilei’s second sun even fully rises. He twists valves, fiddles knobs, slams the reactor with an angry fist. He mutters constantly under his breath where even my keen ears cannot hear him and writes equations madly on his reusable paperglass.
The egg is still there, pulsing in the corner, the accelerated matrix forcing the thrall within to grow faster than I thought possible. Inside the egg, my sister’s eyes crease and twitch.
“Master Damon,” I say. “The egg.”
“Hm?” He jolts irritably from where he is bent over the extractor, fuming. “What damned egg? Oh, yes.” My master bends to the table and scribbles a note on his paperglass.
“Take this note and the egg to the Master Gardener at Court. Pay particular attention to the fragility of the matrix during transport. Exercise extreme caution. My reputation relies on undamaged merchandise. Be back no later than first sundown.”
“Yes, Master.” He has already turned back to his workbench. The wheels of the thin, flat cart stick twice, but I manage to position it just underneath the egg. Inside, my sister twists and turns, stretching against the dark. Underneath my hand I can hear her dreaming of soil and green things. By this time tomorrow, she will be digging flowerbeds and watering roslings as if she has been born for this, because she has.
Master Damon says it is good to know purpose, but I wonder sometimes if his purpose is the only thing we are allowed to know.
My master’s workshop is on the edge of all things, far enough away that he will not be bothered by gawkers, fameseekers, and triflers. Those who make pilgrimage to him come on foot, spiraling up a narrow spire of rock overlooking the canyon. There are no barriers, just a razor drop into depths below, and I keep a wary hand on my sister’s egg as the cart and I inch slowly down the incline.
The road is dusty and quiet. The wheels on the cart jolt up and down against the rough terrain, the egg hanging in the air thanks to one of Master Damon’s devices. The air shimmers with a slow boil of heat, but I have been born to this and what bothers my master and the court does not bother me. I stop only once, underneath the spikes of a thorntree, to check the egg. It should be weeks before the egg is ready to hatch, but hairline fractures are already crisscrossing the shell. Underneath my hands, my sister still dreams of vines and grasses and water.
I see no one else until midday, when I reach the glittering gates of Court. Its heavy doors are set inside a stone arch with a crested, flying creature, arms and wings outstretched, on the apex. It is the highest noon hour, when both of our suns burn down together, and too hot for most not born of the canyon dust.
It is another one of my kind who opens the door, a soldier with strong muscles and an innate sense of suspicion. She cannot read, but the sight of my master’s note and the egg is enough to convince her I come from Master Damon.
“What’s this?” she asks, and raps once on the egg. It rings softly, like a bell, and I put my hand protectively over the space where she touched it.
“Delivery for the Master Gardener,” I say. “Don’t touch.”
She grunts and yawns. “Leave it in the garden,” she says. “The bigwise are probly sleeping again. Too hot.” The last a bark of sound—impossible, for she and I, this idea of too much heat driving men to dreaming.
The gates to Court swing open into an alien expanse of shivering leaves. The Greenway is like nothing else on Galilei; expansive and lush, filled with a shade my planet doesn’t produce without a lot of help. Water is pumped in from deep beneath the surface, spread out over miles of grass, fruit trees, flowers, bowers of hanging vines and square beds swelling with tartroot and sweet cubine. It is unbroken green from side to side with only a few brown spots where something has failed to survive. Here and there redstone pillars stretch towards the sky, crowned with more of the flying statues or topping out into flat platforms of stone. If it were not for the presence of these, the masters would have completely turned this piece of land into something of their own, as different from Galilei’s red rock, yellow sands, and deep purple hills as it can be.
A half dozen of my kind are moving dreamily amongst the orchards and fields, weeding and watering. The Master Gardener and a master I don’t recognize walk along one of several circular stone paths despite the heat. Moisture hangs in the air and they fan themselves, their skin gleaming with sweat.
I guide the cart to the side and wait patiently for them to intersect with my path. The egg glows and starts to tremor, small cracks spiderwebbing out from the apex, and I hope they do not take long. I know better than to interrupt the masters at their business.
“...don’t know why we didn’t tear down the last record of these abominations,” the master I don’t recognize says irritably. “I find them appallingly primitive. They assault the eyes.”
“The King likes to be reminded of his victory,” the Master Gardener says.
“You mean his brother’s victory. Damon never lets him forget whose cleverness won the war.”
The Master Gardener tuts in amusement. “Indeed. But the war was won. None of them remain. The pillars are now strictly ornamental. It does no harm for the King to look on them and gloat.”
“Here, what’s this?” the other master says, because they have rounded the corner now to find me waiting, my sister’s egg filled with light, her eyes now nearly open.
“This,” the Master Gardener says, “is Master Damon’s assistant. Ah, and my newest garden thrall. I’d forgotten I’d ordered this.” He bends down, one hand on the top of the glowing egg, and peers into the interior.
“Good, strong back, solid hands, sun-resistant skin,” he notes professionally. “And nearly hatched, too. Just drop it here and I’ll stay until it’s done. Damon knows his work, at least,” he says, this last to the other master.
There is a high, clear note and my sister’s egg vibrates, the air around it humming with static and scenting with the sharp, clean tang of rain. I settle it gently on the soft grass underneath a scenting smallfruit tree. I wonder if my sisters who are born here, in the Greenway, find the rest of Galilei as alien and uninviting as the masters do, or if they still feel the call of the canyon in their bones and the heat in their skins.
“What are you waiting for? Return to Master Damon,” the other master says, and turns back to the Master Gardener, his mouth twisted with distaste. “I find these things unsettling. I suppose it’s only to reason, given the eccentricities of the man himself.”
“Damon has his uses—much like his creatures. Though I do confess, were he not the King’s brother, we would not stand his place here on Galilei no matter what science he can bring to bear. Dimwit, was it? He always names them Dimwit,” he tells the master. “Give your master my highest compliments and deepest, most sincere thanks for his art. Go.”
I nod, unable to take my eyes off the egg. I have not been present at a hatching, other than, I suppose, my own. For a moment I watch the cracks grow and light begin to seep through, but I have been instructed to leave and my master’s task awaits. I will be miles and hours away, back at the workshop with Master Damon, before my sister emerges.
I arrive before the given limit, both suns just two hours past midpoint, but still Master Damon is elevated, ecstatic, raging.
“Dimwit! Where have you been? I have needed you and you weren’t here. I should craft a replacement—I should—no, this would take too much time. What happened with my egg? Was it stable?”
“No,” I tell him. “The first fractures started in the sun, on the road to Court. I was able to deliver it to the Master Gardener before full hatching.”
“Ahh, of course!” he says. “The accelerated process is overly reactive. I can use that. Dim!” He is shouting, pointing at components, and I am grinding them faster than I have ever done before, in combinations we have never tried. He storms around the room, dashing equations so quickly I wonder that he can read the calculations or remember what they are supposed to represent. He runs projections and tests the thickness of different material blends, modifying his equations after each one. He will not stop to rest or eat. It is like he is possessed by the fires of creation or some kind of relentless fever or both. I manage once to put a cup of cold black protein into his hands, and he drinks it down without thought.
Finally, sometime after first sundown, when our second sun is just dipping to touch the horizon and the shadows are stretching to meet the canyon, he stops dead, the light from his devices playing across his face. There is a strange easing in his frame, a tightness loosening that has always been there and that I did not realize could be changed.
“This is it,” he says, more to himself than to me. His lips curve upwards. I watch hunger and exultation play across his face. Master Damon has found the answer.
The first of the new eggs takes us all night. It is green-black, the color of midnight after moonrise, and three times as large as my kind’s eggs, taller even than Master Damon himself. Inside, yellow dots glow and spark like a night sky, a set of unknown constellations turning on their own inner axis. Master Damon insists on storing it in his personal chamber. We create a woven nest of silks and velvets next to his own bed. We nestle the egg into as much protective softness as Master Damon’s significant wealth can provide, and we cover it with a sheet of fine linen.
Five more join it until the nest is full. Master Damon, paranoid of some unknown threat, has me stand guard over them for six nights but does not sleep himself. I do not know what he is doing in the workshop while I am watching thought and form grow inside them. When I spread my hands against the egg and listen, I can hear whoever is inside dreaming of galaxies, sharp knives of matter, stars colliding. Listening to their thoughts, I can almost forget that my master is keeping a secret, even from me.
He spends the seventh night rotating a telescope and watching the stars move from the observation deck that hangs suspended over the lip of the canyon. None of this is like him—the reckless abandonment of his own comfort, the secrecy, the barely suppressed joy. My master is a man of great confidence and grace, unlike, he says, the other Masters of Galilei. He hides from no one, particularly from his assistant, who is all but part of his own body.
Every few hours I check that each egg still dreams, and I turn them gently in the nest, and then I check on my master.
Sometime after midnight the not-lady meets him there, her green-black cloak catching the heat still rising from the depths of the canyon. I must have missed her ascending the narrow spire to our workshop—there is no other way to come, save from the canyon, and that is impossible. They stand apart, my master drinking fermented meadfruit as they speak. I can’t hear his words, but he watches her with something that I think must be close to love, because it is the same way I watch the eggs, the same way my newest sister dreams of plants. Once I think there is the slip of a wingfeather, a gleaming pinion sweeping the night from underneath the cloak, but it must be a trick of the light. Nothing that flies still lives on Galilei. My master did that long ago.
I wake three hours before first dawnlight, start the forgebox, make my master’s drink like usual, but he is gone, and the eggs with him.
Last night, after I checked on my master, I held each egg in my hands and listened to it dreaming. In the time I’d been outside watching my master and the not-lady something changed. Inside each egg there was a new high note, and all those notes together made a harmony connecting each to each. I didn’t know what they were becoming, but it vibrated with longing and belonging and justice and sisterhood. I listened to them sing it to each other for hours, my hands on first one egg and then another, until water fell from my eyes onto the eggs. I jumped straightway to wipe it off with the linen shroud.
But when I touched the drops of water my eyes had left, there was a sharp zap, an arc of lightning from the drop to my finger, and then a soft curious contact, the mind inside twisting a tendril of consciousness, quick as a morningvine fruiting in darkness, to brush against my own.
They showed me the stretch of wings spreading between star systems, greenblack and lush; seven sisters with teeth and talons raised in song.
I don’t know all of what I told them. I told them of Master Damon. I told them about eggs and sisters and the masters and their Greenway. I told them about the moon over the canyon, red dust and heat and the shimmer of water at great distance. It could have been a moment or an hour. I stood there, telling them all I knew of purpose and want, every thing I had never said, even to myself, until everything went dark.
I have never run so far or fast as I do now. I all but slide down the spire’s narrow walkway, trusting the red rock beneath me to hold.
I know where Master Damon is taking them.
It is minutes before first dawnlight when I come gasping to Court’s gate. The same sister is on watch, her face bored and sleepy.
“Halt,” she says, and yawns. “Oh, Dimwit. Your master has been inside for hours already. You better hurry. Bigwise don’t like to be waiting.”
He is alone in the Greenway. I do not see the not-lady, but I am sure somehow that she is here. My master is wearing a strange contraption. A pair of wings sweep out from his back, and as I watch, he flies upwards to deposit an egg on one of the platforms rising above the Greenway. I see now that there is an egg resting on six of the platforms already, leaving just one empty in the center. The platforms glow faintly in first dawnlight, lines of energy pulsing upwards towards the platforms.
As soon as the egg is centered, he falls like a stone, his wings opening clumsily enough at the end to ease him ungently against the thick grass. His head is high and proud as he stares upwards at the eggs: glittering, priceless treasures on platforms of stone high above us.
I have known Master Damon all my life. I was born to know him better than I have known my own self. I have never seen this strange emotion that is now on his face, burning like a curse in him. I wonder how I did not see the shape of it before. It scares me, and instead of walking out to him, I duck behind a bower and watch.
Now that he has landed, I see that the wings are no contraption but a second skin grafted to his own. They collapse into slits underneath his finest robes, settling invisibly against his back. They are thin, dew-light and transparent, and as like the wings the egglings showed me as a moon is like its planet. This must be what he has been keeping from me, growing the wings in secret, grafting them to his skeleton late last night, knowing that the masters have forbidden involvement with all such things.
He would not have kept it from me for my safety, but because he thinks me too stupid and small to keep his secrets. This is the first seditious thought I have been bold enough to think, and the shock of it runs through me.
The doors on the far side of the Greenway burst open, and out pour the masters, twistwise and furious, descending on the garden. None of them think to look up, at where the eggs rest on their high pedestals. All of the masters are here, lured away from their morning meal by the promise of unexpected dramatics. In the center of them all comes the King. He is unconcerned. This distraction can only be an entertainment. It is impossible that something unknown should threaten his comfort, let alone his life.
I have heard the sisters whispering vengeance. I know better.
“Damon!” The Master Gardener shouts. “What is the meaning of this? You have no authority on the Greenway!”
Master Damon doesn’t take his eyes off the eggs. “Watch, Master Gardener, and you will see.”
The suns have crested the horizon, light stretching towards the eggs. They gleam like a blessing. There is a sound. At first I think I am remembering the song from last night, that it is looping and repeating in my mind the way it has been all morning, twisty and relentless as weedwind, until I see the masters looking for the source.
That’s when the not-lady drops from above onto the last remaining platform, her wings spread and glorious.
“Masters of Galilei,” she says, loud enough for all assembled below to hear her speak, “Here are your crimes. Through trickery and deceit, you broke covenant with my people, the Arbiters of the Universe, the Termagant. Your arrogance and greed caused you to make an enemy of those who could have been your allies. You hunted my sisters across the sky, breaking their wings and spirits until only I was left, hiding among the stars, to bring you to justice. It is time to render your judgment.”
The song grows louder. I can see from here how the eggs have started to crack and shake. Together, they shatter at the same time. The shards of the eggs fall, slicing sharp, from the platforms down onto the heads of the masters.
I have never seen anything so beautiful as these sisters bursting reborn and keening out of their eggs, crested heads held high, unfurling their wings and talons.
They dive upon the assorted masters, rending and tearing, laughing and singing, and the masters fall before them screaming, all their pride and conquest repaid, all their terrors returned.
And Master Damon stands in the middle of it all, unflinching, even when the Greenway begins to burn; even when his own brother, his King, catches fire; even as the King runs screaming through the Greenway and falls to ash and bone on the ground.
When the Sisters are finished, sated and drowsy with the taste of vengeance, they touch each others faces with tenderness and, without a word spoken aloud, turn their gaze towards the waiting universe.
Master Damon takes a step forward, his wings unfurling behind him, and the seventh Sister laughs at him.
“Where we are going is not for you.” She looks over to where I am hiding. She cannot possibly see me, but I know it is for me when she says, “And Galilei belongs to another kind, now.”
“But you promised,” Master Damon says, his voice harsh and assured. “You promised me the stars. I have given you everything for it.”
“You are welcome to them, Damon, if your little wings can take you there.”
Without another word, there is the thunder of seven pairs of wings heading onwards, to other planets orbiting other stars, and the sisters have launched themselves towards the sky.
“Wait!” Master Damon screams. He launches himself at the sky, his wings beating clumsily, trying to keep up with the Sisters. He climbs above the smoke and fire of the former Greenway, an arrow launched at the vault of the universe, and I am still watching when his wings tear high above us in the atmosphere and he drops, an arc of fire falling with him, to break on the ground.
At first I and my Kind have no idea what to do. We have always been given breath and purpose by the masters.
It is the Gardenkind who remember their purpose first in the days after. Their Greenway may have burned, taking with it all the masters and their grass and roslings, but Galilei has plants of its own, tall thorntrees and morningvine and weedwind and smallfruit, and all of these they begin to tend, so that we all can eat. And it is the Soldierkind who stand watching the horizon while they work, some protecting the Gardenkind from Galilei’s wildness while others make shelters, rebuilding what was lost with the masters.
Purpose is something we have even without the bigwise, as one of my sister Soldierkind says.
I return to my master’s workshop. I know more about his machines than I was made to know, but if the last few days has taught me anything, it is that we are all made for more than we know, and the Kind will need to be able to create itself in the days ahead independent of men like Master Damon. I work like I have never worked before, and there is no one to tell me what is twistwise or straightway but myself. I grind hollow bones. I replace will with hope. I cry over each one of my new sisters and brothers and hold their gifts in my hands. It takes months, but I fill the canyon floor with our genetic profusion, sustainability, rebirth, choice, the beginning of something new.
These are the first eggs I ever craft on my own. They are beautiful.
If I have done what I have done right, they will also be the last.