The Guardian’s Head

Issue #186

My maid flung open the shutters at dawn and said, “Smell of ice.”

I shivered with the chill, although raised in the Patrie as I was, where ice stayed on mountaintops and chilled drinks, I had never smelled that scent before. I would have considered it just another edge to the smells of sea and salt and rain in the coastal city of Nevarim. I tried to find words simple enough for my maid’s limited Langue to handle. “That means early winter, no?”

“Inundation first.” Somehow she had learned inundation before the simpler term flood. “Inundation come this year, very early. See the fortress wall at in-tide? Inundation coming week.”

“You cannot be serious!” I blurted before her blank look made me understand that she did not understand. I forcibly calmed myself. I am assistant to a master sculptor, working on the empress’s commission at her specific request. To these people, I am a model of the cultured ladies of the Patrie. I will not be a terrified eighteen-year-old girl.

Even though this was exactly what I was. For the great equestrian sculpture of the Guardian of Nevarim that Master Merlinnet was commissioned to make would be twice the size of anything even he, much less I, had ever dared attempt before. And it had to be completed, cast out of orichalcum from his clay model, before the autumn floods would swell the Nevarim river, spreading across the swampy delta, cold salt water covering churches and palaces and horses and children... and, if we failed, us.

I tried not to think about this as I rushed my maid through dressing me and dashed from my small room in the Palace to the workroom the empress had assigned to Master Merlinnet. Although the sun was just rising, he was already there, a small man in the shadow of the great rearing horse statue that would bear the Guardian.

I had helped him make the horse in the summer, during the nights of never-ending sunlight. We sketched from the aristocratic stallions that the empress’s riders would spur up onto their hind legs for a breathless moment, and Master Merlinnet and I would sketch as much as we could in those few seconds, so fast that sometimes our charcoal sticks would snap from our haste and blacken our hands and paper. I still remember their names: Brilliant and Caprice. The horses, not the riders. I can’t even remember the riders’ faces, or that of the empress, even after I had made a portrait of her. After I did portraits, I no longer remembered the faces, as if all I saw of the people’s souls I let the clay absorb.

The face that my master turned to me, though, had the eyes of a drowning man. “Lumarine, his head isn’t working.”

An absurd statement that he counted on me to decipher. I took in the giant clay torso, general’s epaulettes and stiff collar framing the absence of a head. The lumps of clay scattered around the workroom floor, men’s faces half-mashed with the impact of my master’s frustrated throws. Lifeless, powerless, without any promise of magic.

This clay was made from northern coastal mud, infused with salts and crushed seashells. A different material than the clay I had learned on, back in the Patrie, back when my first master had offered me the job of artist’s model in exchange for food and lessons in drawing and sculpture. And, I at age fifteen had been too naive to realize, in exchange for lessons in the art of love as well. Until a year later he found the sculpted head I had made of him, modeling how he would look lying on the pillow, and he flew into a rage. He was angry despite the quality of the sculpture, I thought then, already knowing enough to know that I had done it well, that the face was a likeness and the intent had been passionate, and if I were to cast it in orichalcum, it would live, and love. He was angry, I understood later, because of the quality.

I fled to apprentice myself to his rival Merlinnet, who needed my hands and not the rest of my body, and I had not taken a lover since, caressing clay and not flesh. Together Merlinnet and I had travelled to the Low Country two summers ago, commissioned to create three Guardians, bronze orichalcum men and women to keep the sea floods away from the dike-encircled wheat farms there. I had sculpted their faces, farmers’ faces, apple cheeks and potato noses and jolly smiles that dismissed the sea with a cheerful politeness. And their fame reached the ears of the Empress of Nevarim.

The opportunity to travel to this northern empire had seemed an adventure. New faces to see, new clay to shape, the chance to help with a work greater than any of Merlinnet’s previous commissions. And again, I was too naive to see that it also had the greatest cost if we failed. The fierce gray-green sea here would not heed a jolly smile.

I sat down on the floor, ignoring that my dress from the Patrie would get stained with dust and clay residue. “Master,” I said, “let us walk for a spell to rest our minds from this.”

He froze in seeming incomprehension.

At last, he said, “I do not think you understand the stakes. All the servants, the soldiers, are saying the floods are coming early this year, as soon as next week. It will take a week to cast the entire sculpture, once it’s ready. So if we do not have the Guardian’s head tonight... You know the fortress wall where the tide-marks are? Prisoners condemned to die in a bad autumn are just left in the lower cells, for the sea to take. You and I would call it barbaric. They call it a savings on axe-sharpening.” His aging voice cracked in nervous, helpless laughter.

“They wouldn’t... do that to us.” Even I shuddered. “You are a noted artist of the Patrie. Our king would protest.”

“Like Hestland protested when the first emperor killed Lady Hambleton? Like anyone protested at regicide?” he whispered, glancing around to make sure no one heard, regardless of whether or not they understood the Langue.

I shuddered. The first emperor, the present empress’s grandfather-in-law, was the one whose desire for a port had forced this city up from the swamps sixty years ago. He had kept a Hestlandic mistress, Lady Hambleton. On some pretext I knew not, he had her beheaded—and her head preserved in formaldehyde so that men centuries hence would know her beauty.

The present empress was eager to show us foreigners that she ruled a land as advanced in industry and culture as our own, she with her powdered wigs and her gowns opulent to the point of vulgarity, stitched to fashion brought by word of mouth from our courts; she with her Langue she thought was perfect but which bore the broad vowels and gutturals of her native tongue. She fought to give women, and women’s accomplishments, attention and power unheard of even in the Patrie: she had founded the Institute for Well-Born Maidens that taught science and mathematics as much as needlework and the harpsichord; her court ladies were chosen for wit in multiple languages ancient and modern more than for etiquette and millinery; and when she heard that Master Merlinnet had a girl apprentice, she specifically insisted that for his commission, he bring me along. So that I, too, could play a role in showing the world that women at the Nevarim court were the equal of men in talent.

But she herself had secured her throne with a coup, and rumors whispered of how she may have obscenely rewarded the soldier who had brained her own husband with a golden snuffbox.

We needed to make a Guardian for these people playing at being cultured, else they appease the sea in the old way, by human sacrifice.

“But,” I said, “perhaps all you need is a breath of fresh air.”

I neglected to mention that the breath of fresh air would smell of ice. And inundation.

I won him over. We went strolling along the canals, in the shadow of the elegant buildings, blending in with the people running errands. As if we were ordinary imperial subjects. As if our heads were not at risk at all.

We went again to the top of the cathedral, Nevarim’s highest point. The empress herself, puffing, had brought us up there on our arrival in the spring, showing us the city that was her pride all spread before us. The churches. The palaces. The alleyways and schools and factories. The poor villages and huts beyond the city walls. She and her scientists had shown us the paths of the floods, the marks of new brickworks where the buildings had been damaged by the rising seawater in prior bad years.

Now the autumn sun lit the villages beyond the wall scattered like a child’s abandoned toys. I saw the wind sway young pines as they danced, tossing their verdant crowns. Someone in student grays embraced a girl between the pines and the wall, her skirt billowing in echo of their branches. Three children chased each other; I imagined I could hear their laughter.

Landscapes are the farthest thing from portraits in clay, yet one inspired me to a vision of the other, and I saw the Guardian’s face in the sky above the sea: handsome, haughty, fiercely protective and coldly commanding, a face even the sea had to obey. I knew what he must look like.

“I can make his head,” I said, turning to Master Merlinnet, pulling my scarf over my windblown hair.

He must have not heard me in the high winds. “What?”

“I can make the head!” I shouted. “I know how!”

He stepped forward so that his eyes were even with mine; he was a short man, and I am a tall woman. “Lumarine,” he said, “you are but a girl of eighteen.”

“Young enough to take a chance,” I replied.

“Young enough to be a fool!”

“You know portraits are my strength,” I said firmly, trying not to think of my first successful portrait and its consequences. “I did the faces of the Low Country Guardians. You know I’ve only grown better since. I can do his head.”

His head, not the head. The Guardian’s image had become real to me in that moment, everything from the curve of his brow to the lobe of his left ear. I itched to shape it.

“What risk is there in letting me try? It cannot be any worse.”

He leaned against the railing. Behind him, to the horizon, was the sea. If I closed one eye, losing depth perception, it seemed as if he needed to take but one step back to fall into the waves.

“No,” he said. “Lumarine, you have the skill to make a resemblance, certainly, but do you have the will? A Guardian to save a city is far more complex than one to save a grain field, and the head, the process of making it, matters most.”

“I have will enough. I want to save these beautiful cathedrals—” I swept my hand, “—and the palaces and the Institute and the piers and the sky. And to save you, and me. I have the skill to save art with art. Trust me, I can do it!”

“Lumarine,” he said tiredly, “stop and think.”

Instead, I raced down the stairs as fast as my skirts permitted, not waiting for my master’s creaking knees to allow him to catch up with me. My hands burned to feel the clay, as my cheeks burned in thwarted fury.

As if the gods heard my prayer, when I dashed into the workshop... there waited the empress. Of course, she too was watching the tide-marks.

Breathless, I dropped a shaky curtsy. “Majesty.”

She held up a battered head, one of my master’s failed attempts, her plump bejeweled fingers digging into the still-moist clay, her pose like that of an executioner just done his duty. “Lumarine, do not tell me you made this? I have seen you make far better work.”

I saw my chance to shape the situation. “No, Madame,” I said, trying to phrase it politely, trying not to say anything against my master, whom I still loved, even if at that moment I thought him a blind stubborn coward. Outside, I heard the click of Merlinnet’s cane. “I can do better. I have just asked my master for permission to do so.”

“What took you so long?” she replied as I had hoped. “Go and make the Guardian’s head. I order it.”

Just then, Merlinnet limped into the workshop. He had to lean on his cane during his bow to the empress, eyes filled with pain from his knees, and perhaps fear. I knew that I had made him walk too fast, but at the time, I refused to feel guilt.

“Majesty,” his voice barely suppressed a moan.

“Master Merlinnet,” she said without even waiting for him to finish the salutation, “I do not know who made these attempts at the head, but I order that Lumarine assume it. It’s a waste not to use her. Let the Guardian of our city, our glorious capital of culture, have a head made by a woman’s talent and skill.” She pointedly smiled at me, as if despite our vast difference in rank and age and language we were sisters in the hearts beating in our breasts, and swept out without waiting for his reply.

Merlinnet turned to me, and I hastily smoothed my shame and guilt over, like clay. All he said was, “She knows art, but she doesn’t understand intention. She can’t.”

“Her Majesty knows enough to trust me.”

He sighed with defeat, which was my victory. “Can you do it quickly?”

“I will start now. I’ll work all night if needed.”

“Lumarine, please prove me wrong. Please save this city, and all in it. If it doesn’t work...”

“Then,” I shouted with a wild hilarity, not even to him but to the face I had envisioned in the sky, “we swim!”

I did not bother to change into my work smock. I do not remember taking off my gloves and wetting my bare hands for the clay. Power surged through my fingers already as I pressed together my master’s half-done attempts. I moistened them with brackish water so cold it smelled of frost, which must have come from the river mouth or sea itself. I smoothed out the features again, returning them to the mud, the same mud that this city rose from...

His forehead and his nose formed under my hands, as I thought about the breathtaking churches and galleries of the city, holding paintings beyond price and works of poetry and philosophy. Gentlemen and ladies cantering along the embankments, above flaming sunset colors shimmering in the waves. The filigreed fence of the Summer Gardens. Narrow cobblestoned alleyways veining the city map. The lower windows on the fortress wall, where prisoners huddled in dread. ‘The sea must be kept away from these all’, I traced the command into the clay with my fingers, in an unspoken language that was not the Langue but which this empire would understand too.

I cannot remember if I ate. I certainly did not return to my rooms that night, or see my maid. I was vaguely aware of my master hovering around me but not daring to speak. I blessed him for it with the small part of my mind not thinking of the work. A word of criticism, or even praise, would have broken the spell I was under, my illusion, and perhaps the clay with it.

The light I was working with, so important to any artist, changed to bright lamplight, and then to guttering lamplight, and then to the dim gray glow of dawn.

I just had time to look the Guardian in the eyes before I collapsed to the floor from exhaustion. I dimly heard Master Merlinnet shout, “Fetch smelling salts! Ready the forges! We start casting the Guardian today!” Yet his voice did not bear the expected exultation.

Then I fainted, as if my mind were flooded by a dark sea.

Kiln doyens cast the orichalcum from my clay model. Skilled smiths forged the gears inside the Guardian and the rivets stitching him together. And the lengthening nights filled with roaring fires of the casters’ furnaces and the din of hammers driving the rivets in, as the colossal Guardian was born to ride before the city on his horse, the sacred gift of the sea-god. To guide and lead, to prove to the people that their queen was legitimate, even if she had had her husband, lawfully wedded under heaven, brained with a golden snuffbox, and with the Guardian’s power she would hold back the sea and bring in the new times.

I had little to do that week, and despite my achievement, it seemed that Master Merlinnet was not as much at ease with me as in times past, as if he were treading carefully around me, or around the Guardian’s head, like around some dangerous volatile munition. Hard as that was to believe from the Master Merlinnet I loved, I wondered if it were envy.

I had dealt with my previous master’s envy by still improving at my art, and so did I resolve to deal with this one. I went out to the streets with my sketchbook every day. Despite my upbringing in warm climes, I found myself delighting in the crispness of the autumn air and admiring the play of fading sunlight on the masts in the harbor. The weight of deathly fear lifted from my heart, I looked at people in another light. Now instead of the occasional courtier’s or lady-in-waiting’s portrait at their clamoring request, I drew Nevarim’s common people. Students, coachmen, doctors, priests, housewives, chambermaids, laundresses, prostitutes, girls who would never see inside the Institute for Well-Born Maidens. My charcoal stick strove to capture the subtle differences in cheekbone structure and expression in the eye that set these people apart from those of my Patrie, whether they aspired to emulate my homeland’s culture or did not care one whit for it beneath this northern sky.

I walked to the mouth of the river, across from the fortress, and glanced at the sea lapping at the red stripes painted on the wall. The mark that was the sea’s highest rise last autumn, when the season had been mild and the simple dikes had held, was already underwater. The waves lapped closer and closer to the windows of the lower cells, but I knew Merlinnet and I were safe from them now.

On the third day after I made the Guardian’s head, I sat by the river bank upstream near the market, discreetly sketching the workmen building the new bridge. This was to be the first permanent bridge in the sixty years of Nevarim’s existence, where previously the many artificial canals and natural arms of the river delta had been bridged only by pontoons that would shudder and shake beneath horses’ hoofs. This bridge, I knew, was itself a sign of the empress’s faith in us. A permanent bridge expected the water to yield and hold back.

I was fascinated by the play of muscles in the axe-swinging arms of the laborers; they had doffed their coats and shirts even as fog rose from their mouths in the chill air. So I did not notice at first the young man sitting down on the river wall beside me, not even when he must have taken his own sketchbook out and started drawing as well. Unconsciously, the rustling of our charcoal sticks and our breaths grew in synchrony, both of us pausing almost simultaneously to study our models and to hold up our thumbs or charcoal sticks to eye-measure in order to get the proportions correct. It was only when I paused and he did not that the oddness of this made me aware he was there.

I looked at the faces he had drawn before I looked at his own face. His line was not as refined as mine; he lacked my techniques of cross-hatching in shading, or slanted lines for perspective and vanishing points. I guessed him self-taught. But he was certainly of no small talent.

Only then did our eyes meet. His was a narrow face tapering to a long chin—not handsome, not even aristocratic, but with a shining intelligence in the wide-set eyes. Very different from the round jolly cheeks of the Low Country, or from the cold hauteur of the Guardian.

“Do you speak the Langue?” I asked, longing to talk to perhaps the first real artist I had met in this country.

“With a schoolboy accent.” He laughed, his accent indeed prominent but somehow pleasing to the ear. “I am a student of law, Madame.”

My surprise at being ascribed such a rank faded as I imagined myself in his eyes—in my imported walking costume, even if I was unchaperoned, I would certainly be judged a fine lady by a mere university student. “I regret that you have chosen the path of law rather than the path of art,” I said. “Your drawings show great promise.”

“You seem to know such things,” he said. “Although many fine ladies draw roses and dresses, I have seen none who draw bridge builders.”

“I am no lady. I am a sculptor.” Not a sculptor’s assistant, not after what my titanic effort had wrought three days before; I felt the right to call myself a sculptor. “I shape moulds for orichalcum Guardians, in clay.”

“I am no clay-potter,” he said. “I have carved in wood, though. Trinkets. Dogs, deer, the occasional philosopher’s bust.”

I laughed. “You have a face fit for portraits. Suppose that we exchange? I will make your head in clay for you if you will carve my face in wood.”

The heavens alone knew what possessed me with the boldness to make such a strange proposition to a stranger I had barely met and had not even been introduced to. I can only explain that the joy of being alive, of having saved my life and my master’s, made me exhilarated and eager to fill this newly granted life with adventure, the propriety of a lady be damned. I was not in my own country, expected to be held to the manners of the Patrie, and here my ignorance of the native language excused most breaches of the native etiquette while the empress herself had supported me; thus I enjoyed a freedom few women in any land knew, and, I thought, I could do whatever I pleased. “My name is Lumarine,” I dared to introduce myself.

“And I am Yevgeny.”

And so we went to the empress’s newly opened Summer Gardens, and among the leaf-bared trees and yellowed hedges we both sketched each other, intent at work. I was happy. I forgot to go see the fortress wall and check the tide-marks in the shortening daylight.

We returned to the same place the next day, and the next and the next, for more studies of our faces. I brought a lump of clay along and started to work it from life; he showed me how his penknife removed shaving after shaving from a block of pale pinewood to reveal something that looked more and more like me. I advised him on the finer points of creating a likeness.

He told me about his family, traders who lived in the village beyond the wall and would come to the city on market days. Because of his stories, I started passing by the market and noticing what people carried home: sacks of salt for the winter, of pine needles for their tea that was too bitter for aristocrats, and of sand. But I averted my eyes from those. The Guardian, my Guardian, would make the sand bags unnecessary.

I crafted his sculpture. I had no expectation of making it in orichalcum, but into it I worked joy at finding a friend in a strange land who cherished art like I did. And... I admit that there were some small dreams of taking Yevgeny as my lover. Reason told me that the difference in our stations would prevent it, that even my interstitial state would not overcome this boundary. But I never had the chance to find out.

And every night that week the river and the gulf tossed and turned like feverish patients in their tangled sheets and edged upwards under the threads of autumn rain that drummed a tattoo on the orichalcum face shaped by my hands, as it waited to be hoisted to the body.

The rising autumn sun shone on the Guardian on his great rearing stallion, built in a week, and not a night too soon.

“Tonight,” the maid said to me, in the broken mixture of the Langue and her own tongue, as she waved to the west. “Sea covered high mark on the fortress, in away-tide. In-tide and rain, means inundation. Tonight.” My maid would never attend the Institute for Well-Born Maidens, or joke in classical languages like the ladies of the court.

She met my eyes. “My mother. My children. In the village. Out the city.” She gesticulated broadly, shaping the city and the village and the waves with her hands to make me understand. My mind’s eye filled in her shapes, the little thatched-roof huts with the pine trees embracing them. “The—the Guardian. He keep them too?”

“That is what he is for,” I said firmly. “To guard the empress’s subjects.”

Flecks of snow circled beyond the imperfect priceless glass of my window panes. From this side of the palace, I could not see the sea, but beyond the roofs of noblemen’s mansions and ministries’ headquarters, I could see a distant shadowy outline of the Guardian’s head I had made, dark against the leaden sky.

My clay sculpture of Yevgeny was done, but needed to be fired and glazed, I explained to him as we met in the Summer Gardens, sheltering under my flimsy silk parasol. I had to explain the Langue’s ceramics terms to him with much gesticulation, nearly dropping the parasol handle. He caught it.

“Well, my portrait of you is done, Madame,” and smiling, he handed me the light pinewood shape, still smelling of shavings and sap.

“I’ll give yours to you tomorrow,” I vowed.

“There will be an inundation tonight.” Like my maid, he strangely found the fancier word easier; perhaps it had already been borrowed and established in their native language.

“We have the Guardian. I made his head.”

“And you are certain he will work? And the inundations will stop?” All of his playful teasing vanished from his eyes. Unlike me, he had seen many floods before.

“On my success,” I said merrily, “I have staked far more than the delivery of a clay model. But my parasol is leaking; I must go before my dress is ruined.”

He watched me go, his face under his student cap too shadowed to be recognizable as the one I was about to put in the firing oven. After I do portraits, I no longer remember the faces.

“The river overflows,” one of the empress’s courtiers said to me at dinner that night. “Soon, ma jolie demoiselle, we shall see together what your work will do.”

“How do you know,” I asked, “if there is a flood coming?”

“By the roar.” He shrugged. “And the shouts. The sound of glass as the boatmen break windows to try to get out those trapped inside. And the screaming of the drowning rats.” The flaws in his Langue made me unsure if he meant rodents or people with the gracelessness to be born to a class below his.

Ten thousand people had drowned in the bogs to build Nevarim, to raise its facades that I had to admit were beautiful, to force the seawater-infused earth to accept the foundations of its churches. I knew that I stood above the bodies of ten thousand dead forever pickling in the mud like the head of poor Lady Hambleton, so that men centuries hence could admire the emperor’s decision and desire.

That night I heard the hoofbeats, and the clang of bronze and orichalcum, and the shriek of gears against the howling of the wind.

No sound of glass. No screaming of drowning rats.

My maid did not come to help me dress. I was too used to depending on myself to think that strange.

In my best walking suit that I had not yet managed to ruin with clay or rain, with a freshly glazed ceramic head in my reticule, I went out to mingle with the ladies and the students, with the artists and the doctors and the trinket-sellers in their knit scarves, all marveling at the dry cobblestones. Dry except for the line of new hoofprints, sunk deep in the granite as my fingertips had sunk into clay, of hoofs four times the size of those of Brilliant and Caprice, of strides four times the length of their gallop.

The Guardian of Nevarim had made his run, as we had wrought him to. And the people whispered in strange accents the name of Merlinnet, the foreigner who had made it so. Not my name. But it did not matter. The empress knew my name.

I kept walking, my head high, triumphant, beautiful, my face echoing the pride that I had put on the face of the Guardian. In my imagination, the rhythm of his hoofbeats drummed out the accolades due me. Me, a woman, and eighteen years old, who had made a Guardian for Nevarim, and had held back the rage of the flood.

The sandbags piled by doorways were completely dry. But near the market I heard weeping. A dog wandered by, fur glossy with a master’s love, but its eyes looking in every face for this master. Then a child, and then another, staring straight ahead as if there was nothing in this beautiful city that they could bear to see.

The trail of hoofprints led me to the madman.

“Damn you!” screamed the man astride a stone lion, facing the pedestal where the Guardian stood. “Damn you to hell and to the sea!”

I cannot remember what language he spoke, or how I understood the words. “Slave to our foreign whore of a queen and her foreign devils...”

With a portraitist’s eye I noted the foam flecking at the corner of his mouth, the wild whites of his eyes, the rictus tensing the tendons in his neck.

It was the first face that I had done a portrait of that I will never forget. Unseeing, unable to see me, his face so transformed from the model in my reticule, it was as if Yevgeny’s soul had fled into the clay, leaving only madness behind.

The gendarmes said something incomprehensible in their language, elbowing me aside. I replied in the Langue, that I didn’t understand what they said, and watched as three of them arrested the one who had been my friend, whose love I had dreamed of. The fourth gendarme, who could speak a passable Langue, met my eyes.

“Madame,” he said, for he did not know my station, “you are a foreigner? Guest of the empress? Have you been to the cathedral before? Perhaps go to the cathedral roof again. Perhaps you will understand what came on the poor wretch. Poor damned soul.”

My feet echoed on the stairs of the cathedral like the hoofbeats of the Guardian had echoed. Like the heels of the madman—of Yevgeny—had drummed as they dragged him away.

From the cathedral’s dome, the alleyways and schools and the common rooftops were all just as I had last seen them. I counted them. I have the portraitist’s eye. I remember such details.

Beyond the city wall, there was nothing. Mud and tidepools. Shards. Circling flocks of carrion crows that dared not veer into the Guardian’s Nevarim.

Not the houses that my maid’s children had lived in. Not the home of Yevgeny’s merchant family. Not the pines beside them that had given the wood for my portrait.

I had been so certain in my purpose when I made the head, on saving all that was beautiful in the city, with my talent and my art. The people outside the city, who did not share our language, who did not want our customs, had not crossed my mind.

And that was what Merlinnet had feared: that I, with all my talent, could not envision the whole of what the Guardian should protect, to tell it that a charwoman’s child and hut had as much value as a cathedral.

I removed my gloves and ran my bare hands over my face, the living flesh feeling like the clay wet with cold brackish water, like the face of a stranger, a lover. Like the faces of the drowned beneath the muddy seawater that had risen and gone elsewhere when my Guardian repelled it from the city. Like the face of the foreigner, summoned, whom royal decree had killed and royal decree had ordered her beauty preserved.

So that men centuries hence could behold the churches that I had saved, and the face a woman had put on that bronze idol. He had yanked the northern city up on its rear legs above a flood for a breathless moment, giving men time to admire its beauty. At the cost of the sea seeking prey less well-born, paths less beautiful than my own choice.

The empress awarded Merlinnet a gold medal for the Guardian, and me a silver one for the Guardian’s head.

At home, back in the Patrie, I keep the medal hidden under the little head that looks like me, carved of sap-smelling northern pinewood.

All I think, when I see it, is that wood floats on seawater.


Read Comments on this Story (1 Comment)

ShareThis with Friends

Tamara Vardomskaya is a Canadian writer and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Besides Beneath Ceaseless Skies, her fiction has also appeared on Tor.com. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in theoretical linguistics at the University of Chicago.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Sons of Vincente” by I.L. Heisler
“The Stone Oaks” by Stephen Case

Return to Issue #186

Comments & Scrivenings
1 Comment on “The Guardian's Head”

One Response to “The Guardian’s Head”

  1. […] “The Guardian’s Head “by Tamara Vardomskaya This bridge, I knew, was itself a sign of the empress’s faith in us. A permanent bridge expected the water to yield and hold back. […]

Leave a Comment on “The Guardian's Head”