The man waiting outside my studio three days before the new year was dark with travel, his cloak ragged and mud-stained. The gray hollows around his eyes and beneath his cheekbones proclaimed his business. Even so, I feared I would be robbed before our exchange ended.
“What are you selling?” I held the heavy brass key in my hand like a weapon, refusing to unlock the studio door. Beyond the thin wooden barrier, a rough amethyst the size and texture of a shelled walnut waited on my cutting tray to be improved. The man before me could never enter that room.
“A gem,” he said. His accent put a flat country note to the ‘e’. A fleck of spit remained on his lip, white foam against cracked red flesh. “From the Valley.”
I held out my free hand. The wretched man placed into it a large wad of linen. Still, I doubted his claim. Valley gems were plentiful in rumor and rare in reality. A good jeweler learned to trace a gem’s origin before he made a purchase he couldn’t profit from later. I owned my shop and the studio above it, in a tower within the city walls. I wasn’t about to make a bad buy.
I peeled the linen back, the gray of its outer layer revealing a white underside. Within the nest of fabric lay a large yellow topaz, cut in the old style.
“My dear man,” I said. “This is no Valley gem. It’s neither ruby nor sapphire, diamond, nor emerald. This is topaz, or citrine. And, worse, it doesn’t sing. I’m told Valley gems sing.” But I kept hold of the stone, and the man noticed.
“Two gold graeli,” he said. “The topaz will sing for the right jeweler.”
I flipped my hand over, fingers curled around the topaz and its wrapping. Made as if to hand it back to him. “Not interested.” I reached the brass key towards my studio door.
“Thirty silver.” His voice broke.
“I will give you twenty,” I said. The man was desperate. I was certain I could cut the old topaz into three more popular shapes and sell each for that much, or more.
My day was starting off fine, and when Lise, my assistant, arrived, it would get better still. I pocketed the topaz and drew a purse from my sleeve. The man’s fingers shook the coins together as I counted them out.
What a marvelous stone. I imagined it transformed to a brooch or a ring. A pair of drop earrings. Glittering in the perfect setting: bezel or clutch, wrap or pin...
The man was staring at me, as if awaiting a response.
“You shouldn’t linger,” I said quickly and waved him away. “The local sheriff comes around often.”
As the man shuffled down the narrow stairs to the street outside my shop, I unlocked the studio, closed the door carefully behind me, then hurried to my workbench.
By the time Lise arrived, I had the gem cleaned of the wanderer’s grime. She opened the door with a clatter, her own key swinging from a black ribbon around her neck, and bobbled a basket of crullers from the baker, nearly dropping them. Morning light filled the studio and lit Lise’s orange-red hair like a nimbus. She laughed when she saw the topaz. “Oh! A marquise! Don’t see many of them anymore.”
“They’re out of fashion, yes, but look at the color.” I was training her to be more than an assistant. She had a good eye for ornamentation, and for how much a client was willing to pay.
As Lise looked, the light passed through the topaz, which was very large, thirty carats, and threw a dappled yellow cast over her cheeks. Her eyes seemed tinted with jaundice in the glare of the gem. I dropped it on my workbench with a clatter.
“Nothing. I was thinking if I planned to cut the stone, it would be well to do it now, before Chambers comes.”
“You finished his order?”
“Not yet.” Chambers was my best customer. He could not use the more venerable jewelers, but his lady loved new baubles. Better still for me, his money far exceeded his taste. His latest commission was a gold bracelet, cast in the shape of a naked woman. I had completed the wax model but needed his approval to continue. The carving, in thick maroon wax, sat on my oak worktable, in the shade where the sun would not melt it.
Lise looked the figure over. The woman’s fingertips touched her toes where the clasp would go. Her arching back formed the curve of the bracelet. Flowing hair covered her breasts and hips. On her face, I’d carved a look of mild ecstasy.
I ducked my head to focus on the topaz, so that Lise would not see me blushing. Though the hair was long and would be flaxen in the final work, I’d realized too late that the face I’d carved on the bracelet was Lise’s own.
When she put the bracelet down without reaction and continued moving about the studio, straightening things, I breathed more easily. She wasn’t one to look in a mirror, so she likely hadn’t noticed.
Lise went to open the shop, while I began to mark the topaz with my grease pencil. No one would buy a marquise nowadays, and few would want a stone so yellow, despite the perfection of the facets. Large gems were all but out of fashion in the city. A few heads of state from the outer kingdoms still wore them when they visited, but they could get away with garishness. Our city, with its thriving port, set the style for the surrounding kingdoms. That settled it. The marquise topaz would make two perfect trillions and a baguette. Earrings and a pendant, at least. Someone’s lady would be very happy.
The shop bell rang below, and Lise greeted a customer. When the bell chimed again, I heard her singing, though I couldn’t make out the words. She sang when she’d sold a piece. How exquisite. Lise had grown as good at coaxing purchases from clients as I was at shaping wax and jewels.
I prepared my diamond saw, making sure there was enough tension on the blade to cut the gem cleanly, then lifted the topaz once more to the light.
“What are you doing, sir?” Lise’s voice cut through my thoughts. I lowered the gem. “Chambers comes in an hour. Don’t you want lunch?”
She held out a wrapped sandwich. I saw that the morning light I loved so much had changed to the bright angles of noon.
The topaz, uncut, sweated in my hand.
“What have you been doing all morning?” Lise asked again. I could not answer her. I had no memory of doing anything besides preparing the topaz. I took the sandwich—cheese and a slice of beef on a thick rye bread—in my free hand and crammed my mouth full.
Lise looked at me strangely, then pulled me to the table where we often took our lunches together to talk about the shop. “Won’t you sit and eat?”
I chewed and sat. The topaz fell from my hand to the table. I swallowed. “I was going to cut it. Into three.”
“You have been working too hard,” she said and patted my hand. Her touch made me jump. After the cold facets of the gem, her fingers felt like fire. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“No my dear, I am the one who must apologize.” I put my hand over hers and held it there for perhaps too long.
Below the open window, the baker greeted Chambers with merriment and a crude joke. Chambers returned the jest in kind and both laughed. Then my client’s riding boots clattered on the stairs.
I rose and put the topaz on my workbench, covered in its linen wrap, and gathered up the wax model. It was my custom to greet Chambers at the door.
“I can’t stay,” he said. “Very inconvenient, all these approvals.”
I understood completely, but Chambers’s satisfaction was a fleeting thing. Well that I had required his approval, as Chambers shook his head almost at once.
“It’s not wrong,” he said. “But it’s not quite enough.” His hands shaped curves in the air. “And her hair is never completely down. Can you change that?”
I said that I would, and invited him to return in the morning.
Lise asked leave to visit her father in the afternoon, so I sat in the shop in her place, sold two pairs of gold earrings to a dowager, and worked on the wax model.
The next morning, I returned to the shop from my apartment across town, taking the stairs to the studio two at a time. I’d re-carved the wax figure for Chambers’s bracelet so that the breasts were gloriously revealed and the figure’s hair was coiled in an ancient style atop her head, with tresses streaming down the back and over her hips. Even in dark wax, the result was some of my favorite work to date. I was eager to see how it looked in the light.
Lise met me at the door, her cheeks and eyes puffy.
“Is your father worse?” I asked with great concern, for the man had been bed-bound of late.
She shook her head, no. It took me as long to pry the reason from her as it did for me to pull the key from under the wrapped topaz in my pocket. I hadn’t realized I’d taken it home with me. As I opened the door, she said, “You can’t ignore dreams around the ill and dying.” Her eyes filled; tears wobbled but did not spill.
She’d been crying all night. “I was kneeling, my hands and feet bound with fine gold wire, and a cloaked man tried to carry me off. I kicked my feet and the wire turned to hair, so I broke loose and ran towards the sound of your voice. But—” her words trailed off until she gathered herself. “The ground was sharp, littered with shattered amethysts. The shards cut my feet. I turned to fight the cloaked man and saw you across his shoulders, bound and stilled. That topaz was stuffed in your mouth.”
She shivered and I took her inside, into the light-filled studio. I made her tea myself, though all I had was a dark oolong from the coast. Lise said oolong was not the kind of tea a woman needs after a long cry, but she made do.
“There is a simple explanation,” I said while my mind scrambled for words to calm her. “Your father can no longer walk. You are afraid for him. You tied this fear to the gems we have on hand in the workshop, nothing more. See?” I held out the amethyst.
She nodded, but would not touch the stone. After a moment, she added, “I am fine now, sir. I see there is nothing to fear.”
Before she could calm herself fully and get to work, Chambers knocked on the door. Lise spilled her tea. I reached for a rag to wipe it up and found myself using the linen wrapping that had cradled the topaz. The gem was no longer in my pocket. Where could I have dropped it? I checked the stove, the sink, even the kettle. All the while, I knew Chambers was waiting beyond the door
“Whatever is the matter?” he blustered when I finally let him in.
When I explained, he pointed at my workbench, where the topaz sat. “It is a lovely stone. How much are you asking for it?”
“I had thought to cut it into three. I will do that today and price it.”
“Please let me know when you have done so. Stones of that color are so rare, and it matches my lady’s hair.”
I rather thought Chambers’s lady’s hair was more the color of dishwater, but I didn’t say so. Lise hiccupped at the table and buried her face in her teacup.
When I showed Chambers the wax model, the light struck the fine lines I’d carved in the figure’s hair and the soft curves of her breasts and belly. “Imagine this in gold,” I said, tracing a line with my finger.
“Move those tresses, the more the better,” Chambers said, waving his hand lower. “I don’t need to approve that last bit. When will it be ready?”
“I can carve again today and cast the bracelet tomorrow.” Then I would cut the topaz. “We’ll have it polished by evening.” I had three other baubles to finish besides. I’d lost too much time to the topaz. The new year was a popular time for the exchanging of fine gifts.
“Very good. I’ll see myself out,” Chambers said. “Though you may want to look to your locks. A man’s been lingering outside your shop of late.” He gestured with his chin towards the window, then strode through the door, snapping a pair of leather riding gloves against his hands.
I leaned out the studio window to see if I could discern what Chambers meant. Even from a floor up, the smell that greeted me was unpleasant: unwashed hair, perhaps rotting leather. The man leaning against the wall below was the same who sold me the topaz the morning before. I ducked my head back inside and turned to Lise.
“I don’t want you going out of doors alone, not with that fellow lurking.”
She went to the window. “I see no one.”
When I joined her, I saw she was right. The man was gone and the street below the shop was empty. Perhaps Chambers was playing a prank on me. The ruse felt too obvious for anyone else. Nonetheless, I put my arm around Lise. She shivered. “Your dream is not real. No one will carry you away.”
She smiled and leaned against me for a moment, warm like the sunlight. “Thank you. Now let me open the shop.”
“And I will cut this stone.”
Lise’s smile was gorgeous in the light. I had noticed before, but now her eyes captivated me. They were brown, speckled with gold flecks much the same color as the gem on my workbench. Her eyelids were swollen and red from all the worry about her dream and, more than likely, about her father’s declining health.
She blinked once and shook herself, as if from a spell, and turned from me, before looking back over her shoulder. “You won’t fall asleep again?”
I shook my head. Not to worry.
As she left, I went to the topaz and again prepared my diamond saw. The cutting marks I’d drawn with the grease pencil the day before were gone. I grumbled, suspecting they’d been wiped off when I lost the stone from its wrapping, and bent once more to my work.
Lise found me in the same position, hours later. Her concern weighted her voice. “I couldn’t tear you from it,” she said. “And, sir. Your arms.”
From fingers to elbow, each arm was covered in grease pencil markings; some clumsy, some elaborate geometries. I quickly wiped them clean.
“You said it sang to you of strands of gold; of the perfect setting,” Lise said.
Her words made no sense, but neither did the lost hours. I shivered in the warmth of the day. Beyond the window, in the square, I saw a familiar figure in a tattered cloak. Suddenly, I wanted to escape from my studio and the chill that hung over it. “Let us get lunch by the river,” I said. “We will make a special day of it.”
Lise’s mood changed at the mention of an adventure. She clapped her hands and went to get her cloak. I gathered some things as well. We locked up studio and shop and passed a wonderful hour by the river. When we finished our meal, I took her hand and kissed it. Her cheeks colored pink. “Sir,” she said.
“Call me Marcus, as I call you Lise.”
At these words, she paled. “You said that in the dream!” She started to rise from the riverbank. I caught her arm and held her tight.
“It was a dream, and you are young enough to let them shape you still,” I said. “Do not fear.” But her shoulders shook and I held her tighter. We walked back to the studio like that, for all the city to see.
My heart skipped when Lise reached up to brush her smooth fingers across my scarred and calloused fingertips.
When we reached the studio, the ragged man was nowhere in attendance, but the studio door was swung wide and my worktable had been turned upside down. Drawers were pulled askew; soft solder wire and old lost-wax molds lay scattered on the floor. The wax model lay undamaged beside the workbench.
The rough amethyst, a bag of gold casting beads, and much more were gone. I reached into my pocket and touched the topaz. I was glad I’d taken it with me.
“I will have to get more gold to finish Chambers’s bracelet,” I said, trying to remain calm for Lise’s sake.
“I can go,” she said. We had a standing arrangement with the local pawnshop and they kept a bit of casting gold on hand to sell us. “But we have nothing to pay them with.”
“Let me cut the topaz now. I’ll send one of the trillions with you to the pawnshop. That will cover costs until Chambers pays for the bracelet.”
In the wreckage of the studio, I found my diamond saw and prepared once more to cut into the marquise, near the crown of the thick yellow gem.
When I came to on the floor, Lise was shaking me and crying. “Marcus, please!” She saw my eyes open and sobbed. “You were cold! I heard a noise like the diamond saw’s hum, or a song, and then everything went sideways and when I came to, you were cold.” She pointed at the topaz, still in my hand. “That gem does not want to be cut!”
“No,” said a voice from the door, thick with a sick man’s phlegm. “It is a stone of the Jeweled Valley, and an old one. I parted with it cheaply when I was starving and I will have it back. The gem is unsafe with you.” The cloaked man advanced, dark in the evening shadow. “It must be placed in a proper setting, or it will ruin all who touch it.”
I had enough strength left to grab my torch from my worktable and fire it, holding it before me, Lise, and the topaz. “You are lying. Part of Chambers’s prank.”
The man eyed the torch. “I thought you a proper jeweler, but you have no skill with Valley jewels. You must return it, or set it in my presence.” He held out an old book, wrapped in fouled leather. Gold wire crisscrossed the cover, terminating in six clawed bezels that grasped at air and two more that still held glittering gems. The book had been gloriously jeweled once, until someone pried each stone loose for barter or sale. Or so Chambers would have liked me to believe.
“Tell Chambers to leave off these games. And go away. I own this topaz, and will use it as I like.”
“I know no Chambers,” the man said. He tucked the book away in his cloak, and reached for me. For the topaz.
The torch was of the new kind, a gas mix in a canister. It had a hand crank that let me adjust the fuel, which I now threw hard forward. A blue flame burst forth and the man leapt back, but not in time. His cloak caught, and the grease within the cloak as well. He ran shrieking down the stairs and into the evening gloom.
I comforted Lise as best I could, and we shared a drink from a bottle of good red wine that I’d put up for emergencies. She was too shaken for me to leave her, and I worried the sheriff would take the topaz from me. Instead, we bolted the door.
Lise began to whisper, her eyes locked on the topaz. “You do not think we should get rid of it?”
Her concern touched me. But as I thought of the topaz, as I felt again its smooth facets against my fingertips. I saw once more what the gem could become. “Why give Chambers the satisfaction?”
“You still think this is one of Chambers’s jokes?” Lise turned to me.
“How could it be otherwise?”
“Why would he risk slowing your progress on the bracelet for a prank?”
Indeed, why would he? I hadn’t thought of that. What a smart girl. About the bracelet too. I needed to finish that. “Let us see what I can make of it. Chambers will pay handsomely for pretty gems.” I poured her more wine.
“Chambers would pay even more for a cursed gem. It would be popular with his guests.”
Lise had a better head for business than I’d realized.
My client’s cabinet of curiosities was renowned and reviled within the city. I nodded. “The topazes I cut and set will be more startling than any misshapen bones in a glass case, more beautiful than Chambers’s nightshade butterflies. And three ‘cursed’ stones are better than one.” I envisioned the gold Chambers would pay for the earrings, for the pendant. I stroked Lise’s hair and sipped my wine. “We could make our fortune on this gem.”
Comforted, she leaned on my shoulder and I kissed her hair, then her cheek. She put her arms around my neck and hung there. I picked her up and carried her to a cot at the back of my studio that I used when I worked late.
I had apprenticed hard for many years to learn my trade and still more building my reputation. I’d never had much money to spare on women. Lise knew as much as I did when it came to what happened that night. But we were well pleased with ourselves. The moonlight shone yellow on our bare skin, tumbled in the sheets of the cot.
I thought I heard singing. Lise swore it was my voice. For the moment, I was too happy to care. The outside world was outside, and we were one within.
Thus restored, I woke to moonlight, with new ideas for the topaz, and new ways to cut it. A way to set it that made my heart pound.
I laid out my files and my gold bezels, preparing. Sharpened my diamond saw once more.
I could swear on the russet hair of my dearest love that the gem sang to me that night as I lowered the saw to its facets.
It was Chambers who pounded the door down the next afternoon. My eyes opened to a ragged man bent over me, his hands clutching at my chest. At Chambers’s roar, the man dove through the window, his hands empty. I heard a crash far below, then the baker’s shout and the sheriff’s whistle.
And so it was Chambers who discovered me naked in my own studio. I lay dazed below my workbench, in a congealing pool of blood.
Lise, my darling Lise, lay curled in a ball on the cot’s sun-yellow sheets, her eyes frozen a pale amber. She breathed, but it was a raspy sound. I could see no mark on her. I followed her gaze back to my own body. She stared at my chest, at the gem set there, deep into my flesh, beating like a heart.
“Marcus,” she whispered. “The topaz.”
And I felt it, in me, singing. My veins pulsed with its rhythm. I knew I could never cut it away.
Chambers has found a buyer for the shop and the studio, for I will never make trinkets again. Lise tends me when Chambers doesn’t have an audience arranged. There are many who wish to see the jeweled man.
As for me, I am happy with my saws and pliers, with my gold wire. I have inlaid gems across my arms and torso, using any local jewels that Chambers can find. I favor yellow stones like chrysoberyl, spinel, and tourmaline, though these do not sing to me.
On days when my skin scars and hardens around the newest bezel, Lise brings gauze and salves from town.
“Is it not beautiful?” I ask her. I watch my body sparkle in the sunlight of our room.
“It is beautiful,” she answers. Her fingers trace the gems. Her eyes meet mine, filled with tears that do not spill. While she can no longer hear the topaz, she can see its measured pulse.
Below, the hall of Chambers’s home echoes with the beat of metal doorknocker against wood. I shiver. On days like this, I am not fit to entertain an audience. Chambers has so far said it amuses him and his lady to have me as a guest, even when he must turn the curious away. They are kind hosts.
But this day, a man has come to their door to sell, not to see. My room faces east for the best morning light and overlooks the front steps. I hear the conversation. I see the gleam of facets nestled in linen.
“It sings,” the man says.
Chambers often buys me gemstones, but he turns this man away. “We want nothing more of you.”
I lean against the glass, my skin crisscrossed with gold in the light. I trace the barest hint of a song in the air and remember the last gems on a leather-bound book.
As the ragged man leaves, heels dragging loud in the gravel, I mark which way he goes.
Return to Issue #152