Free Fiction Exclusive! ‘Eyes of Carven Emerald’ by Shweta Narayan
“I want to thank SF Signal for this opportunity to share this novelette from Clockwork Phoenix 3, Shweta Narayan’s ‘Eyes of Carven Emerald.’
I’ve always intended the Clockwork Phoenix anthologies to showcase hard-to-classify works of fiction that excel both in the stories they tell and how they’re told, and Shweta’s piece is one of the most ambitious examples I’ve had the pleasure of snatching up. It’s an alternate history that brings a towering figure of antiquity to life in an insightful way, which introduces elements that might be called steampunk, except we’re centuries away from the era of steam power.
“Other authors might be content to stop there, as we’re already in complex territory, but that’s not where Shweta stops—we also get a tale within a tale, and that second story opens into a world every bit as richly imagined as the first, and the two deftly interweave.
“Should you purchase a copy of Clockwork Phoenix 3, and of course I hope you will, you’ll find that themes, images, and even a certain character from Shweta’s story are echoed and reflected in other stories found in its pages—by Marie Brennan, Gemma Files, Cat Rambo, Gregory Frost, John Grant, John C. Wright, Nicole Kornher-Stace, Tanith Lee and others—because that’s how I like to work it.”
And now, the story…
by Shweta Narayan
Sunrise glinted bloody on giant tumbles of statue; it edged the palace beyond with blood.
A limestone arm, severed elbow to thumb, came almost up to Alexandros’ waist. Fingers thick as logs lay scattered behind it. Sunrise glimmered in the statue’s blank, rain-filled eyes and trickled down the pitted stone cheek. So too would Dareios of Persia have fallen, had the coward not fled.
But the statue had been a symbol of Persia’s might; it could serve Alexandros’ purpose well enough. “Leave it,” he said, turning away. To his general Kleitos’ raised eyebrows he added, “They will see our victory in it.”
“But…” Kleitos shook his head. “Basileu, it had nothing to do with our victory. We simply outnumbered—”
“It trembled in fear of our coming, and fell at the taste of defeat.”
“They will see it so.” As they saw him, more clearly with every city he took, as unstoppable. With Egypt, with all the length of Persia’s royal road, and now even Persepolis in Alexandros’ power, Dareios knew he fought a losing war, and his knowing made it so.
Which was as it should be. And yet . . .
“As you say.” Kleitos’ voice held little understanding and less curiosity; like most of the men, he fought only for land. Alexandros bit back irritation and wished once more that he had Hephaistion at his side. At his side, on the field, in his bed; but his reasons were the same ones that had sent Hephaistion, not Kleitos, back to Babylon to quell an uprising.
He said, “Call it a reminder.”
“And of course they will need that reminder, Basileu,” said a woman’s voice, “because you and your restless army will move on.”
He spun, hand going to his sword; felt Kleitos brush by. A piece of the statue’s crown shifted. It spread wings and hopped with a whirr of gears onto the nose. Its feathers were tarnished bronze, blurred with age, and it had human hands instead of claws. Not sharp. Little chance they would be poisoned. Keeping an eye on the beak for darts, Alexandros said, “Of course. Persepolis could not hold me, not with half the world yet to see.”
He lifted a shoulder, not bothering to respond to the obvious. “Do Persian automata generally speak to kings without offering so much as a name?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said the bird. “Those creaking parodies aren’t worth my words.”
Alexandros’ eyes narrowed with the first glimmerings of interest. What might this mechanism be, if not Persian? Surely not Northern barbarian work; it was too fine, though it wore around its neck a ring of shining gold, as they did. It looked old, but shifted without noise or stiffness. And it spoke Greek like a Persian; badly, but with meaning beneath the words.
And that last mystery implied a challenge worth taking. Alexandros said, “To whom do you belong? A king who is long dead, it would seem, or else one who neglects you.”
The bird rustled its feathers. “The last king who tried to own me died of slow poison while his city burned.”
“A queen, then.”
A rapid, ratcheting click, and the wings rose. Kleitos stepped in front of Alexandros, arm up. Alexandros put his own hand on the arm and said, “Do you mean me harm, bird?”
“Not yet, King of Asia.” The wings came slowly down. “But keep trying to weight me down with an owner, and I might. I had heard the Greeks were barely civilized, but I had expected better from a student of Aristoteles.”
“And not from a son of Zeus-Amun?” said Alexandros around a surge of anger. To dismiss one the Oracle had named half-divine as a mere student—
The bird laughed, a strangely human sound. Womanly.
Well, and if she wanted Alexandros rash in anger, he would not be. He nudged Kleitos aside and drifted close enough to inspect her, his hand a deliberate three fingers from his sword. At Kleitos’ wordless protest he said, “She said she meant me no harm, old friend, and telling a lie in Persepolis is suicide.” The sun warmed the back of his neck. If the bird was indeed reckless enough to have lied, it would glare in her eyes.
She met his gaze without fear, though there was not a weapon to be seen on her. Nor was she a bribe, with so sour a tongue, and she had yet to convey a message or say who sent her. A scout, then, albeit an ill-mannered one. “Now where,” Alexandros said soft-voiced, “do they say Macedon lacks civilization? I have conquered half the world and never heard of such a people.”
Kleitos’ breath caught at his tone. Alexandros started to smile.
“Were you to follow the sun,” said the bird, “you might find them. But I would not advise you to try.”
East. The edge of the known world. And— “East. Where your cur of a king ran, leaving his womenfolk behind.”
Though in that, Dareios could hardly have been more useful to Alexandros. His mother Sisygambis had met abandonment with cold fury; her nature was not forgiving. She had allied with Alexandros against her traitor son, and the information she now sent him was timely and precise.
With a click of gears, the bird tilted her head arrogantly up. “No king of mine,” she said.
“A wise choice.” She was a pretty thing, even tarnished. On what board might so valuable a piece be placed so deep in enemy territory? How large a game was Alexandros being challenged to—and how far into lands half-imagined did it stretch? He took a breath, tasted for the first time the new-washed air, the honey hint of something more than tedious, played-out endings. “What are you called, bird who belongs to nobody and claims nobody?”
She tilted her head. Sunlight ran liquid down her neck. “I have borne different names,” she said, “in different lands and times. Most recently I am called Vaacha Devi. The voice.”
“What is it you give voice to?”
“Tales, Basileu. I weave stories.”
Once, long ago, before the time of the first Darayu, before even the time of Kurush, before empire claimed these lands, there lived a prince not so much younger than yourself.
This prince’s father had conquered vast territories, and in his endless war he won a city in the hills made of alabaster filigree and blown glass, of gemstones and spinning gears, a city of artisans and merchants and artificers. And the people of this city were made of beaten bronze and copper springs, as I myself am made.
Now the prince’s father did not stay in his alabaster city, for he was too busy fighting over new lands to enjoy the ones he had, but the prince lived there with his mother. He befriended the only son of the city’s richest jeweller. They were tutored together; they fell together into mischief; and when they were older they travelled together, bronze boy and flesh.
They snuck out one summer day to ride across the land. But they were very young men, and raised with servants; they did not think to check how tightly their horses had been wound. So it was that they ground to a wobbly stop in the middle of an arid plain, forced to wind springs under the glaring sun. The horses stood with legs splayed and heads down, skin pinging with the heat that poured from them. The prince had to wrap his key in saddlecloth not to be burned. And by the time the horses were well again his friend had run down, heartspring nearly undone, and the prince had to wind him up too.
All this left the young prince hotter and thirstier than he ever had been in his life, and when he saw the smoke of a village, he whistled his horse to a gallop and left his friend far behind.
At the village well, he found a mechanical girl of surpassing beauty. She wore a frock of sackcloth and went barefoot, but her legs were shapely, her movement graceful, her body adorned with a winding, green-enamelled snake. Her eyes when she turned to look at him were blown glass clear as the desert air.
“Water,” croaked the prince. The girl tossed a bucket into the well and drew it up with ease. Then she looked thoughtfully at him, smiled, and poured water from the bucket into an amphora.
But when the prince reached for the amphora, the girl pulled it away, laughed, and poured the water back into the bucket. Again the prince reached. Again the girl poured water from one vessel into another, and again, making him watch its crystal stream and listen to its cool music. Only when his friend drew near did she hold the amphora up. “Now,” she said, “you may have it.”
“Why now?” the prince demanded, though it was a whisper through his parched throat. “When I have been thirsty all this time?”
“You were overheated,” said the girl, “and the water icy. Such opposites make humans ill.”
He drank. It was sweet and fresh and still so cold it sent jolts of stabbing pain into his forehead. And in the girl’s beauty and her cleverness, and the rushing joy of water after too great a thirst, he fell in love. “Tell me your name,” he begged. “Tell me why you live here, when you would bring grace and beauty even to the city of golden clockwork and alabaster light.”
“My name is Anaeet,” she said, returning to the well to draw more water. “As for why I am here, I am enslaved to the headman of this village.”
The prince slid down from his horse. “I will free you,” he said. He took her hands in his, but she would not let go of the bucket’s rope. “I will marry you.”
She said, “What is your trade?”
For a moment he stood stunned. Then he laughed. “Am I so covered in dust as to seem a tradesman? I am the prince of this land. My father is lord over everything you see, from the greatest house to the lightest feather. Why should I have a trade?”
He laughed again, but she only shook her head. “When your father’s men came through these lands, prince,” she said, “they kept only the tradesmen and dismantled everybody else. I remember it still. I shall not wed a man without a trade.”
Persepolis sat quiet, its daily work muted. Behind the fallen statue, palace walls glowed bright as alabaster in the red-gold light. Alexandros cleared his throat. “Hardly a prince worth the name,” he said, “if he thought he loved a village automaton.”
“Nevertheless,” the bird replied, “he did. But if the story is not to your taste, Basileu, I do not need to tell it.”
So lightly did she shrink the world to dullness. And no hint yet of who she came from, or why. Alexandros hesitated, glanced back toward his camp. He turned back. “Tell it quickly,” he said. “There is work waiting. A true king hasn’t time to learn a common trade.”
She flitted from the dead king’s nose to his sheared-off knee, above their heads. “As the statue fell without you, King of Asia,” she said, “so too does a story go at its own pace and not yours. If you haven’t the patience to hear it, someone else will.”
“Are you asking to be caged?”
She looked down her beak at him, wordless, then took to the air. Kleitos pulled a knife and aimed in one smooth motion; and indeed she was an easy target, bright-edged in the sun. Too easy. Alexandros put out a hand again to stop the throw. “No,” he said. “I would not simply destroy a wonder.”
“It’s an automaton.”
“There’s a mind there.” That itself was a marvel. Whose? “And one behind that, guiding her moves. I made one bad throw, yes; I shall not make another.”
“She’ll be back.” His hand still lay on Kleitos’ arm; he turned the gesture into a caress, eyes on the bird as she shrank to a gleam. “I wonder how she works,” he said.
He had darker questions that night, when fire broke out in the palace and grew to paint half Persepolis in deadly light. The last king who tried to own me…He pushed through men scurrying like ants with buckets and blankets, reached the statue, and climbed onto its arm. Tilting his head up to watch smoke eat the stars, he said, “Your point is made, bird.” He fingered the charm at the nape of his neck. “But poison will not touch me, and the stories that spread from this night will not hurt my name.”
Scant days later, he marched on.
The Phoinikes dare any siege to break the island of Tura, whose walls rise, impregnable, from the ocean itself. No ship can break down those walls, and no men can land. The island’s men mock Macedon.
“They say we cannot take them by sea?” asks Alex-andros, soft-voiced. “Well enough; I say we have no need to.” He gestures around at the smoking ruins of Tura’s mainland sister. “We have stone, do we not? Build me a causeway.”
Remembering, he smiles. His challenger may seek mystery, may not choose to reveal himself, but he has already revealed arrogance. He will have blind spots, as they all do, and blind spots stand unprotected.
He next saw her in the middle of a dusty road, perched over a body in a broken ox cart. She was a point of brightness in the grey day, her tarnished wings replaced with feathers of polished and graven copper.
The body was that of Dareios.
Alexandros said sharply, “Did you kill him?”
“No,” said the bird. “Did you want me to?”
“I might have taken his surrender.” A meager victory, this, and ashen. Dareios. Dead. By another’s hand. “His mother—” he had another missive from Sisygambis, received just the previous day— “His mother was owed, is owed, an explanation. His daughters will want to know.”
Stateira would want to know. He raised a hand to the base of his scalp, to the spell woven of her hair and braided into his, waiting to quench poison and turn away the sword. More a sign of Sisygambis’ ambition than of the girl’s fondness for Alexandros, surely, but the token reassured. And he could not deny that Dareios’ daughter might make a useful wife for Dareios’ successor.
If that was all he meant to be.
The bird said, “For his mother, then—his kinsman killed him, and now lays claim to the name of Artaxerxes. Will she mourn, do you think?”
Ha. The only son I have is Alexandros, she had written. Persia misses him, and I will find joy only when he comes home. He said merely, “I will tell her.”
“And will you turn back now, with Darayu dead and your vengeance fulfilled?”
Alexandros smiled grimly. “This Artaxerxes displeases me. And there are lands yet to claim.”
“But how much more will you take, whose empire borders five oceans?”
“A sixth.” His smile grew a touch. “To the east and the south, past the river called Indos.” It lay as far from Persepolis as Persepolis did from Macedon, but he had come that distance once and could cover it once more. “The land bordering that sea is a rich one; they trade gemstones and silk and cinnamon. Their warriors ride elephants, and their defeat could bring glory even to the king of Asia.” Such a land, unknown, unseen, might hold even a city of alabaster and blown glass…”I will own it, and I will ride it down to fabled Khaberis itself.”
When the bird did not reply, Alexandros said, “I hear the Eastern mountains are home to children of Typhon who live in lakes and bring storms, who fly without wings, whose wisdom challenges the gods.”
“Oh yes,” said the bird. “They are called Zhug. But an army would never see one, only the ice storm sweeping down to blot out their final sunset.” She raised wings of molten fire, hesitated. “But I had been telling you a story,” she added slowly, lowering her wings. “Would you hear the rest?”
“I could listen for a time,” said Alexandros, “if you will ride with me.”
The prince returned home that day thinking so hard that he barely noticed frightened servants scolding over stolen horses. The next morning, when sunlight spilled over the alabaster city and its clocktower cockerels crowed harmonies, he went with but one slave to his friend’s father, the jeweller. And he said, “I would learn to cut gems so that stars wake inside them, and set them in beaten gold to dazzle every eye.”
He was a diligent student, at his studies by dawn so he might return to his duties by noon. And so he came quietly into a trade. He made rings and armbands and jewel-studded shoes, and discovered a genius for fine detail. He made glittering planets the size of pomegranate seeds, their metal entirely covered in a dusting of stones. He engraved a golden sun no bigger than the tip of his thumb, and he helped his master set them all into a miniature orrery. And he watched, amazed, as it turned with astrological precision.
For his masterwork he made a bracelet set with a tiny clock. A green snake circled the face; its head, marking noon, was a diamond clear as Anaeet’s eyes.
Oh, I remember your complaint. She was a mere automaton. But he wanted to impress her, so back he went to the little village across a barren plain. “I have a trade now,” he told her proudly.
She took the bracelet from him and turned it over and over. She examined its hinge and clasp, and checked the clock against the sun. Slowly, she wound it up. “Yes,” she said to its regular tick. “It seems you have a trade.”
He said, “So when next the stars bring fortune, we shall be wed.”
The ceremony was grand, for she was his first wife, and a sign moreover of the new peace between human and mechanical. And she was lovely. When she rode into the city over flower-strewn streets on a silver-plated horse, her prince was not the only young man to stare.
Now, Anaeet had been a scholar of law before her slavery, so the prince started giving her documents of taxes and properties and inheritance. He sat nearby while she studied them, sketching, or sorting gems, or twisting wires of gold into filigree, and later she would tell him what he needed to know. Soon she was ruling beside him. The mechanicals adored her, for they now could gain fair trials without bribing the jeweller or his son; and for her reason and forethought the humans came to respect her word. And every night, with loving hands, the prince wound her heartspring tight.
When they had been married a year he added a sun-room to his palace, and set thin slices of mica into the cross-hatched roof. They took to holding court there, hearing their people’s quarrels and complaints amidst slanting diamonds of light— and so they could have lived for many years. But the army returned, bearing news. The king had died in a distant land.
The general who brought these tidings was loyal to the old king, but he hated the thought that his men should fall into the hands of an unblooded boy. It mattered little to him that the new king was an able administrator who would bring justice to the land and care for the ragged, exhausted troops; the general’s only trade was war, and the young king was no warrior. Worse —he had married one of the conquered, foreign mechanicals.
So when the new king and queen came out from the city to greet the troops, the general drew his sword on them.
And although the king had been raised among mechanicals, travelled with one, learned from one, and taken one to wife, he learned something new about them then. There was a whirr, a clang, a snap. Before the king could so much as flinch, the general was dead at Anaeet’s feet. She bent over him, clutching her left arm; it bore a deep groove, seeping oil where the sword had split skin. And shards of glass from her shattered left eye glinted on the road like tiny diamonds.
The general’s second fell to his knees. He offered his life for this treason, asking only that the men might be spared; in response, the king set him in command. Then he ordered the people of the city to care for the soldiers, and he took his queen home to mend.
They called in a master smith to hammer the dent from her arm and a master artificer to check her gears and springs and make sure all was still in order. The king made new eyes for her himself, grinding the lenses from two flawless emeralds, perfectly matched to the snake coiled across her skin.
New-burnished, with eyes of polished stone, Anaeet was more beautiful than ever. The court whispered about how lucky she was to be so loved.
But have you ever looked through green lenses at everything, King of Asia? They were fine, surely, but she might have preferred glass; and the king never thought to ask.
Alexandros next saw the automaton a year and more later, in a tower in Marakanda. He climbed while the world slept, wrapped against the wind in a chlamys cloak and the warm haze of wine, to find a bird-shaped hole cut into the star-spattered night. She sat on a parapet, and the sliver of moon behind her served only to darken her shadow.
He said, “I thought your cursed story was done.”
She clicked her beak. “You of all people,” she said, “should know that stories do not end when a prince becomes king.”
“They merely go badly.”
“So do they go badly for any of us if we choose to kill our friends.” A pause. “You’re drunk beyond reason.”
He put fists to his eyes. “I am drunk.” Which made it easier not to think. But harder not to talk. “I am never beyond reason, though I grant the wine loosened my hand.”
Illustration © Shweta Narayan, used with permission
“It was the wine loosed his tongue, too, but—how could he think—he said I plotted to send him to an honorless death, to lead all my Greek soldiers into a trap, to better be Persian myself. Where did he hear such tales? Who did he tell them to in turn? If I wear Persian tunics under my cloak, do I not still speak Greek?” And why, after all, should Alexandros be merely one or the other?
“Hard to say what he thought,” said the bird, “since you killed him.”
“And not even the son of Zeus-Amun can bring him back to life.” The words shredded his throat. Kleitos had been a loyal general till that quarrel, and almost as fine a lover as Hephaistion. If only Alexandros had more wine.
She said, “I am sorry for your—pain—but he is not the last of Greece that you stand to lose. Why will you not go home, Basileu?”
“Because I have not finished, bird.” An echo of the words he had written to Sisygambis.
Feathers rattled irritably. “I am called Vaacha Devi.”
“Yes, yes. I am so close to claiming that sixth ocean. It has jungles, they say, where you could walk from one tree to the next for ten days without ever catching sight of the ground.”
“They say true.”
“Then it will be worth it.” To have a world larger than the limits of Kleitos’ mind.
“But do they also say,” the bird continued, “that the jungle goddess’ tigers will hunt men who desecrate her land, and her swamp demons swarm up from the fetid water, so that days before you might see ground your army will be shrunk to a sad handful of men puking their stomachs out? For that too is true.”
Alexandros turned away. “I prefer your story of the king and his mechanical queen.”
Gears whirred. “They ruled for many years,” said the bird. “From home.” And she would say no more.
He saw her next in a town newly named Alexandria, in pouring rain that churned the streets to mud, perched on a huge statue of the long-eared sage the locals called Gautama. “In your story,” he said, “did they kiss the king’s hand?”
Her new-made, enameled tail shivered in distaste; the sound blended with the ping of raindrops off her skin. She said, “Such things humans do. Yes, it has been the tradition in Persia for a very long time.”
“My generals don’t like it either.” Nor the men, whose eyes still reflected Kleitos’ death. Alexandros glared over his shoulder at her, chin up. “But why should I not take Persian traditions? I am King of Persia.”
“And Persia misses you.”
He stilled, eyes narrowing, while rain stuck hair to his face and trickled down his back. That choice of words. Only one other had used them. He said, “And in all of Persia, did I ever find your home?”
“You did not.”
“No. I would have known it.” He looked into Gautama’s calm smile. “Your king with the mechanical—he is not the only one whose own men tried to kill him.”
“And it would be a pity if they succeeded,” she said. “So take them home.”
“Yes,” he said slowly. Even the more loyal men looked to him with more appeal than ambition now. They were weary, cold, and ragged. “Yes, Vaacha Devi. Tell Sisygambis that I might.”
He smiled a little, bitterly, at her surprise. The challenge had been petty after all; the win was worthless, and the wonders merely tales. And he was held back, yet again, by the limitations of those smaller than him.
Everyone knows of the ox cart that stands in Gordion’s old palace. Everyone knows that the knot fastening it to its post cannot be undone.
Alexandros proves them wrong.
He has cause to pride himself on seeing what is there, not merely what is wanted. Wishing the world to be vast does not make it so. Wanting men to be brave and mothers to be patient does not make them so.
Perhaps Arabia will have marvels, if the East does not.
But a year later, over a smoky campfire, Alexandros had a new wife, a new battle, and a new will to press on. He might lack fond dreams of marvels, but Raja Porus was a foe worth meeting—and Rokhshna, who traveled with him as fearless as any warrior—a bride worth impressing. And every new day told Sisygambis who decided Alexandros’ course—and who did not. Her missives were growing satisfyingly plaintive.
“Did you not suggest,” Alexandros asked the bird, “that a king might like a clever wife?” He smiled like a petted cat. “You were right. I do. But you, of course, were thinking of Sisygambis’ granddaughter when you said it.”
The bird stammered in dismay, feathers clattering. She looked at Rokhshna through one eye, then another. And Rokhshna looked back with cool enmity.
Now, the young king found himself to be protector of vast lands. Many of them remembered a time before his father, and none welcomed a mechanical queen. In the first few years of his reign he put down rebellion in a land of ice and granite, rooted out banditry in a fever-ridden swamp, and fought a hard, heartbreaking battle with his own mutinous navy. But he married a girl from the land of ice and a girl from the swamps, and after some time and some children the lands quieted. And Anaeet still ruled at his side.
But one crystalline winter’s day when the sun peeped pale and hesitant as a new bride over the alabaster roofs, he received word that one of his satraps, the ice girl’s father, had gone missing in the mountains. And though his whole city searched, nobody found so much as a footprint.
Being young, with a thirst for adventure still un-quenched, the king decided to find his vassal himself. He left Anaeet to rule in his stead and his other wives in her care, and took only his mechanical friend the gemcutter with him. This time they rode horses of flesh and carried feed enough to last them. They disguised themselves as wealthy tradesmen, with tasseled blankets on the horses and fine jewelry in a box of carven sandalwood.
Towards the sun they rode, over the desert and past Anaeet’s village, into mountains that rose like black talons scratching at the snow-stuffed sky. And in every village they came to, huddled between rock face and cliff, the friends offered bracelets and jeweled pins for sale. The villagers could not buy such wares, of course, but the king intended only for word of them to spread. He reasoned that no ruler disappeared by accident; greed and lust for power must be behind it. So he called out to greed. And while he called, he listened for tidings of his satrap.
The friends came finally to a town whose people spoke of a noble hunting party, all grand in bronze and bearhide, that had passed through one day and never returned. The king chose to stay and learn more. And while he stayed two nobles approached him and said, “We hear that you and your mechanical are gemcutters.”
“We are,” the king agreed.
“We have found a cave full of gold and jewels,” said one noble, “and have hired a dozen village boys to help us transport them, six human and six mechanical. But we would pay you well to come with us and tell us which pieces are worth the most.”
“We shall join you gladly,” said the king, though joy was far from his heart.
He followed the nobles quietly, with his friend and a dozen villagers, to a cave set far into the mountains. Its mouth glittered with icicle teeth, and ice rimed the walls. The path was wide, but it sloped steeply downwards, and the ground underfoot was slick and studded with gravel that broke free and rolled, echoing, into the black distance. The king had to walk with his head bowed, as he never had before, to keep it safe from low-hanging rocks.
So he did not see the two nobles step each one to a side into alcoves, and he took a step further. His feet met empty air. He fell, how far he did not know, and the other men tumbled after him. He came quickly to his feet; but the walls were sheer and icy, and the hole too far above.
Some men had been carrying torches, and in their fallen light he could make out huge cauldrons bubbling to each side. He peered into one; in it, gears and rods and mysterious pieces of shaped bronze bubbled in acid that scoured them clean.
He crossed over to the other side, and a wet carrion stench hit him. He gagged, but looked closer.
A hand rose to the bloody, bubbling surface, and seemed to reach for the king before sinking again into a mess of cooking guts. Then, in the slow churning of the cauldron, came the severed, staring head of the king’s missing satrap.
“Enough,” Rokhshna said. “This tale disgusts. Have done.” Her face held no fear, but her voice was high and the words too fast.
Alexandros draped the corner of his chlamys over her shoulder. It offered scant warmth, though its embroidered hem glowed in the firelight, but she calmed under it. He said, “You have changed its nature greatly. To upset us? We march on no matter what you say.”
“The story goes as it goes,” the bird replied. “I merely tell it.”
“Oh, surely,” said Rokhshna. “And of course I am not meant to be the princess of ice, and the dead man not my father?”
Alexandros said, “If this is Sisygambis’ way to lure me back, tell her I find it clumsy.”
“I told you once that I serve nobody.” The fickle light turned the bird into a gaudy toy, showed her indignation faintly ridiculous. “I will own that she and I share a goal, but—”
“Then in kindness to her I tell you only this: Begone.”
“If you will not hear this voice, she is already gone.” The bird spread her wings. An eye of new enamel stared at Alexandros from every feather’s tip, liquid black against the copper. In each one danced a miniature fire. “But…” Her voice spoke regret. “You will not turn back from your folly, Basileu, though you sully the holy river Ganga herself?”
Alexandros’ smile was cold as ice and dark as the belly of a cave. “A river,” he said, “is only a river.”
He founded a new town on the Hypasis, another Alexandria. But by the third day of its building he started to hear mutters and see the sidelong looks.
He called Hephaistion to his side. It was Koinos who came. Hephaistion was away again, as he was too often since Alexandros had married. “Tell me,” Alexandros said, more abruptly than he meant to. “What is it they say to one another?”
“They say you want them to ford the Ganges next,” said Koinos.
“So I do.” He glowered at the rising sun. “What of it?”
“They say the Ganges is wider than even the Nile,” Koinos said. “They say it runs so deep that a hundred men can drown, one on top of another, and never be found. They say it runs frothy brown at strange times, churned by the hooves of river horses that will strike us down with their hooves.”
“Where do they hear such tales?” Alexandros demanded, turning on the older man. “It is a river. No more. And beyond these hills, over that river, the lands are ripe with game and fruit.” And, rumor said, mechanical creatures as clever as the bird.
“Perhaps,” said Koinos. “But those lands are ruled by the Gangaritai and the Praisioi. And the men have heard that their forces are allied against you, that the far side of the great river is lined with waiting horsemen and catapults and thousands of elephants, an army so large that an eagle in flight could not see both ends of it at once. They say one elephant in ten is an automaton, and that their trunks spew acid. They say there are pneumatic bows that fire a dozen dozen arrows at a time, their strings pulled so tight that they shoot right across the river. They say—”
“Where,” Alexandros said again, “do they get these tales?” But even as he spoke, he knew.
Koinos reached out, appealing. “They believe them, Basileu. They are tired, and ill, and that breeds fear. They left so many brothers on the field when we fought Porus, and even Porus fears the Gangaritai. You may order them to march on, but you would be wiser not to, for the Greeks remember Kleitos and they will not go.”
Alexandros said, “They will do as I tell them.”
They did not. Mutters rose instead to shouts, and shouts to the clash of bronze on bronze. By the day’s end, a hundred men lay dead and twice that many dying. With them lay three of the Macedon generals. Only two had fought for Alexandros.
Sisygambis had not played this move. She wanted him back. She did not want his vengeance, and she was not one to lose by winning.
If she was not the player now, had she ever been?
When Koinos came again to beg Alexandros to turn back, he paid more heed.
He walked alone again that night. The muddy streets had iced over. They crunched as he walked, and the stars shone bright as little suns, distant as the far side of the Ganges. Though he shivered, he let his chlamys cloak stream proudly out to show the embroidered tunic underneath. Faint on the wind came the moan of injured men.
At the end of town he called, softly. “Come out, bird. I know that you are here.”
Silence. After a time, he added, “Vaacha Devi. My wife is safe abed. Come out.”
Her voice came from shadow. “How did you know to
“Rokhshna is wary. You always appear in the wake of Sisygambis’ missives. And your stories sent men of mine to their deaths today.”
Silence again. Alexandros sighed and sat on a low wall. He grew tired sometimes, these days. Finally, finally he saw the picture correctly, and he could not even summon rage. “So,” he said. “My men will go no further. Which is what you have worked for all along, isn’t it.”
Why hate her for his mistake? He had misread a player for a piece. Seen a smaller board than was offered after all. And been bested. “Though by the gods,” he said bitterly, “I would know why.”
Gears played a complex rhythm of quiet clicks. A wingbeat, two, and the bird landed delicately next to him. “No secret now,” she said. “Sisygambis wants you back; I merely wanted…want you gone. The land beyond the Ganga, which you think of as a jewel to snatch, which you would paint bloody, and trample the rice and silence the smithies and taint the art with your notion of culture, that land is my home. And some of the Magadha mechanicals, your Gangaritai, are my kin.”
Ah. Was there even a real army awaiting them? Bile rose at the thought that he would never know. He said, “Why not tell my men your tales earlier?”
“And risk an uprising that killed you?” The bird preened and spread her starlit feathers. “A ruby glittering in the pile of gravel that is humanity? I would not simply destroy a wonder.”
“You might have.”
“You came too close to my land.”
Her land it might be, but her new feathers, the enamel work—their elegance was that of Persia. He said, “Though Sisygambis was your patron, and she wants me alive. Were you trying to marry me to the granddaughter, too? Will you tell me she is cleverer than Rokhshna?”
“Human marriages mean little to my kind,” she said, “though tales of them intrigue. They sound messy.”
Anger flared. He would have truth, at least, if it could be wrung from a mechanical. He grabbed for the bird’s neck.
There was a whirr, a blur, a snap; then she was out of reach, and blood welled between his thumb and fingers, black in the starlight. “A ruby indeed,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “I cannot fault you for trying.”
Alexandros wrapped his throbbing hand in a corner of his chlamys cloak.
After a moment the bird said, “As to the girl—Rokhshna is the politician of the two, but you know Stateira’s cleverness. And I wonder which you trust, when you talk behind the back of one and wear the charm the other made you.”
His hurt hand twitched toward the charm. How did she know of that? She saw more clearly than even Hephaistion had. “Is she a wise woman?” he said. “Does it work?” Certainly poison had not touched him yet, and his wounds had never festered.
“Do I look like a magician? If it doesn’t, you will doubtless find out.”
Wind rustled in a pine tree, brought the scent of coming snow. A smell that was the same the world over. But the drooping, dancing branches of this Eastern pine were like nothing in Macedon, and under them gleamed rows of round puddles: elephants’ footprints full of ice. Alexandros said, “Then we have nothing left to speak of.” Odd, how that made it a little harder to breathe.
In denying him the rest of the world, she had shown him that it had been worth the attempt.
She looked at him through one eye, then the other, then said softly, “Unless…you wish to know what happened to that young king we left trapped inside a cave.”
Ice was melting under Alexandros, biting into his fingers and seeping through the chlamys to chill his legs. He needed to plan his return—surely it would not be a retreat—home. And Rokhshna hated waking to find him gone.
Watching the foreign pine, he started to smile. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I would hear that, if you will tell it.”
The king called up, “What place is this?”
“Your new home,” one of the nobles said, “where you will make us jewelry enough to buy this satrapy. If you walk a little way down this tunnel you will find a workshop with a fire pit, and gold and gems enough to start your work.”
The king glanced once more at his wife’s dead father. “And the cauldrons?”
“You and your mechanical have nothing to fear in them, gemcutter,” the other noble said. “They were men without a trade, worth only their parts and the tallow from their fat, which will light your work.”
At this some of the villagers drew together and looked fearfully up. But the king said, “You must know a great deal about gemcutting, honored sirs. Most men of your class would have no idea that my mechanical and I have need of six helpers each.”
Now in fact the nobles did not know any such thing, since the king had only just made it up, but they smiled knowingly down into the pit and left all twelve villagers their lives. The king made bracelets and bowls and statuettes; and slowly, invisibly, he began with fine work and flattery to gain the nobles’ trust.
And so he spent years far from home, while Anaeet ruled so wisely that most people forgot they had or even needed a king.
One day he told the nobles, “Bring me gems of every type and gold enough to plate my arm, and I shall make a jewelled rhyton cup in the shape of a winged lion. It shall be fine enough for Queen Anaeet herself; she alone has the power to grant you your satrapy. In return I ask only that you set me up as your jeweler, for it pleases me to serve gentlemen of such exquisite taste.”
The nobles brought him these things with glee and good wishes, and in time he fashioned a cup as long as his arm. As he had promised, its base was a lion. Its sides were wings set with diamonds and emeralds and rubies, and sapphires yellow and blue, so closely nestled together that no hint of gold showed through their glimmering, mottled pattern. The other prisoners gathered around while he worked, caught between interest and awe; and when the cup was finished the king gave it to his captors with unfeigned pride.
And they took it to the queen.
But the queen, through eyes of ground emerald, saw diamonds and yellow sapphires as green. And to her eyes, rubies and blue sapphires both were black as nighttime blood, and those black stones picked out writing across the green wings. And the words read, “Help me, Anaeet.”
Finally, finally, Alexandros’ face lit in simple gladness. “Ah,” he said. “So having a clever wife did help him in the end.”
The sky had grown lighter, stars fading into grey, as the tale wound to its close. Now the night silence fractured into the cries and clangs of the waking camp. Vaacha Devi spread her wings to catch the the sun’s first rays; they lit her like a phoenix, turned enameled feathertips to blood. “It depends, young Alexandros,” she said regretfully, “on what Anaeet did with that knowledge.”
And with a musical shiver of wings, she was gone.
Shweta Narayan has lived in six countries on three continents, and read folk tales and fables in all of them. The internal narrative within this story is based on an Armenian tale, “Clever Anaeet”, which Shweta has loved since she was seven or so but did not recognize as non-Indian till much later.
Other stories of the clockwork bird have appeared (or will) in the “Clockwork Jungle” issue of Shimmer (reprinted in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded), Realms of Fantasy, and Steam Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories. Shweta’s other fiction can be found in places like Strange Horizons and the Beastly Bride anthology, and her poetry in Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, and Stone Telling. She was the Octavia Butler Memorial Scholarship recipient at the Clarion workshop in 2007.
Shweta can be found on the web at shwetanarayan.org.
Tagged with: Free Fiction
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