The Dragon Ponders Its Paper Hoard

In the heart of Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao’s office pyramid, a golem sat in a steel chair behind a steel desk in a cork-walled room and sipped a mug of steaming coffee through a straw.

False stars shone around him: light from the ghostlamp on his desk glittered off tacks pinning alchemical prints to the walls. Yarn and wire tied pins to pins, pictures to pictures: a bridge in Shikaw to a Southern Gleb tribesman bleeding out from a lion attack, the claw marks in the tribesman’s back to a teenage girl in a floral print dress with white lace at collar and cuffs, her right eye to a reproduction of a Schwarzwald painting a century and a half old, some ancient family standing before a castle in the depths of a wood—three bearded elders, a small round woman carved from ivory, a young man in a billowing shirt with a smile bent as an old druid’s sickle. And another twenty lines spread from that man, from the curve of his smile, some weaving back to Shikaw and the bridge, and others off to still more distant lands and interlocking wheels of yarn. Thousands of pictures, and these were only the top layer: more beneath, long faded, the string in some cases thrice rotted and replaced by wire.

In that cork-lined room, silent and swift, the golem worked. Four-armed, with its upper limbs it lifted newspapers in many languages from the stack beside the desk, and with its thick manipulators turned the pages. Lower arms, scissor-fingered, sliced scraps from their context: pictures, lines of text, a threeword excerpt from a breath mint ad. Lenses realigned to read. Every few minutes the golem paused for coffee, or for a drag from the cigarette that smoldered in the ashtray. Thin smoke rose from its tip to coil against the ceiling, a dragon pondering the paper hoard. Already the evening’s work had yielded a fourinch stack of clippings. Shifting gears, pumping pistons, unwinding and winding of clockwork and spring, opening and closing switches, all merged into the babble of a mechanical brook through a metal forest. And underneath it all, always, lay the sound of scissors parting paper.

“Zack,” Elayne said from the door, once she’d waited long enough. “I have something for you.”

The cutting, and all other visible movement, stopped. The metal brook trickled on.

She walked to his desk. Dead eyes stared up from the top clipping. A woman, her throat slit. Elayne could not read the caption of old-style Shining Empire glyphs. “You can’t add this many every night. You’d have filled the entire room with paper by now.”

A clock wound as the shield of Zack’s head turned right and tilted back to face her. Lenses realigned for focus, and as they shifted she glimpsed the furnace inside him. “I edit.” A cello’s voice, the music of strings made words by processes she did not understand. She was only a passing student of golemetrics, which required more dealing with demons than she liked. Not that Elayne had anything against demons per se—but her conversations with them often reminded her of a vicious joke in which she herself might well be the punchline. Perhaps the demons felt the same.

Zack hefted the clippings in one manipulator arm. “First cut, most relevant of the day’s news. So I believe now. Initial processing complete, I compare. Lotus Gang execution, or Grimwald incursions into Shining Empire territory? Method suggests Khelids, Dhistran death cult from eighteenth century, though current scholarship indicates Khelids were in fact a cover for Camlaander occupationist priests’ attempts to reconsecrate Dhistran territory to Undying Queen and Eternal Monarchy.”

“Or someone knifed the girl because she had something they wanted. Or was something they wanted.”

“Hence: editing. Does new content fit with emergent patterns?”

“Accept facts that fit the theory, throw out those that don’t?”

A narrowing of aperture, for him, was a narrowing of the eyes. “A death may be a death, or early warning of existential threat or out-of-context problem. Nothing occurs in isolation. The world’s doom ripples back and forth through time.” That last word a vibrating chord. “Did you come to mock my methods, Elayne?”

“I came to ask your help.”

“You have strange protocols for asking.”

“You’ll like this.” She unfolded the broadsheet and held it before his lenses.

Clicks and realignments, scrape of a needle on a spinning wheel. “Simple propaganda leaflet. This political affair holds no interest for me.”

“An army gathering in the Skittersill holds no interest?”

“I have no defined life span,” he said. “Nor will you, once you shed that skin shell. We are both difficult to kill. The greatest dangers to us are dangers to our world system. Therefore we may divide all threats into two kinds: global-existential, and trivial. Trivial threats deserve no time or thought. This protest does not threaten the fundamental coherence of reality. It is of no importance.”

“What if it causes a demon outbreak?”

“It will not. Too many central decision-makers have nothing to gain from widespread destruction. Even if it did, such events can be contained—we might lose Dresediel Lex, but not the planet.”

“Accidents happen.”

“Accidents, by their nature, are stubbornly resistant to prevention. The same is not true of conscious threat. This demonstration may inconvenience our clients, but it is not relevant to my extracurricular work.”

“What if I told you someone had been printing and distributing these leaflets throughout the Skittersill, for free, since be fore details of our work on the old wards became public? That no one knows who prints them, or what their angle might be?”

Zack took the paper—a scythe-arc through the air, and it was gone. Her fingertips stung with the speed of its departure. The golem pressed the broadsheet flat and scanned its front page with lenses and knife-tipped fingers. The shield-face opened, revealing a forest of wires, lenses, and hydraulics. Eyepieces telescoped out for greater magnification, and secondary lenses rotated into place. “No further leads?”

“None.”

A toneless hum was her only acknowledgment. No nods, of course, while Zack was so close to the paper. Without moving his head—it gimbaled gyroscopically—he took a binder from a low shelf beside the desk, fanned its pages by touch, and found a section that seemed to satisfy. Only then did he retract his eyes and close his face. “Here.” He offered her the binder.

“Garabaldi Brothers Printing and Engraving.”

“The shop that composed this item. A family outfit in the Vale. Do you have other samples?”

“No.”

“Unfortunate. Unlikely the object of your inquiry would use a single printer. Combination of sources preserves supply, anonymity. Though anonymity requires effort. How much effort do you believe this person is likely to spare?”

“I have no idea,” she said. “What do I owe you?”

He offered her the broadsheet back. “Tell me what pattern emerges. May bear on my work.”

“I will,” she said. “Zack.”

“Yes.”

“What do you do, when you find an out-of-context problem?”

He tilted his head to one side. “Depends.”

“On what?”

“On the threat’s form,” he said. “Threat is another word for change. Status quo ante is not preferable to all change. Consider the Iskari boy stopping the leaking dam with his finger—romantic image, but futile. If one is to play any other role, one must be open to drastic change. The world some large-scale changes would bring about may be preferable to the one we currently inhabit.”

“Have you ever found such a preferable threat?”

He gestured to the walls, to the net of possibilities. “If I had, would I be working here?”

“Thank you,” she said, and left, though he hadn’t answered her question.

Behind, the golem bent once more to his work. The metal river ran through the metal forest, and a smoke dragon coiled against the ceiling.

 


The preceding was an excerpt from Last First Snow, the newest book in the fantasy Craft Sequence series by Max Gladstone. You can read the first chapter for free here on Tor.com. The novel arrives in stores on July 14 from Tor Books.

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