A lovely girl grows up in isolation where her father, a powerful magus, has spirited them to in order to keep them safe.
We all know the tale of Prospero’s quest for revenge, but what of the dutiful and tenderhearted Miranda, who loves her father but is terribly lonely? Or Caliban, the strange and feral boy Prospero has bewitched to serve him. Always under Prospero’s jealous eye, Miranda and Caliban battle the dark, unknowable forces that bind them to the island even as the pangs of adolescence create a new awareness of each other and their doomed relationship.
Miranda and Caliban is author Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous retelling of The Tempest, exploring the themes of twisted love and unchecked power that lie at the heart of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, while serving up a fresh take on the play’s iconic characters. Miranda and Caliban is available February 14th from Tor Books. But if you need more of Carey’s sensual fantasy to get you through the holidays, look no further than Kushiel’s Legacy, an ebook bundle that collects the first trilogy featuring the courtesan spy Phèdre nó Delaunay.
I awake to the sound of Papa chanting in the outer courtyard. It is a morning like any other morning. I lay abed watching a bar of sunlight creep across the dusty tiles of the floor.
Papa forbids me to interrupt him at his art. When I was little, sometimes I would take fright upon waking alone and forget; and then he would have to punish me, which grieved him. But now I am six years of age and old enough to know better, for I mislike nothing more than to grieve him.
Beneath the deep, distant tones of Papa chanting the music of the spheres, I hear a faint pattering sound close by and roll over on my pallet to see a little green lizard creeping down the wall. It stops and stares at me. Its eyes are like shiny black beads and its throat pulses. I hold my breath and count, one, two, three, before I reach out with one finger to stroke it.
The lizard skitters away. Disappointed, I trace the flowing lines carved into the wall instead.
Papa says the lines are Moorish writing, which is different from the Latin writing he teaches me. He says that Moors built this palace, but they went away and left it behind when their magic grew weak, too weak to summon the spirits of the island to do their bidding.
I think it was a long time ago, for the palace is old and crumbling now. Still, it is my home; and Papa’s magic is strong. The air shivers and chimes as he calls upon the spheres.
There is a calm note in his voice this morning, not a stern one; and I am glad to hear it, for mayhap it means the studies he conducts late into the hours of the night in his private sanctum went well, and he will be pleased to see me and attend to my studies today. Mayhap he will even pet my hair and praise me.
When the last note of Papa’s voice fades, I throw back my bed-linens and rise. The dusty tiles are smooth and pebbled beneath my bare feet. I had shoes, once; cunning little kidskin slippers embroidered with seed pearls. I have them still, tucked away in a chest, but they’ve been far too small for ever so long.
I don’t mind. Even in the winter it is not so very cold that I cannot bear it, and I think I should hate to wear shoes, now. Indeed, on warm days I should like to shed my clothing and run as free and naked as the wild boy, but Papa says we must be civilized or all is lost; and so I wear an old nightshirt of his to sleep and cast-off robes cut down to size by day.
Thinking of the wild boy, I go to the window and look into the walled garden. I’ve caught a glimpse of him lurking more than once, crouching like a toad in one of the wall’s many gaps.
Not today, though.
I make use of the privy in the garderobe. When I have finished and emerge, a lumpish spirit scuttles past me; one of the household spirits Papa has bound to our service, an earth elemental smelling of freshly turned soil.
“Hello!” I call after it. “Good morrow!”
The earth elemental shows its stony teeth in a deferential smile, but it doesn’t answer. They never do. It empties the chamber-pot beneath the privy cupboard into a pail and scuttles away.
I sigh, don my robe, and make my way through the empty halls of the palace to the garden outside the kitchen.
Mayhap it is mean-spirited of me to feel lonely. After all, I do have Oriana for company, as well as Beatrice, Bianca, Carmela, Elisabetta, and Nunzia. And I suppose I must count Claudio, although I like him no better than he likes me. He makes muttering sounds deep in his chest, cocking his head and eyeing me with suspicion as I examine the nests one by one. He is a handsome fellow to be sure, black with a fine speckling of white and a proud red comb, but I have reason to be wary of his sharp beak and spurs. I find an egg. Claudio scratches in the dust and mutters.
Bianca is my favorite. She is all white and she does not peck at all, only clucks softly in protest as I inch my hand beneath her and find a second egg. On the east side of the garden, Oriana strains against her tether and lets out a mournful bleat.
“I shall return anon to milk you,” I promise her, carrying my prizes carefully into the kitchen. It is only since the spring that Papa trusts me to gather the eggs, and it grieves him when I am careless with them.
Papa is already seated at the kitchen table when I enter, his head bent over a slate tablet on which he scrawls with a piece of chalky ochre. I wait for him to notice me, and curtsy when he does.
“Good morrow, lass,” he says in greeting. “What does the day’s bounty bring us?” I show him the eggs and his brow furrows. “Only two? Methinks someone may be ripe for the pot.”
My heart quickens with alarm. I am not ready to lose one of my only friends. “Not yet, surely! ’Tis the heat renders them sluggish.”
Papa considers me for a minute. His eyes are grey and piercing, and I feel their gaze like a weight upon me. At length he relents with a nod. “Very well. But you must begin keeping a tally of who is laying.”
I curtsy again. “Thank you, Papa.”
When I place the eggs in a bowl on the shelf, I see something unexpected; a chunk of honeycomb lying on a large green leaf. There was a bit of dirt in it as well as a squashed bee and several long black hairs, but, oh! My mouth waters at the prospect of sweetness and I reach for it unbidden, thinking to dip just the tip of one finger in the amber liquid oozing from the comb.
“Do not touch it!” Papa’s voice is stern and I feel a painful prick on my extended fingertip like the sting of a nettle. I snatch my hand back, tears coming to my eyes, and curse my impatient greed. “What do you see?”
This is a test, then. I gaze at the honeycomb. The pale wax cells echo the decorations that adorn the archways of many of the palace chambers. Mayhap that is what Papa wishes me to see? Like draws like, he says; that is the cornerstone of his art.
But no, I think that is wrong. If the Moors wrought the likeness of honeycomb in plaster, it was to draw the bees who love it. And though there are many bees that buzz amid the myrtle and the jasmine in the gardens, there are no hives on the palace grounds, or at least none that I have found in my explorations.
No, the honey is an offering from the wild boy.
He has brought gifts before, many times, leaving them on the doorstep of the kitchen. Fish, usually; mullets and sardines, Papa says. Mussels gathered from the rocks. A handful of dates or ripe olives. Once before, honeycomb.
Why is this time different?
A squashed bee.
Three strands of hair.
I draw a sharp breath. The wild boy is swift and elusive, coming and going too quickly to be caught. But Papa should like to catch him; catch him and civilize him. He says if the experiment is to
work, it must be done gently, with art and kindness. I should like to be kind to the wild boy if he would let me, but I have no art with which to lure him to me.
Papa does, though. Papa wears amulets strung on fine chains around his neck to help him command the spirits; and one that holds a lock of my own hair so that he might charm me to sleep or soothe my fears or punish me at need. He summoned Oriana with a tuft of hair he found caught on a bramble where the wild goats graze.
“It is the hair,” I say, looking up. “Do you think it is his hair? Do you mean to summon the wild boy?”
Papa smiles at me in approval and it is as though the sun has emerged from the clouds. My heart swells with pride. “That I do, lass,” he says. “I believe it is a portent. And if the thing is to be done, ’twere best it were done quickly, ere the malleable nature of a child hardens into a man’s savagery.”
“Do you reckon him savage?” I ask a bit fearfully.
Papa steeples his fingers. “There is an impulse in him that lends itself to generosity,” he observes. “Whether it be the untrammeled nobility of man’s true nature made manifest or a base and craven instinct to appease remains to be determined. It may yet be that blood will out, and if my suspicions regarding the whelp’s dam are proved—” He cuts his words short, fishing a kerchief from one of his robe’s pockets. “No matter, lass. Fear not; whatever may transpire, I’ll allow no harm to come to you. Now fetch me those hairs, and have a care with them.”
I extricate three strands of the wild boy’s hair from the honeycomb. The strands are sticky with honey and coarser than mine. I bring them to Papa, who folds them carefully in his kerchief and tucks it away.
“Well done,” he pronounces, returning his attention to the slate. “You may finish your chores.”
I remove the wooden pail from its hook and return to the garden to milk Oriana. She stands patiently for milking and suffers me to scratch the shaggy brown hair around her ears when I have finished.
I tell Oriana she is a good girl. The chickens are content to roost in their cote, but Oriana chafes at captivity. Papa says that unlike the simple elemental spirits he summons, goats, like people, are too willful to remain bound and obedient without tending, and it is not worth his while to tend to a goat. If Oriana were not tethered, she would scramble over the crumbling walls and rejoin her wild kin until Papa summoned her back.
Will the wild boy feel the same way, I wonder?
I hope not.
I lug the milk-pail into the kitchen, then return to the garden once more to gather two handfuls of mustard greens.
Papa sets aside his slate to prepare our morning repast. He does not trust me yet to tend the fire or cook upon it. We eat boiled eggs and greens, and yesterday’s journey-cakes of ground acorn meal smeared with honeycomb picked clean of grit and bees. Oriana’s milk is set aside for making cheese. I eat slowly to savor the honey, relishing the way the comb collapses under my teeth, chewing the wax thoroughly before spitting it out and saving it for use later.
Afterward I wipe our trenchers clean and scrub the iron cooking-pot, which is very old, its curved walls growing thin with usage; and then Papa wipes his writing-slate clean and gives me a lesson in ciphering. Sitting close beside him, I smell the sharp odors of the chymicals he employs in his sanctum clinging to his skin and robes.
When the lesson is over, Papa gives me the lump of ochre so that I might begin keeping my tally of who is laying on the wall beside the door that leads to the kitchen garden.
“You must be incisive,” he cautions me. I nod, although it is a word I do not know. “A gentle heart is a virtue to be praised in a young girl, but in matters of survival, cold reason must prevail over sympathies. Do you understand?”
I nod again. “I will keep a careful accounting.”
It is the right thing to say. Papa rests his hand atop my head and smiles. “Good lass.”
I bask in his praise, and hope that Bianca continues to lay well. “When do you mean to summon the wild boy, Papa?”
“In good time.” His voice has grown distant and he withdraws his hand. “There are preparations that must be made ready. Occupy yourself gainfully, Miranda, and do not trouble me.”
Thus dismissed, I rise, curtsy, and leave.
For the remainder of the day, I seek to occupy myself gainfully, but there is little to be done. Earth elementals till the gardens with their spade-like hands. Air elementals blow softly through the palace, sylphs scarce visible to the eye, setting the dust to scurrying. In the fountains, the transparent figures of water elementals cavort and cause the water to flow. Although I am surrounded by spirits, I feel very much alone.
It seems it has always been thus, though I know this is untrue. Save for the terrifying spirit that remains trapped in the great pine tree in the front courtyard, there were no spirits in attendance before Papa summoned them, and the palace grounds were desolate. It must have been a difficult time, I think, although I was too young to remember it well, and Papa shielded me from the worst of it.
There was a time before the island, too.
I think so, anyway. Papa does not speak of it and I do not ask because it grieves him. Sometimes I think it is a thing I have dreamed; but if it were not true how would I know to dream of such things? There was a great house with walls of stone, not carved plaster, and pictures that hung upon the walls. There were ladies with kind eyes and gentle hands who brushed my hair and tied it back with ribbons; ladies who helped me dress, who slipped my kidskin slippers onto my feet. Ladies who sang me lullabies, smoothed my bed-linens, and bade me to sleep with a soft kiss on my cheek or brow.
Yet if it were true, how did Papa and I come to live alone upon this isle?
Yet if it were not true, from whence came the kidskin slippers I keep tucked away in a chest?
Thinking on it makes me feel strange to myself. Papa is so wise. If he does not wish to talk about it, likely it is best I do not think on it.
I will think about the wild boy instead.
When the midday heat begins to abate, I climb the winding steps of the watchtower. It is a good place for thinking. From atop the tower, I can see far: the whole western side of the island from the rocky path leading down the hill on which our palace perches to the sprawl of land below, dotted with palms. Beyond it lies the sea, and what lies beyond the sea, I cannot say. The sea is ever in motion, crashing and churning. It frightens me, although I do not know why. I dream of it sometimes.
Today it is calm and shining, and the ripples break gently on the rocks. When the tide goes out, the sea leaves pools behind. I think I should not be scared to splash in those pools. From this mighty vantage, I have seen the wild boy do so before, a tiny hunched figure clambering over distant rocks.
I look for him there, but I do not see him. It seems I will catch no glimpse of him today.
Soon that will change. I cannot help but be hopeful at the prospect. Surely there is goodness in his nature to leave us gifts as he does. I think he must be lonely, terribly lonely.
“I will be your friend,” I say out loud, wishing the wild boy could hear me. “Only come and stay, and I will love you. I promise.”
It is a good many days before Papa is prepared to summon the wild boy. He chides me for impatience when I can bear it no longer and ask him when he means to do so.
“Are you a magus to chart the heavens?” he asks me. There is a cutting edge to his voice that warns me I have overstepped my bounds, and something inside me shrinks at the sound of it. “Can you tell me when the stars will be favorable for this endeavor?” I shake my head no and Papa waves one hand in dismissal. “Then importune me no more.”
I swallow my impatience and hold my tongue.
Of course there is a great deal more to Papa’s art than the simple notion of like drawing like on which it is founded.
I know this although I understand but the merest portion of it. I know that God in His heaven is the highest of highs, and there are nine orders of angels that sing His praises. Between earth and heaven are the celestial spheres, and the planets whose emanations influence all that happens here on earth.
There are seven planets, which are called the seven governors, and they are the sun and the moon, of course, and Venus and Mercury and Mars and Saturn and Jupiter; and each of them have secret names, too. Those are the names Papa chants every morning at sunrise to draw down their influence.
I know that the planets follow a wandering path within their spheres and the fixed stars move with the turning of their sphere, and that some conjunctions are good and some are bad. Also there are things in nature which attract the planets as like draws to like, and that the good Lord God has placed everything in nature for man’s disposal.
And that is what I know.
Oh, and there are stories written in the gathering of the stars. When Papa is in a rare good humor, he tells them to me.
I think waiting would be easier if Papa would only tell me how long until the conjunction of the planets will be favorable for summoning the wild boy, but mayhap it is a more difficult tally to reckon than how many eggs a hen has laid in a week. Although that is not always easy either. Unless they are broody, hens do not always stay on their nests.
Alas, when Papa tells me at last that he means to summon the wild boy on the morrow, he tells me that one of the hens must be sacrificed in the attempt; a white hen to attract the moon’s influence.
There is only one pure white hen and that is my Bianca.
I cannot contain my tears, but Papa is gentle at first. “You’ve kept your tally well, child, but ’tis time a new brood were hatched and ’twere best done while summer’s warmth lingers,” he says kindly. “Think on it. In a month’s time, you’ll have chicks to console you.”
That may be, but a chick is not the same as my sweet Bianca. “Would not one of the others serve?” I plead. “Bianca is yet a better layer than Nunzia.” Papa’s expression changes. I look down to avoid his gaze. “Forgive me, Papa. It is only that she is my favorite.”
“I cannot change the laws that govern the planets and their correspondences, Miranda,” he says. “And I should hope that your devotion to your father casts a longer shadow than your fondness for a mere hen.”
Fresh tears prick my eyes at the thought that Papa should think such a thing. “Of course!”
Papa nods. “Very well then.”
I spend hours in the kitchen garden and make much of Bianca that afternoon, holding her in my lap and petting her soft white feathers. She is content to nestle against me in the hot sun. Claudio struts nearby, pecks at the dirt, and looks askance at us.
I wish that Papa’s spell called for a rooster, but that is a piece of foolishness. Were it not for Claudio, there would be no chicks in the offing. Such is the way of the world.
In the small hours of the night, a storm breaks over the island. Gales of wind howl through the palace; outside its walls, jagged spears of lightning pierce the heavens as the rains lash down. The distant sea must be wave-tossed and raging, a thought that fills me with unspeakable terror.
I cower beneath my bed-linens and think about the wild boy, wondering where he takes shelter from the storm.
I wonder if he is as frightened as I am.
Outside the palace wall in the front courtyard, the spirit trapped in the pine tree begins to wail, awakened by the storm. It is a terrible sound, keening and filled with fury and anguish. Papa should like to free the spirit, for he believes it is far more powerful than any of the simple elementals, but thus far he has been unable to find the key to the curse that binds it, and I am secretly grateful for it. I huddle on my pallet, pull the linens over my head, and wait for the storm to pass.
In time it does. The wind ceases to roar and the dinning rains lessen to a patter. The spirit in the pine falls silent, and I sleep.
I awaken to Papa giving me a gentle shake in the grey darkness before the dawn. “Miranda,” he says. “It is time.”
The air smells of wet stone and dust. I suppose dust is no longer dust when it is wet, but it has the same smell, which is different from the smell of soil or mud. Papa is clad in white robes trimmed with pale blue and silver embroidery. I cannot see the color in the dim light, but the silver thread glints and I know the other is pale blue. There are pouches strung from his belt and the hilt of a dagger protrudes from it. He carries his wooden staff as well as a little silver bowl that hangs from a chain. The latter sways as he walks, smoke trickling from holes that pierce the lid so that I know the bowl contains embers.
In the garden outside the kitchen, the patchy grass is wet beneath my bare feet. When Papa bids me retrieve Bianca, I weep silently, but I do not disobey. Bianca clucks in sleepy protest, but she suffers me to wrap her in the folds of my makeshift gown and bind her wings at her sides.
Holding her fast, I follow Papa through the palace gate and into the front courtyard where the great pine stands.
Another time, it would gladden my heart to be allowed to attend Papa in the practice of his art, but I cannot be glad today. Not with Bianca cradled trusting in my arms and the memory of the storm’s fury and the pine spirit’s cries ringing in my ears. At least the spirit remains quiet as Papa turns to face the eastern sky behind the palace and chants the music of the spheres.
Papa’s deep voice makes the air tremble, and it trembles twice over as the planets in their distant spheres pour down their emanations in response and the rising sun turns the sky to gold. It is impossible to remain unmoved at the beauty of it; but when it is over he turns to me.
“Now you must give me the hen and tend to the thurible,” he says to me, tucking his staff in the crook of his arm and putting out one hand.
I pass Bianca carefully to Papa. He tucks her against his side and gives me the hanging bowl’s chain to hold. Thurible. So that is its name. I clutch the chain tightly and look away as Bianca begins to struggle. At least her end is a swift one. Out of the corner of one eye, I see Papa drop to one knee and the silver flash of his dagger as he beheads her. He keeps her body pinned to the flagstones while it twitches in its final throes.
My breath catches in my throat and one small sob escapes me. I fight to swallow the others.
Still kneeling, Papa lifts the lid of the thurible. Reaching into the various pouches hanging from his belt, he retrieves handfuls of aromatic herbs and casts them onto the coals. Fragrant smoke arises. Replacing the lid, he rises and takes the thurible from me, swinging it gracefully on its chain. With his other hand, he holds his staff aloft. Sunlight sparks from the crystal atop it.
“May God bless you, O Moon, you who are the blessed lady, fortunate, cold and moist, equitable and lovely,” Papa intones. “You are the chief and the key of all the other planets, swift in your motion, having light that shines, lady of happiness and joy, of good words, good reputation, and fortunate realms.”
I wait quietly as he continues the invocation, my hands clasped before me. I am grateful that Papa has not dismissed me. Overhead the sky lightens to blue, the pale blue of the embroidery hemming his robe. The day will be clear after the night’s storm. Strange to see, the moon is visible in the morning sky, a ghostly white orb.
It is not quite full. I imagine that the Lady Moon turns her face away out of modesty, yet listens attentively to Papa’s prayer.
I try to keep my gaze trained upon her. I pretend to myself that this is because it is the polite thing to do, but also it is because I do not want to look down. When I blink, at the bottom edge of my gaze I see whiteness below me; white feathers stirring in the light breeze. There will be red blood splattering the rain-washed paving stones, too.
“Camar, Luna, Mehe, Zamahyl, Cerim, Celez!” Papa calls to the moon. “By all thy names I invoke thee that you hear my petition!”
He kneels once more, swinging the thurible around himself in a circle, then rises and repeats the invocation.
My feet grow sore from standing on the flagstones. I shift my weight from one foot to the other.
I do not believe that it required so great a working of Papa’s art to summon Oriana the first time, but then she is a mere beast, no matter how willful. A man is a reflection of God himself, and that is another matter.
I think the wild boy is a man, or at least a boy. I cannot be wholly sure, for I have never seen him clearly. When he spies upon me from the garden wall outside my bed-chamber, he is clever about lurking in the dappled shadows. Still, I feel almost certain that he means me no harm. I cannot say that is always true of Oriana, who butts me with her bony head and the hard nubbins of her horns when she is in a foul mood.
The sun climbs overhead and the morning grows hot. I feel prickly with sweat and hollow with hunger.
Papa finishes a third recitation of his invocation, stands, and sets aside the thurible. Now he holds forth a new amulet strung around his neck on a chain. It is in the form of a silver cage wrought in a sphere, and there are strands of coarse black hair wrapped around the silver wires.
“By the strength of mine art and the very hairs of thine head, I summon thee!” Papa says in a commanding voice, thumping the metal-shod heel of his staff on the flagstones. “Come forth!”
I had not reckoned on waiting so long; but of course, that is foolish, too. The wild boy might be near or far. He is free to roam the whole of the isle, and it is almost half a league from the palace to the seashore alone.
Papa stands tall and motionless, as though an eternity might pass without his noticing, his gaze fixed on the east. His hair, which is long and iron grey, spills over his shoulders. The faint breeze stirs his hair and his beard, which is also iron grey marked with two streaks that yet remain black.
I am thirsty, too.
Our shadows grow smaller as the sun climbs. The spirit trapped in the great pine lets out a wail, unexpected and plaintive. I jump at the sound of it, but Papa only glances at the tree. “Be at peace, gentle spirit,” he murmurs. “It is my hope that this endeavor will one day bear fruit that may aid thee.”
I am not sure what he means by it, but the spirit falls silent.
And still we wait, until it seems to me that I have never done aught else save stand in this courtyard beneath the hot sun, footsore and hungry and parched. I grow so terribly weary that even a glimpse of the still body of my poor sweet Bianca no longer moves me to tears. It is merely another object with no more or less value than any other object. Only a strong desire to make Papa proud keeps me from begging to be excused. I fear that were I to do so, it would be a year or more before he would trust me to attend him in the practice of his art.
At last, there is motion in the distance; a hunched figure approaches on the horizon.
The wild boy is coming.
All at once, my weariness vanishes in a rush of excitement; and a little bit of fear, too.
“Come forth!” Papa says again, and there is a note of triumph in his voice.
The wild boy draws nearer. His gait is slow and halting. He does not walk upright, striding firmly on two feet, but advances in a crouch, steadying himself against the earth with the knuckles of first one hand and then the other.
Step by creeping step, he comes. It is hard, still, to make out his face, which is hidden by a ragged shock of coarse black hair that falls across his features. I catch a glimmer of dark eyes peering beneath the curtain of hair, wide and shining and moon-mazed.
“Hold, and come no further,” Papa says, extending one hand palm outward. The wild boy halts warily. I cannot tell if he understands or if it is simply that his very flesh is obedient to Papa’s spell. His skin is dark with grime and the nails of his fingers and toes are ragged and black. Even standing several paces away, I can smell the rank odor of him.
His face, though; his face is human. I can see enough of it now to be sure. His features are broader than Papa’s and mine and the thrust of his jaw is stronger, but he is a boy, not a beast.
“Avert your gaze, Miranda,” Papa says quietly. “It is unseemly that you should look upon his nakedness.”
I do not want to look away, but I do.
“Good lad,” Papa says to the wild boy. “Bravely done.” The wild boy says nothing. “Do you understand?” Papa asks him. “Do you speak?” The wild boy cocks his head and sits on his haunches, knuckles brushing the flagstones.
My wise and learned Papa repeats the question in the different scholarly tongues he speaks, but the wild boy gives no answer. I watch him from the corner of my eye and see his dark, shining gaze flick sidelong behind his thick hanks of hair, stealing glances back at me.
It feels as though the wild boy and I are exchanging secrets, which is a dangerous and thrilling thought.
I wonder if he is mute, though.
I do not wonder it for long. When the spirit in the pine lets out another unexpected groan, the wild boy leaps sideways and gives an angry bark. His tongue and the inside of his mouth are surprisingly red.
“So you can speak,” Papa muses. “But it is language you lack. Well, we shall see about teaching you.” The wild boy looks uncertainly at him, nostrils flaring. Papa lays one hand on his filthy head. “Peace,” he says firmly. “Come with us. Shelter and food and drink shall be yours.”
Closing his eyes, the wild boy leans his head against Papa’s hand like Oriana when she wants the hair at the base of her horns scratched.
“Come,” Papa says again, taking his hand away. Turning, he walks toward the palace gate. The wild boy follows him obediently. “Miranda, retrieve the hen and place her in the larder.”
It seems cruel that I must be the one to gather up poor Bianca’s body now that the spirits have no more use for her, but I do it, making a pouch of my robes. Her body is slack and heavy in death and her head, her dear little head . . . I do not want to think about it. Her blood stains my robes.
My terrible chore done, I hurry through the empty halls of the palace.
Papa has prepared a chamber for the wild boy, placing a pallet, a tray of food, a great basin of water, and a chamber-pot in it. He chose the chamber specially because it is one of very few that has a stout door with a working lock and key; also, there is a gallery on the upper level that looks down into the chamber. Papa says it was made thusly so that the Moorish sultan could keep his favorite wives safely hid. den away, yet gaze down upon them at his leisure. The chamber possesses a courtyard with a garden, but Papa tasked the earth elementals with sealing the entrance with great stone blocks gathered from the eastern end of the palace, which is in the greatest disrepair. Only the tall windows on the upper story admit light.
So it is a cell from which the wild boy cannot escape, which is another thing that seems cruel to me. Papa says I misunderstand the nature of kindness, which sometimes requires a firm heart and a firm hand, and that it will be a kindness to provide the wild boy with a safe place in which he may become accustomed to his surroundings.
I climb the stairs to the upper story of the palace and make my way to the gallery where I might observe.
I imagine that the wild boy will be staring about in amazement at the ornate tiled walls and the honeycombed ceiling, but he is curiously unmoved by them. His attention is fixed on Papa, although when I enter the gallery and sit perched with my legs dangling between the posts of the balustrade, his dark gaze flicks my way once more, quick as a bird’s.
From above, I can see that a ridge of bristling hair runs partway down the length of his spine. I should like to know what it feels like to stroke it.
Papa gestures around. “Here is your new home,” he says. “Here you may eat and drink, sleep deeply and be refreshed. Here we shall begin the great work of civilization.” The wild boy gazes at him uncomprehending, and Papa smiles in response. “I pray that understanding may be granted to you in time. Soon you shall sleep, and when you wake, your will shall be your own; save in one matter.” He grasps the new amulet with one hand and raises his staff with the other. His voice takes on the stern tone of command. “By the grace and favor of the blessed Moon, by the strength of mine art and the very hairs of thine head, I bind thee! Never shalt thou do aught to harm me or mine daughter Miranda, lest thee suffer torments untold.”
The power in Papa’s voice makes the very walls of the palace tremble. The wild boy lets out a fearful whine and sinks deeper into his crouch, wrapping his skinny arms around his head as though to ward off a blow.
“Peace.” Papa’s voice has turned soothing again; and again, he lays a hand on the wild boy. “Sleep now.”
I know well the manner of sleep that Papa’s art induces: deep and sudden. The wild boy topples over onto the tiles as though struck a heavy blow. In sleep, his face softens and his cramped limbs loosen.
“Pfaugh!” Papa sniffs. “The lad reeks to the heavens.” He leans his staff against the wall and wipes his hands on the white fabric of his robe with disdain. One of the talismans strung around his neck, a pendant set with a clear blue-green gem, lets out a spark as he summons water elementals from the basin. “Bathe him as best you may.”
The undines swarm the wild boy’s form like a shallow stream spilling over rocks, twisting and twining. He stirs in his sleep, but does not awaken. A tide of dirty water creeps across the tiled floor. The wild boy’s skin begins to turn a lighter shade of brown, speckled with a scattering of darker moles.
“Miranda!” Papa cautions me for looking.
I look away.
The sound of splashing water continues, then abates. There is a scuffling sound and the sound of Papa’s breath huffing slightly.
“The lad is made decent, child,” he announces. “You may observe and learn.”
I look back. The undines have returned to their element. The tiled floor and the wild boy’s skin glisten with wetness. His chest remains bare, but there is a length of cloth knotted around his waist.
“Now let us see what we have here,” Papa muses, and I see that there is a coffer containing implements from his sanctum in the cell. He arranges the wild boy on his back, straightening his limbs. “Ah. We behold there is no actual deformity to the spine, which suggests his bestial crouch is born of habit, not necessity.” He examines the wild boy’s hands. “The layers of calloused flesh on his knuckles and palms suggest it is a habit of long standing. Why, one wonders?” He is talking mostly to himself. “There are no apes or monkeys on this isle where he might have learned such a habit.”
I think of the rocks on the distant shore over which I have seen the wild boy clambering, of the crumbling walls of the palace he has scaled. I would use my hands and feet, too.
Using a pair of calipers, Papa measures the wild boy’s height, the length of his limbs, and the breadth of his skull and jaw. He notes these measurements in a diary with a quill and ink, by which I know he is gravely serious about this endeavor. Paper is in scant supply and precious to Papa.
I am a little envious of the wild boy. I do not think Papa would waste paper on my measurements. But mayhap I am being ungracious because I have not yet broken my fast today.
“By the height of the lad and allowing for the effect of deprivation on the natural pro cess of maturation, I should gauge his age within the range of nine to twelve years.” Papa measures the wild boy’s arms and shoulders, his calves and thighs. “Although by the breadth of his skull, it may be that he suffers from a form of dwarfism, and we might reckon him older.” He sets aside his calipers and rubs his bearded chin thoughtfully. “As for that, time will out. Eh, lass?”
“Forgive me, Papa.” Dizzy with hunger and thirst, I have lost the thread of his musing. “What is it?”
Papa’s brow darkens, then clears. When he is deep in his studies, he sometimes forgets the need for food or drink, subsisting on nothing but air. I see him remember I do not have his endurance. He slides his arms beneath the wild boy and lifts him. The wild boy’s head and arms and legs dangle. He looks small in Papa’s arms. Papa shifts him onto the pallet and straightens, retrieving his staff. “Come,” he says kindly to me. “Let us take sustenance, you and I. Whatever secrets the lad holds will wait.”
On his pallet, the wild boy stirs and draws in his limbs a little, then lies still, splayed on his back like a dead frog. I hope he does not awaken while we are gone, finding himself alone and fearful in a strange place. I know I should not like it.
In the kitchen garden, I draw a pail from the well and drink straight from the dipper. I do this three times before my thirst is slaked. There is an egg in the nest that was Bianca’s this morning. I slip it carefully under Elisabetta, who is acting broody over a clutch of her own, which I leave undisturbed.
The smell of journey-cakes cooking over the fire makes my mouth water as I gather greens and milk Oriana. When everything is done, we eat journey-cakes and boiled greens with a dollop of tangy white cheese.
“How long will the wild boy sleep, Papa?” I ask.
“Some hours, I should think,” he says. “I shall allow him to awaken as nature dictates.”
I push boiled greens around my trencher, trying to scoop them up with a crumbling bit of journey-cake. Papa is in good spirits, so I dare a bigger question. “Where did he come from? Did the Moors leave him behind?”
“The Moors?” Papa’s brows rise. “No, no. They abandoned this isle long before he was whelped.” He hesitates, frowning. “ ’Tis true, I have my suspicions, child, but I should never have spoken of them in your presence. It is not speculation fit for one of your tender years, and they may yet prove unfounded. It is as likely that the boy is a simple peasant cast adrift by superstitious kin for his lack of wits and foul mien, washed up on this isle and finding a primordial penchant for survival.”
“Then what has he to do with the spirit in the pine tree?” The question slips out before I have a chance to weigh the merits of asking it.
The look on Papa’s face is like a door closing. “Enough,” he says firmly. “Do not plague me with questions the true nature of which you cannot possibly understand.” He fetches the slate and a lump of ocher and sets them before me. “I want to see a fair copy of the alphabet in your best hand ere I finish readying the hen for plucking.”
I bow my head to the task. It is difficult to write out the alphabet without smudging.
While I make my letters, Papa fetches Bianca from the larder. He has left the cooking-pot hanging from the spit to boil. He throws Bianca’s head into the pail for the midden, stretches out her wings and examines her tail-feathers, plucking out several for ink-quills before grasping her legs and plunging her headless body into the boiling water. Her scaly feet stick over the edge of the pot, clawed nails curling.
L, M, O . . . no, L, M, N, O . . .
I keep going. The heel of my hand smudges T. I wipe the slate carefully with the edge of my sleeve.
Papa hoists Bianca’s body dripping from the pot by the feet. He shakes the hot water from her feathers and lays her limp, bedraggled form on the shelf.
X, Y, and Z.
I put down my ocher. Papa inspects my work and pronounces it good, then bids me to make tidy the kitchen and complete my chores. Today, that includes plucking Bianca. Since I do not wish to do it, I save it for last.
I should not be ungracious. There are a good many chores that Papa or I should have to do were there no household spirits at his command. Each serves in accordance with their element. The airy sylphs sweep away the ever-present dust and breathe life into embers burning low when Papa tends the fire. The watery undines make the fountains flow and fill the wells. The gnomish earth elementals empty chamber-pots and till the gardens with ordure to render them fertile.
But they cannot make journey-cakes of acorn meal. They cannot mash tubers or cook greens or fry fish in a pan. And they cannot pluck a hen.
It is a long chore. I sit on a three-legged stool beside the midden and pretend I am petting Bianca one last time.
When it is done, I return her body to the larder. In the midden-pail, her discarded head gazes at me, bright black eyes turned filmy.
Since I cannot bear it, I take Bianca’s head into the garden, where I dig a hole and bury it deep beneath a fig tree where she loved to scratch the dirt and peck at insects.
I have just finished when I hear the howling begin. For a moment, I think it is the spirit in the pine, but no. This sound is different. It is mortal and scared and angry, and I think it can only mean one thing.
The wild boy is awake and he is very, very unhappy.
Excerpted from Miranda and Caliban © Jacqueline Carey, 2016