Read “Seven”, a Story from Naomi Novik Featured in Unfettered III

Lacking health insurance when he was diagnosed with cancer, Shawn Speakman asked friends in the science fiction and fantasy writing community to donate short stories he could use to counter mounting medical debt. The result was Unfettered, an anthology offering tales from some of the best authors working today.

Now, in Unfettered III from Grim Oak Press, Speakman continues to pay forward the aid he received, raising money to combat medical debt for SF&F artists and authors. He has gathered together a great mix of new and favorite writers―free to write what they like―the result a powerful new anthology perfect for all readers.

Tor.com is excited to offer an excerpt from “Seven”, a fantasy story from Naomi Novik about a city with a fiercely competitive artistic tradition.

 

 

A Note From Naomi Novik

Back when I was working on a story for the second Unfettered anthology, Shawn asked me if I might consider writing one inspired by his mother, a fan of my work, who had just been diagnosed with aggressive stomach cancer. I very much wanted to do it, but stories gestate at unpredictable rates for me, and the story that arrived in time for Unfettered II wasn’t her story.

This is.

For Kathy Jane Tenold Speakman: may her memory be a blessing.

 


Seven

No one knew when or why the city had first been named Seven. There were ten walls running between six ancient towers that joined them into the city’s five precincts, and four gates that went in and out of them. Seven was ruled by eleven: five councillors elected from the precincts, all women; five priests named by the temples, all men; and one king, to whom no one paid very much attention except when he had to break a tied vote, which the others made efforts to avoid.

Beneath the city ran thirteen mysterious tunnels carved by unknown hands. Once they had been the arches of bridges. Long since buried, they now carried the nourishing river under the city and out the other side to the wide ocean. Another city would have been named for that river, but instead it was the other way around: the river itself was called Seven’s Blood, or just the Blood for short.

And whenever someone new came to the city, they always thought, incorrectly, that the city had been named for the seven great singing statues, although just like the river, their number had been chosen to grace the name instead.

By unwritten accord, nobody who lived in Seven ever corrected the visitors. It was how you knew someone was a fellow citizen, since you couldn’t tell any other way. Among the people of Seven were the island cave-dwellers with their milk-pale skin, and brown fisher folk from the shores, and the deep-ebony farmers of the green fields that clung to the river before it reached the city, and travelers come on one of the thousand ships and boats and coracles that docked outside the walls every week. All those people had mingled furiously until there was not a feature or shade of skin or shape of brow or eye or chin that would let you distinguish a stranger who’d come through the gates five minutes ago from someone whose ancestors seven generations removed had lived all their lives in the city. Even accents differed wildly from one precinct to the next.

So no one told the strangers that Seven wasn’t named for the statues. The seven of them stood at the gates that led in and out of the city. The Gate to Morning and the Gate to Evening and the Sea Gate each had two, and one stood alone at the Gate of Death. They didn’t all sing at the same time, of course: even the ones that stood on either side of the same gate were angled differently into the wind, so it was rare for any two to sing at once, and if three or four were singing, it was time for the ships in the harbor to reef their sails and drop anchor and for the shutters to be closed so dust wouldn’t whip into the houses. Elders told their grandchildren delightfully gruesome stories of the last great storm when all seven had sung at once.

They were made of the pale white clay that the river spilled out on the far side of the city, full of its effluvia. Broken bits of pottery and scraps of fabric mingled with human and animal wastes, flesh and bone and sludge and all the city’s music. Clay-shapers had to work their hands over and over through every bucket they took, like squeezing fistfuls of flour and water, but there was a faint opalescent slick over the surface of that clay when it was fired that no one could mix or reproduce with glaze or paint. It was full of life, and therefore of death. No clay-shaper who put their hands to it wanted to work with any other, and none of them lasted more than five years before it killed them: a vein opened with a buried shard of glass or pottery, infections that festered, fevers that ate them away, or sometimes simply clay hunger that ran wild, so they worked day and night in their workshops until they fell down dead.

The statues had been meant, at first, to stop the city’s clay-shapers dying. The law of Seven now decreed that the white clay could only be used to replace the statues. The desert and wind together ground them away little by little, and when a crack appeared, or the mouth and eyeholes gaped too wide to sing, or a surface was worn away to featureless smoothness, the council voted the honor of making a new one to the greatest of the city’s clay-shapers. Once that shaper had finished their statue, they alone had the right to use the clay for the rest of their life, which was as a result generally short.

It happened once in a generation or so, and the fierce competition drove the rest to new heights. The craft of the great workshops grew ever more refined, and the ships carried away ever more delicate and fantastic vessels and cups and plates to all the distant reaches of the world. And whenever a statue cracked, and a new grandmaster was crowned, then for three years or four, sometimes five, a brief furious blossoming took place, and set the style for the next generation.

Kath was not the grandmaster of her generation: that was Hiron. He was unanimously elected to remake the left-hand statue at the Sea Gate, three years before Kath’s marriage, and he died the year after it, of blood poisoning. Kath herself was not even born to a clay-shaper family; she was the daughter of a master ironsmith. But she married one of the lower clay-shapers: a very good match. Her husband had a small personal workshop where he made everyday pottery for the lower classes: even the poor in Seven were proud of the dishes they set on their table, whether or not they could fill them. Unfortunately, he inconveniently died after fathering three children in the span of three years, with contracts outstanding.

He had taught Kath how to throw a serviceable plate and bowl and cup by then. After the three children were put to bed, she closed the shutters and lit candles in his workshop and filled the orders. She claimed he had already made them, they had only been air-drying before they went to the kilns. The kiln masters were not supposed to allow anyone not a member of the guild to fire their work, but they were sorry for her, and the story was just plausible enough that they accepted her pieces for firing. Afterwards she pretended that her husband had laid by a very large stock, which miraculously matched what her buyers were looking for, and the kiln masters kept letting her fill the bottom rungs of their ovens.

But finally the end of her six months of mourning came round, and the kiln masters turned to Grovin, the most heartless of their number. He had neither wife nor child nor even concubine; he cared for nothing except to preserve and glorify the highest of the city’s arts. He had fired every one of the great Hiron’s pieces, before the grandmaster had died; it was rumored they had been lovers. Anyway, ever since he had found out that his fellow masters had been letting the widow’s work through, he had been making increasingly cold and pointed remarks about how the blowing desert sand wore away even the strongest porcelain. So they deputized him to ban her, and when she next approached pulling her week’s wagon-load, they all disappeared and left him to turn her away.

She had the baby in a sling across her front—Kath was far from a fool—and still wore her mourning gray. But Grovin paid no attention to the baby. He told her flatly, “Only a clay-shaper may use the kilns. Your husband is dead, and it is time for you to stop pretending to be what you are not and go back to your father’s house.”

There were six other unmarried daughters in her father’s house. It had been crowded even before she had borne three children. “But, sir,” Kath said, “surely you don’t think an ironworker’s daughter could make these?”

Grovin snorted, but when she threw the cover off her work, he looked, and then he looked again, and was silent. He bent and carefully took a piece out of the wagon, a small simple cup made for drinking vin, the strong liquor that the poor preferred. It was utterly contrary to the prevailing style, the one Hiron had set: Kath’s piece had no ornament or decoration except a thin waving ridge that ran around the bowl just where the thumb might rest, inviting the hand to move the cup round as was traditional, tracing the endless line around.

The debate over letting her into the guild raged for seven days and nights, and was decided finally only because Grovin said flatly that he would fire her work even if no other clay-shaper came to his kiln as a result, and if he starved, so be it. They knew he meant it. The masters of the clay-shapers’ guild quietly agreed that the scandal would make more trouble than Kath would, so they let her in.

And indeed she didn’t put herself forward; she continued to make only common, everyday pieces, and kept her prices low. But by the end of the year, there was a line at her door, and the poor reluctantly began to resell her older wares, because they could get too much money for them. Eventually she stopped taking advance orders: instead she made what she had clay to make and once a week opened her shop to sell whatever she had. Everything sold to the bare shelves.

The masters eyed her work uneasily. Hiron’s statue at the Sea Gate was a marvel of the most delicate sculptural work; there was not a surface without ornament, and at its unveiling, a noble visitor from Wilsara over-the-sea had said—no one doubted it—that its song was as rich and complex and beautiful as the ten-thousand-voiced Great Chorus of the Temple of Thunder in that great city. For the last six years everyone had been striving to imitate and elaborate on his style. Kath’s work seemed like a joke when one of her squat cups was put next to one of the grandmaster’s triumphant fragile pieces, but if you looked at it too long, you began to feel the terrible sneaking suspicion that you liked the cup better.

Barely a month after she was let into the guild, the first few rebellious journeymen, mostly young men who liked to gather in taverns and argue loudly about art, began to imitate her style instead, and talk of the virtue of simplicity. While the fashion ought to have changed at some point, it was too soon, and too far. But no one knew what to do about it. A small group of the masters decided to go and speak to Kath and point out to her the hubris of setting up her own school, but the attempt foundered helplessly on the shoals of her solidity: her house full of yelling small children going in and out of the street playing, an untidy stack of her own pottery worth more than a chestful of jewels sitting dirty in the washtub, and Kath herself apologetically serving them tea with her own hands, because she explained the one maid was sick. It was impossible to accuse her of grandiose ambition, even as the masters held their mismatched cups as carefully as live birds, staring down at them and forgetting to drink until the tea was cold.

“So they’ve been to peck at you, have they?” Grovin said, that evening. He ate dinner at their house now. Kath had brought him home with her after she had learned he ate a dinner bought from a stall alone every night, disregarding his protests: he hated children, he hated women, he hated her cooking, and he hated company. He wasn’t lying, he really hated all of those things, but whenever Kath threw a piece she liked very much, she kept it for home use—“That’s your inheritance, so watch you don’t break them,” she told the children—and he did like great pottery, so after the first time eating off a blue-glazed plate that swelled from a faint shallow out to a thin edge, with small scalloped indentations all around the rim, he kept coming, and ate with his head bent over and staring down at whatever piece Kath was feeding him from that night, wincing and sullen at the noise around him.

“They don’t mean any harm,” Kath said. “I don’t know what to say to them, though. I do what I like myself, that’s all I know how to do. I couldn’t do anything like Master Hiron’s work without making a mash of it. But I told them so, and that I tell anyone who asks me as much, and they only looked glum.”

Grovin knew the clay-shaper masters a great deal better than Kath did, and he knew perfectly well they did mean harm, by which he meant putting worse pottery into the world. “They’ll make trouble for you,” he said, but as it happened, he made the trouble, and worse.

 

Excerpted from Unfettered III: “Seven”

More stories from Unfettered III

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