Precious Little Things

A prequel to the magical novella Made Things, out now from Tor.com Publishing.

 

There is a book on the floor of Shelf Hall. Tam walks in its shadow, the spine raised above him like the ridge of a hill. His parents passed down to him the story of long ago when it held riches. The tribes had come to it from every dominion, braving the spiders of the Dusty Expanse, the rats of the Wall Paths and the fierce, infested tangles of the Bearskin Jungle, all to take their share of this fallen treasure.

Its title once read, in letters tall as Tam, On The Essence Vital And Its Uses. First they had stripped the gold from those indented characters and then begun the work of carving off the leather from the slanted slopes. The thread had been unlaced from its spine and the glue chipped off, to be taken and re-melted in a thousand pots.

These latter days, only the wood of its cover-boards remains. That and the mouldering paper within, which magicians still sometimes mine in search of legible lore beneath the rot.

Tam is not after wisdom, though. He is after gold.

High above that fallen tome is the Shelf. Craning the peg of his neck, Tam can barely see it, just a faint suggestion of form against the distant ceiling, like a cloud. He rolls his wooden shoulders and flexes the knuckles of his carven hands. He has a long climb ahead of him.

Tam can climb, though. With delicate work, he must make up in patience for the inadequacies of his rough, splintery hands. Give him a task that needs strength and tenacity, though, and he’s in his element. His fingers dig like roots into each new handhold, clawing at lichen, digging between the vast blocks of stone. He hauls himself up hand over hand, tireless and unbreathing. The interlocking pieces of his face are clenched into an expression of concentration.

The climb will take him a day.

Once, the lift platform from the Shelf passes him on its way down. He holds still in its shadow, the grimy, unvarnished wood of his body blending with the wall’s blotchy greys. The lift descends into the depths towards the floor of Shelf Hall. Tam does not look at those riding it, for fear they will feel his gaze. The Shelf is full of magicians.

Later, he sees the braided line of the lift twang and reel in, and he freezes once again as it swings past him, chased by the gaggle of shadows cast by the candelabra. The candles in Shelf Hall never go out.

And at last, after such a trial of reaching and hauling, he finds himself level with the great plateau of the Shelf itself. Towering over him is something he has only ever heard of: the goggle-eyed, tongue-sticking gargoyle, five times his height, that is the Right Bookend.

They are waiting for him when he arrives. Whether it was magic or just keen eyes on the lift platform, he cannot say.

Heaving himself onto the Shelf’s wooden plain he finds himself facing a sharp metal point. His antagonist is one of the Sculls, a man made meticulously out of metal mined from the pans of the Kitchens, his limbs and body cased in cast-iron spirals and whorls. A dozen smiths and craftsmen probably worked on this body, the child of some great rich Scull magnate, sent here to the Shelf to learn.

Tam is no-one’s well-made child. He is a rough creature of wood, fashioned from the dreams of a labourer for a life of labour, all that his parent could imagine.

The steel spear threatens him again. One solid jab will embed the tip in Tam’s body, and the Scull will lever him off the Shelf and let him fall. The Scull is stronger than he, and more skilled. Tam raises an arm in surrender. “Please,” he says.

Behind the Scull are some of the masters of this place, the Folded Ones of Shelf – few and fragile, and all of them magicians. Their intricate bodies are made each from a page of the great magical texts, painstakingly unlaced from its bindings. Each parent among the Folded Ones must puzzle out a design, crease after crease, that will turn a flat, unliving expanse into a body fit for the spark of life to inhabit. For them, creating a child is an exercise not of hard craftsmanship but of abstract logic.

One of them stalks forwards, her whole body flexing and breathing with each step. “What is your purpose here, Woodman?”

Tam bows his head, trying for respect but managing only an attitude of defeat. “Gold, Great Magician.”

“A thief!” the other Folded One exclaims, and the Scull draws back his glinting point.

“No, Great Magicians!” Tam protests. “Please. I am carving my child. I have her body laid out, every joint and rod of her. I have worked her as best I can.” Before their hostile regard his shoulders slump and he feels bitterly the coarseness of his articulation. Even the language of his body is a crude and halting thing. “I am a simple creature. My parent was a simple creature, hers before her and his before him. Each of us has trusted to what we had to make our children, and so we made them nothing more than we were. We are crude wood only.”

“As it should be,” spits the hollow voice of the Scull, but the first magician, the Folded Woman, rustles in disapproval and the metal warrior falls silent.

“And so you seek gold,” she clarifies.

“Gold is greatness.” Looking on her, Tam can see the gold leaf writing that covers every plane of her body. He has seen the great nobles of the Woodfolk, too, varnished and polished and set with precious metals. He does not aspire so high, but a little gilding would make his child beautiful. Perhaps then she could be more than he has ever had the chance to be.

“Gold is rare,” the Folded Woman says thoughtfully. “Many come to us – great steel lords of the Scullery, sandalwood-scented nobility, Waxworkers from the Candle Kings. They come seeking our learning and advice; they come begging us to take their children – to work them hard as servants if only we teach them our magic as well. They come for our gold, but we open the Casket of the Hoard for few, even though they bring us gifts from every corner of the Tower. What gifts do you bring us, Tam of the Woodfolk?”

Tam shivers when she pronounces his name, knowing that only magic can have carved it from his mind. “I bring you nothing,” he says, “for I have nothing except these two hands. I can offer only my labour: I am strong, I will not break easily. Use me however you wish, if only my child may be something more than me.”

The two Folded Ones lean close together and whisper in their dry, scratchy voices. Tam remains crouching low under the glowering metal stare of the Scull.

At last, the Folded Woman steps to the Shelf’s edge and looks over, heedless of the drop. If she falls, she will flutter and dance to the floor far below, stepping out of the air no worse for the flight. Tam, on the other hand, would shatter to pieces against the unyielding boards of the floor.

“That is a long, long climb,” she observes.

Tam can only nod.

“We have servants, many servants,” the Folded Woman says softly. “When the powerful visit us, the service of their people is first amongst their gifts. We would never lack for menials. Mostly we refuse such offerings.”

Tam sags, but says nothing.

“A remarkable effort, that climb,” she adds, and then turns her creased back on the drop. “Of all our visitors, none has come to us by such a route in many generations. I admire such dedication.”

Tam is braced for the refusal, hoping at least that he will be allowed to attempt the climb down. Weighted by disappointment, he does not know if he will make it.

“You will take your child to the Maker next Source-day?” the Folded Woman asks Tam.

“I will be ready,” he confirms. “I have even scored the grooves where the gold would go, if there was gold.”

“We have many apprentices offered to us,” the Folded Woman says. “But none of your kind; none with your determination. Determination is a great virtue in a magician. Tam of the Woodfolk, labourer, we will give you gold, but in return your child will come to us when she has learned to master her body. She will study, and we will see what manner of a magician the child of Tam might become.”

 

Many days pass before Tam is ready for his work to go before the Source. As with the wood of her body, so he had been slow and careful with the precious gold: melting down the curved shaving the Folded Ones had given him, pouring out the molten fire into his exacting moulds and then laying each thread and line in place.

She will be beautiful, if she lives. He cannot afford varnish or polish, but each segment of her body is carved with all the care a parent can give. Every joint moves smoothly, neither stiff nor loose. Her pegs and pins fit so flush that not even the least mote of grit can creep in to trouble her. Her face will be twice as expressive as his – he traded a year of his labour to an Artificer from Long Clock in return for the plan and pattern of her features.

He is ready now, though, every piece in place, and Source-day has come around, so he lays her in his handcart and takes her on the long road to the centre of his people’s world. Nor is he alone: dozens of parents, whole families, the great and the mighty, they are all on the same journey. At first he is surrounded by other common Woodfolk, and then he makes way for the caravans of the mighty who travel with guards and in comfort. Then there come men and women from other tribes: slouching Fabrickers with serpentine lower bodies, metal Sculls, even ornate Scrimshanders, the details of their surfaces inked into fearsome designs. And they are enemies, some of these folk, or have been, or will be. And yet, on a Source-day, all the people of the Tower come together as one and remember their common ancestry, that is the magic of their Maker.

Their oldest legends speak of when their world came into being: how, in another age, he fashioned the first of them with his own hands for his own purposes. There are a hundred variations, each of the tribes claiming they came first – and ten times as many explanations for how history has unfolded since.

Tam cannot remember his one past visit to the Source. That was when the spark of life had leapt to his crude wooden body, turning him from a thing into a person. He has heard tales, and had thought he was ready. When he steps into sight of it, though, he drops the cart handles and then drops to his knees. All around him, others are doing the same. It is not a vision to leave anyone unmoved. Some cover their faces, some throw out their arms in worship. The rich climb from their carriages or rein in their tame rats and ravens. The vista would take their breath away, if any of them possessed it.

There, in the centre of the Source Hall, stands the Maker, a gigantic form that their own approximations can only mock. Tam would not quite reach the bony knob of his ankle. His face is lost far above them, and the superstitious say that to gaze into those set features is to bring a curse down on any so foolish. The Maker’s flesh body is sheathed in a robe of heavy cloth that glitters with gold thread and arcane sigils. He stands with his arms out, frozen in place within a circle laid into the floor. Brass and gold, silver and unknown woods mark out that boundary, fashioned with a craftsmanship that all there can marvel at. And it crackles and glows with magical power.

Along with all the other parents, Tam walks as close as he dares to that searing barrier. Too far away is to risk the spark not jumping to the body he has spent so long crafting. Too close is to invite destruction, the magic arcing to him and incinerating him entire. All around him, each parent is choosing how far to go before laying down the body of their new-made child. Tam keeps walking, whilst around him others reach the edge of their courage, stooping to set down their burdens.

Somewhere close there is a flash and crackle of white power; some soul bolder than he has been rebuked for it. He smells molten wax, and knows some Candle Lord has burned once and forever.

He feels the air grow tight as a vice around him and his feet stop of their own accord. Before him, the edge of the magical circle is like a flat wall of silver light. Fingers of magic writhe across the Floor towards him.

Feeling every joint tight with tension, he sets down his handiwork and then backs away, watching for the moment when it ceases to be simply an exercise in carpentry and gilding and becomes his daughter.

She is one of the last to be touched, as though even the Source respects place and precedence over craftsmanship and honest toil. At last, though, the crackling lines of power brush the grain of her body and she jerks and flails and comes alive.

Tam names her Liat.

 

Liat takes a year to master a mind that can understand her world and herself, far less time than Tam spent creating her body. That mind will grow and change, while her hard form will only ever degrade. Not for her the long-preserved life of a varnished magnate. She has only a dozen short years, a score at best before wear and tear and damp will split and destroy her. She must make the most of them, and she is fated to live them through trying times.

When she is ready, her father takes her to the Shelf as he promised. Not for them the arduous climb of his first visit. They stand in the lift with other hopefuls whose near-mint bodies show their youth. Many will descend just as easily, turned away after falling short of the Folded Ones’ occult criteria. Liat is different; she is sent for.

That is one more mark against her, in the minds of her fellow students of magic. Most of them are the children of the wealthy; even the gold filigree that sets off her face and form pales before their lavish construction. She is the poor one, the one whose parent has no powerful friends, no wealth or influence. She has only the body Tam gave her and the mind kindled into life by the Source’s touch.

In the first year of her apprenticeship she learns much of the Tower which is her people’s world. She learns the deep history of the Maker – what little is known. She learns about all the tribes: paper, cloth, wood, metal, wax, bone, all the rest of them, the great and the small, the famed and the obscure. She discovers that there is a formal name the Maker gave them all: Homunculi.

In her second year, her fellow students – those who have not been summarily dismissed as failures by the Folded Ones – have grown to acknowledge her patience and determination. There are many who leap past her with their quick understandings, but she catches up with them all and exceeds most. Many still resent her as an upstart, but she carves away at their prejudice until she fashions it into grudging respect. By now she is learning true magic, the manipulation of the raw power that suffuses every part of the Tower. It is the magic of her birth; the magic that animates her people’s disparate limbs. For countless years before ever the first Homunculus was crafted had the Maker dwelled in the Tower and worked his spells. Magical energy spilled over from his every working until his home and everything in it sang with invisible fire.

The story she learned from Tam – the common story all the tribes tell – is that the Maker retreated to his circle because he loved his creations and wished them to have an everlasting well of life. So he stands, frozen in mid-invocation, and watches over his surrogate children.

A few unorthodox Folded Ones have a counter-story, after studying the workings of that circle for three hundred years. The Maker is trapped, they say. There is a flaw in his work that has undone him, caught him in a world that slowed and slowed until, for every second that passes within the circle, centuries flit by outside. They say the Maker does not care or even know about the tribes of the Homunculi who steal from his goods to craft their children, and from his power to give them life.

But even those few Folded Ones claim that he would be proud if he could know. Should he ever wake, they believe he would smile upon the kingdoms and principalities that have grown up about his ankles. He would, they are sure, be a just god. Why else make the first of them in his own image?

Liat goes to the hall of the Source several times to study the magical workings there. Once, a raven-rider takes her to cross the invisible beam of the Maker’s gaze. She stares at that fleshy face, and knows it for the exemplar of her own smooth blank eyes, the simple ridge of her nose, the deft slash of her mouth. No curse strikes her down.

In her third year of study, Tam makes the long journey to visit her. Seeing his coarse form, at first she is embarrassed. The snobbery of her fellow students has worked into her grain like invisible dust. One of her teachers – the Folded Woman who met her father years before – makes a point of greeting him respectfully in full view of everyone. Liat sees her own hollowness then, and runs to him.

Tam is worn down, his joints warped so that some movements are too wild, others grinding and stiff. He has lost some segments of his fingers and there is a crack running down from the crown of his head and through his face. Time comes for all the tribes: in rust, in rot, drying out or flaking away. Tam does not have long but, when he sees his daughter amongst the magicians, his face creaks into a smile that threatens to split it open with pride.

 

It is in that next year that the tribes of the Tower have their world changed forever.

They have some commerce with the world beyond their high walls. Those who are bold enough take the ravens out of the high windows and forage the wooded slopes beyond. It is a dangerous life – many come back damaged, and others not at all. There is little out in the world that finds a Homunculus palatable prey, but many creatures only discover too late for their victim that not all moving things are edible.

One of these raven-riders comes to the Shelf now because, in times of great disturbance, it is always to the magicians that the tribes turn.

He is a Fabricker, and he comes to them sodden with mist, his body scarred with old rips hastily darned. One of his eyes is a red bead; the other was lost long ago, leaving only trailing threads.

“Something approaches the Tower,” he tells them through grey cloth lips. “Something new, something huge, something…I dare not say. I will be cursed.”

So there is nothing for it but that one of the magicians is flown out into the vastness of the world to see this strangeness. Liat is among those who volunteers and it is she they choose. She knows it is a final splinter of prejudice, from those amongst the Folded Ones who have never quite accepted her, but she is glad to go. She has become an accomplished magician and, like her father, she sees boundaries as things to be overcome, not lived within.

So the rider coaxes his mount into taking the extra weight, and the bird flies off through the halls of the Tower, up to the highest chamber where the windows are. Here is the great expanse of the Bed, its sheets riddled with carefully cut holes where the Fabrickers have stencilled out the patterns of their children. Liat finds the experience of flight liberating rather than frightening. The beat of the bird’s wings say freedom to her.

The Fabricker she rides behind has the coil of his lower body grasped about the loops of his saddle; she herself has been tied in behind him. She is glad of it when the bird arrows through the empty gap of the window and the wind tries to make a plaything of her. Then she is too busy taking each new thing in – and failing, for the world is too vast, even this little piece of it. There are trees and clouds, earth and rock. There is the great blue vault of the sky above, that puts all the ceilings of her home to shame. But this is not what she has been brought here to see.

“There!” the rider tells her and leads his bird down. She sees the foot of the tower, the great grey wall that seems to rise up all the way to the sky, though she was almost at its apex so short a time before. She sees a great door of wood and brass that seethes with magic wardings to her sorcerous eyes. And before the door is a fire, and about the fire are things.

She knows them instantly. She understands why the Fabricker would not name them.

They are like the Maker. They are built on the same gigantic scale. They are made of the same flesh, whose life owes nothing to that spark of power that moves Liat.

They are three. Liat sees differences between them – and between them and the Maker – but all vast, all close as kin to her blank wooden gaze.

“Land,” she tells the Fabricker. He gives her a wild glance from his single bead of an eye, but he has the raven flutter down as close as he dares. They are a long distance from the fleshy giants, from Liat’s perspective. For the enormous creatures themselves, if they spotted her, they could lunge forward and grasp her without getting up from their fire.

Liat unties herself from the saddle and drops to the ground, vanishing amongst the undergrowth. She follows the glimmer of the flames, skirting beetles and centipedes that flick curious antennae in her direction. At last she is crouched in a tussock of grass, watching the giants. Their mouths open, voices rolling from them like distant thunder. At first the words are just noises but soon she can distinguish the meanings in there, if only she can open her mind wide enough to cram the vast words in. Their language is her language, the Maker’s language.

“Tomorrow I’ll try Isomon’s Compass,” one booms out. Liat names that one Red Coat for its most prominent garment. “I felt the warding weaken today under the Persuasive Awl, and the Compass is an extrapolation of that.”

“I say we get an axe and a little protection and just hack our way in,” says another whom Liat decides will be Steel Hat.

“How are you still alive?” Red Coat upbraids its companion. “This is Arcantel’s Tower. The actual Arcantel, the greatest mage of the Grey Age. You don’t go up against that kind of magic with an axe.”

You say it’s Arcantel,” the third grumbles. That one will be Mouse Face for, like the Maker, it has bushy growths all about its nose and mouth and chin. “I say it’s just some tower. Some hermit lived and died here, no more.”

“Some hermit with a whole barrel of magic,” Red Coat announces cheerily. “So hardly a loss either way. But let’s go careful. If the previous owner knew their stuff then we just don’t have enough protection to go in mob-handed.”

Liat calls on her own magic, little twitches of her wooden fingers shaping a lens to peer at the giants through. As their rumbling talk suggests, they have some power with them – not in their bodies, but in various objects about them. And plainly they are magicians of a sort.

“It’s going to be traps all the way up,” Steel Hat complains. “Demons and golems and phantoms.”

“Then save your axe for them,” Red Coat decides. “Now sleep and dream of treasure, and I’ll try some more tricks in the morning. Korda, you’ve got first watch.”

Korda – Liat prefers Mouse Face – grumbles even more at that, but remains sitting up as the other two lie down. Liat watches, fascinated: she had not thought that they would need to sleep like mice or ravens. It seems a ludicrous flaw in the construction of such mighty creatures.

A little magic casts a veil over her – harder to see, harder to hear and smell. She is leery of using too much enchantment – all too easy to hide herself but have the hiding spells give her away. She crosses the open ground between the grass and the giants in fits and starts, uneven and aimless as a dry leaf.

Mouse Face is staring out at the darkness, back to the fire, but those fluid eyes are looking for beasts of a size to cause these giants trouble, not for a little skitter of motion on the ground. Liat creeps about in Mouse Face’s very shadow until she reaches Steel Hat. The hat itself is beside the giant’s head and, for a moment, she pauses to regard that spectacular wealth of metal, wondering what the Sculls would barter for even a body’s weight of it. Steel Hat’s other garments are of many materials – she sees leather, bronze and a dozen different fabrics, many completely new to her. They have such riches! she thinks, amazed. About one of the giant’s fingers is a circle of gold that gleams in the firelight and she considers her own gilding, and how mean and poor it seems compared to such a quantity of precious metal.

The heat of the fire is beginning to feel uncomfortable and she moves on, keeping the great mound of Steel Hat’s sleeping form between her and the flames – and between her and Red Coat, for she is wary of the magician’s notice. She stops again at the giant’s waist, seeing there a leather band of great thickness, extravagantly ornamented with brass. There is a huge sack looped through it, and she steals forwards to examine it. It is a bag she could easily climb into.

She has with her a shard of glass knapped to an edge that can carve wood or kill rats, and with it she gently works at the sack until she has cut a slit into it. More gold meets her eyes: great sun-yellow discs such as the Folded Ones keep in their vast casket on the Shelf. She scuttles back from the sight of it, as though her covetous gaze alone might wake its owner.

By now she is so jittery that she can feel herself tremble at every point of articulation. Still, she moves round the feet of Steel Hat, that rise above her like mountains, and approaches Red Coat. The face of the giant magician is turned towards Liat, and she tries to read it, to parse the fashioning of those great coarse features. But the faces of the giants are too malleable to understand.

She is seized by a mad impulse then: to go to Red Coat and stand before those eyes and greet it, magician to magician. To welcome the Maker’s long lost kin to the domain of the Homunculi.

But that is not her choice or her place. Instead she runs back to the patient raven and its rider, and has them take her back to the Shelf.

 

Every magician is there to hear Liat’s report: allies, rivals, enemies, the potent and the newly apprenticed. She spares nothing, tells them all, her account concise and ordered. Then they question her: incredulous, horrified, eager, greedy, doubting. More than once she is called a liar, but the Fabricker is there to attest to much, and the rest she carries with her own words. The magicians are thrown into uproar. Their world is tottering: the giants themselves are dwarfed by the implications of their presence. They are ambassadors from a distant world that the Maker must have left to build his Tower. They are magicians, and perhaps each one of those enormous hands has the potential to craft whole new races of Homunculi. Perhaps there are countless other tribes of little people all through the lands of these giants.

And, while they talk, Liat thinks of Red Coat using its strangely named spells to test the magical warding of the Tower’s door. None of the Homunculi have ever thought about trying to open that door – the Tower is nine-tenths of their world and, for the rest, they have the ravens. Soon enough someone has a rider fly down to the tribes of the Base and the Cellar – the strange far people of stone and coal and cobweb – to tell them they may soon have guests. The raven returns swiftly, for messengers from the Base were already making the long climb of the Steps to warn the upper storeys.

And at last the Folded Ones and their fellow magicians come to a decision and call up every raven rider that will heed them. Messages go to each tribe to gather the wise and the mighty. This is no matter that the magicians can hoard like they do their gold. A new world is quite literally knocking on their door and all the nations of the Homunculi must decide how to answer.

The birds bring them in from every hall: representatives of a hundred tribes. Glass, steel, copper, wood, lead, stone, ivory, all the materials of the Tower are represented. Every one of them has a voice in the grand council, spread out on the Floor of Shelf Hall. There, the Folded Ones recount Liat’s story and the shock of knowledge ripples out through the crowd. They are no longer alone.

Speculation runs rife. Some speak of the magic these giants bring. Will they gift new life to the Tower, swelling the numbers of the tribes? Is the Source no longer the centre of their world? Others rub their crafted hands and consider the riches. What materials can be bartered for, with such founts of plenty? Or perhaps, some of the Folded Ones whisper, the giants will speak to the Maker and rouse him from the frozen moment that has held him for so long. Perhaps this is some destined final age of their world, and at last the Maker will look upon the sprawling civilization of his creations and see what they have built in his absence.

We have used his gifts wisely, some say. We have multiplied. We have carved and crafted each substance he left us, made the bodies that he has then gifted with the spark of life. He will be pleased, surely.

They talk of embassies – how they may best impress Red Coat and its fellows. Which tribe is the most splendid? Who shall speak the welcome?

By now, word has spread from the mighty to the lowly. There are a thousand competing threads weaving amongst the tribes: some of hope, others of fear. All they can surely know is that nothing will ever be the same.

All this time, the raven-riders and the magicians keep an eye on the giants as they work on the door. Red Coat tries enchantment after enchantment, and the Homunculi can see the warding weaken each time, slowly unravelling. Red Coat seems to work half-blind and fumbling, its eyes unable to see the magic as can those animated by it. More than once, someone suggests that they simply go and advise: what better way to announce their presence to the giants than with a helping hand, however tiny?

The magicians can see that another day, two at the most, will see Red Coat pick enough of a hole in the warding to open the Tower. The magic will remain, pent up in door and wall and floor, but the giants will be able to slip inside like one lifting a curtain to creep beneath it.

The great council of all the tribes has prepared its response by now. A grand delegation will meet the giants on the Steps, taking higher ground to make up for their smaller stature. They will have magicians to demonstrate their learning, beautifully crafted nobles to show their value. There remains much argument on that latter score, as to whose body will best please the eye of a giant.

Liat takes no part in these deliberations.

Liat co-opts a raven and travels to the Source. She wings past the stern visage of the Maker, caught in his eternal instant of concentration. If he knows of us, why did he not leave a smile for us? Then she has a rider fly her down to spy on the giants once more, in all their gargantuan splendour. She wonders at the sheer quantity of them, not the meat of their bodies but their tools and garb and possessions. Each one wears the makings of five hundred of her people. How we might profit from meeting them!

She watches Red Coat prying at the wardings, only half-aware of how close it has come to success. Mouse Face has gone hunting and comes back with rabbits, deftly shucking the skins off and setting them above the fire to burn as an offering. Steel Hat is in a foul mood. It has discovered the incision to its pouch and is complaining it has lost a coin – one of those sun-bright golden discs. Red Coat laughs and says there will be plenty beyond the door.

Watching them, Liat knows they are not expecting her world, nor can their homes be peopled as the Tower is peopled. They have brought no little companions with them on their journey. Beyond the door is more than the giants can ever guess at.

She flies back to the high halls and sits on the windowsill, staring out across the forested mountainside towards the blur of the horizon. Everyone knows that the world beyond the Tower goes on forever, but nobody knew how far Forever was. Now it seems there is an entire nation of Makers at some undreamt-of distance, for whom the whole world of the Homunculi is just one tower and a few trees.

She thinks of Steel Hat complaining about its pouch.

The council is still in session when she arrives on raven-back. The gleaming magnates of the Sculls and the varnished grandees of the Woodfolk are posing and strutting at each other over who should have the honour of greeting the giants.

“Hold!” She lands in their midst, the thunder of downbeating wings scattering all those shining lords and ladies. “Listen to me!”

 

The next day, Red Coat’s efforts finally twist the warding sufficiently out of shape that the three of them can enter. The giant magician takes the lead, Mouse Face and Steel Hat treading thunderously after it.

“Finally,” Steel Hat booms.

“What about the traps?” Mouse Face demands.

“Fizzard’s Diviner shows a truly huge concentration of magic in the upper levels, enough to stand out against all this background buzz,” Red Coat announces happily. “Fear not, valiant comrades, we’ve hit the motherlode. Get your flasks and sacks and pouches ready for filling, and step carefully.”
They move into the hall of the Base, where the Steps start.

“There are candles still lit,” Mouse Face points out. “Someone lives here.”

“That warding has stood for centuries, and if you can protect a door like that, you can keep a few lamps lit,” Red Coat says dismissively.

In the candle’s shadow, Liat and her fellow magicians crouch, still as sticks and stones and other unliving things. Will Mouse Face look closer, and discover their minuscule presence?

But Red Coat does not care about candles. Red Coat is heading for the Steps, and the other two follow her.

Liat feels for the magic in the walls and the floor – in the very air of the room. The Maker dwelled here so long that there is not a mote of dust that is barren of power. Around the hall of the Base, other groups of magicians are hidden. She feels them working, and adds her strength to theirs. Perhaps, compared to Red Coat, they are but tiny sparks, unnoticeable against the glare of the Tower itself. They are working together, though, and they are master crafters as all the Homunculi are.

She had thought about Steel Hat and the purse, and how angry the giant had been at losing even one coin. The giants are fabulously wealthy. Her parent Tam had been very poor. She understands the rich as the rich themselves – the other magicians and their patrons – cannot. She understands that the rich are not rich because they stop every day to share their wealth with those less fortunate. The polished chiefs of the Woodfolk did not come to Tam with gifts of rare timber and varnish; the aristocrats amongst her fellow students did not welcome their lowly sister with open arms.

She thinks about the Casket of the Hoard, that sits by the Left Bookend of the Shelf. Tam risked his life to win one little shaving from one coin from that Casket, the entire contents of which would fit easily into Steel Hat’s open hands.

She feels the great web of magic in the walls of the Base twitch and tighten, and knows the moment has come. Along with all the other magicians she pulls on it, twisting the flow of power around them, gathering up the strength of the thwarted warding.

“Wait!” Red Coat cries out, a hand held up, but the giant is a thing of flesh, not of magic. It can see the workings around itself only as dimly as Liat can perceive the far horizon.

Steel Hat fumbles a great edged weight of metal from its waist. Mouse Face tries to push past and get back through the door. Red Coat is calling magic, strong magic, brutal and clumsy and all too late.

The discharge of power about the Base illuminates every edge and surface of the hall, coursing through the magicians and all the families of Homunculi cowering in their homes. It incinerates all the mice and spiders and woodlice luckless enough to dwell in that room. A blaze of white fire lights on Red Coat and Mouse Face and Steel Hat and consumes them utterly, not even ashes left of their flesh and blood and bone. Their screams are vast and angry and brief.

But their unliving things, their goods and gear, remain untouched, just as the Homunculi themselves are untouched. One by one the magicians creep out and look down on their handiwork, and know that their people and their civilisation have survived the first great test of extinction.

For they were rich and we are poor, Liat thinks. And they would have taken everything we had and everything we were, and counted it as but little.

The next day, the magicians and leaders of the tribes meet and cautiously begin to discuss what happens next. A few claim that no more giants will come, but most accept that their years of isolation are at an end. They do not know if Red Coat was counted a great magician of its kind, or just an apprentice. The next to visit may not be so easily dealt with.

Liat talks and, when she does, they listen. Liat speaks of the wider world from whence the giants came. She speaks of magic that is not the Source but can be drawn upon. She speaks of colonies built around the magically charged devices the giants brought. She speaks of making new devices, seeds for a diaspora of the Homunculi. Wherever there is power, they can craft their children and give them life. She speaks of how far a raven can fly. She speaks of not waiting for the world to come to them.

They cannot make war on the giants, and if the giants come to them again, all their tribes and ways may end.

“So let us go to their world,” she tells the council. “Let us find our way into their homes. Let us carve at their wealth. Let us overhear their words. Let us learn their ways and their magic. And, when we are ready to offer peace to them, let us have grown strong enough to fight if they refuse.”

“Precious Little Things” copyright © 2019 by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Art copyright © 2019 by Red Nose Studio

citation

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