Mauboussin fished out of the pool not the ball but a dog-whelk. Noticing something golden glistening among the whelk’s corrugated whirls, the ’prentice sat down at the foot of the fountain to investigate. Embedded in the whelk’s shell was a ring, which Mauboussin pried free.
He examined the ring, forgetting the ball, the beer, even the other ’prentices and their talk about the women they planned to meet later that evening. He no longer heard the gulls overhead or the other sounds of the square. All the voices of the city dwindled for him, even the ever-present sigh of the ocean’s wind around the spires of the cathedrals. In the fading light, Mauboussin could just make out words inscribed on the inside of the band.
“Harryette, Brick’d, Belov’d,” he read.
A woman approached him, walking from the other side of the fountain. She was no older than Mauboussin, but wore a silk dress that had not been in fashion since the days of his great-grandmother at the very least. Mauboussin jumped to his feet.
“Mademoiselle, you startle me!” he said.
The woman said, “I am very sorry, sir, but you it is who startled me with your call.” Her accent was odd.
“I didn’t call you,” said Mauboussin.
“But you did, and there is the proof of it,” she said, pointing to the ring in Mauboussin’s hand.
He shook his head and wondered if she were mad. He could hear, as if from leagues away or from under water, his comrades across the square calling for the ball.
“Who are you?” he said.
“Harryette,” she replied.
Mauboussin shivered and held out the ring. “Then this belongs to you, I reckon.”
“Yes,” she said. “But you shall keep it, for that is a term of my rescue.”
She is mad, he thought. He turned to go but stopped, remembering that he had found the ring embedded in the shell of a dog-whelk. “Look,” he said. “I don’t know anything about a rescue, and I wouldn’t be much good as a rescuer even if I did. Allow me to return this ring to you and take my leave.”
“Don’t you know my story?” she asked. “Everyone does, though I sense from your accent and your mode of dress that you are a foreigner here, so perhaps you are unaware…”
“What?” said Mauboussin. “Me, a foreigner! I’ve been polite in not saying it, but you’re the one with the accent and the funny clothes. Sorry, not meaning disrespect, but since you said what you said. As for me, well, I’m born and bred here in the city.”
Harryette looked skeptical. Mauboussin shrugged and said, “It’s like this, Mademoiselle… Harryette… I’ve never heard of you, nor has anyone else ’round here.”
Seeing the look of anger and alarm on her face, Mauboussin added, “I’m sorry to have to say that, but the truth is better than poison, even if it sometimes tastes the same, as we say in the city.” His friends’ voices came to him through the elongated distance, like flies buzzing in a bottle. “I really must be going,” he said. He held out the ring again. She did not take it.
“Wait,” Harryette said. “Please, I am at a loss… you must help me… the ring found you, so you have no choice…”
Mauboussin shivered again. “Enough,” he said.
“Not enough. The finding of the ring compels you to take me to the Queen, to perform the three tasks necessary to gain my release.”
Mauboussin laughed. “Really, now the joke has gone as far as it ought! You are a good play-actor, I must say. Who put you up to this? Darton the baker’s flour boy? No, must be Nucian, the goldsmith’s whelp! Or is this an elvish prank?”
Harryette said, “Sir… I don’t know those you name, and I don’t consort with elves.”
“Regardless, you know full well that I can’t take you to the Queen, because there is no Queen.”
Mauboussin was startled to see tears start in her eyes, glistening in the even-light. “Now you it is who go too far,” she said. “No Queen? Do we not live in the City of Sunrise?”
“Precisely, my lady… there’s been no queen here for two hundred years. The last one lost her head to an ax in the Grand Square of the Reliquaries.”
Harryette swayed. Mauboussin reached out to steady her, and startled again. She was as cold as the grave. “We’ve been a republic these past two centuries,” he whispered. “As you must know.”
Harryette slipped out of his grasp. With a sob and the rustle of silk she darted around the fountain. Mauboussin called out and stepped after her, but she was gone. He stood blinking in the near-dark, looking around, as his companions came up to him.
“Here he is!” Nucian the goldsmith’s apprentice said. “Well, Mauboussin, what are you playing at?”
“I’m sorry, lads,” said Mauboussin. “But that woman, the one in the old-fashioned dress, detained me.”
“What are you talking about?” said Nucian, laughing. “We saw no woman, neither in new weeds nor old, and trust us cousin, we recognize a woman when we see one!”
Mauboussin said, “No, please, I’m serious. You must have seen her. She stood right there where you stand now. She spoke with me.”
“We saw you talking to the air and waving your arms about, didn’t we boys? Thought maybe you were in a spot of trouble.” Nucian slapped his cheek playfully. “What did you do? Drink out of the fountain? Brackish water gives one visions they say. Or maybe you’ve just had too much beer!”
On the fifteenth night she came back. Mauboussin had returned from another fruitless vigil at the fountain. He sat in his room under the eaves in the print shop, holding the ring to the light of one candle.
“Harryette, Brick’d, Belov’d,” he read for the hundredth time, and this time once again aloud.
“Yes,” she said softly.
Mauboussin jumped. “Oh, damn! You scared me half to… Where did you come from? How did you get in here?”
“I don’t know myself,” she said, sitting across the table from him. “But here I am, nevertheless.”
They looked at each other for a minute in the candlelight before speaking again. They could hear each other’s breathing under the sigh of the wind outside.
“Tell me your story,” he said. He looked into her eyes. He could not tell their color but he did not care so long as he could look into them.
“You really do not know, do you?” Harryette said. “So I really am lost.”
“I do not, truly,” Mauboussin said. “And I have thought of nothing else since we met.”
She smoothed out the folds of her dress and then refashioned the knot of her hair. Mauboussin watched as a chick watches the world for the first time. Harryette began:
“Some time ago—in the Years of the Crane, I think, not long after the war with the Jessicambrians, but my memory is fogged—I was like everyone else, happy and sad by measure, first a child, then a young woman. My father is—was—a merchant, not the wealthiest but not the poorest either. We lived in Dulse Street, do you know it? By the Splayed Cathedral and the Library?”
Mauboussin nodded. “The Old Library, we call it now. They built another one, the New Library naturally, over by the Kelp-Walk and Algernon’s Way.” He did not add that the New Library was over a hundred years old.
“Ah good,” Harryette said. She smiled. Mauboussin existed now in that smile.
“I read too many books,” she continued. “Not a flaw in principle, of course, but one that led me to dangerous conclusions. As a result of my reading, I fancied that I should marry a prince, specifically the oldest son of… our Queen. My parents tried to dissuade me. ‘Don’t be daft,’ they said. ‘Know your station. Aim for the son of the dealer in sailcloth, or the shipwright’s son over on Herring Close.’ But no, I was headstrong and would not listen. I must have the Prince or die. Alas, if only I had died instead of what befell me.”
No, thought Mauboussin. For then I would not have met you.
Harryette looked at Mauboussin as if she could hear his thoughts. She touched her hair and went on.
“I insisted on being presented at court, and in the receiving line at the great ball I said to the Queen, ‘I will marry your son, the Prince. Tell me what I must do to have this happen.’ Oh, for the ambition of foolish girls! The entire room fell silent. The Queen smiled, a smile to freeze your heart, and said, ‘Oh you will, will you? I applaud your forthrightness, though I am not fond of insolence. Let me consider what is to be done. Come back to me in a fortnight for your reply.’”
A tear ran down Harryette’s face.
“Oh for the cruelty of Queens,” she said, so low that Mauboussin barely heard her. “She sat on her throne, surrounded by her ministers, courtiers and soldiers, when I came back with my mother and father. I have never been in a room with a ceiling so far from the ground. ‘Well, here is the girl who demands to be married to my son. Not any girl but the daughter of… what is it you do, sir? Oh yes, a wholesaler in tar and rope and other ship supplies. Honorable, I’m sure.’ She smiled another one of her tiger smiles and the court laughed.
“I realized then that the books I read had played me false. ‘Your Majesty, I have reconsidered and understand now the inappropriate nature of my request,’ I said. But it was too late. The Queen had her mouse and was going to make an example of it. ‘No, no, my dear,’ she purred. ‘You shall have my son in marriage. Provided only that you prove your love first, in a small way, a tiny, inconsequential way.’ My parents and I bowed to the ground but no amount of bowing would have softened the Queen’s heart at that point. ‘To gain my son’s hand, you must find a champion who loves you as much as you profess to love my son. I will ask your champion to perform three tasks, three simple tasks, and if he succeeds, then you shall marry my son. If he does not, then you shall not.’”
Harryette paused and looked away from Mauboussin. The printer’s apprentice lost himself in the vision of the nape of her neck.
“‘How will I find a champion?’ I asked the Queen. ‘Oh, you won’t,’ she said. ‘He will find you.’ She held out to me then a golden ring, yes, the ring there on the table. ‘This is your engagement ring,’ said the Queen, and all the court laughed. ‘See what is inscribed on it? I will send this ring out into the world, and whoever finds it will be your champion. Until then we will find suitable accommodations for your wait.’ And with that she had me… had me taken from my parents…”
Harryette was crying too hard to go on. The candle burned low. Mauboussin came around to the other side of the table and knelt beside Harryette. He put a hand on her shoulder.
“Warm…” she said. “You are so warm.”
He held her until the candle went out. In the dark, he heard her breathing slow. Her hair was in his face. “What happened next?” he asked.
She said nothing for a long time, and then replied, “The Queen had me put in a tower, all alone with nothing but trunks of books. She had the tower bricked up, doors, windows, everything. The last thing I heard was the sound of the wind from the ocean, and then nothing, just silence and the echo of my own breathing. By her arts the Queen contrived that I not suffer hunger or thirst, and she caused there to be light for me to read, and read, and read… Ten thousand books mocked me in that tower, though they also consoled me in the hourless hours and monthless months.”
Mauboussin remembered with pride that the printers’ guild had been foremost in the rebellion that had ended the royal dynasty two hundred years earlier. He put his lips on her neck, a coal placed on marble. She sighed and moved until her lips met his.
At length he said, “I am reluctant no more but willing to be your champion. Only without a Queen, let alone the Queen, we are in a bind to be sure.”
Harryette kissed him again. “I have thought on this since the day we met. Here is what we must do: we must find a witch—there are still witches in the city, aren’t there?—and seek her advice. All spells have a lifting, even if their makers are dead.”
“Oh yes,” said the witch, when Mauboussin finished his story. “I know this tale. In fact, dear Harryette, I know it very well.”
Harryette, who was sitting next to Mauboussin, looked up as if she’d been spied upon.
“Yes, my dear, of course I can see you, I’m a witch,” said the witch, shaking her head. “All those years in the bricked tower certainly did not sharpen your wits.”
Mauboussin said, “Hold on there, Madam, that’s no way to treat—”
“Oh, simmer down, the two of you,” said the witch. “It’s just this sort of impetuous ignorance that got her in trouble in the first place.”
The witch got up and paced the room.
Mauboussin asked, “How did the ring get into a whelk’s shell?”
“Least important part of the story,” said the witch, shaking her head with a snort. “Who knows? We’re dealing with magic here, boy, something knotted and gnarled. Queen told the ring to hide itself, to not be found, and the ring did a fairly good job of that, seeing as how it went unfound for centuries.”
The witch pulled down several books from a bookcase. No one spoke for almost a quarter-hour as the witch skimmed rapidly through the volumes. The wind brought the smell of the shore into the house.
“As I thought,” said the witch at last, with her finger on a line in a book covered in sealskin. “Twisted and knotted indeed! Removing a spell when its maker is dead is no easy matter. There’s a heavy price to pay, and I do not mean my fee for telling you this. Look!”
“We can’t read this language,” Harryette and Mauboussin said.
“Of course you can’t,” said the witch, “silly of me, took twenty years to learn this myself. Listen closely then, children, for here’s the spell required to undo the curse laid upon Harryette. Usual bits about the full moon and walking widdershins in a graveyard, scattering petals of salt-rimed rose flowers, quite a lot of chanting in a prelapsarian tongue, and so on. I can help you with all that. But the potage you must offer the particular being who controls this sort of spell, that’s a different matter, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?” cried Harryette and Mauboussin.
“Ingredients are hard to find, one in particular,” said the witch. She read directly from the book. “Ten fingers freshly cut from the living hands of a human.”
The witch looked sharply at her two visitors and said, “Why? You seek advice on magic and ask ‘why’? The rules of the Old Spells have roots in the underworld and a grammar written in the whelming-heaven. Who are we to understand, let alone question? Now, do you want my help or not?”
Mauboussin put his hand in Harryette’s. He believed that the coldness of her was abated a little when he touched her. He opened his mouth, but Harryette spoke before he did.
“I won’t have blood spilled to save me,” she said. “I may not have learned much in the years of my imprisonment but that much I have always known.”
The witch nodded. “You are wiser than I gave you credit for. Spilling the blood of the unwilling is an evil. The Queen must have done so to create the spell she has trapped you in. Unfortunately, blood requires blood, that’s the logic of curses.”
Mauboussin stood up. He held out his hands and said, “Take my fingers, take my hands.”
Harryette stood up as well but stumbled as she did, “No, no, sweet Mauboussin! That is more than I could ask!”
“You did not ask, my love, I offered,” said Mauboussin. “Blood needs blood. This is the only way.”
The witch had seen many things in her long life, but never this. She said, “You move my heart! I will do what I can to make the operation as painless as possible.”
More than that, the witch thought deep into the darkness of a month’s nights about how to replace Mauboussin’s fingers. She consulted books written in tongues long unused, she spoke with a wizened head she kept in a jar under her bed, she whispered into a crack in the attic and listened to the voice that whispered back.
“Mauboussin,” she said. “Do you by chance know a good goldsmith?”
“Yes,” said Mauboussin, looking at Harryette. He knelt down and placed his left hand on top of a tomb, thumb and fingers spread wide. Harryette held Mauboussin from behind, clasped him so hard that his bones felt like ice.
Harryette whispered, “Oh, I love you so.”
Nucian shouted, “Cousin, don’t do this!”
Mauboussin said, “Brother, I must!”
The witch, in two deft movements—chunch, chunch!—severed Mauboussin’s fingers and thumb. Mauboussin cried out; Harryette staunched the gushing hand.
“The other,” said the witch, and they repeated the process. She bound the ten fingers together with silver thread, as if they were asparagus, and threw them in the bubbling pot. She chanted for a long time. Something under the earth chanted in counterpoint. Groaning filled the air to match Mauboussin’s.
Suddenly the chanting and groaning ceased. Flames shot up from the cauldron and then the cauldron melted, dousing the fire beneath.
“Quick!” said the witch. “The other spell, the other spell!”
Nucian gasped, “She’s real then, this fantasy lover of yours!”
Mauboussin, writhing, grunted, “You can see Harryette?”
“Enough chit-chat!” said the witch. “Now, the other spell!”
Nucian brought out a leather folder, untied it, and opened it with trembling hands. On the black leather were ten golden fingers, with perfect joints and fingernails, glistening in the moonlight. The gold was elvish, from the witch’s hoard, made fast by a spell she cast, but the workmanship was Nucian’s.
“My masterpieces,” said Nucian.
The witch sang something that sounded like springtime, and sprinkled tincture of terebinth on the fingers.
Mauboussin passed out for a minute and, when he came to, he put his arms around Harryette without opening his eyes. She was as warm as he was.
“Open your eyes,” she said.
Mauboussin did. The first things he saw were Harryette’s eyes, which were brown. She looked down at his hands. He looked down too. He had ten golden fingers, warm and alive and perfectly matched (except for their color) with his hands.
Mauboussin held up his hands to the moonlight, laughing and crying. He held Harryette close, marveling at her warmth. He pulled in Nucian, promising the goldsmith’s apprentice free beer for the rest of his life. He tried to pull in the witch, who resisted with a smile, and stood a little ways off as witches are wont to do.
“Come,” she said. “This is no proper place for celebration. Best not to tempt those who chant from beneath.”
Later that night the witch took her leave from the three young people in front of her house.
“How can we ever thank you?” said Harryette.
“Hmmm, you should have learned more in that bricked prison of yours,” said the witch, but not ungently. “Thanks is not my due, payment is.”
“We’ll pay for the melted pot,” said Nucian.
Mauboussin shook his head. “That’s not what she means. Is it?”
“No,” said the witch. “One of you, at least, is learning. But, come, I will not spoil such a successful evening by rendering my bill. As I said, your sacrifice moved my heart. Witnessed love mutes the concerns of commerce. Rest assured: I will not saddle you with a debt you cannot meet.”
So the three young people went home. Everyone marveled at Mauboussin’s golden hands, but received very vague answers to their questions about how he got such beautiful fingers. He was the inspiration for a fashion in the city that year for gloves made with gold-embossed fingers. Mauboussin and Harryette were married later that month. Mauboussin placed on her finger a golden ring inscribed to “Harryette, Brick’d, Belov’d”. Nucian was the best man. Whenever any of the other ’prentices asked Nucian where Mauboussin had found such a smart, beautiful wife, Nucian only shrugged and said, “With her nose in a book.”
The witch declined the invitation to the wedding. What she asked in payment for her help is the subject of another story.
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