After I opened my eyes they dressed me in silk. A bone-white gown slipped over my head and I raised my arms for it like a child. With my hair undone, I must have looked like a bride. I was nothing of the kind.
My gown hung on me like a sugar bag. I stood in scraps and patches of fabric. I bound ribbon around my waist, and crossed it over and over between breast and hip. I would be presentable if nothing else.
I was barely minutes old.
Two huge faces loomed over me. The one with brown slick hair and freckles gave a nervous laugh, and his hand came up to slap the other man on the shoulder. "Look at her, the little beauty, already vain as a peacock. You can tell what she's made of."
The other man did not take his eyes of me. "She can hear you," he said. His hair and whiskers were tawny. With wire glasses perched on his nose, he looked like a literate lion.
They were vast. I could feel and smell their breath, the air they displaced when they moved. I stood and waited for them to be still, to notice me properly.
"I am hungry," I said into their silence.
The lion-haired man pressed his mouth into a flat line. He took a needle and stabbed it into his finger-tip. He squeezed out three drops of blood onto a waiting pinch of bread, and offered it to me. His hand was as long as I was tall.
"What is your name?" he asked.
The blood-bread was good. I swallowed and felt less empty inside. "I am small, am I not? And very beautiful, I can tell. I will thrive where others fade. I think you may call me Viola." I did not look at the other man.
"Welcome, Viola, and good evening to you," he said perfectly seriously. He was the one. "You may call me Anton Kovacs."
I had finished the blood-bread. I made him a deep curtsey, sweeping my gossamer skirt across the table of scraps and patches. "Well met, Anton. I suppose that I am Viola Kovacs also." He frowned and I wondered how I had displeased him. There were manners for company, I was remembering, although I knew not how. I was just-born.
"And would you be so good as to introduce me to your companion?"
Now he smiled. "With pleasure. This is Captain Zoltan Farago, of the Duchy Guard."
I made him a curtsey also, but not so deep as the first.
"Good evening, Captain Farago." He raised a finger to his forehead and gave a small salute. "Good evening to you, Miss Viola." He was not rude, but I could tell that I would need to encourage him to take me more seriously.
"Now gentlemen, if you will forgive me: how did I come to be so small?"
I was created out of blood, spit, and a lock of hair, they said. I am a homunculus, a fingerling. I was small because my maker Anton made me so, and because the ingredients are necessarily of small quantities. A small, great magic. I could go where he could not, hear what he could not, and do what he could not. He was a scholar and the Duke of Vertumn's man, whereas I was made for secret deeds and daring.
Anton laid out clothes for me. He had a mighty doll's house prepared, which he moved into his quarters. I could dress and sleep there in privacy, with the wall of my house latched shut. I could carry tiny candles of thread and beeswax to light my path.
For my first audience with the Duke, Anton carried me in a deep pocket. He did not wish to risk having me crushed underfoot. I bumped and swung like so much baggage until he let me out and I stepped onto the table in front of His Grace.
I made him a curtsey, but not quite as deep as the one I performed for Anton.
"Good afternoon Your Grace. I hope I may serve you well."
His Grace peered at me with hooded eyes. His mouth was wide and red. He looked more like a pirate than a prince. With the rudeness I have since learned is the privilege of the very well bred, he spoke to Anton as though he had not heard me.
"By God she is like!"
It was discourteous to turn my back on His Grace, but I had to see my maker's face. There was pride and pain there. He held himself tall.
"Yes, Your Grace."
"And you say she is the first?" I looked again at the Duke of Vertumn. As he spoke, his mouth seemed so large that I could fall inside and be lost.
My Anton spoke with warmth. "Certainly she is the first I have made. I know of no other in your Duchy. I believe I am the first in our part of the world to have succeeded in bringing a fingerling to life. She is yours to command, Your Grace. She is the Duke's fingerling, just as I am the Duke's man."
I wondered if I should curtsey again, but thought better of it.
"Make her useful, Kovacs. Or do away with her."
Perhaps because I was Anton's creature, and not merely a real woman, I quickly learned all I was taught. I came into the world on a summer's evening. By autumn I knew how to make and administer twelve poisons, their antidotes, and three sleeping draughts. I could give a drug to make the target seem mad. I could climb on a thread and grappler made of two nails. I was taught tumbler's tricks from one of the Duke's own jongleurs, to back-flip, balance and bounce. I studied locks and latches, and how to oil and turn these mechanisms. Deportment I knew as if by instinct, as I knew how to speak and dress.
Anton gave me trews and a cotta of wool, a leather jerkin, boots, gauntlets, and chemises of silk, including one of palest rose. He gave me a needle poniard, which I dipped in poison. If he ate in our quarters, I asked to taste his food, and in time he would prepare a smaller portion for me of whatever he ate or drank. I tasted spiced beet soup with pickles, dumplings of mushrooms in butter, vodka sprinkled with gold dust and honey, and stews of pork and sour cream. But everyday he still fed me his blood and bread, and it was this I truly craved. At all times, I sensed a hollow in my middle that made me hungry.
Only his blood given on bread eased that nagging, and for a while I was satisfied.
My first assignment came, delivered in a letter by Captain Farago. It had the Duke's seal, and was to be burned as soon as we had read it.
"Imre Modos." Anton swallowed as though the goldwasser we all drank was unpleasant.
"Resign yourself," the Captain said, smiling. "His Grace will have his way in this. You know the tension between the Palace and the City. Another, more amenable, has already been chosen to replace Modos, and no one wants to wait." He turned to me and raised his fragile glass. "To Viola. You will carry the day, my beauty. We need you both." He drank back the goldwasser, stood and bowed to me and Anton. "His Grace gives you two weeks. God speed you."
When he left, my maker and I looked at one another. I shifted from foot to foot and then performed a pirouette. "This is what I was made for," I said with glee. "Now we come to it."
"Now indeed." Anton rubbed his hand over his eyes. "No one else must suspect, Viola. It must look like natural causes. You must arrive invisible and leave the same. And down through the streets of the city there are rats and cats—all your energy would be spent fighting through them, not your target."
"Do you have a plan?"
"I may. Let me look into the means of transport. Will you look at the maps of the streets, and plans if I bring them? Let us prepare carefully."
Anton was mostly absent the next two days, although he fed me as usual. I do not think he slept much. Myself, I slept deeply and woke happy.
On the evening of the third day he brought a book. He wore the look of a man who is both full of dread while yet barely able to contain the most wonderful surprise. "Metamorphoses," I read aloud. "Who is changing?"
He smiled. "If this works, we can do it tonight. I will be your wings." I think he was so pleased with his surprise that he didn't want to spoil it. He walked to the window and opened it. "Stand back Viola."
He took a snowy feather nearly as long as his fore-arm, in his right hand. Slowly he poured precious salt about him in a circle on the floor. He spread his left hand, palm down.
The salt circle began to shine. Light drifted upwards, blue-white like fireflies. I didn't think he could see me now. His own face was terrible and wonderful to see. I wanted to rush into the circle, but I remembered what he said.
Then he said the Word. I will not write it, but my every fibre trembled, and I could not stand. Every part of me wanted to be in the circle, in the light. Every part wanted to be mindless nothing, scraps on the floor.
He screamed and it became a shriek. He shrank and spread his gold tipped wings, beating them in figures of eight, hovering as barn owls will over mice in a field.
The light was gone. He broke the circle and swooped to the back of the chair. There he shook out his feathers and sidled a little, and turned his flat white face to me. Gold eyes were shuttered and then were bright.
"Who?" He said.
I changed my chemise from rose to black and I braided my hair. I gathered everything I needed for this adventure. Needles sheathed in leather, poisons, ropes, tools for locks. All were packed and strapped to my back.
The owl waited, his face turning to follow me wherever I went. When I was ready, he leapt awkwardly to the table and crouched low for me. Anxious not to hurt him or pull at his feathers, I climbed atop him. And then I stopped for a second and buried my face in the sweet soft down of his neck. His flat face turned towards me, over his shoulder, as owls will. He shuttered his eyes and I hid my face again. Never had I imagined such bright heat, such a quick heart beating beneath these feathers.
He ruffled up and then settled his feathers and I gripped his sides with my knees behind his wings.
He launched himself across the room to the window, and paused a second. I could see the spires and domes of the Palace in the setting sun. Then my stomach dropped as he swept out into the air, and bore me up over the roof-tops to our prey.
There was no moon. We waited until all was quiet below and the fires were banked for the night. The owl perched on a finial. From the southern chimney I ran a line down the wall, and slowly walked myself down in a harness, blessing the gauntlets Anton had given me; past the attic windows, the third storey, to the second. The garden lay out below me, an immaculate labyrinth of hedges and pathways. Every step was strain, leaning out against the rope and gravity. I swung out to the window sill, and my feet kicked and touched it.
The window was shuttered against the cold. I oiled the shutters and opened them with a picking tool, slipping up the latch between the cracks. They swung out, not in. One knocked me flying and I dangled, swearing and precarious from my line as the whole world spun. Next I opened the lead and glass window. Again, the mechanism could be slipped open with a fine piece of wire. Another line, made fast to the first with a rope-mender's hitch, and I slithered down into the room.
I crept across the enormous open floor. The room was larger than our quarters in the Palace. Embers rustled and popped in the fireplace, but I saw no dark shape or glimmering eyes of a cat warming itself in the red glow.
The sound in the bed stopped me: a higher, whispering rustle and a low snore. There were two sleepers, not one. I scaled the foot of the bed, to give myself the best view of my target.
Imre Modos slept cosily with his wife, wearing a night cap to ward off draughts and evil. He was a thick necked, older man with hairs growing wildly from his ears. It was his neck I wanted. I clambered and slipped over to his pillow. There was the place, a fat spot beneath his ear. I drew my needle poniard, and wiped fresh poison over it until it gleamed; fit to stop a man's heart. I sunk it in deep and he grunted in pain, slapped his neck and rolled violently, dragging me tangled in the covers to the centre of the bed. His wife drew him close and I was crushed between their sleeping embrace. He twitched and muttered in his wife's arms. I waited, too suffocated and terrified to move until his breathing slowed to a snore, a rattle, and then finally stopped.
Slowly, slowly I picked myself out from between the folds of the counterpane and their massive bodies and slid to the floor, trying not to make a sound. A draught from the window or his very stillness might wake her soon. I must move. I wiped the blood and poison from the poniard with a cloth, and sheathed it, then gathered my tools and scaled up to the window. Then the slow terrifying climb back up to the roof. The owl waited like a white shadow to take me home.
The next afternoon, the Duke of Vertumn's court were all shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Mayor Modos. Anton and I slept until the sun went down, when Captain Farago came with red wine and gold to celebrate. We ate and drank together, until everything went topsy-turvy and I sat on the table giggling.
"Look at her, can't hold her wine!" Captain Farago seemed to find everything hysterically funny tonight. "Come on, Anton," he stood up and took my maker by the arm. "There are lots of pretty ladies who can drink more than a thimble-full. You spend too much time on your own in here."
Anton stood obediently, gently swaying. "Nooo," he said. "I can stay here. Those girls prefer you anyway."
"They may like the Court Alchem—alchemist though. You're the youngest alca—alchemist I've ever seen."
"Just a scholar yet."
"Not when the Duke names you."
"I've made a little savage, Zolo. She's nothing like her. She's empty. All needles and poison." I peered up at my Anton, and tried not to laugh at him.
"Come and find a real woman then. Someone warm and willing and the right . . ." Farago gestured a woman's generous shape, and dragged his friend away.
When I stopped giggling, I sat in a little daze. A real woman?
I could hear distant music and drums. Somewhere below in the belly of the great Palace, men and women danced together, and beguiled the time. If I closed my eyes, I could see the sweep of gowns and doublets in red, blue and green. Their hands would meet, palm to palm, or the men would lift their partners up and linger a little as they gently dropped them down.
In the end I took myself to bed. I never heard Anton come home.
With Anton's new status came all manner of luxuries. I asked for more gowns like the first, for dancing in; but he would have none of it. So one night I put on my only dress and brushed out my hair. I lit tiny lamps of thread and beeswax, a pathway of stars in front of my doll's house. I swirled and pranced like a child in the silence. I spread my arms and shook my hair until it shone in the light. Then I picked a lamp for company and danced a sarabande alone, among the pinpoint flames, but not so close I'd set myself on fire. I wanted to shine like a beacon and draw him to me. I wanted him to see me.
"You shouldn't dance like that," he said.
"I am alone. I may dance as I choose. There is none to let or hinder—none to see but you." I could not help but meet his eyes when I said this. I wanted to see: did he like the dancing?
He drew his mouth into that flat line again, but he spoke gently. "Viola, you must know there can be no dances for you. All the Duke's work depends on secrecy. You must be our secret."
"All is well, Anton." My voice shook as I said it, but I wanted him to believe, to let it be. "This is just in play. I know there will be no balls and no dancing. For who would be my cavalier?"
"Forgive me, I didn't think you would—could be lonely." He reached out his hand but dared not touch me. "I worry I might knock you down if I'm not careful."
I knelt in a pool of silk and placed my hand on the tip of his ring finger. I think it was the first time I remember feeling human skin.
The whorls on his fingers were like little ploughed fields swooping over and over. I sighed and leant my face into his palm, and he let me. But it was no use and small comfort. There was no one to put their arms around me, none to kiss me. I could scramble all over my maker and find no solace there. He was too big and I was too small.
Anton drew a chair over and sat down, leaving his hand resting on the table as best he could.
"Why do I remember dancing?" I asked him. "Why do I want to be held when there is no one in the world to hold me? How can I feel lonely? Sometimes I feel so sad."
He drew a breath. He looked like a boy in my candle-light.
"The needles you carry are not all in scabbards, are they, Viola?"
Had I displeased him?
"I think it is because when I made you, I drew up a part of myself. You're all the things I can never be, but you have a share of what I know."
"So I am part of you?"
"You are part of me."
"But now I remember things that you do not. You can't fit yourself inside my mind to know what I know."
"So I am a different person now. And we don't do anything together, except when you feed me, or teach me a poison, or when you took me out to kill. The world seems enormous. I've never been outside the Palace except once in the service of His Grace."
Anton looked as though he was thinking about tomorrow, and what he could spare. "Would you like to go outside?"
"Yes please, Anton."
"Wait there." He stood up and walked across the room to open the mullioned window. Pale blue light shone through onto the floor. The air from the window was so cold it hurt to breathe, and utterly quiet.
"If you trust me, we can keep the Duke's secret, but you can see a little of the world. Would you like that?"
I swung like a rat down my rope ladder to the floor.
"Show me how," I said.
He laughed outright. "Come on then, my Lady Intrepidity." He reached for salt and the feather of the barn owl.
I ran across the floor to his feet.
One morning late that winter, there was a commotion so tremendous that even I heard it in our quarters in the attics of the Palace. From the little I could see, a great train of carriages and riders had arrived. A tremendous retinue, with some noble lord or lady at the centre like the sun, I supposed. Outside the door, footsteps ran constantly and voices sounded. Anton dressed, fed me hurriedly, and left with barely more than: "Good morning."
I was not at a loss. I dragged out one of Anton's alchemical books and was reading it when Captain Farago opened the door. He smiled when he saw me. "Are you never bored when Anton is not with you?" he asked.
I looked up from the page I was lying in and sat up. "I make it my business not to be bored," I said. "How are you today, Captain?"
He shifted from one foot to another. "Well, Viola, very well."
He was staring. It must be that he had caught me lounging in a book as though I were sitting in a meadow. I stood up and dusted myself off. "I feel you have me at a disadvantage though, Captain. I had not anticipated company this morning, as you can probably tell." I smiled as charmingly as I could.
He looked delighted. "It's just as well that I'm able to find you alone," he said. "I have a business matter to discuss with you."
This surprised me. "Would you not prefer to wait for Anton?"
"No," he said. "Would you mind if I sat down?" I indicated a chair which he drew up to the table. "You have proved yourself. You do what you have been made to do. Anton will never enjoy killing, but you do, don't you? And you are quite good at it."
This gave me pause. I hadn't considered whether Anton's tastes and feelings might differ so markedly from my own. "Perhaps you're right," I said.
"You don't need to involve him," he suggested. "Anton is Court Alchemist now, and he is a busy man. Your assignments could still bring in wealth and the regard of His Grace for both of you. The Court, like the world, functions best when people do the work they are fitted best for."
His words distracted me. The difference between what Anton might want and what I wanted was a puzzle I was still working through. "Do you have an assignment for me, Captain?"
"To the point as always. Yes, I do. There is a woman, Lady Elizabet, Countess Romhegy, who is newly arrived at Court."
"Ah, she is the one who is making everything so busy today," I said.
"Well, she is one of them," Captain Farago agreed. He passed me a letter in His Grace's own hand, with his seal upon it. My Lady Elizabet, Countess Romhegy was to die quietly as soon as it could be contrived.
"I cannot stress to you enough how important it is that this remain a secret. Anton himself must not know. You must leave no sign of your presence, and if you are discovered there will be no help for you. His Grace will not be compromised, Viola, especially by his own creature. If asked, I would deny all knowledge of his order and you must do the same if caught."
"If she is so important, will she be guarded?" This was interesting, something I had not had to consider with Mayor Modos.
"Men from His Grace's Watch will patrol the wing, and the Countess Romhegy's retainers will guard her door; but her chambers are private. Of her retinue, you should only have a maid-servant to concern you, and if you are quiet she will never know you are there. Can you find her quarters from here?"
"I can find her apartments," I said proudly. "They are in the state wing, are they not? We have the plans for the whole of the Palace."
"You can always trust Anton to have what you need."
"That is why we love him," I smiled. It seemed a joke I'd heard before somewhere.
He looked a little white. Perhaps he was also not altogether comfortable with His Grace's business. He threw the letter into the hearth and the wax quickly caught fire.
It was a good thing I was fitted for my work, all needles and poison, I told myself. Anton did not come back all that short winter's day. I read plans of the state apartments, and made notes into the twilight. All living quarters in the Palace had service corridors where servants could walk without offending the eyes of their betters, and a system of pulleys, lifts and hatches, where hot water or food could be delivered. There were also spaces too small for even the tiniest human maid to creep through. By nightfall I was mistress of all these.
Anton returned to sleep in his bed at last. I gathered my tools as quietly as I could, and then stopped to look at him. Should I wake him? There was a softness to his mouth and brow when relaxed in sleep. He looked dear, but very tired. I left him and crept through a servant's door that led through the labyrinth of corridors and hollow spaces to the state apartments below.
I entered Elizabet Romhegy's rooms through a hatchway for delivering hot water for washing. It was now long past midnight and all was quiet. Embers glowed red, carefully banked in the hearth, and the blue light reflected from snow glowed through the un-shuttered window. There was a low bed in the corner. Probably the noble lady's maid or companion, I thought to myself. I checked for cats or nasty yapping dogs but found none, so I crept across the floor to the heavily draped four-poster bed in the centre of the room. The drapes formed a useful hand-hold for me to grapple and swing my way up onto the coverlet.
Elizabet Romhegy was a quiet sleeper. She lay on her back with her mouth open slightly. She was not pretty and was quite old—at least forty, I decided. She had a big nose and some of her teeth were bad. I crept onto her pillow and waited for her to turn onto her side. Finally she did, and I leaned over her ear. This poison would give strange but lovely dreams before the sleeper died. I had not liked the sounds Mayor Modos made after I poisoned him. I un-stoppered my vial and dropped the viscous liquid into her ear. Sleep well, lady.
A smelly, hairy scrabble of limbs dropped on me from above, shrieking and snapping its teeth in my face and knocking me down. Pinned beneath it, I could not draw my poniard, so I bit and clawed and wriggled as the Countess's pet monkey pulled and tore and pressed me with its hideous hands.
Another scream and a light. A stout woman in a night-gown beat first at the monkey, and then at me. Elizabet stirred slowly and threw a pillow over her head, knocking the monkey and myself to the floor as the maid chased and beat us about the room, shrieking "Guard! Catch it! Catch it! It touched my Lady! It touched Her Grace!"
I ran under the bed, under couches and tables with the monkey behind me gabbling and clutching. Nowhere was safe and there was no retreat.
There was a shout and a mighty crash as the Countess's men and Captain Farago burst through the bedroom door and into the room. The monkey screeched and leapt for the bed post.
I was caught out in the open like a rat or a fox, while they stared and yammered and jostled each other to see. Never had I felt so small. I drew my poniard and wiped it with poison. Anyone who laid hands on me would pay dearly.
The window exploded in a shower of glass and the white owl hovered over my head as owls will over mice in a field. He folded his wings and stooped for me, grabbing me in his talons while Captain Farago stared at him in complete astonishment. Then he leapt for the air as Captain Farago hurled his sword at us.
The owl did not stop at the shouts of His Grace's Watch across the parapets. He flew straight and sure across the roof-tops of the Palace, but an arrow took Anton as we reached the edge of the Duke's gardens and the woods beyond.
We plummeted into the snow. I staggered to my feet. He lay as a man again, blood from his shoulder soaking into the white where the arrow pinned him. I tried to bundle his cotta up around the wound, to press it and slow the bleeding, but my hands were too small to do any good. I was bloody to the elbows and still he bled.
I had not known fingerlings could cry.
Anton raised his other hand to feel the arrow and the blood there, and pressed the cotta down around it. His hand met mine.
"You . . . idiot," he said. He swallowed and looked as though he wanted to be sick, but if he had the breath to call me an idiot, perhaps he'd live. "They'll be coming. Didn't . . . you know that . . . was Her Grace . . . the Duchess of Vertumn? She . . . and the Duke . . . don't speak. One . . . young girl . . . too many. You can't win against them. We could have left. We should have left long ago."
I felt anger, hot and satisfying through tears. "How could I have known? You kept me prisoner in that room all this time. I know nothing but what you tell me. I'm only six months old!" I pressed down on the wound harder and that made me feel better. He crushed my hands under his.
"Viola." He looked around him. "Come close to me. I have my hand on the arrow. That . . . will have to do." I crawled around to his shoulder, to his face. "Are you ready? Keep it safe. Use it as you will." He breathed the Word into my mouth. It passed between us like a sigh, like wings. "It's the word of change, of Amen. I've barely . . . begun to learn how to use it. The Duke mustn't have it. You're its creation. Be its vessel . . . till I call you back or you find a way to me."
I heard the first shouts and the baying of hunting dogs, and then the sounds of running in snow.
"I don't know any magic."
"Good time . . . to learn."
"I'm not letting them have you."
He made a sound like "huh." He was running out of breath and words and blood. The Word took up residence in that hollow place in my middle. I felt it, wanting to be spoken. Anton was shivering. He had one last word left on his tongue when all others were gone.
"Ilona." That soft sound was like a prayer.
My heart was full.
I was still how I was made. I reached for some of the bloody snow and ate it.
I stood up, drunk on the Word and his bright heart's blood.
"You fool," I said, "Get up and live."
I placed my red hands on his wound. "Be healed."
The wound spat out the arrow. The flesh knitted before my eyes, but there was more work to do. I laid my hands over his frantic heart. "Heal," I commanded.
The snow flashed blinding. The Word stood on the tip of my tongue. I opened my mouth and remade the world.
The Duke of Vertumn's guards were too late across the heavy snow. Two barn owls took flight into the forest.
We slept under each other's wings in a hollow tree. The Word lay quiet in my middle at first, but then by nightfall, I could feel it, wanting its finder, its maker, my Anton. With every wing beat it grew, and I could not contain it, until I bled a trail of dreams and impossibilities behind me that even a blind man could follow.
We left Vertumn with almost nothing. Fortunately owls can hunt and feed themselves. I gave Anton back the Word, along with scraps of a dead squirrel's flesh, from my beak to his.
Another city, another time and Anton returns from a day's work. He is making medicines now and I believe his heart truly is healing. So today I dared to ask him: "What colour was Ilona's hair?"
"Black as night, like yours," he replied. "She caught the eye of His Grace. Like all his men I promised him faithfulness and offered him the right to vengeance if I broke that promise. But when he came to her alone and asked her to be his mistress I thought we should leave. She . . . was never so sure. She liked the clothes, the gifts, the way the Court turned around her like she was the sun. He took her. Her Grace found her way to get back at him. One young girl too many. You were made from my last keepsakes of her—a lock of hair and a scrap of silk."
Slowly, I think Anton is letting himself taste happiness in this new city. But Anton lies sleeping, and I have stood on his pillow and breathed the Word from his mouth. Tonight I will wing my way back to Vertumn one last time. I will carry thread and one of the last vials of his terrible poisons. I will wait until the whole Palace is asleep, up in the hangings of his noble bed, before I slowly drip the contents of the vial down the thread and into His Grace's sleeping mouth, and onto his tongue. The vial brings nightmares from which there is no awakening. In the morning he will be mad.
Anton learns forgiveness as he heals the sick and heals himself.
But I am still how I am made.