LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

A Thousand Tongues of Silver, by Kate Heartfield

thousandtonguesofsilver.jpgI am a book. My pages are purple.

This is how they made me. First, they flayed the calves, stretched and scraped their wet skins. Then they mixed lichen and leaves, rotted in human urine, to mimic the purple that comes of torturing sea snails to force the desperate spew of sedative. Soaked my pages in all that stink until they turned the colour of violence.

Then I was ready to receive the quill. Letters of suspended silver ink, with plenty of copper to prevent tarnish.

Why silver, you may ask?

Well, look how beautifully it shines against the purple. Isn’t that reason enough? It was reason enough for Amalasuintha. She didn’t question it.

*

Do you see the letter 𐌾? That is the letter the scribes call 𐌾𐌴𐍂. It means the number 60, sometimes; it also means “year.”

The year of my conception was 534, by some reckonings. Let’s go there. To the city of Ravenna, on the northern coast of the Adriatic Sea. A woman perhaps 40 years old rules all of Italy and much of the rest of Europe too. Her father’s kingdom. But her father, Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths, is long dead.

And when her father died, she was herself already a widow, and her son was a mere child.

So Amalasuintha rules—in her son’s name, but no one has any illusions, least of all the man who is brought to Amalasuintha in chains.

“Theodahad,” she says. “Cousin.”

She is wearing a stola of purple silk, gathered at the shoulders with two magnificent eagle brooches that leave most of her shoulders bare. At her ears, two more eagles dangle, silver inlaid with precious gems in all the colours of the world.

He is wearing fetters.

“Cousin,” he echoes. “Is it really necessary to bring me here in iron?”

“Was it really necessary for you to overrun all your neighbours’ land? Every farmer in Tuscany has come to me to complain about you in the last few months, Theodahad. I don’t have time for this. You’re stealing their land?”

He shrugs. “If they can’t see fit to protect it—”

“You’re better than this.”

He isn’t. He knows he isn’t. Theodahad has always been the problem in the family. The product of her aunt’s youthful dalliance. Italian born and bred, but never quite accepted anywhere. He’s a decade older than Amalasuintha, and when he lets his long hair fall in front of his face to hide his snarl, it’s streaked with silver.

Then he tosses it back. “We always have to be better than everyone, don’t we, cousin? Better than the Romans, because we’re Goths. Better than the Goths, because we’ve taken the Roman throne.”

“We? You’ve taken nothing. Except for some hills and some goats.”

His face moves like an earthquake.

“How is your son, cousin?” he asks. “How is the king? He will be old enough to take the throne soon.”

She doesn’t miss his implication. He doesn’t miss the pain that rakes its invisible claws over her beautiful face.

Amalasuintha sinks into a chair of carved, dark wood. A Roman chair.

“Theodahad, if they had only let me have the raising of him! He was such a marvellous child. As sharp and bright as a pin. But my father’s old counsellors were so suspicious of his Roman tutors. They said I was making him unmanly, Theodahad.”

“They are barbarians.”

“They are Goths,” Amalasuintha says, in a tone that is not quite an excuse, not quite a rebuke.

“They’re old fools, just as your father was. So suspicious of everything Roman that they’ll starve rather than eat Roman food.”

“My father—” She stops, remembering how Boethius died. The most brilliant man in the kingdom, left to die in prison because her father mistrusted Roman learning, Roman art, Roman politics.

She has no one she can trust. But she can’t afford to make enemies. She is not her father.

Amalasuintha takes a deep breath and starts again. “Theodahad, we have to be careful. Now more than ever. I am asking you, for the good of the family.”

“Why now more than ever?” he asks, keeping his voice even, although he knows, he knows. Theodahad thinks of the silver armband he gave the boy king, when the Goths took him to train him in the ways of war. Now you are a warrior, he said, and watched the child slip it onto his arm. Look, see how it bends. It will grow with the strength of your arm. The boy never takes it off except to clean it; Theodahad’s spies tell him so.

“They said he needed to be manly to rule,” she says, half to herself. “They sent him off with a gang of rotten thugs to be his friends. To learn how to kill. To boast of their prowess in the brothels. I don’t know what disease it was, or where he got it, but he’s ill, Theodahad.”

He can barely stop the corners of his mouth from dancing in triumph. The boy king is indeed sick, indeed dying! The silversmith did his work well.

“He will recover,” she says.

“Of course,” he agrees, but he knows better.

“But my boy is ill,” Amalasuintha says, pain and fear clouding her perception at that crucial moment. “And I am beset on all sides. My Roman subjects don’t trust the Goths, and my Gothic subjects don’t trust the Romans. How can I rule a kingdom so divided? How can I rule it if—if I am queen alone?”

There: do you see it? The moment of my conception. I germinate in Theodahad’s brain. He watches the ripple of purple silk against Amalasuintha’s breast, the contrast to the silver eagle on her shoulder. It reminds him of something, a book he has seen in Rome. A book with silver writing.

“I am sorry to hear that the young king has been ill,” he says, having composed his rebellious smile. “And I am sorry that I’ve added to your burdens. Let me make you a present to show my contrition.”

She waves him off.

“It will be a present of some use to you, I think,” he says, talking quickly, as schemes flow through the maze of his brain like quicksilver. “The Goths are worried that their children don’t speak their mother tongue in the streets, that the Romans mock them as barbarians. Yes? And the Romans are disdainful of the Goths, and of your authority as a Gothic queen.”

She nods, respecting his directness but not sure of his direction.

“Imagine a book. A book of the gospels, to display in your palace church. A book with pages in imperial purple—I’ve seen it done. But with one key distinction. This book will be in the Gothic language.”

Her eyebrows dance. “Wulfila’s translation of the Bible, then?”

He nods. “A book to bring two peoples together. I know two scribes at the cathedral in Ravenna. Our people. They speak our language. But they can write books as the Romans do. Let me take care of it.”

She does not trust Theodahad. But there can be no harm in a book. And she can see how right he is: a book in imperial purple, in the Latin style, written in Gothic. A book to represent a Romano-Gothic empire, and its queen.

Her chin dips with sharp approval.

He holds up his fettered wrists expectantly.

*

The letter 𐍈 is called 𐍈𐌰𐌹𐍂, which bears the number 700, and the meaning “cauldron.”

Theodahad pays a visit to Dag the silversmith to thank him for the armband.

“It is working,” he says. “Slowly, but it’s working. You truly are a wizard.”

The smith wrings his hands. “I am a smith. That’s all. I know the properties of silver, and I bend them a little. Please, Your Grace. I’m just a smith.”

“I have another commission for you,” Theodahad says, pacing around the little charcoal forge, stooping so he doesn’t hit his head on the beams. “A gift for Amalasuintha.”

What do you know about silver? What do you know about how it excites, the smoothness of its touch, how it collects the moonlight? You know, perhaps, that old stories tell of it killing those who cannot be killed any other way. You know, perhaps, that it can save, preserve, enshrine.

Silver wards. The other metals do other things, and other smiths have sinned, but we are not concerned with them here.

Dag shakes his head. “I will not kill the queen. Please don’t ask me that. There must be some other way.”

“Kill the queen? No, I wouldn’t dream of it.”

And that, as far as it goes, and for the moment, is the truth. Theodahad has few friends among the Goths or the Romans. If Amalasuintha were to die, he would have a hard fight on his hands to take the throne from other, stronger claimants. But if Amalasuintha were to hand the throne over to him, as her father’s new heir, well. That would be different.

“I’m not asking you to kill her. No armband this time. I’m simply informing you that a monk will come soon, and ask you for silver filings and leavings. They’ll be making ink with it, you see. And I want the silver they use to have a certain effect on the queen’s mind.”

Dag grips the bellows, trying very hard not to think of the little boy who is in one of Theodahad’s many dungeons, and sick with guilt for trying not to think of him. “I’ve told you. I can’t ensorcell anyone. I can only work with the ancient properties of silver. To heal, and to…to kill.”

Theodahad spreads his arms wide. “And that is what I ask! I ask you to heal the Queen’s heart, when it comes to her cousin. And I ask you to kill her ambition.”

Dag hangs his head. “It’s impossible.”

“Then you will never see your son again.”

*

What is time to a book? An early page or a late, it is all the same to me. Flip the pages forward. Through one millennium and one century, during which time I am hardly noticed. I go from monastery to abbey, across Europe.

I am not missing, in these years. I am lying in wait.

Pause, there, in the year 1649. Find the letter 𐌲. The letter my scribes call 𐌲𐌹𐌱𐌰 bears the number 3 and the meaning “gift.”

Queen Kristina has ruled Sweden since she was a child. They sent her father the king home in installments: first his bloody shirt, then his heart, then his body. He died in the same long war Kristina is about to conclude. One of Kristina’s many titles is Queen of the Goths, although that notion’s half fantasy.

Kristina stands in a great hall in Stockholm and watches as the plunder rolls through her doors. The fabled riches of the Emperor Rudolf. She sent her armies to Rudolf’s castle in Prague, with instructions to get it all to Sweden before the last signatures dried on the peace treaty.

She will make Sweden the envy of the world.

A bit of a yawn, though, all these crates and cartloads. There are 500 paintings; she will need someone to catalogue them all. A jawbone purported to have been that of a siren. Sculptures and bronzes. Enough scientific instruments to tame the universe.

And at the last, one solitary lion, pacing the centre line of the hall, leashed to a nervous-looking man on each side. At that, everyone stands and applauds, because Kristina already is.

As the cheers soften and the lion is marched away, the man who led her armies in Prague appears in the doorway.

Karl Gustav. Her aunt’s son, and her childhood fencing partner. Twenty-six years old and more handsome than he was when he left, although you’d think that impossible. Warfare agrees with him.

He bows low, and she smiles.

“Cousin,” she greets him. “You have done well. But where are the books? You didn’t forget Rudolf’s famous library, surely.”

He shakes his head. “I saved the best for last.”

Her breath catches a little, despite herself. It’s a reflex. Everything with Karl Gustav is a reflex. When she was fifteen—seven years ago now—Kristina and Karl Gustav acted as if they were in love with each other, and she let herself get caught up in the notes and secret meetings. It was all so exciting, but it didn’t mean love. Not to her.

Her cousin, though, is looking at her more fiercely than the lion did.

He spoke those same words to her once before: I saved the best for last. As the prelude to their first kiss; very nearly their last kiss. He has made the memory of that kiss his nightly prayer, all these years in sodden tents, so far from her. Everyone knows they’re going to marry.

She holds out her hand and he leads her to an anteroom, where two great books are laid out on the tables. Just as he arranged. They are, at last, alone.

“This one, they call the Devil’s Bible,” he says, opening a massive volume, but gingerly. It is old. Near the back, she cries out with surprise, fear, delight. There’s a full-page illustration of a devil, with horns curving out of its head. It squats, with knobbed knees and splayed toes. She can’t quite decide whether it’s horrific or comical.

“And that one?” she asks, pointing.

He lifts the pages. They’re dyed a reddish purple, and the lettering is in silver, with here and there a flash of gold.

“The Silver Bible,” he says. “Or, the Codex Argenteus. A thousand years old, or more.”

“What a strange alphabet,” she says, walking over to it and standing beside him. “I can’t read it.”

“It’s written in the Gothic language,” he says. “Few people can.”

“Well, I’ll have to get some scholars here to decipher it. I can get anybody I want. I’m sending for René Descartes, you know.”

She reaches out to touch the silver letters, and he reaches for her hand. So familiar, these two hands together.

“The war is over at last,” he says, his voice thick. “I did what you asked of me. Everything you asked. And now I’m home. We can marry now, Kristina.”

She pulls her hand away. “I’ve decided I’m not going to marry anyone. I’m very happy ruling on my own.”

He looks her in the eye. “You know that’s not what it’s about, for me. I’m not interested in ruling.”

“You should be. You’re the only remaining heir to the throne in our family. If I go to feed the worms, you’re it, I’m sorry to tell you.”

He shakes his head. “Don’t. Don’t laugh at me.”

“I’m not.” She puts one hand on each of his shoulders, comradely. “I mean it. I don’t have any need to marry. I can’t stand the idea of letting a man use me like a peasant uses his field. The only reason they want me to marry is so there will be an heir, but you can be my heir. You, and your children, once you marry some lovely countess. You see? It all works out perfectly.”

As if she’s been listening outside the door and come to help—and maybe she has—Belle chooses that moment to walk in, dressed in blue velvet with a white lace collar. Beautiful Belle, the lady-in-waiting who now shares Kristina’s bed every night.

“My darling,” Kristina says, and decides to make everything clear to Karl Gustav.

He must understand that, for her to be queen, and alive, and happy, and herself, all at the same time, she must stand with her hands on her hips and stare the universe down. She can’t let her gaze fall or her attitude soften, not for a moment, or it will all crash down around her.

She kisses Belle on the mouth, and entwines her arm in her own.

“She is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside,” Kristina says, winking at Karl Gustav. “Do you know what she tastes like? No, of course you don’t, but I do. Sour cherries. It’s remarkable.”

Karl Gustav has been taken by surprise, but he is a man of quick intelligence, and he is nothing if not gallant. He nods, and bows to Belle. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”

Kristina loves him too, albeit fraternally. She smiles at him to show how grateful she is for him, how truly grateful she is for the treasures he brought home to her.

All three lean their heads over the table, and pretend to examine the book with pages the colour of scandal.

*

𐍉𐌸𐌰𐌻 is the name of the letter 𐍉, which holds the value 800 and means “inheritance.” There are many things Theodahad considers his own, by right. A little island in Lake Bolsena is one of them, but we have not reached that page yet. The kingdom of the Ostrogoths is another.

The day after the funeral rites for the young king, Amalasuintha calls her son’s murderer onto her private balcony, to offer him a crown.

She doesn’t know, will never know, that he murdered her son. She knows only that he gave her a book, some months ago, in the language of their fathers.

“They have destroyed my precious boy,” she says, facing away from him, gazing out over her perfect gardens. These gardens were a mess when she took them over, and look at them now.

“Yes. It is a terrible tragedy.”

She turns to look at him, her mouth a grim line. “I hear whispers, that they won’t accept a queen who rules alone, with no king at her side. But I won’t marry, and let the throne fall out of our family’s control.”

He nods, slowly, as if he doesn’t know what’s coming. The silver ink has done its work.

“You are family, Theodahad, and lately I have been thinking that it is irresponsible of me to simply hope the Goths and Romans will all accept you as king, once I die. You know as well as I do, what sort of machinations come when a sovereign dies.”

She refrains from saying: And you know how much they hate you.

“I do. It could tear our kingdom apart, and destroy everything your father built.”

This is the moment, he thinks, the moment when she will make him king, and she’ll go off to some nunnery and he’ll never have to look at her again.

This is the moment, she thinks, but can hardly bear to say the words. Still, if she doesn’t, the whispers won’t stop. She hears them even in the night, when she’s all alone, as if there are voices on the air, doubting her ability, warning of doom.

“That is why,” she says, and all the breath leaves her. She starts again. “That is why I am raising you up to be co-sovereign with me, Theodahad. I will continue to rule as I always have, but you will be at my side at ceremonial functions, and the people will come to accept you. The kingdom will have its king.”

She sees his look of surprise, misinterprets it.

He accepts, after composing his face. They make the announcement, and Theodahad is crowned.

Three days later, Amalasuintha wakes to find a rough hand over her mouth and rough arms tying her wrists and ankles.

*

𐌻 means 𐌻𐌰𐌲𐌿𐍃, which carries the number 30 and the meaning “open water.”

Between Rome and Florence sits a round lake called Lake Bolsena. On a rocky island in that lake, Amalasuintha looks out through the bars of her window. She sees only the shapes of trees, hears only the lap of the waves.

She is thinking about how easily a jackass with a few thugs at his command can bring down a nation.

Somehow, Theodahad bribed or killed enough guards to abduct her and bring her here. Not all the money in the world, though, could make the Goths trust him, and the Romans despise him. How could he ruin everything, even for himself? She was going to rehabilitate him in their eyes, so that his children could rule. He was supposed to buy her time to create a succession, to save her father’s kingdom.

Instead, he’s created a pretext for their rivals to invade. All she’s worked for. All her father fought for.

She curls her hands around the cold iron bars, rough with rust.

The kingdom’s best hope now is for someone to assassinate Theodahad and break her out of this godforsaken island. It is bound to happen. The only question is whether it will happen in time to save the kingdom from invasion.

The sun is low over the far shore and soon she’ll be in darkness. Her guards, Theodahad’s silent giants, don’t let her have a lamp or a candle, or even a change of clothes. But when the rescue comes, she will be ready. She will be a queen. She refuses to let them find her dirty or afraid.

There is a cold plunge pool in the adjoining room, where she can bathe. She takes a few steps on the cold stones, strips naked and eases herself in. The water seems almost as blue as the lake, an effect of the blue and green mosaic floor. In a kinder time, when these rooms were for guests rather than prisoners, this bath was heated. They could heat it now, for her, if they wanted. Theodahad is taking a great risk, treating her this way.

She doesn’t fathom that Theodahad doesn’t think more than a few days ahead. He has no strategy. That’s why he’ll fail. But until he does, that’s why he’s dangerous.

His thugs enter the room while Amalasuintha’s head is underwater, her eyes shut and her hearing dampened. A hand grabs her by her dark, wet hair, and pulls her to the edge of the pool. Her eyes are open and she struggles as a knife cuts her throat. The last thing she sees is her own blood swirling into the darkening water.

*

𐍅 might mean “meadow,” or it might mean “joy,” or it might mean the possibility that vibrates in a person standing alone in a meadow, arms spread.

It definitely means 400.

There are a few more than 400 men gathered in the great hall of the castle in Uppsala. Queen Kristina sits before them, all these men in their stations. There are nobles and clergymen and burghers and peasants. A representative of each steps forward, bows low, and begs her not to abdicate.

She does not meet Karl Gustav’s gaze. Two years ago, she formally designated him as her heir. Tomorrow, he’ll be king. He isn’t happy about it.

He wonders, as he has wondered for months now, who has been whispering in her ear. Who convinced her that she could not be both happy and queen? Who suggested that she formally name her cousin as her heir?

Who suggested that she then give the cousin her crown while she is still alive? It’s utterly bizarre. Yet she insists it is all her own idea.

And he has to admit that Kristina has always had her own ideas about everything.

As the last peasant brushes away his tears, the queen stands, resplendent in yellow brocade, and everyone else quiets. They all protest to love her but they don’t love her newfound Catholic faith, or her refusal to marry a man. They don’t want her; they want her to be what they want.

A few months ago, some of the most powerful men in the kingdom conspired against her. They talked of killing her, before they were found and tried and executed. It was just talk, but one day it won’t be.

“I thank you all for your eloquence and sincerity,” she says. “My mind is made up and nothing can change me from this course. I am leaving Sweden, as soon as I can.”

She will always be a queen. But she will be a queen on ground that she has chosen. She will go to Rome, and talk with artists and philosophers, and live.

After Karl Gustav’s coronation by the grace of God and Christina—she has changed the spelling of her name—the queen without a country rises early, and dresses in black trousers and boots. She cuts her hair short and buckles a sword at her hip.

Her cousin finds her at her bedroom door, stops her.

“Another farewell?” she asks.

He swallows. “You never wanted to marry me, before. You didn’t want to lose your power. I understand. But now you’ve given all your power up.”

“My dear cousin, you think I’ve given up my power? I’ll be far more powerful now than I ever was. The Jesuits adore me. The Pope lauds me. I’m still queen, I’m still fabulously wealthy, and now I can do whatever I want. I can shape the art and philosophy of a generation.”

He shakes his head, laughing a little. “You’re really happy, then?”

“Ecstatic. Now get out of my way.”

He will, but not for one more moment. He goes down on one knee while she looks past him, half wondering if she might be able to vault over him. She’s only 27 years old, and vaulting and running are still in her repertoire.

“I don’t care if you travel the world,” he is saying. “I don’t care if you worship as you see fit. Just come home to me once in a while. Come home to me, as my wife.”

She throws her head back and laughs. “How can you be so clever and so dim?”

He shakes his head, rueful, then smiles a crooked smile. “I had to try. One last time.”

She embraces him, wraps her arms around him, pats him on the back. “I’m going to be happy, my friend. I’m going to see everything. Italy! Sunshine! I’ll be the talk of Europe, you know. I’ll send you back something pretty.”

*

𐌼 is the letter that holds the number 40, and it is 𐌼𐌰𐌽𐌽𐌰. Once upon a time, the words for both “man” and “human” were the same.

Once upon a time, the word for “woman” was the same as the word for “queen,” and they were both 𐌵𐌴𐌽𐍃.

As for me, I am unbound, pinioned under glass like a dead moth. I belong to the people now.

My words remain, written on pages the colour of empire.

Don’t you hear these whispers in a thousand tongues of silver, telling you you’ll never be enough on your own?

All you queens, paying me no heed.

*

Issue 17 (Spring 2018)

Story copyright © 2018 by Kate Heartfield

Artwork copyright © 2018 by Michelle MB

Kate Heartfield is the author of Armed in Her Fashion, a historical fantasy novel from ChiZine Publications, and The Road to Canterbury, an interactive novel from Choice of Games. Tor.com Publications will publish two novellas by Kate, beginning with Alice Payne Arrives in late 2018. Her fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Strange Horizons, Podcastle, and Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World. This is her fourth story in Lackington’s. Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Michelle MB is an aspiring digital artist with a habit of frequently travelling to and exploring other dimensions. Unfortunately, bringing back samples and souvenirs from these places has proven to be extremely difficult, and much gets lost during travel. She has been known to haunt locations all over Europe and North America, but is currently based in the United Kingdom, where she is studying how to better create bridges between these universes, so that more of the fantastical can be experienced here.

 

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This entry was posted on October 31, 2018 by in Stories.
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