art by Seth Alan Bareiss
by Cat Rambo
At the time he did it, the wizard Moulder found the idea of removing his heart, applying a calcifying solution, and storing it in a safe place, all in the name of achieving immortality, quite reasonable. He performed the ritual in the small but ominous tower he had built in one corner of his parents' amber-walled estate, watched over by dour-jawed stuffed crocodiles and glassy-eyed owls and his faithful servant, Small, who held out the iron receptacle to hold his heart, her face impassive and unjudgmental, and laved his hands afterwards with cold water.
For thirty years, the practice served him well enough. A heart is the seat, the root of change, and it is as the soul changes that the body degrades, which is why childhood to adulthood is so marked with its physical transformation.
Small, who was twenty-five to his twenty-one at the time he performed the ritual, changed, although not as much as one might have thought. She was a neat-boned woman, whose stature matched her name, who remained sparsely fleshed and wired with muscle. Like all of her family, she had been pledged to serve Moulder's family from her first breath, and at four she had been shown the babe she would accompany all her life. If she questioned this fate, she kept it to herself and never spoke of it, to Moulder or anyone else. Trained to a tee, she was bodyguard and valet, cook, groom, barber, confidante, and a thousand other things to her stiff-jawed and undead master.
When Moulder reached his fifties although he remained the same physical self he had been at twenty-one, he was seized with the desire to change, an uncomfortable, thwarted impulse like constipation, seated low in his dissatisfied gut. He tried long walks and sour laxatives, candles infused with poppy and hemp, a diet of flax seed, lettuce, and asparagus-water, but the sensation remained, deepened, drove him to longer walks, more stringent medicines, and sticky, hallucinogenic pellets of the sort the most dream-addled smoked, all to no avail.
"Small," he said accordingly, on a crisp fall day when the sky was a cold blue bowl inverted overhead. "Prepare to travel."
"The destination?" she said.
She harrumphed, but packed a range of clothing suitable for tropic to blizzard, along with various clever contrivances for a comfortable life, assembled in a great gilt-chased steamer trunk that she insisted on loading herself onto the carriage.
Moulder eyed the trunk and the space it took up, but said nothing. Small made life comfortable, and the price one paid was that sometimes the needs of Small's equipment overrode other considerations. Moulder might have set aside human emotions, but he still appreciated the thought Small put into his creature comforts, the behind-the-scenes choreography that produced robes with knife-sharp creases, steaming breakfast tea, and the little jar of pomade somehow always, almost magically, full to the brim and fresh with fragrance.
Moulder gave his order to the coachman and they rattled down the hill towards the docks.
"If we are bound by sea, perhaps I might have the name of the captain," Small said. On another person's lips, it might have been a reproach.
"We will secure a captain as we find him or her," Moulder snapped.
Small considered this. She was well aware of the ways of wizards and this, she realized, was the beginning of a spell, although not one of a sort she'd encountered before, rooted in random whimsy. She did not trust such magic. But she said nothing of that.
At the docks, Moulder rejected a small galleon bound for southern training, and an exploratory sloop headed for the New Continent. Instead, he chose a third vessel, a vessel bound west along the coast, towards the Rose Kingdom.
Small busied herself setting the cabin to rights, chasing out fleas with the smoke of aromatic grasses and polishing the single round window so the moons' light might pour through it, unimpeded, whenever so desired.
At night she served fish broth and tea, which was all the sustenance her master required. She took her own meals with the crew, where several men lost their hearts to her, for she had been raised with four brothers and could keep up with the vinegar and vulgar talk of the sailors capably enough to make even the cook blush. She spent her days on the deck, watching the horizon and wondering at Moulder's intentions.
The wizard himself kept to the cabin. He found extremes of heat or cold unpleasant and the musty air of the cabin suited him well as he read through the texts he had brought, a ball of magelight bobbing over his shoulder to illuminate the page.
More than once, Small tried to coax him into conversation, to some hint of his plan, but the most he would say was that their first stop was in the city of Delaborn.
"Delaborn," Small said. "Where the dragons are?"
"Indeed, they haunt the coastline there."
"Will we also be haunting the coastline?"