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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Love's Footsteps

Cat Rambo lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her work can be found in such places as Asimov's, Clarkesworld, and Weird Tales. Her short story collection, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, was an Endeavor Award finalist in 2010, and her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories, appeared in 2007. This is her fifth appearance in Daily Science Fiction. [Go to www.dailysciencefiction.com and check out the others!] Her website is www.kittywumpus.net

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?"
But Moulder bent his head back to his books without replying.
She sensed embarrassment lurking behind his silence, the sort of wounded pride he evidenced when she was right but he felt she had no right to be. She left well enough alone. The truth would emerge in its own time. She kept to her chores, and amused herself embellishing his wardrobe with an excess of embroidery.
In Delaborn, she realized that they would be hunting a dragon when Moulder sent her to the outfitters there to purchase the necessary gear. She returned with a flameproof net and a stout bow capable of driving the short but sharp iron arrows through the softer parts of its hide.
She was relieved to find Moulder had put some thought into the hunt, providing potions that resisted fire and a paralytic agent with which to poison the arrows. Still, she could not help but feel that she had gone far and above her duty as she dragged the reptile, easily as long as she was tall, if not longer, back to Moulder's feet as dawn touched the cliff where he had made camp.
Moulder regarded the animal for a long moment. Kneeling with a long, leaf-shaped dagger, he began to dissect it, peeling away layers to reveal the still-throbbing heart. As he pulled it free, blood rushed over his second-best boots, which Small regretted packing.
She didn't speak as Moulder raised the flesh to his lips, gnawed and chewed and swallowed before lowering it. Blood covered the front of his robes as well, masking the silver silk stitching of swords and roses Small had set there. She stirred the fire into new heat, and set a kettle in the ashes.
All the while he stood there. She stole glances at him, uncertain whether or not to speak.
He sighed and threw the heart down on the corpse.
"The dragons are magical, born of pride and anger," he told her. "They hold it in their hearts, they are that emotion walking, set into motion. How could it fail?" His voice dropped away, as though he spoke the last words to himself.
"How did it fail?"
"I should feel it, now that I have taken it in. Feel anger, pride racing through my veins. But there is nothing there. My blood is quiet as ashes."
"You put emotions away with your heart," she said.
"I should still be able to stir them, if only through artificial means." He could have been angry, but his voice was flat and expressionless. "Tomorrow we leave for Illuray."
She would have protested--not the destination but the travel to it, which passed near a siren colony, the only one of its kind, making it an allure as well as a peril. But the dragon's heart lay in the early morning sunlight, and she had done that, and would face sirens as well.
When they were a half day's sailing from the sirens, the captain summoned the passengers and offered this choice: they could, if they wished, retire to their cabins and stopper their ears with beeswax. In fact, that was the course the captain advised, for he had been told that the song would linger with you ever after, stirring regret, and sorrow, and despair. He himself was immune to it, being deaf like the rest of his crew.
For those who had specifically said they wished to hear the sirens--and here he looked at Moulder--there was a second option, where their ears would remain unstoppered, but they themselves would be entirely restrained, lashed to a mast, bound head and foot lest they give way, as the foolish and infatuated had in the past been known to do.
Small knew immediately that Moulder wanted to hear the sirens. She would watch over him while he did so, but she would stopper her ears. Even so, when she explained this to the captain, he insisted that she be restrained as well. She acquiesced, but chose to be bound facing where she could see her master.
As they approached, she could see the moment when he first heard the song, for his brows rose and he lifted his chin, angling his head to better hear them.
As they came closer still, she heard it, seeping through the imperfect seals of her ears. It wrenched at her, it filled her with longing. She must go to its source, she thought, and she struggled against the ropes so strongly she bruised herself.
But Moulder looked at her and spoke a single word. She sank into sleep, although haunted by the music, which she chased and chased through her dreams. As she slept, tears marked her cheeks with silver trails and sometimes Moulder watched her and sometimes he watched the sirens as they swam past, singing, for he felt as little emotion for one as the other, which told him that this foray had been as unsuccessful as the first.
When they were out of earshot, he spoke another word. Small woke and was silent as the sailor loosed her. She did not speak of what she had heard and gave no sign of it haunting her.
Moulder concerned himself little with that. He had tried emotions like anger and despair, and in his third attempt, he would move to another range: Love.
"Love?" Small said with upquirked eyebrow.
"There are two things at the heart of the Rose Kingdom," Moulder said. "The first is its gardens, which are unparalleled. A section of thorn lines the mountain and there, it is said, a flower grows, rarer than most, for it will bloom only in the footsteps of true love. It is said to be small, and sweet, and to emit the sound of a singing bell."
"And the second thing?"
"I will test the second with the first," Moulder said. "For the Queen of the Rose Kingdom is so fair to look upon that she engenders love in the hardest heart."
They had to wait three days for a public ceremony at which the queen would appear, but finally, there was the dedication of a new park and Moulder, in attendance with Small waiting on him, was finally able to gaze his fill.
The queen was indeed beautiful, with amber skin and dark hair caught up in an arrangement with golden and silver roses. Her eyes caught his and he felt something stir, surely, that had been unfamiliar. Some emotion.
"Come!" he snapped at Small, and they left without a backward glance for the queen, rushing through the crowd of citizens and peddlers and tourists, catching a carriage to the garden he had spoken of.
Alighting from the carriage, Moulder walked boldly along the path. He did not dare look behind him and he forgot to breathe entirely. It felt as though a warm haze suffused him. The more he considered it, the surer he was. This was emotion. This was love, surely.
He stopped and turned, still holding his breath.
Only to see his path unmarked by any sign of bloom.
He stood, examining the ground, and then his own internal functioning.
Not love. The overheated workings of his imagination were as close as he had come, would ever come.
It had been a foolish pursuit.
"We will go home and not speak of this again," he said.
Small nodded and followed him as he headed home.
In her footsteps, little flowers swayed, but their song, like her love, was held too heartdeep to be heard.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Author Comments

"In Love's Footsteps" came to me via the title and the image of the little flowers springing up in someone's tracks.

- Cat Rambo
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