Heartwood – L. Chan

The sorcerer wove his beloved out of the finest silks and linens, the poorest of which was fit for any earthly king. Across her neckline and cuffs, he affixed the most delicate lace, threads more slender than spiderwebs, lighter than a lover’s breath. He scoured his Mansion of a Hundred Rooms for bolts of cloth; gifts from fellow sorcerers, from superstitious lords, from the jealous summer fae, from workers of enchantment and loom. These he sewed together. A lifetime working magic had given him deft fingers, and although his body now consisted of creaking wood, his hands retained their skill.

He filled her body with the softest down; from goose, from baby roc. Between her ears, the infant feathers of thunderbirds, to lend speed to her thoughts. Under her breast, phoenix down to warm her heart. Finally, when the body of cloth was complete, scraps and strips all come together in the form of a striking lady of middle years, he placed the heartwood fruit in the middle of her chest and bade it quicken.

The body convulsed, rippling as unfamiliar muscles flexed. Flesh might have been a better option, but creating a human body was beyond the remit of his considerable powers, as was the granting of life. The latter was the province of the gods, and all the races of man (despite being called a demon, or fallen god, the sorcerer considered himself a man) toyed with that sacred flame at their peril. But there were tricks by which an extinguished fire could be rekindled.

“Arcturus, my love.” The woman’s voice was smoother than woven silk, retaining the luscious drawl of vowels common to the desert folk. Time had long scrubbed trace of accent or region from Arcturus’ own voice, and he missed it. Arcturus was not his birth name, nor one of the many whispered by kings and mothers to frighten, but it was the one he would respond to without thinking. The woman was the only living soul who had uttered it in years. She struggled to push herself off the workbench with limbs as boneless as tentacles.

“Gladiola,” he replied, helping the woman to her feet. She swayed like grass on the wind, like the flowers she was named after. He’d taken care that those blossoms appeared in the tessellations of the silks and in the lace trimmings. She didn’t notice.

“I am not as I once was,” she said, holding one cloth hand up to an embroidered eye. “And neither are you, it seems.” Gladiola stroked the grain of his wooden cheek. He felt nothing.

The pair of them walked the halls of the Mansion of a Hundred Rooms, each door they passed open to wonders; a choir of hummingbirds singing hymns to dead gods, a guardhouse filled with living suits of armour handing out halberds and wickedly curved swords, a cathedral of staircases made of bone that defied gravity and space.

When the woman of cloth had her fill of the sound of footsteps, she spoke again. “Why did you bring me back?”

Their wanderings had brought them to a double door, twice the height of a man. So dark was the wood that the pair could cast no shadows upon it and only the glint of light off the undulating surface hinted at its intricate carvings. Heartwood it was, from the same trees that bore the fruit beating in the chests of the pair of them. Blood-warm to the touch and, if one were particularly sensitive, thrumming periodically.

“Not just because the dark cannot hold a light such as yours,” he said, pushing at the door. Despite their size, they yielded smoothly and without complaint.

The room behind the door gleamed with uncommon opulence; not a surface was to be found that was not embroidered, carved or gilded. The bed, to which Gladiola was no stranger, was weighed down by a familiar body, the sheets still glistening.

“Oh,” she said.

“I need your help to solve this.”

Gladiola looked to the corpse and back to Arcturus’ roughly hewn features. “How long ago was…” she gestured at the body on the bed, which still wore the same placid expression as the creaking wooden man before her.

“Weeks, months,” he replied. “Time does not pass normally in the Mansion.”

“Then you came back, in this form? And brought me back? What work did you use?”

“Heartwood. For both of us.”

Cloth eyes widened, fabric mouth hung open. “That’s a legend.”

“The Mansion is full of legends.”

“And the cost? There is always a cost.”

Heartwood trees had been harvested to near extinction by the powerful, desperate to hide from death in this most sacred of trees. The trick wasn’t getting heartwood to sprout; seeds only needed to be buried in the soil, wrapped in the coppery softness of a fresh heart. It was losing their hearts that the powerful feared.

“What do you remember last?”

“I remember only waiting for my thirty-second birthday and then waking up today, nothing in between.”

“That is part of the cost; what comes back is only what the heartwood preserves. And a vessel is required to house the heartwood.”

Gladiola looked at cold flesh, and then at living wood and finally at the rippling cloth of her own body. “How can I be of help? I do not remember your murder.”

“Neither do I. A small blessing. All I want to know is why.” Arcturus looked away. He had seen many dead things in his life; monsters that wore the faces of men, men who wore the faces of monsters, children barely old enough to walk. All dead by his hand, but still he felt discomfort at the sight of the corpse wearing his face.

Lace fingertips stroked a bloodied cheek. The dead flesh yielded no clues as to the power of the man that once inhabited it; soft and pliant, it was much like any other cold meat. “I first came to the Mansion to kill you. I never renounced my quest.”

“But you loved me.”

“I do. In spite of what you’ve done. Because of what you’ve done. I’m not the Gladiola who killed you. What happened to her?”

“Dead by her own hand.” One of the first things he had done, after relearning the use of his new body, was to bury his lover on the outskirts of the Mansion, without magic, without servants. Hard labor was a blessed distraction. Partly from the knowledge that he was simultaneously a dead man as well as a mere simulacrum with the memories of the being once called Arcturus. Mostly from the discovery that the only woman he’d given his love to had put a foot of sharpened steel through his breastbone; the blow so resolute that the tip of the sword was lodged in the frame of the bed beneath him. Not a second of hesitation in a thrust like that.

“Let me ask you this, beloved. Are you happy?”

“I have more wealth than kings, power enough to cast down small gods. I fear neither sickness nor the passage of time. I had the love of a princess.”

“That is not what I asked. If there was another Gladiola, then know this, she did not kill you with hate in her heart.”

“Why then?”

“When you find out, you would have solved your murder. Enough of this, my love. Let me ask you something instead. Are you content in there?”

“It will take more than prophecy and betrayal to end me.”

“Wooden heart, wooden body. Maybe you haven’t lost that much at all,” she said, picking at her lace cuffs, the seam coming undone, the gash bleeding finest down. “I would ask a boon in exchange. End this half-life,” she continued, her pillow hand moving up to his timber chest, leaving a smear of blood from his corpse.

“It is a second chance for us, Gladiola.”

“One was enough.”

#

Arcturus carved his guest from from a single block of jade. A flawed seam of umber ran through the jade; the swindle had cost the merchant his right hand, which Arcturus had turned to stone. Perhaps this Gladiola would be better. This was the fifth, each a step further back in their relationship, each a little different. There was a gadfly of a thought; the idea that he was no longer the man who built the Mansion of a Hundred Rooms, that he was somehow diminished. Perhaps instead of raising Gladiola, he should have gone deep into his heartwood forest and found a version of himself that knew not love. Perhaps.

He threw himself deeper into the work. Around her wrists and ankles, he set bands of gold and platinum. Star-bright diamonds for eyes, crushed ruby dust for lips, beaded onyx, obsidian, and opal in strands for her hair. He raided his treasury, pried inset stones from goblets, crowns, and jewelry alike to adorn his beloved. When he was done, he parted her breastbone with a chisel and left the heartwood fruit within.

“My lord,” she said. Her voice held the rough edge of granite crypts and the cool of marble tombstones. She took in her surroundings with glittering eyes. “The Mansion is not as I remembered it, and neither am I.”

Dust gave the Mansion a grey sheen; motes caught sunbeams and sparkled as the movement of the pair raised clouds from the moth eaten carpets.

“The dust does not bother me, I do not breathe. The servants are mostly gone, I do not eat.”

“Every living thing eats.”

“I sleep with my feet in a brass tub, in which I have dissolved various nutrients.”

“Very convenient, my lord. Perhaps I should learn to eat rocks?”

Her tongue was as sharp as her blade had been. It had been some time since he had suffered the indignations of either. He armoured himself in silence and showed the grinding effigy of his onetime lover to her quarters.

Gladiola surveyed the one room in the Mansion that had not been claimed by disrepair. A beetlemaid scurried by, pink frock swishing over black carapace as her jointed legs moved almost faster than the eye could see. In her haste, she caught the edge of a dressing table with a poorly folded wing and sent a porcelain vase to the floor.

The living blue ink had once depicted scenes of battle, with lacquer armoured warriors from the far east in combat with demons. The tiny figures ceased their fight and began to panic as the ink leached from fragmented porcelain into the floorboards. The maid cowered, chittering an apology, spraying sweet pheromones of atonement from glands behind her antennae.

“Clean that up and leave us,” said Arcturus. They sat on a chaise longue upholstered in wyvern leather, the heartwood chairs complaining under their combined weight.

“You seem to have found mercy in your dotage. I recall you taking life for less,” observed Gladiola. The beetlemaid finished her work, backing out of the room slowly, antennae dragging on the floor in contrition as she half-bowed, half-grovelled her exit.

“I did not bring you back to argue the treatment of my servants, my love.” The endearment slipped out like an uncaged rodent while he was distracted by the maid, and it could not be recaptured. Gladiola drew herself up and shifted to the edge of the chaise. If her gemstone body could have gotten any colder and stiffer, it would have.

“You are overly forward, my lord. Whatever transpired between you and the other Gladiola, I am not her. I am a prisoner against my will in your Mansion, not one of your concubines.”

Arcturus took to his feet. “You were a prisoner of your will. You had only to renounce your quest and you would have been free to go.”

“It was carved on my bones that I would be the one to vanquish you.”

“A foretelling as unoriginal as it is inaccurate, I have an armoury filled with the weapons of those who were born to kill me.”

“Nevertheless, a witch opened up my thigh and wrote it on my femur; and tattooed it across both my arms, that I would remember what I was born to do.” She traced the angular runes of her people over the pale green of her forearm. “Did you think that stealing my flesh would change that?”

The next phrase fell from Arcturus’ lips smooth as a river pebble, edges worn off by the eddies and rapids of hard practice. After all, this was the fifth Gladiola he’d brought back. “It’s over, you won. You killed me, shortly before killing yourself.”

If there was shock behind that jade visage, it was well hidden. “Yet we are still here.”

“A plan for the eventuality that one of the many prophecies foreseeing my demise was accurate.”

“Why do I not remember my victory?”

“Your heart is as it was on your twenty-seventh birthday. It has been some time since then. I brought you back from a heartwood tree planted on that birthday.”

Gladiola pressed green fingertips over the cavity in her chest that held the heart shaped fruit. “Legends say that a heartwood tree only sprouts from a seed buried together with the heart of a living person.”

“Not a whole heart. I opened your flesh as you slept and took a sliver of your heart with a blade so fine it could split a hair down the centre.”

“Was I so spoiled by your Mansion that I did not notice you butchering me?”

“Your sleep was… assisted. I would not have had you suffer. After all, I planted a tree for you every year you stayed in my Mansion.”

“I must have had very little heart left.” To that, he had no answer. It was not so difficult to harvest the heart of another to plant a heartwood tree. Planting one’s own heartwood tree was a different problem altogether.

The gemstone woman made her way over to a horned skull suspended at head height. Bleached bone was suggestive of a horse or a lizard, but the skull was as long as a man was tall. “I was going to ask you to bring me the head of the dune dragon stalking my clan’s caravans.”

“And so I did. And a clutch of siren skins the year after. And the pelts of the Ur-wolves from the frozen steppes the year after that. There has been a slight paucity of monsters in the kingdom over the past decadeHow many more lives would you have saved if you had me build rather than destroy?”

“It seems like an excessive amount of effort for a captive houseguest,” she said, her tone smoother and drier than the rocks that she was carved from.

“You were very persuasive,” Arcturus answered. And he had wanted to be persuaded. Not by beauty. The plains tribes were sturdy stock, and she had inherited the craggy features of her kin. There was a fire in her, a purity of purpose that he’d never possessed, something missing even from the princes, knights errant, and other ilk that came to challenge him.

“Perhaps you are not the man so many good knights and warriors swore to end.”

That was where it started, Arcturus remembered. His wooden chest was hollow inside, but it was only after hearing those words for the second time that he felt its emptiness. He again considered using the benefit of his memories to reenact those sweet years before their deaths. But such a love would have been as barren as he was.

“I was. Not out of service to dark gods, not to impose my will on nations, but to satisfy my own appetites, which had grown vast and esoteric. I haven’t been that man for a long time. You ended him long before you killed me,” he managed to say, after a moment.

She turned to look at him with her diamond bright eyes and her ivory smile under ruby powder lips. “Why didn’t you kill me, like you did all the others?”

“I hadn’t won. Many champions beg for their lives, with their swords broken and protections crushed. You never did.”

“Begging meant admitting that my life was in your hands.”

“It intrigued me.”

“I would ask for you for the opposite now, my lord. Consider it a gift.”

Arcturus closed the bedroom door behind him, leaving to fetch the beetlemaid. Cleaning up shattered jade was beyond him at the moment.

#

There was no cheating death; the bill had to be paid. The Ng’ahthim Invocation traded a wizard’s shadow for his life, although thereafter he would neither sense nor feel. The Aurorean Sequence called the souls of the dead to form a shroud over the caster, but the screaming of the damned eventually drove all invokers mad. Heartwood had to be paid in heart and memory; and that which came back was never as whole as that which died.

Arcturus forged his destroyer from the blades in the armoury and of the architecture of his alchemical forays. Flange and falchion made arms and legs, braided steel formed her torso. He gave her scalpel fingers and razor blade teeth, plaiting barbed wire down from her scape to the middle of her back, setting up an open bear trap for her heart. Molten dabs of copper for eyes, burning bright orange from a face framed by bangs of filament metal. The heartwood fruit went in last, nestled within the trap. He had hardly drew his hand back when it sprang, quite nearly snipping off two fingertips.

Gladiola’s eyes continued to blaze long after burning copper should have cooled. A swipe from one knife-edged palm took the end of Arcturus’ nose off. Her follow up strike, a stiff fingered thrust, would have run him through if a blue nimbus of raw magic hadn’t hurled her across the room.

Arcturus held up a pair of open palms. “Gladiola, you are not yet the woman who kills me, and I am no longer the man you want to slay.”

“No more tricks, sorcerer.” Her voice was the clash of blades, the sparking of a grindstone.

“No tricks, only knowledge and an invitation for a walk through the Mansion.”

She tilted her head, warrior’s instincts assessing, calculating. Satisfied, she brushed powdered stone from her shoulders and got to her feet. “If you had to give me a new form, I would have thought you would have chosen one less suited to killing you. Where’s my body?” she said, flexing muscles of cable, tendon springs creaking.

“Buried on the grounds after you killed yourself.”

The last of the servants had been sent away, the djinn freed from their compulsions, the mortal remains of the ghost slaves blessed and interred, the spectrals exorcised. Tapestries fed moths, furniture was darkened with age and water rot. All save the heartwood doors, which still stood imposing and unmarred.

“I doubt that I would have done that.”

“People change,” he said, leading the scissor princess to parts of the Mansion that no one, not even the servants, had been to.

“I will not. My tribe gave up my future to the gods to procure a single possibility, your destruction.”

“Let me give you a different foretelling. When I was young and full of power, I wrested a prophecy from the silver Sister Moon. She told me that only one who loved me could cut me down. I bullied another from the golden Sister Sun, who told me that only one I loved could end me. Even though the siblings hate each other and are no longer on speaking terms, they are more alike than they admit. Their appetite for irony is unparalleled.”

A final heartwood doorway opened up to a lush garden, the hidden centre of the Mansion. Gladiola narrowed her glowing eyes, trying to identify the copse of trees within the grounds. Taller and straighter than church steeples, they brought to mind the pine or the fir, but pocked with whorls and knotholes. Sketched out in the warped wood was a single repeating motif, a human face.

“A kingdom may be sold for a single tree. I have an entire forest here.” Arcturus retrieved a cask from the ground. Unstopping it, he set about pouring a pungent liquid around a lifetime of trees, down the line back to the first one he’d planted, ashen faced, after sawing off a chunk of his own beating heart. He’d taken Gladiola all the way back; stripped her of the years in the Mansion, of her years with him. In the time he spent raising and putting down the many versions of his lover, he’d often thought of doing the same to himself, building another body, call up a version of from the fiery days when his name was whispered across the lands. Give up this form and start over.

He looked at Gladiola, a monstrosity wrought of blades and terrible purpose. No, he would not give that up. Sisters Sun and Moon said that love would destroy him; they were right. There was a forest of lives here, and Arcturus could have chosen to be any one of them, ones at the peak of his power and cruelty, ones that didn’t live with the memories of hundreds of lives taken. But he no longer wanted to be any of those.

“They are all you,” she said, running bladed fingers down a face, peeling a sliver of wood from the tree. The wounded bark released the smell of wormwood and myrrh, just like the mansion, just like the wizard.

“And you. A tree for every year; each capable of growing a heart for another body.”

“Lost memories,” she said. “This isn’t living, it’s just an echo waiting to fade.”

“So said all the others. What of you?”

“My business with you isn’t finished.” She looked to the sliver of wood on her fingertip, the colour and smell strangely familiar to her.

“This is the same wood as the doors and furniture in the Mansion.” He hadn’t made her a face to express emotion, but surely it was horror there in brass and iron. “All built from my trees. More and more of the Mansion has been built out of me over the years,” he said, emptying the cask onto the ground. “Let me give you a different ending to the prophecies. A warrior princess rode up to slay the evil wizard. She was easily vanquished. He made her his guest for many years. She asked him to slay the monsters plaguing her people in her stead. There was love there, in the most unlikely of places. But love does not sit easy atop a mountain of the dead. The princess was a prisoner, of prophecy and duty. The wizard more so, of regret and of the power he accumulated. So she freed him in the only way she knew.”

Gladiola considered the tale, arms folded over her bear trap heart, the only sound the rattle of her scalpel fingers on her metal arm. “That is a terrible story.”

“I brought you back many times. From when you loved me. From when you feared me. And now when you hate me. I convinced myself that I was doing it for you, but I am as much a prisoner of my machinations as I ever was.”

He knelt on the grass, guiding one of Gladiola’s hands to the centre of his heartwood breastbone. “I told another you that I was giving us a second chance, but she was right. Once was enough. The Mansion is nearly spent. Fulfil your quest. End me now and kill the forest.”

#

The flames in the distance were bright enough to reflect orange across Gladiola’s edged, metal skin. Legends had been right about heartwood burning; the forest screamed as it died. The sound was disconcerting to the princess’ ears, and she was no stranger to the sounds of battle.

Dawn was breaking, that brief interstice when Sisters Sun and Moon looked at each other jealously across the sky. Perhaps they’d be laughing at Arcturus, standing silently behind his rescuer. He hadn’t said a word since she refused to run him through, hauling him bodily from the burning forest after he lit the dragonfire oil.

“Payment for the first mercy you showed me when I failed to kill you,” she said when she dumped him on the grass, still smouldering. “Besides, I am not sure that you are still the man I set out to destroy.” She spoke towards the crumbling remnants of their old home.

“But you have destroyed him more completely than you set out to do, it seems.”

“Princess saves the evil wizard, that’s a new one. It’s harder to redeem than to destroy.”

The remnants of the Mansion collapsed with a final groan of masonry and timber; dragonfire was thorough. Sister Sun would shine down on smoking rubble and a steel princess leaving the grounds with a wooden wizard, on the way to something new.

###

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