illustration by Alison Wilgus

Palimpsest

Frances Rowat


It was nearing the days of misrule, which were part of neither the year in place nor the year to come, when the lord came to Band’s owner, looking to have a play copied and bound. Band could smell him the moment he walked in, a sharp and somehow green scent that was reminiscent of cedar and apples. “I understand,” the lord said, “you have an unusual copyist.”

“We do have such a fixture, your grace,” Erisha Vadden answered as she led the lord and his companion, a girl smelling heavily of bottled flowers and sweat and wet silk, into the receiving room distinct from the common shop. Band knew no contract was begun in the days between years, when custom and clock alike were broken, but it was common to make arrangements for work to be completed and delivered in that time. He hoped that the lord was of a mind for such a commission; he had learned that the evenings when Vadden dwelt on work which she hadn’t been given were unpleasant and snappish, and the day had held little other business to distract her.

Band had cocked his head at the word copyist, and seeing from the corner of his eye that the lord was watching Vadden, he looked up from his table and down towards the shop’s floor, for he worked on a balcony above it, thick with the sky’s light. Vadden and the lord paid him no mind, but the girl looked up at him and smiled. Her lips remained pressed together, but in the smile her mouth’s corners stretched nearer to her ears than he thought those of men could do.

Perhaps it was only pride that made the girl smile so wide, though she was concealing it again as the lord laid a hand across her shoulder and introduced her to Vadden as the queen of his play. Such florid language was not unusual in this time; when the death of the year came, those who had more money than wonder threw themselves into raree-show productions filigreed with decadence. Band turned his attention back to the pages, and picked up the pen, although he listened rather than beginning again with his copywork. He expected to be called to the railing, soon. When Vadden’s clients came in asking about the copyist, he was usually put on display.

Band had been found young, with the rest of his clutch; his parents absent long enough for them to grow hungry. He remembered the great brassy heat of the sun, and the clumsy bony huddle for warmth at night without the great trunks of his parents’ tails, and soon after his parents were gone there was the day the shadow fell across them, and a voice said the word for nest. The speaker was not as tall as his mother, and stood on two legs rather than one, like a child.

“People?” Band asked, with one of his sisters coming up to stand before him, opening her mouth warningly.

They talk another voice said.

There were less of them than there were of Band’s clutch, but they were taller and heavier, each easily twice the height of his eldest sister. Surely they talk the first speaker said. Family it added with its voice going up a little at the end. Mother. Its voice danced upward, and it waved an arm at the long and level sands.

Band drew back, and his sisters came forward, piping shrilly. The two speakers drew back, but when his parents did not appear, they brought out their nets and sticks.

One of his sisters escaped.

They did not kill him; he came to understand later that in the lands by the hot and glorious desert, the killing of his kind was as feared as the killing of cats in far-off Ulther. But they took him to priest-surgeons who dug into his back and prised out the small separate bones that would have become his tail and adult spine, and cut away his scales and the limn of flesh beneath them, and clipped the end of his tongue. Under their ministrations, Band was a gelded two-legged child trapped in a scraped body, growing a little taller and steadily older but never coming into his own, never to grow a proper tail that would, in time, swallow back his childhood legs, never to father a clutch of his own.

His skin was dark from scarring, and the ointments they rubbed in as he healed. As he grew, the stain of his skinning stretched and laddered, and streaks and blears of more golden skin appeared beneath. By the time Band had grown a head taller and had learned to call his captors men, and to follow their tongue, new people came to the place where he was kept in a cell of oiled stone, and he was given away as tribute. And with agreements and trade and the run of luck, he was traded and sold north and west, through cities and kingdoms, into a greyer, wetter land. So by the time Band should have grown a proper tail and instead had only grown to the height of a young adult among his captors, clever-fingered and shy, he was bought as a houseminder and curiousity by a bookbinder and taken to the woman’s home in Iolace.

His room was better than the cell he had been given by the priests, and Vadden was not pettishly cruel. Caught in his peeled skin and his two legs, Band did not like to look at himself, and was glad that his master gave him clothes against the perpetual seeping chill of Iolace. But he remembered the subtle speckling of his parents, unlike the ragged smears he bore, and sometimes, in secret, he traced some of the patterns from the pages in the workroom onto his own scarred skin, using ink or glue. The markings caused hazy ideas of men to seep into his mind, holding forth or travelling or struggling, but their clear precision made the blurred scars less overwhelming in his sight.

When Vadden found Band doing that, she gave him a written page and a sheet of parchment and a pen. With some encouragement (he understood that the parchment was very valuable, and much care must be taken with it), Band began copying the one to the other.

The woman was far more pleased than Band expected, and he was given more work in copying from then on. A girl named Elli was hired to do the cleaning of the shop, and the grinding and mixing of inks, and Band did not try to explain to either Vadden or Elli that the tracing of words on his skin made him dream of such matters as the words might discuss.

He could not read as men do, and his docked tongue let them see him as a purblind and silent and pleasingly exotic tool, so Band was in quite some demand. Vadden occasionally called him an ink-mockingbird to reassure hesitant clients, and while she did read some of the materials brought in confidence, when they were in a language she knew, she was discreet about any copying she did for personal profit, and that was the most asked by any client that sought her out.

So it was that Band and his owner, the bookbinder Erisha Vadden, were hired to make a copy of the yellow play.

***

The requirements were very particular—another book unbound and its pages scraped bare to use for the leaves, the ink to be supplied only by the customer, the pens to be new and use only nibs of brass. The copying itself had to be done only by Band, but that last wasn’t uncommon.

Vadden nodded and graced to the lord, but sniffed at the requirements once he was gone. “It’s just words.” She looked over the play, but grew bored only a few pages in and slapped it down. “Banal.”

Band made a trilling noise in the back of his throat, his way of asking a question. He pointed to the book the client had left behind to have its pages taken apart, a ponderous old thing that smelled of righteous incense, candles, and austere dust. Vadden looked confused, and Band mimed opening the book and scraping down the pages, dusting away whatever flaked off.

“Oh.” Vadden shrugged. “He likes the old book, I suppose. Or hates it. Either way, you know, a book means more when it’s written on something that used to have its own words.” And with that she took the old book and left Band with the play. She would handle the actual dismantling of the original book that was to be cannibalized for parts, the designing of the cover, the delicately tooled leathers of the binding and the gilding of the page edges.

Band liked the copywork, and it made him valued, and brought Vadden enough money that she brought him the occasional fledgling chicks and mice, and cheerfully kept the brazier he slept with heaped with coals. It was the thing he cared for most in the city, hot and brassy-smooth, and when he hunched in its warmth and slept he sometimes dreamt of the sands of his childhood.

He did not hope for home anymore, but he did not forget. The line of his spine ached, and his legs were not as strong as they had been when he was a child; kept long past their time, they faltered under his weight. He should have changed many years ago, as men counted time.

When he had first come to Iolace, and a bored and wine-proud Vadden had explained to him the custom of breaking hourglasses and clocks in the days of misrule, he had hoped that there might have been some weight to them—more, to the restarting of the orderly procession of time when the new year began. Knowing how the meanings of words sank into him, he spent the last night huddled in his room, copying the signs and patterns from Vadden’s book of days onto his skin in the glow of the brazier and aching to feel the run of their passing sweep him along to what he should have been. But when the day dawned and the bells tolled the hour, and everything carried on with men only nursing swollen heads from wine, he stopped hoping.

***

The copying of the first act went well; Band, at Vadden’s bidding, made a second copy on cheap plain parchment. The yellow play wasn’t the only forbidden book said to needle and sicken those who read it, and while Vadden mocked the idea in Band’s hearing—she had seen one version or another drift through Iolace every few years, recopied codices or crumbling editions patched with a handful of suspiciously modern pages, all trailing a distinct lack of madness and an excess of raffish dilettantes—she was happy to recognize the worth the rumours would add to a copy. It couldn’t be sold in the city, and nowhere at all for a year or two, but she didn’t mind waiting. Band had made such furtive copies before at his owner’s instruction. Largely they were copies of unexpurgated romances, or banned poetry, but he had also completed a small collection of folktales that had gone to the woman’s niece.

The day the lord visited to take measure of their progress, Band was feeling ill. He could not see the street outside from his desk, but he could hear the quickening sounds of the city, and the music and calls from the street peddlers and mountebanks who needed no license on the first day of misrule. It was a hot, wet day by the standards of the city, the air carrying the sharp smoke smell of sparkling lights and wine even so early in the day, and the grey sky shimmering with the promise of thunder. Band’s skin felt slimy with condensation, and he was constantly setting the pen aside to dry his hands. His head felt swollen beneath the piecework flesh of his face.

He heard the piping of the door, the cunning arrangement of bellows and flute that the finer shops used instead of common bells, and Vadden pouring practiced courtesies onto the air. Normally it was soothing, but today he only huddled a little closer over his table and was glad he had completed the first act. (It was easy to tell the difference between sections of a book. That was when you left the rest of the page, and sometimes the whole second side of it, blank of ink.) That way Vadden would have something complete to show the lord, and he might be satisfied enough not to demand to come in back and up stairs and see the work in progress. They did that sometime, and it was quite the worst of it.

“The play is half-copied, your grace,” Vadden said. “And I have a bare design for the covers, if it would please you to look upon it and leave me know how I may correct any errors.” Band watched the three of them pass through the receiving room towards the desk where Vadden kept the covers she designed once they were ready to display to a client. The girl trailed along last, smelling exactly as she had before.

Band’s head throbbed a little, and he turned his attention back to the pages, and picked up the pen, although he did not feel quite well enough to copy. He heard the lord ask the girl what she thought of the work, and she laughed.

“I should like to have the play stop only part-way through it,” she said. “When the queen rules, and the court is giddy and glad, with all their intrigues and fine murder.” Band slitted his eyes and fixed his gaze on the page. The days of misrule brought out such smug declarations, and he had too often been traded and sold to make up for fortunes lost in intrigue or injury to particularly care for anyone who spoke lightly of such things.

“Of course, my dear. And the cover?”

“Oh, the cover,” the girl said indifferently, and fell silent.

“The design is sound,” Band heard the lord say, “but much too lurid.”

“Lurid, your grace?”

“The crimsons, the black—it’s vivid, but I want the book bound in yellow. Entirely in yellow. Not plain, you see,” and Vadden murmured agreement. “Richly figured, embossed, naturally gilded, but all in yellow.”

“Of course, your grace. I shall see to reworking the design promptly.”

Band, through his thickening skull-ache, thought that would be nice. He saw far too little yellow in the winter of this city of greys.

***

It was two days later, nearly done with the second and final act, that he got up from the copying desk and fell senseless to the floor. Vadden must have rushed in the second she heard the clatter, for Band had split the skin by his eye on the corner of the desk as he fell, and the blood had barely begun to flow when he woke to find Vadden standing over him. The woman felt his skin for a chill, grumbling anxiously, tidied Band’s desk, and helped him to his room where she built up the brazier. Band fell into a warm sleep nearly as soon as she was gone.

He slept for a day and woke feeling empty inside his skin, hollow as a spilt ink-pot. Vadden had bought eggs, rare as they must have been now and hard as it would have been to find a shopkeeper who cared to stay open to carry them. Band tucked them into his mouth and squeezed until they cracked and his throat was full of thick yolk and slippery white and tatters of membrane. He sucked the collapsed shells clean and spat them neatly out.

Vadden was absent from the shop. Band spent the day carving shapes and swirls into the pile of the rug, idle work that disappeared with a sweep of his arm and left no change on the room. He napped, coiled around the brazier, ate, slept, and dreamed of the hot, brassy glare of yellow sands. A figure crossed them in the distance, against the horizon, wavering in the heat-haze so he could not tell if its trunk ended in one leg or two. The words on its skin were the markings of his clutch, rich and distant and strange.

He went as far as the binding workbench once, examining Vadden’s new design. It was kidskin, golden as toast, embossed with a pattern and words picked out in gilt. Band found he did not like the cluster of yellows. They were cold and rough, and made him think of wasps and the yellow trim on the trappings of the royal horses, the ones with sharp teeth which ate meat and watched passers-by with peculiarly bright eyes. His eyes, sensitive to myriad shades of yellow, saw more colours in it than he could rightfully account for—sickly and seeping, rather than rich and vital. He left the room and uneasily returned to his sleep.

He woke to Vadden sobbing.

He had heard this once before; her younger brother had died, a wet and seeping illness as sometimes came even upon the men in this city who claimed its weather suited them, and she had cried then as well. The light through his doorway was low and ruddy, a match to the heat from the banked brazier. Band pulled a blanket around his shoulders and stumbled out into the store. Vadden was drinking, a hot watered wine that had flushed her face and was streaming now from her eyes.

Band coughed a question, and Vadden’s hands flew to her face, scrubbing wetly. She waved Band over and held out the carafe. Band took it, blinking in confusion.

“Lucky you can’t read,” Vadden said sloppily. “Thought I was lucky you can’t read, but it’s you, isn’t it? I had to finish it. Had to.” She snorted wetly and spat. Band waited until she was done scrubbing her mouth, then offered the carafe. She took a generous slug of it, weeping, and coughed a little of it back up. “I should rebind it. What I had, all pretty and slick… It’s not good enough. But the lord’d know, he’d see and he’d know I’d read it, don’t you think?” Band nodded, not following, and when Vadden stumbled to her feet he scrambled up to put his arm around her upper back and steered the sobbing woman to her rooms. He wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but he knew that if Vadden woke to find she’d ruined binding materials by trying to craft in a drunken fumble, the shop would be a miserable place to work well into the new year.

***

Band felt better next morning, cleaned himself with hot oil and a rag, and went up to the copy-desk to examine the book. His workspace was not as he’d expect Vadden to have left it. The book had been set neatly down in the middle of the floor, and the linen cloth he had used to mark his place and keep dust from falling onto its pages had been taken out and lain over it. He picked it up and sniffed cautiously; it was stiffened with salt in small patches.

Band picked the book up and set it on the table, its weight making him think again of the eggs. There was a certain life to the weight of it, a subtle liquid adjustment in his hands.

He stood looking down at it, fingers laced anxiously together. After a moment he set the completed pages neatly away, and began making the plain copies that Vadden had wanted. The words seethed up at him like serpents under glass, and he made himself stand and walk about every time a shadow of the lead between the glass panes of the skylight touched the edge of the page. That was the worst of it until Vadden came in in the early afternoon. She stood and watched Band work for a while, with sunken eyes and the flesh of her face hanging loose and pale, then went quietly away.

Band put his ink and pen away when he heard the sounds of sobbing begin again. He and Elli waited at the door to Vadden’s rooms, and looked awkwardly at each other, and did not move. It was not violent sobbing, only low and flat and helpless. He thought, remembering her brother, that she might go on this way for days yet, but thought it odd that she had not named whoever had died, not even to the wine.

He finished the copying, uneasily, and waited.

When the lord came back, Band could smell it. The fear poured off Vadden in a sharp high wave that mixed oddly with the lord’s green scent and the heavy flowers of the girl that came with him. Band thought it prudent to sit neatly, work slowly, and keep an attentive ear out.

“And how goes my work?”

“The copying is done, your grace.” Vadden’s voice sounded raddled. Band sat quiet and still, pen about to dip into the well. “There is only the binding that remains, pursuant your approval of the cover.”

“Are you unwell, Vadden?”

“A touch of a cold, your grace.”

There was the sound of something being set precisely down (a knickknack from a shelf, perhaps), and a gentle excuse us, my dear. The smell of flowers piped out of the shop, and there was a moment of silence.

“You read it.”

“Your grace, I hardly think—”

Indeed it’s time,” the lord said, with an odd cadence to his voice, a sort of bounding lightness that Band had heard when men repeated the words of another. “We have all laid aside disguise but you,” and before the lord finished speaking a long thin cry split the air.

Band dropped his pen—off the end of the desk, pens were not cheap but dropping one on the work was unheard of—and scrambled to the railing. Vadden was on the floor, hands clasped to her ears, letting out gasping sobs. His grace looked up to see Band staring down and smiled. Band saw it for the predator’s threat it was.

“I shall be annulling our contract,” the lord remarked to the air, trusting it to hear as well as either Band or Vadden needed to. He began mounting the staircase; the edge of the balcony brought him out of Band’s sight for a moment, though his voice echoed hollowly. “Tell your master— oh, I suppose you can’t, can you? Very well, convey to her that I hope she does not pursue the matter.” He came up to the level of the copy desk, and took the book, and the copied pages on the scraped vellum, and left. He added a few words to Band as he left, but they seemed little more than nonsense, mentions of a lake, and if Band’s head throbbed when he heard them he attributed it to concern after Vadden, who he went down to find after the lord had left, and helped to her feet as she sobbed, and conducted her again to her rooms.

***

“He took the book,” Vadden said slowly, when she woke. Band nodded, and thought it spoke to his master’s upset that she didn’t curse the loss of the contract.

“So he has…” Vadden threw the covers back and stumbled to her feet. She was rumpled, wrapped in the cloying scent of her unwashed clothes from yesterday. “Band, draw a bath. Send Elli home when she comes. I will need to go out.”

Band saw her off, and murmured anxiously to himself as he tidied the shop. Vadden came back hours later, looking ragged but satisfied. “They listened,” she said, going for the wine cabinet. “Took all the favour I’ve curried, but they listened. Assured me the play’ll be seized, and his grace answer for having it.” She lifted her bottle to Band, and began the work of emptying it.

And so it was that she was asleep when the door opened in the dark of the night. Band tried to wake her, and could not, and when he heard the steps coming he drove himself tiny and afraid into the hollow under the landing at the top of the stairs.

***

For all the reek of death, after it was quiet, and the dripping noise had stopped, he could smell the heavy scent of bottled flowers.

Band squeezed out, slowly. The girl was standing in the centre of the shop. Her hair fluttered slightly in the still air, like a candle-flame in the presence of ghosts.

“Your master is done,” she said softly.

Band opened his mouth and felt the air aching in his throat, but his tongue was still clipped, and he could not hiss.

“You did fine work.” Band saw her hands were not moving, as the hands of men always did even when they tried to hold them perfectly still. “I have read your copy of the play, and it will serve. So we will do you no harm. You should leave, little snake.” Her mouth widened in the dark. “You are a strange slave with a murdered master. You should leave quickly.” And she turned, and her flesh moved away from the moonlight and no new flesh showed to take its place, and so she vanished like the moon.

Band stood on the floor of the empty shop, trembling, and he thought about the last day of misrule, when the clocks were broken, and about a play that had made his master weep and speak out and lie murdered in her bed, and which had been written anew on an older book. He thought that perhaps he understood, better than Vadden, what weight you could gather by scraping away what something was meant to be, and what power you could govern by holding something still and not letting it come to its end. And with daybreak he went upstairs to find Vadden.

It was a grey, wet day, and her insides had been unsealed, and she had already started to smell. He did what he could to make her a shroud. Elli would have done better work, but she would not come to the shop on the last day of misrule. Then he thought of the girl, and the play, and by the time daylight was gone and lamplight painted his laddered skin, Band thought he had an answer.

He did not have time to copy out the play entire on his skin, or space enough to do it between the stains of his scarring, but he drew together the copy he had made for poor dead Vadden. By the light and warmth of the brazier he stitched the pages to his skin, and as the needle pricked and plucked at his skin, and the pages grew soft and thick with rills of blood, he understood. The overripe collusion that began the play, and the truth that arrived to end it; the unmasked and tattering truth of the second act that had fallen so hard upon Vadden, and that the girl had ignored in her pursuit of a decadent stasis.

No-one gave him more than a cursory glance as he went up the hill; no-one demanded he stop. His tatters were ragged finery, but clearly meant as such, so on this last night of masquerades and unmade time they let him move freely through the city. And he followed his nose, and came to the grace’s castle, where the sharp green scent was drowning in the thickness of wet silk and bottled flowers.

The was a great lamp above the courtyard like a moon frozen in its fullness, and in the courtyard, the stars did not wheel in the sky above. The guests laughed and glittered, and behind their words he recognized the revelry from the pages that hissed and rustled over his skin. There might indeed be intrigues and fine murder, here, and none of it would matter save as entertainment, for nothing and no-one would end.

The girl who smelled of bottled flowers was wearing a crown of gilt and yellow stones. She turned towards him, mouth opening as if to hiss at the intruder onto her perfect frozen moment.

But in the amber of a play given weight and interrupted at its silliest moment, she was still the queen, and lines begged for her to speak them. Band’s tatters had woven through the air, and the play was strong, and instead of curses what spilt out of her mouth were words spoken in the lilt of one who only parrots another. “You must unmask.” And he saw the horror on her face, and felt the pages stitched against him sing like a moth’s wings in the moment before they burst into flame. The play trembled around him, straining against the broken time that held it in the moment of the court’s giddy glory.

Band’s head was as alight as his skin, dripping and running with words, and the myriad stitches had pulled ink into his veins. He could feel it coursing blackly through him, swelling his heart, soothing his throat, plumping and lengthening the stump of his tongue.

He opened his mouth, and his tongue unfurled, printing the words he wore on the truth of the court.

I wear no mask.

And the world lurched as the second act of the play began.