“Teacher, Teacher, Teacher,” Evran said, his foot bouncing jovially. He steepled his fingers, tapping their tips together as he had seen villains do in stage plays. “What a profound mess you’ve made of yourself.”
Colomb could not respond, of course. Evran sat across from the man in Colomb’s quarters, in a chair he’d bidden one of Colomb’s apprentices to bring for him. Well, Evran sat across from Colomb’s body. He couldn’t be sure where the rest of his old teacher resided. Not exactly. He knew that the man was nearby, and he was reasonably certain that Colomb could perceive his surroundings.
“Who would have thought that, after all these years, you would reach back out to me?” Evran continued. He laughed. “Who would have thought you would sacrifice your ego enough to ask for my help?”
Evran had parted ways with Colomb years ago over what Evran called “creative differences.” The decision to end his apprenticeship had, of course, been Evran’s, however much Colomb might like to say otherwise. In Evran’s estimation, Colomb was the sort of man who always wanted to tarnish the reputations of others, over himself.
“It was creative of you, the way you disguised your plea,” Evran said. He leaned back, staring at Colomb’s body as though it could possibly respond. “Not creative enough, though. That’s always been your failing.”
Strictly speaking, it hadn’t been Colomb who had reached out to Evran, but Colomb’s students. A letter had arrived at Evran’s home, delivered by a golem of shoddy, inexperienced make that had told Evran, without reading the letter, exactly whence it had come. For a brief moment, upon reading the letter, Evran had been fooled into believing that Colomb’s students had somehow thought to contact him on their own. Then a second golem had arrived, bearing the exact same letter — a failsafe — and Evran had thought critically about the situation.
He’d torn the golems down, transferring the energies that animated them to some of his own golems, so that it wouldn’t go to waste. Within or attached to both of them, Evran found a piece of black hair. His hair, which is how the golems had located him even though they were sent by people who didn’t know his location or even, really, who he was.
That meant his teacher had kept that hair, and that he must have left a note to his students telling him to contact its owner in case of an emergency. “You must have realized that, with time, I would have surpassed you.” Evran had the sort of smile on his face that insinuated itself into a deep part of his being. In wouldn’t be leaving for some time. “I mean, you were obviously correct. I have, and now I’ve come because you can’t get out of this situation without me.”
Only his teacher’s lower body was clothed. The aging man’s chest was bare. Across his stomach was a leather belt, which Evran had inspected closely upon arrival. It had two functions: as a sort of soul document, with edits Colomb had made to achieve his goals; and as a preservation band, which would keep his body fresh and undecayed.
Evran had read the letter Colomb had left at his side. It was exactly what Evran had expected. There was even a bit of wax at the end with one of Evran’s hairs still pressed into it, unused. Colomb’s students had clearly read the letter as well, and yet they still failed to understand exactly what their teacher had done. Evran had understood as soon as he saw the body. His jovial laughter had caused quite a bit of distressed whispering among the younger boys and girls that comprised Colomb’s apprentices.
On the surface, Colomb’s work had no errors. The preservation band functioned well, and would function perfectly for years, or more, if someone refreshed its energies. Colomb had achieved at least what he’d set out to do: he’d separated his spirit and his soul from his body, freeing them from some of the limitations of mortality, while maintaining a body to which the two could be bound, and so remain a complete being.
What he’d failed to do was to provide some means of continuing to interact with the world. Colomb was a skilled, knowledgeable artificer, but that did not make him intelligent, creative, or wise, like Evran. Evran knew exactly how to achieve what Colomb had really wanted. Indeed, he’d performed the procedure expertly once before, on a man named Qen. Then he’d written a book on the subject, which only a scant few days ago he’d sold to a major artificer’s guild for publication. His discovery would be bringing him money for the rest of his life, meaning that he would never have to perform the procedure himself again, if he didn’t want to.
The question now was whether or not he wanted to help Colomb.
“You’ve basically made a wraith of yourself, you know,” Evran said. He stood, walking over to Colomb’s body so that he could stand over it, looking down at its sad, drooping flesh. “You knew enough to bind yourself to your body. That was good. Otherwise you would have faded away by now.”
Evran reached down. He flicked at one of the metal spikes that had been driven into Colomb’s body. Toward the ends, the last few scribblings of the etchings Colomb had made into them were just barely visible. Evran recognized them well enough. They were based on soul knives, though they weren’t exactly the same.
There were nine of them. They would have been driven into Colomb — into his hands, his feet, his eyes, and his chest — while he was still alive. “If nothing else, Teacher, I have to applaud your resolve.” Evran traced a finger around one of the three spikes embedded into Colomb’s chest. “I don’t know that I could have done this to myself. Though if I had, of course, I wouldn’t have made such foolish mistakes.”
“Do you have to gloat so, Master?” Gleam asked. The black marble golem stood near the doorway, arms crossed in displeasure. “He can’t even answer you back.”
“I do,” Evran said crossly, his jovial attitude vanishing for a split second. His smile returned quickly, though the cast of his face was not pleasant, but predatory. “This man… If you knew how he looked down on me, and the things I wished to achieve, then you would see the delicious irony in the fact that he needs me now. You would see the hypocrisy in his actions.”
“Perhaps,” Gleam said, “but did you not say he was likely to be in pain? Every moment you wait to assist him is another moment he might be suffering.”
“It’s a suffering brought about by his own stupidity and hubris,” Evran spat. “I don’t pity him, and I’m not beholden to assist.” Evran laughed, a deep, dark laugh that bubbled up from deep in his gut. “If I left him here, he would be stuck in this state forever. I might even argue that he deserved that fate.”
“No he didn’t!”
Evran turned away from Colomb in surprise, for the voice had not been Gleam’s, but the voice of a young man. Evran tilted his head. He recognized it as the voice of Colomb’s oldest student. His reaction surprised him: he felt more amused than irritated.
The boy stood in the doorway, one hand gripping the frame angrily. His face was flushed red with anger. He came from pale stock, paler even than Evran. The boy — or young man, if Evran was being fair — had hair the color of burnished bronze and eyes of such a bright brown that they almost appeared golden, especially in the firelight of Colomb’s hearth.
“It’s rude to interrupt when others are speaking,” Evran said, placing one hand on his hip. He couldn’t hide his smile, however. The rest of Colomb’s students were too afraid to speak to him. This one, at least, had some fire.
The student’s cheeks flushed a red of a different tone than that of the anger that lit his forehead. Evran wondered if all his emotions arrived painted on his skin so obviously. He wondered what sort of flush lust might elicit.
“It’s rude to slander people who are in need of your aid,” the student said.
“I’ve spoken no slander,” Evran said, holding up an admonishing finger. “I’ve spoken only to the truths I perceive, though I will admit they may be colored somewhat by my old relationship with your teacher.”
“Are you saying you didn’t get along?” the student asked.
Evran tilted his head. “What is your name?”
“It’s Nyle,” Gleam answered. “He already introduced himself to you, when you arrived.”
“Ah, yes.” Evran gestured at Colomb’s body. “I was so distracted by my worry for our honored Teacher that I forgot.”
Gleam uttered a perfect imitation of a scoff. “You mean you were too excited to come in here and have a laugh at his expense to pay attention to anything else on your way in. You were practically dancing the whole way here.”
Evran sent Gleam a stern glance. “Either way, Lyle —”
“Nyle,” Gleam interrupted.
“Either way, Myle,” Evran continued, gritting his teeth, “the answer is no. Your Teacher and I didn’t get along well at all. That’s why I chose to leave.”
“I thought he kicked you out,” Nyle said. He shrunk back a bit more behind the door frame as he said it, as though Evran might lash out at him for his boldness. Evran’s hand tightened into a fist, for he was tempted to do just that.
Gleam, for his part, laughed.
“No,” Evran said. “I’m not sure where you heard that, but it’s not true. I chose to leave, because Master Colomb and I had some very divergent opinions about where my education should lead, and about just how one should push the bounds of artificiery.” Evran jabbed a finger in the direction of Colomb’s body. “As you can see, his line of thought ended up closer to mine than he would ever have admitted, albeit with several flaws along the way there.”
“You intend to remove yourself from your body?” Gleam asked.
“I don’t,” Evran said. He turned to face his reflection in the standing mirror set in the rooms corner. “I’m a bit too enamored with my own flesh. I mean only that we have both pushed the bounds of what’s possible and accepted. But you already know, Gleam. Had Colomb waited just a few more months, he could have read my book and found out exactly how to go about abandoning his body the right way.”
“You wrote a book on what Master Colomb tried to do?” Nyle asked, setting one foot just inside the door frame. A look of hope, married strangely with trepidation, set itself on his face. “That must mean you can help him.”
“Not on what he tried to do, no,” Evran said. “This is, in many ways, foreign to me. I would never attempt anything so foolhardy. I wrote a book on the correct way to transfer a soul and spirit to a new, constructed body.”
There were whispers in the hallway outside of the room. Nyle was the only one brave enough to show himself, and the only one with the gall to speak directly to Evran, but the other students were there, drawn by their curiosity and concern. Nyle turned to glance at them before speaking again. “You… turned a person into a golem?”
“You know, that’s exactly what he asked me, before I did it,” Evran said. “I would have thought someone with even a modicum of education on the subject would phrase it differently. You must not be as far along in your students as your age hints, Tyle.”
Nyle flushed anew. “I’m further along than anyone else here. I will graduate soon, and move on to practice on my own.”
Evran shook his head. “Then I am glad I left when I did. Colomb’s teachings aren’t nearly as thorough as they should be.”
“I know you didn’t literally turn someone into a golem,” Nyle said. “I know you didn’t transform their flesh into stone, or something silly. Excuse my inexact turn of phrase. What I meant was that you… transported the important parts of them into a new body. Their soul and spirit. You reattached them to a golem, didn’t you?”
Evran nodded. “I did.”
Evran turned away, moving to the cabinet at the side of Colomb’s room, where a pitcher held a clear liquid. Evran didn’t mine prolonging the conversation. The longer Nyle engaged him, the longer he could put off dealing with Colomb, and the longer his former teacher had to suffer for his mistake. Evran hoped that the liquid was a spirit of some kind, but when he sniffed it, he discovered it was merely water.
“That means you… you made a golem that was a true being,” Nyle said. “That’s not supposed to be possible.”
Evran laughed, raising one eyebrow. “I assure you, it’s entirely possible. That it was ever taught, by anyone, as unachievable? That’s the unbelievable thing here. The practices required to create a golem with enough sapience to label it a true being must have been known for centuries before I made Gleam, and yet none seem to have put them into use.”
“Wait,” Nyle said, shifting his weight so that he leaned further away from Gleam. He pointed, low and close to his stomach, as though that would prevent Gleam from noticing. “This is the man you transferred into a golem’s body?”
“No,” Evran said. He returned once more to his chair, where he leaned back, crossing his legs. “That was a sick man in a hospital. Out of my great benevolence, I helped him by giving him a new body, and a new life. Gleam is not that man. Gleam is my creation. He is a golem, yes, but a sapient one. He has his own unique soul, and spirit, and personality.”
The students had stared at Gleam, and Evran’s other golems, when they had arrived, but now Nyle goggled at Gleam anew. In make, he was far different from anything they had produced under Colomb’s instruction. The golems Evran had seen here had mechanical joins, not the flowing, solid joints Evran made possible with his mastery of the soul document. They were made of inexpensive materials, not marble or granite or precious metals. And, of course, the golems here did not speak.
Gleam spoke, and he moved like a human, and recently, he’d taken to wearing clothing in the form of a loose-fitting robe. Evran had made it for Gleam himself, not trusting a regular tailor to understand what sort of clothes would suit a body made of stone and metal.
“Hello,” Gleam said, waving.
“Sorry,” Nyle said. “I didn’t mean to stare.”
“How old are you, Pyle?” Evran asked.
“I’ve seen Vernoa pass twenty times,” Nyle answered. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, you act younger than you are,” Evran said, “so it made me curious as to whether I had overestimated your age.”
“Master,” Gleam chastised, “perhaps it is time to be kinder to the young man.”
“He’s fine,” Evran said. “Aren’t you, Pyle?”
Nyle half-shook, half-nodded, the result being that his head just sort of bobbled around. He shrugged at the same time, giving him a confused, pathetic quality that Evran found surprisingly endearing.
“You already used that one, Master.”
“His name is Nyle,” Gleam said.
“That’s not the point, Gleam,” Evran said, tossing up his hands in exaggerated exasperation.
“What is the point?” Nyle asked. “Of all of this? Are you going to help Teacher, or not?”
“I don’t know yet,” Evran said.
“Yes you do,” Gleam said. “Stop pretending you’re still thinking about it. You travelled all this way to get here, and your brought not only your tools, but Spider. You only bring Spider when you know you need to have some hunting done.”
“Just because I came prepared to do something doesn’t mean I actually intend to do it,” Evran said. “You know better than anyone that I don’t do anything for free, Gleam.”
Gleam unleashed a dramatic sigh. “That’s true.”
“You… you’re going to ask for payment?” Nyle asked.
“Well of course,” Evran said. “In fact, here’s my first lesson for you: Never do anything unless it benefits yourself.”
“First lesson?” Nyle asked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, your teacher isn’t exactly doing much teaching right now, is he?” Evran asked. “I might as well impart a few nuggets of wisdom while I’m already here.”
“I… guess,” Nyle said.
A second student, female, and younger than Nyle by at least a few passings, poked her head into view. “Are you going to teach us to make golems like him?” she asked, pointing at Gleam.
“We’ll see,” Evran said. “For now, we need to discuss my payment.”
“We don’t really have much, in the way of money,” Nyle said. “Even those of us with parents who do don’t really keep anything here. Master Colomb doesn’t like that.”
“Colomb has money, though,” Evran said. “He must. You all pay tuition to be here.”
“Well… yes,” Nyle said. “But it’s not like we know where he keeps it, or like we can spend it on his behalf.”
“I think he would permit you to act in his stead, in a matter like this,” Evran said. “Don’t you?”
“No,” Nyle said, though shakily. “Well… I don’t know. From his letter it really seemed like he thought you were the only one who could help. Or… well, maybe just the only one who would help, without judging him.”
“Oh, I’m quite sure there are others out there who might be able to assist him,” Evran said. “It would take them longer, and the results wouldn’t be nearly as clean, but there are people that could do it. I think.” Evran paused, stroking his chin. “Perhaps I’m overestimating the skills of others. It’s hard for me to believe, sometimes, how much better I am than them.”
“Wow,” Nyle said, under his breath.
“Master Evran is… very sure of himself,” Gleam said delicately, “but he’s not exaggerating. He doesn’t present himself in a very humble manner, but he doesn’t exaggerate his talent, either.”
“Well said, Gleam,” Evran said, tipping his head. “Humility has never been my strongsuit, but truthfully, I’ve never had a reason for it. In any case, whether others could help or not, I might be the only one who’s potentially willing. After all, what your teacher has done here is, shall we say, uncomfortable. And artificers don’t like discomfort.”
“I still don’t think I should be promising you his money,” Nyle said. “He seemed to think you would help out of, you know. Kindness. Or something.”
“I am kind,” Evran said. “I am also consistent. I need to be paid.”
“We really should ask him,” Nyle said. He faltered. “Well… right, Issa?”
The girl next to him, who, emboldened, had stayed in the doorway, shrugged. “I don’t know. How are we supposed to do that?”
“Well, how much money do you have?” Evran asked.
“Not a lot,” Nyle said. “Like I said. How much would you charge? To fix him?”
Evran laughed. “One thousand marks. Gold.”
If he could have believed it was possible, Evran would have claimed Nyle’s skin paled even further. “We do not have that. I… I doubt Teacher has that.”
“What do you have?” Evran asked. “If it’s enough, perhaps I can ask him myself.”
“Ask…” Nyle’s eyes widened. “You want me — us — you want us to pay you to ask him what he’ll pay you? You have a way to talk to him?”
“I think so,” Evran said. He tapped his chin with one finger. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. We know the spirit and the soul exist, but what do they look like? They’re there, but we can’t see them. There must be a way to interact with them.”
“So you don’t even know if you can do it,” Nyle said. “You don’t even know if you can figure out a way to talk to him, but you want us to pay you to try to figure it out so that you can ask him if he can pay you to do something you definitely know how to do.”
“That was a very long sentence,” Evran said, tracing lines in the air with his finger, as though trying to sort through it. “”You’re mostly correct, though, except for one thing. I do know I can do it, and I have a few ideas about how to go about it. The only question is how long it will take me.”
“What are you charging?” Nyle asked.
“Show me what you have, and I’ll decide,” Evran said.
“Fine,” Nyle said. He pulled out of the doorway, taking Issa by the shoulder. They shut the door behind them hard enough that the thump of it resounded even in the carpeted room.
“You’re really going to insist this heavily on payment?” Gleam asked. “Haven’t we talked about you being a kind person? I thought you might be changing.”
“People don’t change unless they have a reason they believe in, Gleam,” Evran said. “They don’t change unless they want to. Giving me lectures about your ideas of what constitutes good is great and wonderful for you, but just because you believe it doesn’t meant that I have to.”
“If you really know how to commune with your teacher, you should do that for free, or at least keep your demands of payment for him,” Gleam said. “I understand that your history with him makes you think you owe him no favors, but these are children. What money they have isn’t really even their own. It’s probably their parents’ money, doled out for them to use when they need it. You can’t drain all their funds away and still call yourself Evranelan the Benevolent.”
“I can call myself whatever I wish, Gleam,” Evran huffed. He sat down in one of Colomb’s chairs, producing a notepad and a pen from within his jacket. The pen he’d made himself. It didn’t use ink, but instead changed the color of everything its tip touched to black. He had to be very careful about touching it to his clothes. “Now be silent while I organize my mind into some notes.”
The students returned a bit over half an hour later, by which time Evran had a fairly good idea of how he would attempt to accomplish the task he had set for himself. Nyle knocked on the door. Gleam answered it. Most of the students remained gathered in the hallway, though now they didn’t hide from Evran’s view. They crowded in the space before the doorway, pressing and pushing against each other to see into the room.
Nyle approached Evran, who set his pen and paper down and crossed his legs, waiting with a neutral expression. Nyle held a leather bag, small, but bulging with the rounded imprints of coins. He thrust it toward Evran with a tense arm. “This is all we have.”
Evran took it from him, taking care to guide it smoothly downward to make it seem as though it was light in his hand. He opened it and rifled through it, taking care to keep his face aloof and expressionless. After a moment of exploration and consideration, he sighed dramatically, pulled out the four largest coins — a gold mark, a golden Empyreal gram, a silver mark, and a silver half-mark — and returned the bag to Nyle.
“That will do,” he said, opening his jacket to retrieve his wallet. He kept his eyes, intentionally, from meeting Nyle’s face.
“That’s it?” Nyle said, staring at the bag in disbelief. “But… we pooled everyone’s money. Now we have to dole it all back out.”
“Are you saying I should have taken more?” Evran asked. “Because I’m perfectly willing, if you think I’ve undercharged you. You can always haggle for a higher price. I won’t complain.”
“No,” Nyle said quickly. “No, this is… just fine. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Evran said. “Now. I have just one more stipulation.”
Nyle swallowed. “Yes?”
“You,” Evran said, “are going to help me.”