The orphan Queen slumped like a toad atop her throne, and commanded us to build her a father.
“Gentlemen,” she said, her voice tart as a raspberry in the late winter air, “you ought build him neither too short nor too stout, but strong. He ought stand wholly apart of other men, yet speak with a voice his own, of civilized and consequential matters.”
As she spoke the dead body of her court jester Antonio twitched by her side. He was her latest toy, a corpse hung on strings like a puppet, to twitch and jerk at the whim of her fingers.
I swallowed back my disgust, and raised my hand to speak.
“Levetti,” said the Queen coldly. “What would you know?”
“Majesty,” I began, bowing deeply, “do you seek a puppet able to locomote himself, entirely independent of support? One that will move in the absence of strings?”
The four other masters in that grand chamber turned their fearful gazes from the Queen and her dead jester to me. I was the puppeteer, after all, and once the orphan Queen’s favorite.
“That is correct,” she replied tersely, “as any father ought.”
“Then you ask an impossibility, for such a thing cannot be done. The enlivening spark cannot be pressed into the puppet’s limbs through any other means than the strings of the puppeteer. It is not possible for a puppet to stand alone.”
The Queen regarded me sourly. The men nearest me leaned away, as though I was enplagued.
“I had thought to receive better tidings from you, Levetti,” answered the Queen. “Were you not amenable to my every desire a year hence? Did you not once bring me every silly little toy I wished for?”
I bowed my head.
“I brought toys for a child, then,” I replied quietly. “Not a torturer.”
“What are you muttering, Levetti?” she snapped, her nose wrinkling in distaste. “Should I have your tongue plucked that I might hear you better? I cannot abide mutterers.”
I looked up to face her. “Was Antonio a mutterer also, my Queen?”
She followed my gaze to the jester on her strings, then laughed without humor. It was not a pleasant sound. She wiggled her hand, and Antonio danced accordingly.
“Yes, poor Antonio. He spoke treason behind my back, did you know? I asked but a small test of his loyalty, and he denied me. I asked only that he excise a finger. Just one finger! Is that too much loyalty for a Queen to demand? I should have stopped him, had he bent to it. Rather he did not, and proved himself false.”
“As would have I, Queen,” I replied. “As any man would. How can excising a finger prove loyalty? It cannot. Who has told you such things?”
The Queen sighed. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. You are but a toy-master. Still, I have heard rumors about you. That you are disloyal to the crown.”
“I am loyal to the last!”
She smiled with gloating eyes. “Good. But muttered words shall not suffice, Levetti. I require of you a greater proof. You come to me and say a puppet cannot be made to stand alone. Would you follow my jester in your denial?”
“I only speak of what is possible, Queen.”
She snorted. “You have no imagination, man. Lucky for you I once favored you. It is why I have brought you these others.” She gestured to the other four men standing beside me. “Here is Caliarch of the Teslic coils, who once built me a sparking model of the sun. With his aid you will build my father’s heart and motive force. Andale here will craft the cords of his throat, that he might sing as sweetly as the organ in Mellorvici cathedral. Gregorii the clockworkist will harness his Teslic heart to the locomotion of his frame, and Aspidarci the abicist will fashion his brain. You, Levetti, will bring these pieces together and birth the soul into my father’s body, that he might advise me true and plain, as none here seem able.”
My mouth was dry. There beside the throne hung the last man to deny her. Yet I could not lie.
“I know nothing of souls, Queen, or of Teslic hearts and brains. I know not how it can be done. I am but a puppeteer in the Queen’s chamber.”
She smiled coyly, a joke we had once shared, and for a moment I thought I saw a glimpse of the child I had once known. Then it was quickly buried.
“Then you had best learn, Levetti, hadn’t you? You taught me that lesson yourself. We all must learn to adapt.”
I bowed, feeling the bite of my own words. There was no thing I could say in reply, and no thing I could do.
“Then I beg a year, Majesty. There is much to be done.”
She sniffed. She tugged on Antonio’s strings, and he jigged sickly.
“You have one month. I am not the patient little girl you once knew. I am the Queen now, and must be obeyed.”
I bowed. I nodded. In my heart I knew that in one month’s time I would be hanging in Antonio’s place.
I sent the others to their workshops, to build what they might to a simple specification.
“Small,” I warned, “and plain. If I am to understand your works and unite them, they must be within my ken. We come together within the week.”
They nodded acquiescence, though their eyes were haunted. I felt I saw the image of Antonio hanging within each one of them.
I returned to my belfry garret in the dun-colored old abbey of San Fossecia. The abbot met me as I climbed the winding stairs to the room that had once been his pigeon loft. He didn’t speak, only gazed soulfully into my face. Perhaps he read well therein what was before me, and let me pass without comment.
I stood in my garret, dappled with bright swathes of warm light shot through the collary-windows, and looked over the life I had built for myself. Everywhere were puppets; some of wood and others of leather and fur, some dressed and painted, others bare Tulsa wood, lying in heaps like dried out victims of the Mantuan plague.
“From this I ought fashion the Queen a father,” I murmured, feeling foolish even as I spoke. There were none to hear, only myself. Then I steeled my nerves, and began.
From a long log of stout oak I fashioned the two halves of the puppet’s torso, larger than any man, large enough to hold within it Caliarch’s Teslic heart. From flexible yew I shaped a lattice of faulds for its stomach, within which would be encased Gregorii’s mechanic clockworkings. From tempered iron rods I pounded out a skeletal frame that ran up its back like a spine, to which would be attached its limbs, its head, upon which its torso would be hung like a cavaliere’s breastplate.
From hardest ash I lathed the arms, legs, feet and hands that would provide the means of its locomotion. I linked them each with joints of polished marble wrapped in oiled swine-heart valves, hollow through their centers that cords of puppetry string might pass.
Out of reverberant tin I shaped its throat, broad enough for Andale’s pipes to lie abreast, deep enough for a bonded-air sac to squat above its heart and breathe life across them.
Lastly, from an ancient block of pounded Balsa, I carved its head, larger than a helmet, that Aspidarci’s abacal brain might fit, with five palanca, or levers, worked through the back of its head, that its locomotion might be controlled.
Hung on a frame it seemed monstrous. It was nothing like the toys I had built before. It was a mad thing, a thing not meant to be, conjured from a mad child’s mind, and I deplored it for that.
The week ended, and the others came; Caliarch with his heart, Aspidarci with his mind, Andale with his voice, Gregorii with his locomotive force. I greeted them at the old abbey’s gate, and exchanged small pleasantries that held no pleasantry for any of us. Gregorii’s wife was well, Caliarch’s boy was off to fight the Kaiser, Andale’s work was to be featured in the grand halls of the English King’s palace. The words were empty beside their sallow cheeks and hunted eyes. Even fat old Aspidarci seemed pinched somehow, his jovial flab turned pasty and stretched.
“Let us begin,” Andale said, after only moments, the fear plainly greatest in him. “Let us not tarry further.”
I enlisted the aid of the abbey monks to winch their works up to my garret. Together we pulled their varied contraptions to stand beside my puppet body, and consider how the impossible might be attempted.
Gregorii had brought with him something resembling a taxidermied midriff, a rough leather skein standing in for a man’s innards, with hanging catgut straps emergent from the four points where limbs would emerge. From its back jutted a large hump of slowly rotating cogwheels like some hideous mechanical cancer. This was to be the manner of locomotion.
Caliarch’s offering was a large ovum of moulded iron hung by a thick wire of zinc coiling, along which bright Teslic sparks of light crackled and hummed. At times it flashed with a sputtering inner light, and from within its casements issued a deep rumbling burr, as of distant thunder.
Aspidarci’s creation was a simple excavated head, resplendent upon a large wooden wardrobe, from within which came a ceaseless clanking of steam pistons revolving and abacal beads clanking back and forth, the noise of thought realized.
Andale had prepared a delicate array of miniature air bladders bundled as though wood faggots, set beside a waxy leathern bag I took to be a cured stomach. He demonstrated the use of it by triggering a valve and squeezing the air bag, which blew a thin stream of compressed air over the finely tuned accordion pipes, producing a ghostly high music.
The innards that rested beside my puppet shell were large enough to fill it three times over. We stood together and surveyed the impossible task before us. Andale began to softly weep.
“We have yet three weeks,” I said to them, perhaps hoping to buoy myself in speaking, though the edge of fatality was clear in my voice. “If it can be done by any, it will be done by us.”
I didn’t believe it. I am sure the others did not either. Yet to work we bent.
We worked through the month, and when our time came to an end, we returned to the palace, pulling our puppet on a cart. Its heart had been installed, and its voice, but much of the cogwork of its locomotion had yet to be fitted, and rested in a wooden casement by its side, along with half of its abacal brain. It was heavy as an ox, and even with its skeleton torqued rigid could barely stand under its own mass. The palanca-levers in its skull were operative, but controlled only the pipes in its throat, and the fingers of its left hand.
It could sing, and stand alone, as the Queen had specified. Neither was it short, or too stout. But it was not powerful, nor civilized. It was far from finished.
As we walked across the Savinci bridge, over the moat towards the gates, I spied something dark hanging from the central castle turret, like a dark rag.
“It is Antonio,” said Andale, his voice high and afraid. “On display. For shame.”
I realized it was true. The jester hung naked down the turret wall with a rope about his neck, his skin dark from a month’s corruption.
“Don’t look at him,” I said, turning my eyes away, focusing on the rumble of the cart wheels as we pushed our failure closer to the Queen. “Do not think of his fate.”
Andale began to breathe in fast little pants. I glanced in his direction, and saw the sweat pouring down his cheeks, though it was but early spring.
The throne room had changed. In place of Antonio there hung a pale-skinned girl, her body covered in welts and weal’s, strung to the Queen just as the jester had been. I could not imagine what sin she had committed to find herself in such a position.
Before the throne stood two Balustrone guards, long swords held unsheathed in their hands, their backs to the Queen. Beyond them she spooned tapioca curds into her mouth with one hand, rippled the puppet-strings with the other, and the puppet-girl beckoned to us awkwardly.
“Levetti, bring my father closer,” she said, her voice thick and glottal with the syrupy curds.
I bowed, and advanced. We stopped before the Balustrones, and waited as she surveyed our work. It did not take long.
“This is it, Levetti?” she asked. Flecks of thick spittle spat from her lips. “This is your best work, and you bring this to me with no shame?”
She pushed herself to her feet. In the month since I last saw her she had grown even colder, a mask of cruelty hiding better the child that she yet was. A dangerous glint shone in her eye, as she looked from me to the other four around me.
“You have the impertinence to bring me this heap of junk and seek to call it my father? Do you think me a Queen worthy of as shabby a thing as this?”
Andale’s panting grew more rapid. He was near entering a fit with fear, his eyes fixed on the still bleeding wounds of the puppet-girl strung up by the throne.
The Queen saw his terrified gaze.
“You, Andale,” she snapped. “Does my father at least have a fine voice? Did you at least follow my command, and build it to rival the Mellorvici cathedral?”
Andale gulped, and jerkily moved to the puppet. He reached to the back of its head, and tugged the first palanca.
The puppet’s mouth open, and it sang. The sound was high and sweet, a simple ditty of four pipes played in turn. For a moment the Queen’s anger softened, and I again saw her as she had once been; lonely, afraid, overwhelmed by the loss of her parents, lost in the creeping tendrils of courtiers worming themselves around her.
“Very good,” she said. The angry mask slotted back into place, and she turned to the man by his side. “And Gregorii, can it walk?”
Gregorii shook his head. “The weight, majesty,” he answered, his eyes to the ground. “It can stand, but should it walk, it crumples under its own mass.”
“I should like to see that for myself.”
Gregorii turned to me, as though for confirmation.
“Why are you looking at him, Gregorii?” The Queen asked in soft, brittle tones. Gregorii’s eyes widened as he realized his error. He turned quickly back to face her.
“It will break if it falls, Queen,” he said in a quiet voice. “All our work will be undone.”
The Queen ignored this. “That does not answer my question, Gregorii. Why do you look to Levetti, do you think him your Queen?” He shrank before her, but gave no reply. “Answer me, man! Do you think him the Queen?”
“No, majesty, no.”
“Then show me! Have my father walk. Show me his strength.”
Gregorii stepped forwards uncertainly, and unclasped the supports holding the puppet rigid. It rocked as it found its own balance. He pulled the second palanca, and its left leg lifted up.
The Queen’s eyes opened with expectation, again that expectant joy, but the footfall didn’t land. Rather, the puppet began to lean to the side, thrown by the impetus of the raised leg. It canted further until its tilt became a fall. It crashed against the stone flags. The clacking of pistons from within stilled. Its throat gave a last warbling breath, then it was silent.
“Pathetic,” snarled the Queen. I could feel the anger boiling up in her, and remembered how she had once raged at the death of her parents, how the only thing that had stilled her was the gentle touch of my puppets on her face.
I had failed again. This time my failure would kill us all.
“Your majesty, we had not time,” Gregorii implored. “If we were given but a month longer, I know it can be done. Your father will walk again, I know it.”
The Queen ignored him. “Pathetic, I say. You have disobeyed a direct order from your Queen. You, Levetti. I expected better of you. Why have you not done as I asked?”
I heard through the anger a plea. I heard it even as I had no answer for her. I was only a man. I was not a God, to breathe life into dull wood. I wanted to take her anger and gentle it away, but she was the Queen, and I was but a puppet master. I could do nothing. I cast my eyes down.
“You asked the impossible, Queen,” I answered. “Any man would fail.”
She hawked and spat. She would have never have done such before, and the improperness of it shook me.
“I expected so much more of you, Levetti. For my favor, I grant you one more chance. Only tell me which man here failed you. Tell me which man you are shielding, that you could not obey my command?”
I heard the yearning in her voice, but I could not give her what she asked.
“Then blame me,” I said, “for you gave charge of the task to me. I failed you.”
She shook her head, smiling sickly. “I am not yet done with you, Levetti.” She turned her gaze. “What of you, Gregorii, what say you? Are each of you equally responsible? Should I punish you all?”
Gregorii gulped, but said nothing.
“Aspidarci, what of you? I am the Queen, and I must have order. No secrets shall be kept. Which man disobeyed. Tell me!”
None of us spoke. The Queen simply stared. The moment stretched, grew pregnant, until at last the Queen broke it with a flicking of her pinky finger.
The female puppet by her side beat herself across the breast. She cried out. I watched a fresh welt rise across her sternum, a thin bead of blood inch down.
“Answer me,” said the Queen, so soft now she was barely audible over the whining of her doll. “Unless you wish to all hang as she hangs, answer me.”
None of us spoke. The Queen flicked her finger again, and the woman lashed herself again, and screamed piteously again.
“Answer me. Or would you have your wives hang here, and your children?”
She made the woman beat herself again, and I could watch no more. My Queen, once such a sweet and lonely child, had become a monster in the hands of the court.
“Stop this, Majesty,” I demanded. “You are better than this.”
But she did not stop. I started forward, and a Balustrone held out his blade to bar my path. I pushed it away and strode by. A flash of surprise ran across the Queen’s face, then my head was abruptly jolted forwards and I was falling. I hit the floor face first, unable to pull my hands up before me in time.
Pain burst in the back of my head, and I struggled to lift myself. Had I been struck with the edge of the blade, and was even now bleeding to death? I wasn’t ready. Wild thoughts rushed through my mind, visions of the Queen as she once had been, as she was now, and a hopeful voice told me that perhaps the Balustrone had hit me with the flat of his blade, had not cut open my mind.
I heard the screaming of the poor puppet woman, pushing itself into my ears, and it rang with the spreading pain in my head, pulsed with the pulse of the thickening grey.
At last Andale’s voice rose through it, echoing strangely as though I were underwater.
“Gregorii!” he cried. “It was Gregorii.” The cries of the puppet woman calmed away, like a swelling of tides. “He failed to locomote your father, Queen. Hang him. Hang him!”
Gregorii’s protests rose up like grace notes on the Mellorvici pipes, but to no avail. I watched the Balustrones stride towards him as ripples ran in the grey. The last thing I saw before darkness fell was them leading Gregorii pale-faced and resisting to Queen’s side, where they cut the puppet woman down, and began stringing Gregorii up in her place.
I woke to the cool balm of a healer’s poultice, lying abed in a spartan palace ante-chamber. None spoke to me. A day later I was dismissed from the palace, with the broken body of my puppet on a cart before me. I pushed it out. While crossing the Savinci bridge, I saw an extra body hanging beside the black rag that was Antonio; the puppet girl.
Soon Gregorii would join them. Soon I would join them, and the three others.
They were waiting for me in the abbey, vacant-eyed. They had watched Gregorii dance for the Queen, beat himself bloody to the tune of her strings. We had been granted 5 days to make the puppet walk. They sat in silence in my garret, condemned men serving out their time.
That night I dreamed of other times. The Queen and I were within the folds of my puppeteer’s screen, all the toys I had built for her scattered around us, lit by the warm flickering of a single candle. We had played with the puppets for hours, had given a show to several ladies of the court together, and now she was falling asleep, wrapped up in the thick velvet screen-cloth.
I rose and began to pack the puppets into their chest quietly.
“Daddy?” she whimpered, eyes half-closed.
“No, it is I, Levetti,” I answered softly.
“Levetti, don’t go,” she mumbled. “Don’t leave me.”
“I have to go, Queen,” I answered. “It is hardly seemly for the puppeteer to overnight in the Queen’s chambers.”
She smiled, though her eyes were closed. It was a jest she first made herself, but one that had grown heavier in my mind. I was a man of toys, of childish things, and she was now the Queen. Soon she would be a woman. It was no longer fitting for me to be in her chambers alone, or perhaps to be in her court at all. I knew nothing of state or governance.
“Stay a little while longer,” she whispered. “I won’t tell.”
I smiled down on her. I thought to stroke a lock of hair from her face, but stopped myself. She was the Queen.
“Soon,” I whispered, as I packed the last of the puppets into the chest. “You’ll see me tomorrow, if you like. We’ll play again.”
I stepped out from within the velvet tent we had created, and stood in the cool and dark space of her chambers. Once her mother and father had called this regal place their home. Now it was cold, and smelled of polish and ghosts.
I thought then that I would see her the next day. I thought she would summon me in the morning and together we would bound through the lands of knights and maidens once more.
But she did not call the next day, nor the day after that. I continued at my business, and began to hear whispers of the grudges being enacted within the palace, the stories of old scores being lanced, with the Queen wielded as the cutting blade. I wondered that she was young to be so involved in court gossip and politics, but I put the thoughts from my mind. She was a Queen now. She had no need of her puppeteer.
I woke in a sweat, despite the chill air. Around me were the three remaining others, sprawled in their sacks. We had worked late into the night on the job of making the puppet walk. The task had been impossible before, with a month allotted us. Now, with less than a week and no Gregorii, we could not even make it stand.
I dressed myself in my finest puppeteer’s garments, gathered up my whittling blade, display table, and left the garret. The abbot was in the grounds, raking gravel. He saw me and nodded gravely. I nodded back, and walked from the place for the last time.
Florence was quiet in the pre-dawn, and I walked as though a man to his death. Every sound, smell, and sight was heightened. As I crossed the Savinci bridge to the palace my heart leapt that Gregorii was not yet strung up beside the other two rotten bodies. Perhaps there was hope for him yet.
Balustrones saw me to the throne ante-chamber. I stood before the closed doors and waited, table by my side. She kept me waiting until noon, but the time seemed to pass quickly, as I relived again all the moments we had shared.
At last the Balustrones admitted me. There she was, upon the throne, Gregorii by her side. His tunic was ripped, his face bloodied, but he lived.
“Where is your puppet, Levetti?” called the Queen imperiously as I approached. “I had not thought you impudent enough to return without it.”
I approached the throne, to the point where the Balustrone had struck me before, and stopped. I laid down my display table, and bowed deeply.
“I will be your puppet, Majesty.”
The Queen looked at me for a long moment. Then she laughed. “You presume too much, Levetti. See, I have a puppet of flesh already.” She made Gregorii dance. He seemed barely conscious. “You were bid to build a father for me. But you are not my father.”
“I should have been,” I said, and felt the words catch in my throat. Before me was a child who had tortured and killed, who had hung Gregorii the master by her side like a puppet clown, but I sought to see past that. They were only layers, piled upon her by the whisperings of those in the court, those who had used her as their puppet, those who had taken an innocent child and made her something filthy, and dark.
I held in my mind the last image I had seen of her, that had broken my heart even then; a child wrapped up in velvet, surrounded by toys, begging me not to leave her alone.
I had left.
I imagined that child on the throne before me, though it cut me to the quick to do so. I imagined her lost and weeping.
Then I drew out the knife.
A Balustrone sword was at my throat immediately. The Queen flinched.
“What is this, Levetti?” she demanded, some of the haughtiness in her voice rubbing out, replaced by genuine surprise, perhaps even fear. “Do you seek to kill your Queen?”
I shook my head, and held the knife out between finger and thumb. Strangely, I felt tears well to my eyes.
“Never, your Majesty,” I insisted. “I am first and always your most loyal servant. I am here because I cannot build the father you asked for. I have failed you, for I cannot replace a dead father of flesh with a dead one of wood and clockwork.”
I thought I saw her eyes glimmer with emotion, but the cold mask still held firm.
“You speak far beyond your place, puppeteer. You admit to your failings, though I have granted you 4 days yet. Are you so eager to replace your fellow hanging on my strings?”
I dropped to my knees. “Yes. And to obey your every command.”
I did not wait for her reply. I laid my left hand palm-down upon the display table by my side. The Queen’s eyes widened as she realized what I was to do. I laid the knife against my smallest finger, by the knuckle, and pressed down.
The skin slit easily. I pushed harder, and felt the bone shear under the pressure. Blood gushed out, splashing over the surface top and down onto the floor.
I had cut off my finger.
The Queen paled, but held firm.
“You asked this of your jester,” I said. “And he failed you. You asked more of me, and I failed you too. This is all I know to do.”
I laid the knife against the second finger, pressed down until the bone crunched, and cut it free. More blood gushed out, and two of my fingers lay in the red before me, disconnected, like marionette limbs, cut from their strings.
“This is not what I asked,” said the Queen, uncertain now, her tone faltering. I watched her, saw the image I had painted of her as an innocent child bubbling through the facade she was wearing. “I did not seek this.”
“But you sought it from Antonio. What crime did he commit, Queen?” I pointed to the old beaten clockworker hanging by her side. “What crime did Gregorii commit? If you seek to punish any, punish me, for I left a small child to harpies and buzzards, who have picked over her bones for a year, and perverted her.”
“Levetti!” she barked. “That is enough.”
I ignored her, laid the knife against the third finger, pushed down, and felt the crunch of my bone snap. The finger rolled free and fell to the floor. The nearest Balustrone took a step back, a look of disgust on his face.
“I command you to stop Levetti,” said the Queen again, and I turned to face her. She was still cold. I had cut three of my fingers away and it wasn’t enough. My blood was pooling on the floor. I felt a cold nausea rising through me, a revulsion at what I would do, an acceptance that I would do it.
“My Queen,” I replied, and laid the knife against my index finger. I pushed down, and it seemed as though the knife hurt for the first time. As I cut down, slicing through the tough outer layer of skin, through tendon, down to the bone, I was coolly aware that I would never craft puppets with that hand again.
The Queen was calling my name, shouting commands, but I ignored her. My index finger clung to my palm by a few raw pink threads. I slit them one by one, and they popped in my head like Chinese fire.
“My Queen,” I repeated, and set the knife mechanically against the base of my thumb. My hand seemed a strange thing before me, flowing with blood, shorn of all its fingers. My vision blurred and doubled, until two palms lay there, with two knives and two thumbs. The Queen was standing now, and gesticulating wildly, causing Gregorii to dance and jiggle.
I pushed down. The knife slit through the thick base of my thumb. How many puppets had that thumb held, moulded, sculpted? The bone broke, cut through, and as a new welter of blood poured out, bright light-headedness overcame me.
“Levetti, stop!” shouted the little Queen. I thought that in that voice there was something familiar, like the voice of an old friend, back from distant travels overseas, changed, matured, but still a friend. I looked around for a moment, dazed with loss of blood, unsure for the moment of where I was. Then I saw her face, saw Gregorii hanging slack and beaten beside her, and remembered.
“My Queen,” I said a third time, and laid my wrist down upon the table. I set the knife to the skin. For abandoning a child to animals I deserved this. To reach back to the sweet little girl I once knew, it was necessary.
I sawed at my skin. Blood was everywhere, sloshing on the table top, riming my remaining hand, everywhere I looked. The knife slipped in my hand as I sawed at my own arm. The pain was a crutch I used to ground me, to keep me from fainting dead away.
“Levetti, stop, please,” came the voice of the little Queen, so close I thought she was speaking in my ear. Then she was. She was by my side, dirtying herself with my blood, prising my remaining fingers open, pulling the slick knife from my hand. Her touch felt like forgiveness. Her voice was so kind again. As I staggered into unconsciousness, I felt her guiding me, holding me as I once held her, steering me down into the warm thick velvet that awaited.
“My Queen,” I whispered, in her ear, a final time.
Michael John Grist is a British author and ruins photographer who lives in Tokyo, Japan. His short stories have been published in Aoiffe’s Kiss, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Something Wicked, and he is currently writing an epic fantasy novel titled Dawn Rising. He runs a website on the ruins or ‘haikyo’ of Japan; filled with photographs of abandoned theme parks, military bases, and ghost towns. His day-job is teaching English at University.
The original idea for The Orphan Queen came from watching too much reality TV; weekly knockout shows like The Apprentice and Masterchef. The story started life as a longer haul knockout between ten puppet masters, with aspects of Robot Wars thrown in as the puppets fought each other for survival. Each week/month one of the puppets would lose, and the master would get dispatched in a horrible way (far worse than “You’re Fired”), and the Queen would correspondingly sink lower and become more evil. That structure only survived in the present story as an implication. Gregorii is the first to be ‘knocked out’, then Levetti steps up and takes matters into his own hands.
As to the idea of puppets, I can’t really say where that came from. From the back of my mind where an interest in Pinocchio and Artificial Intelligence come together, I suppose.