Labour of an Empress by Christine Ku & Robert K Peterson Sr.

“Gnats

Giant gnats in stately robes

calling Me to this and that

Buzzing

sapping my will

‘Lady, You Must….’

‘But the Flood…..’

‘The coffers are nearly……!’

‘You must judge…..’

I slam the doors shut

The roar of the fire

The Smells of the Forge

The Gnats hammer at the doors

‘Lady….’

‘Lady….’

Nothing will clear my head

Nothing will calm my body

I shake in frustration and rage

I see it!

My old friend

Worn and Mighty

I touch the Hammer softly,

Caress the head

Finally I grasp the wood!”

The Empress strides with purpose to the anvil, sparing barely a glance for the scribe frantically scribbling down her newly composed poem in a far corner. She feels suffused by nervous energy and adrenaline at the same time. Her fingers grasp and then twist around each other like vines. The discomfort makes her look down towards her hands. The feeling grows but isn’t physical pain, not yet. She ignores it.

Two sparrow-sized birds fly into her field of vision. The colour of a forge fire roaring in vitality and triumph, they fly heedless of each other. Yet, it is as if they are conspiring to create an unearthly dance of grace. She watches the sight mesmerized until she is handed a leather apron to put over the simple chemise she is wearing. Still in a daze but she manages to tie up the knots at her back in seconds. That recalls to her the Craft Master’s identity.

Greeting her ex-craft-master, now partner, with a simple nod, the Empress lifts up Temper- her hammer and faithful companion. It is lighter than most smithing hammers but otherwise plain. Out of habit, she runs her fingers over the emblem carved on the bottom of the handle. Instead of the royal insignia, she had ordered that a small circle containing the Celestial Smith Throft’s symbol – a hammer lying on an anvil- be carved there. The ire that had built up around her like a woolen coat during morning Court unweaves itself into threads of vapour and evaporates. Ah, the joy of immersing oneself in a craft of the moment, of the infinitesimal present!

Her partner informs her, “The Magus Nightingales have been fed the necessary ingredients. Pending the final ritual, they are ready to be released.” He is a master swordsmith in his own right but here in the forge he has no name, neither has she. Names and titles matter naught, not in this sacred place. They wait in reverent silence.

The doors open with nary a creak. The court mage enters with a dignified amble, punctuated by solid thunks from his mage staff. He raises his arms with lassitude. The birds that had previously been circling the room lazily or randomly alighting on various tools heed to him as a flock. The mage begins intoning an enchantment. The birds squawk as one but then fall strangely silent. When the mage finishes, the birds become immobile and yet strangely suspended in the air. Like puppets hanging on invisible threads. Finishing his work, the mage fastens his gaze on the Empress. “Beauty comes not from entrapment but from liberation. Freedom comes not from immersion but from transcendance.” Not waiting for a response, he turns his back and leaves.

The Empress’s mouth forms into a pout, in puzzlement of the mage’s parting words. But she shrugs it off. Naught is more pressing than her work ! And exhilarating!

CLANG. The rhythm of Temper’s fall fills her soul with joy. Wait! Just now, the way the metal quivered when Temper strikes it feels wrong. That completely shatters her Craft Master mindset. What have I done wrong? Am I doomed to fail, despite toiling day and night? Am I not worthy of a Craft Master’s integrity, the honour of crafting a masterpiece? No! No, that cannot be! She shakes her head furiously. Perspiration flies out in an arc from her forehead.

She feels a firm hand on her shoulder. The reassuring familiar weight calms her. She glances up at her partner while her hands continue their work. “Wrong quiver,” she told him.

He shakes his head. I don’t know either. “Ylarn nei ceth warchna.” That means going with one’s impulse in smith tongue.

She once again takes in the awe that is the Magus Nightingales, to fill her heart with the promise of both her purpose and her task.

Her eyes lock onto the white crystalline powder glittering within one of the many bowls on the work table. It came from a vein of dark iron underneath the Cavern of Koth. There she found a type of rock of a light sulphurous colour that she had never seen on any other mineral veins. And the powder didn’t come from grinding, the rock naturally dissolves with time it seems. She didn’t have an inkling of how she would eventually use this powder but now she knows. It belongs with this sword that she’s forging now.

She sprinkles the powder onto the quivering metal. The metal quiets, then it starts chiming with Temper’s song. She breathes a sigh of relief.

“Bird.” The Empress motions to one of the servants in the forge. He casually plucks a nightingale out of the air and places it on the searing metal where she indicates.The Empress brings Temper down on it. It disappears into the still shapeless metal.

The metal begins to squirm. The Empress nearly drops Temper. This has never happened before! Could it be the powder? No no no, it felt right and besides, didn’t the metal agree with her decision? She bites her lips. I will not fail! “Quicken the process.” she orders.

Obediently, each of the servants seizes up a bird in either hand and lines up so that the nightingales can be hammered into the sword as fast as she deems right.

“Now

The Hammer betrays,

The metal betrays,

My comfort deserts me

My peace shatters

The rhythm of the beats

off this living metal

Tires me

Sweat burns my eyes

Doubts assail my mind

A girl of small frame again

Sitting on the high throne

Mere puppet to politics

Entrapped and thwarted

Wallowing in own incompetence

escaping to the forge

solace and comfort found

Self reforged

NO, no more yielding

In this forge, here and now

The Will is Ultimate

I Will!”

The force of the Empress’ will subdues the metal. She is drenched in sweat, her arms have become lead. A servant scurries forward to mop her brow, what he would have done minutes ago for her father and any other Lord. But that is not her way. She doesn’t like to be disturbed when she’s working. The craft is everything. And she made that her decreed.

The last bird is placed on the anvil. As she is about to hammer it into the nearly forged sword, it shakes off the state of thrall and flutters back into the air. The nineteen other Magus Nightingales erupt from the sword as one, each trailing a thread of hot metal back to the anvil. In an instant, everything around her changes.

She is no longer in her palace but rather a familiar sylvan glade with just Temper, her anvil and the sword lying atop it. The Nightingales are fanning out in front of her, flicking their tails of liquid fire in menace, still tethered to the incomplete sword.

This glade is where the Nightingales were caught! A deer looks at her and runs off. The magic of the glade keeps her rooted in place, just like the single time she stumbled upon it. To her, this glade was the epitome of beauty. The greatest sight here was that of the Nightingales unconsciously dancing as a group. It was a liberating beauty that shook her core. There and then she resolved to embark on crafting a masterpiece to prove herself- a sword of freedom and beauty representing this glade.

The thought brings her eyes back down to the nearly completed sword. Her labour of joy and love starts wavering on the anvil as its very form is about to become undone, becoming nothing. She narrows her eyes, vexed. She strikes the sword and its form becomes a little bit more solid.

The birds swoop in, lashing her with their tails of searing heat. Her leather apron and blouse cling to her skin by bare strips now and her flesh sizzles here and there. Yet, her will is stronger than her pain. She continues to hammer! Nineteen pinpricks of light flash and she finds herself in another place again.

The Empress is now standing in some nether hell. Steps away from her, a cluster of demons attacks another of their kind, swarming mercilessly, rending it into bloody shreds with their impossibly long claws. The victim does not bleed like a mortal creature. Instead, the slashes on its body shed an unearthly light of blood-red hue that shines through the wounds.

Amidst the fray, one of the attackers who has dropped his guard is jumped from behind and given the same treatment as the original target. Soon, this snowballs into a fatal brawl for all. Total chaos, that is the only term that the Empress can think of to describe such a sight.

The entire tableau of mayhem freezes. One of the demons has spotted her! As one, they pounce. But such is their chaotic nature that they end up getting in each other’s ways. A demon’s talon scores her left arm, tearing a long gash that runs up to her elbows. A scream is ripped from her throat. She continues to hammer. The world flashes in colors of deepest blue and purple, transporting her again.

Back in the room where Court is held, somehow. On a throne too high for her, forcing her to dangle her feet uncomfortably off the ground. She feels hemmed in, even the air here is heavy enough to press her down. Courtiers and nobles talk over each other, outwardly to vie for her attention but it’s only a facade for the incessant bickering among her fragmented court.

“What kind of Lady……”

“Most unbecoming….”

“…she’s that bored she should take a lover.”

The gnats gnaw away at her. This court of insects!

It was never truly hers to begin with, she reflects bitterly. Nor does she truly want it, what has she ever reaped from it except inaptitude and belittlement? She feels the weight of Temper resting reassuredly in her hands; a warmth diffuses outwards from her palms and loosens her rigid muscles. That reminds her: she’s got work to do still and she can’t bear all these droning voices.

“Silence,” she shouts. All in the room obey but the nightingales, flying chaotically with all the majesty she wishes to capture. She looks up upon the Court in satisfaction. Two men whose faces have been worn down by time- one still with a lustrous mane of chestnut but one already gray-haired, stand in the fore front, facing off from each other in their respective gestures of confrontation and yet frozen in an identical gape. Behind them stand their lackeys, also in shock.

“I am no longer the clueless child that can be pulled on strings hither and thither. The puppet masters of yonder years are merely tired old men!” She declares, waving around wildly. “This hammer is the perfection of craft,” raising Temper above her head she continues, “and with it, a masterpiece awaits!”

I was never inept here in Court. Just as she must grasp Temper firmly to ply her craft, so must she grasp her birthright to become mistress rather than prey to the unfeeling wheel of politics. The air suddenly feels as welcoming as that in her forge, she can smell the faint perfume of jasmine wafting in from the royal garden. She smiles, content. She continues working at her masterpiece, arms moving as if reinvigorated by magic. She feels the birds pulling her rapidly into the sky, a swirl of clouds and landscapes, for a moment she feels as if she is everywhere in her empire.

Standing high on a cloud, she can see the panorama of her entire kingdom. The breathtaking view of the contours of the land in its raw beauty and grandness embraces her with open arms. Entranced, she stares at a plain of whiteness stretching to the north as far as she can see. She is surprised to find that the view in front of her opens up as if she is steadily moving closer to it. She sees a crystalline realm. Tall oaken guardians draped in white armor reach out their regal limbs towards each other and link up in impregnable formation. Snow squirrels like fluffy fur-balls skip from branch to branch among the oak-guardians; a single fur-ball, smaller than all the rest, suddenly lose balance and fall down into the snow-carpet, proceeding to happily roll back and forth on the ground. Amused, she lets out an especially girlish giggle that surprises herself. She hasn’t heard it in years, she thought she could no longer make it.

An impulse comes over her to look at another scene. Her gaze roams to the easterly direction. There stands a set of mountain range firm and proud, standing aloof and yet enfolding and safeguarding all under its shadow. She sweeps her eyes across the entire landscape and finds that it is indeed the tallest. Strangely, here it is summer. The slopes are lush with greens. The view again opens up, she can even pick out clusters of a few late blooms that add pastels and deep blues and violets to the mix of colours. She does not see any movements but there is a vibrant beauty here that moves her. She browses several more locations, drifting at will. Everywhere she turns to, she finds beauty. Each unique and equally moving.

She hears a flap of wings. Instead of the nineteen nightingales, she sees a flawless bird the colour of newborn snow. She stares in awe at its head, adorned with feathers that fan out in exactly the colors of the rainbow. The right and left most feather erupt from the rest like red and violet horns, emphasizing its majesty rather than being heralds of wars. It would not attack her, that she knows in her heart. Rather, it holds its head high on its graceful neck and looks down upon her with its earnest gaze. “I understand now.” she shouts in epiphany. The Phoenix nods. She reaches out her bare hands to grasp the trail of metal that is the Phoenix’s foot-long graceful tail and swiftly gathers it into a lump. She sees her hands wreathed by the molten metal but they are not searing to the touch as they should have been but rather cool and comforting. It is the gift of the Phoenix to her, to seal their pact. She hammers it into the blade. A flash and she is back in her forge.

The last nightingale stands motionless on the blade, its gaze searing into her. She gives it a nod and then hammers it into her masterpiece. Immediately, a sheath of white flame, hotter than any mortal fire, settles over the blade. She plunges the blade into water. It is magnificent! So light, so balanced, so beautiful. It rips free of her grasp and turns into the Phoenix she just saw moment ago. It soars out of the palace from the section of the wall burned through by the flames that bathe the length of its body.

“Lady, shall I…”

The Empress motions the servant to silence. Together with her craft partner, the two of them pad to the window and watch it fly away.

“I look

at these hands

An empress’ hands

A Smith’s hands

I did it

I created beauty,

out of beauty

My labour

In the afternoon sun

its majesty is wonderous

A Supreme Blade

A magnificent creature

My arms ache

My flesh is seared

sweat envelops me

My Soul enraptured”

A single tear falls down the empress’ cheek as she slowly walks away from the window.

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