Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale)

by on Oct 12, 2010 in Short Fiction | 0 comments

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (Strahan), 2011

6,600 Words

Every evening was a fin de siècle in the great sprawling castle-city of Nycthemeron. But, of course, to say it was evening meant no more than to say it was morning, or midnight, or yesterday, or six days hence, or nineteen years ago. For it was every inch a timeless place, from the fig trees high in the Palazzo’s Spire-top cloud gardens all the way down to the sinuous river Gnomon encircling the city.

Nycthemeron had tumbled from the calendar. It had slipped into the chasm between tick and tock, to land in its own instantaneous eternity. And so its residents occupied their endless moment with pageants and festivals and reveled in century-long masques, filled forever with decadent delights. They picnicked in the botanical gardens, made love in scented boudoirs, danced through their eternal twilight. And they disregarded the fog that shrouded their city with soft grey light.

As for time? Time was content to leave them there. It felt no pity, no compassion, for the people stuck in that endless now. This wasn’t because time was cold, or cruel, or heartless. But it had no concern for that glistening place, no interest in the people who existed there.

Except one. Her name was Tink.

And it was said (among the people who said such things) that if you sought something truly special for your sweetheart, or if you yearned for that rarest of experiences—something novel, something new—you could find it at Tink’s shop in the Briardowns. For Tink was something quite peculiar: she was a clockmaker.

Indeed, so great were her talents that normally staid and proper clock hands fluttered with delight at her approach. Time reveled in her horological handiwork. If it had to be measured, quantified, divvied up and parceled out, it would do so only on a timepiece of Tink’s design.

How could this be? She was a clockwork girl, they said. And indeed, if you were to stand near Tink, to wait for a quiet moment and then bend your ear in her direction, you might just hear the phantom tickticktickticktickticktick serenading every moment of her life. Who but a clockwork girl would make such a noise, they said. And others would nod, and agree, and consider the matter settled.

But they were wrong. Tink was a flesh and blood woman, as real as anybody who danced on the battlements or made love in the gardens. She was no mere clockwork.

Tink was the object of time’s affection. It attended her so closely, revered and adored her so completely, that it couldn’t bear to part from her, even for an instant. But time’s devotion carried a price. Tink aged.

She was, in short, a living clock. Her body was the truest timepiece Nycthemeron could ever know; her thumping heart, the metronome of the world.

But the perfectly powdered and carefully coifed lovelies who visited her shop knew nothing of this. They made their way to the Briardowns, in the shadow of an ancient aqueduct, seeking the lane where hung a wooden sign adorned with a faceless clock. Midway down, between an algebraist’s clinic and a cartographer’s studio, Tink’s storefront huddled beneath an awning of pink alabaster.

Now, on this particular afternoon (let us pretend for the moment that such distinctions were meaningful in Nycthemeron) the chime over Tink’s door announced a steady trickle of customers. The Festival of the Leaping Second was close, and if ever there was an occasion to ply one’s darling with wonderments, it was this. Soon revelers would congregate on the highest balconies of the Spire. There they would grasp the hands of an effigy clock and click the idol forward one second. Afterward, they would trade gifts and kisses, burn the effigy, then seek out new lovers and new debaucheries.

If you were to ask the good people of Nycthemeron just how frequently they celebrated the Festival of the Leaping Second, they would smile and shrug and tell you: When the mood descends upon us. But Tink knew differently. The Festival came every twenty years, as measured by her tick-tock heartbeat. She felt this, knew it, as a fish feels water and knows how to swim.

To a marchioness with a fringe of peacock feathers on her mask, Tink gave an empty, pentagonal hourglass. “Turn this after your favorite dance, and you’ll live that moment five times over,” she said.

To a courtier in a scarlet cravat, Tink gave a paper packet of wildflower seeds. “Spread these in your hair,” she said. “They’ll blossom the moment you kiss your honey love, and you will be the posy she takes home.”

Tink requested only token payments for these trinkets, expecting neither obligation nor gratitude in return. Some, like the marchioness, paid handsomely; others, such as the tatterdemalion scholar, gave what they could (in his case, a leather bookmark). And sometimes she traded her wares for good will, as she did with the stonemason and gardener.

Though she was young and strong and did not ache, Tink spent what her body considered a long day rummaging through her shop for creative ways to brighten static lives. Her mind was tired, her stomach empty.

Unlike the rest of Nycthemeron’s populace, Tink had to sleep. She announced her shop closed for the remainder of the day. Cries of dismay arose from the people queued outside (though of course they had long ago forgotten the meaning of “day”).

“The Festival!” they cried; a chorus of painted, feathered, and sequined masks. Everyone wore a mask, as demanded by the calculus of glamour.

“Come back tomorrow,” she said (though of course they had forgotten the meaning of this, too). But a tall fellow in a cormorant mask came jogging up the lane.

“Wait! Timesmith, wait!”

Nobody had ever called her that, but the phrase amused her. Few people dared to let the word “time” touch their lips. The rest of Tink’s petitioners grumbled at the bold fellow’s approach. They dispersed, shaking their heads and bemoaning their bad luck.

“Sorry, pretties. Sorry, lovelies,” said Tink. “You’ll get your goodies tomorrow.”

The newcomer laid a hand upon the door, panting slightly. His breeches, she noticed, displayed shapely calves. “Are you Tink?”

“I am.”

“Fabled maker of clocks and wonderments, I hear.”

“Let me guess,” said Tink. “You’re seeking something for the Festival. Something with which to impress your lady love. You want me to win her heart for you, is that so?”

His shrug ruffled the long silk ribbons looped around the sleeves of his shirt. Some were vermilion, and others cerulean, like his eyes. “It’s true, I confess.”

“The others wanted the same,” she said. “I told them I could do no more today. Why should I become a liar?”

“Do it for my flaxen-haired beauty.”

Tink thought she recognized this fellow. And so she asked, knowing the answer, “Will you love her forever?”

“Forever? That is all we have. Yes, I will love her forever, and she me. Until the Festival ends.”

Aha. “You are Valentine.”

He bowed, with a flourish. The ribbons fluttered on his arms again. “You know me?”

“Everybody knows you.”

Valentine: the legendary swain of Nycthemeron. Valentine, who could spend centuries on a single seduction. Valentine, famed for his millennial waltz. Charmer, lothario, friend of everyman, consort of the queen.

Though it was against her better judgment, Tink beckoned him inside. Valentine’s eyes twinkled as he examined her space. The shelves were stacked with odds and ends culled from every corner of Nycthemeron: strange objects floating in yellow pickle jars; workbenches strewn with gears and mainsprings, loupes and screws and a disassembled astrolabe; the smell of oil and peppermint.

He said, “Your sign says ‘Timepieces’.”

“Is that somehow strange?”

“But you gave that fellow with the scarlet cravat just a packet of wildflowers.”

“You know this how?”

“I stopped him and asked. I knew he’d come from your shop because he looked happy.” He crossed his arms. “Flowers are nice, but they’re no timepiece.”

“Everything is a clock,” said Tink. “Even the buckles on your shoes and the boards beneath your feet. But this place,” she said, with a gesture that implied all of Nycthemeron, “has forgotten that.”

“The stories are true. You are a peculiar one.” And then he cocked his head, as if listening to something. “They say you are a clockwork, you know. “

His gaze was a stickpin and Tink a butterfly. She shrugged, and blushed, and turned away.

Which was odd. Time had never seen her fall shy.

“As for your lady love,” said Tink, changing the subject, “I know what to do. Come with me.”

She led him to shelves stacked with clocks of sand, and candle wax, and other things. (Time frequently sprawled here, like a cat in sunlight.) She stopped at a grandfather clock carved in the guise of a fig tree. Tink set it to one minute before midnight.

“Hold out your hand,” Tink said. She gave the clock a nod of encouragement, and it began to tock-tick-tock its way toward midnight. Valentine watched with fascination. But, of course, he had never seen a working clock.

A miniscule hatch opened above the twelve and a seed plinked into Valentine’s hand. Tink repeated the process.

“What are these?” he asked.

“Intercalary seeds. At the Festival, put one under your tongue. Have your lady do the same. The seeds will release one minute that belongs solely to the pair of you.”

Valentine tucked the seeds into the tasseled sash at his waist. He took her hand. His touch, she noticed with a shudder, was warm and gentle. With his other hand he removed his mask, saying, “I am in your debt.”

He winked and kissed her hand. Now, Tink was prepared for this, for Valentine was nothing if not notorious for his charms. But when she saw the laugh lines around his eyes, and felt his breath tickle the back of her hand, and felt his soft lips brush against her skin, her metronome heart—

…diners in a sidewalk café marveled at a turtledove hanging motionless overhead, just for an instant…

—skipped—

… the candles in a Cistercian chapel, all 419 of them, stopped flickering, just for an instant…

—a—

…all the noises of life and love and revelry and sorrow, the voice of Nycthemeron, fell silent, just for an instant…

—beat.

Tink did not sleep that night. Lying on a downy mattress just wide enough for one—she had never needed anything more, having never known loneliness—she replayed those few minutes with Valentine in her head, again and again. She smelled the back of her hand, imagined it was his breath tickling her skin.

Tink could win his heart. All she needed was time.

§

She awoke with a plan.

In order to win Valentine’s heart, she had to know him, and he had to know her. In order to know him, she had to be near him. To be near him, she had to get into the Palazzo. She could get into the Palazzo if she brought a birthday gift for Queen Perjumbellatrix.

Of course, birthdays held no meaning in a place exiled from the calendar. But the eternal queen was fond of gifts, and so she held masques and received tributes once per year (measured, as always, by the ticking of Tink’s heart). And Valentine, her consort, attended each. Even so, Tink would be fortunate to get more than a few moments with him.

Thus, after the Festival, Tink went to work on a special series of clocks. Each was designed to delight the revelers in Her Majesty’s grand ballroom.

And each was designed to steal one minute from Her Majesty. Each clock would swaddle Tink and Valentine in sixty purloined seconds. Nor was that all.

For Valentine—pretty, perfect Valentine—minutes held no meaning. One was much the same as another. Thus, it would be nothing odd for him to experience a conversation strung across the decades, one minute per year.

But Tink—mortal, metronome Tink—had to live her way from one stolen minute to the next. So she designed the clocks to string those moments together like pearls on a necklace, forming one continuous assignation with Valentine.

§

The first clock was a simple thing: a wind-up circus. But Her Majesty disappointed courtiers throughout the Palazzo when she declared it her favorite tribute.

Tink curtsied, feeling like a dandelion in a rose garden. The braids in her silvery hair had unraveled, and her gown—the finest from the secondhand shop in the Briardowns—was not fine at all in this company.

She retreated to a corner of the ballroom. Tink had never learned to dance.

Valentine danced with every lady in the hall, always returning to Perjumbellatrix in the interim. He hadn’t changed one tock from the way he’d appeared at Tink’s shop. The ribbons on his sleeves traced spirals in the air when he twirled his partners so, the feathers of his cormorant mask fluttered when he tipped his ladies thus. Tink fidgeted with her embroidery, waiting until the clockwork elephants on the queen’s gift trumpeted midnight.

Everything stopped. The ballroom became a sculpture garden, an expressionist swirl of skin and feathers and jewels and silks. Beads of wine from a tipped goblet sparkled like rubies suspended in midair; plucked harp strings hung poised to fling notes like arrows.

“Well done, Timesmith.” Tink turned. Valentine bowed at her. “It is a wonder,” he said, marveling at the motionless dancers. “But I think your wonderment has missed its mark, no?” He pointed: Tink’s clock had made a statue of the statuesque monarch.

Tink swallowed, twice. She found her voice: “The clock is for her. But this,” she said, “is for you.” And me.

Valentine smiled. “I’ve never seen its equal.” He took her hand. Her skin tingled beneath his fingertips. “Thank you.” Her metronome heart skipped another beat when he touched his lips to the back of her hand. But the world had stopped, so nobody noticed.

He asked, “How long will they stay like this?”

“That’s complicated,” said Tink. “But they’re safe.”

The room blurred about them. Merrymakers blinked into new positions around the ballroom. The eternally tipping wine goblet became an ice sculpture of the queen. And her gift, the clockwork circus, became an orrery.

A year had passed.

“I see! I see, I see!” Valentine clapped. He understood, for every moment was the same to him.

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“It’s marvelous,” he said. “Now let me show you something you’ve never known. Dance with me.”

She wanted to waltz with him, but feared to try. She had impressed him. But could that be undone by a single awkward step? Valentine was a graceful creature, accustomed to graceful partners.

“I don’t, that is, I’ve never—”

“Trust me,” he said.

Valentine pulled her to the center of the ballroom. His hand warmed the small of her back. He smelled like clean salt, like the distant sea. Dancing, she discovered, came naturally. It was, after all, a form of rhythm. And what was rhythm but a means of marking time?

The room blurred around them. The orrery became an hourglass. They wove and whirled amongst the motionless dancers. Tink laughed. It was working.

“Look,” said Valentine. “Look at their eyes.”

Masks hid their faces, but not their eyes. She looked upon a man who wore the burgundy cummerbund of a baronet. His eyes glistened with hidden tears. They pirouetted past a countess with a diadem on her brow, butterfly wings affixed to her cheeks, and soul-deep weariness in her eyes.

Valentine asked, “What do you see?”

“Sorrow,” said Tink.

“They’ve lost something. We all have.”

“Three things,” said Tink. For suddenly she knew what Valentine wanted and needed. He didn’t know it himself.

Yet still they danced. It was wonderful; it was magical. But his eyes returned again and again to Perjumbellatrix. He danced with Tink—and what a dancer he was—but his heart and mind were elsewhere.

The final timepiece expended its stolen minute. The bubble of intimacy popped under the assault of music, laughter, and voices raised in tribute to the queen.

“Truly marvelous,” said Valentine. “Thank you for this dance, Timesmith.” With a wink, a bow, and a kiss, he returned to his place beside the queen.

Tink’s feet ached. Her lungs pumped like bellows. Her skin wasn’t quite as smooth as it had been when their dance began. She had aged twenty years in twenty minutes. But it was a small price for the key to somebody’s heart.

She returned to her shop, deep in thought. And so she did not notice how the hands of every clock bowed low to her, like a bashful admirer requesting a dance. Time had seen how she had laughed with joy in Valentine’s arms. It yearned, desperately, to dance with her.

Tink spent months (measured, as always, by the thumping of her heart) holed up in her shop. She labored continuously, pausing only for food and rest. And, on several occasions, to climb a staircase of carved peridot and dip a chalice in the waters atop the aqueduct.

Far above the city, craftsmen and courtiers built an effigy clock atop the Spire. Valentine, Tink knew, was there. She wondered if he ever gazed from that aerie upon the Briardowns, wondered if his thoughts ever turned from queen to clockmaker.

When the Festival of the Leaping Second returned to Nycthemeron, and a crowd again milled outside Tink’s shop, they found it locked and the storefront dark. Her neighbors, the algebraist and the cartographer, told of her forays along the aqueduct and of strange sounds from her workshop: splashing, gurgling, the creak of wooden gears.

By now, of course, the queen had grown quite fond of Tink’s wonderments. And when she heard that the clockmaker had arrived, promising something particularly special for the Festival, she ordered a new riser built for Tink’s work.

There, Tink built a miniature Nycthemeron: nine feet tall at the Spire, six feet wide, encircled by a flowing replica of the river Gnomon, complete with aqueducts, waterwheels, sluices, gates, and even a tiny clockmaker’s shop in a tiny Briardowns. There, a model clockmaker gazed lovelorn at the Spire, where a model Valentine gazed down.

When the revelry culminated in the advance of the effigy, Tink filled the copper reservoir on her water clock. And everybody, including the queen and lovely Valentine at her side, marveled at Tink’s work.

The water flowed backward. It sprang from the waterwheels to leap upon the aqueducts and gush uphill, where special pumps pulled it down to begin again.

It was a wonder, they said. An amazement. A delight.

Only time, and time alone, understood what she had done. Tink had given the people of Nycthemeron something they had lost.

She had given them their past.

§

Tink went home feeling pleased. Just a few more clocks, just a few more stolen moments, and Valentine would express adoration. But she couldn’t work as many hours at a stretch as she had in her youth. She had to unlock his heart before time rendered her an unlovable crone.

But there were interruptions. People peppered her with strange requests: vague notions they couldn’t express and that Tink couldn’t deliver. The fellow in the scarlet cravat returned, seeking a means of visiting “that place.”

“What place?” Tink asked.

“That—” he waved his hands in frustration, indicating some vague and distant land “—place.” He shrugged. “I see it in my head. I’ve been there, but I don’t know how to return. It’s here, and yet it’s not here, too.”

Tink could not help him. Nor could she help the baroness who requested a clockwork key that would open a door to “that other Nycthemeron.” At first they came in a slow trickle, these odd requests. But the trickle became a torrent. Tink closed her shop so that she could finish the next sequence of birthday clocks for Queen Perjumbellatrix.

§

Valentine invited Tink for another spin around a ballroom filled with motionless revelers. He was, of course, as handsome as ever. But when he doffed his mask, Tink saw the crease of a frown perched between his cerulean eyes. Her metronome heart did a little jig of concern.

“You look troubled,” she said as he took her hand.

Valentine said, “Troubled? I suppose I am.”

“Perhaps I can help,” said Tink. “After all, my skills are not inconsiderable.” She added what she hoped was a coquettish lilt to these words.

Valentine wrapped his arm around Tink’s waist. They waltzed past a duchess and her lissome lover. “I find my thoughts drifting to a new place. A different Nycthemeron.”

Tink faltered. The dancers blurred into a new configuration. Another precious year had passed.

Valentine danced mechanically. His movements were flawless, but devoid of the grace that had made Tink swoon when first they had danced together. And for her part, her whirring mind couldn’t concentrate on one thing or the other; she stepped awkwardly, without poise or balance.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Her gift was meant to impress Valentine, not confuse and distract him. But she had her pilfered minutes and intended to use them.

She rested her head on his shoulder, enjoying his scent and the fluid play of muscles in his arm. “What sort of place?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a place I’ve been, someplace close, even, but I don’t know how to get there.”

The revelers snapped into new arrangements; another year lost. Valentine led her in a swooping two-step around the ballroom. There was, it seemed, more room to move.

“Is it here in Nycthemeron? A forgotten courtyard? A secluded cloister?”

“I can’t say. I feel like it may be … everywhere. Strange, isn’t it?” He shook his head and smiled. “No matter. Once again you have done a magnificent thing.”

But Tink barely heard his praise. She had given the people of Nycthemeron their past. But what did that mean to timeless people in a timeless city? Nothing. They were afflicted with strange thoughts they couldn’t comprehend: memories of times past. To them, the past was a foreign place they couldn’t visit.

They waltzed. Tink’s feet ached, twinges of betrayal from her aging body. Blur. They danced a sarabande. Her back ached. Blur. Her lungs burned. Blur.

Tink saw the thinning of the ballroom crowd.

“Valentine, have you noticed there are fewer people in this ballroom every year?”

“Yes.”

“Where are they going?”

“They’re trying to leave Nycthemeron,” he said.

“Oh, no,” she said, and crashed to the floor.

“Timesmith!” Valentine leapt to her side, cradled her head in his hands. “Please forgive me. Are you hurt?”

The ballroom floor was hard and her body less resilient than it had been minutes and years ago. But she disregarded her bruises, because Valentine was sopping wet. His slippery hands had lost their grip on her. He smelled of river grass and mud.

“What happened?” she asked.

“The queen sent me to stop her half-brother from trying to swim his way out of Nycthemeron. That’s where they’re going. To the river.”

But, of course, nobody could leave Nycthemeron. Not even Tink. The luminous fog was chaos, its touch deadly.

In a tiny voice, she asked, “Did you save him?”

“No. He entered the fog before I was halfway across.”

And at that moment Tink realized her gift, bestowed upon the people of Nycthemeron with love and intended to win love in return, was killing people.

Tink’s clock chimed midnight. Their stolen time had lapsed. And when Tink saw herself in the golden mirrors of the ballroom, she saw that her hair, once a lustrous silver, had tarnished to grey. She had aged another twenty years, but had gained nothing from it.

Tink returned to the Briardowns and her lonely, narrow cot, unaware of the clocks that capered for her attention. Time ached to comfort her, to console her. It sang her to sleep with a lullaby of ticks and tocks.

She’d been so foolish. She might as well have given a penny-farthing bicycle to the koi in the fishponds. The people of Nycthemeron couldn’t comprehend her gift. Right now they had the past bearing down on them like a boulder rolling toward a cliff. But that time had nowhere to go, no safe landing. It was disconnected. Meaningless.

She could salvage this. She could cure the malady she had created. She could still win Valentine. She could fix everything. All it required was a simple pendulum clock.

Tink paid a visit to the smithy in Nycthemeron’s Steeltree district. There, she commissioned the finest double-edged blade the smith could forge. No hilt—only the blade, with a tang for fastening it. A strange request. But it was considered no small honor to help the clockmaker create one of her fabled wonderments.

Thus, when she returned to his forge, he presented her with thirty inches of gleaming steel. It was, he proclaimed, the finest and sharpest blade he’d ever forged. Sharp enough to shear the red from a rainbow.

She thanked him. But it was not sharp enough.

And so, in the months before the next Festival (measured, as always, by the thumping of Tink’s broken heart), she spent every moment in her workshop. Things took longer these days. Her eyes strained at the tiniest cogs; her grip quavered as it never used to do.

People again reported odd noises in her shop. At first, the grinding of a whetstone. Later, a rasping, as of sand on steel. Then, the susurration of cotton on steel. And finally, if they pressed their ears to her shop, they might have heard the whisper of breath on steel.

And those who stayed until Tink emerged might have noticed something different about her. For where before there had always been the phantom tickticktick that followed her like a devoted puppy, now, when she carried the pendulum blade, there was sometimes only a phantom ti-ti-ti, and other times a ck-ck-ck, depending on how she held it.

Tink loaded her cart with a crate the size of a grandfather clock, then drove to the Spire. By now, of course, she was one of the queen’s most favored subjects, and so the ballroom had a place of honor reserved for Tink. There, she assembled her contribution to the Festival.

The revelers advanced the effigy. Tink wound her clock; the pendulum swung ponderously across its lacquered case. It was silent. Not even a whisper accompanied the passage of the pendulum. It sliced through the moments, leaving slivers of ticks and tatters of tocks in its wake.

At Tink’s request, the queen posted guards around the clock, for the pendulum blade was a fearsome thing. Its edges were the sharpest things that could ever be, sharp as the now that separates past and future.

But only time, and time alone, understood what she had done. Tink had given Nycthemeron something it had lost.

She had given it the present: a knowledge of now.

§

Tink returned to the Briardowns. Her body would be eighty years old at the next Festival, while Valentine would still be a stunning twentysomething. How many lovers had he charmed since his visit to Tink’s shop? How many stolen kisses, how many fluttering hearts? Her life had none of these things. Her pillow never smelled of anybody but Tink.

What chance had she of winning him now? It was a foolish hope. But she had spent her life on it, and couldn’t bear to think it had all been for nothing.

She tried to concentrate. But time’s desperation had become jealousy, so it had imbued the pendulum blade with a special potency. Anything for Tink’s attention.

The man in the scarlet cravat returned. He asked Tink for a trinket that would “set him moving” again. She couldn’t help him. Nor could she help the pregnant woman whose belly suggested imminent labor and whose eyes were the most sorrowful Tink had ever seen. She’d been that way, Tink realized, since time had lost its interest. Since the moment Nycthemeron had fallen from the calendar.

Tink was passing beneath the aqueduct, on her way to the Palazzo, when a man in a cobalt-colored fez crashed onto the street before her cart. The wind of his passage ruffled her hair, and he smashed the cobbles hard enough to set the chimes in Tink’s clock to ringing. Plumes of dust billowed from between the paving stones. She screamed.

Not because he had perished. He hadn’t, of course. Tink screamed because his sorrow had driven him to seek death, the ultimate boundary between past and future. And because he’d never find it.

He shambled to his feet, for his body was timeless. But when the poor fellow realized that nothing had changed, that he hadn’t bridged the gulf between was and will, he slumped to the ground and wept. He waved off Tink’s offers of a ride, of conversation, of commiseration.

A quiet gasp of dismay reached her ears. She looked up. People lined the tallest edges of the aqueduct.

The pendulum blade carved a personal now for every soul in Nycthemeron. And drove them mad. Tink had shown them they were entombed in time, and now they were suffocating.

Tink rushed to the Palazzo. The ballroom was emptier than she had ever seen it. Couples still danced, but just a fraction of those who had toasted the queen in pageants past.

The ribbons on Valentine’s arms still fluttered; his shapely calves still flexed and stretched when he waltzed with the queen. But was it Tink’s imagination, or had his eyes lost their sparkle? Was it her imagination, or did he seem distracted and imprecise in his movements?

An earl in an owl mask requested a dance, but she declined him and all the others who sought a few steps with the famous clockmaker. She might have been flattered, but now, with age weighing upon her, she lacked the energy for much revelry. She saved herself.

Her clock chimed. Once more, Tink and Valentine were alone together in a private minute. He took her hand.

“You look worried,” he said.

“How are you? Are you well?” She studied his face.

“I am the same as ever,” he said, a catch in his voice.

He was silent for what felt like eternity. Blur. Blur. Blur. It broke her heart, every wasted instant. This was her last chance. It wasn’t meant to be like this.

“Something is bothering you,” she said. “Will you tell me about it? You’ll never have a more devoted listener.”

That, at least, elicited a slight sigh, and a weary chuckle. “What is it like?”

“What is what like?”

“Aging.”

Tink said, “My body aches. I can’t see or hear as well as I could. My mind isn’t as sharp, my fingers not as nimble.” She paused while he gently spun her through a pirouette. “But I am more wise now.”

“More wise?”

“Wise enough to know that I’m a foolish old woman.”

Grief clenched her chest, ground the gears in her metronome heart. The years had become a burden too heavy for her shoulders. She faltered. Valentine caught her.

He asked, “Are you ill?”

She shook her head. “Just old. Will you sit with me?”

“Of course.”

They watched motionless dancers blink through the celebrations. Tink rested her head on his shoulder. She wanted to remember his scent forever. That was all she’d ever have of him; her efforts to win his heart had failed. Worse than that: she had transmuted his joy into melancholy.

“May I ask something of you, Valentine?”

“Anything, Timesmith.”

“Your ribbons. I would like to take one, if I may.”

“Allow me,” he said. He removed a vermilion ribbon and tied it into her grey hair. “Remember me, won’t you?”

That made her smile. She would remember him until the end of her days. Didn’t he realize this? Had she been too oblique in her bids for his affection? Blur.

Tink turned to thank him for the token, and to tell him that he was ever on her mind. But she didn’t. His shirt was tattered, his ribbons were frayed. Feathers had come loose from his cormorant mask. He was dusty.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

“I… I fell,” he whispered.

“Oh, Valentine—” She reached up to touch his face. His changeless, beautiful face. Her stolen time came to an end. It left her very old, very tired, and very alone.

§

Valentine’s heart would never be hers; she could accept that. But it would never be pledged to anybody ever again, and that she couldn’t bear. It was broken. Because of her.

If Tink could do one final thing before she succumbed to old age, she wanted to mend him. Mend everybody. But though she knew what that would require, she did not know how to do it. The future was an abstract thing, built of possibilities and nothing else. It was impervious to cogs, springs, pendulums, blades, sand, beeswax, and water.

She paced. She napped. She ignored the urgent knocking of would-be customers. More napping. More pacing.

And then she noticed the model castle-city she had built years earlier. Her water-clock Nycthemeron sat in a corner, draped in cobwebs and dust.

Tink looked upon the Spire, and the surrounding gardens, and knew exactly what to do.

§

First, she paid a visit to the stonemason. He welcomed her. But when she told him what she needed, he balked. It was too much work for one person.

But Tink had not come alone. For she was famous, and drew a small crowd when she ventured outside. Some followers, such as the fellow in the scarlet cravat, had been waiting outside her dark and shuttered store, hoping to wheedle one last wonderment from the aging clockmaker. Others had followed the siren call of her tickticktick, hoping it would lead them to a novel experience.

Next, Tink called upon the gardeners who maintained the parklands along the river. Their objections were similar to the stonemason’s. But she solved their concerns as she had those of the stonemason: she presented the gardeners with strong and beautiful volunteers.

She supervised as best she could. But often the volunteers found her dozing in her cart because she had succumbed to weariness. They took turns bringing her home and tucking her into bed.

The changes to the outskirts of Nycthemeron drew more volunteers, and more still, as people abandoned their decadent delights. But nobody knew why Tink needed so much granite carved just so, nor why she needed the gardens landscaped just so.

Only time understood her plan. Only time, which had felt first confusion, then jealousy, then heartbreak while she squandered her short life yearning for Valentine.

§

Tink awoke with Valentine’s hand brushing her cheek. At first she thought she had died and had gone to someplace better. But when she touched his face and saw her aged hand, she knew she was still an old woman. Her pillow was moist with tears.

His eyes gleamed. Perhaps not as brightly as they once had, but enough to cause a stutter in her metronome heart. “I’ve come to take you to the Festival.”

That caused a jolt of alarm. “But my work—”

“Is finished. Completed to your every specification. Although nobody can tell me what your instructions mean.”

His face was smudged with dirt.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

“I’ve been gardening,” he said, and winked.

Valentine carried her to her cart. She dozed with her head on his shoulder as he drove to the Palazzo. Once, when the jouncing of the cart roused her, she glimpsed what might have been an honor guard with shining epaulettes and flapping pennants. It may have been a dream.

Tink dozed again during the funicular ride up the Spire. The view did not transfix her: she had seen it every year for the past sixty (measured, as always, by the beating of her failing heart). She preferred the drowsy sensation of resting in Valentine’s arms, no matter how chaste the embrace. Her glimpses of Nycthemeron, between dreams and sighs, showed an unfamiliar city.

Ah, she recalled. Yes. The Festival. It had seemed dreadfully important once, this final gift. But she was too exhausted and too full of regrets to care.

“Why do you cry, Timesmith?”

“I’m a foolish old woman. I’ve spent my entire life just to have one hour with you.”

She closed her eyes. When next she opened them, Valentine was setting her gently upon a cushioned chair in the gilded grand ballroom. It was, she noticed, a place of honor beside Queen Perjumbellatrix. The queen said something, but it was loud in the ballroom. Tink nodded, expressed her thanks, then returned to her dreams.

A jostling woke her, several minutes or decades later. Her chair floated toward the balcony. Valentine lifted it, as did the courtier in the scarlet cravat, and several others whom she felt she ought to recognize but didn’t.

Silence fell. All eyes turned to Tink.

She stood, with Valentine’s assistance. (His hands were so strong. So warm. So young.)

“This is for you,” she said to Nycthemeron.

The fog brightened, then thinned, then dissipated. A brilliant sun emerged in a sky the color of Valentine’s eyes. The Spire cast a shadow across the sprawling castle-city. Its tip pierced the distant gardens where so many had labored according to Tink’s specifications.

Nycthemeron had become a sundial.

Cheers echoed through the city, loud even to Tink’s feeble ears high atop the Spire.

Everyone understood what Tink had done. She had ended Nycthemeron’s exile. She had given the people a future.

Tink collapsed. Her metronome heart sounded its final tickticktick. Her time had run out.

§

But not quite.

Time understood that this magnificent work, this living sundial called Nycthemeron, was an expression of her love for Valentine. She had set him free.

Tink found herself in a patch of grass, staring up at a blue sky. The grass was soft, the sky was bright, and her body didn’t ache.

“Ah, you’re awake.” Valentine leaned over her, eclipsing the sky with his beautiful face. He wasn’t, she noticed, wearing the cormorant mask. Nor his ribbons. And his shirt was new. “I have something to show you,” he said.

When Tink took his hand, she saw that her skin was no longer wrinkled, no longer spotted and weak.

These were the Spire-top gardens. But everything looked new and different in the sunlight. Even the trees were strange: row upon row upon row of them. Strange, and yet she felt she somehow knew them.

Valentine saw the expression on her face. He said, “They’re intercalary trees. It seemed a waste to toss the seeds after they’d been spent. So I planted them.”

Seeds? Ah… Tink remembered when she’d first met Valentine, decades ago, when he’d wanted to charm a flaxen-haired beauty. Back when Tink had been young.

The first time she had been young.

And time, knowing it had failed to win Tink’s heart, had given her a parting gift, then set her free.

Ian Tregillis is the son of a bearded mountebank and a discredited tarot card reader. He is the author of Bitter Seeds, and the forthcoming sequel novels The Coldest War (October, 2011) and Necessary Evil. He is also a contributor to the Wild Cards novels Inside Straight, Busted Flush, and Suicide Kings. He lives in New Mexico, where he consorts with writers, scientists, and other unsavory types. He has sunburn.

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