Happy Fiction Friday, O readers! It seems this story has been percolating in the back of my mind for quite some time, because no sooner do I open up a document than words come leaping out, lining up and bouncing on their toes. "Come on, come on, come on! Put us down on the page already! We want to be read! Hurry it up, woman!"
Now if only I could get my novels to do that... but I digress. Today's installment of "The Most Incredible Thing" is brought to you in part by tea and tiredness. We're in the middle of the Easter Triduum, the three days (measured from sundown to sundown) which are the holiest in the Church year, and also the most taxing for any member of a music ministry. A full day at work, dash home to care for animals and snatch food for oneself, and then right back out the door to spend two hours at church... I don't begrudge the time, but it's wearing, y'know?
But Easter is coming, and with it blessed rest, as well as time to spend on all sorts of writing projects, both fan fiction and originals. Thanks once again to everyone who has pledged money at my Patreon page, or who is supporting with reviews/comments and favorites/kudos my currently on-fire fanfic project, For Your Own Good (given that it's already topped 50K and I haven't even gotten Harry to Hogwarts yet, I think it deserves the italics of noveldom).
And so, we come to the moment you've all been waiting for. With a reminder that comments are moderated (it may appear that they have vanished or not been submitted but they're probably in my queue) and one more round of thanks to you, O readers, who make it all worthwhile, here is today's installment of "The Most Incredible Thing"!
Rune was up at dawn on the day of the contest, pacing his small attic room. He had personally supervised two of Master Paulson's brawniest workers carrying the wonderful clock to the palace hall where the judging of the contest would be held, but what if someone had stumbled into it and set some of the clockwork awry? What if some curious child had pulled the cloth away and poked into the workings? What if—what if—
"What if your reflection winks back at you tonight," he muttered, this having been a favorite saying of his mother's to cut off worrying about unlikely troubles. Swiftly, he dressed, checked himself over in his small, tarnished mirror (where his reflection did nothing which he had not done first), and made his way through the crowded streets to the palace, with its doors flung as wide as they could go.
The hall was filled to the brim, with each exhibitor being granted a few square feet in which to perform or display whatever he thought might win the judges' accolades as the most incredible thing. Rune saw, within a few paces of the entrance, a man balancing a chair on his chin, another juggling four flaming torches, a third coaxing a tiny piglet to stand on its hind legs and dance. He wondered with a smile whether the Princess would be expected to marry the man or the pig, before he looked up and lost all such thoughts in sheer astonishment.
The crowd around the clock, which Rune had set to run twelve times faster than normal so as to show off the progression of the hours, dwarfed any other crowd in the hall, and children were erupting from the back of it every few seconds, running here and there to find their friends or their parents, beckoning them to come, come look, come see! And some of those children, Rune saw with a shiver of equal parts delight and terror, wore the many-colored ribbon which designated them as official judges of the wonders. One group, it seemed, was firmly on his side already.
Standing well back, he watched Moses with his tablet of the ten commandments disappear into the depths of the clock, listening to the crowd chatter in amazement at the fineness of the carving and painting, the smoothness of the motions the figures made, until five minutes later eleven began to strike and boys and girls in festival attire twirled forth from every door the clock had to offer, while the bells inside played the old tune, "All the way to heaven, the clock struck eleven".
Rune flushed slightly at the cries of "Bravo!" and "Well done!", for the carving the people so admired was none of his, and Alvar's ever-capricious sense of humor had led him to carve a very particular pair of dancers to be at the forefront of the twice-daily festivities. The golden-haired figure of the Princess, clad in a simple dancing dress, advanced and retreated, spun first one way then the other, in perfect counter-motion to her partner, who bore the black hair and broad features of Rune himself. That could, he thought, be counted against him in the judging, as a mark of overconfidence, as though he were saying without words that he counted the Princess as good as his already—
"Worrying yourself to death?" said a light, well-known voice beside him.
"Alvar!" Rune turned to face his friend, who wore a long hooded cloak over his usual neat suit of clothes. "I thought you weren't coming."
"I couldn't keep away." Alvar smiled, a bit one-sidedly, as he glanced around the hall. "Though I can't stay long, or I'll be missed."
"What are you wondering?" Rune asked, familiar with the abstracted expression in Alvar's eyes. Often it meant his friend was working out the details of a new carving, but at other times it indicated either a session of deep philosophical thought or a terrible joke in the making.
"If any of these men, besides you and perhaps a handful of others, truly understand why they've come here to compete. Take him, for example." Alvar gestured to a brawny lout several squares distant, who was using an ax with a head bigger than Rune's to split massive logs in half with a single blow. "If the most incredible thing he can think to offer is an act of brute force and destruction, what sort of ruler would he make for a kingdom?"
"And what sort of husband would he make for a Princess?" Rune added. "Both should be taken into account, I think, especially with the Princess's...talents. She could be the greatest blessing or the most terrible curse our land has ever known, and so much of that will depend on whether or not she is happy."
"How little you know of Princesses." Alvar laughed, a sound singularly without humor. "She will have been trained and taught from her childhood upwards that happiness is for her people, that what matters in her royal life is duty to those same people. A Princess's happiness is found in whatever secrets she can keep from her servants, and that is almost none, for there is no privacy in a palace. Not unless one has, as you say, talents, to keep certain things stored well beyond the reach of prying eyes."
"A lonely life, then, and a sad one." Rune turned back to look at the clock, where the roses Alvar had carved were unfolding by the clockwork he had designed himself, as the night watchman sang the song of Jesus's birth at the midnight hour. "It seems so wrong."
"Will you change it, if you win the contest?" asked Alvar quietly.
"I will surely do my best." Rune glanced over at his friend and smiled. "And what more could be said of any man?"
Standing side by side, the two crafters watched the people marvel at the wonderful clock, the child of their combined talents and minds.