2016 Nebula Award finalist for Best Novelette
From Fran Wilde, the Andre Norton and Compton Crook Award-winning author of Updraft.
The kingdom in the Valley has long sheltered under the protection of its Jewels and Lapidaries, the people bound to singing gemstones with the power to reshape hills, move rivers, and warp minds. That power has kept the peace and tranquility, and the kingdom has flourished.
Jewel Lin and her Lapidary Sima may be the last to enjoy that peace.
The Jeweled Court has been betrayed. As screaming raiders sweep down from the mountains, and Lapidary servants shatter under the pressure, the last princess of the Valley will have to summon up a strength she’s never known. If she can assume her royal dignity, and if Sima can master the most dangerous gemstone in the land, they may be able to survive.
“The central fantastical idea is pretty cool… nicely written… I suspect the world it’s set in might yield more fine stories.” – Locus
About the Author
FRAN WILDE is an author & technology consultant. Her first novel, Updraft was published in 2015. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov's, Nature, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Wilde also blogs about food and genre at Cooking the Booksand for the popular social-parenting website GeekMom. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family.
Read an Excerpt
The Jewel and Her Lapidary
By Fran Wilde, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Fran Wilde
All rights reserved.
Strips of soft cloth bound the Jewel Lin's hands behind her back, knotted as if they'd been tied in a hurry. When her head cleared enough for her to think of it, Lin slid her hands back and forth until the bindings loosened and she was able to bend her wrists and tug at the ties.
Her mouth felt dry as a stone. Her legs and feet tingled, as if she'd been sitting on them for hours at a strange angle. Sima, she thought. Where is Sima? Lin could not see anything. What happened? Sima would know. Or Aba.
An elbow pressed Lin's side in the darkness. Lin heard her lapidary grunt and wriggle, trying to release herself. Sima's kicking dislodged something heavy and dry that rattled like bones across the floor.
When Lin had freed her hands, she touched the cloth that covered her eyes and ears, then pulled at that knot too. The blindfold fell into her hands. It was strips from the veil Lin had worn since she was eleven.
On the rough ground nearby, the ancient bone Sima had kicked stared at them: a skull turned to opal, eye sockets stuffed with raw yellow topaz.
Lin knew where they were now. Far from her private quarters, where they'd drunk their evening tea and gone to sleep. They were below the moonstone hall, in the pit beside the throne. Where Aba had always threatened to put her as a child when she misbehaved.
Lin bit down on her fist, stifling a scream. She looked around the pit, expecting to see the rest of the Jeweled Court similarly bound. Light flickered through the grate above her head. Sima still wriggled beside her in the dark. But beyond Sima, she saw nothing but darkness and more ancient bones.
She reached for her lapidary's hands. She felt the cloth that bound them and discovered that it had been looped around the metal cuffs and chains that marked Sima not just as a gem-speaker but as a lapidary — Lin's own lapidary: the bound courtier to a royal Jewel. Sima had been blindfolded too, with cloth ripped from her blue lapidary's cloak. She'd been gagged as well.
Lin worked at the knots. We have been betrayed. The court. The valley.
No one else sat in the pit with them. Above, the muffled sounds grew louder. Lin heard running feet. Shouting. Someone howled.
Lin wanted to stuff her hand back in her mouth. She wanted to go back to her room and see her father in the morning. To tell him about her nightmare. Lights flickered through the grate over her head.
"No," Sima whimpered, panic edging her voice. "A lapidary must not —" She was looking up, through the grate. She had not addressed her words to Lin.
Must not do what? thought Lin. Which lapidary? Her thoughts were slow and muddled. The tea must have been drugged. What had happened to her family? They had ordered wine in the hall while they discussed matters of state, and she'd been told to retire.
Above them, a voice shouted, "Shattered! We are shattered. You should have listened to me!"
The voice was barely recognizable as belonging to the King's Lapidary. Sima's father.
"Stop," Sima begged, climbing to her feet. Tears ran down her cheeks, turning diamond in the moonlight. She put a hand against the wall to steady herself. "Let us out, let us help you. Father." Her last word was a wail.
The screams continued above their heads, wave after crashing wave of them.
Father. Lin called out, "Help us!" She shouted for the king while Sima called to the lapidary. Two daughters below. Two fathers above.
Sima looked at Lin with wide eyes. "He is gem-mad."
The King's Lapidary howled in answer. His words came faster and faster, tumbling through the grate. Their meaning was nearly drowned by his laughter. Lin caught her name. She heard "bargain" and "promise." The lapidary's voice rose to a high pitch and cracked.
Sharp metal struck stone. Sima grabbed her ears, holding tight to the metal bands that wrapped her earlobes. Through clenched teeth, she whispered, "A lapidary must obey their Jewel." The first vow a new lapidary took. Sima repeated the vow like a chant as a shriek pierced the room above them. Her face was white, but she pushed Lin away from the grate, whispering, "He's going to break the diamond; he'll break it and death will come. Cover your ears!"
When the stone shattered it made a noise like a mineshaft collapsing, and a scream, and a fire all at once. Sima's eyes rolled back and Lin scrambled to keep her courtier's head from hitting the hard pit walls. "It's all right," she whispered. Nothing was right. Where was her father? Where were her sisters and brothers? And their lapidaries?
The pit and its metal walls seemed to protect them from the gems, and from Sima's father. Above, a cry of pain reverberated through the hall. Then something like rain. Then weeping. She heard the clatter as the palace guard dropped their weapons en masse and tried to flee, feet pounding, across the great hall's moonstone tiles. She heard them fall, one by one.
Metal struck again. Sima threw up at Lin's feet.
"Father!" Lin shouted, hoping her voice would pass up through the grate. "What is happening?"
Instead of the king, the lapidary returned to kneel on the grate. His hands gripped the bars, charred black. His eyes looked bloodred in the moonlight. "Awake," he muttered. "Awake too soon. The commander has not yet come and you must cover your ears. You will be no good to me mad." His voice singsonged as he stood and laughed, then lurched away.
"Sima," Lin whispered. "What is he doing?"
Her lapidary whimpered. "He is breaking his vows, my Jewel. He has broken gems. Couldn't you hear? The Opaque Sapphire. The Death Astrion. The Steadfast Diamond. He is about to break the Star Cabochon. We have to stop him."
The Opaque Sapphire. The Jeweled Palace was visible to attackers without that gem. And she and Sima were trapped in the pit beside the throne. The astrion and the diamond. The borders were undefended.
All her life, Aba had made Lin recite the valley's legends. How the first gems had enslaved those who found them; how they had maddened those who could hear them. How the first Jewel, the Deaf King, had set a cabochon-cut ruby with metal and wire. How he'd bound those who heard the stones as well and named them lapidaries. Made them serve him instead of the gems. How the gems had protected the valley better than any army.
She'd made Lin learn what could happen if a lapidary broke their vows.
The screaming had quieted above them. Sima knelt and cupped her hands so that Lin could stand on them. Lin pressed on the grate with both hands. The heavy door lifted an inch, but little more. Lin climbed to Sima's shoulders.
"Here —" Sima handed Lin a long bone from the pit floor. They wedged the grate open and Lin pulled herself out. Looking around, she could not see the King's Lapidary. But as Sima pulled herself up using a stretch of Lin's robe, Lin saw her own father, lying on the ground. His eyes were clouded like ruined opals. His breath bubbled in the blood-flecked foam at his mouth. An amber goblet rolled on the floor near his fingers. The bodies of the rest of the court lay scattered. Sisters. Brothers. Aba. Lin bound her heart up with the words. Saw their lips too: blackened and covered with foam. Poison.
Sima crossed the hall, following a sound. A voice. In the courtyard beyond the throne, the King's Lapidary stood on the high wall. He pointed at Lin, before Sima moved to stand between them. "The Western Mountains are coming — I've promised them a powerful gem and one very fine Jewel to marry!" He began to laugh and shout again. "They are strong! Our gems are fading. Soon their only power will be to catch the eye. The Jeweled Valley must be protected. He wouldn't listen. I protected you!"
Lapidaries' lathes were smashed across the courtyard. Shards of the Intaglio Amethyst that mapped the valley's mines crunched under Sima's feet as she walked toward her father.
"You cannot betray your vows, Father. You promised."
Metal rained down on them as the gem-mad lapidary threw the chains and bracelets that had bound his arms and ears. "No longer!"
Sima sank to her knees in the courtyard and Lin fell beside her. They watched as the madman waited for his conquering army on the wall.
Then the King's Lapidary fell quiet for the first time since Lin woke.
The two girls listened, shaking in the cold, for the mountain army's drums. They wondered how long the palace's doors could hold. But no drums came. Only silence. The King's Lapidary climbed up on the lip of the palace wall. He turned to face the courtyard. His lips were pressed tight, his eyes rolled. He spread his arms wide. His hands clutched at the air.
Sima rose to her feet. Began to run toward the wall.
Without another word, the King's Lapidary leapt from the wall, his blue robe flapping, the chains on his wrists and ankles ringing in the air.
And before Lin could scream, the King's Lapidary crashed to the flagstones of the courtyard.
When Lin came to her senses, Sima was whispering to her sapphires and blue topaz, the ones that lined her veil. Calm, she whispered. Calm.
The valley's gems. In a gem-speaker's hands, Lin knew they amplified desire. When bezel-set and held by a trained lapidary, they had to obey: to protect, calm, compel. Only without their bezels, or in the presence of a wild gem-speaker or a gem-mad lapidary, could gems do worse things.
Sima's gems did calm Lin. She remained aware of what was happening, but they were smooth facets made out of fact; her terror was trapped within. She was the only one left. An army was coming. The court of the Jeweled Valley — which had known peace for four hundred years, since the Deaf King set the Star Cabochon — had been betrayed. Lin felt a keen rising in her chest.
"Make me stronger," she ordered Sima.
Sima tried her best. She whispered to the small topaz and diamonds at Lin's wrists and ears. Lin could not hear the gems, but she felt them acting on her. Compelling her to be calm. To think clearly. She took a breath. Stood.
"We will collect all the gems we can find, Sima," she said. "All the chain mail too."
They searched the bodies of the court for gems. Lin sewed the gems herself into one of her old gray cloaks.
When she rolled her eldest brother's body on its side to peel the ornamental chain mail from his chest, she wept, but it was a calm, slow weeping. The gems allowed her time to act. She would have to mourn later. She moved from one body to the next. Sima followed behind, tugging cloaks, searching pockets.
Sima removed the bands and chains from the fallen lapidaries, cutting the solder points with her father's diamond saw.
They returned to Lin's quarters in the heart of the palace and Lin wrapped herself in all of the chains she had collected. She pointed to the metal bands, the oaths meaningless now.
"You must do the rest," she told her lapidary.
Sima, whispering her vows, shook her head. "I cannot do this work, my Jewel. It will harm you."
The small betrayal made the lapidary wince.
"Sima, you must." Lin spoke calmly, and Sima pulled the cache of tools from her sleeve. She lit her torch. Attached bands at Lin's wrists and ankles. The metal grew hot. Lin felt her skin burn and thought of her sisters and brothers. Blisters rose where Sima's torch came too close. Lin ached for her father.
"The mountains wish a bride and a throne," Lin said. Her voice was flat. Her new veil hung heavy against her temples.
Sima added more chains to Lin's veil. When Lin demanded it, she spoke the binding verses she'd learned at her own father's side.
And then Sima backed out the door, latching it behind her. Lin listened to the lapidary's metal vows clattering and chiming on her arms as she sped away. To the river, Sima. Run.
The noises faded. The palace of the Jeweled Court fell silent.
And Lin, for the first time in her life, was completely alone.
* * *
In her second act of betrayal, Sima gritted her teeth and began to remove the metal vows that bound her from wrists to biceps. They would make too much noise as she ran.
She cut away the engraved silver chains with her father's diamond saw, then started on the bands. The metal was too noisy and would give her away. When the saw broke, the last lapidary of the Jeweled Valley twisted and bent the bands, thinking, Hurry, please hurry, until the first of them — A lapidary protects the valley — snapped from metal fatigue.
Her father's body lay broken in the outer courtyard. Sima pushed the image of his fall from her memory; blocked the sound his bones had made on the flagstones from her ears. There was no time to mourn the King's Lapidary, no time to consider his treachery. Hurry. She beat back the last moments of the court — seven royal Jewels choking from poison, the palace guard run away, six lapidaries dead. Her father's doing.
Traitor, the gems hidden in Sima's stolen cloak echoed her thought. They magnified the word so it almost enveloped her. The gems spoke louder now that she'd broken several vows of her own. Louder, too, because her father had broken all of his.
Sima knew she was not yet a traitor. She'd kept her most important vows — the platinum bands that wrapped the lobes of her ears and made no noise — hoping she might avoid her father's fate. A lapidary protects their Jewel, said one. A lapidary protects the gems in their care, said the other. Those vows would not make noise as she fled. They would keep her safe and sane, she hoped.
When the last armband snapped and the words engraved upon it fell away, she wrapped the metal with torn, bloody cloth. She tucked the cloth in the pocket she'd hung from her belt.
The metal, together with the lesser gems of the valley already sewn into her cloak's hem, weighed heavy but made no sound save for the gems' whispers.
Sima tried to ignore those.
She ran for the far palace wall and prepared to leave her fallen kingdom and its last Jewel — the princess Lin — behind.
The army from the Western Mountains was already entering the valley. It would soon take the palace. Its soldiers would expect to find her father at the gates, welcoming them. But the King's Lapidary had climbed the very steps Sima now climbed.
At the place where her father had jumped to his death, Sima threw a rope over the embrasure.
The valley was the most important thing now. She had to get herself and the gems away from the valley. It was what Lin wanted. If Sima stayed, and the army caught her, they would use both gems and lapidary against the people of the valley.
She wrapped her newly bare hands around the rough fiber, took a breath, and asked the gems for strength. Then she stepped over the palace wall, into choking smoke from the fires that already ringed the valley. Her cloak caught the hot wind and tugged her backward, causing her to clutch the rope, finally afraid.
The hidden gems — rough-cut emeralds; opals and topaz; lesser sapphires; one ruby, but not the biggest one — whispered muffled and useless things. Survival. Escape. Betrayal.
"Quiet," she whispered back. Her voice cracked. She looked over her shoulder to the dark ground below, then across the open field to the trees and the hidden caves by the river. If she could get there, she might fulfill one vow, even as another weakened close to breaking.
The gems did not listen to her. The whispers continued, until they were drowned beneath a new sound.
The beat of heavy drums echoed through the valley as the army of the Western Mountains advanced unchallenged. Sima heard cries rise sharp and high as ironclad soldiers woke the cottages. Artisans and miners begged for their lives and those of their families. Sima's left foot slipped on the ash-slick wall, then found a place to brace. The weighted cloak pulled at her. The army closed on the palace gates and began to pound at them. When Sima moved again, her right foot slipped. Her shoes were meant for smooth palace floors, not rough walls. She forced herself to lean back against the rope, to press her feet firmly, and to move faster. She tried to forget how high she was and what a fall did to a body. Tried to forget the soldiers now assaulting the palace's inner gates.
She marked her escape in the rough increments of rope and wall. In broken bands, broken vows, broken gems.
Not so long ago, the palace would have been hidden to its enemies, thanks to the Opaque Sapphire. The Death Astrion, the Steadfast Diamond, and the Star Cabochon would have held the borders and repelled the army. No longer.
A lapidary who betrays their Jewel will be shattered. The second band she'd cut from her wrist. The one her father had soldered for the first time when she was three years old, on the day of the Jewel Lin's birth. Sima sucked a breath at remembered pain and at the rope's harsh burn, both. She'd been at Lin's side every day since. Slept on a pallet by her bed, made her beautiful baubles. She'd been there when her father had drugged their tea, then thrown them bound and gagged into the silver-lined pit below the throne. She had failed to protect her Jewel.
No. She'd also been there to make Lin cover her ears as the rest of the court died. As the gems shattered.
Sima inched closer to the ground as the pounding continued. She heard the muffled sounds of inlaid doors crying out against the iron battering ram: Strength. Fortitude.
Those doors would hold until their last gem broke. When it did, the palace would fall with Lin inside, bound head to toe in platinum chains.
Sima's feet touched the ground. She gathered the edges of her heavy cloak around her and turned toward the trees. Rough stones tore her soft shoes. Her feet sank deep into mud, but she kept running. If she could make the river, the boatman could smuggle her away and both gems and lapidary would pass out of reach. She would no longer endanger the valley.
The gems whispered, tried to tempt her with power and freedom. They'd done the same when she was a child, before she'd been bound. With every step farther from Lin, the gems grew louder.
The King's Lapidary, broken by his treachery, had freed the oldest gem among them: the cabochon star ruby, called the Star Cabochon. Now the minor gems clamored for control from within her cloak. Coronation sapphires, topaz, Lin's birth emeralds. Gems to ease pain, to give courage, if they were bound correctly. Without a proper setting, each could wreak havoc on the valley. For those who could hear them, more bindings were required as protection. Vows.
Excerpted from The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2016 Fran Wilde. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Strong characters and good world-building in such a short piece. Really enjoyed it.
I loved this. The gems, with their combined power and threat, are a great idea. I also really like the framing narrative, and what it says about how history treats triumph and tragedy. Really, this is a lovely short story.