In The Ramshead Algorithm and Other Stories, sand cats speak, ghost bikes roll, corpses disappear, and hedge mazes are more bewildering than you've ever imagined. These 11 fantasy and science fiction stories from KJ Kabza have been dubbed "Sublime" (Tangent), "Rich" (SFRevu), and "Ethereal" (Quick Sip Reviews) and will take you deep into other astonishing realities.
|Publisher:||Pink Narcissus Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)|
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The Leafsmith in Love
The first thing Jesper noticed was her parasol, twirling like a ghostly pinwheel beyond the branches and webs. He was instantly intrigued. On previous occasions, when watching all the visiting women on the Red Path, he had often told himself, If I were a Lady with a lacy parasol, I would be entranced by the decorative absurdity of it and play with it constantly, not stand there dumbly beneath it like a worm beneath a mushroom.
Compelled by its beckoning clockwise motion, he wove between the trees and smithing with the skill of a hart. In minutes he was behind her, three paces from the edge of the pink gravel clearing. The bench opposite her was empty, and she was conversing with herself in a quite lively manner.
"Indeed," she was saying aloud, "but I do not know their names. All I know is that I have truly never seen so queer a place in all my life. We could simply name them ourselves, you know." The parasol slowed, paused, and began to thoughtfully spin in the other direction. "Oh certainly not! They would never come up with something suitable." She laughed. "Zuhanna, from whose head do you pull such ideas? They don't care a bit. It's clearly too splendid for them to understand anyway. If they would only open their eyes and look around — and around and around and around ...!" With this, she tossed down the parasol, hopped up from the bench, held out her arms, and spun.
Jesper's heart quickened. Lady Zuhanna's eyes were closed in overflowing joy, her palms upturned to the sweet spring air, her quick feet pirouetting her in a rhythm that was almost a dance, savoring this one silly, spontaneous moment.
And as he watched her, Jesper, the Master Leafsmith of Holdt Castle, finally fell in love.
Around them, the Arboretum sang and rustled and clicked. Jesper's heart rose up, past the gleaming webs, the thousands of clockwork creatures on uncountable hybrid branches, the interlocking cogs nestled in the forest's crown. A flock of real birds rushed overhead, and a score of ticking dragonflies took flight; they settled around her blooming petticoats in a ring, baffled by the spinning laughter in their midst.
She tripped and fell.
Jesper rushed to her side and the dragonflies scattered. He knelt on the crushed feldspar and extended his elbow. "My Lady!"
Her face was red. Her fine hand settled on his arm, and she looked up at him in sheepish acknowledgment. A few of her hairpins had come loose, and the careful fresco of braids coiled about her head had become paunchy and lopsided.
Oh — she was unspeakably lovely.
They stood. "Thank you, kind sir," she said bashfully. "I'm sorry. I'm so clumsy, and I get so carried away."
"Not at all. Are you injured?"
"No." She did not remove her hand from his. She looked down and smoothed her rumpled frock with the other. "I'm afraid I cannot say the same for this silly old thing."
"I am sorry."
"I am so foolish. Have you seen where I placed my parasol?"
"It's lovely. I mean, yes, it is over here."
"Thank you." She pulled away to fetch it, and the rhythm of Jesper's heartbeat quickened, like that of a pendulum set too short. She picked up her parasol and blew on it, ineffectually, unable to disturb the pink dust or hundreds of tiny metal springs the smithing invariably shed. "I don't believe we have met?"
Jesper raised a reverent hand to his top hat. "Jesper. Jesper Leafsmith."
"A Leafsmith! O marvelous, delightful!" She held up her battered parasol and swiveled toward him. "You help keep this place, then?"
Jesper smiled and his body warmed. "My Lady, I have built this place."
Her mouth opened. She said nothing, then mutely looked about her.
A proud flush crept over the entirety of Jesper's skin. "I started with a section of ordinary Arboretum, a space near an abandoned ore mine. The webs you see, along with the occasional plant made wholly of smithing, are maintained with Animus distillate and Elementalic cleverness. I am no Elementalor myself, so the machines that grow themselves along with the wood are not wholly my province. But all the accompanying smithlife is mine."
She took a step closer to him, her eyes shining. "Papa gave me a magnificun scope one St. Adelayde's Day, when I was twelve years. I loved that scope. I'd take it to Papa's swamp, and I would spend hours watching all the wiggly, squiggly things in a drop of water. Tell me, what is it like? To see that way always?"
Jesper felt a sweat prickle along his covered scalp and under his arms. She was lauding him with her eyes. "It is not always. Only when I wish."
She took another step closer. "I have been wondering, Leafsmith. How do you make a clockwork ladybug? I would love to know. I am so intrigued."
His knees begged him to sit down, but his feet were somehow affixed to the feldspar. "There are many ways. In brief, I take a living ladybug, look deep into it, and replicate the gross moving parts in tiny brass. I use a special branch of mathematica to calculate where to place static runes upon the moving clockwork, to channel the distant energy that powers it. But I have many machines to aid me, including a Sight Translationer."
"A Sight Translationer?!"
"It is a rare mechanism. It requires Fractional distillate, which few alchemists are skilled enough to reduce."
"Fractional distillate! Listen to you talk! There is so much about magics I do not know, and I have only three days to secretly learn it all, before we leave for home. Papa will only let me study Elementics back in South Tairee, and I am only any good with Earth." She took another step closer; she had reached him now. Her parasol began to spin again, and her face warmed and opened like a sunflower. "So you must hurry and tell me absolutely everything you know."
"Shall we sit? These benches are so queer, with their little jointed feet. Are they able to walk about? That is awfully clever. Could we ride an ambling bench as we talk?"
"You may not, I dare say," interrupted a voice, and Jesper's body tightened.
Princess Kanna, clothed in a gown more intricately executed than any of her interpersonal machinations, stepped off the Red Path and into the gravel clearing. "You're conversing with Jesper, sweet coz. Our dear Leafsmith has a mechanical heart, and it holds less feeling than a stone." She laughed. The over-sweetness of the sound made Jesper's teeth ache. "He only sits and visits with his Woodtinkers, in his cottage in the heart of the wood, which no courtesan is invited to see."
Lady Zuhanna's spinning parasol stilled, and a heavy veil of adult seriousness dropped over her face. "I beg your pardon, Leafsmith. I should not have been so nosy. Excuse me for being so forward."
Jesper reached toward her. "Please —"
The Princess strolled forward and patted Jesper's arm. "No need to pretend at manners, Leafsmith." She waved her hand at Lady Zuhanna. "And you, shoo! Your Papa is looking for you. I'd stay down in the library as he says. You'll get nowhere filling your head with butterflies and steam-powered rabbits."
She curtsied. "Yes, coz. Good morning."
Jesper watched her trod away over the Red Path, her body held stiffly, looking straight ahead at nothing, like any world-weary Lady at court.
For this, Jesper hated the Princess more than ever.
As soon as Lady Zuhanna had vanished from sight, the Princess slid close to him, running her palm up the length of his arm. Her breath in his ear sickened, like too much honey. "What is this I see, Leafsmith? You are a man after all? Or are you just play-acting? She is a plain, empty-headed fool. And so are you, for thinking you can freely insult your Princess by admiring her so."
"Perhaps we two fools would make a good match, then."
Princess Kanna hissed. She stood on her toes and forcefully pressed her ripe body into his, hugging his arm with her softness. "What madness do you breed on your lonesome in that secret woodland hut? All the men of this castle would slaughter their mothers, and rightly so, for but a single one of my smiles — all but you. You wound me, Leafsmith. All this time you've been saving your arrogant love, and you finally fall for — her?"
"I beg your pardon." Jesper gracefully stepped away. "I seem to have somehow stood too close."
She narrowed her eyes. "I do not appreciate being mocked."
"No-one does, Princess."
Princess Kanna put her hands on her hips and pertly swung them just so, a motion that made Gentlemen faint yet always left Jesper cold. "I deserve to be mocked least of all. You may not have her, Leafsmith, not as long as you dare to think her lovelier."
"It is not wise to fall for me," said Jesper gravely, feigning he had misinterpreted her jealousy. "Your father would never approve. You are the heir and I but a working craftsman, and twice your age besides."
She bared her teeth. "Tell me I am the more beautiful!"
Jesper touched his hat. "We must not converse about such things. The court will talk. Good morning, Princess."
She stamped her foot. "I order you to tell me!"
Jesper touched a solemn finger to his lips and slipped back into the trees where she could not follow.
He fled to his hidden cottage, his poor human heart throbbing with fear and desire. He would die before saying so, but in his secret and ungentlemanly opinion, the Princess was as desirable as a Witch-rash in a personal place. In one of his secret and ungentlemanly notebooks, he in fact cultivated a wicked collection of verse on the subject. He thought of writing some now, to strengthen his resolve, but what he truly wanted to do surprised him.
He wanted to make a ringauble, as a gift for her so enchanting cousin.
And why not? It might enrage the Princess dreadfully.
Whistling the preemptory Build, Jesper entered his adjacent greenhouse and began to search for something suitable to start with.
The ringauble was completed by sundown — a simple pot containing the sleeping bulb of a flower nestled in smithing soil. Lady Zuhanna's three-day visit did not give Jesper much time, but he knew that the Princess was watching, so he must wait to present it to her.
The next afternoon, during Princess Kanna's daily one-of-the-clock nap, Jesper readied a cloth sack and trotted to the southeast wing of the castle, where the Perennial Tower stood. He eschewed the locked door at its base, and like a love-struck boy, instead hid surreptitiously in the topiary.
He glanced about the deserted shrubbery, then retrieved a steam-powered condor from the sack and roused it. As the condor sputtered and clanked, Jesper placed a Scrygonfly and the lip of the ringauble pot in its talons, then issued his instructions in a sub-audible mumble. The condor flew up to the third-floor balcony and correctly placed the ringauble on a pedestal, but misheard Jesper otherwise and placed the Scrygonfly on the edge of the roof without winding it first. Close enough — Jesper bolted from the bushes and fled.
He waited in his hidden cottage. He pretended to work on the blueprints for a hydroelectric mangrove, refining the nanodynamos in the xylem, but he did little other than stare at the lines. No-one else could make a ringauble quite like this, and when she saw it, she'd know who sent it.
When he felt the prickling behind his eyes, he attuned his sight so fast to the scene observed by the Scrygonfly's ommatidia that he saw nothing but gray static at first. Then, from the roof, he was watching the Princess' sweet cousin step out onto the balcony.
She bent to stroke a morning glory blossom, then noticed the ringauble. "Oh!"
Jesper's breathing quickened. She stepped to the pedestal and set her hands upon the ringauble's terra-cotta pot, her dark eyes dancing in curiosity.
The potting soil, a bricolage of microscopic gears watered with Animus distillate, parted with a whisper of clicks to reveal a steel shoot. Before her eyes, the invaginated tube grew and thickened and sprouted brass self- constructing leaves, and in twenty seconds, the top of the stalk swelled and darkened. Her mouth parted, as if she were burning to ask it a question.
The bud swelled to the size of a man's fist, then abruptly opened to reveal spiraling rows of stained glass petals, firing microscopic pistons, and droplets of molten gold dew.
"What on earth are you on about now?" Princess Kanna stalked out onto the balcony. "What, Zuhanna?"
"Oh! Look, look!"
The Princess pushed her aside and snatched up the pot. "This frivolous bauble? Pah. It's a trifle. It's presented to all our guests."
Lady Zuhanna reached out to it, mesmerized, and touched the edge of a brass leaf.
The music box in the flower's bulb tinkled to life at the contact, and the petals trembled as the ringauble chimed the bars of a love ballad.
Lady Zuhanna's eyes went wide, and Princess Kanna let out a haughty laugh. "Oh, I see what's happening here. It's that foolish Leafsmith."
Lady Zuhanna, bewildered, pulled back her hand. "Foolish?"
"Oh yes." The Princess looked down at the smithing in her hands, the power of Jesper's love harnessed and turned into song by the runes on the terra-cotta. She knowingly shook her head. "Our Leafsmith has been secretly admiring me for years. I suppose, if you are a simple craftsman, seeing a beautiful princess strolling about every day in your own backyard is too much. He has been making wanton eyes at me since I was thirteen years."
Jesper gaped. That lying, miserable harpy!
Lady Zuhanna nodded, confused and crestfallen.
"He knew I'd come out here with you this afternoon," the Princess continued, "because he knows our most honored Ladies always stay in the Perennial Tower's Silver Suite. And besides which, he has these little mechanical insects that he sends to follow me about and scry on my comings and goings. I don't know whether to feel amusement or pity."
"He ... he loves you?"
"Oh yes," sighed Princess Kanna, in a tone as plaintive as it was infuriating. She indifferently set the pot, still chiming its love, upon a railing. "He gives these things to visitors all the time, but he only gives the ones that sing to me. This is the third this week. Though he's usually not so insolent as to present them to me in front of other people. I suppose you must matter little to him."
Lady Zuhanna bit her lip and nodded.
Beyond the ommatidia, the Princess yawned and went inside. Lady Zuhanna sadly touched the ringauble once more; it fell silent, and she slipped inside after a disappointed sigh.
The scene dissolved as Jesper's anger overwhelmed his focus. So the Princess would play this way, would she?
You may be quick on your feet, Princess Kanna, but you forget — my very profession is in miracles and engineered delicacy.
And my devices are far more clever.
Jesper made himself wait another precious day. Around ten of the clock the next morning, he walked the Silver Path to Arachnotropolis, where Kellin, Master Woodtinker, was at work. Kellin was frowning under his heavy beard and winding, by hand, a large number of spiders whose runes had become too worn to do any tapping. He didn't even look up as Jesper approached. "Master Fluffbrains. Come to lend me a hand today? Or are you still stuck on that mangrove?"
"Frivolity in a sea of frivolities." Kellin replaced the freshly ticking spider in its web, where it scurried about and rearranged the strands of metal to its ineffable liking. Kellin plucked a stilled body from another web nearby. "We can't even use a hydroelectric mangrove, you know. Rithick told me the drop in the river isn't great enough."
"A sapling, perhaps."
"No matter. What's news?"
Jesper cleared his throat. "The visiting King Ethin of Snow-on-High has asked that I give his daughter a lesson."
Kellin stopped breathing for a moment so he could accurately insert his microkey. He wound the spider by rubbing his fingertips together a bare sixteenth of an inch. "The Lady Zuhanna? Poor man. At least she's not destined for his throne. No amount of education, even if it culminates at Holdt castle, is going to get her head out of the clouds."
"Yes, well, he seems to think it will do her good." Jesper watched Kellin replace the spider and select another. "He asked that she receive an interdisciplinary lesson in Earth-Metal Elementics."
"And you can't do Elementics," finished Kellin with a sigh. "Passing the knife, are we? That's fine, it'll get me out of this tedium."
"Can you be at the seventh joint at one-thirty of the clock?"
Kellin set the wound spider back in its web with a grunt of assent. "Certainly." He plucked another from an orb web. "Pardon me for not touching farewell, but if I drop this microkey, it'll take an hour to spin one out again. Good morning, Jesper."
Jesper touched his top hat. "Good morning, Kellin."
Next, Jesper walked the Red Path until he came across an idle page boy, who was holding a stone to his ear and listening to it tick. Jesper asked him to tell the visiting Lady Zuhanna at exactly one-ten of the clock that she would be late for her lesson at the seventh joint on the White Path if she did not hurry.
Excerpted from "The Ramshead Algorithm and Other Stories"
Copyright © 2018 Pink Narcissus Press.
Excerpted by permission of Pink Narcissus Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Leafsmith in Love,
The Color of Sand,
The Ramshead Algorithm,
Night and Day,
The Flight Stone,
Steady on Her Feet,
The Soul in the Bell Jar,
We Don't Talk About Death,
All Souls Proceed,
You Can Take It With You,
About the Author,