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Third Place Fiction, The 2014 Frank Lawlor Memorial Fiction Prize

The Silvershaper

The wizard Hydrargyrum poisoned the King’s Silvershaper. The poison was brewed of envy and administered in malice, and it almost worked as planned.

#

On a gray day in late fall, the court had gathered to gape as Hydrargyrum transformed a dog into a dragon. As always, they watched in rapt bemusement while the wizard performed. They trembled when he sketched rapid runes in the air, static snapping through his cloak, and held their breath to better hear his rumbling incantations.

The dog watched Hydrargyrum, too, with its ears pricked and tail wagging. Each time it licked its whiskers or shifted a paw, a frisson ran through the crowd.

In truth, Hydrargyrum could have transformed the dog in half the time that had already passed, with a quarter of the effort. But he relished an audience and meant to prolong the hushed suspense as long as possible. So there was no dragon, yet, when the door banged open and the Silvershaper entered with a flourish. There was only a skinny stray dog, and the room’s attention shifted.

The Silvershaper shrugged out of his cloak and bowed, and the court mirrored his smile. They murmured awe when fine links of chain spilled from his pockets, gasped when a silver wall sconce melted into his silver-callused hands.

The Silvershaper’s calluses clicked like knitting needles as he kneaded the silver. He wrung the doughy ball of metal, stepping around puddles of copper impurities that splattered at his feet, and tossed it from hand to hand before kneading it again. As the silver grew brighter and brighter, purer and purer, the Silvershaper moved further into the hall. Just past the center of the room, a few steps closer to the front than the back, the Silvershaper settled to the floor. He brushed dust from the tile, rolled the ball of silver into place, and flicked a final drop of copper from his fingertips. Then he began to caress the silver into form.

The King, who was curious and kind and would die of curdled wits before his heir turned ten, clambered down from his throne. He bent over the Silvershaper, then knelt, leaning forward with his mouth open and his eyes wide and his circlet crown tipped sideways.

The dog crept forward, too, watching as intently as the King.

When the Silvershaper sculpted a graceful wing, the King clapped and bounced on his knees. After a second wing and a long, sinuous neck, the King chortled.

“It’s a dragon! A dragon for the King!”

Standing in a shadow behind the King, Hydrargyrum forced his mean lips and clenched teeth into a smile, as was his duty.

The Silvershaper spent an hour molding his fierce, filigree serpent. He used his thumbs and knuckles, the silver-leafed edge of his smallest finger, and a few white hairs pulled from his head. Finally, when each scale of the dragon was perfect, the Silvershaper blew across it as if cooling a spoonful of soup. Then he rose from the floor and swept into an elegant bow before the still-kneeling King. “May I stay and serve the King’s pleasure?”

The King’s lip trembled as he accepted the dragon. Clasping it to his chest, he beckoned the court closer. “See my dragon? He made a dragon for the King!”

No one was watching Hydrargyrum, who whirled on the dog, determined to trump sculpture with transformation. No one saw the dog scramble away and burrow under the Silvershaper’s cloak. No one heard the wizard’s curse sputter against the cloak’s silver threads and wisp into nothingness.

#

Winter bent Hydrargyrum’s knuckles into pain. Birds turned to bone in the wizard’s hands, bone into ash, and all of his smelly potions separated into grease and brine and blood. His tricky magic of flesh and resin and bilious transformation festered as the Silvershaper’s presence weakened him.

Travelers came to marvel at the Silvershaper’s gallery of clockwork birds and beasts. He entertained them by pressing coins between his thumb and forefinger, leaving them stamped with the King’s likeness. The coins were given as gifts to the visitors, who applauded and offered their daughters as wives for the shy son of the declining King. Before leaving, they confessed their envy of the King’s Silvershaper, who turned the whole kingdom light and airy and whimsical.

Hydrargyrum hated all things light and airy and whimsical, and he especially hated the Silvershaper. The wizard even hated the blithesome dog, which scampered at the Silvershaper’s heels. He hated how it twirled on its hind legs and balanced on silver stools while the court tossed bits of their food for it to catch.

Watching these performances, Hydrargyrum decided to poison the begging, whiskery dog. But the dog had smelled the wizard’s magic decomposing on the Silvershaper’s cloak. It recognized his reek and refused the noxious brew he slipped into its bowl. It sneezed and attempted to bury the poison by pushing its bowl under a pillow. Amused by its antics, the Silvershaper fondled its ears. Hydrargyrum watched the dog lean into its master’s caress and decided he would poison the master, instead.

Three times a day they ate in the great stone hall. The King sat at the head of the room, Hydrargyrum to his left and the Silvershaper to his right. Three times a day the wizard sprinkled powders and drops of clear liquid over their food, testing for toxins. So it was easy to add a slow poison to the Silvershaper’s plate. It was easy for Hydrargyrum to sprinkle revenge over the Silvershaper’s food, then switch bottles under the cover of his sleeves.

#

As spring bloomed into summer, the Silvershaper developed tics and twitches. Sometimes he froze in a rictus for long moments, then recovered and had no memory of lost time. He grew surly and said “supper” when he meant “certainly,” “tea” when he meant “tomorrow.”

The court pitied their senile King and his palsied Silvershaper. Some quit attending. But there were still visitors, traveling from far, foreign places. They turned the keys that made jointed hummingbirds whirr and a clockwork elk wheeze grating love songs. They smiled fondly on the little dog, curled into its master’s side as the pair dozed in a pillowed nook.

The King entertained his visitors by singing nonsense in a high child’s voice. Once in a great while, he sent for his Silvershaper and insisted the man produce something fabulous. The Silvershaper tried, but his silver calluses had dissolved into angry scabs, which flaked and blistered. His hands trembled, blurring his coins. The Silvershaper sweated through failures and embarrassed silences, biting his cracked lips until they bled. Unperturbed, the King fell back onto his cushions, kicked his feet, and sang.

#

By autumn the kingdom had floundered into tedium.

Then Hydrargyrum asked, “My lord, would you like to slay a dragon?”

“What?” The King blinked sleepily.

“Would you like to slay a dragon? It’s been a long while since the court has had any amusement, and I’m sure a dragon slaying would be just the thing.”

“I don’t know if I should kill it, but I would certainly like to see one!” The King’s pale face flushed and his lips turned lively at their corners. “Could you really find one? Where do they live?”

Hydrargyrum shook his head. “It would take too long to find one. No, I think I shall have to make one, and I’ll need something to start with, something already alive.”

The King twisted and pointed to a moth. “There you are, wizard. There’s your bit of flesh.”

“Oh, no, my King. I don’t dare. Moths know too much of fire, and I wouldn’t want my dragon so wise.” He let his voice fade and cupped his chin despondently. “Maybe it wasn’t a good idea.”

“No! It was an excellent idea, an extraordinary idea.” The King bent and peered under his throne, giggling as his crown clanged to the floor. “There’s a beetle under here, I think.”

Hydrargyrum made a show of climbing under the throne. The King picked up his feet in exaggerated deference and moaned dismay when the wizard said, “No, sire. No, I’m afraid this beetle is too hard of shell. We wouldn’t want the dragon too heavily armored.”

The King ordered a horse brought from the stables, and Hydrargyrum cautioned the dragon might be too swift. The King’s mind wandered into rhyme, and Hydrargyrum prodded him back to the dragon. Ducks, too likely to spread dragon mess. Canaries, too likely to fly away. Cats, too quick with their claws. And then the King said, “What about a dog?”

Hydrargyrum mumbled and ticked his fingers as if counting, then nodded. “Yes, my lord. Yes. I think a dog would do. But not just any dog. I would need one small and smart and well-trained.”

And the Silvershaper was too weak to argue when the court, which had grown impatient, shoved his clever dog into the center of the room. He was too ill to crawl after it, and he cried heavy tears when the little dog whimpered.

Hydrargyrum put all of his pent frustrations into the dragon, which he modeled after the Silvershaper’s first fierce making. Banked too long in jealous embers, all of his silver-damped magic blazed free. The dog’s whimper shuddered into agonized yips, then deepened into yowls, and finally rasped to growls.

The court wailed in terror and crushed into doorways, abandoning their King to the beast writhing across the stone floor. But the King had already lost interest. He was humming a tune to the beetle, which had crawled onto his sleeve and begun clicking. So only the Silvershaper saw how the dragon killed Hydrargyrum.

The wizard couldn’t resist his rush of vindication. Arrogance didn’t need the King’s approval, but revenge did. Hydrargyrum glanced toward the throne and froze in disbelief when he saw the King’s indifference. Snarling with rage, he turned his back on the dragon and marched forward to confront the King.

Though it still shivered, the dragon finally mastered its terrible form. It reeled to its feet, lunged, and snapped double fangs through Hydrargyrum’s chest. Then it pinned him with a claw and lashed its forked tongue over his face as he died.

Ignoring the King’s duet with the clicking beetle, the dragon rooted through the gallery. It took silver peacocks and ravens and sparrows between its teeth, tucking them under the long scales on its chest. The clockwork elk went into a fold behind its right wing, the filigree dragon into a fold behind its left wing. Then it bent its bony head to the Silvershaper, whose cheeks sparkled with tears.

At the dragon’s nudge, the Silvershaper dragged himself upright. He fell over the dragon’s lowered shoulders and croaked “Goodbye” as they were leaving.

The King waved cheerfully and said, “Yes, yes. Goodbye. Thank you for coming and come back when you can.” He sighed and spoke to the beetle, “What a lovely dragon. Did you see it?”

#

The Silvershaper survived Hydrargyrum’s poison. His mind was scarred, but he remembered how to be light and airy and whimsical. He liked how the dragon wagged its thick tail when it slept and how it groomed its whiskers after eating. He liked how the calluses healed on his fingers, which meant he could pet the dragon’s prickly head and scratch the hot, soft hide under its ears. He sang reedy rhymes, lost a few of his teeth, and hid from passing strangers because they all looked like Hydrargyrum. Mostly he made more and more silver sculpture, from the coins and jewelry the dragon found in its wanderings.

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