Lord Mason Staffwielder, Royal Impresario for the Queen of Procolon, flicked the falling ash from one of his sleeves. The grey dust of the construction site might smear against his purple velvet jacket.
He touched the length of his shocking-red curls. A visit to the royal barber would be needed soon. Appearance was important for what he did. He imagined how he must look to prospective entertainers. Square jaws, cleanly shaven. A welcome smile with tiny wrinkles just beginning to show in the corners of his blue eyes. Someone you felt comfortable dealing with.
His three younger sisters, ten, twelve, and fifteen, fidgeted next to him.
“This is boring,” Patience, the youngest, said.
“Worse than that, it’s dirty,” Althea, the middle one, joined in.
Lalage, the oldest, as always remained silent. As did the elderly matron who accompanied them.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “We will be on our way to see some imps in a moment.” He sighed in resignation as he examined the construction site. He had no interest in being there either. But Alpher, his eldest brother, had insisted. Check up on what Wetron, the next most senior, was up to.
He told himself for the thousandth time that the thrusts and parries of state were of no concern to him. Being the patron of the arts was far more important, a more difficult task to do well, actually. He had absolutely no interest in being the lord of a fief.
Of course, he didn’t. Let his two brothers decide among themselves who was to be regarded as the most able lord. He squashed again the nagging thought that a small holding would not be all that bad, generating enough income to satisfy his tastes but not large enough to be a threat to anyone.
He craned his head upward. “Do I understand this correctly?” he said to the foreman over the roar of the nearby blast furnace. “You are going to make this tower more than three stories tall?”
“We’re using the latest ideas. The heat from burning logs for the motive force rather than something mechanical.” The foreman puffed out his chest. “Who knows. Five floors, maybe six.”
Mason dusted more falling ash from his jacket and grimaced. He had been right. It left a smear of grey on one of the appliques. He looked around the construction site. It was much larger than most. Bare dirt that had been roughly leveled. A pile of immense tree trunks stripped of their branches stacked in two piles on one side. A furnace so hot that the air wiggled when one squinted in its direction. And all around, dozens of workers busy with their tasks.
Some kept the furnace working, slinging shovel after shovel of coal into a fiery maw. Others loaded trunks from one of the piles into wicker baskets, then stood back as they rose upward. In a flash, they stopped at the top of a skeleton framework already the height of three tall men standing on each other’s shoulders. Like busy ants, workers there hammered the lumber onto the rising structure with long, iron spikes.
“It is the thickness of the wood, its loadbearing strength, that makes it possible to build so high.” The foreman followed Mason’s gaze. “It takes a lot of what the masters call energy, whatever that is, to lift the stout beams above the ground so swiftly. The heat in the furnace supplies that. No great strength is needed at all. So long as we brace and reinforce everything as we go, we can scrape the sky.”
Mason did not reply. Instead, he looked up the hill toward Vendora’s palace. Alpher’s suspicion had been correct. He frowned at the foreman. “If you go above five stories, then the pennants on top of this ‘townhouse’, as my brother, Wetron, calls it, will be higher than those of the queen.”
The foreman beamed. “Such is progress. One pile of logs for the framing and another to provide the energy to raise them quickly. No need for block and tackle, for thick hawsers that snap and break. The old ways fade in the glow of the new.”
“Yes, I agree. There is a general feeling in the air. An excitement for change. Even the playwrights and actors have caught a whiff of it.”
“It does come at a cost.” The foreman shrugged. “The gondolas also raise the workers to the upper stories as well as the beams. Takes less time for them to get there. Fewer of them are needed.”
“Look! Over there. A doll house,” Patience shouted.
On the ground, far away from the basking heat of the furnace, stood the framework of a small, rectangular structure built of tiny, round sticks and flat, wooden spools with holes drilled around their peripheries and completely through their centers. Some of the sticks were stuck in central openings and others in those on the edges.
Next to the little structure lay a pile of unsmoothed twigs. As everyone watched, the worker attending the toy put a twig into a thimble and slowly raised it in the air. Then he stopped and moved it to touch the little structure. Out of the corner of his eye, Mason saw one of the full-sized baskets soar skyward in mimicking response.
It was clear enough to Mason what was happening. When the twig touched the uppermost story of the little house, its bigger cousin gently kissed the building under construction. The incantations to bind them together must have been spoken the first thing in the morning.
“I see,” Mason said. “The twigs are from the first pile of logs. They were once together.”
“Yes, when we move the twigs about,” the foreman said, “the heavy timbers respond exactly in kind.”
“And the heat of the burning logs from the second pile provide the motive force that is needed.” Mason spoke rapidly. He did not want a mere foreman to think that he was a dotard.
“As more of this art catches on, there will be less need for the building carpenters everywhere,” the foreman said. “When the furnaces arrived here, a number of the workers were let go.” He slapped his knee and laughed. “They could not believe it and stood around, slack-jawed with envy at those who were lucky enough to be still employed.”
Mason looked about the site. “I don’t see any of them about now.”
“No, Wetron sent some of his guardsmen to push them away. Now they all cluster around the palace gates shouting their chants, begging Queen Vendora to intervene.”
This construction will only cause more trouble between his elder brothers. Mason frowned. If the object was to brag about a tower taller than any of the queen’s, wouldn’t a second one soon be started next to the first? Why couldn’t the two of them just get along? They were the most powerful of all the fieflords in the land. Or even better, the thought recurred to him for the thousandth time, grant to him a portion of what they held.
Yes, by custom, a fief transferred from father to eldest son. Or, in some circumstances, it could be divided into two. Vendora had managed to insist on that. She was more cunning than what one might suppose. But the result was that he ended up with nothing, a mere stipend to keep his body clothed and his belly full. An errand boy to do the bidding of both brothers. Check on the tower construction. Entertain the sisters for an afternoon...
Mason glanced at the young women fondly. Well, that part was not so bad. He had become a surrogate father for them. Alpher and Wetron neglected them so. It was a pleasure to watch them blossom into womanhood. Lalage, wise beyond her years, now already bracing herself to be a mere pawn in a strategic alliance with some other lord. Aletha, the flirt, batting her eyes at the foreman...
“You said we were going to see some imps,” Patience broke through Mason’s reverie.
“True,” he smiled. “And tonight, I have arranged for a sorcerer, a renowned illusionist, to amuse the court. You will get to stay up past your bedtime to experience his entrancement.”
“I need to go pee first,” Patience said.
“Ah, you can use the outhouse over there.” The foreman pointed. “Knock first to make sure.”
The matron grabbed Patience’s hand, and the other two sisters followed.
“Milord, you are spying for Alpher, aren’t you?” the foreman said when they were alone. “You know, of course, that your brother, Wetron, is not going to like that.”
Mason shrugged. “My brothers are consumed by their rivalry. They think of little else. The queen split my father’s fief between them when he passed so that they would struggle against one another rather than cast eyes on the throne themselves. I try to stay neutral and concentrate on my work.”
“Work? Pardon me, Milord, but besides, ah, baby-sitting, what is it that you do?”
“I am the Royal Impresario,” Mason said. “I arrange all the entertainment for the court.”
The foreman looked Mason up and down. He became bolder. “Ah, I see. That is the reason for the fancy dress? A velvet jacket with designs splattered over it. Leggings too tight for any possible comfort. Jowls void of hair. A frogstabber instead of a real dagger. How old are you anyway?”
Mason shrugged. “Twenty-six revolutions of the sun. And as for my dress, it is the fashion. What I have to do. I find no pleasure in engaging in the struggle between my brothers.”
The foreman snorted. “You are like a gaudy snail hiding in your shell. Soon, Milord, you are going to have to stick your neck out and choose between them.”
“I plan to remain neutral.”
“Then both of them will want you dead.”