Eighteen-year-old Vivienne doesn't care for being Guinevere's lady-in-waiting. It’s nothing against the future queen of Camelot; she’s rather lovely. Vivienne would simply rather take to Merlin's tower to learn about the mechanics of clockwork inventions. Especially now that Lancelot's new squire, Marcus, has captured Vivienne’s heart with his violet eyes and contagious energy. As it's a rather painful situation when the object of one's affection is about to take a vow of chastity, the clock tower is by far a preferred distraction.
But when the king’s sorceress sister, Morgan le Fay, threatens the kingdom, Vivienne is torn. Cursed by the sorceress, Merlin needs his apprentice’s help to create the perfect weapon: a revolutionary blend of steam-powered machinery and the mystical science of alchemy. Vivienne could help him build it, or she could give up on Camelot, return Marcus’s declaration of love, and run away with him instead. But if Marcus gives up on knighthood, Vivienne would be to blame for the consequences: disaster for Camelot and its only hope, the terrifying weapon that dwells in the secret catacombs, waiting to be awakened.
BLACK LACE AND THE CLOCK TOWER
When a mechanical falcon takes to the sky from Merlin’s tower, it means the sorcerer is bored or drunk on absinthe.
I wonder if anyone else in Camelot knows that.
Maybe they don’t care. Perhaps they just carry on with their day whenever the brass bird is in flight, chatting in the cobblestone streets of the market, or in the midst of a courtyard cricket match. Quite conceivably I’m the only one who pays that much attention to Merlin’s tower. Mechanical falcons aren’t exactly novelties, so why watch Merlin fly his? But since it was the sorcerer’s own invention, it seems he’ll never be completely satisfied with the mechanics until he’s tinkered some more. As though perhaps one day it could be more than just a toy. How could I not want to watch the skies in that case?
The burgundy curtains of Merlin’s window tend to catch on the bird’s “feathers” on those days of boredom or intoxication. Today is no different. A long arm stretches the falcon out the window. From Guinevere’s chambers I can just make out rough, tattooed incantations from Merlin’s travels to the Middle East on the sorcerer’s forearm and wrist. The back of his hand flicks the mechanical creation into the air. I wait for the sorcerer to appear fully, a wind-up controller in hand with copper wires attached to the artificial brain.
Instead, the wire-free bird plummets to the ground.
“Extend!” Merlin calls, his voice deep from afar and demanding of obedience, even from an inanimate object.
I frown in confusion.
The shining wings crack—one plate at a time—as the wingspan stretches to nearly three feet in diameter. The wings catch the breeze and spread across the sky, steering upward without any sort of help from its master.
My eyebrows lift and I breathe in a gasp. This is new.
I glance from my glass and copper viewer to the crackling fire in my lady’s parlor, making sure I can steal another few seconds of sky watching before duty will call me back. Guinevere tugs at the gold skirt of her dress—a low cut model from Lyonesse that initially shocked, before it captivated, the prudish subjects of Camelot—and tucks her feet under her body as she whispers in a high-pitched voice to the canary in the bird cage next to her. The pet whistles back. She’s occupied. Perfect.
Outside, the falcon eclipses the setting sun as it descends to Camelot’s horizon.
A burst of steam from the valve on the top of its head sends up a shrill caw with the whistle. The machine loses height and swoops down over the gardens. It barely misses the lilacs before returning to the highest window in the entire castle, where Merlin waits with a long, leather glove on his hand. For tradition, of course.
The curtain draws across the window, and so I lower my viewer. The skin around my eye is still pleasantly cool from the metal, a subtle confirmation of the progression of the kingdom since Merlin brought clockwork and like machinery to Camelot. Although I’ve had my trusty viewer for some time now, I still haven’t gotten past its simplicity in design. Its mechanical structure is a marvel, and still working despite the occasional fall to the floor. But its true appeal is how such a small thing can help me take pleasure in the poetic flight of a bird. A bird that’s but a machine, yet still able to dance across a sky full of nighttime purples and blues as the sun bids the kingdom farewell.
And now, the bird is wire-free. Yes, that’s quite new. Quite fascinating. Some would say alarming, giving the sorcerer’s dangerous history with magic. But something tells me there’s another story here.
“Vivienne,” calls Guinevere from the parlor.
I realize I’ve got my blonde hair caught around my fingers, twisting the ends of my braid into a knot that might need to be chopped off. Though I’ve only been Guinevere’s lady-in-waiting for three months, I’m quite aware of how much the queen-to-be hates it when I play with my hair. I pry my fingers loose, leaving the limp, blonde curl against my shoulder. My other hand collapses the viewer into a brass disc—now looking no different from a coin—into my dress’s pocket. Stretching out a final look toward the mystical tower, I drag myself from the window and straighten my back, recalling the simple, yet apparently important, instructions on how to greet royalty. My hands fold over themselves, and I clear my throat before taking to Guinevere’s parlor, where a strange, black and white striped animal skin serves as a rug by her feet that would normally be fur in England. Lyonesse’s conventions were anything but akin to England’s.
“Yes, my lady?”
She closes the door to her bird’s cage, then settles in her rounded chair, a wooden one she took a liking to when she first arrived. Oak was popular in Lyonesse. Maybe it reminds her of home. She covers her bare feet with her dress, and her thick hair of chestnut and curls trails down her back. Usually I straighten it into a more fashionable style with steam from the coiled comb made of brass, sitting on her vanity. Today, she didn’t want to bother.
Her lips part as though she’s about to speak, then her round, walnut-colored eyes spot the ragged tail of my braid. That will simply not do.
“Vivienne…” her smooth accent scolds in a way that could be anything but intimidating. Her lips curl in a forgiving smile and she extends an olive-colored hand for mine. “Come, let me fix that. You’re lucky I’m not your mother.”
I hesitate, and instantly draw my fingers back to straightening the knot out myself. But she beckons again, and I relent, letting her guide me to sit at her feet atop the zigzagged pattern of an animal I can’t believe could ever be real.
Her long nails prick at the knot. “What is it?” She must feel my discomfort.
“Nothing.” I shuffle my fingers together. “It’s simply unusual in Camelot for someone of high standing to tend to her lady-in-waiting.” I concentrate instead on keeping my back straight as the shrill voice of my governess comes to mind: A lady who slouches is a lady doomed to remain alone. I roll my eyes at the memory.
Guinevere takes to her vanity in the next room, her bare feet soundless on the floor. She returns with a comb made of bone, the teeth wide enough to manage her thick hair, then resettles herself in her chair.
“It was the same in Lyonesse,” she says, her voice devoid of emotion, though sometimes it’s hard to tell with the way she says certain words. Almost French-sounding, Merlin once mentioned at court after several pints of mead. I don’t trust the French other than to make a fine absinthe.
The comb pulls uncomfortably at my hair, distracting me from my thoughts of Merlin’s falcon. I watch from the corners of my eyes as her fingers clench the slack of my braid while the lilac ribbon my sister Celia wove into the style—how all Camelot ladies should have their hair set, in her opinion—starts to fray. The bronze brooch at my temple shifts with Guinevere’s tugging, but I catch it before it falls. My mother’s originally, to keep the hair from falling in my face. A practical hairpiece, in my opinion, and one that shows our shared love for violets, even if the carving does have a dragonfly sleeping on its petals.
The nighttime colors of the sky peek through a nearby window, fading to a rich navy blue that contrasts the sad-looking canary peering at me from behind the bars of his cage. I know the feeling—only a few more hours before Guinevere will go to sleep, early, as she always does. Then I’ll be free while the whole of Camelot retires for the night. Free to escape this life for one of my own choosing. Until dawn at least, when I’ll have to return to the conventions of Camelot, not speaking a word about what that secret life is.
I’ll be a lady-in-waiting once again.
As she works on the tail, I glance at her from the corner of my eye, seeing her gaze out the window, distracted herself. In the distance, the Knights’ quarters are loud echoes of male laughter and lewd jokes. I sigh inwardly at a particularly clever allusion to the Round Table, and the matter in which one of the Knights had wished to show it to a wench.
I clear my throat again. “What did you need of me, my lady?” She seems to live without the need for time, whereas I’m hearing the clock tower tick, and am mourning each minute lost.
She tears the end of the unraveling ribbon free, and wraps what’s left around the tail of my braid. Her hands are restless and go straight to my cream-colored gown, the sleeves tied up with pliable copper that’s soft to the touch. Fingers grasp at the fabric of my lowered white veil, resting about my shoulders, like she isn’t ready to let me go, like she’s desperate for someone to be next to her. Like she’s more alone sitting here with me than she’d ever been in her entire life. Her fingers smooth out the stubborn wrinkles in the garment.
She drops my sleeves and leans back into her chair, a sigh escaping her lips. “The details for tomorrow, they’re ready?”
I nod. “My mother’s finishing up the final touches on your gown as we speak.”
She doesn’t answer; with another glance out the window at the Knights’ loud quarters—quite possibly Arthur is with them on his final night before the wedding tomorrow—she pulls a shawl from her chair about her shoulders and sets her eyes on the hearth. Behind her, the walls of her bedroom are lined with books from all over the world, none of which I’ve ever seen her crack open. Needlework lies on a small table next to her bed, untouched. A desk in the corner where a delicate tea set sits, and parchment for letter writing. And a caged bird next to her sings a song that might be better fitted for a funeral than a wedding.
Despite the clock ticking away, I’m curious about where she comes from. Looking out from the high towers of the castle, the world is a breathtaking view of green farmlands, with a high, sandy cliff on the opposite side, overlooking crashes of waves from the ocean. But beyond that, I’ve never seen the world other than through pictures books. Sometimes gypsies visit the castle to sell their trinkets and charms to ignorant ladies of court. They tell of the icy lands to the north, the thick forestry of the rest of Europe, the seas and airs patrolled by Vikings and Spanish rogues, and the infinity of hourglass sands in the deserts of the Middle East. But they never mention Lyonesse.
I hesitate before asking. “What was your home like, my lady?”
The browns in her eyes tell me of the devastation of her kingdom, whose camaraderie with Arthur was legendary. Lyonesse, kissed by the sea, fallen to the bottom of the ocean, and its citizens doomed for watery graves. When I was a girl, the story of its slow, inevitable descent into the waters was one Owen told me often, to both captivate and frighten me. He’d use Merlin’s new invention of the gas lantern as a way to bounce shadows off the walls. Stories of men in Lyonesse who went insane by way of stealing magic, embracing it, handing their souls over to the devil, if it meant a way into the euphoric mystical addiction that Merlin himself had fallen into.
Such creative minds! I'm going to have to work a new budget so I can purchase these wonderful stories and the many written by the wonderful women of SheWrites. Fantastic story!
You're so sweet to stop by, Marilyn! I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)