Dancing for the Tsar

by J.A. Prentice

All his life, the inventor has wanted to be here. The court is gathered in all their finery: the Tsar with his glistening medals, the Tsarina in her white gown, the princesses all lined up like dolls, tallest to smallest, like each one could fit the others inside. Everyone who is anyone is here–that is what they say, though what they mean is “Everyone who is rich is here.”

The inventor is not rich. He is not famous. He is a nothing, a tinker’s son. And yet here he is and all the eyes are on him.

“Your Imperial Majesties,” he says to the Tsar and the Tsarina. “Your Imperial Highnesses–” to the princesses– “Your Illustrious Highnesses, and Your Well Born–” to the crowd–“I present to you, the clockwork man.”

And by his side, with a clicking of gears, the clockwork man bows low.

He is a creature of brass and copper and steel and glass, fashioned in the shape of a man, dressed in black tails. A tall hat rests on his brow. His face is a mask of polished metal, with lips that do not move and eyes that do not blink.

The inventor claps his hands and with a tick-tick-tick, the clockwork man dances for the Tsar. He glides. He dips. He turns. He pirouettes. He leaps.

The crowd and the crowned watch the clockwork dance, but the inventor watches them. He watches their faces, their eyes.

He watches to know if his fortune is made.

The Tsar’s eyes are all twinkle, his mustaches twitching. The Tsarina sniffs, her eyes colder than Siberian winters. The princesses smile bright smiles and clap as the clockwork man spins.

All but the littlest princess. She is different, that one. There are shadows in her eyes, as if she can see storm clouds gathering. Even as she smiles, the shadows are still there.

The inventor thinks of Cassandra, the princess of Troy, who could see the fire to come but could warn no one.

The clockwork man finishes his dance with a leap, a twist, and a bow. Then he is still, waiting, like a pot taken off the heat.

The inventor finds that he is still too, waiting too, waiting for the words that will lift him into the clouds or dash him upon the rocks.

“Marvelous!” the Tsar declares. “It is marvelous.”

Applause. It spreads in waves like the impact of a cannon, like ripples in the water.

The clockwork man rises and bows again.

“He is beautiful,” says the littlest princess, her voice soft as hummingbird’s wings.

All fall silent. The littlest princess reaches out a hand for the clockwork man’s cheek and her small fingers — so pale, so small, so delicate, like doves — touch cool metal.

“May he dance with a partner?” she asks. She turns to the inventor. “May he?”

The inventor looks at the Tsar, who nods.

“He may,” the inventor says.

“May I?” The littlest princess looks at the Tsar.

The Tsarina opens her mouth, but the Tsar speaks over her without so much as a glance in her direction. “Of course, my flower,” he says. “Of course you may.”

With glee, the princess takes the clockwork man’s hand.

“Dance,” she says, looking into the dark of his eyes. “Dance with me.”

The inventor claps his hands, the band begins to play, and the clockwork man dances.

“I wish to make an exchange,” whispers a voice in the inventor’s ear.

The inventor turns. The first thing he notices are the eyes: grey like clouds, like steel. Fast eyes, clever eyes, mad eyes.

The grey-eyed man is dressed all in monk’s black. He is a shadow, a whisper. The inventor has never seen him before but knows him at once.

He remembers stories his grandmother told him: about Koschei the Deathless who hid his heart in a box where nobody would ever find it, about the devil making deals in the lonely places of winter.

“I’m sorry,” the inventor says. “The clockwork man is not for sale. Not for all the rubles in Russia.”

“No,” the grey-eyed man replies. “I don’t want him. And I’m not offering money.”

He says money like it is venom. An unholy thing.

“What do you want?” the inventor asks. “And what do you offer?”

“Knowledge for knowledge. Story for story. Question for question.” A small smile. “Magic for magic.”

“I do not believe in magic.”

“Then how do you work it?” The grey-eyed man lowers his soft voice to a whisper. “This is my offer: Men look for God in the sky, distant and unknowable. Women look for Him in the Earth, which bears their weight and births their gardens.”

“And where do you look for God?” the inventor asks.

“Nowhere.” The grey-eyed man taps his nose. “Because I know He isn’t lost.”

The inventor smiles. “You are mad.”

“And what do you give me in exchange?” the grey-eyed man asks. “How does the clockwork man dance?”

The inventor looks at the center of the palace. Metal gleams as the clockwork man spins. The princess is laughing.

“I cannot say,” the inventor says. “I am sorry.”

The grey-eyed man nods. “I thought so.”

And then he is gone. Back to the shadows, to the corners. Nobody sees him. All their eyes are on the littlest princess and the clockwork man, the mismatched dancers at the heart of the hall.

But the grey eyes are always watching. They know the things only shadows know. They know the inventor’s truth.

He does not know how the clockwork man dances.

“Oh, it is delightful, delightful!” the Tsar cries, clapping his hands together and rubbing them. Despite the proud mustaches and the military uniform, he looks every bit the schoolboy. “I tell you, my good man, I have not seen my child so pleased in…” He frowns. “Well, I cannot say I have ever seen her so pleased. She is a quiet sort, you see.”

“I am glad you are pleased, my liege,” the inventor says.

“You must make more,” the Tsar says. “A whole troupe of clockwork dancers. Imagine them whirling around a room, all perfectly in time.”

“I shall consider it.”

“Oh, but you must, you must!” The Tsar slaps the inventor on the back. “Now come! Come and see my railway!”

Kings and Queens and Emperors are always showing off their possessions. It is the best way, in a world with increasingly worrying republican sentiment, to remind everybody that they are still special.

For some, it is art galleries full of Renaissance originals. For others, it is gardens of a thousand sorts of flower and a hundred trees.

For the Tsar, it is always the railway.

“Watch,” he says to the inventor. “It’s so very clever.”

With a key he winds the train–a passing replica of a steam engine, wheels whirring under the boiler–and set it upon the nickel rails. The train races round and round in circles–past tiny model people and small model buildings and massive model hills, bristling with blades of model grass.

It is the whole world on a table, provided your world consists only of smiling people with a single train station.

“Ingenious,” the inventor says as the train goes around again.

“I love clockwork,” the Tsar says. “All those little gears meshing together. Knowing just their place. Remarkable stuff.” He looks at the inventor. “But you have made something even better than the tree. The dancing man. He is spectacular. The princess loves him.”

“I am honoured.”

“You must give him to us,” the Tsar says.

A balcony looks out over the city, over sparkling lights and falling snow. The little princess guides the clockwork man out. He follows, gears clicking, feet clanking.

“You must be tired,” the little princess says.

The clockwork man does not speak. He has no tongue–not even one of silver.

“You must rest,” the little princess says.

She draws the clockwork man to the edge of the balcony and looks out at the stars above. They are twinkling, full of promise, numberless as days yet to come and laughter yet to be heard.

“What do you think the stars are?” the little princess asks. “Father says they are balls of gas, burning in the dark, but I think that is very silly. I think they are worlds made of diamond and gold and all the shining things. And I think that maybe there are people on those worlds and maybe those people look at us and they think we must be a very sad world because we do not shine. We are all dirt and clouds and snow and cold.”

The clockwork man looks up at the stars.

“Are you lonely here?” the little princess asks. “There are no other clockwork men. Only you. That seems very lonely to me.”

The clockwork man bows his head.

He has no tears to shed–not even tears of glass.

“Oh.” The little princess draws close. “Do not be sad. No. No, there’s no need for that.”

She holds out her little hand, tiny fingers wrapping around brass and copper.

“Here,” she says. “Hold my hand.”

In the inventor’s head, he hears the gnashing of gears, the grind of failure. He knows he cannot refuse the Tsar. He knows that he is nothing without the clockwork man. He knows that there is no good path before him. There is only the wilderness, the bite of cold.

“You can always make yourself another,” the Tsar says.

“Yes,” the inventor agrees. “Yes, of course I can.”

He cannot.

He remembers: the snow piled high, the clouds black and thundering, the sky split by lightning. And from a drift of purest white, a hand–a skeleton of brass, twitching, twitching, begging for help.

This is his secret, the thing he must always hide.

“You may have him,” the inventor says.

He knows that he could have made no other answer. He knows that he is over.

And then there is the scream.

The princess huddles in her father’s arms, her little hand like a broken bird. Through the red, the inventor sees white bone–little bird bones, snapped in two.

And the clockwork man stands motionless, staring at the stars. There is blood dripping down his fingers, fresh and red.

“An outrage!” the Tsar cries. “This is an outrage! It must be smashed! Smashed to pieces!”

“No!” the little princess shrieks. Her fingers dangle useless with too many joints. “No! He did not mean to harm me! He loved me! He just didn’t know he was squeezing too tight.”

The Tsar’s face is red under his mustaches. His lips tremble.

“She is right,” says the Tsarina.

The inventor turns to see her face. How like the clockwork man’s it is, he thinks. Beautiful but cold. Cold as the distant sky.

“The clockwork man is not to blame,” the Tsarina continues. “We blame not bullet nor sword. We blame the men who sent them on their way.”

And she looks at the inventor.

“It has never done this before!” the inventor shouts. “How was I to know? How?”

But already the soldiers are seizing him, their hands tight around his wrists. This is his last chance. The last chance to know.

“Tell me!” he cries to the clockwork man. “Tell me! Tell me what you are!”

And the clockwork man turns its head. Just enough that the glint of starlight on its metal lips seems like a smile.

They haul the inventor away, a lamb to the altar, and the stars do not hear his cries.

The clockwork man is taken away. It is too dangerous. As it passes, the Tsar shivers. Where once he saw beauty, now there is only a terrible otherness.

They smash it to pieces, tearing cog from cog, gear from gear. The clockwork man does not resist. He makes no movement, no sound.

When they are halfway through, the men take a break. They go outside and they laugh and they drink and they try not to think about the cold, empty eyes that watch them while they work.

And the little princess comes in. Her hand is wrapped in white bandages, stained with blood. Like a crushed dove.

She puts a hand on the clockwork man’s cheek and she whispers a song her nursemaid taught her about a star.

When the men come back, she is gone. Nobody ever knows she was there but her and the clockwork man.

The little princess will never speak of the clockwork man again, but until the end of her days, she will have a little box that ticks. She will say it is a music box, but nobody will ever hear it play any music.

One day, the Tsar will hear it ticking away and he will remember an old story about Koschei the Deathless. But he will forget it, as he forgets so many things.

The Tsar will play with his railway once, twice, more, but then he will stop. He will not be able to escape the thought that the little people resent him because he has only given them one village, one train station, and all they can do is move in circles.

He is no longer in love with clockwork. Now he dreams of it: a great sea of turning gears into which he is sinking. And he is ground between the wheels, his bones broken, his skin stretched, even his screams becoming only part of the shriek of the machine.

The remains of the clockwork man will lie in the dark, forgotten, scattered gears consumed by dust and cobwebs. When the palace is a ruin, a soldier will catch a glimpse of them, buried in shadows, and they will glint like starlight.

And the inventor…

The inventor stands on the gallows. The whole court is watching. He sees the glee of the Tsar, the coldness of the Tsarina, the sorrow of the little princess.

And he sees grey eyes in the shadows.

The rope is tight around his neck and he thinks, quite absurdly, that perhaps the rope loves him. Perhaps it just doesn’t know that it is too tight.

He looks up at the sky, ribboned with grey, and he shouts.

“Why? Why?”

The sky does not answer.

The platform drops.

This is what it is to die from hanging:

If you are lucky, a quick fall, a snap, and then nothing more.

If you are unlucky, there is rope cutting into flesh, lungs begging for air that will never come, feet kicking as they search for ground they will never find.

The inventor was never lucky.

At the end of a rope, he dances for the Tsar.

J.A. Prentice was born in the United Kingdom, grew up in the Bay Area, and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest. He wrote the Doctor Who audio drama episode “The Undying Truth” from Big Finish Productions. He writes and blogs at livingauthorssociety.wordpress.com and tweets as @LivingAuthors.


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