This would be her masterpiece.
With a chisel in one hand, a hammer in the other, Naomi paced the workshop. Her leather shoes tapped against the floor with each footfall. Candlelight flickered off a block of marble, taller than she stood, the stone a light hue of fading smoke. Naomi stopped and stared. She twirled the chisel around her fingers.
It would be her masterpiece.
She raised the chisel against the rock, breathed in, and readied the hammer. Then, with an exhale, she lowered her tools. Everything had to be perfect. She couldn’t strike a single flaw. Not one. The recipient would accept no less, nothing below, perfection.
She’d raised her tools again as a servant knocked on the door, a basket in hand.
“Yes?” Naomi said.
“Ms. Amaya.” He bowed his head. “On the King’s behalf, I’ve brought you wine and bread, both prepared fresh. Please accept our humble offering.” He placed the basket on a table and stepped back.
“Uh, thanks.” Naomi bowed her head in return—was it courtesy or a greeting? She couldn’t tell anymore. Every country had a different way of doing things. “Keep the wine. The taste doesn’t suit me. It’s like sour water. Take the bottle for yourself, by all means.”
“A kind gesture, Miss-”
“Naomi,” the servant said. “I’m sorry to have interrupted your work, but the King would like to know when his sculpture will be ready. Will it be finished by the week’s end?”
“Week’s end?” Naomi tapped her fingers against her chisel, staring into the marble block. She then turned and pointed to the opposite side of the room, where a tall sculpture stood hidden beneath a cloth cover. “I finished it yesterday. Polished and everything. I had fun with it, easier than I thought, but know I won’t be able to make it to the reveal.”
“Of course, my lady. We understand you must be a very busy woman.”
“I guess I am.”
The servant bowed his head, closing the door behind him. Naomi spun on her heel, rested the chisel’s handle against her chin, and listened to the faint harp being played down the hall. Goddess bless the harp player. What would creation be without music? The wine bottle should’ve gone to him, if anything.
A poet first needed to write an opening line. Same with authors. Merchants had to open shop. Thieves spun lock picks across their palms. Guards beat their clubs against their hands. Blacksmiths heated metal. Knights readied their blades. Cavalry kicked their horses into motion. Kings poured glasses of wine before decisions.
Winemakers…chose to make the awful drink.
Naomi laughed, raised the chisel, then struck it with her hammer.
It broke into the stone. She blew away the chips of debris. Following the guidelines painted on, she lost herself in the work, the rhythmic tapping consuming her, passion and talent taking over. Hours passed—it’d been a blow to the heart hearing the harp stop—and the sculpture took rough shape. Carved edges and an indented centre.
She switched from a point chisel to a refining, toothed one.
Continual checks on her concept drawing kept her in the right direction.
Shards and slivers of rock littered the floor. She swept them away with her foot, refusing to pick up a broom and break concentration. The sun rose. Birds chirped in the gardens, and Naomi yawned. She continued on until keeping her eyes open became the biggest challenge, then slept.
At dusk, a mug of bitter coffee awoke her senses. Back to it. She followed her mentor’s words: a one-pound hammer and a gouge for the hair. Porcelain-coloured dust coated her hands as she worked. A flat chisel textured the sculpture’s lips. Hours became days. Her safety goggles left deep purple marks around her eyes.
Carving out the body, she hit a tad too hard—a loose piece flew out and cut her wrist.
A little blood was nothing when she thought of her recipient.
She carved out the clothing, slowing her pace for the jacket, racking her brain to remember each scratch or stitch that she could detail in stone. Servants ferried dishes. Naomi hardly noticed them in the flow of it. Days melted into weeks. The King came by to thank her personally for his sculpture, and she only nodded in return.
By the time she finished, Naomi dropped her sanding paper, stepped back, and stretched out her arms. Her fingers ached, and her reddened eyes watered. Candlelight flickered off a glorious statue of ashen marble. She couldn’t contain her smile—a month of work had finally paid off.
Not a single flaw.
Her heart skipped a beat at the thought of presenting it.
- - -
Naomi walked in the rain, hidden under a coat, watchful eyes on the servants pulling her sculpture along. Droplets tapped against its tarp. She finished in time for monsoon season—her boots stepped through deep puddles on the way to the carriage.
By chance, luck, or the goddess’ divine intervention, her sculpture did not fall in the busy streets of Tien. Her servants hauled it into the carriage’s wagon without error.
“It hardly ever rains like this in Middknight,” Naomi said to the coachman, stepping up to take a seat beside him. Guards climbed into the back. “Ever. Is it common here?”
“Twice a year,” he said. “Who’s the piece for?”
“Believe it or not,” Naomi smiled as the carriage broke into motion. “I’m bringing it to a shopkeeper, and I’m not getting paid a single coin for it.”
The coachman gave a confused laugh. Naomi kicked back and listened to the raindrops sliding down the carriage’s fabric. She lost herself in her thoughts, the scenery passing by, and she didn’t notice the abrupt crashing of a tree at first. A second tree snapping from the ground further off caught her attention.
“Hey? What’s happening?” She turned her head to the coachman, then back to the forest. He picked up speed with the crack of a whip. “What are you doing?”
“Damn kelcerous,” he said. “The rain upsets them, and they frenzy when their nests flood over. Hold on tight, ma’am, this’ll be rough.” The whip cracked again, and the horses whinnied, their hooves splashing against mud. Another tree crashed down nearby.
“I should’ve been told of this!”
“It’s usually never a problem, ma’am. We worry more about bandits out here.”
“Is that supposed to be reassuring? Get the guards-”
A beast, blue and black with a head as big as a boulder, rammed into a tree ahead. Its iron-heavy skull cracked the bark. It smashed into the tree once more, the roots ripping from the soil. A flurry of raindrops fell from the leaves. The kelcerous gave a thunderous roar and charged again—wood snapped in two on impact.
The horses kept their speed, hoping to outrun the falling tree. The carriage’s wheels spit up mud. Naomi cried out as they passed by, too slow, the tree crashing down on the wagon, rocking her in her seat. The woven canopy pulled inward. A guard yelped in pain.
The kelcerous sauntered off, shaking its bedrock-thick head.
Naomi jumped down as the carriage came to a stop. Her boots sunk into the trail. She rushed to the wagon, where the guards worked to lift the tree. It’d nearly broken the carriage in two, stopped only by the stone sculpture. One man complained about a broken leg. Another counted his blessings, praying to the goddess.
Naomi pushed past them and tore off the tarp. Rain drenched her hair.
The sculpture’s head had broken off. An uneven slant at the neck.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the coachman said. “Some unfortunate timing with the kelcerous. I’m sure you can get it fixed-”
“With what?” She clenched her hands into fists. “It’s stone, not clay! I can’t just fix it, you uncultured…you all had one job, and…” She breathed in, her arms trembling. Naomi exhaled. She dragged herself to the passenger seat and sat down.
“Just bring me to Middknight,” she mumbled.
- - -
Hours later—the sun setting into a clear night sky, Naomi stood outside a pawnshop in the heart of her city. She reached into her undershirt and brought out a key attached to a necklace. It matched the pawnshop's lock. The door groaned as it opened, and her footsteps creaked against the wooden floors within.
The guards wheeled in her broken sculpture with its head left on the podium. Naomi gave a half-hearted nod in thanks as they turned to leave. Her recipient wouldn’t care for the gift anymore—the woman would laugh as if it were a joke.
“Ms. Vali?” Naomi called. “It’s me-”
“Ah,” a voice came. Vali walked down the stairs at the back of the pawnshop, a candle holder in hand. “My world-renowned artist returns. Where were you this time? Painting the Emperor of Sola? Drinking wine with the Monarchs of the Three Isles? Or, let me guess, a romance with the King of Tien?”
“I…no.” Naomi turned away from her. “I wanted to make something for you.” She gripped a trembling hand on the statue’s tarp, readying herself for the embarrassment to come. Her voice shook as she spoke.
“Since you’ve always been so nice to me, taking me in and giving me a kind home when I thought I’d grow up a street thief, I wanted to make you a gift of the greatest quality.” Tears wetted her eyes. “To the woman who taught me to read, got me over my first heartbreak, and made me who I am today…”
“Don’t be so sappy. I haven’t seen you in years-”
Naomi pulled off the tarp. Loose raindrops flew across the room. The broken head rolled off the podium and hit the floor with a thud, stopping at her feet. Vali smiled and laughed.
“Did you make a headsman statue to go with it?”
“It was supposed to be perfect.” Naomi wiped away the tears. “For you. I worked so hard.” She sighed, watching the floor. “But I finished as Tien’s monsoon season started. And these big-headed beasts,”
“Kelcerous,” Vali said.
“They went mad knocking down trees. One hit my carriage, and…I know you’ve always wanted me at my best, Ms. Vali, and I tried to show you I am at my best, now more than ever, but luck said otherwise.”
“I’m sure a strong enough adhesive will stick my head back on.”
“Are you not disappointed?”
Vali placed a hand on Naomi’s shoulder, staring into her grey eyes. “Why would I be disappointed? I’m happy the tree didn’t crush you! You put in so much effort for me when royalty is constantly sending you letters.” She let go of Naomi, bending down to pick up the head of stone.
Vali held it in front of her, then looked at the sculpture.
“You even carved the scratches and stitches of my old coat. Your talent never ceases to amaze me.” Naomi blushed at the words. No king she ever worked for could get the same reaction. “I love it,” Vali said. “Broken or not, the thought put into it is the kindest thing anyone has done for me.”
Naomi stepped forward and embraced her.
She couldn’t imagine her life without the shopkeeper.