The Heartsmith’s chest ached.
She had not slept well the night before. Now her tired limbs dragged her down, and her skin felt dry like old parchment. She was ancient now, and she could say that it was the void in her chest that dragged her back to her swamp, to her heart. She could say that the parched dirt of this underground city was to blame. She could say that her faraway home- her abandoned post- was the source of all her unease.
But the Heartsmith never lied to herself. As a matter of principle.
Though this city was too crowded, too loud, too fast- though it itched under her skin- it was not the Heartsmith’s problem.
The problem that ached in her chest was what she had come here to do.
She strode through the faerie capital in her sackcloth dress of many pockets. Her fists were shoved inside it, clenched around two watches that had lost their comforting click-clack-click an hour ago. The Heartsmith had not had time to stop and wind them. Scores of faeries stared at the blue imp as she passed and wondered why she did not use her dragonfly wings and take to the air.
The Heartsmith scowled fiercely.
She charged through the double doors of the first tavern she saw. Marching up to the bar, she demanded a bottle of willow sap in her raspy, spicy voice.
“Who’re you?” Demanded the barista, a young, beautiful pink-skinned pixie. “You old enough to be here? Get up on the chair, I can’t even see you. Besides, it’s been decades since we‘ve served something as old-fashioned as-“
The Heartsmith clambered up into the chair. She glared.
The young one choked back her testy word and muttered a flustered apology.
“Willow sap.” The Heartsmith repeated. She pounded her fist twice on the bar. She laid her palm flat on the wood, and the barista saw the knot of white veins on her hand: the Heartsmith’s mark.
“Yes’m.” She curtsied, eyes bugged.
She rain into the kitchen.
The Heartsmith put her elbows on the table. She rubbed her yellow eyes with the heels of her hands and hissed moodily.
The pink-skinned barista soon returned, with another faerie in tow-a man whose head almost reached the ceiling, with hard, fissured grey skin.
At the sight of the bottle in his hand, the Heartsmith’s shoulders loosened.
“Heartsmith!” The man laughed, baring all his blunt, fissured teeth. “Welcome to my home.”
The Heartsmith inclined her head, but the barkeep shook her thin hands heartily, chuckling.
The Heartsmith blushed.
“This is my best bottle of willow; please, do me the honor of sharing it with me.“
More heads turned. A couple pairs of wings buzzed curiously, tasting the barkeep‘s excitement.
The Heartsmith’s lips pursed-not for the first time, she wished fiercely to go back to her swamp.
But she had a meeting tomorrow. With the King’s Counsel. They would present to her her possible successors.
The thought made the Heartsmith’s stomach knot.
She snatched the bottle from the barkeep‘s hand and poured the clear, honey-thick sap into two tall mugs the barkeep placed in front of her. She switched the mugs with her two hands: one in front of the barkeep, one in front of herself.
She took a speculative sip; the liquid fell into her hollow chest, burning and soothing.
“It is good.” She sighed.
The barkeep beamed. He poured more into her mug.
As the Heartsmith drank, her attention tunneled. She heard the barkeep speaking to her of his business, of how her presence here was a blessing in so many ways. How much everyone admired her here in the city, she who repaired broken hearts when no one and nothing else could.
“I’ll tell you a secret.” The barkeep said, gray tears streaming down his face. “My wife took her heart to you. You saved my union with her...I owe you everything.”
The Heartsmith’s head bobbed. Her eyes fluttered, heavy. Inside her empty chest, a clockwork device kept her going, clicking in her ears, click-clack-click.
At the sound of that voice, the clockwork stuttered.
She’d heard that voice before. Dreamt it, along with the earnest, naive eyes that looked down at her now.
“Hail, Heartsmith.” The youth bowed-tall, rail-thin, yellow-eyed. “I am a postulating to be your successor. My name is-“
Peu. The Heartsmith knew it already. The youth looked frail and clueless.
The Heartsmith’s clockwork glitched again. She dropped her mug, and when she looked up at her successor, the skin around her eyes was stark white.
“Name my task, boy.” She muttered. “What is it?”
”The Heartsmith heals the hearts of human and faeriekind.” Peu recited. Recited, as if heartwork was something one could learn out of a book.
The Heartsmit grunted, displeased. “How, boy?”
Peu blinked. His heart thundered in his chest; he could feel his life’s dream slipping away from him. In that moment, he felt as unsteady and drunk as the Heartsmith.
At last, he simply told the truth. “I don’t know.”
The Heartsmith chuckled. Peu’s answer made her feel better. What did this infant know of her work? What did anyone know? No one in this city was ready to succeed her, and the Heartsmith had never been a suitable teacher.
“What is my name, boy?”
Peu scrambled his memory for the answer. It was such a simple question- but the answer was not there. In all his studies of the Heartsmith’s life and the anatomy, emotional and intellectual function of hearts, he had never heard of her name.
“I don’t know.” He muttered, frustrated.
The Heartsmith cackled, so hard she nearly fell off her chair.
The clockwork in her empty chest ticked hard and fast. But the Heartsmith was relieved. Monstrously relieved.
She did not want her life’s work in the hands of this naive youth-she did not want her life’s work in the hands of anyone. Even if she’d dreamed of him for months, even if her Heart of Hearts had whispered that he was the one.
The Heartsmith stumbled out of the tavern, shoving away the barkeep and ignoring the stares, ignoring the disillusioned youth behind her, on the verge of crying green tears. She fell into misstep with the oblivious city faeries, dizzy and aching, her sight swimming.
“No.” She muttered, disappearing drunkenly into the late night crowds. “Nope. Nope. No.”