Short Story: “A Moment” by Nathan Thompson

“A Moment” by Nathan Thompson

 
There is a moment. There is always a moment.
Some moments stretch longer than others, while some are gone in the blink of an eye. Some last for whole seconds, others days, others less than a heartbeat; but they are always there, without warning. They are moments of choice, of becoming, when the rolling boiling chaos decides what it is going to be, which path it will take.

Kimm Cuberchin stared at the crystal ball in front of him, watching the swirling mess of magic as it slid, burned, flowed, and drifted around the sphere like a dancer, testing its limits and searching for its voice.
There was an art to finding the moment. You had to be patient, attentive, and quick. Like an angler waiting for the perfect fish, you had to be relaxed, yet ready. When the moment came, you had to dip into the magic, twist the shapeless mass around your tools like a tangled net, and pull it out again, tugging gently but firmly as every thread of weather trailed after.
Kimm’s teachers had said the best artisans were reliable, able to find the moment every time without fail, but Kimm always had other ideas. What mattered reliability, if the results were not spectacular? Better to let a thousand balmy days go by un-formed than miss the one perfect moment…the gleaming sun like a diamond, the lofty breeze tinted gold, the gentle grass streaks…
“Cuberchin! Attend!”
Kimm startled, dropping the two thin metal needles he had been holding millimeters away from the crystal ball. He bit back a curse as he watched the dancing forms float away into a shapeless fog of magic, lost to him.
“At once, your Graceful,” Kimm called back, shoving the needles to one side. There was no ignoring his summons; earlier in his career he had learned the hard way that while dedication and focus were prized, obedience and service were expected. The Grand Masters of the Weather Guild were not to be dismissed, no matter how driven Kimm might be…how close he was to finally netting that perfect moment…
With a sigh, he pushed his chair away from his work desk and stood, stretching his protesting legs. How long had he been sitting there, hunched over his work? Several hours at least, from the burning ache in his back. He flexed his muscles, twisting his torso and arms, airing out the sweat and stale air from the hours of tense work.
What was he being summoned for? A quick glance at his full inbox provided an obvious answer; he had been remiss in some of his regular duties. A balmy day here, a light spring rain there, all tossed into his “to-do” pile and then ignored. He had more important things occupying his mind, of late.
Kimm reached out to the small coat-stand next to his desk, and grabbed his official cloak. If he was going to be dressed down for shirking his duties, he should be dressed up while it happened. It would have been an afterthought for anyone else, but his mother’s stern voice and sharp talons had made for powerful teachers in his youth. It simply wouldn’t do for Kimm to not be dressed properly.
Shrugging the sleeveless garment over his shirt, he brushed himself off and reached for the ladder. He could have flown down to the Thoroughfare, if non-forming magic had not been expressly forbidden. Not that any fey worth their glamour would have tried. No one needed to be told to keep from using magic in the workshop; no one would dare.
Kimm swung his leg over the side of his workstation. It was a short climb down, and easy. He had long since gotten used to climbing ladders instead of airstepping. He had come to relish the time it gave him to think.
He wouldn’t be dressed down for a backlog of simple weathers, Kimm reconsidered. He was one of the highest ranked Formers in the guild. For twenty years he had worked in lower workstation, climbing down from the main Thoroughfare to the spartan cup-like platforms to brew up weather for the City. He worked passionately, attentively, and after only a score of years, he had made enough of a name for himself to be promoted to the upper platforms. Now, every day, he climbed up his ladder instead of down, until he reached his own private ornate curved shell that cradled his work-benches, intricate tools, instruments, tea-service, and even a string-and-pulley system for important messages.
Kimm paused as he gripped the rungs. Even his ladder was now a shining gold, twinkling in the light from his fellow artists’ work. It curled and wove around itself like ivy, a pinnacle of fey goldwork; infinitely superior to his old tarnished silver ladder.
The voice of His Graceful Weathermaster Turnwell drifted up from the Thoroughfare below. “…He is not the most reliable when it comes to traditional weather, of course, but if you want a true artist, our man Cuberchin is one of the most…dedicated to his craft. We practically had to promote him–he simply couldn’t make a summer breeze without adding his own delicate touches. He can’t help himself, really. A true eccentric if ever we…”
Kimm sighed to himself; he wasn’t being reprimanded, he was being assigned a new job.
When he reached the bottom of his golden ladder, he turned to face the fat Brownie that blinked at him from behind thin wire glasses. A thick white moustache quivered as he smiled, his cheeks blooming red as he ran his hand through the halo of wispy white hair that framed his bald head.
“Ah! At last!” His high reedy voice floated through the air with only the barest hint of reproach. “May I introduce to your Ladyship, Master Kimm Cuberchin.”
“Charmed,” the pale woman extended a smoking arm. “Weathermaster Turnwell has been telling me all about you.” Kim took her hand, ignoring the faint perfume of burnt cedar and black smoke. He bowed, his eyes tracing the woman’s form from head to toe.
She was dressed in a fashionable robe-like gown that barely brushed the tops of her bare feet. Her nails were black as pitch, shining and glittering with ember light. Her skin was white as ash, and her eyes glowed brighter than any average Ifriti’s would. Her hair was tied in a firm bun behind her head, pierced with sharp metal hair-pins. The robe itself was covered with tight embroidery, red and gold on the thin black silk. Here and there, the shape of an animal or flower peeked out from the spinning curling thread, like shadows glimpsed through fog.
“This,” the rotund Weathermaster gestured magnificently, “is Lady Hathra D’larc.”
“My lady,” Kimm said, his eyes meeting hers. She smiled, releasing a faint wisp of smoke from her ruby lips. D’larc…did he know that family? Probably not. Despite his mother’s best efforts, he couldn’t bring himself to read through Feer’s Ammingrad Peerage more than once a year, and nothing ever stuck. Houses and families came and went, drifting back and forth like clouds on a summer’s day, all except for the Major ones, and he rarely concerned himself with them anymore.
Lady D’larc couldn’t be that important. If she were, Turnwell would be dealing with her himself, making sure everything was perfectly to her liking.
“Her ladyship wishes to commission a piece of art,” Turnwell tugged at one side of his moustache. “Something very specific and unique. I assured her you would be able to provide her exactly what she needed.” His voice rose slightly, turning the comment into a rhetorical command.
Kimm wanted to excuse himself, explain how his personal project was taking up all of his time and energy. He wanted to suggest Grekkle (the pompous old stump) as an artist better suited for her as yet unexpressed requirements. He had all but opened his mouth when he caught Turnwell’s eyes.
Kimm closed his mouth and bowed as his mother’s training took over. “It would be a great honor and privilege,” he said.
“Excellent!” Turnwell beamed as he bowed his farewell. “I must take my leave of you now–the council has demanded a meeting with the guild-masters this evening, and there is still much I must do to prepare. I leave you, Lady D’larc, in the capable hands of Master Cuberchin.” Behind the Lady’s back, Turnwell shot Kimm another warning look.
Kimm ached; he wanted to climb back up his ladder so badly. He wanted to stare into the mists and pull out the shapes and colors and sensations. He wanted to finally find and catch that perfect moment that he had lost so long ago.
A gentle cough from Lady D’larc brought Kimm back to himself. 
Kimm felt himself bristle in irritation; would he ever be free of his mother’s voice?
Everything he tried, everything he worked at, everything he ever wanted in life had always been thwarted by the demands and expectations of the family. Where he could study, what hobbies he practiced, who he could be friends with, who he could…
Propriety. Behave properly. Fit in, and do what others expect of you. As vile as he found his mother’s koan, he couldn’t deny its efficacy. He gestured to the side of the Thoroughfare. “Would my Lady care to sit and explain her desires?”
Lady D’larc nodded as they stepped to the edge of the Thoroughfare, sitting on one of the delicate marble benches that dotted the edges of the long walkway. Kimm felt his teeth grind as he waited for the Lady sat first, adjusting her dress around her. He was about to sit himself when she twisted around, kicking her legs over the bench and facing herself away from the Thoroughfare, out into the deep mists of the Workshop.
Kimm blinked. He remembered the first time he had entered the Workshop, the first time he had crossed the Thoroughfare, looking for the ladder to his assigned workstation. He was full-blooded Janni, and even he had felt ill staring into the infinite depths of formless magic that surrounded him; but the Lady appeared to barely notice.
Clearing his throat, he sat next to her, facing the mists as well.
“I requested the best.” Her voice was low and smooth, like hickory peppered with sage. Kimm could almost feel the heat from her breath. “Is that yourself?”
Kimm bit back his reply. He wasn’t the best. He was good, yes, but not the best. As far as Turnwell was concerned, what he was, was artistic. He looked like an artist. He behaved like one. If the Guildmaster had told Lady D’larc that Kimm was the best, it was because Grekkle or Polin were busy with something actually important. He smiled just the same.
“Humility would force me to deny it.” He felt the words slide out of his mouth like butter. By the Mab, what was wrong with him? “I am confident, however, that I can give you what you require.”
“Excellent,” Lady D’larc’s smile was flecked with charcoal and another thin trail of smoke leaking from her lips. “My family is holding a ball for my younger sister next month; it is her Kindling. We want it to be…memorable.”
“Of course, my Lady,” Kimm forced himself to smile again. It had almost been a sneer. What did an Ifriti know of memories? “Will it be her first Kindling? Or second?”
“First. Our estate is rather small, compared to the Major houses,” she continued. It was a poor platitude, he thought; every estate was small compared to the Major houses. “It should not be too complicated.” She would have been right, if size meant anything when forming weather. “My mother was quite insistent that we begin with a bright sunny day, with no clouds or obstructions to the sun.” That would be either simplicity itself, or almost impossible, depending on which ward they lived in and what the weather schedule would be for the day. “Father demanded that the temperature be no lower than that of full noon for the whole morning.” Kimm let his mind drift to more important things.
Lady D’larc continued for several minutes, listing off requirements, suggestions, and sprinkling in minor tidbits about her family and her sister, in case it was useful for him. It would have been useful, if he had given half a zephyr.
Unfortunately, some small part of him still did. He felt his brain filing away the information she gave him, carefully crafting the image in his mind that would, after careful focus and practiced precision, would become a day of bright sunshine, soothing warmth, and the barest breeze to feed the fires.
The rest of him scoffed. This wasn’t art. The Lady next to him didn’t care one whit about the time and effort that went into creating something powerful, something lasting, something true. She wanted a special day for her sister, here and gone in a moment. A beautiful painting to hang around her estate like a shop sign, calling the noblesse like butchers to a pig-farm. It wasn’t real, it was proper.
Real art required thought. Real art couldn’t be regulated to the back of the mind, or as a backdrop of the day. Real art demanded awareness. Real art threatened. Real art challenged. Real art demanded everything, from both the artist and the connoisseur, a dialogue of line and color and sensation that left both parties forever changed by a single moment.
There was always a moment.
“Excuse me,” Kimm interrupted, holding up his hand. “Forgive me for interrupting, but you have been quite thorough. I think I have everything I need.”
“Perhaps,” Lady D’larc smiled, exhaling more smoke, “but I have one final requirement.” She brought out a thin folded piece of paper, and handed it to Kimm. “Please ensure that this design is made in the sky at a quarter past noon, precisely.”
Kimm blinked as he took the paper and skimmed it. He stared for several minutes as he traced the curving shape of the symbol with his eye.
“And what,” Kimm asked, his throat dry, “will make this shape?”
“Well, I don’t know.” Lady D’larc’s smile was easy, the laugh in her voice clear. “You are the artist. Perhaps the fire-rain can form the shape as it falls? A sudden cloud, maybe?”
“My Lady,” Kimm stood upright, “I’m afraid you ask the impossible. Fire-rain can be done, though it is quite difficult, but creating a precise shape in the air through weather? I’m afraid not.”
“A pity,” she took the paper from his dangling hand. “I was told you were the best. I shall have words with–“
“I am the best,” Kimm felt his neck growing hotter. “And even if I were not, Master Grekkel would say the same, as would Master Polin, or even Weathermaster Turnwell. Weather is not a canvas on which you can paint whatever you like; it is wild and free, full of majesty and glory. It is not for piddling little shows of family devotion.” He took a deep breath. “If you wish your family crest to be displayed in the sky, the Mechanica guild may have some fireworks for you, or perhaps you could have the Weavers do you up a banner.”
Kimm could hear the crackling of dry wood in flame as Lady D’larc slowly stood, her eyes narrow and burning. He cursed himself for a fool. It was bad enough to raise his voice to a customer, much less a Lady; but to insult her taste by implying the Weavers were better suited for her…
“Then you refuse?” her voice hissed like burning leaves, a plume of smoke pouring from her teeth.
Kimm swallowed. “I can do everything else. Your family’s symbol is just…there’s air currents, humidity levels, errant particulates…fire-rain is hard enough, but it will cause a thermal that would…It would look terrible, no matter who did it. I’m afraid,” Kimm spoke clearer as inspiration struck, “I’m afraid your imagination is greater than the current ability of the Weather Guild to implement.”
The hissing died as the flame dwindled in the Lady’s eyes. A twitch of her mouth belied the success of his shamefully clumsy flattery. Ifritis… he thought She crossed her arms and cocked her head, running her gaze up and down his body, and after a moment more, she nodded.
“Very well, skip the crest; but everything else must be perfect.”
“Of course, my Lady.” Kimm indulged in a quick sigh of relief. “Now, if you will excuse me, I am very busy and must return to my duties. You will receive your weather as promised.” At her nod, he bowed once more for good measure and turned back to the ladder, climbing the rungs as fast as he was able. Within seconds, he was back at his workbench, staring at the crystal ball again.
It would take hours before he could get it back.
Faced with the enormity of work he needed to repeat, he leaned back in his chair, staring up at the vaulted dome ceiling of the Weather Guild Workshop. He could feel his heart beating heavy in his chest as he breathed deep, airing the smell of wood-smoke out of his nostrils.
Damn Turnwell for a fool! As if he didn’t have enough to do already with the country farms forecast and the House Fleet weekend parade, now he needed to cater to some up-and-coming house’s celebration. He could do it, of course but then he’d have to delay the Fog for the seventh ward, and Master Nakrin had been pestering him for help on the eastern wards’ trade winds…
Kimm shoved his face into his hands. No, if he was being honest with himself, he didn’t give a zephyr about House fleet’s parade, or Nakrin’s corrupt deals. His in-box had been full for weeks. He could have been finished with everything ages ago, but he had been consumed. Obsessed.
“Busy doing what?”
Kimm bolted upright in his chair, spinning around to see the Lady D’larc staring at him, reclining on the railing of his workstation, her legs dangling in the air from where she sat, next to his ladder. She looked, for all the world, like a young child sitting on the edge of a pond, dangling her feet into the cool water below.
Water that Kimm knew held more dangerous monsters then she had ever seen before.
“My Lady,” Kimm forced through tight lips, “I am afraid customers are not allowed in the workstations.”
“Without express permission, I presume,” she smirked, her smokey eyes innocent and canny all at once. “I was tired of waiting for it.”
“I beg you, my Lady, please descend. I am…charmed, by your following me, but there is the potential for great danger if you remain.”
“I have never been one to run from danger. By the Mab, how on earth can you see in this dim light?”
With a gentle curve of her fingers, she snapped. sparks blossomed like a flower in her hands, spreading, twisting, and curling upwards until a single perfect candle-flame shimmered on her fingers.
“Stop that!”
The worst of his mother’s teachings was not strong enough to stop his hand. In a second he had leapt from his chair, and crushed the Lady’s fingers between his hands. There was a quick burning pain, and the fire was out.
It only took a moment. There is always a moment.
“Unhand me, this instant!”
“Non-forming magic is expressly forbidden!” Kimm hissed.
Lady D’larc’s free hand spun through the air, coliding with Kimm’s cheek. He staggered from the blow, but his grip on her fingers did not lessen. The pain of the slap was nothing to the relief he felt as the forming magic drifted away into the air; relief that returned quickly to anger. “Can’t you feel it?” Kimm snapped, pulling his smarting hand away from the woman’s smooth fingers. “The air! It’s…all there!” Raw and untamed, the flow of energy around the fifty isolated workstations was thick and spicy, tingling on the skin and burning on the eyes.
She glanced around, the faintest hint of embarrassment flickering in her eyes as she rubbed her red fingers with her other hand.
“It does feel odd,” she sniffed. “I thought it was just the weather.”
“It’s not just the weather!” Kimm hissed. “It’s the weather! All of it! Every piece of potential, the thunder and lighting, the rains, sunburn, ice storms, dust clouds, air, water, fire, earth, it’s all here! Condensed into its most pure essence, charged and diluted into the atmosphere, its…”
“Dangerous?” she smiled. “Sounds exciting.”
Kimm almost shouted. Dangerous wasn’t nearly vicious enough of a word for the unbridled cruelty of the shifting forms being birthed in the workshop. He almost shouted, but he didn’t. Instead, his mother’s stern face snapped into focus in his mind, and he smiled.
“Very,” he said, his voice tight in his own ears. “Please, my Lady, descend via my ladder at once. I could not bare to see you harmed by an errant bolt of lightning.”
“I was hoping I could watch you work.”
The world shifted under Kimm’s feet. Suddenly, he could see her jaunty smirk, and her cocked eyebrow. Her dress was thin and tight, hugging her curves like a second skin. Her hair burned red and her skin was smooth and dark. Her eyes glowed with inner fire, the smoke on her lips smelled of burnt oak, he could feel her heat…the heat of summer sun…
“I am very busy.”
Lady D’larc pursed her lips in demure acceptance, and turned to the golden ladder, her body curling and dancing like a flickering candle. She accepted his hand as she turned, stepping carefully on each step until she was almost gone. Just before her head vanished, her burning eyes found his again.
“It would be terribly impolite of me to not invite you to my sister’s party. I am positive the guests would love to speak with such a talented artist. Perhaps we could talk some more? Or find something else to occupy our time?”
And she was gone.
After a moment, Kimm sat down and turned back to his desk. He wouldn’t go. She might not even remember she invited him. What would an Ifriti know of memories, anyway? The memories that burned into your brain, sudden and powerful, carved by lightning, never to be forgotten. To be full of a single moment that didn’t only change your life, but changed you.
Weather was his job. Art was his life. He would get to Lady D’larc’s magical day for her sister eventually. She’d get it in time, probably nowhere near as golden and shimmering as she wanted, but she’d be happy enough. Eventually, her sister would forget the day along with every other day long since lost to time. In the meanwhile, Kimm had more important things to worry about.
He was an artist. True art wasn’t just wind and rain, clouds and sunshine. It was freezing blizzards and roaring hurricanes. It was torrents of water that drowned you in its smells, and blasts of freezing sunlight that scorched your skin with its touch. It was powerful and beautiful and horrible all at once. It was a spring evening that devoured you in the sounds of life. It was a Summer’s day that seduced you with a subtle caress on the cheek. It was a winter’s morning that was crisp and clean and full of promise, like a piece of paper.
Ivory paper that glittered under the sleepy sunlight. Fresh and clean, under a pen held by shaking fingers…
With the care of a surgeon, Kimm picked up the two silver needles next to the crystal where he had thrown them. Taking a deep breath, he tapped them on the crystal, stimulating the dormant mists within.
Slowly the mist began to swirl, pushing and pulling, rolling and sighing like a storm at sea.
Kimm stared at the crystal ball. Deep within himself, he opened himself to the raw energies swirling around the Workshop. He felt the thin tendrils of power curving and caressing the detailed lines etched into his shell-like workstation, drifting and flowing over the edge and towards himself.
Piece by piece, shards of himself were plucked from his heart like strings on a harp. Piece by piece, the shards drifted on the winds of raw magic into the crystal ball, causing the mists to quiver and ripple, like water disturbed by skipping stones. Deep in the fog of the crystal, image after image began to pull their way into being. A summer sun, a calm breeze, the smell of fresh grass.
The air curled around his hand as he sent it spinning across the hill. She laughed as she ran, jumping and hopping away from his little dust devil, seasoning the air with her childlike giggles. The glint of the sunlight in her eye was like a diamond, glittering from somewhere deep inside, beyond the surface of her eyes, beyond even the depths of blue that peered at him so adoringly. The smell of fresh grass stirred beneath them as they rolled down the hill, young again for just a few more hours.
They came to a stop at the bottom of the hill, holding each other tightly, ignoring the small scratches of green marring their perfect clothing in favor of staring deeply into each other’s eyes. The air was tinted golden with her words and the sweet wine they poured in his ear. The breeze chilled his lips when she pulled away, the cool water from her mouth lingering behind. Her hair floated about her head, light and fluffy, a perfect white providing the only cloud in the sky.
His mother be damned. But no, it was her father, too. It wasn’t proper. They knew it, and there was no avoiding it forever.
But the lightning that flashed in their hearts; how could they avoid that forever?
The piece of paper was so white, shining in the sun so that it hurt his eyes. Their hands were both shaking as they wrote, carving black holes of ink in the perfect ivory. She smiled and pursed her lips–her perfect pale lips–and blew gently, sending the folded letter off towards the wall, to either soar high over the unyielding stone, or down into the watery depths of the river, the tender and secret words they had written never to be seen by anyone ever again.
They watched the folded note flutter away. When it was gone from sight, they turned to each other.
Just for a moment.
Some moments stretch longer than others, while some are gone in the blink of an eye. Some last for whole seconds, others days, others less than a heartbeat; but they are always there, without warning. They are moments of choice, of becoming, when the rolling boiling chaos decides what it is going to be, which path it will take.
The world held its breath…
 
 

Nathan Thompson is known to fans of Warda as the player of Iggly Twitchwiggler III, appearing in Curiosities, Glimpses, and Winds of Change. Outside of that, he is a writer and producer of fictions, a handful of webseries, and more. You can read his serial work “The Macabre Tale of Edmund Moulde” by clicking here.

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