Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 10
Stories
Sweetly the Dragon Dreams
by David Farland
The Fort in Vermont
by David A. Simons
The Tile Setters
by Ami Chopine
A Heretic by Degrees
by Marie Brennan
The Absence of Stars
by Greg Siewert
Pi
by Mette Ivie Harrison
The Robot Sorcerer
by Eric James Stone
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Tile Setters
    by Ami Chopine
The Tile Setters
Artwork by Kevin Wasden

The first time Paul Atkinsley saw a Massys floor was at an engagement party for one of his clients' daughter. He enjoyed these kinds of functions. It gave him a chance to network, gain new contacts. This was where business happened, at least for the first half of the event. After that, unless there was someone of particular interest he was talking to, Paul got bored and started thinking about going home. Such was the case now, but something held him there, sitting alone at his table and watching a few lingering couples dancing on the floor.

He looked up to see Lawrence, his client, watching him.

Grasping for something, Paul said, "That's a fantastic floor." As soon as he said it, he knew it was the tile floor that had drawn him in. Each tile was an exquisite piece in itself, the patterns in soft golds and greens, weaving and swirling. Each one was, as far as he could tell, completely unique, yet they matched together perfectly. The whole of it invoked a focused calm that Paul found rather pleasant.

"You like it?" Lawrence asked.

Now that Paul was aware of the floor, there were no words. He wanted to get down on his hands and knees and touch it, let his fingers follow the patterns. And suddenly there he was, on the floor. The tile was warm and soft, like flesh turned to stone yet still alive. A few people in the room stared at him, but Lawrence got down to where he was.

"It's remarkable, isn't it?" Lawrence said.

Paul nodded.

"Do you want a floor like this?"

The possibility hadn't occurred to him. Yes. Of course he must have it. At the agency. That was where he needed a floor like this. It would pull customers like it pulled him.

"I would," Paul said, but instead of the take charge voice he meant to use, it came out in a whispered awe.

"Arthur Massys made and set the tiles. I'll get you his address."

Paul nodded. The people were still staring. He stood up.

Lawrence looked at him a while, with concern. "Paul, there hasn't been time or circumstance tonight but how are you?"

A question about his father. That is what it was. Lawrence didn't care about Paul, but about his father being gone. People still wondered if he would be able to handle business without the great experience and whatever else they thought his father had that Paul didn't.

"I'm doing great, Lawrence. The business is great. We've just hired some new creatives that are going to take us in great new directions," Paul said. Must keep the client confident in their abilities.

Lawrence nodded, the concern not quite wiped from his face.

"I'm almost the last one here. I really should go."

"Paul, if you need anything, don't hesitate."

"Thanks."

Paul walked towards the door, but he couldn't leave before he turned around to see the whole floor. He stood there a few seconds, then his gaze touched on Lawrence, who still held that concerned look on his face. Paul turned and left.

Paul tried not to show his irritation to the young woman who answered the door to the grayish, run-down cottage that turned out to be the residence of Arthur Massys. It was not what he expected. An artist of this ability should live in something as beautiful as his work. Not this dump. He struggled to be respectful.

"I'm here about the floor," Paul said.

The woman lead him through the halls to the back of the house where there was a workroom. She seemed to be about college age. Wisps of light brown hair escaped the clip that she attempted to hold it back with.

Paul assumed it was Arthur at the table, kneading clay, sweating so much that it dripped into the clay. Sometimes he dipped his hands into a little bowl of brown powder. The girl took a jar of powder from a shelf, poured some into another bowl and set it by the first. He looked up at her, put a hand on her shoulder, and smiled. Paul fidgeted.

"I don't have time, use my daughter," Arthur said, not bothering to look at Paul.

The girl looked surprised. "Really?"

"It's time, Gwynne."

Paul rolled his eyes at the touching scene of a father and his daughter apprentice.

"You're Arthur Massys?" Paul asked.

"Yeah."

"I'm hiring you, not your apprentice."

Arthur glared. "Look at the floor."

For the first time, Paul saw the floor of the workroom that was dingy everywhere else -- everywhere but the floor. Here was the stunning beauty he thought should be here. In fact, he'd walked all the way through the house without seeing it. It wasn't quite what Paul wanted.

"I want something a bit more . . . expansive. Bolder."

Gwynne looked disappointed.

"Father?"

"You'll know," said Arthur.

"She'll know what?" Paul asked.

"She'll know exactly what you want and your floor will be exactly what you need."

"I don't want your apprentice." Apprentices were not to be trusted without the master.

"You will have my daughter or you will not have a Massys floor. That is what you want, isn't it?"

Paul considered. What he wanted was the best image for the company. Advertising firms had to have an image to advertise their ability to sell images.

Arthur looked at him for a while. "People will come to your firm, and they will see a Massys floor, and they will be stunned by its expansive fabulousness. My daughter is actually a better artist than I am."

"No. I want the man who did the floor at Lawrence Tyler's house."

Arthur went on, ignoring Paul. "Tomorrow she will come to your office. She'll be in and out, wandering around for about a month. Don't restrict her. Then she'll come back here to make tiles, which will take about three months, and then she will go back to your office and lay the tiles, which will take another month."

This isn't how it is supposed to happen. Paul should be telling them what to do. He turned around to leave.

"If you want a Massys floor . . ."

No floor was worth this.

"No other advertising firm will have a floor like this, and you will gain clients you don't even dream of having now."

Paul knew it was true, but he didn't know why. He just stood there, watching the patterns of the floor that somehow didn't quite grab him like the floor at Lawrence's house, yet promised an ability to do so . . . if he could only see what the pattern did beyond the wall. Arthur nodded, Gwynne smiled, and then Paul walked away, knowing she would be at his office tomorrow.

The next day, Paul's secretary told him that Gwynne Massys was there and asked if she should show her into the office. No, he would go out and show her around. Gwynne needed to understand what this place was about. It was important to convey an image to people that was strong and colorful, creative and energetic, but focused -- even when getting that image included getting a Massys floor from intractable artists.

He walked out of the office and into the reception area. The girl was so quiet that if he had not gone there specifically to meet her, he would not have even noticed her.

"Hi Gwynne," he said, extending his hand to shake.

A wry smile passed briefly across her face before she returned the grip. "Hello, Paul."

Paul contained the scowl and the urge to demand that she call him Mr. Atkinsley. "Let's start at the beginning. What did you see when you walked in?"

"A tired receptionist."

"Yes." Paul laughed. "She does do a lot around here, yes Stephanie?" The receptionist laughed with him a bit, but Gwynne just stared. Insolent little twit.

"Okay, I meant the décor. What does the room look like?"

Gwynne sighed. "There is a big logo above the big desk where the tired receptionist sits. It says," and her voice deepened, "'Atkinsley Advertising' all in colors meant to attract the eye and give the impression that this is a place where things happen. This is a place that people should pay attention to. The furnishings are meant to make visitors happy and alert. Comfortable, but not relaxing. Stimulating." It was exactly what Paul wanted to convey, but it sounded like a school lesson coming from her.

Paul wondered if he should ask the next question he'd prepared in his mind, but nothing else was there, so he did. "Can you make me a floor that will do that?"

"I don't know. We'll see."

"I need a floor to do everything this room does."

"No, you want a floor that does those things. You need a floor that will attract many clients and give you a good steady business."

"You are a snippy little girl."

"My dad's better at talking to people."

"Not from what I experienced."

"He was working on the clay then. Besides, you were being a toad."

Paul got the impression that she still thought he was being a toad.

"Is it okay if I just walk around now?" she asked.

"Let me show you around."

"No, thank you." Gwynne walked away into the other side of the reception area where the offices were. Paul looked at the receptionist who watched him. If he ran after Gwynne to stop her, he would look out of control and powerless. He'd already let too much of that show. That irritating slip of a girl. The receptionist was still watching.

"Heh, artists."

The receptionist went back to her desk. "But it's just as well," she said. "I think you have that meeting with Mr. Robertson."

How could he have forgotten Robertson? It had taken Paul the better part of six months to figure out exactly which of his old man's cronies were useful to him or not. Paul had to see them in action without his father. Firing Robertson had been saved as the final action Paul accomplished to purge the agency of his father's spirit.

Paul remembered the time he'd seen a layout that would have worked better in yellows. He mentioned this to the guy working with him, who loved the idea and had decided to experiment with it to see if the company might like it better than the original blue they'd asked for. Robertson called a meeting with Paul's father, where he informed Paul that the company had requested the blue colors that had originally made the layout and that Paul really should know his stuff before he went snooping around other people's work. Father had kept silent.

When Robertson walked in, Paul made a show of studying the files in front of him and then studying Robertson himself. By the time Paul spoke, Robertson was quite pale.

"Mr. Robertson."

"Paul."

Paul said what he'd wanted to say with Gwynne. "That's Mr. Atkinsley."

"Mr. Atkinsley," Robertson said, shrinking into the chair.

"Mr. Robertson, why should we keep you?"

"I'm one of your best account managers."

Paul nodded. Robertson was arrogant even when he whined like the sniveling suck up he was. There were five applicants this very afternoon interviewing to take his place. None of them remembered putting Paul in his place. At least one of them would be as good.

"I've . . . only got two more years . . ."

"To retirement. And?"

Robertson shrank into the chair, thoroughly defeated.

"Our financial officer will meet with you to discuss your severance benefits. You have some good years left. But not in this company. Goodbye."

And Robertson left. It should have felt good, getting rid of the man who had humiliated him. But he couldn't get that girl off his mind. She stood there now, in fact, her eyes somber, watching him.

"How did you get in here?"

"Through the door," Gwynne said, her gaze never leaving his face.

Paul wondered how long she'd been here. The look of distaste suggested it was long enough.

"He was hard to get along with," Paul said.

She remained silent.

It was infuriating. She didn't even know the whole situation.

"He will be getting a very generous severance package. Six weeks pay."

Still, she stood there unmoving.

Who was this girl to say it was wrong? Paul clenched his teeth. "You are very hard to get along with."

"I'm not really here to get along with anyone, I'm just trying to get a sense of the place."

"Not in my office." Paul needed a place where he could just be and not worry about what anyone else thought.

"Okay." Gwynne turned around and left. He didn't see her the rest of the day, or the next day or the next. She'd left for good.

That was fine. He really didn't need a Massys floor. Something else would do very well.

A few weeks later, Lawrence threw another party at his house, to which Paul was again invited. He didn't want to go. He even made excuses and then bought tickets to the theatre to keep himself away. But when he drove up to his destination, it was Lawrence's house and not the theatre where he found himself. He sat in his car an hour, the thought of going in too humiliating to consider. But he couldn't even entertain the idea of leaving.

Finally, someone must have mentioned the man who was waiting in his car, and Lawrence came out.

"Paul, it's good to see you. I thought you couldn't make it," he said through Paul's car window.

"I can't." I can't go in there.

Lawrence nodded. "We'd love to have you. It's much more interesting in the house."

Paul looked at the house, longing to go in and feel what he did that first night he'd been on the floor. He couldn't say what the feeling was -- belonging? Life? Something that he didn't have.

Lawrence broke the silence. "Hey, did my secretary get you the address of Arthur Massys?"

"Yeah."

"So? How is your floor coming along?"

Paul shook his head. "Not getting one."

"Oh? I thought . . ."

"It's too hard." What a stupid thing, he wouldn't get a floor because he was worried about what a woman apprenticed to her father thought of him. "They'd be ripping up the floor, and we can't work like that."

"I imagine." Lawrence said. He seemed somehow disappointed. It was just a damn floor!

"Sorry to bother you, I'll go now." Paul was backing out before Lawrence had a chance to reply. It was time to consider which was worse, dealing with Gwynne or not having those tiles under his feet.

Gwynne answered the door again.

"You're back."

"You left."

She looked at him in the same calculating way that made him want to flee. He stood his ground.

"Come in," she said after a while. She led him back to the work room. Arthur was still there, kneading at the clay. Gwynne picked up a lock of hair and started snipping bits of it into her father's clay.

"You do realize," she said, "That you will get the floor that you need. It might not be the one that you want."

"I know what I need."

"Hmmm." She shrugged. She finished with the hair, turned around and said, "You must let me see everything."

His irritation must have shown on his face.

She smiled up at him. "I don't mean to be so irritating."

"Okay." No, no. It was not okay. He hated having his soul weighed by her stare. Why was he doing this? He stood at this floor, with its tiles, and looked down and struggled to not need a floor by the same maker. "Okay." Just let him be.

She was at the agency the next morning before he even got there. He saw her a few times in his office, during meetings, with clients. Other people didn't notice her much. Gwynne was that way, blending into the background. He came to know her gaze and wonder what she thought of his actions. Sometimes the woman just stared at him in that infuriating way, but it was her very silence that made it bearable.

Then there were the times when her eyebrow rose just a little and she smiled. And when that happened, his heart burned.

He looked up one day after letting one of the producers take their vacation early, unconsciously expecting approval from Gwynne. But she wasn't there. It dawned on him that he hadn't seen her all day. The month had passed. Gwynne would be back in the workshop making the tiles now.

Paul waited, at first more aware of her absence than he'd been aware of her presence. He remembered the smile and imagined what it would take to make it appear on her face -- and that is what he did with his clients and his employees. He'd look up, but there was no smile, or even that cold gaze that made him wither inside, so after a while he didn't look for it. The longing faded. The struggle and need crept beyond conscious thought. The comfortable feelings of power and control settled back in.

He had, in fact, completely forgotten it until Lawrence dropped in to discuss business one day. The rest of the day Paul couldn't stop thinking about Gwynne and her stare. It had been four months now. He determined to go see what was taking so long.

On the way, Paul realized that he wasn't worried about the floor being put in at the agency, but rather that Gwynne wasn't there anymore. The more he thought about it the more he realized that the floor was nothing to him, the girl was everything. He remembered the curves of her neck, and the way her hair was never quite in control. Details that he'd forgotten tumbled into his memory and filled him with longing.

But at the door of the run-down house that Gwynne and her father lived in, he wanted to flee. She'd see him again. He was glad when she didn't answer the door this time. It was Arthur who answered it.

Arthur looked him up and down and grinned.

"You're lovesick," Arthur said, stroking the whiskers on his face thoughtfully. "I wonder if that was necessary. Well, come in. She's in back almost finished with your tiles."

Paul took steps that brought him into the house, down the hall, but all he could think was of what Arthur had said. Lovesick. Necessary? Had he ever imagined that she loved him back and wanted him? When that question occurred to him, he realized that the answer was obvious. He had only ever thought of what he wanted, not of what she wanted. Why did she smile in that way that made him yearn to have her smile at him again? He was being manipulated.

By the time he got to the room, he had decided that he would not give in. He was not in love with Gwynne.

It was her now, kneading the clay, working so hard in this stuffy room that sweat poured down and dripped onto the clay, just like her father.

"What's taking you so long?"

"Hello, toad."

Paul seethed.

Arthur came up behind him. "Did you know that this was her master work? After this, I'm retired." The middle-aged man walked to Gwynne and quietly asked her something. She gestured up to the shelf in reply, and he brought down a small little vial. Paul forgot his anger and watched in fascination as she unstopped the delicate bottle and poured a drop onto the clay.

"What are you putting in there?" There was more they'd put in, other times. Powders, hair, and he suspected that it wasn't accidental that the sweat got in there or that there wasn't a machine to knead and roll out the clay.

Gwynne grunted as she put all her body weight into smashing the folded clay back into itself. It was Arthur who answered.

"Just a little something that gives the clay what it needs."

"Hair?" Paul asked.

"A beautiful shimmer." Arthur grinned. "And the powders, liquids -- color and texture, various things you wouldn't know about. Even the sweat of someone working hard -- added into the clay it gives a property useful for the workplace."

"Which is?"

"The spirit of working hard." Arthur laughed, as if it were a joke. Paul looked at Gwynne, who had stopped and was glaring at her father.

It was beautiful, that face, even when irritated. Paul was struck, and she would never want him.

"You manipulated me." The anger in him grew as he said the words. "You judged me and then you made me become what you thought was morally correct."

"I only watched you work." She stared at him with a gaze that made him, he finally admitted it, detest himself.

She turned back to the clay.

Even her back accused him. He looked around the room, avoiding it. In one corner were stacks and stacks of tiles. He walked over to them and picked one up, examining it. They looked nothing like the tiles here or at Lawrence's house.

"But, they're so plain. They're ugly." He looked at her as he said it. More sweat dripped from her face. But no, it wasn't sweat. He walked over to her, still holding the tile, and saw that it was tears, rolling down, falling into the clay. She kept on pushing and folding and pounding. The tears, the ugly tile, maybe it was all that could come of him. Maybe there was nothing in himself of beauty.

Arthur stepped in and took the tile from Paul. "The tile is nothing without the pattern," he said.

Arthur put it back on the stack, and then turned back to the shelf, muttering, occasionally giving something to Gwynne to add to the clay. Paul stood there for what seemed like hours, confused and angry. Finally he left.

During the next week, Paul closed a deal with new clients, but it meant nothing to him. It should have been exciting, giving him an adrenalin rush. But he only sat in the office, feeling empty.

Gwynne came. He looked up and there she was, staring at him again.

"Are you here to lay the tiles now?" Paul asked.

"Yes."

"Well, where do you want to begin?"

"We've already begun."

"I mean, what room?"

"I don't know. Whatever room it needs to be."

"Don't we have to clear things out of your way?"

She shook her head. "We'll move what we need to move when we are ready, but its important work goes on here as normally as possible."

"But how long before we can step on the tile?"

"Oh, we have a special mixture of cement. It only takes a few minutes."

Paul nodded. He thought that she'd only come to tell him she was there, but she stayed in his office just like before. She looked tired.

"Why are you still here?"

Paul could see a range of emotions pass through her face as she considered every meaning of that question. He considered it, too. Why would this woman have anything more to do with him? But he had been asking why she wasn't laying tiles, and that was the question she answered.

"It takes two of us to set a tile. Dad is in another room. I don't know which."

"But you?"

"I'm listening. It's just like before, but now someone else is here laying the tiles down."

It was one of those feng shui things. A little oddball, a little off the wall, but it meant the elder Massys was actually laying the floor. It meant Gwynne would be here, just like before.

Gwynne, I'm lost, I'm drowning, I'm dying. "I'm sorry."

"I know."

He didn't know how the Massys expected the agency to go on normally. Tiles were set randomly across the floor. He didn't even think they set them to a grid. Chunks of the old carpet were everywhere. The place was a mess. But things did go on. In fact, it seemed like Paul was the only one who noticed how torn up the place was. Clients didn't say a word, and his people worked as if nothing were out of the ordinary. In fact, they seemed to work even better than before.

Arthur was always underfoot when Paul tried to go anywhere, but Gwynne was almost invisible. It was the floor now, incomplete as it was, that caught his eye. Arthur had been right. While alone they were just square pieces of clay; together they seemed to draw the colors off each other and the room, and even the clothes people wore, so that each tile was unique and dynamic while being part of a whole pattern. A sense of rightness settled on him, increasing with every tile laid.

He began to see what his clients needed, and tried to steer them that way in spite of what they wanted, because he began to want them to succeed more than he wanted their money.

He met with some clients one day who had a great product, but the recent economic crisis had left the company with little ability to pay for advertising. So Paul made them a deal in which Atkinsley would get a percentage of the profit until they paid off the bill. It was a little risky, but Paul was confident in what they had. It surprised him to see Gwynne walk out after the last of the clients. He hadn't known she was there.

The next morning when he walked in, the reception area was almost finished. The tiles were bright and beautiful, and he smiled as he knelt down to touch them. He followed the completed section up to the counter of the desk.

His receptionist, Stephanie, was there. She was always there before him, making sure he and everyone else had what they needed and were properly organized into timeslots for the day. She looked worn out.

"Stephanie."

"Yes, Mr. Atkinsley?"

"You have two children."

"Yes."

He had often kept her there late hours, his hours.

"Why do you work here?"

"My husband is on disability." He could see the fear in her. Then it dawned on him that Stephanie had been with the business for years even before he started. And she'd watched him systematically fire almost everyone who'd worked closely with his father. Damn, what an asshole he'd been.

"You need an assistant. Write up an ad. You know what you need better than I do." He escaped into his office before she could say anything.

It wasn't many days later when the floor was finished, with the tiles all set in place. He walked through the agency, no longer stunned or brought to his knees, but comfortable and at home. It was exactly what he needed. The mess was cleaned up. Arthur was no longer there. And Gwynne's subtle presence was now gone.

Only that left a longing in his heart.

It was a few weeks before Paul could get up the courage to see Gwynne again. She smiled when she saw him.

"You're back," she said.

"You left."

"My work was done."

"Your father says it was going to be your masterpiece."

"I hope."

He stood for a long time, the fear keeping him silent. Finally he asked, "Was it necessary?"

Now she looked confused. "What?"

"I think I . . . I think I'm in love with you."

She looked down, the slightest upturn of her lips as she shook her head. "No. Not necessary. But," she looked up, "very difficult to avoid."

He knew, with her standing there, that it had been difficult because she had loved him first. It was beyond imagining. He could hardly bear to remember what he'd been, and she'd loved him then?

"You can't have loved me."

"How could I not, when I had to understand every part of you in order to make the tiles?"

These people didn't just make floors, they changed lives. It was something he wanted to be a part of. The tiles in the patterns in the floor were only a tool. Understanding came first. "I was your masterpiece, not the floor."

"I only tried to find the thing you needed."

"Then you aren't finished."

"You seem to be coming along nicely." She smiled.

"I need you." He would do whatever it took to be the good man worthy of her.

"I know," she said.

She took his hand and led him into the house.


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