***Warning: Mature content ahead.
I was devoted, but I was young. I did not know how long genius takes to ferment. The months passed slowly with no masterpiece, with increasing silence and introspection and even avoidance on the part of the clockmaker—our walks grown brief, then intermittent, then canceled, though in summer the nights were warm as the days, though the earth bore so many good reasons to go together outside—and I became impatient, coiled tight with an unfamiliar anxiety, cramped with an irritation I could not name.
With this mounting attack of mood came long evenings confined to the workshed. I had, in my eagerness to make the clockmaker prosper, taken on more work than I could handle. More nights under my exhausted lamplight replacing jewels, polishing fittings, willing the clockmaker to come relieve me, to at last thrill me with news of a breakthrough. More nights boiling eggs or vinegaring turnip greens or failing to prepare dinner altogether. The clockmaker was sympathetic, told me he had fended for himself many years and could again. Told me to take as long as I needed, that he would not suffer were we to drop our routines.
Which assuaged the tightness of my blood not a bit.
One evening late I stormed in on him as he stood over his desk, slammed a plate of overboiled butter rice atop his papers.
“Pietro,” he uttered, surfacing from his haze. I was already half gone from the room. “You’re upset. Stay and eat, talk, until you feel better.”
Talking with me or not is immaterial, I said. Time is time and passes irrespective.
He took me by the wrist. I cast him off—the gesture reeked of childhood where once it had spoken to me of tenderness, trust. I did not remember how to feel grateful. Nothing to me was good enough anymore.
He let my hand fall fisted at my side. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen that feral cat stare,” he said. “I am not your prioress, and I am not your tamer.”
You are my master, I said, are you not?
He looked pained. “I haven’t thought of myself that way in many years. We are partners in business. We are colleagues. I have taught you, but we are equal.”
Independent, you mean.
His knee had begun to bother him. He pulled up his desk chair, winced as he eased himself down.
By reflex I retrieved his stool, set it at his feet, and he propped the offending leg. Days chained to this room have caught up to you, I said. Come out with me.
“I am sorry to ever tell you no,” he said. “But I must. And I thank you for the invitation, and for looking after me.”
In that case you are not welcome, I said. I act as a man unattached, there is no responsibility between us, good night.
“Pietro,” he begged. His expression lost under the fringe of his bedraggled curls. “I meant only to oblige myself to focus, to force some ideas out where lately I have had none.” He massaged his knee, stared at the circles his fingers made. “I’ve made you feel unimportant to me, somehow.”
I stood still in my place, breathing bullish, infuriated and embarrassed by his patience—patience, I realized with some guilt, I’d never seen him show anyone except me.
He moved aside the plate I’d placed in front of him and tore a scrap from the pile of papers beneath. On it he wrote a name, first and last. “Look,” he said.
It was a solemn and susurrant name, out of the central continent, not used in our land. On paper it commanded a sort of hushed power over me; I wanted to twist the consonants out loud in my common tongue, butcher its pronunciation, rid it of its magic. Why do you use the other name, I said.
“You don’t recognize it,” he said. “Perhaps it is gone from these parts, and I am overcareful. It belongs to my grandfather. He lived in the city, where I also am from. He manufactured weapons, and worse. A hateful legacy. I came here to escape the name, and escape him.”
But in my mind, the name belonged only to him; it saturated my conception of him, filled in his lines and bled at the edges, like an amateur’s watercolor. You make beautiful things and are respected, I said. Anyone would wish to be associated with that legacy.
“And this is what you are trying to make me understand, I think,” he sighed. “You are total in your ambitions, and if you are an apprentice, then you will be a consummate one. You aim to carry on my name and give up your own.”
An undertow low in my abdomen, a promise and a confirmation.
“But should I betray you in this—should I fail at my part of the deal we’ve made—I need you to know I’d never intended to tie you to a name, let alone this one.”
He pressed the paper into my palm.
“Still, I thought you would like to know it, and I want you to have it, and it’s yours,” he said.
A secret knowledge welled in me, one born not of practice but of instinct; a projection of the will. A knowledge of manner, proximity, rhythm. How to pose a question and receive answer. My vision vignetting; him, eyes earnest and upturned in the low light; my strange anxiety at last finding its fixation. I closed the space between us. I claimed his lips.
An instant intoxication, a welling fire. Under the desk his bad knee buckled. His thumb traced the side of my mouth, then pressed firm, breaking us apart. He looked like he wanted to say something. But the side of his neck was the temple of my lips, and his mouth parted without a sound, his body wilting into mine as if falling to sleep.
I undid my shirt, undid his. Cast both to the crowded floor. To his narrow bed I led him by the hand, laid him down. Removed everything of his left in my way. Crooked my shoulder against his pelvis, clutched my hand into his thigh, braced myself, and fit my mouth round him, ardent, insistent. My rhythm erratic, my head swimming.
“Dear,” he hummed, and stilled me. In his eyes gleamed the impatience he’d never shown to me. He raised himself next to me, kissed me deeply, approvingly, and his hand gripped the back of my head, guiding me down to his pillow. I pushed and fought at my clothes, fighting for his attention, aching for reward: his kisses laid in the hollows of my hips, his hands sliding beneath me, wrenching me into contact with his lips and tongue. The blurring, numbing heat. My stomach stirred with embarrassment, and yet in this realm I was by any measure a student, here I should be taking note, hazy as I found my will, in thrall as I was to pure reaction.
He sat up, drew the back of his hand across his mouth, eyelids heavy and eyes shunning mine, all poise and authority. His knees coaxed; mine freely parted. His body moored to mine, aligned to enter, a gravity swelling and insistent, a pushing, piercing; I was breached. The breath caught in my throat, a thousand pinpricks of light; he buried his head in my shoulder, kissing me calm, wrapped his arms to the muscles of my back; my body a taut wire. Yet in the face of such generosity it was easy to be generous. To give over, to at last take in.
He pushed himself up, arms trembling. “I wouldn’t have,” he panted. “I would never have said anything to you.”
This made me smirk, for I had done well. I ran a finger cross his jaw.
Do your work in me, I said.
Then the vulgar insistence, the prickling blood. His name, secret to all. His name, sweet liquor poured into the room. The tidal wave of it across the lips.
To be object of such an appetite.
We lay sweating in his narrow bed, wrapped in a daze so total it rivaled dream. He held my fingers loose, bringing them up, putting his lips idle to each one in turn.
This is what you meant, I said brightly. One of the cycles that govern us.
Silas snorted against my knuckle, and broke into a laugh—fairly giggled. “Yes,” he said, sitting upright, swinging the blanket up to hood his head. “You impossible Sophist, I guess you must be right.” And buried me with his weight until the blanket covered us both.