Oliver wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting the End Of All Things to look like, but in the coming years he’d have plenty of time to reflect on it, and he was sure it wasn’t supposed to be so tiny.
“I was told you’re the best carpenter in the System,” the tall man said as he entered the shop. He was pale, with callused hands that spoke of manual labor, and he was covered from neck to knee in a coat made of some unknown animal hide. He spoke in a soft baritone, with rolling r’s that reminded Oliver of his old moggy’s purring. Not a local, then.
“Sure, once,” Oliver said, setting the nutcracker he’d been repairing aside, “But that was years ago. I just do small work now. What do you want?”
“Something to contain this.” There was a rustling, then the tiniest clink as the tall man set something on the workbench.
It was a glass bottle, perhaps an inch tall, containing what looks like a perfectly round seed. Oliver scoffed. “You’ll want Madama Tara across the square. She does all the magic stuff.”
“Oh, this is much worse than magic, Oliver.”
“Why, has someone invented a faster way to extract money from idiots?” Oliver asked. “Well, go on, either tell me or get out, I can’t have you brooding all dark and mysterious-like in my store, you’ll frighten the tourists.”
“Fine,” the tall man says, grabbing the jar and shaking it hard. The seed inside glowed for a moment, then grew. Just a tiny fraction. Too little to see, and yet – Oliver saw.
Oliver leapt backwards. kicking his chair over in the process. “You brought me a Starkiller? Are you insane?”
“I need your help, Oliver.”
“No. Just…no. I can’t do anything against this! Nobody can!”
“I know about the Red Mirror, Oliver,” the stranger said.
Oliver stepped backwards, his heart hammering in his chest. “Who are you?” he asked. You’re not from the System, are you?”
The stranger sighed. “My name is Ioan,” he said, “And the stories of the King’s Carpenter have travelled well beyond the edges of the System.”
Oliver stared at Ioan. “I figured that,” he said. “But I’m not the King’s Carpenter anymore.”
“I don’t need the King’s Carpenter. I need the man who made the Red Mirror for the Queen. I need an abortive carpenter.”
“I’m sorry, what? Can you explain in less ridiculous words, sir?”
Ioan ran his hands through his ginger hair and sighed. “All right. But it’ll take a while.”
Oliver picked up the chair he’d toppled, noticing as he did that he’d trampled the half-finished nutcracker. Oh well, he thought, and began clearing the workbench.
Over beer and cheeses, Ioan explained everything, while Oliver sketched and scribbled furiously. He was unusually excited. If he was honest with himself, making the Red Mirror had been the peak of his career, and making trinkets for tourists just didn’t compare. But the old King had died, and the new King was enamored with the new modern materials, so he’d cut Oliver and his woodshop loose.
The task was simple enough on its face. Build a casket to hold a tiny seed, to keep it from ever growing into the terrifying plant it was meant to become. The problem was friction. There couldn’t be any. Friction meant heat, heat meant germination, and germination meant the end of the world or worlds.
“So this has to be as smooth as the Mirror, if not smoother,” Ioan said around a mouthful of something firm and vaguely goatish, “You’ll need Austrinian Ebony.”
Oliver dropped his quill. “We’re done for,” he whispered.
“I can’t get that. We’ll have to use something else. But nothing else will work.”
“Where did you get it before?”
“The King brought it to me.”
“Well, where did he get it?” Ioan asked.
“I don’t know.”
Ioan reached into one of his many pockets and pulled out a small cloth-wrapped bundle.
“Will this be enough?”
“The less you know, the better,” Ioan cautioned. “But if this works…”
“I won’t have armed men beating down my door demanding their property back, will I?”
Ioan looked genuinely offended. “I was going to say – you’d never have to build another nutcracker again in your life. Well, if you didn’t want to, I mean. I mean, you might want to. I don’t know.”
Oliver sighed and picked a sliver of nutcracker out of his thumb. “Not a chance.”
Nine months later, Ioan and Oliver were standing in the workshop again. The finished container was resting on the workbench, waiting for its occupant.
There was no indication of where the container opened or closed. No hinge, no trapdoor, no corners. It was so highly polished it threw off little wisps of diffuse light caught from the oil lamp. It looked more like a knot than a box.
“Ready?” Ioan asked, holding the bottle.
“Yes,” Oliver said. His voice trembled but his hands were steady.
The knot slid open. The tiny seed tipped in. The knot slipped closed.
“Now,” Ioan said. “The final test.”
He dropped it.
It hit the workbench, rolled to a stop. Ioan scooped it up, repeated the drop. Thunk. Nothing.
“Is it growing?” Thunk.
“I don’t think so.” Thunk.
Twenty minutes later, the case was still firmly closed.
Oliver let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding.
“It worked,” he said.
Ioan grinned. He took the knot from Oliver’s workbench and set it on the mantelpiece. “I suggest you find a secure place for this, or tell people it’s cursed or sacred or whatever will make them not want to touch it. And then…I want you to take this,” Ioan said, dropping a seed into Oliver’s palm. This one was different. Soft and black, with a yellow stripe down its middle. “And this.” A pouch of coins.
“What is this?” Oliver asked.
“Payment,” Ioan said. “Goodbye, Oliver. And thank you.” With that, he was gone.