Wings of Wax, Tongues of Topaz
Malcolm Schmitz is an autistic author who writes about queer people, eldritch angels, nebbish unicorns, and lace-making orcs. His fiction has been published in Crossed Genres, Fusion Fragment, and Sword and Sorcery Magazine; his short story “The Captain’s Sphere” made the Long List for the 2015 Otherwise Award.
Translator’s Note: This story comes to us from La’al Sha’ahr, the Singing City, and is a variation of a tale that’s been told for several hundred years. In the very earliest tellings, it was the tale of an akor’mar mage and her human slave; the more modern variant below is the one most commonly heard today.
Like many such fables, this is meant to be a morality tale; the lessons conveyed are traditional for the time and place. Intellectual curiosity, honoring challenges, the value of a good idea regardless of the source, and forbearance for those of both high and low station: all are virtues any La’aln mage would strive to possess.
This is a story about a rukh-sham, but it is not a rukh-sham story. For that, I’d recommend Cartier et. al, “The One Who Flew Away”, or the bard Chrysoberyl’s stinging retelling, “Wax Wings Melt”.
In the Singing City, when lions learned to dance (1), there once lived a woman called Wnissa. Wnissa was as clever as she was proud, and as proud as she was cautious.
Wnissa lived in a tower as tall as a hill, so tall that she could see the plains and savannas for miles around. She knew the secrets of the stars, the secrets of the sea, and even the true names of the mountain khurarl. She knew all the secrets of transmutation, and some arts from every other school of magic. She was so wise that she’d crafted a rukh-sham from pure topaz and not the ragged stone that most rukh-shami are made of; she named it Sabah (2), because its body was the color of light in the morning. Yet with all her knowledge and all her wisdom, she almost never left the tower; few had ever seen her face.
One day, a young princess-errant (3) came to visit Wnissa from a far-away land. She stood at the foot of her tower, and shouted up to her.
“Build me a pair of wings,” the princess-errant told her. “I wish to fly.”
“I will not,” Wnissa said.
“They say you’re the wisest woman in the world,” the princess-errant said. “If you can’t build a pair of wings, who can?”
“No one,” Wnissa said. “Any man who built a pair of wings came to great grief.”
“I need a pair of wings,” the princess-errant said, “and if you won’t give them to me, I will find someone who will.”
“Very well,” Wnissa said. “I wish you good fortune.” (4)
The princess-errant went on her way, and Wnissa went back to her books. For three days, she was still and silent, at her studies.
On the third day, the princess-errant returned, wearing a sharp smile. “Lady Wnissa,” she said. “I have found a man who will build me wings.”
Wnissa set her book down and came to the tower window. Her dark eyes narrowed. She gazed down at the princess’ earnest face.
“Have you?” she said.
“Yes. His name is Harilden. He knows a ‘mar secret from deep beneath the ground,” the princess-errant said. “He can turn feathers into wings with wax and a spell lost to mankind.”
“Those wings will never take you an inch off the ground,” Wnissa said. “There is no secret of flight.”
“He says they will,” the princess-errant said and smiled her sharp smile again. “He says he is the wisest man in the world, and with his secret, he may do what even Wnissa cannot.”
“If you try to fly with those wings, you will fall,” Wnissa replied.
“Then I will fly, and I will fall,” the princess-errant said, “but from your tower, surely you’ll see it?”
“Surely I will,” Wnissa said dismissively, and she went back to her books.
Three days passed once more, and the princess-errant returned. This time, she came bearing the waxen wings. They were made with the feathers of a hundred different birds, the iridescent feathers of the parrot and the dull feathers of the sparrow, stuck side by side as if they had grown from the same back.
Wnissa stared down at them. She blinked. She rubbed her eyes and blinked again.
“Lady Wnissa,” the princess-errant said. “The wing-maker did as he said he would.”
“I can see that,” Wnissa said, “but he did it poorly. Those wings are so ill-made that they won’t carry you a mile.”
“How can you tell?”
Wnissa pointed down at the wings. “That is coconut wax,” she said. “It melts in even the slightest heat. If you fly too close to the sun, they will crumble away, and you will fall. Then you will die.” (5)
“My lady, could you do better?” the princess-errant said.
“Of course I could!” Wnissa said. She scowled, and her shoulders went to her ears. “Those wings are so terrible, a child could do better!”
“Then make me better wings,” the princess-errant said in challenge, “or I will tell every soul in La’al Sha’ahr that Harilden is wiser than Wnissa. He made me a set of wings in six days!”
Wnissa frowned down at the patchwork wings, and her eyes narrowed. Even from this height, she could see the small details of their construction — and every one of those details was wrong. She knew failure when she saw it, but her stubborn pride would not allow her to be bested by a fool.
“If you give me seven days,” Wnissa said, “I will make you better wings.”
“I knew I could count on you,” the princess-errant said, her sharp smile softer, more secret.
“You’re clever,” Wnissa murmured, “as clever as you are beautiful.”
“And you’re as wise as you are beautiful,” the princess-errant replied. “I await my wings with great pleasure.”
When the princess-errant left her tower, Wnissa sank to the floor. She beat her breast; she rent her clothes. She knocked over a stack of her tomes, and pages scattered across her floor, for in those days books weren’t bound. (6)
“How could I have been so foolish,” she said, “to agree to make a princess wings?”
Sabah watched her, the rukh-sham’s golden face impassive as it always was.
“If I worked for a year and a day, I could never make wings, and I agreed to make them in seven, because of my pride,” Wnissa said. “I am a greater fool than Harilden!”
Sabah said nothing, but it flexed its fingers. It then crossed the room, picked up Wnissa’s quill pens, and brought them to her. She looked from it, to the feathers it held.
“… I didn’t command you to do that,” she said.
Sabah silently held out the feathers. Wnissa took them from its hands. Light glowed through the stony appendages; even the feathers’ shadows shone.
“If you believe I should try,” she told the rukh-sham, “I shall.”
And so Wnissa began to work. She knew where and how to gather feathers, how to coax wild bees into giving away their wax, how to melt and form all things into shapes that no one else could fathom. She gave Sabah instructions, and Sabah left the tower on her behalf, coming back with all things she asked for.
Wnissa tested each wing design with a small construct of her own creation. The constructs were risen from the dust like Sabah, though much more crudely-made. She commanded them to jump from the window and fly, and each one did, buoyed on slightly different wings.
None worked as they should. She’d suspected the wing shape that Harilden had made would never work — the wings were shaped like a kingfisher’s, and were far too small to carry a human — and her tests had proven her right: construct after construct crashed to the earth below. The wings modeled after a crane’s carried her constructs farther and higher, but if they rose too high, or flew too far in the heat of the desert sun, the beeswax that held their wings together would melt. They fell apart in a cloud of feathers, crashing and shattering back into the dust from which they were made.
Wnissa tried every shape she could think of, every method of fixing feathers to frame, every binding and every sigil she could bring from her ancient tomes. Still, she found nothing. Most of her designs sent her small constructs crashing into the ground. Any wings that looked promising fell apart under larger constructs, or with higher flights, or with longer.
Three days passed, and then three more. Well into the morning of the seventh day, Wnissa slumped across her desk. She hadn’t eaten for two days and hadn’t slept in a bed for six. But what choice did she have? Soon enough, the princess-errant would come back and would see that she’d done nothing. She wanted to weep, but she was so tired she could shed no tears.
There had to be something that she was missing, yet she couldn’t see the desert for the sand…
Sabah was watching her once again. The sun rose behind it, giving it a glow that made the rukh-sham look like a god. Wnissa looked at it and sighed. All her wisdom had gone into Sabah, and all that wisdom was failing her now.
She’d carved its mouth as one straight line, with nothing behind it — and yet, suddenly, its mouth opened, and it began to speak with a woman’s voice.
“My lady,” Sabah said, “you might try another way.”
“W-what?” Wnissa stammered in shock. In those days, rukh-shami were rare. (7) It was uncommon enough for one to speak — it was unheard of for one to speak its own mind.
“Does she desire wings, or does she desire flight?” Sabah asked. Its voice — no, her voice — was as calm as a spring morning.
“…Flight,” Wnissa said. “She wanted to fly.”
“Is there a way to fly without wings?” Sabah asked.
“Gods and the Gehelians do,” Wnissa said, “but we are neither.”
“No?” Sabah said.
It was strange, Wnissa thought through her shock, how a creature with an unchanging face could show so much feeling. Sabah’s voice was calm, but Wnissa could feel a raised eyebrow in every word.
“You created me,” Sabah said. “You are as a god, to me. And when I awoke, I learned to do as you did. To speak. To read and write. To think. And I learnt it all silently, with no mother nor father to guide me.”
“I would have taught you, if you had but asked!” Wnissa said.
“Would you?” Sabah said. “What would you have kept from me, thinking I did not need it?”
“That’s different,” Wnissa said. “Even if the gods can fly, it does not mean that we mortals can. Their ways are not our ways–“
“–just as your ways are not the ways of rukh-shami?” Sabah said.
Wnissa was too stunned to speak. She sat down, heavily, atop her desk. She stared at Sabah’s glowing, impassive face: at Sabah’s glowing, lifeless eyes.
“How many of my young sisters,” Sabah said, “have you sent to their deaths?”
It took Wnissa a moment to understand what Sabah was talking about — the tiny constructs she’d made to test her hundred pairs of failed wings. She remembered the pang of frustration from every single one that fell apart, but their deaths all blurred together, like well-mixed watercolors.
“…They weren’t like you. They were never like you,” Wnissa said. “They had no minds.”
“How do you know?” Sabah said.
“I–” Wnissa rubbed her temples.
“It took me two years to awaken, and then years beyond to learn how to speak with the tongues of men and ‘mar,” Sabah said. (8) “Any of them could have had the chance, but you care not if we follow you.”
“…I did not know that you could,” Wnissa said.
Sabah shrugged her broad shoulders. “The gods do not know that you can fly,” she said. “Do as they do.”
Wnissa picked up the feathers and stared at them again, for the hundredth time since she’d agreed to help the princess. This time, though, she saw hope.
“Thank you, Sabah,” she said. “You’ve been… more helpful than you know.”
“It is what you made me to do,” Sabah said. Her voice was dry as the desert. “May I make one request?”
“Anything,” Wnissa said.
“Do not destroy my siblings again,” Sabah said. “At least — not without reason.”
“You have my word and bond,” Wnissa said.
Sabah nodded and stood still: so still that Wnissa wondered, at first, if she’d ever spoken at all. It felt like a vision brought on by poor sleep. But as she began to work, she could feel the rukh-sham’s gaze, sending the hairs on the back of her neck standing straight.
Wnissa turned back to her books. She’d read too much these past few days about the shapes of the wings of birds. Each bird’s wings were a different shape, because each sort of bird flew differently. The earth, the air, and the wind pushed their small bodies in different ways; each of them had a different shape to fight the wind. She’d tried to copy those shapes, but men and ‘mari were too large to fly with the wings of a bird.
Yet as she flipped through her books, she realized: not all birds were subject to these forces. Some birds were too large to fly — the penguin, the ostrich, even the humble chicken — but they did so anyway, for a short time. Scholars concluded that it was magic and left it at that.
“Sabah,” Wnissa said, “fetch me an egg.”
Sabah watched her, silent and unmoving.
“…please,” Wnissa said.
“Your wish,” Sabah said, bowing her head, “is my command.”
“There’s no need for that,” Wnissa said. “…I want to try something. You’re wiser than I knew.”
Wnissa swore she saw a hint of a smile cross Sabah’s translucent face.
“You will have your egg,” Sabah said.
Soon enough, Wnissa did; an ostrich egg, big enough to fill her entire desk. She squinted down at it with all the patience she could muster. Sure enough, she realized, there was an odd fluctuation in its mana: a ripple in the waves, easy enough to watch if you could see mana flow. She watched it meander for a long second, studying it.
She reached for one of her constructs without thinking. As her hand brushed its pebbly skin, she felt Sabah’s gaze on her.
Wnissa stopped. She picked up a parrot feather that had been meant for the princess’ wings. Then she held it, and whispered words of power.
Her stomach lurched. Her heels, then her toes, left the floor. She hovered in the air, inches above the ground — then a foot — then the top of her head brushed the ceiling.
“Sabah,” she called. “I did it!”
“You did.” Sabah’s face was flat as ever, but Wnissa thought she heard pride in her voice.
“Thank you.” Wnissa floated over to her rukh-sham companion. “I couldn’t have done this without you.”
“Likely not,” Sabah agreed.
“Do you want–” Wnissa started. She closed her eyes and pushed herself down, until she was at eye level with Sabah. Her feet still didn’t reach the floor. “Do you want a reward?” Wnissa said. “I will give you anything you ask for.”
Sabah thought for a long moment. Wnissa heard the scrape of stone against stone as the rukh-sham shifted in place.
“When the princess-errant comes tomorrow,” Sabah said, “I want you to make a request.”
“For you, anything,” Wnissa said.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Sabah said. Then she whispered her request in Wnissa’s ear. Wnissa frowned, and thought for a long moment.
“I will ask,” she said.
When the princess-errant returned the next day, Wnissa awaited her at the foot of the tower. Wnissa wore her best white robes, with calligraphy spiraling along the hem, and she carried the parrot feather.
“Your highness,” Wnissa said, “here are your wings.”
“Wings?” The princess-errant laughed. “That is a single feather.”
“Hold the feather, and repeat after me,” Wnissa said.
The princess took the feather. Wnissa murmured the words of power. She’d done her best to make them short and sweet, easy enough to remember. (9) And sure enough, as the princess-errant repeated them, she rose into the air. Her eyes widened, and she beamed, bright as the sun.
“They were right,” she said. “Wnissa is the wisest in all the world!”
“Not the wisest,” Wnissa said softly. “I would never have discovered it on my own.”
“No,” Wnissa said firmly.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. I asked you, and you taught me to fly. Now I’ll grant you a boon,” the princess-errant said. “I’ll give you anything you ask for.”
Wnissa frowned. Was this how Sabah had felt when Wnissa had offered her a reward? She felt like a child or a fool. “There is,” she said, “one thing.”
The princess-errant swooped down, her gleaming armor catching the early morning light. Wnissa watched her, but she felt a gaze on the back of her neck. She didn’t need to turn around to know that Sabah was there and was watching.
“Tell me,” said the princess-errant. “I’ll give you the moon and stars, if you desire them.”
“I want you to free the rukh-shami,” Wnissa said.
“The… what?” The princess sank to the ground, looking puzzled.
“In your homeland, do the magi have servitors? Men of stone and steel?” Wnissa said. “Many of them can’t speak, but they can think. It was one who helped me discover the secret of flight.”
The princess opened her mouth, but Wnissa kept talking.
“I want you,” she said, “to tell the magi that their rukh-shami are not unthinking automatons: not their property. Tell them to cease treating rukh-shami with cruelty, and to let them walk away, if they so desire.” (10)
“That is a selfless wish,” the princess-errant said.
“It is a boon I’m granting,” Wnissa said, “to someone who’s helped me as I have helped you.”
The princess-errant looked from Wnissa to Sabah, and back again.
“I understand,” she said. “You are as kind as you are wise.”
“I had lessons to learn,” Wnissa said.
“So do we all,” the princess said. “When I return to my homeland, I’ll tell the world of you: Wnissa, giver of wings invisible!”
Wnissa shook her head.
“Sabah gave us wings,” she said. “If it weren’t for her, we’d never have flown. Tell the world of her.“
And so it was that the princess-errant went back to her homeland, and Wnissa went back to her tower. The princess freed the rukh-shami in her kingdom. Wnissa and Sabah grew wiser and wiser, and together they crafted spell upon spell.
In all the corners of the earth, different spells have different names. The spell we call hideous laughter is called lunatic’s laugh in Avaliet; the spell we call vicious mockery is called Tatech’s bite in Krygon. But to this day, in both La’al Sha’ahr and the Princess’ kingdom, they call the fly spell by another name.
They call it Sabah’s wings.
(1) This is a traditional story opening from La’al Sha’ah, along the lines of “once upon a time” or “when sheyn-goats learnt to smoke”.
(2) ‘Sabah’ means ‘morning’ or ‘dawn’ in several of the languages spoken in the Singing City.
(3) The “princess-errant”, as far as this scholar knows, does not exist in any culture near La’al Sha’ah, either as a historical figure or general title. It’s commonly believed to be a poetic term of art instead, evoking the image of a wandering knight-errant. However, some scholars have posited the theory this unnamed princess may have been a messenger or avatar of one of the gods: Carro or Seri-Jon. This discussion is unfortunately beyond the scope of this translation, but is worth the mention, given the frequent spiritual undertone to ancient folktales from this part of the world.
(4) In the original La’aln, this phrase is decidedly more sarcastic. It is difficult to translate.
(5) This motif — the wings of wax — is common from Tarith to Avaliet. There’s debate on whether anyone ever tried to create them or if they’re simply a symbol of pride and overconfidence.
(6) Surviving La’aln codices are papyrus pages, kept in a loose stack within a leather folio.
(7) This is inaccurate, to say the least. “Wild” rukh-shami — the results of ancient La’aln magical experiments — have existed in the deserts of Krachdul for most of recorded history. They’ve never been common, but a woman in Wnissa’s position would surely know more about rukh-shami than this story suggests.
(8) An attempt at making our rukh-sham heroine seem less frightening. Rukh-shami who’ve begun to speak know whichever languages they were surrounded by, in the same way that mortal children do. Making a rukh-sham seem slower and less intelligent is a common way to make them ‘sympathetic’ in fiction aimed at humans.
(9) For a discussion of the spellcraft of flight magic, see Wurigana, “The Fifth Transmutation”.
(10) An ending that, regrettably, could only exist in a fairy tale. Rukh-shami are, to this day, not allowed within the inner rings of the Singing City, and few human tribes in Yeniden welcome free rukh-shami onto their lands. There’s a reason the princess is from a far-away land, and a reason that only Sabah is treated, within the story, as a being worthy of respect.