“Don’t fool yourself. Fool everyone else, but never fool yourself.”
When a young golem called Kaspar befriends a beautiful baker and her daughter, he wishes, for the first time in his life, to be more than just a counterfeit, wooden child. But such a simple wish comes at a high price, and Kaspar won’t be the only one to pay. With the few who can stop him distracted by their own dreams, Kaspar is free to set in motion a naive and gruesome plan. He hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed, though. He’s a powerful weapon left alone and ungoverned, and he’s already caught the eye of someone with an even more costly wish.
Chapter 1: The Lost Library
Buried in the shadows of a damp alley, a little girl huddled over something dead. The boy knew it was dead without even seeing the thing in her arms. He and Death were more intimate than even he understood. He tiptoed toward the girl, careful not to disturb her. He wanted to watch her grieve a while longer. Grief was something he would never experience and always be fascinated by. But humans had a way of knowing they were being watched, even at the worst of times, and eventually, the little girl lifted her head. She stared a long time before she spoke, and the boy didn’t dare move for fear of frightening her.
“Go away,” the girl said when she found her tongue.
The boy cocked his head. Was she trying to command him? He smiled at the girl in an attempt to disarm her. That always worked well with his guardian’s master. It didn’t work on the girl.
“I said, go away!” She picked up a stone and threw it at him. It hit his shin, but he didn’t budge. Nothing ever hurt for long.
The boy knew what would win the girl’s trust and end her grief. He approached her slowly at first, and then with more confidence, smiling all the while, wishing he could talk to her. But no matter what he said, he knew no human would hear him. Their ears were not attuned to emptiness.
He knelt beside the girl, and she folded her arms over the dead thing in her lap. The boy knew he was much stronger than her, so he was careful when he finally reached out to touch her. Just nudge her. Just a slight push. And he opened her arms to see a black cat curled into a death-ball in her lap. Its mouth was frozen in a silent hiss, its body arched and stiff. He touched it and knew it had been a mother. He knew every mark on its flesh, knew how the creature had died. He stroked it to calm the girl. She would trust him if she saw that he loved what she loved. He had learned that lesson weeks ago. He had even written it down in the margin of his anatomy journal, so he would be sure to remember.
- If you want people to trust you, make them believe you care about the same things they do.
As the boy stroked the dead cat, he collected tiny particles of it in the palm of his hand—only a little, so the girl wouldn’t notice. He unraveled the particles into threads of flesh, thin as a spider’s web, until he could pull away with each of his fingers connected to the cat by an invisible thread of its flesh. Then, not losing his smile, he made the cat yawn and stretch with those threads like some kind of gruesome puppeteer.
It was not easy, but the boy had been practicing with birds and mice when his guardian couldn’t see. He’d learned how much force he could use with the different stages of rigor mortis. He’d even learned how to slacken the bodies a little and make them appear more lifelike. He knew opening the cat’s eyes would be a mistake—he hadn’t yet learned to reconstruct flesh—so he made sure to move the cat as though it were still sleepy.
More yawns and stretches, a circle or two, and he laid it back down in her lap, remembering to make it breathe.
At first the girl only stared in frightened shock. But the boy brought the cat’s head to her hand and made it nudge her the way he’d seen cats do when they wanted affection. The girl rubbed the tears from her face and stared up at him with bloodshot eyes and pink cheeks. She was beautiful, he thought, alive and suffering. He could almost see the ache in her.
“You… You brought her back.” She rubbed her nose with her arm and sniffed. “How’d you do that?”
He shook his head and pointed to his mouth with the hand that wasn’t busy working the cat-puppet.
“You can’t talk?”
He shook his head and smiled, trying to tell her it was fine. He didn’t mind. He was used to it.
“I’m Hannah.” She held out her hand, but he didn’t take it. “I wish you could tell me your name.”
On cue, his guardian’s distant voice echoed down the alley. “Kaspar, you get back here! Kaspar!”
The girl called Hannah giggled. “You must be Kaspar. You’d better go. He sounds mad.”
Kaspar made the cat curl into a ball and hesitated. He wouldn’t be able to get too far before Hannah noticed her cat was still dead. He could work it from a distance, but not believably. He would have to practice more. Then he wondered whether her renewed state of sorrow would be the same or worse than before. And he wondered whether he wanted to see it. He decided her smile was every bit as intriguing as her tears, but for what reason he couldn’t tell. Maybe because it wasn’t false the way his was, or maybe he liked it because he had caused it.
“Kaspar!” His guardian was closer now.
Kaspar backed away from the girl and her cat. With every step he took, he released a thread of flesh.
“Come and visit me sometime,” Hannah was saying. “My mamma makes the best cakes. She has a shop here, but I know she’ll give you some for free because you’re my friend. You will visit, won’t you?”
Kaspar nodded, but he wasn’t sure she would want to see him after the gift he had given her turned out to be a lump of coal.
“Kaspar, for god’s sake.” The voice came from the end of the alley, and Kaspar shuddered. He was caught. “I thought I told you never to leave my sight.” Kaspar’s guardian, whose name was Marcus Lavoie, grabbed his elbow, snapping the final threads between the boy and the cat. “What’s gotten into you?” he said into Kaspar’s ear. “You’ll get us both in trouble.”
But Kaspar only cared about one thing: he hadn’t been caught, after all. The girl was petting her dead cat as they walked away, still unaware. It wouldn’t last long, but Kaspar didn’t need it to. As long as they got away before she started crying again, before she had the chance to ask him to bring the cat back a second time.
His guardian must not discover the trick he could do. Kaspar didn’t understand why he wanted to keep that secret, but he did. Somehow, he knew this was the one thing about him that should not be known by anyone. Not yet. Not until it was perfect.