They ended up outside the entrance to a circular, freestanding tower with a conical roof. There were rows and rows of small handcarts surrounding it, each one consisting of a basket with a lid that could be tied down.
“This, newcomers, is the message depot,” said Markus. “It’s a good place to get you started. Most of the transmuted spend a lot of their time coming and going from this building. This is where we collect all the letters that people write to each other, sort them, and get them delivered. Every single one of those handcarts there has at least one letter in it. The ones on the east side have just come in from the countryside, and the ones on the west side are going out to various residences. Now, I don’t know where any of these things are going, but I do know that you transmuted people can all hear and talk to each other in your minds when you want to. You’ll have to ask one of the others where to take your handcarts. Follow me.”
Markus strode to the door of the tower and entered. Inside were several more carts and many long tables covered with letters. There were at least a dozen other transmuted people here, shuffling and sorting the letters.
“Oy!” Markus shouted to the room at large. “Hold up for a minute and listen up!”
All the activity in the room stopped immediately.
“These are your new numbers Eighty-eight and Eighty-nine,” said Markus. “This is their first day. Someone put them on a route and get them going. A short one, now. I don’t want them straying too far away.”
One of the transmuted nodded to Markus. He nodded back.
“Very well,” he said. “Twenty-eight here will give you your assignment. Goodbye.” Markus left.
“My name is Lorenzo,” said a disembodied voice in Enrico’s mind. “I’m currently number twenty-eight. Welcome.”
“I’m glad to meet you,” answered Enrico. “This is so strange, not being able to tell who is speaking at first.”
He and Richard moved down the stairs as quickly as they could. They couldn’t run quite as fast as they could have in their natural forms, but they were standing in front of the doorway in a few moments.
“That’s better,” said the man. “You newcomers, you always act out of turn at first. That won’t last long.”
“What’s he going to do to us to punish us?” Enrico thought. “It’s not like he can take away anything good. We don’t have anything good.”
“He can give us extra work, I suppose,” thought Richard.
“My name is Markus,” said the man in the doorway. “I am the Taskmaster for the Transmuted. As long as you are here, every time you get your marching orders, they will be coming from me. I’m told you’re only here for six months, and that you, Eighty-nine, are actually a native-born citizen and not a spell-dodger at all. I hope neither of you think that the amount of work you do is going to be any less than anyone else does just because your circumstances are different, though. It won’t be. You’re just more workers to me. In fact, I have your first assignment for you right now. Follow me.”
Enrico and Richard followed Markus out of the stable and across the castle grounds. This was the first time either of them had seen what was inside the castle walls, and they couldn’t help looking around at the strange, new sight. The entire place bustled with activity, with natural humans and transmuted ones alike attending to their various chores.
This new information only made the experience Enrico had just gone through harder to comprehend. He sat down on the floor in the middle of the central corridor of the stable and put his head in his hands. Richard sat right next to him, watching to see whether the other man would welcome an arm placed around his shoulders.
Enrico wanted to cry, but realized that this was now impossible, which only upset him more. Sitting down with his legs straight out in front of him, he took stock of what he had just become.
He had seen the transmuted many times before. They were a fairly common sight around $Kingdom. Many people from many different lands chose to come and live there, but some of them chose to do so in secret, avoiding the test of character and loyalty that had been in place there since the days of the current king’s grandfather. As for those who were caught doing so, as Enrico had been, this was what happened to them.
What made this transformed state a punishment was the fact that those who were in it were, in many ways, less than human. Their forms were similar to those they had in their natural human state- they still had two legs, two arms, a trunk, and a head- but their transmuted forms were more regular and measured than their natural forms. Their limbs were flat, sturdy brass bars, the trunk was a hollow rectangular box, and the head was perfectly spherical. All their joints were exposed and visible- ball-and-socket joints at the hips and shoulders, hinge joints at the knees, and an intricate sort of hybrid joint at the elbows, so that the mechanics of moving about were not very different from what they had been before the transmutation.
The hollow trunk had doors in the front and back sides, and the lower halves of their legs had spoked iron wheels and support struts built into them. The transmuted could kneel down, connect the support struts to the sides of the trunk, and travel on wheels instead of walking, carrying goods, and sometimes letters, within their hollow bodies. They often worked in teams to carry goods in large quantities. Since they were a little under four feet tall when standing, they always had to look up at the people they served, and this was even more true when they were on wheels.
Enrico lost himself in a dark cloud of horror, pondering all this. He didn’t know how long he sat there before he remembered that Richard was there, too.
“Richard,” he thought.
“Yes,” Richard replied. “I’m here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Anything. How I can be alive and yet not alive. How you can be here with me. How we are to live in these forms.”
“I don’t understand it, either. It is most strange. Such is magic, though.”
“Haven’t you ever met anyone who was punished with transmutation and then returned to normal?”
“I have. Those of us who have been through this don’t like to talk about it very much, though. We’re ashamed of it.”
“Oh. But after one completes this sentence, one’s life goes back to normal, does it not?”
“Well… mostly. We do go back to our families and our normal lives, but we bear the shame of having been caught and punished. You’re not quite the same person after being worked like a horse for a year, either. It’s hard to recover your confidence, your dignity. Some people never do.”
“Did you know that would happen to you when you agreed to take the punishment with me, Richard?”
“No. I didn’t. I was only thinking of you. A year is a long time.”
“It is. I can’t understand that, either. I only have to be like this for six months, because you took on half my punishment for me. Such a thing has never been heard of before. What makes me any better or more deserving than anyone else of my people?”
“I can’t compare you to all the rest of your people. I hadn’t really gotten to know any of them very well, before you.”
“Most of your people don’t get to know any of my people very well, not even when they are landlord and tenant.”
“Most of them either act as if their tenants aren’t there, or expect them to work as house servants as payment for their room and board.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You were different, though. Why?”
“I understood that you were working in the fields to earn both your own keep and freedom for your family. I respected that, and understood that it would just be too much for you to do my work in addition to your own, so I never expected you to.”
“But you didn’t pretend that I wasn’t there, either. You wanted to know about where I was from, and how I was getting on. You treated me like a person.”
“You are a person, Enrico, and so are every one of your people. Don’t ever forget that. Especially not now.”
Enrico started, suddenly remembering where they were and what had just happened to them.
“What are we doing, talking about all this?” he exclaimed. “You seem so calm! Don’t you realize that you’re a magical automaton? Aren’t you afraid?”
“I am,” answered Richard. “I’m choosing to think about you and how you feel, to keep my mind off how I feel.”
“But if you’re afraid, then we feel the same way!”
“True. At least we can be afraid together.”
“I don’t want to go up to my room yet.”
“Neither do I.”
“This strange thought-speech might work through walls, though.”
“Do you want to find out?”
Richard and Enrico climbed the stairs to the third level. Enrico went into room 88, and Richard went into room 89.
“Can you still hear me in your mind, Richard?” Enrico thought.
“I can,” Richard thought back. “I imagine you can hear me, too.”
“Yes. It’s not the same as being next to you, though.”
“No. Let’s go back out onto the walkway.”
The two transmuted men came out of the room and sat next to each other on the walkway. Richard decided to let his legs dangle over the edge. After seeing that Richard could do it without losing his balance and falling off the walkway, Enrico followed suit. He found that sitting this way was much more comfortable than sitting on the floor, as he had been previously. Transmuted knees were designed to only bend one way, just like natural human knees, so when Enrico had been sitting on the floor with his legs out in front of him, the wheels built into his lower legs had forced his knees to lock into place and his legs to rise up from the floor at an angle, rather than lying flat against it. His new mechanical hips could accommodate this, but it had nonetheless felt very unnatural. This felt much better.
Enrico held his left hand out, palm up. His forearms were made of two separate flat iron bars attached to different parts of the hybrid elbow joint, making this still possible for him. Richard put his right hand in Enrico’s left.
“How strange!” thought Enrico. “I can feel the weight of your hand, but not the sensation of our hands touching.”
“I feel no such sensation, either,” thought Richard. “Let us trade positions, so I may find out whether I feel the same thing.”
They did. “Indeed,” Richard thought, “it is the same with me. I feel the weight, but not the sensation.”
Enrico was dismayed to find that even the touch of another was denied to the transmuted, but he did not share this thought with Richard. He simply kept his hand where it was and took what comfort he could in the presence of another alongside him. They sat there, not sharing any thoughts with each other, for a long while.
A new, rough-sounding voice was shouting from the entrance to the stable. Enrico looked down from the third-level walkway and saw a burly man standing in the doorway.
“Is that you two up there?” The man was now looking right at Enrico and Richard. “I was told there were new occupants of rooms 88 and 89. What are you doing? Get down here this instant!”
“We were just trying to get used to all this!” Enrico thought desperately, before remembering that natural humans couldn’t hear the thoughts of the transmuted.
Rod pointed the rooms out to them.
“You won’t be spending very much time here,” he explained to them. “Transmuted men don’t sleep very much, but then again, they don’t need to. They spend most of their time working. You may stay here and adjust to things for now. Someone will come along to get you when you are needed.”
Rod left Enrico and Richard alone in the stable.
“I wish you could hear me, Richard,” Enrico thought hopelessly.
Within the swirling jumble of impressions in his traumatized mind, Richard’s voice suddenly sounded loudly and clearly.
“I can hear you, Enrico,” it said. “Can you hear me, too?”
“Yes! Yes, I can!” Enrico thought as hard as he could. “Are you thinking? And I can hear you?”
“Yes, I am just thinking,” Richard’s voice came again, “and apparently you can.”
“I had no idea the transmuted could do that!”
“Neither did I. You can’t hear everything I’m thinking about, can you?”
“No. To me, it sounds like your voice is coming from inside my mind. It’s just like we’re having a normal conversation.”
“That’s what it’s like for me, too. It seems others can only hear the thoughts that you want them to hear.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Rod. Then, startling, he addressed Enrico directly.
“We are not referring to the stables where the horses live,” he clarified. “There is a separate complex of stables where the mechanical men reside when they are not working. Follow me. And since I’m sure you’re wondering: No, I cannot hear what you’re thinking, but I can guess at it.”
Enrico nodded and followed Rod out of the hall of justice.
They went through a small, narrow side gate in the castle wall, hidden in a spot where it couldn’t be seen clearly from any of the main streets of the city. They followed the inside of the wall around until they came to the inside of a simple, but remarkably tall wooden building. There was straw on the floor inside, but it was clean and fresh, and had none of the smell of a stable for horses. Wait- that wasn’t right. Enrico no longer had a sense of smell. This realization came as another shock to him.
There was a corridor down the center of the rectangular wooden building that was open to the ceiling. Along the length of this open space were several narrow stairways that led to four ascending levels of walkways, each one of which was lined with small doors of exactly the right height for the transmuted, about four feet.
“This is the stable for the transmuted,” explained Rod. “There are usually between seventy and a hundred of them staying in here. The most we’ve ever had at one time was a hundred and eighty. We had to have most of them share rooms. You’re lucky you don’t have to. Now, if you’ll look down at the back of your left hand, you’ll see that you each have a serial number. Those are also the numbers of the room you’re assigned to. You have rooms 88 and 89, on the third level.”
[Author’s Note: I finally gave Mr. Pulsipher a first name. It’s Richard.]
“I understand and accept, Your Majesty,” said Richard.
“I also understand and accept, Your Majesty,” said Enrico. He looked at Richard questioningly one last time, but Richard looked back with an expression of hard resolve.
“Very well,” said the king. “I will now begin the spell.”
One of the manservants standing by brought the king an impressive-looking, gnarled wooden staff with a large, smooth, round, blue-green gem set into the top of it. It could have passed for a walking stick belonging to a very rich, very elderly man, but everyone in the room knew that this was much more than just a walking stick.
The king held the staff in his right hand and raised his arm until it was parallel to the floor, and the staff was perfectly vertical. He then began speaking words in an ancient, foreign tongue. Enrico thought he heard vague, distant echoes of his own native tongue here and there among the unintelligible language, and suddenly felt wistful and desperately homesick for Kelzia. As the words flowed on, he fought off the desire to tremble in terror, as many of his people had when faced with this spell. He would endure and not show his new ruler any weakness.
Light began to glow from inside the gem, blue at first, then brightening to white as the incantation reached its climax. Enrico somehow felt the light washing over him. It made his skin prickle at first. Then it seemed like every single muscle in his body tensed up all at the same time. He couldn’t help crying out in surprise and pain. He then felt a sickening wave of vertigo. Casting about desperately for an idea of what was going on, he forced himself to look straight at the face of the king, and then realized that he was actually becoming shorter. He felt strange, but couldn’t bear the thought of looking to see what was happening to his own body. He was sure that if he did, he would scream or cry. Better to wait until it was all over, then start getting used to his new state slowly, bit by bit. He didn’t look over at Richard, either. He just continued watching the king work his talents.
Finally, the light from the gem in the staff faded. Enrico began to heave a sigh of relief, but discovered shortly that he could not. For a panicked moment, he was sure he was going to die of suffocation. Then he found that he felt none of the tightness or urgency that came with being unable to breathe. He felt perfectly normal, at least in that regard.
“Do not be concerned about your apparent inability to breathe,” said the king, in the tone of someone who had had to give this exact same speech hundreds of times to hundreds of different people. “You will find that you are now perfectly capable of living and thriving without that ability. The transmuted receive all the energy they need to go on from the magic that is around them.”
Enrico nodded to the king, acknowledging this. He could not speak, because he had lost that ability in the transformation as well. He had known that was coming, though; all the transmuted had the same perfectly spherical heads with eyes that resembled the eyes of the people they had once been, except that they were made of glass, a triangular piece that stuck out for a nose, and an immobile slit for a mouth. They were incapable of speech, but they could hear and understand humans perfectly.
Richard was looking around the room. “I do not keep mirrors in this chamber,” said the king. “After several of the criminals I had sentenced tried to escape or kill themselves, I had them removed. I suggest you give yourselves time to become accustomed to these new forms.”
Enrico nodded again, then dared to move his head. It made a smooth, oiled-metal-on-metal sound as he moved it. He saw what he had known he would see: a mechanical body, completely covered in a shiny, smooth brass skin.
“Rod,” said the king to the guardsman who had brought them in. “Take them to the stables.”
“Why?” Enrico thought, sincerely wishing he could speak.
[This continues from where the previous day’s writing left off.]
“What is the nature of your relationship?”
“I am renting a room from him.”
“That’s not unusual, but why is he behaving like this? Most citizens who act as landlords to you Kelzians just stand around looking distressed when we enter their houses in pursuit of people like you.”
“Maybe those people aren’t such good friends with their lessees.” $Name2 spoke up for himself. “Maybe they just think of them as a means of income. I don’t.”
“Is this true?” the guardsman said to Enrico.
“It is,” said Enrico. “$Name2, why are you doing this?”
“Didn’t I just say?” said $Name2. “You’re my friend. I know what’s about to happen to you as well as you do, and I don’t like it any more than you do. I think it’s time someone stood by you and helped you through it.”
Enrico could not believe his ears. “Are you mad?” he said. “You have a family. What will it do to them, if they lose you for an entire year?”
“You are part of our family,” answered $Name2. “And they’ll be all right. They’re off maintaining the family empire with their blankets right now. Just trust me.”
“Come on,” said the guardsman. “You can keep talking on the way to the judgment hall.”
The king of $Kingdom had a castle with a great hall and an audience chamber for holding court in, but commoners were never invited there. When there were matters to be dealt with involving commoners, he held court in the judgment hall. It was a smaller stone building located outside the castle walls, and designed for impressiveness, but not defensibility. It had only one story and was nearly as big as the cathedrals that were now being built in other places.
The guardsman marched his two prisoners into the judgment hall. The king was waiting there on what had to be a modest throne by royal standards. There were other guards and manservants around him.
“Come forward,” said the king when he saw them enter.
The three men approached the front of the hall.
“Your Majesty,” the guardsman began. “This man, Enrico Naveno, is known to the royal guard to be a Kelzian who has taken up residence in the house of one of our citizens without first registering with the Royal Office of the Citizenry. He must suffer the consequences. This man is the citizen in question, Mr. $Name2 Pulsipher. He requested to be brought here along with the criminal.”
“Did he now,” said the king. “And why would he make such a request? You may speak for yourself, Mr. Pulsipher.”
“Your Majesty, I requested to be brought here because I don’t want Enrico to have to go through what he’s about to go through alone,” answered $Name2. “He has no family here, and the landowner he’s working for wouldn’t even give him a place to stay, so I did. Criminal or not, he and I are good friends, and I wish to share this burden with him. I humbly beg of you, allow me to bear half of his punishment. Let me be transmuted along with him, but let us both remain among the transmuted only for the next six months.”
The king stroked his two-pointed, white beard, giving the appearance of thinking about this.
“You have not committed such a serious crime as to merit such a punishment,” he said to $Name2, “and you are a citizen yourself. You were never under any requirement to prove your loyalty to the kingdom, so there is no need for you to be punished for failure to do so, as there is in the case of Mr. Naveno. Are you absolutely certain that undergoing the transmutation is what you want?”
“And you are prepared for everything that involves?”
“I believe so.”
The king thought for a moment longer, furrowing his brow.
“Very well, then,” he said. “I will permit this. Enrico Naveno, $Name2 Pulsipher, you are hereby sentenced to six months of labor among the transmuted. Mr. Naveno, after you complete those six months, you will undergo a period of probation during which your activities and fitness for citizenship will be monitored. If you are found to be productive, loyal, and true, you will be permitted citizen ship. As for you, Mr. Pulsipher, after the six months are over, you will be permitted to return to your home and family with no further attention from the royal guard.”