Escape Pod 538: The Starsmith

The Starsmith

by Jonathan Edelstein

It took two years for Faji Doumbia to travel from Madankoro to Mutanda on the free trader Mweshi: two years of sleeping in cargo holds fragrant with spices and scented woods, two years of waiting on each world as the captain concluded his business, two years of jumping through the ichiyawafu and dreaming of the dead. He worked his passage, and there was time enough to learn the dead language that the ship’s computers spoke and discover how to tend machines that no living person could build. There was time enough to contract two ship-marriages, and by the time Faji came at last to Chambishi Port on the forty-ninth day of the Year of Migration 30,891, he had given a son to the ship-clans.

What he found when he took his leave of the Mweshi was both more and less than what he expected. Ninety thousand people lived in Chambishi Port, far more than any town on Madankoro, but forty million had lived there once, and the new city seemed like a collection of villages amid its former glory. Some of the towers north and east of the port were four kilometers tall: the war that destroyed the Union had gutted them, and after six hundred years forests grew in their upper stories, but they loomed over the thatched houses that lay between them, and from a few, the remnants of the High Streets and High Gardens hung crazily.

It was minutes before Faji could bring his eyes down from the towers to the ships – the ships hundreds and thousands of years old, that the Union had built and that now served its children. By then, the dockmen were well started in unloading the Mweshi. He stopped one and asked where the numusokala was, and when he got no answer, he remembered that the people here used different words. “Where are the… washiri?” he asked, remembering the word he’d been taught. “The blacksmiths?”

The dockman turned to the north. “You’re one of them?” he said. “Yes, you’ve got the look of one. That way, through the old city. You’ll hear the place, and even before that, you’ll smell it.”

There was a hint of distaste in the dockman’s voice, and he walked away as if he couldn’t leave quickly enough. That, too, wasn’t what Faji had expected.

He wondered briefly what the dockman had meant by the old city – would he have to go all the way to the towers? – but as his steps carried him north, he realized. The landing-field and warehouses faded into winding streets that the war had somehow missed: the buildings here were twenty thousand years old, and some of the shops, with windows full of curiosities from a thousand worlds, boasted that they had been in business nearly as long. The people on the streets were prosperous, the men in layered, wide-sleeved boubous and the women in patterned dresses and hair-cloths: Faji knew by instinct that they were the imwinamishishi, the nobles of the city.

This district ended in its turn, and after an interval of cleared space and gardens, he passed into ruins. These, too, were old, and the streets were a labyrinth, but as the dockman had said, the smell of molten iron and the familiar sound of hammers filled the air. Faji let them guide him, and they brought him unerringly to the foundry.

It looked nothing like a town smithy on Madankoro: it occupied an ancient factory of which nearly an entire wall had been ripped out by some unimaginable weapon. The wall had never been repaired, and Faji only wondered why for a second: if not for its ventilation, the heat of the many furnaces, forges and crucibles would be unbearable even to a smith. Faji had seen houses where three or four blacksmiths worked, but here there were more than a hundred, and they seemed to be doing everything at once.

He found the foreman. That also didn’t take long: the man was at the center of the foundry floor, and even stripped to the waist, his authority was plain. “I ni sógóma, numutigi,” he said – “good morning, master.”

“N’ba,” the foreman answered, and he looked Faji up and down. “You are from Kidiana…”


“Nearly as good. Looking for work? A blacksmith trained?”

“I’m a Doumbia.”

That was enough of an answer. “We can always use more. I am Camara” – another blacksmithing family – “and you can go over there and see what Conté needs you to do.” Faji started toward a work area that was marked out by hangings of green and black, but Camara called him back. “One more thing. Here, we don’t say i ni sógóma, we say mwambopeni.”

“Mwabompeni.” Faji repeated the unfamiliar word – on Madankoro, only the traders still spoke the Union’s language – and as he did, his conversation with the dockman came back to him. “No one said that to me when I landed. They told me how to get here, but it seemed like they wanted to get rid of me.”

Camara laughed, loud enough to be heard over the din of the foundry. “What did you expect – did you think they’d make you an inwinamishishi the moment they saw you? Did you think they’d give you the mwata’s daughter to marry?”

“At home, everyone said they needed smiths here…”

“They do, and they pay well, but that doesn’t mean they like us. They fell far when the Union went, and half of them think we’re sorcerers for what we do. You’ll see.” And the foreman waved his hand in another dismissal, this one final.

As the newest, Faji was called on to do everything: tend the furnaces, make steel in the crucibles, forge and temper and sharpen. He made knives and chisels, nails and plow-blades, fine tools for the people who maintained the few surviving Union machines. He stacked iron and disposed of slag.

Before very long, he learned that Camara’s words were true. He went to rent rooms in the old city – a blacksmith’s wage was enough for it – but no one would let them to him. Everyone in was happy to give the smiths credit in the market, but few wanted them next door, and sometimes Faji saw them make signs to ward off witchcraft. In the end, he stayed in the old warehouse that the smiths had converted into apartments, a numusokala in the middle of a foreign city.

But he knew that not everyone was afraid. He could see that even at the foundry. The smiths’ children who played in the courtyards, and even some of the younger smiths, had features that looked more like the ones common on this world than those of Madankoro or Kidiana or Kolondieba. Their wives and mothers spoke the language of Mutanda to them, and they were as likely to banter with each other in it as in their fathers’ tongue. And the green and black of the foundry’s tapestries and the blacksmiths’ clothing – those were the colors of Ogun, this world’s god of iron. Somewhere, the worlds must have met.

He learned how early in the second year. Thokozani had a pottery store in the old city, and she wasn’t the kind of potter that Faji had known on Madankoro: she made fine work for sale to the traders, work that would be sold as prized treasure on a hundred worlds. She did with clay what he only hoped to do someday with iron, and dealing with the traders every day had left her no fear of strangers. The prices were more than he could afford, but he was drawn inside, and talk of craft led to talk of other things.

That evening, they went up to the roof and he showed her the star he came from, and she stood beside him for long minutes looking into the void. “How could you come so far?” she asked.

“I was a fifth son. There was no work for me at my father’s forge, and the other numun-fin families had sons of their own.”

“You could have done other work…”

“The Doumbias have been blacksmiths for more than thirty thousand years, even before the Migrations. And… ironwork is sacred to us. It’s why we remembered how to do it when the rest of the Union forgot…”

“And now there’s work for you everywhere.” She looked toward another star now. “There are stories of you everywhere, too. There are lost colonies where ‘doumbia’ is a word for magician – they say you’re a tribe of sorcerers scattered through the stars.”

“There’s no magic in numubaara,” he said, using his word for blacksmithing. “Only nyama.” Too late, he realized that it might be best not to talk to someone from Mutanda about such things, but the words were said, and she was already asking him what nyama was.

“Energy,” he answered. “Power to change. When we work iron, we wield it. Speaking is nyama too. Words change things – on my world, they say that speech is not in our hands but we in its.”

Some of Thokozani’s countrymen might have thought he was speaking of witchcraft, but she only nodded her understanding. “When you forge iron, then, you’re saying something?”

“Maybe, even if it’s only ‘may this blade be sharp.’”

She laughed, as he’d intended, but she also shook her head. “You put something of yourself in your iron, as you do in your words. Even if you don’t know what the work says, it means something.”

“Some of the children at the foundry – the ones just learning – say that if you don’t know what you’ve made, it’s a prayer to Ogun.”

“Ogun.” Her voice didn’t carry the reverence he’d expected. “He’s as much of a foreigner as you are.”

“He isn’t one of your gods?”

“Oh, the orishas are gods here, but they aren’t the ones we started with. They were brought here long before the Union, but in the western islands where I come from, we don’t believe in them.”

“What do you believe in, then?”

“Lesa the Creator. The umupashi, the spirits of the ancestors. The mhondoro, my other ancestors. Your thirty thousand years of Doumbias, and the people who built the towers.”

Faji turned north, and the towers loomed in the darkness, but on the roof where he and Thokozani were standing, there was nothing between them and the stars. They stayed there through the night.

On other days, they explored. He was surprised that a woman of noble family, as he’d learned her to be, would have such freedom, but her father was an exile, and her shop paid most of the bills. She took him to see the towers and climbed with him into their lower stories, and he noticed the metal of which they were made, warped and twisted by war but still strong after thousands of years.

He’d seen pieces of Union steel before, mixed with the scrap iron that the peddlers brought in, but Camara had never bought it. “We can’t work it,” the foreman explained when Faji asked. “The Union had furnaces we could never build now – I saw the ruins of one once, but it was past repair. If someone brings us a knife from those days, we can sharpen it or beat it into shape, but we can’t make new things.”

“What did the Union make from it, besides buildings?”

“Everything. Like I said, you’ll see the knives and tools sometimes – they’re family treasures now. But they made furniture too, and machines and jewelry.”

“They made steel jewelry?”

“That’s what the books say. That’s what people who’ve read the books say, at any rate.”

Faji’s mind raced as he wondered what such a thing might look like. “Have you seen one?”

“No, and neither will you, unless you’re invited to the mwata’s palace. Even Ogun’s shrine doesn’t have one. But the mwata’s jewel is famous – they say the spirits of all the kings are in it.”

“Umupashi,” Faji remembered. Such things would be considered sorcerous on Madankoro; maybe what was sacred on one world was witchcraft on another.

“But we’re not jewelers,” Camara said, interrupting the thought, “and we have work to do.”

Faji went back to the calipers he was making, and at night, he went to the old city to seek out Thokozani. By now, they saw each other nearly every day, and after the rains, he began to speak of marriage.

“Be careful,” she said. “Words change things.”

His own words thrown back at him weren’t what he had hoped to hear. “You don’t want to marry me?”

“I do,” she said, and those words changed everything. But the next words also did: “My father will have to give permission.”

She’d told him about her father: he’d been an inwinamishishi in the western islands before he’d lost everything in war. He was poor, but he was still enrolled among the nobles, and he was very traditional and very, very proud.

“We must go to him then,” he said, but the thought made him afraid, and he was right to be.

The old man was waiting in his hall, and he looked Faji up and down with distaste. “A blacksmith,” he said, “and a foreigner.” And a witch, he didn’t say, but the words hung in the air.

“Blacksmiths are nobles on his world,” Thokozani said – it was almost true, so Faji didn’t gainsay her. “And he’s been promoted at the foundry. He will be rich.”

“I will provide for your daughter, shikulu,” Faji added.

The elder man – Ntembwa – looked at Faji and then around to the islanders who had come to pay court to him, and the silence lengthened. “If you’re growing rich,” he said at last, “then surely you can afford a fine bride-price.”

“I’m not rich now, shikulu. But I will give as fine a bride-price as I can.”

“Then here is my price. My daughter says you’re a master of your craft, so prove it. Make me a single jewel of Union steel, like the mwata has. Make me a jewel that will keep the umupashi of all my ancestors, so I can go with a fleet to the islands and take back what is mine. Bring that to me and I will approve the marriage.”

For a second, Faji didn’t realize what Ntembwa was demanding of him: then he did, and he was jolted out of its formality. “Not even Ogun can work Union steel,” he said.

“Ogun is a newcomer. You say your family has worked iron for thirty thousand years. Make me one jewel, and Thokozani is yours. That is my malape, my oath.”

“I will make one,” he said: there was nothing else he could say.

With that, Ntembwa dismissed him, and he walked out of the house. Thokozani’s shop where she spent most nights was a few blocks away, and he took his place by her side, but she stayed him. “We can’t spend nights together now,” she said. “It would look like we’re thwarting my father.”

He looked at her as if struck by a blow. “We never had your father’s permission before.”

“That was before you asked him,” she said, with all the weight of the western islands in her voice. “Words change everything.”

He went to the elders of the Leopard clan to mediate. The Three Migrations had spread the clans throughout the worlds, crossing boundaries of language and nation; he and Thokozani were in the same one, and he hoped that its respected men could convince her father to see reason. But they couldn’t and didn’t, and neither could the ifapemba, the members of the city council.

“The people from the western islands are strange,” they said, “and they have their own customs. If they were born in the city, maybe we could help, but not with an islander.” “They have Shona blood,” added one of them, and though he no more knew what that meant than Faji did, he shook his head at the unreasonableness of it all.

So he went to the university, or what remained of it: he listened to the preceptors’ complaints about how far learning had fallen, and he paid a reader to comb through old libraries and the few restored computers. He found little he could use. The books spoke of furnaces hotter than anything existing today, but building them required tools and materials that no one now had, and the records showing how to make those things were lost or else required impossible materials themselves.

“They carried knowledge in their heads, in the Union,” one of the readers said. “They all had their own machines, with all the worlds’ learning in them. But when the war and the plague came, the machines turned to witches inside their bodies. All the learning was buried with them, and no one now knows how to unearth it.”

But the Union’s knowledge hadn’t come entirely to nothing. There was nothing Faji could do to work Union steel, but there were ways he could change it. The books spoke of strong acids that could be used to etch the metal, and through repeated etching and polishing, it could be shaped. He bought a few lumps of the steel from a peddler, found some of the ingredients for the acids and polishes in the markets, and gathered the others; he claimed an abandoned outbuilding as a workshop, and he set out to make a jewel.

His first attempts failed, and in one of them he burned his hand badly, but he learned to use his new tools, and trial and error matured into technique. At the end of each day at the forges, he would go to his shed, and each evening when he finished, the Union steel took on more of his rendering. Slowly, it became an intricate knot, a web of strands surrounding a nucleus, almost an atom of metal. And both acid and polish brought a glow out from within, until it shone like a sun.

Making the steel jewel occupied Faji’s third year on Mutanda and much of his fourth, but he didn’t grudge the time. This was nyama, more than he had ever felt at the forge. He felt like he was making a star, a flame, and the Union steel seemed to have a power of its own. It was a live thing, no longer metal but changed by nyama to a precious stone.

After two years – as long as it had taken to come to Chambishi Port from a distant world – the work was done, and he and Thokozani brought it before Ntembwa. Thokozani, who Faji hadn’t allowed to see the jewel while it was being made, was unable to take her eyes off it, but her father held it up before his courtiers and regarded it calmly.

“This is fine work,” he admitted. “But the price was a jewel. This is not a jewel.”

“You broke your oath, tata,” Thokozani cried. At the same time, Faji asked, “Then what is a jewel, shikulu?”

“I will know when you bring it to me, won’t I?”

The stories, both on Faji’s world and this, said that a noblewoman’s suitor had to perform three impossible tasks, but it seemed he would never get a chance to begin the second. The courtiers laughed, and Ntembwa held the jewel in his open hand for Faji to take back. Thokozani protested again, but Faji said nothing.

That night, Thokozani came to Faji in the blacksmiths’ apartments. He was facing a window when she entered, but he could not mistake her footsteps.

“The ifapemba say it’s no use going to court,” he said, still not turning to face her. “The mwata would never let your father accept the jewel, even if he wanted – he doesn’t want another noble to have the thing he has. They said one of the men in your father’s court was there to make sure he did what he did. So you can go.”

“I’m staying,” she said.

Now he turned to where she was, and took her waiting hands in both of his. “You defy your father now?”

“I owe him nothing. He broke his oath.”

“Did he? He asked for a steel jewel, and who can say what a jewel is? A person with the power to set impossible tasks has the power to make sure they really are impossible.”

“Words change everything?”

“Or make everything stay the same.”

“Then every oath is false,” she said, “and I still owe Ntembwa nothing.” Her words sounded like a poet’s, and they were pregnant with nyama: by them, she was no longer her father’s daughter.

“Then we will marry?” he asked. Her hands were still in his.

“Not here, not with my father being who he is. But the Mweshi is in port, bound for the worlds of the Third Migration. We can contract a ship-marriage, and no one will question it when we land.”

A shock passed over Faji, but departed as quickly: this would be another journey of months or years, to a place harsh and primitive, but the idea drew him. There would be iron there – iron and clay.

“You said that Doumbia means sorcerer out there,” he said.

“And we have a treasure to bring them.”

“The jewel? That is my marriage-gift to you. It isn’t to sell.”

“No, not that jewel.” She pointed to the pieces of Union steel that lay on the floor, and that gesture, as much as any word or hammer-stroke, was nyama.

“The others.”

About the Author

Jonathan Edelstein

Jonathan Edelstein was born in 1971, is married with cat, and lives in Queens. In addition to a previous publication in Escape Pod, his work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. His literary heroes include Chinua Achebe, Ursula Le Guin and Bernard Cornwell, and when he isn’t writing, he practices law and hopes someday to get it right.

Find more by Jonathan Edelstein


About the Narrator

James Odcombe

James Odcombe is a writer and storyteller who loves imaginary worlds and unusual characters. He’s British but grew up in Tanzania, East Africa. Now living in the UK, he pens tales of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror.

Find more by James Odcombe