Dear readers, tonight with us is a stag, the cook and aide to the Sphinx. He’s here to tell us about his adventures on board an airship, about pirates and protagonists.
Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?
My memories are a little vague on this point, but I recall a glade in a birch forest. We grazed on sweet clover while the sun warmed our backs. The air seemed absolutely dazzling after the dark of the woods. I remember my mother cleaning my ears, licking my snout.
I suppose I was like any other white-tailed fawn: curious, skittish, always hungry.
Did you have any favourite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?
Point in fact, I was someone else’s toy—their pet, they would’ve said. After my mother was murdered, the hunting party found me. One of them was a nobleman in the ringdom of Mundy Crete in the Tower of Babel. He thought I would make a fine gift for his daughter. I suppose she loved me for a time, but then my rack came in, and I grew too big to keep indoors. I believe I ruined several rugs. The lord put me in a pen outside. It was his private skyport—a quiet and very lonely place. They stopped feeding me after a while. I started attracting the attention of vultures. But before the buzzards could dine, the Sphinx found me. She brought me back—back to her home and back to life. She built this mechanical body for me. She taught me to speak and live as a man. I’ve been with her ever since.
What do you do now?
I’m the Sphinx’s Secretary. Among other duties, I manage her home. There are more than six hundred rooms, and that’s not counting the Bottomless Library, which as you might imagine is rather large. I take care of the guests when there are any, though visitors are increasingly rare. The Sphinx, you understand, is semi-retired. She still tinkers, still keeps an eye on things, but she threw her last gala decades ago. Now, our guests are mostly pirates: unlikable sorts who serve a practical purpose. Not a one of them appreciates the difference between a chiffon cake and a pound cake, I can tell you. I could serve them the gateau of the gods, and they’d just dunk it in rum and cram it in.
What can you tell us about your latest adventure?
I’m not exactly what you would call an adventurer. In fact, I hadn’t left the house in years until quite recently when the Sphinx requested that I help to crew the State of Art, a well-equipped airship that includes a ballroom, a conservatory, a dining room, and—I’m pleased to say—a very adequate kitchen. I have been informed that kitchens aboard ships are traditionally called ‘galleys.’ I’ve been learning other bits of aeronautical slang. For example, did you know that airmen call a five-course meal ‘grub?’ I certainly did not. I thought grubs were white wiggly things found under logs in the forest, but no, grub is the profiterole that I spent six hours in the kitchen preparing.
Also, there’s a baby on board, which while not exactly an adventure, is something of an ongoing crisis. Captain Winters, Mister Iren, Miss Voleta, and the pilot all like to leave me with the diapers and the darling little dribbler while they go off gallivanting through the Tower! They always come back in such a state. Their coats are ripped; their trousers are stained; they have blood on their collars and powder burns on their sleeves. You want adventure? Try keeping those four clothed and presentable! I should just start putting them in potato sacks whenever they leave the ship.
What did you first think when the Sphinx made Edith Winters captain of the State of Art?
Edith and I have something of a thorny history. She and I were briefly friendly, then entirely unfriendly, and recently we’ve come to a place of mutual respect. I trust the Sphinx’s judgment implicitly, and Captain Winters has never given me any reasons to doubt her. Well, except for her judgment with sauces. Ketchup was concocted to conceal the presence of spoiled meat, not to obliterate the succulent flavours of duck cassoulet! That aside, I think she is the strongest, bravest, most principled person I know. Which is fortunate for us all because the Tower is trembling, the pins that hold up the sky are loosening. But if anyone can save us, it’s her.
What was the scariest thing in your adventures?
Knowing that we are so few confronting so many. The Sphinx could’ve raised armies if she’d wanted to. Instead, she let the clans rule themselves, arm themselves, make war among themselves. The Tower might’ve been a more prosperous and peaceful place if the Sphinx had chosen to intervene, but she preferred to observe, at least, she did until Luc Marat made it clear he meant to radicalize the poor hods, and use them to take the Sphinx’s wonders, her powers, her means, her home. While the Sphinx might’ve been a benevolent regent, Luc Marat would be an unapologetic tyrant. I’m sure if he ever sat atop the Tower, he would drive it like a spike into the earth and bury all alive with it.
What is the worst thing about living on an airship?
Turns. Have you ever tried to frost a cake at a 15° angle? I’ve never seen such a mess! The infant gets a gimbaled crib. I don’t see why I can’t have a gimbaled island in the kitchen.
What is the best thing about living on an airship?
I know I complain about them, but the crew make all the dishes and laundry and mopping worthwhile. In fact, I wish I was more adept at communicating to them just how much I like and enjoy their company. I have not had many friends in my life, and now I find myself surrounded by people who make me feel as if I belong. They never make me feel monstrous or strange. I feel fiercely protective of them all.
Tell us a little about your friends.
Well, I think of the lot, the captain and I are perhaps closest. I have confided in her more than anyone else. She listens to my advice, which I appreciate, and lets me be blunt with her in a manner I’m sure few captains would tolerate. Then there’s Iren. She’s a woman of few words, but excellent humor. She’s like a muscular mother hen, especially to Miss Voleta, who needs at least two mothers. Probably more. Voleta can be charming…no, that’s not the word. She’s nearly always infuriating, but she can be quite astute, and she is generally kind, especially to animals, which is admirable. And I’ve recently been introduced to a new friend named Ann. She was a governess to the rich before she joined our crew. She works as hard as I do to keep everything afloat. She never complains, which is helpful because I complain enough for two.
Any romantic involvement?
Recently, I’ve become rather infatuated with ganache, though my heart will always belong to buttercream.
Whom do you really hate?
I hate bullies and liars. Luc Marat is both. I should know; I lived with him for years. He had more than two faces; he had a whole closet full of them. He could lie out of the back of his head. The Sphinx was fooled for a time, or perhaps she thought she could rehabilitate him. But he was always so good at telling you what you wanted to hear, at feigning friendship, at gaining trust, but people to him were just obstacles. He was handsome and charming and profoundly wounded, which only made him more sympathetic. I’ve never known anyone more charismatic or megalomaniacal. He wants to be a universally adored autocrat. I don’t hate many people, but if I ever cooked for him again, I’d season his dish with glass.
What’s your favourite drink, colour, and relaxing pastime?
Tea, of course. No, actually, I don’t like tea at all. It’s too bitter. But I adore all the things that come with tea. Sugar cubes, tongs, creamers, saucers, sandwiches, cucumbers, butter curls, biscuits! It’s a pity that tea has to be served at all. Why not hot chocolate? I suppose that’s my favourite drink.
Last year for my birthday, the Sphinx gave me a tube of blue paint made from lapis lazuli. The colour is so exquisite, so rich I can hardly bring myself to use it. I sometimes unscrew the cap just to look upon the jewel of colour shining within.
I paint. Originally, I took up the brush to improve the dexterity of my mechanical hands. I still have my first painting: an oblong sun, a green scribble of trees, a cockeyed mountain, and a flat sky full of black V’s for birds. I’ve gotten a great deal better since then, but I’m perhaps fondest of that first painting because it filled me with—and I realize this might sound strange—it filled me with awe, awe at what I could do then and might do next. It was a very hopeful feeling, and I’m not what you would call blessed with an abundance of optimism.
What does the future hold for you?
I’m not sure. I want to go home to see my master because I’m worried about her, but I don’t think I want to be cloistered away from the world again. I’ve begun to develop a taste for travel. I’d like to see more of the Tower, not just the model rooms, but the ringdoms themselves. I’d like to visit the forest of my youth. And I’d like to continue to be part of this crew.
Can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?
I put nutmeg, just a pinch, in my spinach quiche.
Before settling down to write fantasy novels, Josiah Bancroft was a poet, college instructor, rock musician, and aspiring comic book artist. When he is not writing, he enjoys recording the Crit Faced podcast with his authorial friends, drawing the world of the Tower, and cooking dinner without a recipe. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Sharon, their daughter Maddie, and their two rabbits, Mabel and Chaplin.
You can find Byron on the pages of The Books of Babel tetralogy, starting with Senlin Ascends (and the final novel coming out later this year).
Join us next week to meet the last of a race of legends, who hunted us and we hunted them in return. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right) to be notified when the next interview is posted.
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