Download this episode (right click and save)

And here’s the RSS feed:



by Cat Rambo

They line up before Laurana, forty baked-clay heads atop forty bodies built of metal cylinders.  Every year she casts and fires new heads to replace those lost to weather, the wild, or simple erosion.  She rarely replaces the metal bodies.  They are scuffed and battered, over a century old.

Every morning, the island sun beating down on her pale scalp, she stands on the maison’s porch with the golems before her.  Motionless.  Expressionless.

She chants.  The music and the words fly into the clay heads and keep them thinking.  The golems are faster just after they have been charged.  They move more lightly, with more precision.  With more joy.  Without the daily chant they could go perhaps three days at most, depending on the heaviness of their labors.


Full transcript appears under the cut.

[Intro music plays]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 13 for September 1st, 2015. This is your host Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you.

We’re back from our unfortunate hiatus, which was caused because it turns out that moving more than 3,000 miles away across the entire continent is a bit of an upheaval. But, I’m settling in over here in New York, now, and I’m a little more than a week into the first year of my five-in-theory-year program.

Our story today is “Sugar” by Cat Rambo. Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. A prolific storywriter and Nebula and World Fantasy Award nominee, her publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Her most recent book is Beasts of Tabat, Book 1 of the Tabat Quartet. She is the current President of SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, see



by Cat Rambo


They line up before Laurana, forty baked-clay heads atop forty bodies built of metal cylinders.  Every year she casts and fires new heads to replace those lost to weather, the wild, or simple erosion.  She rarely replaces the metal bodies.  They are scuffed and battered, over a century old.

Every morning, the island sun beating down on her pale scalp, she stands on the maison’s porch with the golems before her.  Motionless.  Expressionless.

She chants.  The music and the words fly into the clay heads and keep them thinking.  The golems are faster just after they have been charged.  They move more lightly, with more precision.  With more joy.  Without the daily chant they could go perhaps three days at most, depending on the heaviness of their labors.

This month is cane-planting season.  She delegates the squads of laborers and sets some to carrying buckets from the spring to water the new cane shoots while others dig furrows.  The roof needs reshingling, but it can wait until planting season is past.  As the golems shuffle off, she pauses to water the flowering bushes along the front of the house.  Placing her fingertips together, she conjures a tiny rain cloud, wringing moisture from the air.  Warm drops collect on the leaves, rolling down to darken pink and gray bark to red and black.

Inside the house is quiet.  The three servants are in the kitchen, cooking breakfast and gossiping.  She comes up to the doorway like a ghost, half fearing what she will hear.  Nothing but small, inconsequential things.  Jeanette says when she takes her freedom payment, she will ask for a barrel of rum, and go sell it in the street, three silver pieces a cup, over at Sant Tigres, the pirate city.  She has a year to go in the sorceress’ service.

Daniel has been here a year and has four more to go.  He is still getting used to the golems, still eyes them warily when he thinks no one can see him.  He is thin and wiry, and his face is pockmarked and scarred by the Flame Plague.  He was lucky to escape the Old Continent with his life.  Lucky to live here now, and he knows it.

Tante Isabelle has been with her since the woman was thirteen.  Now she’s eighty-five, frail as one of the butterflies that move through the bougainvillea.  A black beak’s snap, and the butterfly will be gone.  She sits peeling cubes of ginger, which she will boil with sugar and lime juice to make sweet syrup that can flavor tea or conjured ice.

“If you sell rum, everyone will think you are selling what lies between your thighs as well!” she says, eying Jeanette.

Jeanette shrugs and tosses her head. “Maybe I’d make even more that way!” she says, ignoring Daniel’s blush.

Tante Isabelle looks up to see Laurana standing there.  The old woman’s smile is sweet as sunshine, sweet as sugar.  The sorceress stands in the doorway, and the three servants smile at her, as they always do, at their beautiful mistress.  No thought ever crosses their minds of betraying or displeasing her.  It never occurs to them to wonder why.


Christina is a pirate.  She wears bright calicos stolen from Indian traders and works on a ship that travels in lazy shark-like loops around the Lesser and Greater Southern Isles, looking for strays from the treasure fleet and Duchy merchants.  The merchants, based in the southernmost New Continent port of Tabat, prey on the more impoverished colonies, taking their entire crops in return for food and tools.  The treasure fleet is part of a vast corrupt network, fed by springs of gold.  This is what Christina tells Laurana, how she justifies her profession of blood and watery death.

When Christina comes to Sant Tigres, she goes to the inn and sends one of the pigeons the innkeeper keeps on the roof.  It flies to Laurana’s window.  She leaves her maison and sails to the port in a small skiff, standing all the way from one island to the other, sea winds whipping around her.  She focuses her will and asks the air sylphs, who she normally does not converse with, to bear her to her lover’s scarlet and orange clad arms.

Tiny golden hoops, each set with a charm created by Laurana, are set in Christina’s right ear.  One is a tiny glass fish, protection against drowning, and the other is a silver lightning bolt to ward off storms.

Christina likes to order large meals when she comes ashore.  Her crew hunts the unsettled islands and catches the wild cattle and hogs so abundant there to eke out their income.  They sell the excess fat and hides to the smugglers that fill these islands.  So she is not meat-starved now, but wants sugary treats, confections of butter and sweet, washed down with raw swallows of rum, here in harbor, where she can be safely drunk.

“Pretty farmer,” she says now.  She touches the sorceress’s hair, which was black as Christina’s once, but which has gone silver with age, despite her unlined skin and her clear, brilliant blue eyes.

“Pretty pirate,” Laurana replies.  She spends the evening buying drinks for Christina and her crew.  The pirates count on her deep pockets, rich with gold from selling sugar.  Sometimes they try to sell her things plundered on their travels, ritual components, scrolls or trinkets laden with spells.  The only present Christina ever brought her was a waxed and knotted cord strung with knobby, pearly shells.  It hangs on her bedchamber wall where the full moon’s light can polish it each month.

Laurana brings Christina presents: fresh strawberries and fuzzy nectarines from her greenhouse.  In Sant Tigres, she trades sugar for bushels of chocolate beans and packets of spices.  Someday, when circumstances have changed, she would like Christina to spend a day or two at the plantation.  Jeannette would outdo herself with the meals, flakey pastries and flowers of spun sugar.

It is time to send for a new cook, she thinks.  It will take a few months to post the message and then for the new arrival to appear, and even more time for Jeannette to train her in the ways of the kitchen and how to tell the golems to fetch and carry.

Someone leans forward to ask her a question.  It is a new member of Christina’s crew, curious about the rumors of her plantation.

“Human slaves are doomed to failure,” she says. “Look what happened on Banbur – discontented servants burned the fields and overtook the town there, turning their masters and mistresses out into the underbrush or setting them to labor.

“And,” she added. “Whites do badly in this climate.  I can take care of myself and my household, but it is easier to not worry about my automatons growing ill or dying.”

Although they did die, after a fashion.  They wore away, their features blurred with erosion.  They cracked and crumbled – first the noses, then the lips and brows, their eyes becoming pitted shadows, their molded hair a mottling of cracks.

Time to redecorate soon, she thought.  She did it every few decades.  She would send a letter and eventually a company representative would show up, consult with her, and then vanish back to Tabat, soon replaced by rolls of new wallpaper and carpets, crates of china and porcelain wash basins.  She looks at Christina and pictures her against blue silk sheets, olive skin gleaming in candle glow.

Later they fall into bed together and she stays there for two hours before she rises, despite her lover’s muffled, sleepy protests, and takes her skiff back to her own island.  Overhead the sky is a black bowl set with glittering layers of stars, grainy as sandstone and striated with light.  Moonlight dapples the waves, so dark and impenetrable that they look like polished jet.

At home, she goes upstairs.  A passage cuts across the house, running north to south to take advantage of the trade wind, and open squares at the top of each room partition let the wind through.  Britomart’s is the northernmost room.

The air smells of dawn and sugar.   Sugar, sweet and translucent as Britomart’s skin, the color of snow drifts, laid on cool white linen.  The other woman’s ivory hair, which matches Laurana’s, is spread out across the pillow.

Tonight her face is unmasked.  Laurana does not flinch away from the pitted eyes, the face more eroded than any golem’s.  Outside in the courtyard, the black and white deathbirds hop up and down in the branches, making the crimson flowers shake in the early morning light.

“Pleasant trip?” Britomart says.

Laurana’s answer is noncommittal.  Sometimes her old lover is kind, but she is prone to lashing out in sudden anger.  Laurana does not blame her for that.  Her death is proving neither painless nor particularly short, but it is coming, nonetheless.  A month?  A year?  Longer?  Laurana isn’t sure.  How long have they been locked in this conversation?  It has been less than six months so far, she knows, but it seems like forever.

She goes to her room.  The bed is turned down and a hot brick has been slipped between the sheets to warm them.  A bouquet of ginger sits on the table near the lamp, sending out its bold perfume.

She lies in bed and fails to sleep.  Britomart’s face floats before her in the darkness.  She is unsure if she is dreaming or really seeing it.  She wonders if she remembers it as worse than it really is.  But she doesn’t.


Two weeks later, the pigeon at her window.

Christina has a bandage around her upper arm, nothing much, she says, carelessness in a battle.  She pushes Laurana away, though apologetically.  Rather than sleep together, they stay awake and talk.  It is their first conversation of any length.  Two hours after their first meeting, in the Sant Tigres market, they had fallen into bed together, four months ago.

“So she’s sick, your friend?” Christina says.

“You were raised here in the islands,” Laurana answers.  “You don’t know what it was like in the Old Country.  In the space of three years, sorcerers destroyed two continents.  Everyone decided to make their power play at once.  They called dragons up out of the earth and set them killing.  The Flame Plague moved from town to town.  Entire villages went up like candles.  Millions died, and the earth itself was charred and burned, magic stripped from it.  Some fought with elementals, and others with summoned winds and fogs, but others with poisoned magic.”

She pours herself more wine.  Christina’s skin is paler than usual, but the lantern light in the room gleams on it as though it were flower petals.

“And you were here…” Christina prompts.

“I was here in the islands, preparing to go.  I heard that Britomart had blundered into someone else’s trap and was dying of it.  I brought her down.  The magic is clean here, and there are serendipities and artifacts.  I hoped to heal her.”

“But that hasn’t happened.”

The wine is mulled with cinnamon and clove and sugar that has not completely dissolved, a gritty sweet residue at the cup’s bottom.

“No,” she says. “That hasn’t happened.”


Christina smuggles Laurana onto her ship while it’s at harbor.  She and three other sailors are supposed to be watching it.  Laurana sits with them drinking shots of rum until the yellow moon swings itself up over the prow, its face broad and grinning as a baby’s.  It reminds her of Britomart and her tears well up.  She savors the moment, for magic removes almost all capacity to weep.

She nudges Christina and points to the distant reef.  Out on the rocks, mermaids cluster, fishy eyes shining in the moonlight, fleshy gills pulsing like tidepool creatures shuttered close by the light.  She kisses Christina as they watch.

Eventually, the two climb into Christina’s bunk for frantic, slippery, drunken lovemaking, careful of the still healing arm.

She leaves in the small hours, past the stares of the mermaids.  It is still planting season and the golems work and night.

When she first came to the island she tried yellow-flowered sea-island cotton.  Then indigo and ginger.  With the arrival from the Wizard’s College of Tabat of schematics for three-roller mills and copper furnace pots, sugar cane has become the crop of choice.  Her workers perform the labor that must be undertaken day and night when the cane is ready to harvested and transmuted into sugar and molasses.  She makes rum too, and ships barrels of it along with the molasses casks and thick cones of molded muscovado sugar to Sant Tigres, which consumes or trades all she can supply.

Most sorcerers are not strong enough to animate so many golems.  She has the largest plantation in this area.  Others, though, have followed her lead, although on a smaller scale.  It took decades for them to realize how steadily she was making money, despite the depredations of the Dutch merchants or the pirates they paid to disrupt the Aztec shipping trade.

She had been to the Old Continent before all the trouble, two years learning science at a school, where she had met Britomart, who was an actual princess as well as a sorceress.  She had been centuries old when she met Britomart but she had dared to hope that here was her soul mate, the person who would stay by her side over all the centuries to come.

But in the end, she wanted to return to her island, full of new techniques and machineries that she thought would improve the yield.  Rotating fields and planting those lying fallow with clover, to be plowed into the soil to enrich it for planting.  Plans for a windmill to be built to the southeast, facing into the wind channeled through the mountains, with sails made of wooden frames tied with canvas.  Lenses placed together that allowed one to observe the phases of heaven and the moons that surrounded other planets, and the accompanying elegant Copernican theories to explain their movements.

She swore to Britomart that she would return by the next rainy season and she kept her promise.

But by then, the trap had been sprung and Britomart had begun to rot away, victim of a magic left by a man who had died two weeks previously.


“You’re ready to be rid of me,” Britomart says.

“Of course not.”

“It’s true, you are!”

She goes about the room, conjuring breezes and positioning them to blow across the bed’s expanse.

“You are,” Britomart whispers. “I would be.”

Two breezes collide at the center of the bed.  Britomart wants it cold, ever colder.  It slows the decay, perhaps.  Laurana isn’t sure of that either.

Outside she sees that the golems are nearly done with the south-east field.  One more to go after that.  She glances over the building, tallying up the things to be done.  Roof.  Trimming back the bushes.  Exercising the horse she had thought Britomart would ride.

Half a mile away is the beach shore.  Her skiff is pulled up there, tied to a rock.  Standing beside it, she can see the smudge of Sant Tigres on the horizon.

She is so tired that she aches to her bones.  Somewhere deep inside her, she is aware, there is an endless well of sorrow, but she is simply too weary to pay it any mind.  It is one of the peculiarities of mages that they can compartmentalize themselves, and put away emotions to never be touched again.

She does this now, rousing herself, and prepares to go on.  She has a pact with the universe, which told her long ago when she became a sorceress: nothing will be asked that cannot be endured.  So she soldiers on like her workers, marching through the days.


She is still tired a week later.

“Go to her,” Britomart says.  “I don’t care.  You don’t have much time with her.”

“I have even less with you,” Laurana says, but Britomart still turns away.

It is harvesting season’s end.  Outside in the evening, some of the golems are in the boiling house, where three boilers sit over the furnace, cooking the sugar cane sap.  The syrup passes from boiler to boiler until in the last it begins to crystallize into muscovado.  Two golems pack it into clay sugar molds and set the molds in the distillery so the molasses will drain away.

In the distillery, more golems walk across the mortar and cobble floor in which copper cauldrons are set for molasses collection, undulating channels feeding them the liquid.

They mix cane juice into the brew before casking it.  In a few months, it will be distilled into fiery, raw rum and sold to the taverns in the pirate city.

She goes and fetches her notebook and sits in the room with Britomart, her pen scratching away to record the day’s labors, the number of rows harvested, and making out a list of necessities for her next trip to Sant Tigres.  She estimates two thousand pounds of sugar this year, three hundred casks of molasses, and another two hundred of rum.  Recently she received word that the sorcerer Carnuba, whose plantation is three days south, renovated his sugar mill to process lime juice.  Lime juice is an excellent scurvy preventative, and much in demand – she wonders how long it would take a newly planted grove to fruit.  Her pen dances across the page, calculating raw material costs and the best forms of transportation.

“Is she pretty?” Britomart asks.  Her face is still turned away.

Laurana considers. “Yes,” she says.

“As pretty as I was?”

The anguish in the whisper forces Laurana put down her pen.  She takes Britomart’s hands in hers.  They are untouched by the disease, the nails sleek and shiny and well-groomed.  Hands like the necks of swans, or white doves arcing over the gleam of water.

“Never that pretty,” she says.


The next morning Laurana goes through the room, touching each charm to stillness until the lace curtains no longer flutter.  Until there is no sound in the room except her own breathing and the warbling calls of the deathbirds clustering among the blossoms of the bougainvillea tree outside.

She hears a fluttering from her room, a pigeon that has joined the dozen others on the windowsill, but she ignores it, as she ignored the earlier arrivals.  She sits beside the bed, listening, listening.  But the figure on the bed does not take another breath, no matter how long she listens.

All through that day, the golems labor boiling sugar.  Jeanette brings her lemonade and the new girl, Madeleine, has made biscuits.  She drinks the sweet liquid and looks at the dusty wallpaper.  The thought of changing it stuns her with the energy it would require.  She will sit here, she thinks, until she dies, and dust will collect on her and the wallpaper alike.

Still, when dinner-time comes she goes downstairs and under Tante Isabelle’s watchful eye, she pushes some food around on her plate.

Daniel cannot help but be a little thankful that Britomart is dead, she thinks.  He was the one who emptied her chamber pot and endured her abuse when she set him to fetching and carrying.  The thought makes her speak sharply to him as he serves the chowder the new girl has made.  He looks bewildered by her tone and slinks away.  She regrets the moment as soon as it is passed but has no reason for calling him back.

Upstairs the ranks of the pigeons have swollen by two or three more.  She lies on her bed, fully clothed, and stares at the ceiling.

The next morning she takes two golems from their labors to carry Britomart’s body for her.  They dig the grave on a high slope of the mountain, overlooking the bay.  It is a fine view, she thinks.  One Britomart would have liked.

When they have finished, she stands with her palms turned upwards to the sky, calling clouds to come seething on the wind.  They collect, darkening like burning sugar.  When they are at the perfect, furious boil, she brings lightning down from them to smash the stone that stands over the grave.  She does it over and over again, carving Britomart’s name in deep and angry, blackened letters.

At home she goes to lie in bed again.


One by one, the golems grind to a stop at their labors, and the sap boils over in thick black smoke.  They stand wherever their energy gave out, but all manage in their last moments to bring their limbs in towards their torsos, standing like stalks of stillness.

It may be the smoke that draws Christina.  She arrives, knocks on the door, and comes inside, brushing past the servants.  Without knowing the house, she manages to come upstairs and to Laurana’s bedroom.

Laurana does not move, does not look over at the door.

Christina comes to the bed and lies down beside the sorceress.  She looks around at the bedroom, at the string of shells hanging on the wall, but says nothing.  She strokes Laurana’s ivory hair with a soft hand until the tears begin.

Outside the golems grind to life again as the rain starts.  They collect the burned vats and trundle them away.  They cask the most recent rum and set the casks on wooden racks to ferment.  They put the plantation into order, and finish the last of their labors.  Then as the light of day fades, muffled by the steady rain, they arrange themselves again, closing themselves away, readying for tomorrow.

“Sugar” was originally published in Fantasy Magazine in 2007.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll have another story for you on September 8th.

[Music plays out]