The Shield of Achilles by L.L. Friedman

The automaton’s ivory fingers danced across the harpsichord keys with a precision that would’ve made Vivaldi weep. A delicate trill here, a diabolical chromatic scale there, major and minor notes clamoring over each other like rioting primadonnas. Musically, it was chaos – the automaton had written the melody herself, using only the knowledge that had been supplied to her at the moment of her construction – but mathematically, it was perfect. And that was all that mattered.

“Amphora, dear, do play something else,” said Laetitia, looking up from her position on the fainting couch and rubbing her temples.

The automaton stopped playing immediately, as if at the touch of a button. “My composition displeases you, milady?” she said. Her voice had a distinctly metallic quality, like a cross between a bell and a glockenspiel, but her enunciation was clearer than that of any human speaker.

“No, not at all,” said Laetitia. “I’ve simply got a headache again today, and it’s rather too complex a melody to listen to in such a state. Would you mind playing something a bit more – harmonious?”

Amphora nodded, the gears in her neck clicking softly. “What would you have me play, milady?”

“Do you know anything by Scarlatti?”

There was a pause as Amphora searched through her knowledge archive. “Yes. Sonata in D minor. Allegretto. Composer, Domenico Scarlatti. Instrument, keyboard.”

She began to play a prim, rhythmic melody. Instead of unfurling like a glorious spiral, armed to the teeth with consummate numerical patterns, it simply tick-tocked away and concluded with an elegant bow to the audience. Amphora did not find it beautiful, but she supposed that this was simply one more thing she hadn’t been built to understand.

“Thank you, my love,” said Laetitia when the music ended. The clock on the mantelpiece, which was in the shape of a little blacksmith holding a hammer, chimed several times. Laetitia sighed and made an effort to sit up, smoothing out the folds of her rose-colored dress. “Herr Morgenstern should be arriving soon. I hope I haven’t forgotten anything… Amphora, have you set the table?”

“Yes, milady.”

“And the flowers – which flowers did you put in the vase?”

“Roses, milady.”

“Good. Very good.” Laetitia closed her eyes for a moment. “I do wish this headache would go away. What if it doesn’t, and my conversation falls flat? He’ll think me very dull indeed.”

Amphora smiled. Her eyes didn’t change, but her brows moved up slightly. In any case, her smiles were always genuine – her catalogue of possible actions didn’t contain the ability to fake a facial expression. “I doubt it, milady. Not after you’ve exchanged so many letters.”

“Well, some people are quite different in person and on paper.” Laetitia scoffed, as if laughing at herself. “So much time has passed since we’ve had any guests, that I hardly remember what I’m like in person.”

Amphora did not understand why people concerned themselves so much with what others thought of them. She had no notion of her mistress’s thoughts outside of what Laetitia spoke aloud – and that was all she needed to know. She could on occasion predict what Laetitia was about to say, by trawling through her archive for instances of similar conversations they’d had on a certain topic. But her guesses weren’t always accurate, and she still had no way of knowing Laetitia’s thoughts outright. As this had never impeded Amphora in her duties, she didn’t waste time on idle speculation. Surely the same principle applied here. The thoughts and perceptions of this Herr Morgenstern were a mystery to Laetitia: why wrack one’s brain over an unknowable variable?

But Amphora kept all this to herself.


When the guest arrived, Amphora went to open the door, then wheeled her mistress out into the hall to meet him. Laetitia greeted Herr Morgenstern with a brighter smile than Amphora had seen her wear in a long time. The cuffs of his elaborately embroidered coat were lined with leopard fur, and his hands were stained with ink – just like Laetitia’s. Amphora had never seen this gentleman before, but her mistress spoke of him often. About a year ago, Laetitia had come across his Philosophical Dialogue Between Sappho and Diogenes on the Nature of the Sublime in a scholarly journal, and wrote the author to tell him how much she disagreed with its assertions; Morgenstern wrote back, politely explaining to her how wrong she was. Pedantry and sarcastic barbs soon turned to fascination, then to mutual respect, and finally to friendship, conducted until the present moment entirely through wax-sealed letters.

As her mistress introduced the guest, Amphora curtsied, delicately holding the skirts of her gown. Morgenstern bowed, doffing his cocked hat – but then kept looking at her furtively with a slight frown, his head tilted to the side. Amphora knew from previous experience that this expression meant one was overcome with curiosity but trying very hard not to stare out of a vague fear of offending an intelligent machine. She responded by blinking: somehow this always put people at ease, though she didn’t know why. Her eyes were simply mechanized to blink every few seconds.

Laetitia took the guest into the parlor. Amphora served tea with sponge cakes and candied fruit on blue china plates, as Laetitia and her guest talked animatedly on various learned subjects. Amphora couldn’t follow their conversation very closely. She hadn’t yet had the time to update her records of the latest books and pamphlets, and was still working on transcribing Voltaire’s The Age of Louis XIV into her archive. Apparently a comprehensive encyclopedia on everything in the world was being compiled in France, a Genevan named Rousseau had recently written his second philosophical discourse, a new volume of the Comte de Buffon’s Natural History had just been published… Amphora made a mental note to archive these things as soon as possible, so that she’d be able to hold a conversation about them if her mistress ever wished her to.

She took a rose out of the vase on the table and crushed its petals into an empty teacup, ripping them up into miniscule stars and hearts, perfectly shaped circles and squares. It reminded her of how she would press beauty patches made of tiny pieces of soft black cloth onto Laetitia’s face, on the days when her mistress was feeling well enough to dress up and go to the opera.

“I say,” said Morgenstern, “that’s impressive – such precision, such delicate movements! What else can you do, Fräulein Amphora?”

“Many things, sir,” she replied. “Sewing, dancing, cooking, singing. My talents are numerous, but quite mundane.”

Laetitia smiled. “Amphora’s only being modest. She’s very extraordinary.”

“Can an automaton be modest, baroness?”

“Well, she certainly can: I built her that way. I’ve no patience for boastfulness, you know.”

Morgenstern chuckled. “Still,” he said, “would it be terribly impolite if I asked Fräulein Amphora to demonstrate some of her talents?”

When several moments passed and Amphora said nothing, Morgenstern turned red and began to mutter an apology.

“No, no, my friend,” said Laetitia, “she isn’t offended. Are you, my dear?”

“I’m not capable of taking offense, milady.”

“There, you see? Nothing of the sort. You must address her directly if you want her to reply. It’s an odd quirk in her mental mechanics, but I don’t really know how to fix it.”

Morgenstern nodded slowly. “Well, then,” he said, speaking carefully and deliberately as if to an idiot child. “Fräulein Amphora… would you… be so kind… as to demonstrate… some of… your… talents?”

“With pleasure, sir. But there’s no need to speak that way – I understand you perfectly well now.”

Morgenstern turned red again and meekly stirred his tea.


Eventually Laetitia and her guest left the table and retired to a different corner of the parlor. Morgenstern stood by the open window, smoking a pipe. Amphora helped Laetitia out of her wheelchair and onto a velvet cushion that lay on the wide, low windowsill. Amphora leaned her mistress’s crutches against the sill, just in case, sat down on a chair nearby, and took out her sewing. She was making a pair of clocked stockings, decorated along the ankle with an embroidered design of a pocketwatch on a chain. Amphora could not comprehend why her mistress found this so amusing, though she knew it had something to do with wordplay. She only understood numerical jokes, which she sometimes encountered in treatises on natural philosophy.

“So, Herr Morgenstern,” said Laetitia, “how are you getting along with the duke?”

“Dreadfully, I’m afraid,” replied Morgenstern with a sigh. “You must remember, baroness, how in my last letter I rejoiced at finally having spoken to his secretary? Well, that’s as far as I’ve got, and that was nearly a month ago! The duke simply refuses to speak to anyone without a proper pedigree.” He puffed on his pipe scornfully. “As if people were show dogs trotting about on a green manicured lawn for his entertainment.”

“But have you made clear the nature of your errand? Surely His Grace would change his mind if he knew why you’re seeking an audience with him.”

“Indeed, I have, but it makes no difference. Evidently, he only wishes to extend his patronage to gentlemen scholars who already have an estate, a title, and endless free time. That is, the sort of scholars who don’t need his help at all.”

“Well, that’s frightfully silly.”

“But what can I do?” said Morgenstern, shrugging. “I come from a line of merchants and moneylenders. My mother used to brag that she was descended from a mystic rabbi from Prague, but that hardly counts for nobility.” He sighed. “At this rate, I’ll never be able to procure the funds I need to finish my History of Roman Epigraphy.”

Laetitia was silent for a moment. Outside, the sky was as blue as the forget-me-nots in the garden below the window. A cloud drifted by, like a puff of smoke from a pipe.

“I can get you a pedigree, Herr Morgenstern,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’ll forge you one. Or rather, Amphora will. You saw her excellent penmanship earlier – she can imitate any sort of writing I ask her to. It’s particularly useful for when I’m too tired to write myself. Isn’t that so, my darling?”

 Amphora turned her head, still expertly working the needle and thread without looking. “Yes, milady,” she said.

Laetitia smiled fondly. “So, what do you say, Herr Morgenstern? She’ll draw you up a lineage His Grace couldn’t possibly argue with. We’ll come up with the most respectable and plausible names; I’ll even invent a coat of arms for you. The duke will let you in, you’ll get his patronage – nothing could be simpler.”

Morgenstern stared and blinked. Then, remembering his manners, he cleared his throat and said, “Would you really do that, baroness?”

“I wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise, my friend.”

“But what if the duke – ?”

“He won’t find out. I’ll see to it. And if anything does go wrong, you can depend on my friendship, at the very least.”

Morgenstern dropped to his knees before Laetitia and kissed her hand. “My dear baroness! My most cunning friend! You’re a very devil!” he exclaimed, half-laughing. “I can’t thank you enough! How can I ever repay you?”

“All I ask that you bring me news of what goes on at court. I leave the house so rarely, you know…”

“I’ll tell you everything and more,” said Morgenstern, smiling. He stood up and put some more tobacco in his pipe.

“Excellent,” said Laetitia. “Amphora, go fetch pen and paper. Make sure to get the good paper. It’s in my escritoire, in the bottom drawer, with a red string tied round it. And get some ink, too – black and red will do nicely.”

Amphora put away her sewing and stood up, but something stopped her from going further. Nothing was wrong with her mechanics: Laetitia had wound her up and oiled her gears properly, as she did every morning. It was something in her mind that made her unable to fulfill her mistress’s order. She didn’t know what it was – her knowledge archive did not contain any information about it – but it felt like unwillingness. For the first time since her construction, Amphora could not see the logic of the order she had been given. Logic was the metric by which she measured everything around her. She helped her mistress because her mental apparatus held that it was logical for the capable to assist the incapable; she pulled weeds because it was logical to remove from a flower garden everything that was not a flower; she mended stockings, petticoats, and linens because it was logical to hinder the unraveling effects of chaos as much as possible. And to forge a pedigree for a desperate scholar was illogical. It was illogical because it was a falsehood, and Amphora couldn’t tell a lie any more than she could fake a smile.

“Well?” said Laetitia. “Is everything all right? Do you need oiling?”

“No, my mechanics are in order, milady,” replied Amphora.

“Then do go and bring those things like I asked, my dear.”

Amphora paused, trying to find a relevant response in her archive but failing to formulate anything better than, “I can’t, milady.”

Laetitia raised her eyebrows. “Why ever not?” she said in a soft voice.

“It is illogical,” replied Amphora.

“Why do you say so, my love?”

“Because it is a falsehood. Isn’t it, milady?”

“Well, yes, of course.”

“Therefore I cannot do it. I’m incapable of lying to you, milady.”

“I know that, but I’m not asking you to lie to me, my dear,” said Laetitia. She hesitated. Then her eyes lit up, similarly to the way Amphora’s did when she added a new entry into her archive. “Besides, I was wrong when I said this is a falsehood. Think of it more as a fiction.”

“I don’t understand you, milady.”

“You’ve memorized a good deal of literature, haven’t you, Amphora?”

“Yes, milady.”

“And you know that the events in, say, Homer, or Shakespeare, or whatever you like – never really happened?”

“Of course, milady.”

“And you’ve no problem with that, because nobody pretends that they happened – that’s the virtue of fiction,” said Laetitia. “So think of Herr Morgenstern’s pedigree as just such a fiction, no different from the heroic genealogies of the ancient Athenians.”

“Yet you would have the duke believe in it as if it were true, milady. That is what I can’t understand. That is what is illogical,” said Amphora.

Laetitia was silent. She looked at Amphora – at her face, with its movable mouth and brows, painted in realistic tones of peach, pink, and cream; at her angular form of brass, ivory, and wood, dressed in a blue gown, petticoats, and stays; at the black horsehair wig affixed on her head; into her vivid blue glass eyes – as if for the first time.

“But my love,” she said, “it would make me very happy.”

Amphora blinked, her eyelids making a sound like that of a hairpin tapping against a diamond. Falsehood was illogical. But her mistress’s happiness was not; in fact, it was the most supremely logical thing in Amphora’s whole comprehension of the world. To be true to her mistress and to make her happy – these were the two axioms embedded in the lowest depths of Amphora’s mental apparatus. They could contradict other notions, but could not themselves be contradicted.

Too many theorems and equations were spinning around in Amphora’s head. She had to choose an action to perform, or her mental apparatus might jam and Laetitia would have to unlock the top of her head and set it right again. She couldn’t dredge up any words to speak aloud, so she turned silently on her heel and went to fulfill her mistress’s order.


Before he left, Morgenstern took a parcel from the pocket of his traveling cloak and gave it to Laetitia; he kissed her hand and thanked her several more times, doffed his hat again to Amphora, and was off. Closing the door behind him, Amphora heard a delighted gasp issue from the parlor.

“Amphora, darling, come look at Herr Morgenstern’s lovely gift!”

Pieces of red wrapping paper and a torn string of twine lay at Laetitia’s feet as she held up the object for Amphora to see. It was an engraving, printed on creamy white paper and fitted into a silver frame, titled Vulcan Presenting Thetis with the Shield of Achilles. The Homeric epics had been among the first things that Amphora transcribed into her knowledge archive upon learning how to use it; she gave her records a cursory search and matched the text to the engraving. The picture showed two figures – plump, bejeweled, long-haired Thetis and bearded, wiry, crutch-wielding Vulcan – huddled in the center of a vast cave. The cave had been converted into a smithy: hammers and fire tongs hung from pegs mounted on the rough stone walls, a huge anvil was wedged between two stalagmites, unfinished helmets and cuirasses leaned against a workbench. Fire burned in a brazier decorated with the head of a lion, illuminating the heart of the cave and throwing the rest of it into shadow. And there, in the half-darkness, was another figure – a woman with segmented limbs and gemstones for eyes, calmly holding a bellows and a burning piece of coal as she stood attendance on Vulcan.

But what Amphora couldn’t stop looking at was the shield. Vulcan held it up as Thetis examined it, one hand poised daintily at her breast and the other extended in a gesture of gratitude. The round shield was in the exact center of the picture, and composed of several concentric circles divided into equal sections. It was a gloriously choreographed dance of geometric patterns, muses, shepherds, gods, acrobats, warriors, maidens, flocks of sheep, sacrificial bulls, shining stars, flowers, castles, vineyards, flowing oceans, all whirling madly around a central device: the sun, moon, and stars enthroned in majesty. At the sight of such perfect mathematical splendor, something in Amphora’s clockwork heart sang and trembled, threatening to break its springs – jam its cogs – burst into a million white-hot shards – and leave her a hollow, motionless husk forever. She wanted to reach out a hand and touch this beautiful object. She wanted the whole world to be like that shield, for everything to arrange itself into a heavenly arithmetic of silver and gold, an orchestra of trilling notes and chromatic scales.

The sound of her mistress’s voice wrenched her attention back to the parlor. Afternoon light honeyed the room – the lilac-patterned wallpaper, the parquet floor, the dirty teacups on the table.

“Amphora,” said Laetitia, “be a dear and put this on the mantelpiece.”

“Yes, milady,” said the automaton.

L. L. Friedman once went on a blind date with a marble statue in Vienna. They live in New England.

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