A Story About Arkady

I’ve been battling about a year’s worth of depression by now so please forgive my long silence. When you’re trying to keep your head above water it’s hard to be creative. The good news is that I think it’s coming back. Toymaker has been in the works for me so long that it’s a complicated dance to re-enter,  but I am making every effort to try.

In the meantime, here’s a short fiction piece I wrote yesterday, taking place in the sea-side city of Rimsea. Arkady is new on the field of characters and I’m still figuring her out, as well as the whole story of Rimsea itself, but that’s what makes it all so exciting.

Normally I would post this as a reward tier, but I’ve been absent so long I want you all to have something to look at.

Toymaker is coming soon, I promise.

Thank you.

~~

A wind swept out of the south, bringing with it the promise of storms.

On the highest floor of the tallest minaret this side of the Steep Arkady Gilraeth crouched in the window. The red sash that she used to cover her mouth hung down, loose around her neck. She shifted, minute recalibrations of weight that allowed her to maintain position. Somewhere out there, in the darkened city, others such as she began their nightly preparations for mischief.

The pale woman frowned, and the expression pulled stark freckles across her face. That is, the skin beneath her face.

Arkady was Rimsean by birth, but a foreigner by blood. She reached up and flicked the mask-face down over her eyes. The static features of a white lion, rendered in polished porcelain, snarled out at still-sleeping Underhill.

Far away, above the Steep and in Rimsean proper, a bell began to peal. The next tower took it up, this one with a deeper voice than the first. Soon all the bells in the city were ringing, a music unlike any other.

The Quiet had begun.

Arkady spun, wisps of crimpy, orange hair flying out from beneath her hood. She dove, out over open air. Air rushed by her as she fell. That was a better song; silence born from wind.

In those moments Arkady felt free. She reached out her arms on either side of her, barely aware of the tower whipping by. There was nothing like it.

With a single, fluid motion she uncoiled the rope at her side and threw her grappling hook. The rope had been made special, and imbued with enchantments on a regular schedule. It had never failed her yet.

One hand held the rope, even though the other end was securely fastened to a wide leather belt around her waist. Dimly, she heard the ka-chunk of the hook’s teeth as they made purchase. The length ran out, away from her, and Arkady put both hands on the rope now. Her whole body tensed.

The rope went taut and she grinned as the resulting snap reverberated throughout her body. Arkady turned and swung, holding her knees close to her body, leading with her feet. Her back arched as she reached the top of the rope’s scythe. A deft tug released the hook’s teeth from its perch, but the momentum from the swing was still sending her up. Another toss, this one aimed perfectly as well, and the hook caught the edge of a roof. She went down again, powerful arms moving in just the right way to shift her weight and get the most out of each arc.

In this way she crossed Underhill, swinging up and down, only occasionally having to push herself off of buildings or chimneys to get the power she needed. Only leather and linen hissed as she moved. For one such as her, silence and mobility were key.

Arkady hit the Steep at top speed. At the top of her arc off the last minaret she wheeled her arms, holding her hands out. The wall that divided Underhill from Rimsea was peppered with handholds–not one of the sandstone bricks had been laid even, but it was not for those that she aimed for this time. Other nights, nights when she felt like showing off, or she needed that several second advantage, that was when she would take the risk. But not today. She landed on one of many drain pipes sticking out of the Steep and kept running. Compared to flying it was nothing, but speed was of the essence.

By the time Arkady reached the top of the Steep, sweat beaded on her brow and ran into her eyes. She blinked hard. Perched on the wall she did a quick sweep, counting the stiltwalkers in sight and the Annies who walked abroad with their crimson lanterns. It would not do to be caught by either. Not just in general, but especially now.

In the city of Rimsea the Quiet–rang twice a day, once at sunrise and again at sunset–was the hour of curfew. No business could take place and no one but the Annies were allowed out on the streets. So, naturally, it was time for the men and women of Underhill to do their work. Here, time did not exist. Secrets could be spoken, pacts could be sworn, lives could end.

Arkady flexed her fingers, trying to get the ache of climbing out of them. Yes, the Quiet was a time unto itself, whole and complete. And, to people like her, full of fools.

One glance was all she needed and then she was off again, across the rooftops on foot now. She scaled towers and domes with practiced ease, far more at home with seeing the city from the vantage point of a bird than from the streets below.

At last she reached her target. By now the second set of bells had rung, signaling the curfew’s end. She had to move quieter, slower. Even that was a test of skill that she did not mind, though, and as she padded unseen across balconies with people just inside, the red-head grinned to herself.

The house in question sprawled like a sumptuous whore amongst the other buildings, its turrets and gardens as numerous as its many ornate archways and chuckling fountains. It spoke of wealth and taste, but not necessarily of excess. Most fine estates built up, seeking the ever-present sun, but this one had built out, carving for itself a niche of unique beauty in a city that stretched constantly upward. The sides of the house gleamed, as pale as the moon. Frescos covered certain walls, carrying the play of live greenery onto stone.

Arkady swung herself over the spiked outer wall and into the garden. She landed with a soft hush and stopped, breathing hard.

To her left ran a long pool, bordered by a blue mosaic with white stripes, to the front was a shaded patio. Carefully flitting from shadow to shadow Arkady made her way inside.

Strange…there should be guards all over the place. Her slippered feet made absolutely no noise on the marble tiles. She fletched herself into corners, always keeping a wall or furniture between her and the rest of the room.

At the top of the stairs she paused, holding her breath. Something stirred nearby. Not a soldier, certainly no Annie. Akady nudged her forearm against her body and a blade fell into her palm. She gripped the leather-wrapped handle, eyes narrowing. So slowly that the time spent moving felt like it exposed her more than her actual position, Arkady leaned forward and peered around the corner.

There, lounging in front of the doorway to her mark’s room, lay an enormous black panther. His sides rose and fell evenly, peacefully asleep.

Arkady leaned her head back against the wall and cursed silently. Something made her cock her head. She strained her ears and then sighed heavily, biting her lower lip to keep from huffing out loud.

If there was one tenant she had learned in all her training, it was patience. Patience she had in abundance, but she couldn’t wait here.

On silent feet she made her way back down the stairs and out into a side garden. Then, being careful to time her toss of the hook with the rhythmic creaking of the bed just inside, she hoisted herself up onto the balcony and quickly scrambled into position on the roof. Arkady had just enough of a glimpse inside on her way up to map out the room in her head. She hid on the eave above the balcony, flattening herself so as to be less noticeable.

The room would be round, with several hanging curtains to obscure the bed. From the sound of things, her mark was…enjoying herself. Clearly indulging in some forbidden carnal pleasure with her mistress instead of patrolling the halls like a good little pet.

Arkady frowned. At least she couldn’t see them from her vantage point. Hardly a blessing, but thank Moira they were quiet about it.

She waited for what felt like hours, while all the adrenaline went out of her and stiffness crept in. On a rotating basis she flexed each muscle group, trying to keep herself alert as well as limber.

Finally, the noises from the room below shifted to the heavy breathing of two people drifting off to sleep. Heaving herself up, Arkady stopped cold when she felt the icy touch of steel on the back of her neck.

“Turn around, slowly.”

“Oh fer fuck’s sake,” she hissed, but did as she was told. The moment she did the one sight an assassin never hopes to see sent shivers down her spine.

Standing above her was a dark-skinned woman of petite stature, yet commanding presence. The wind off the sea tousled her raven hair. She looked into Arkady’s green eyes with a gaze like flint. And she had no face.

“Oh fuck,” Arkady said again. “A fucking Faceless.”

Rimseans feared few things in life. The storms, the Citta Rozans, and the Faceless. Everyone in Rimsea had a face, except those few who were insane enough to go without them. Outsiders called them “masks”, but the people in Rimsea knew the truth. Your mask was your face, and you wouldn’t be caught dead without it. To do so would be…beyond repulsive. Hideously ugly. Disgusting.

Arkady couldn’t afford to look away. Dimly, she wondered if her mark would be maskless when she sank her blade into the woman’s chest.

“Why are you here?” the Faceless demanded. A necklace with a crescent moon on it gleamed at her throat.

“I have a job to do, what do ye think?” Arkady spat back in her thick, northern Wharite accent. It wasn’t local, but it was the way her parents had spoken and she was stuck with it. “I’ve been paid a fair price to get rid of the courtesan’s bodyguard. Word is the crazy bitch broke some Pasha’s nose when he didn’t pay on time–”

The Faceless cut her off, the dagger pressed on Arkady’s chin. “I don’t care. My job is with the lady of the house.”

Arkady couldn’t help a scoff. In spite of the danger she felt the whipcrack of sarcasm enter her voice. “Oh tha’s just grand, isn’t it? I get the guard, you get the lady. Next thing you know it’s all over town and a lover’s suicide besides! Don’t you have any sense of class? Go find yer own roof to haunt and stay outta my way–I was here first.”

High above them clouds rolled across the moon. A sliver of silver light swept across the tiled roof, illuminating a shade of darker black on the nearest spire. White teeth flashed on a dark face. “So nice of you to notice,” purred a man’s pleasant tenor. He dropped down, bell sleeves billowing.

At once the Faceless curled her mouth in a silent snarl. “Thessaly Darkspring, you cheating bastard. I thought we had an agreement. No overlap on contracts.” She flicked her wrist and a second dagger fell into her free hand.

Thessaly shrugged eloquently. A sweep of pure white hair fell over his shoulders and his full, black mask gave the impression of a high-cheekboned face and a satisfied smirk. Or perhaps that was a trick of the light. “And I’ve been hired by a rival Pasha to make sure the lady comes to no harm at all, Kiraz.” He snapped his fingers and blue globes of foxfire appeared over his head. The cerulean tinge made the fire look cold, but Arkady had no doubt that it could burn her just the same. “So, it seems we are at an impass.”

“You…you’ve got to be kidding me,” Arkady gaped. “Three contracts–all fer different things–on the same house? On the same night?”

Kiraz–the Faceless–did not take her eyes off Thessaly. “It must be true. Hmph, inconvenient.”

“Isn’t there a law against usin’ magic against other folks?” Arkady asked, trying slowly to get into a better position so she was at less of a disadvantage.

“That’s Tamric law, I’m afraid.” Thessaly shrugged again. Oh, he sounded so smug! “And who cares what Rimsea says? I was hired for one purpose, and to that end I am allowed to do as I see fit.”

Kiraz grimaced. Arkady could tell they were thinking the same thing: neither of them could cross a mage and expect to win.

“Bow out gracefully,” he continued. “Tell your employers this house is too well-protected. You’ve tried, you’ll lose no face–pardon the expression, no offense meant.”

“None taken,” Kiraz said, tightly. The muscles on her jaw twitched. “I suppose the only one of us who gets anything tonight is you, stranger,” she added, glancing at Arkady.

The assassin pointed to herself, incredulous. “Me? Ye must be mad. I’m not goin’ after the guard if I know this fucker’s hanging about on the roof. How–” Here she turned and regarded Thessaly with as much pomp as she could muster, given that they had to be quiet, or else risk waking the entire estate. “How on earth am I supposed work now? I can’t just drop in, stab the bitch and be done with it. It’s not classy…it’s not right.”

Kiraz rolled her eyes. “For Vitas’ sake, it doesn’t have to be classy, it just has to be done.”

“I can’t just drop in and leave blood everywhere like I’m some kind of ammature–”

“Ladies, ladies, please.” Thessaly strode closer, one hand still up and ready to rain thaumaturgic foxfire down on them. “There’s no need to argue. Move on, yes? Live to fight another day and, ah, all that?”

Arkady could have bitten him. Anything to take the sting of pride out of his voice. In the end, both women acquiesced. How could they not? You don’t bring a knife if the other person has a bow, and you certainly don’t attempt to win against a mage with only cold steel in your hands. Besides, she’d seen the tell-tale shimmer of protection magic around him. Any weapon she tried to throw might turn around and come back at her, and–while she knew she was willful–Arkady wasn’t stupid.

They both left, skimming across the rooftops in opposite directions. Kiraz had insisted and Arkady was only too happy to oblige. True to his word, Thessaly did not fire on their backs. He allowed them to leave unmolested.

After they were gone he took Arkady’s spot on the eave above the balcony. “All’s well, my lady,” he said.

“Thank you, Thessaly,” came a soft, feminine voice from below. “Do you think they’ll be back?”

“Tonight, no.” He stretched and flexed his fingers. “Another time? Oh, certainly.”

A soft sigh. “I’m counting on you.”

“Of course.”

The mage scanned the city’s varied horizon, only just able to make out the dim silhouette of Arkady as she landed on a roofline some several hundred yards away. “A new player enters the game, hm? Well, we’ll just see what you do.”

We’ll just see, indeed.

July Update

Okay! I’ve just finished scheduling my short story posts for all my $15+ patrons on Patreon for the foreseeable future. Next is a few crafting projects at home and then it’s back to Toymaker. I hope to have something up for the rest of you soon. If you’re hoping to see what else I’ve been working on please consider joining Patreon and supporting me in any way you can. 🙂 Every little bit helps!

Love to all,

Kim

May Update

Thank you for sticking with me during a difficult time. I can’t even begin to tell you how much your support means to me. We are financially recovering but still have a long way to to knock out some unexpected medical bills that we incurred over the winter. So thank you, thank you. You are beautiful and wonderful, and that is the truth and the whole of the truth.
I will begin uploading short stories again and will hopefully have Toymaker chapters up again by the end of the summer.
Part of the trouble I’ve run into lately is that I took on extra work to make ends meet and have some extended commitments that are running into the summer and making writing time difficult to come by.
Nevertheless, she persisted. The writing goes on. The world turns. Goals realign and yet somehow stay the same. Art happens, hand in hand with life.
A great man once said “Make Good Art.”
 
I intend to.

Hands

The hands of a cheesemaker are chapped.
The hands of a cheesemaker are calloused.
They are hands that taste with touch, when milk is ready to be cut, when cheese is ready to eat, how these molecules too small to see have knit and danced and partnered off to create something wholly new.
Hands that see that milk and flour are two mediums for the same purpose: nourishment and art and yes, love’s here too. Hands that cut, hands that fumble, that drop, that curse the waste of time and purpose.
These are the hands of a cheesemaker. These are the hands of one who brushes the tops of wheels and hears whispers of what could be, of meals to come, of happiness shared and shared again.
The pressure to cleave–just enough–first left, then right. The extending of the senses beyond the fingers. The star-shapes of butcher’s twine, nestling eggs of cheese high, high in the air to mature into a better version of themselves.
Stretching. One wingspan and another. Over and over the cheesemaker pulls, her hands burning, the heat of deadly steam still evident through three layers of gloves.
Cleaning. Long hours, hot and silent, fumes rising over a chemical sink.
Salting, oh, yes. Salt, the most important part of life. Salt, the flavor-giver. Salt, the cell-changer, sugar-demander. Beautiful salt. The cheesemaker knows it well. Salt smoothed over the surface of ripening wheels, only moving on at just the right moment, when the feeling of it begins to disappear into the whey.
The hands of a cheesemaker are also the hands of a writer. A writer who taps the keyboard when nothing comes. A writer who finds her hands on the driver’s wheel or at the crafting table more often than she wants to.
The hands refuse to give up. Always moving, never constant. Cheese beneath her palms, scenes in her head. Hands that provide and create, but never quite enough. Hands that move too slow, a body that gives in to exhaustion and five jobs and bills, always bills.
These are the fingers that give up coins for supplies, for commitments and promises. These are the hands that reach too far, that stretch too much but can’t help giving, giving, giving, making, making, making.
Hands that can’t be still, hands that refuse games and idleness. Hands that try, but always seem to come up empty.
Hands that grasp for a dream.
These are the hands of a cheesemaker. These are the hands of a writer. These are the hands of someone who will. not. quit.
They are calloused and chapped, but they are mine.
~~~
Author’s Note: We’ve had some unexpected medical expenses come up and my family has had to take on extra work to make the most basic ends meet. I’m still trying to create through the chaos but it’s slower going than usual, so for now I’m going to give myself a well-earned hiatus from posting commitments as we get our life back on track. This page and reaching all of you means a lot to me, so if you would keep your pledges where they are it would mean the world to my family. If you can’t, with the lack of content, I understand.
I hope to be back and ready to go with some short stories and the rest of TOYMAKER ACT ONE (which is FINISHED) around the beginning of April.
Thank you,
Kim

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 23 – A Most Delicate Contraption

Some victories are triumphant, others hollow.

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the-toymakers-opera-cover

A Most Delicate Contraption

Jacques

 

“…There is beauty in nature, it’s true; beauty in a drop of rain, in the bend of grass. There is beauty in a woman’s smile, grace in her movement, a muse in her voice. A courtier–lord or lady–sees only the surface. They cannot know–for how could they?–the measure of beauty’s true depth, its width or character. They cannot see the perfection of the very structure that imparts such grace, they refuse to think of the bones beneath, the beating heart from which passion comes. They will not see you, perhaps even Octavian will not. But I see you, Trimaris, I see you still.”

Jacques lifted the scroll of sarapin amber from his lips and placed it carefully between two golden brackets. Once the scroll sat firmly in its holdings he enclosed it with gyroscopic rings–the same that spun around Alonzo’s heart. Then he set the flagellae, like tines on a music box, on either side.

The contraption, more like an orrery than a heart, hung suspended in the air by a long strand of copper wire. Instead of ending at the ceiling the wire traveled the length of the room, grounded by a series of glass insulators that Jacques had rigged to the stone. The wire turned down once more at the very rear of the shop, marching along the wall until it disappeared inside a mahogany box with a handle at one end.

“Not yet, Alonzo,” Jacques chided without looking, certain that the young man was reaching out to touch some part of the assembly. “Return to your studies.”

Alonzo did, sulking back to the sofa where he flopped in a dramatic flounce of silk and lace. His curled, auburn wig spread out over the arm of the sofa, and he rolled his blue eyes pointedly several times when Jacques did not immediately turn his attention.

The toymaker ignored him out of necessity. For one, bad manners should not be encouraged, and for another, he could not afford to be distracted.

Breathing evenly so as not to disturb his hands Jacques hung Trimaris’ long spine from the wire, its interconnecting parts clinking softly. Without hesitation he set the heart’s cage upon it, listening for the gentle click and locking of sister pieces.

His palms, slick with sweat, slipped at the last moment. Jacques reeled back, coughing violently. A hitch in his throat, heretofore barely noticeable, spread out like sandpaper and he leaned hard on his workbench for some moments.

“I’m fine–oh, thank you,” he gasped as Alonzo appeared at his elbow, holding an empty kettle. “Yes, tea would be nice.”

The young man hurried off, clutching tight to the vessel.

“Damned winter.” Jacques resisted the urge to clear his throat and went back to work. Moments later the fit returned and he left the spine hanging there, making his way to another workbench instead.

Ordering the parts for Trimaris had been no issue. The trouble, it seemed, sprung from the obscene length of time it took for his order to reach its destination–in this case the ivory sellers and gold mines of Ombolan–and return with product in hand. He had intermediaries he could rely upon, but he did not trust the Baron’s patience, or the man’s sense of injustice if the project was not finished in a timely manner.

The construction of the Lady Trimaris was as far different from the creation of Alonzo as it was possible to be, and still be made of the same materials. While Alonzo was a labor of love, his every piece meditated upon and selected over a period of years, Trimaris’ project required something more expedient, yet no less demanding.

Instead of making the limbs as they were needed Jacques had purchased and shaped the ivory ahead of time. Forearms and calves lay in neat, gleaming rows upon the bench, exactly the right size, tapered and carved to give a suggestion of muscle. The golden fixtures and cobalt ball joints rested in padded boxes, each one meticulously labeled.

For his part Jacques move to a bench that held an assortment of gears, cams, and other intricate clockwork. He pushed his jeweller’s glasses to the side. Though he could not assemble, thanks to the coughing fits he constantly had to smother, he could at least spend his time productively. He passed the afternoon measuring and counting pieces, consulting the sheafs of paper on which he had sketched ideas for Alonzo’s inner workings, so many years ago.

Almost as soon as he had sat down–or, at least, it felt that way–Jacques felt Alonzo rap the edge of the table. He looked up, bleary-eyed, from his work to see the young man holding a steaming mug of tea.

“Ah, yes, thank you,” he said and took a deep draught before turning to spit it all out on the floor.

Cinnamon bark, almond slices, orange peel, and dried cranberry floated innocently in the mug. Jacques took a deep breath and picked a whole clove out from between his teeth. “I suppose you put that all into the kettle, didn’t you?” he asked, rubbing his face when Alonzo nodded. “I thought so.”

Jacques stood and stretched. The time was half past six in the evening, the supper hour come and gone. Jacques shook his head to clear it, for he could hear music. The sound faded after a moment, and the words he had thought Alonzo was saying disappeared. When he looked around the room once more he saw everything in order; the gramophone still and his charge taking care to clean up the tea he had spilled.

“Don’t, I’ll do it,” he said, leaning down. “You’ll only stain your clothes.”

Alonzo motioned to the kettle, beaming. He mimed pouring another cup and drew a question mark on his slate board.

By the time Jacques had convinced Alonzo that thank you, no, but he did not need any more tea, it was a quarter past seven. The toymaker bundled himself in a thick, wool coat, his every action closely observed.

Hastily, Alonzo scribbled a question on his slate, the suede gloves making it much easier for him to grip the chalk. Where are you going? he asked, his cursive slanting slightly in his hurry to get the words out.

“To the Pharos Physick. No, not for tea. Well, not exactly.” Jacques placed another few cords in the stove. It didn’t need to be warm for Alonzo, but he’d need the warmth himself when he returned. “For medicine, for–” Jacques broke off into a cough, and made a wordless encompassing gesture. “–for that,” he said when he could breath again. “I’ll only be gone an hour or so.”

And then dancing?

Jacques resisted the urge to chuckle. “Perhaps, my darling. I am quite tired.”

Before he left he swept a new set of curtains across the shop windows themselves, the better to keep out prying eyes in case Alonzo wandered out among the display cases. “Read your books and be good,” he instructed before hurrying out into the cold.

There was a taste of mist in the air, a wetness that spoke of late winter. It was only a hint that the season was beginning to change but Jacques jogged out of the close, his breath turning to fog just the same.

People passed him in blurred shadows, blurred for the cold made his eyes water. He walked swiftly, pressing a scarf to his face.

Up Brigid’s Stair he climbed, ignoring the gossip of seers as they set up for their shivering carnival.

“–down the city.”

“–’is men on the move, tha knows–”

“Kittens! And two of ‘em got inta the miller’s. That was a disaster and no mistake–”

“Goddess with thee, Don; a srir for your thoughts?”

Jacques shoved aside a rather enterprising man, clean-shaven and wearing too many mismatched colors. “It’s ‘Sar’ to you,” he snapped. “And I’ll thank you not to go reaching for my purse.”

The man huffed and did an about-face with his nose still in the air. “I wasn’t even–the nerve!” he began to his friends.

Jacques put them out of his mind. When he finally reached the lifts he paid his fare and sagged against the bars. Another fit came, harsher than before. It made his throat feel hot and raw to cough, but he couldn’t help it. “Better than last year, at least,” he mumbled, and stamped his feet to keep warm.

Rather than the quick visit Jacques was expecting at the Pharos Physick, the line stretched down the steps and to the street. He shuffled into place and turned his back to the wind coming off the Teeth.

The Pharos Physick was hub for healers–those with magic–and medickers, who had achieved their prowess through rigorous study. Positioned at the very edge of Tawny’s Gain, equal to Copperlight in height but on the southernmost tower instead of the middle, the marble building caught the last dredges of dusk. Its archways stood open to the air, more like a temple than a place to bring the sick and dying.

As Jacques took the steps one at a time he saw a Citadel mage step up to the archway–so identified by his ring of office and his expensive jacket. The man ran his hands along the stonework and made a delicate gesture, as though he were putting the tips of his fingers against a spiderweb. He moved on, doing the same motion all around.

By the time Jacques reached the archway he could finally feel the effect of the magic, even if he couldn’t see what was causing it. Somehow, between one step and the next the wind died and the rattle of the Sheer itself quieted. Jacques knew he had crossed a kind of barrier, made to keep out the Phage and whatever ills could be borne on the air. He glanced at his feet and saw that his shoes left tracks of soot on the otherwise clean floor.

No, not clean; clinical, for he could smell astringent concoctions and medicines. Despite that, despite the apprentices running to and fro scrubbing floors and the steam issuing from a laundry in the back, there was a sourness underlying it all: the fetor of sweat and blood and vomit and open sores.

Jacques could see nothing of patients themselves, for the entire Pharos was crisscrossed by white curtains, making of each bed its own island. It was not like the infirmaries that could be found lower in the city, where the cots were shoved up, practically against one another, and there was little sanitation or knowledge of it.

Still, the toymaker covered his mouth, and closed his ears to the sounds of suffering. One madman nearby would not stop screaming and so Jacques pictured Trimaris’ pieces before him. He called up the diagrams he knew so well, subtracting cams and adding an escapement. From the beginning of the clockwork–the heart–to the minute bellows for the canvas lungs, which he had not yet attached, he walked through the assembly like a bricklayer setting one stone after another.

But if–Jacques stopped that thought before it could fully manifest. Trimaris would live, the fortuneteller had said so. She had said and so he must believe.

“No, I’m afraid I can’t.” From the head of the line, now only one patron away, came a familiar voice that wakened Jacques from his reverie. “The man in question must come himself for a diagnosis.”

A Rimsean man put both his hands on the secretary’s table. He wore a velvet vest with a double row of brass buttons and his oval mask had the design of a desert owl, its sweeping brows made with tiny mosaic tiles. Instead of a mouth piece the lower half of the mask was blank and the man’s voice came out with a curious echo.

“I’m telling you, I’ve got a fellow who’s too sick to leave the Shade. He needs as much whiteburn powder as you can spare.”

The secretary drew himself up to his full height, though he remained sitting, enough so Jacques could see that it was the same red-haired healer who had kicked him out of the Carnival. He, too, leaned on the desk, bringing himself face to face with the Rimsean. “You think I don’t know what you use it for? I’m no alchemist but I don’t have to be. Lacing your Hex with whiteburn until your victims are too stupid to say no to you.” Sebastian held up his hand. “No, don’t tell me. Spare me your excuses. Now, remove yourself from my Pharos or I shall do it for you.”

“But, Master Way–”

Sebastian stood. The Rimsean fled.

“That’s what I thought,” the healer said, scratching out a quick note. He called an apprentice over and handed her the paper. “Take this to the other physick houses and infirmaries in the city. If those drug runners want to prey upon the unsuspecting people of this city then they’d damn well better find another avenue to do it. Now, go.”

He watched as the girl ran off, and combed a hand through his wavy, close-cut hair. “This would be so much easier if guilds were permitted–ah, yes, how can I…”

Jacques stepped up and held out his hand. “Master Way.”

“Master Augusti.” Sebastian frowned but took the proffered hand in a firm grip. “I don’t have any–oh my,” he said, as Jacques broke into a rough-sounding cough.

One quick reach into the crate next to him and Sebastian produced a bottle of green liquid, in which floated one dark leaf of mint. “Put this in your tea every day, twice a day until the symptoms begin to ease. Take your liquids and your rest. When do you get to bed?”

“Nine, promptly. Most nights,” Jacques replied, muffling the cough in his sleeve.

“Is that so?” The healer did not looked as though he believed him. “Make it seven. Close the shop for a day or two longer, I’m sure you can afford it.”

Jacques balked. “I have commissions–”

Sebastian’s green stare silenced him almost at once. He pointed at Jacques with the tip of his quill. “Verandi you may be, Master Augusti, but even they must bow to time in the end. You need more rest than you think, and I dare say your days of working long past midnight are almost over.”

“I came here for medicine, not personal opinion,” Jacques snapped, holding himself stiffly. He dropped a few coins on the table, turned on his heel, and walked away.

Sebastian caught up with him on the steps of the Pharos. “I don’t know if you found what you were looking for but you cannot allow yourself to have any contact with those stones, they–”

“I know what they do,” Jacques said briskly, not looking at the healer as he put on his gloves. “Perhaps better than you.” Without another word he continued on his way, putting his face into the wind.

At the doorway to the close in Wrightsward, an iron gate he had to shove aside, Jacques paused. Far up the incline he could hear the sound of a door struggling to open, the squeal of wood on wood and the jangle of the latch echoing oddly in the narrow space. It was not like a thief to make such noise but he quickened his steps just in case, taking care to hold the bottle low to his side, in case he had to use it as a weapon.

The sight that met Jacques stopped him cold. It was no thief attempting to force the lock on his own shop door, but a nutcracker repeatedly trying the enter. The clockwork man ceased as soon as Jacques crested the rise of the passage.

“What is the meaning of this?” Jacques said. “I paid my tithe well in advance. Ask the others if you do not believe me.”

It produced a small letter, hardly bigger than a thumb’s length in either direction, and handed it to Jacques.

Jacques opened it to find a calling card with gold at the edges. Instead of a printed greeting he saw, in a cursive so exact it could only have been produced by an automaton’s hand, the words, Expect me.

“B-But he cannot come!” Jacques protested, looking between the card and the nutcracker. “He cannot, I’m not nearly ready.”

Unlike Alonzo the nutcracker did not have a slate. They did not need to speak, at least the Baron did not think they should. It stood fast, as straight as the wood that bisected its torso, neck, and mouth. Quite unnoticeable at first, in the gloom of the close, Jacques could now see that not only was the nutcracker missing an arm, but that it was–or had been–a woman.

“Won’t you come inside?” Jacques asked when she did not leave.

He unlocked the door, cursing his luck. Once more he stopped, one foot hardly across the threshold.

Instead of the neat flat he had left, each tool and resource in its proper place, the entire shop was an absolute, chaotic mess. Sheafs of paper littered the floor. One chair was overturned by the bookshelf, its back broken. All the letters, notes, and even the books themselves were woefully out of place. Gramophone scrolls stood upright on nearly every bench and the second symphony of Carlette Thain blasted at full, tribal volume from the speaker.

In the middle of it all waltzed Alonzo, one of the porcelain dolls in his arms. He turned delicately, posture correct, finding rhythm amidst the cacophony of drums. The doll’s jade dress swirled in time to the tails of his frock coat.

From head to toe Alonzo radiated happiness. The candlestick curls of his auburn wig swung as he moved, framing his gold-painted lips, down-feather brows, and sparkling blue eyes. White silk flashed in the lamplight, almost as though he was a flame himself. The brass hue of his waistcoat threw the light back; the only patch of color, other than his hair, amidst a white sea of clean stockings, pale breeches, and fine jacquard heels.

Alonzo spun to a stop, feigning breathlessness. He set the doll–oh, so carefully–on a nearby bench, bowed to her, and blew her a kiss. Then he moved to greet Jacques, grabbing his slate as he did so.

I have been dancing! He smiled gaily and made a little time with his feet.

The simple joy in that smile was almost enough to make Jacques forget the shadow falling over him. Almost. “My dear,” he began, but hesitated.

Alonzo swiped a rag across the slate and wrote again. And reading! I have so many questions. He started once more. To begin, I–

“Not now, my dear,” Jacques said, holding out his hands to still Alonzo’s busy fingers. “We have a guest.”

Alonzo peeped behind him and his excitement died at once. He backed away from the nutcracker, shaking his head.

Jacques followed after, and gathered him close. “Listen to me. Alonzo, listen.” He pulled Alonzo’s hands away from his ears. “The Baron is coming here. I don’t know how long we have, but you must hide. We cannot let him see–”

The cough broke in once more and Jacques’s lungs seized as he struggled through it. Though he had fully intended to ignore the healer’s advice there was a deep tiredness in him, something that went beyond an ache, beyond just the need for simple rest.

“–hide, and do not come out,” Jacques managed. “Until I say, do you understand?”

Alonzo protested, mouthing words Jacques could not quite comprehend. The man’s worry was palpable, fizzing and blue, but mercifully contained.

“There is no time, now go. Upstairs, to my room.” This time Alonzo obeyed.

Jacques spared only one glance for the nutcracker, whose button eyes remained, of course, immobile. They could not speak or write, and he had never been so grateful for it.

He set to work righting the furniture and then immediately attended to the clockwork gears he had been mulling over all evening. A single mug of tea, now ice-cold, stood on the edge of the table. Jacques poured a few drops of the mint concoction in it and drank as much as he could stand. His throat cooled almost at once and he bent his head to the task before him, satisfied.

“When I contracted you I thought you were going to be spending your time productively.”

Jacques looked up as a shadow swallowed the gears he was connecting. “My Lord d’Bardi!” Had the hour really passed so quickly?

The Baron scowled down at him. “I have paid you fairly and in advance, only to find that not only have you been lollygagging about with your little boats, your tin soldiers and–” He tossed his hair aside with a dismissive snort. “–your out-of-tune music boxes, but you have also delayed my commission.”

Jacques stood but the Baron was too close still. “My Lord, I ordered the parts for your sister at once. You must understand, the shipping takes time.”

“Time I do not have!” the Baron snapped. He whipped his cane through the air and pointed it at Trimaris’ spine and heart. “You insult me, Sar Augusti, if you thought I was too stupid to notice how long it even took you to begin.”

“I wanted everything to be perfect,” Jacques shot back, truly angry now. “You expect nothing less of your operas, I knew you would want even more from me. Unless you can summon the isoprene and amber I need from across the sea–or make the trade winds blow opposite their natural course, I suggest you limit yourself to more practical critiques.”

The Baron opened his mouth and shut it again. His dark eyes narrowed. “Show me what little progress you have,” he said, and inclined his head in a mock bow. “With such a master at the helm I do not expect to be disappointed.”

Jacques began with a tour of the ivory limbs, their golden fixtures and cobalt joints. He showed the Baron the channel for sarapin, and explained how that would conduct Trimaris’ thoughts throughout her body, and so power the arms and legs by will alone.

Though he said little, the Baron missed nothing. His gaze raked the parts that would eventually become someone he could touch and hold. “Explain this,” he said, gesturing at the spine and the cage for her heart.

“It is to make her alive.” Jacques showed him the copper wire and the mahogany box. “The generator here will produce an amberic shock that will–”

“Trimaris is already alive,” the Baron interrupted. “I do not see why this is necessary.”

Jacques glanced from him to the body. “It is for her soul, my Lord.”

“She already has one. Are you deaf as well as lazy?”

The toymaker set his jaw. He was a professional man, proud, but still a master of his craft. Scolding came more naturally to him than he would admit but he held his tongue in front of the Baron. “In Landsman’s Treatie of Body & Spirit it is stated that a spark or current is mandatory to carry the impulse–”

“Ah,” the Baron broke in, “animation. Why did you not say so earlier? The difference between conscience and vessel, yes, yes.” He leaned close to examine the heart. “A decent quality of sarapin. Are you certain it will be sufficient?”

“Yes.” Jacques spoke, knowing what his surety would be followed with and wishing it was not so.

Baron d’Bardi sized up the contraption with a critical eye. “Install your escapement and then, by your hand, we shall see if you are correct.”

Working under the Baron’s eye was almost, if not worse, than the time Jacques had had to repair a diver during the midday rush. Taking deep breaths again and again, wiping the slime from his goggles, trying to squint through the murk long enough to effect repairs. And each time he surfaced, grabbing a new tool or just coming up for air, the snarl of the overseer was there to greet him. The sneer on that scarred man’s enormous face was enough to send Jacques back to the depths of the sluice, even when he was too cold to feel his fingers, even when the diver raised its lock halfway, creating a monstrous current. That had been the first repair he’d ever done on his own, without his reluctant master to guide him. He’d worked fast–too fast, for he’d had to go back again the next day–but not quickly enough for the overseer, who did not even lend a hand to help him out when he was finished.

And now, across the gulf of years, Jacques returned to the clockwork he had left. He pulled his mind in from its wanderings and sent his thoughts down into his hands. It was better to do it slow and do it right, than rush and destroy what it had taken him months to prepare for.

Curiously, the Baron said not a word, but watched Jacques assemble the pieces in total, unnerving silence. “Now,” he said when it was finished, “we shall see.”

Jacques afixed the labyrinthine set of gears in their appointed position, just below where the collarbone would be. Once he set the heart into motion there would be no springs to wind, no pins to need popping back into place. The escapement would see that everything continued, for as long as the parts remained undamaged.

He strode to the generator box and took hold of the brass handle. “Stand back, my Lord.” Once the Baron was safely out from under the path of the wire Jacques began to turn. A dull whirring noise filled the shop, all but cancelling out the crackle and spit from the low-burning woodstove.

Power sparked along the wire, producing an almost audible hum. Jacques would have held his breath but the exertion of turning took its toll and he was sweating before he knew it.

Minutes passed. Sarapin could hold and store energy; mages had used it for that very purpose for centuries. Whether it could house a soul like Alonzo’s, however, was an entirely different matter. The clarity seemed to come from a long way off, for as he worked the handle faster and faster, Jacques knew that just the heart turning was not the end of it.

Alive and living were two very, very different things.

When the heart did shudder and begin to move, and kept moving as he’d designed, Jacques had no reason to rejoice.

“I suppose I underestimated you,” the Baron said on his way out. “I will leave you to your work undisturbed, provided you finish within the year.”

“Midsummer should be sufficient.”

The Baron sniffed. It was close enough to the anniversary of the War to displease him, but he did not mention that, saying only, “And I shall want her clothed. She looks best in green.”

“As you wish.” Jacques bowed him and the other nutcrackers out, shutting the door with a polite murmur.

Once he was certain they were gone he raced across the shop, papers flying. Taking the stairs three at a time he crested the second floor only to find Alonzo, sitting on the edge of the bed, as still as any doll. Jacques went to him and embraced him before he had time to move. “My dear,” he said softly. “My dearest. There is so much to be done, for her to learn and me to do…”

Alonzo hugged him back, his touch tender and caring. He motioned to the bed and fluffed a pillow. It is, he began, checking his filigree watch, half past one o’clock. There was a hint of reproach in the purse of his lips.

“I know, my darling, I know. But I cannot rest now.” Jacques bade him to lay down. “You rest, I’ll only work a little late. I promise.”

And with that he went back downstairs, leaving Alonzo alone and in silence.

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 22 – Parlour Predicaments

Things get a little more difficult for Alecto.

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Parlour Predicaments

Trimaris, Memory

 

The last notes of the Bard King’s Farewell to Summer reverberated throughout the parlor. Octavian stood to the side of the fireplace, violin in hand, drawing out that rich chord. The sound kept going, getting softer and softer until even though Trimaris knew her brother was no longer playing, the hum of it stayed with her. It purred in her heart and her wet cheeks, it clung to the edges of the room; the velvet curtains, the plush carpet. As though even the song itself did not want to say goodbye.

“Bravo, Octavian.” Trimaris remembered herself in time to clap politely but her brother shook his head.

“Your smile is enough,” he murmured.

She rose and swept to the sideboard. The air in the parlor was cozy, especially with the wind battering against the glass on the other side of the curtains. Trimaris shivered as she encountered a stray strand of cold breeze. Glasses clinked as she poured brandy for the three of them. “Alecto,” she said, “wasn’t that lovely?”

“Indeed.” Her lover gave her a smile that lit up his whole face. Alecto sat to the side, having taken the armchair. The firelight jumped against his profile, crowning his head with a ring of molten gold. “I must say your brother is quite the musician.” To Trimaris’ delight he did not appear troubled or wracked by exhaustion, two expressions she saw more often than the one he was wearing now.

Octavian ducked his head and checked his bow strings. “I’m a composer,” he replied with a little heat. “When the opera house is finished—”

“Yes, yes.” Alecto waved his hand and sniffed in dismissal. “You’ll write the greatest scores to ever grace the stage; you’ve said as much before.”

“Gentlemen—”

“Oh, like you’ve never repeated yourself,” Octavian snapped.

Gentlemen.” Trimaris stepped between them and firmly set down the tray with the brandy. The glasses tinkled. “We’ve all had a long day, yes? There’s nothing we can do about this storm so we may as well enjoy an evening in.”

As if to accentuate her argument the wind picked up. It howled against the Reach, banging doors farther down the hall. Despite that the parlor remained warm. Trimaris settled onto the sofa. She sipped her brandy. One glance over the top of her glass took in practically the whole room.

Evergreen wallpaper covered the parlor, making the high walls lean in closer. Polished mahogany trim threw back the firelight at the edge of her vision. Trimaris watched as Octavian flicked through a booklet of music scores. He hardly paused in his search and the pages passed under his hands in quick succession. With the music to distract him she turned her attention to Alecto.

Trimaris pursed her lips and suppressed a sigh. He hadn’t touched his brandy. Alecto had leaned his head back onto the chair. His cheeks looked hollowed and there was a paleness to his skin that neither firelight nor liquor could touch. A frown creased the corners of his mouth and furrowed his brow. He stared straight ahead but Trimaris knew he wasn’t seeing what was in front of him.

“Darling?”

“Hm?” Alecto rallied, pulling a quick, tight smile across his face just for her. “It’s nothing, I was just thinking.”

“About the city?”

He nodded.

Trimaris paused as Octavian brought the violin to his chin again and set the bow to the strings. Her mind was abuzz with questions but they would have to wait.

Gently, Octavian pulled soft, low notes into the air. He rocked slightly on his heels as he brought the sweet harmony from a delicate hum to a clear song. His eyes closed. Strands of scarlet hair came free of his queue as he leaned into the music, almost waltzing in place; just himself and the music. Closer than lovers.

Octavian’s suite grew until it filled the whole room. He coaxed his magic along the swell of notes, letting it roll and flow with his movements. Carmine light, just as familiar as the glow and crackle of the fireplace, rippled from his hands. The tiny golden suns of his magelights swirled and dipped into being like candle flames around his head. Whatever worried frenzy that usually accompanied a day spent directing builders at the opera house melted away. Tension drained out of his shoulders and he continued to play, happily lost in the exquisite dance of horsehair on string.

Trimaris glanced to the side and breathed a bit easier. As her brother’s magic flowed through the parlor it warmed everything it touched. It banished the cold breeze. It muted the rattling of the windows.

And it brought peace to Alecto’s face. He was still leaning back in his chair, brandy in hand, listening with closed eyes. He had so many cares to carry, so much work to do. But now, here in this place, the song allowed him to do nothing but listen, to forget everything that troubled him. His chest rose and fell easily, and Trimaris was certain that there, in the shadow cast by the fire, she detected a small smile.

When the song was over they both clapped and Octavian bowed. He set the violin down and excused himself to sit and take a rest.

“Still having trouble with those lift mechanisms?” Octavian asked Alecto after helping himself to the brandy.

“Mm.” Alecto frowned in answer.

Trimaris tried to wave the question away. “Please, let’s not talk about work—”

“What sort of trouble are you having?”

Alecto finished his drink and leaned on the arm of the chair, swirling the ice in his glass. It clinked softly. The reflection of the light from the fire obscured most of the blue in his tired eyes. “They can’t wind by themselves. I have to spare a mason or one of my Verandi workers to come and wind the clockwork every day. Otherwise the automatons just run down and then the lifts can’t function.”

“Just install an aetheric engine,” Octavian said, settling back into his seat. “Simple.”

“Not as simple as you’d think,” Alecto replied. He frowned, mouth pulling back into a grimace. “Logslette’s aetheric engine has been patented by the Citadel. I can’t use it…unless I pay.”

Octavian sipped his brandy, unconcerned. “So pay. The mage did the work and they ought to receive proper credit.” He shrugged.

“Credit at six hundred percent of what the normal cost of labor and materials would be?”

“Oh.”

Alecto stared sourly into the fire. “And it’s not just the lifts, either. I’m having the same problem with the lock divers and some of the furnace automations.”

“Would a mage’s focus do?” Trimaris asked.

“I’m not certain it would. I could configure a heart instead of or along with instruction scrolls in each automaton but a mage’s focus needs constant attention. Not nearly as constant, but still. I need to be able to leave them running for long periods at a time without needing maintenance. A boiler-powered system wouldn’t work either; I’d use up all the forest between here and the Empire.” The Baron sighed. “I’ll figure it out eventually,” he said, waving Trimaris’ concern away.

She leaned over and covered his free hand with hers. His skin was cold to the touch. “It will come in time. Now, what do you want to hear next?”

Alecto’s gentle smile warmed Trimaris from the inside out. He squeezed her fingers. “Something pleasant, I think.”

Bitter wind gusted and moaned against the manor. It shook the windows but could not get in. Inside the parlor the Baron and his lady listened to songs of spring and sun. Alecto’s hand reached and grasped Trimaris’. His smile did not fade or falter but he clasped her tightly all the same.

And Trimaris found that, despite the cheery music and the bracing heat of the fireplace, that there was an icy corner of worry inside her heart; a nagging concern that she could not dismiss.

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 21 – Who He Was

Finally seen for what he truly is Alonzo must ask himself the most difficult question of all.

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Who He Was

Alonzo

 

A great fog rolled in from the sea. It covered the city in a blanket of white-cold, sapping the strength from the air and going straight to the bone. Men bent almost double as they scurried from doorway to doorway, lured into those nooks by the false promise of shelter. Regardless of coats or mittens the winter reached deep into the breast of every living thing in the Sheer, turning its hand in a vise-like grip as though it could steal their very hearts.

Only the nutcracker men marched tall, undisturbed by the cold. They collected the frozen corpses of match-sellers and beggars alike, dragging them out from archways and lees. Even those who lived above the Teeth were not immune, and the nutcrackers found plenty of work hefting the bodies of choir boys, outcast lovers, governesses, and one lordling who had inexplicably removed every stitch of silk and cotton before laying down stark naked in the snow.

There was little to do but wait. Spring would come, but the people who said so did not seem to believe it, and so Alonzo did not listen.

He sat on a new bench, directly beside the window. Behind him, in the workshop, the stove and kiln roared away, making the big room cozy and warm. Though he had no heat of his own Alonzo pressed his arms in tight to his chest, as Jacques was doing, in imitation.

The toymaker had moved his primary workbench directly alongside the kiln, and he tried to work both facing it and facing away, which did not seem to be working very well. Nevertheless, he smiled and hummed as he worked, producing a tune that sounded familiar yet out of reach.

Alonzo, for his part, turned back to the window. The slate Jacques had bought him lay on the bench, scattered with broken chalk. No matter how hard he tried he could not clasp the pieces gently enough to use them. Instead he traced a finger through the thick frost on the glass, pressing harder when the cold ivory failed to produce the desired effect.

“Patience, Alonzo,” Jacques said without looking up. “I am almost finished.”

Alonzo rolled his eyes. He had had enough of patience.

Though Jacques was certainly in a better mood than usual he had spent all his time ordering parts for the Lady Trimaris and sketching designs of her inner workings. Sheafs of paper littered the nearby tables, some in orderly stacks, others strewn about. Every single page was covered with notes, notes scrawled in tiny, nearly-unreadable handwriting.

Bolts of silk, boning for stays, an unstyled black wig with its tresses hanging down, boxes of cams and gears and metal rods, canvas for lungs, kidskin–even the brass skeleton of a dancer, her mechanisms pulled apart and studied–waited for Jacques to put them together. At the toymaker’s words Alonzo threw the whole, disordered pile of it a contemptuous, jealous glance and went back to scratching patterns in the frost.

He could not reach any of the books from his current perch, could not expand his knowledge any further. And how desperately he longed to read them, too! How much he wanted to carefully–so carefully–turn the pages and uncover their secrets.

Once, Jacques had brought down a collection of fashion plates, their clothes hand-painted after the book had been bound. What an awakening that had been! Alonzo remembered seeing with delight that there were other people like himself, other men and women done up in makeup and curling hair, their rich silks and jacquards practically jumping off the paper. One tiny rip, however, as he’d struggled to grasp the knife-thin edge of the page, had ended that venture. Now the books waited, just across the room, on the highest shelf, where they could be seen but certainly not touched.

That was not the only thing Alonzo ached to get his hands on, either. Quite close to Jacques, but almost out of sight behind the doll cabinet, stood a dress mannequin–and it was wearing Alonzo’s coat.

Perhaps Jacques thought Alonzo could not see it from his new place by the window, but he could, if only one pearly sleeve and the frothy suggestion of lace. It must be meant as a surprise, for Alonzo could not recall Jacques making it. The garment had simply appeared one day, tucked away as though it were not meant to be seen.

From time to time Alonzo stole a glance over his shoulder, trying to be nonchalant. When Jacques looked up Alonzo turned back quickly, feigning disinterest.

“At last,” the toymaker breathed. He warmed his hands by the fire, front and back, and then rose, clutching Alonzo’s final piece.

The ivory foot gleamed in the firelight. It folded forward to point the toes and flexed to splay them. Each piece interlocked with a golden ball joint, just like his fingers.

Jacques manipulated it fully, running his thumb over and over again along the arch. He sighed. “Whatever I make after you, my dear, you can be certain you are my greatest work. Nothing can rival you, no doll, no creature of clockwork. Even the machinations of Marquette–grand though they may be–cannot hold a candle to you.” Coming forward he knelt in the cold air in front of Alonzo’s bench, grabbed his tools, and set quickly to work attaching foot to ankle. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he murmured, “trying to make an automaton that could be mistaken for a man. To quiet the dreaming, perhaps. But no matter, you are here now and you are whole, and the work is done. There. Let us see if you can stand.”

Even though it was not made of flesh Alonzo felt his heart thrum–turning faster and faster–as he made ready to move under his own power for the first time.

Jacques took one hand and Alonzo steadied himself on the bench with the other. He shifted his weight, a sensation that was not entirely new, and reached down with one toe outstretched.

He felt the resistance as the ivory met the floor. It was not like having skin–not at all–but the stone seemed almost to push back against him and so he knew that his foot could go no farther.

The body Jacques had built was more than a marvel. It moved as Alonzo wished it to, as quick as thought. He did not fully understand it, but the blue jewel of his heart and the serapin cores through the ivory limbs served to carry his intentions out, as naturally as if he had been a man.

He found his center of balance with little difficulty and stood. Slowly he removed his hand from the bench and waited, breathless.

Jacques backed away, leaving Alonzo to steady himself on his own. “One foot in front of the other, now. Come to me.”

This was different. Alonzo frowned as he tried to lift one foot without falling over. Jacques started to speak but Alonzo shook his head, thinking hard.

Twice more he tested, listening harder to his body than he ever had before. He couldn’t feel the way Jacques could, but he had spent the past few months leaning and reaching, so there must be some trick to it.

Alonzo’s eyes missed nothing. He watched as Jacques moved, suddenly aware of how the other man’s body shifted slightly from side to side. Alonzo imitated him, swaying as if in a breeze. Resting his fingertips on the tables to either side, Alonzo leaned left ever so slightly and raised his right foot. He set it down a pace farther out. Then the other foot came after. Lean, lift. Lean, lift.

A grin he could not contain spread across his face, infectious and young. Instead of going right to Jacques Alonzo attempted the same trick backwards. It was more difficult, but not impossible. He twisted his body and it took him several tries to attempt a sideways motion, for it was vastly different than everything else.

First a shuffle, then a walk. Alonzo raised himself up on his toes, as he had seen the silver ballet dolls do in their display case.

“Goddess.”

He turned to see Jacques, unmoved from his spot several tables away, standing with a hand to his mouth. “Alive,” the toymaker murmured, “there is no other word for it. Not simply thinking, not simply questioning. I thought…I hoped, but…”

Alonzo went to him, taking Jacques’ fingers and kissing the back of them as a gentleman might. He smiled, trying to distract Jacques from the strange mood that seemed to be gripping him.

“Stone and ivory, gold and resin, word and thought; together making, what, a child? A man? Certainly no automaton–clockwork given life–Goddess,” Jacques said again. “Not even Baron Marquette could boast such a thing. It is one matter to see your work in pieces, awaiting construction. You cannot see the whole of it.

“I knew you were more, of course, I always knew. But to see you move is…it is like nothing else. What have I made?” he asked, almost whispering as he took Alonzo’s face in his hands. “And how much of it was me…and how much was you?”

Alonzo didn’t know what to say. Jacques, he mouthed, and immediately had a fright.

Jacques grasped Alonzo’s shoulders, his eyes wide. “By the muses–Yes! ‘She will live’, that’s what the seer said to me. If I can replicate…without the stone, but I must. Oh my dear, this is what she meant; life, real life. Seeing you like this simply proves it can be done.”

“I won’t fail the Baron, Trimaris will–”

Before he could continue the door to the shop, which neither of them had heard open, slammed shut. The familiar voice of Thomasine preceded her by mere moments as she stepped through the curtain and into the workshop. “Master Augusti, you must come quick! There’s a firecat that’s just had kittens in Medtown and–”

Her patchwork skirt, puffed out by the many layers underneath, swirled around her feet. Woolen mittens capped her hands into delicate ovals and a many-colored scarf draped itself artfully over her shoulders. Though she brought a gust of frigid air in with her, her pale cheeks were pinched pink by the wind. She had a wide, generous mouth, calm yet earnest eyes, and a cascade of golden hair. And she was the most beautiful person Alonzo had ever seen.

In fact, she was the only person he had seen other than Jacques. Alonzo stepped forward, almost involuntarily.

Thomasine stopped, her gaze meeting Alonzo’s like some amberic current. She saw at once what it had taken Jacques until just now to discover, her intelligence recognizing his. Alonzo could practically see the words changing inside her; not ‘clockwork’ but person.

“Hello,” she began, half-smiling, but did not get to finish.

Jacques stepped between them. “Get out,” he said, and his voice was low and hard.

“But–”

Jacques–

Alonzo clung desperately to the toymaker’s arm, begging. But his balance was not entirely true yet and as Jacques shook him off Alonzo flailed and had to grab for a chair to keep from falling.

The older man advanced on Thomasine, his whole body rigid with anger. “You dare to barge in here, after I made my intentions clear? You think to spy on my work–”

“No, Master Augusti, I only wanted–”

“To what?” he snapped. “To discover my secrets, my techniques, without having to work for them yourself?”

Beautiful Thomasine, her whole body wincing as if stung, spoke over him, racing to get her words out. “–what you’ve made here, he’s lovely, why hide him away? Is it clockwork that powers him or something else, perhaps? The mechanics for the mouth–Ah! Those eyes!–the fingers are so delicate, yet so articulate! Master Augusti, how on earth did you manage it? Or did he come to you that way?” Her eyes were alight with artificer’s passion and she took a step toward Alonzo, hands outstretched.

“Don’t touch him!” He shuffled Alonzo behind a curtain at the back of the shop, closing the fabric with a swift tug. “Some things are not for you to see, Sa Thomasine.”

Alonzo balked. He tried to grip the curtain but Jacques was holding it tight. Oh, how could the toymaker be so cruel–and for seemingly no reason?

Thomasine was equal to Jacques, however. She spoke clearly, neither shouting not whispering, and her voice trembled only a little. “For someone so passionate about his craft, for someone who can see the beauty in iron, who can turn brass into gold and silver statues into life-like creatures, for a man with the talent to repair the nutcrackers, you certainly are a miser when it comes to knowledge. You’re not going to live forever, Sar Augusti, and when you die someone should benefit from all that you know.”

Before he could speak again she stopped him, though Alonzo did not see how. “No, don’t bother. You’ve made it clear we’re nothing but inconvenient nuisances. Take your ivory lover and your solitude, and much good may they do you.”

Alonzo heard her draw away, towards the door. He poked his head out from the curtain, now that Jacques was no longer standing by. Thomasine met his eyes just once, and he thought that it was a sad look, though there was anger there as well.

She turned away and left, without saying goodbye. Through the glass of the shop window, what little was not obscured by the forward curtain, Alonzo saw Thomasine press a hand to her face and then vanish down the close.

“Peace at last,” Jacques said, swiping the cloth across the opening. “Don’t pay her any mind, my dear.”

Alonzo clenched and unclenched his fists, the ivory clicking as he did so. He didn’t understand why Jacques was acting this way. Thomasine seemed kind and beautiful, and from all the conversations he had overheard, he knew at once that he would have been able to talk with her for hours. He didn’t feel angry, simply confused.

Unbidden his thoughts pinged out, a mental barrage asking why over and over.

Because,” Jacques said, sitting Alonzo down so he could inspect the feet. “Not everyone in the Sheer is what they appear to be. There are thieves and cutthroats–some who look like ruffians and some who do not–who would not think twice of spiriting you away and taking you apart, yes, my dear, even that,” he murmured when Alonzo gasped in fear, “to take the gold from your hands, the gears from your chest, even your precious heart, which I am certain they would have no trouble selling to the highest bidder.”

“You see, Alonzo? Even if Thomasine and Tadeo and Savoy do not mean to harm you they have too much of the city in them. They can think only of themselves and their own advancement. Their minds are like machines; seeking every opportunity to improve, every margin by which they might profit. And if they thought that disassembling you would further that goal I have no doubt they would do it.”

Alonzo did not agree and said so, leaning on Jacques with his mind that while he was not as certain about Tadeo and Savoy, he could not believe sweet Thomasine would ever do something so wicked.

“Perhaps not her, then,” Jacques conceded, “but she would no doubt talk of you. And sooner or later that talk would get back to someone who would steal you away.” His brown hands caressed Alonzo’s cheek briefly before returning to their finite adjustments. “One day I will show you the city, and all the waltzes of life therein, but not today. Be assured, however, that all I do I do to protect you. To keep you safe.”

Alonzo met his eyes. He watched as a lock of ebony hair fell across Jacques’ forehead and was brushed away. Still, their gaze did not waver. He saw into Jacques as he was once able to see the thoughts of the other sleeping stones, saw the toymaker’s passion and intensity, and yes, his skill.

For a long moment Alonzo felt himself at the center of a stage, the spotlight on him hot yet welcome. Was this…love? The kind of love only spoken about in opera; tragic and beautiful, big enough to shake the world. Like a solo Alonzo felt his heart singing and he reached out to Jacques, searching for confirmation and, perhaps, the refrain of a duet.

Yet the subtleties of romance eluded him. Jacques turned away, closing himself off as he usually did with a frown and the brusque dismissal of Alonzo’s thoughts. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A gentleman learns one thing at a time, and your education is far from finished. Come, Alonzo, there is much to teach you yet; you have not begun to dance.”

As he rose to follow Jacques to the dress mannequin Alonzo felt a tightening in his breast, running underneath the current of excitement. For the first time, but not the last, he silently asked himself, But what am I for?

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 19 – The Men With Strange Shadows

In this glimpse of the past the mysterious Verandi arrive at the Sheer and Alecto is not sure what to make of them.

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The Men With Strange Shadows

Alecto

The counterweight rose fast—too fast. “Look out below!” Alecto called. He scrambled for the safety switch but the foreman pulled him back.

“My Lord! It’s too dangerous!”

“Get off,” Alecto snapped, shaking himself free. He ran, ignoring the shouts all around him.

The cable rattled as the lift plunged down, reaching speeds of near-freefall. Iron screamed. Far below, as Alecto sped across the avenue, he could hear the answering cries of the citizens who were clawing to get away from the runaway elevator.

He sprinted in between the whirling gears at the top of the shaft. Sparks flew off the metal. The automaton he’d built to regulate the counterweight rocked back and forth on its pedestal. Without its guiding hands the crank handle spun out of control. There was no panic in that painted face, but its music box ran in quadruple time as it moved, high-pitched and frantic.

Alecto vaulted over it, no time to spare. He grabbed the toothed safety switch, counted once, and slammed it home.

Corresponding locks all down the shaft likewise shunted into place. Screeching like an oncoming train the heavy lift sheared off the safety notches for several feet before a third bar brought it to an abrupt stop. The entire structure swayed in its bracings. Clanging traveled up the iron and vibrated through Alecto’s arms and teeth. He leaned against the switch, gasping.

“Lord Baron!”

Sore and slightly numb, he remembered to let go and stand tall. By the time that the foreman and his engineers appeared around the corner, Alecto was already inspecting the automaton’s failsafe.

“My Lord—thank the stars you’re all right.” The foreman took off his cap and mopped his brow. “All those exposed workings, I thought perhaps…”

Alecto did not look at him. Everything hurt. His back and shoulders burned, and his chest ached from the exertion. “Get me my tools,” he said in as even a tone as he could manage.

“Yes, my Lord.”

“And foreman?”

“My Lord?”

Alecto heaved a sigh that did nothing to ease the pain. He threw the other man a look that would have melted cold glass. “Do not disobey me again.”

“Understood.”

Alecto sent men down to the Viridian Trespass to take the lift off its tracks so that repairs could be made to the shaft. Engineers hooked themselves into the bracings and swung out across the open air between the towers, one line of cable rope the only thing that separated them from a fatal mistake. Even from his position at the top Alecto could see them adjusting the counterweight, adding to it, making notes as they did so. He received his tools within short order and got to work himself.

The district of Sunsgate, the highest in the Sheer, spread out all around him. Broad avenues paved with pale granite and lined with marble columns branched off in every direction. Enormous mansions stood tall and regal above street. Golden domes and whitewashed facades threw back the glittering summer light. Delicate bridges arced up and over, connecting each of the rock towers. Spiral staircases and wide steps led down into the districts of Copperlight and Hadria’s Kiss, turning from there towards Whiteport, the healing sanctuary of Mur Physik, and Octavian’s ongoing opera house.

A lane of lifts had seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyone who lived farther up the city would need to be able to receive goods and supplies that were purchased at the Pride or at Skyman’s Wharf. The mechanics of creating those lifts, however, was proving to be a challenge.

“Fracking piece of junk,” Alecto cursed under his breath. “It should be simple; lift box weight versus counterweight. Why, even Octavian could do it, empty-headed child that he is.” He changed out a few gears, tinkering until he could fit a new escapement in place of the old one. Time ticked away as he worked, morning drawing into afternoon, afternoon slipping into evening.

The long fingers of night spread themselves across the city, shading shops and apartments from the brilliant fire of the sunset. Behind each tower, deeper in the Sheer, the shadows stretched away. They consumed the districts one by one until only the factories, the bathhouses, the wharf, and the lucky flats that lined the cliff’s edge faced the dying light.

Soft, precise footsteps alerted Alecto that he had an approaching visitor. “Go away,” Alecto said, not bothering to turn around. “Can’t you see that I’m busy?”

The footsteps stopped. Their owner stood still and said nothing.

Alecto rose and dusted off his hands. He put away his tools with care, taking his time. Whoever it was could wait. Already it was almost too dark to see by, even here in Sunsgate. Lamplight just wasn’t the same and so he left a string around the cylinder he had been installing, to mark his place for the morning. He glanced back over his shoulder and paused, one hand halfway to his toolchest. Close by, uncomfortably close in fact, stood a strange man that Alecto had never seen before.

The man cut a lithe figure between the twin cloaks of sunset and evening. Gold bangles winked on his wrists, appearing and disappearing inside the wide sleeves of his carmine tunic. More jewelry, more than Alecto had ever seen on another man, swung from the stranger’s ears and glittered around his neck. A deep V in the front of his tunic revealed a robust sculpture of muscle. Windswept, raven-dark hair fell into his eyes as he bowed deeply. As he did so he flashed a sly, sharp smile. His teeth, all perfect, were very white against his burnished skin.

“Be off with you,” Alecto said, “or speak your piece. I don’t trade with Verandi gypsies.” He tried to step past but the stranger stepped to block his way.

“Lord Baron,” the man said, opening his hands. “I am Don Arren Capsair.” He purred through his words, not maliciously or with any ill intent that Alecto could hear, but as though each syllable was drawn in from a long way off. A thick accent impeded him not at all, and he continued, pretending not to notice the Baron’s deepening frown. “I come on business.”

Despite himself Alecto found that he was interested. Many proposals came across his desk each day from individual traders and merchants, all people who wanted to contribute something to the Sheer. He had never yet denied a one. “I’m listening,” he said carefully. In the distance by the fountain he could see more of Capsair’s people, men and women with bright clothes, olive skin, and hard eyes.

The Don gave another little bow. He was handsome and confident, standing at ease with one hip cocked. Rings of gold and silver caught the long dying light like flashes of fire as he gestured. “Baron Marquette is building a city, they say. He is taming the wild lands at the edge of the sea. But he cannot do it alone.” Capsair’s hand moved fast, no more than a blur as he tossed something small into the air.

Alecto caught it. He opened his hands. Cold and rough, the black lump of stone sat heavy in his palm. “But this is—”

“I have coal to sell.” Capsair grinned; the high ground was his.

“Where did you get this?” Alecto gasped. He turned the sample over and over. “How much is there in the seam?”

Capsair waved his hand as though it was nothing. “There is a peninsula to the southeast of your city. My people have settled there. We found this and more as we built the foundations of our homes, digging down into the earth.”

“Name your price.” Alecto walked with him until he could hold the coal up to the light. His fingertips caressed the almost-imperceptible grain. The quality was more than he had dared to hope for.

“None, my Lord.”

Alecto gaped. “I beg your pardon?”

Capsair set his hands on his hips and gestured to the silent group that had accompanied him. He moved as though everything he touched belonged to him, but when he stopped he was so very still that unless Alecto was looking right at him he couldn’t be sure that Capsair was there at all. “My people want to work. They want a home without wheels or keel. Let us build. Give us the land and the work to earn it; you will not be disappointed, I think.”

“You’ll need more men,” Alecto said, glancing at the Don’s entourage. It seemed so small. “Unless you each do the work of ten.” Alecto paused to think. Every way he looked at it, he couldn’t lose. Free coal, local labor. “What’s the catch?” he asked.

“Send your own as you will,” Capsair laughed, showing all of his teeth. “But the land would be ours.” In the dusk behind him, his shadow rippled across the ground. It moved even though he was standing still. Back and forth, betraying his eagerness.

It was too good a deal. Alecto stuck out his hand and the shadow of the arm that reached to grasp his was very thin indeed. He ignored it. “Then we’re agreed. How soon can you start to dig?” To hell with superstition; coal was coal.

Capsair shook his hand with a firm, unyielding grip. “Send your equipment to the wharf, my ships can take it from there.” He waved to the open air over the valley.

In the distance, glowing as they crossed the sinking molten crescent of the sun, a fleet of flying caravels sailed silently into port. Alecto swallowed the sour taste of old rivalry. Each easy gust billowed the canvas and pushed them forward. Beautiful and perfect, it seemed that Don Sornurr’s sailing ship had been successful after all.

The Baron turned away from the reminder that he had failed at the task that had brought him here. He shut off the notion that there was still something that he could not do, that he did not know how to do. “Come to the Reach,” he said instead, turning his attention back to Capsair. “Let’s talk business.”

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 17 – The People of the Sun

A visit to the gypsies of the Junkyard does not go exactly as Jacques expects.

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The Toymaker’s Opera is an alternative-world steampunk  adventure. It is a story about a poor fortuneteller, a living automaton,  a mad Baron, and a city that dreams. It is a story about the price of  friendship and happiness, about legacy and talent, blood and luck. But most of all, it is a story about the things that have no price.

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The People of the Sun

Jacques

On Ramsday the sun rose uncovered and shone its naked light upon the city of the Sheer. Though the air was brisk the warm beams filtered down through the districts, casting long shadows and chasing away the coming cold.

Jacques clung to a rusted handlebar on the side of the lift as it jostled its way down the wire. It had passed the Tammy and the factories in the Ream already, making a slower-than-usual descent.

The lifts traveled the tall length of the Sheer, going from Sunsgate to the Junkyard, cutting through every level. Each box was fenced in on all sides by metal grating, much like a cage, so that the riders would not tumble out and be broken upon the bottom of the shaft. Yet despite this precaution the lifts were anything but comfortable and many folk avoided them out of habit; as they did not always go where one told them to.

With a sudden jerk the lift halted. The grate door screeched open to admit several factory workers, their striped trousers and faded vests stained with soot and sweat. They filed in, each carefully placing a half penny into the coin box by the automaton at the back.

“Coffinrow,” said the first man, giving the name of the housing district they all shared.

The lift rattled to life once more and the automaton began cranking his wheel, even stiffer than before. Instead of the downward direction, this time the lift wound its way up ponderously.

Jacques suppressed a sigh. He made a polite nod to the workmen and tried to squeeze himself as small as possible without getting too close to the bars.

He thought back to how Alonzo–anxious, worried Alonzo–had begged him not to go out again. Once returned from his exhausting journey through the Sheer Jacques had thrown himself upon his bed and not risen for anything. Still, as soon as he could stand and force food into himself, he promised he would go at once and with haste to the Junkyard.

That was when the painting had arrived.

Baron d’Bardi wanted to be certain Jacques missed no detail in recreating his sister. Instead of merely providing the toymaker with a locket or a marble bust–though he had done both of those things as well since–he also sent down an enormous full-sized portrait.

The nutcrackers who brought it hammered loudly on the door, demanding entrance.

Jacques admitted them with a frown, an expression mostly made to conceal his worry. After all, the Baron had no idea Jacques needed a leystone. But Jacques made to hide his concern anyway, lest it be taken for hesitation. He would still do everything he could to complete Lady Trimaris, and he held in his back pocket one last avenue for success, yet untried.

With more delicacy that even Jacques had thought they possessed the nutcrackers carried the painting inside and placed it up against a bare wall at the rear of the shop, away from the light of the windows. Then they filed out once more, only leaving yet another heavily-laden coinpurse filled to bursting with musean gold.

There were two people in the portrait, one half-covered by a black sheet. Jacques cleared the cloth away and stepped back to take it all in.

On the right stood a handsome woman, her green eyes full of laughter and intelligence. A small smile poked at corner of her mouth. She was as pale as the moon, her upswept hair raven-dark and falling in perfect wisps around her face. Her dress, the older bustle-style that was still favored among the ladies of Sunsgate, appeared perfectly molded to her frame in shades of deep basil and pine. Despite her similarities to the Baron–the shape of her brow and nose, for one–the Lady Timaris was clearly of a different sort. Her presence almost reached through the painting, calm but joyful, and she held herself with steadfast certainty.

When Jacques checked the purse he found exactly what he thought would be there; a set of dress measurements–and requirements for fabric–that would help more than anything with his construction of the actual body. It also seemed as though the Baron would prefer his sister delivered in particular clothing as well, leaving no room for interpretation on how she should be dressed.

Curious as to who she posed with, Jacques turned his attention to the left. Instead of the image of Baron d’Bardi that Jacques expected to see, he was treated instead to the countenance of a man that he recognized–the face of Alecto Marquette. He did not recognize Baron Marquette because of a previous painting, but rather because of the single lone statue that stood, rusted and worn away by time, in the main plaza in Sunsgate. That, and there was an intensity in the man’s eyes that was impossible to forget.

Jacques stopped his fingers just short of the canvas. Here was the man who had made all the clockwork creatures that the toymaker worked so hard to keep functioning. Here was the man who had built the Sheer, who had raised up a city out of nothing.

Somehow the statue had always given Jacques the impression that the first Baron must have been a stoic figure, someone as hard as granite and just as unyielding. But here, seeing this face, that simply could not be true.

Certainly Baron Marquette was a strong man, his tall impressive figure and broad shoulders spoke to that. But he was not like the rock of the Sheer, not like the mountain, the larger-than-life shadow that hung over the city’s making. No, this close, there was no denying Marquette’s absolute, burning vitality.

His eyes stared out a Jacques with all the intensity of a blacksmith’s forge. Unyielding? Yes, but in an entirely different way.

As Jacques examined the Baron he realized with a start that the painting had not been finished. Whoever had been commissioned to complete the portrait had left a gaping hole on the Baron’s breast.

“–gusti? Master Augusti?”

Jacques pulled himself out of his reverie, away from the memory of the Baron’s expression–driven and full of scorching purpose.

The lift had stopped and the workmen all filed out except one, a young lad. “Thankee, Master,” he said, touching his cap. “‘M sister works in th’ Ream an’ she’s awful grateful fir th’ Weaver ye did the fixin’ fir.”

Taken aback Jacques only murmured, “It was nothing, only my duty.”

“Thankee all th’ same, Master. Naught other woud’ve done it.”

Jacques knew that wasn’t true. Tadeo and his companions would do more, also, if he hadn’t scared them off from their work.

Not too soon the toymaker found himself alone again. He paid the lift toll once more, to remind it of his destination, and hung on as it chugged away.

The nine nameless towers ended at the broad, empty avenues of Mercy’s Hall, and there the lifts stopped too. All but one.

One lift continued down, down to the Junkyard. As the cold, shadowed street passed Jacques’ head he entered an old mining shaft. The tight, confined space made the rattle and clanking of the lift echo back on itself in a deafening cacophony.

Jacques held his breath without meaning to. He had lived most of his life in the closes of Wrightsward but somehow the presence and weight of the rock all around him gave him pause. The handle was cold under his palm as he clenched his fist, fighting the sudden urge to turn around and pay enough toll to take him up, up to Sunsgate and the open sky.

Finally the lift emerged into an opening in the rock, a cave before him and a crevasse behind, going down into the gloomy darkness to who-knew-where. The cage stopped with a jerk and rattled open. Jacques practically shoved the door aside and scrambled out, too concerned about physical freedom to worry about his dignity.

Though he knew he was under a teeming city the silence underground was muffling and absolute. Here, the sun was all but a memory and the wind could not venture.

Not all the towers ended in flat streets of bedrock, some continued on into the deep, their last roads made out of iron grating. So it was with Bedlam’s Rest to the north and the Spire to the south. And beneath those districts the crevices of the towers came down, too narrow for streets, but just wide enough for the people of the Junkyard to string their nets across that space–ready to catch anything that might fall through.

Jacques stared at the cave before him, willing his aching eyes to adjust. Three tunnels spread out; one for each cardinal direction that was not the northern lift entrance from which he had just come. As he stepped forward a lamp sprang to life overhead–not a kerosene one or one powered by amberic means, either–but a small yellow sunstone, just bright enough to give him something to go by.

What he had thought were shadows at the edges of the cave became heaps of forgotten rubbish. Chair legs, twisted metal contraptions, broken glass, severed lengths of rope, faded tapestries and dry-rotted reams of cloth, even the cast away arms and torsos of automatons littered the piles. The longer he looked the more Jacques began to see sense in the randomness, to see the degrees of decay. It hurt his eyes, however, to strain them so, and he soon turned away.

He chose the middle tunnel and walked on, keeping one hand always on the wall.

There is no darkness like darkness underground. Try as one might the eyes cannot adjust. The hoped-for light or sense of sight does not come. Any instinct of direction disappears, crowded out by the solidness of the rock. Even the ability to tell–as if by a cat’s whisker–the placement of another person or object, evaporates completely.

Unlike superstitious folk Jacques did not ascribe any human qualities to the dark. It did not menace him or press upon him. Yet he picked his way through the inky blackness carefully, like a blindfolded horse fording a raging river, going forward whether he wanted to or not.

Once, a long time ago Jacques had been Verandi. He shared the gypsies’ race; their blood and their Goddess, but he had since rejected their vagabonding and carefree ways in favor of a settled life in the Sheer. Though he himself had been born on the sun-scorched isle of Verana, deep in the steaming jungle, Jacques did not truly consider himself Verandi. Not for him was the lackadaisical work ethic that characterized the rest of his people, the shirking of duty and slinking about with palms outstretched. Come what may Jacques conducted himself as a Sar–a Sheer-born gentleman–and not a gypsy Don.

Exactly how the gypsies had come by the Junkyard as their home in the first place he did not know. It did not suit them. The Verandi were people of fire and passion, not of darkness and the cold chill of abandoned mining tunnels.

“All the foresight to make your orders up front but too distracted to bring a lamp, I ask you,” he chided himself softly.

A loud squeal of metal made him jump right out of his skin. Jacques only had time to throw a hand up over his face before a beam of light shone directly on him, dazzling after an hour of blackness.

“What you want?” demanded a fierce-looking woman with bright eyes and a coal-streaked face. She held the lantern up high–a patented firedamp lantern, he realized–trying to keep him off his guard. Strangers did not simply wander in the Junkyard, no matter what their purpose. Likely there were sentries posted at each entrance to the central camp.

Jacques gathered himself. “I wish to see Captain Coleed.”

She crossed her arms, every bit as obstinate as a precocious child. “He no live here.” Many Verandi did not receive any form of formal education, and their parents steadfastly steered them away from any charity schoolrooms. It was well-known that gypsies prided themselves on not being able to read a lick of Tameric, Toulene, or any other civilized language, even if they could chatter it amongst themselves like birds.

Jacques knew better. Perhaps not all of them but a few–for the Verandi culture was an oral one, founded on traditions of myth and storytelling–could read and write, even if they professed that they could not. Some like the Captain went to great trouble to enact not being able to read business contracts, squinting at the pages and asking for them to be read aloud, and then refusing to sign anything when the lies and underhanded clauses were not also recited verbatim.

The woman in front of Jacques had a thick accent–so thick it was likely she only spoke Verandi at home–but he knew she was not stupid. Only the speech pattern of her native tongue translated into his made it seem that way.

“I come alone,” Jacques said, speaking with care all the same. “This is no raid. I have business with the Captain.” He flipped her a coin.

She snatched it out of the air, its silver arc suddenly stopped. The glare of the lamp lowered and then Jacques could see that she was of mothering age, though probably childless all the same. She chewed on the side of the coin, to make certain it was not tin. Her gaze swept him up and down, calculating.

“You come,” she said finally, “but no trouble.”

Jacques agreed and the gypsy woman took the lead, taking him deeper into the twisting maze. Tunnel openings passed that Jacques had not noticed before, not even a draught of air to distinguish them.

The labyrinth wound back upon itself so many times that Jacques began to suspect he was intentionally being led astray. Just as he gathered breath to say so, the path ended abruptly in an enormous central cavern. The woman left him without a word, pointing only down the ramp to the entrance before disappearing back the way they had come.

A long road circled the broad room–so broad he could not quite see the other side–twisting up past the entrances to living quarters or other exits. Staircases cut up through the ramp, leading to yet more houses. Anytime a stair met the ramp it crossed under, with a bridge of study wooden slats directing visitors ever downward. Useful, since any raiding party trying to take over the district might think twice of dropping down to the stairs for fear of breaking an ankle. The ramp road–likely used by mining carts back when the bedrock was delved for coal–made an excellent funneling point.

Jacques proceeded down. He had never been in the Junkyard before and since there was no one with him to comment on the rudeness, he gazed openly at the camp before him.

The cavern was circular, its far wall disappearing into darkness and its bottom floor worn almost smooth. Lanterns and tents spiraled out from a central bonfire, the hot coals and ashy grey logs visible even from here. Buckets of water stood by it, some sudsy and leftover from washing, others made murky by dishes cleaned. It was a dangerous thing to have an open flame so deep in the tunnels but tradition–or preference–demanded one, and so the gypsies took every care possible to line their avenues with firedamp lanterns, in the hope that bad air could be noticed before it reached the center of the camp.

Tawny and warm, the jolly notes of a fiddle reached Jacques’ discerning ear. Rather than the restrained playing of a violinist, or the passion of melancholy many violinists attempted to achieve, this music was altogether different. The sound wound up out of the camp, joined by reed pipes, tambourines, drums, and a chorus of many boisterous voices all singing together. This was not music made by orchestra or committee, but rather by community.

Jacques shook his head, though the tune felt familiar in a way he couldn’t quite identify.

The smell of roasting meat and savory spices filled the air of the cavern, rising in heady clouds of steam and smoke from the openings in multi-colored tents. From the lights within Jacques could see–and hear–children shouting, more lively in their games than any child in the city above would be. He caught glimpses of love-making between the flaps, and turned his gaze away at once in embarrassment.

It was morning–just after dawn prayer–and the people in the camp moved with purpose about their daily tasks, most already begun. A knot of men at the far end shifted through a pile of debris, sorting the cloth, wood, and metal into separate piles. Women gathered at a thin river channel that cut through the cavern to do laundry, though it was impossible to tell whether washing or gossip was more important than the other. Young folk repaired sails or twisted rope, looking industrious and bent to their task–the exact opposite of the bored noblemen’s sons Jacques sometimes saw above the Teeth.

The junk, in fact, was everywhere. Spoons and scraps of cloth good for nothing else made pinwheels and charms against evil outside each tent. Pieced-together engines spluttered along, making boilers or cookstoves hot, each stranger and more bulky than the last. The wooden arms of nutcracker men received new coats of varnish and were fastened to lampposts, lanterns clutched tightly in their hands.

In one clearing a man clad in a thick leather apron and gloves broke cracked pottery upon a stone, scraping up the dust into a slip filled with water. Farther on, a woman molded tiles from a second slip. Another painted the tiles while a fat kiln roared beside her. That wasn’t all, for Jacques spied one mother–a babe fastened firmly to her breast–stitching cloth of a similar color together to make signal flags. One youth very carefully twisted lengths of frayed thread into one another, creating a new spool of many hues. Forges hidden in low sheds at the back of the cavern melted iron scraps, and the constant ringing of hammers spoke clearly to their repurposing.

At the bottom of the ramp Jacques drew up short. A palisade of rusting bayonets fenced off the path from the rest of the camp, save for one gate.

Outside the gate sat only one guard, a barrel-chested man smoking a pipe. He was a mountain unto himself, wide in the shoulders and square of face. A short cropping of salt and pepper hair crested his head, and he rumbled a greeting that sounded like stones. “Sweet sun, Jakka.”

“Sweet sun, Boris,” Jacques replied, wincing a bit at the use of his birth name. He was not Verandi, would never be Verandi. The sooner this was all over, the sooner he could begin work on Lady Trimaris, and not mingle with people far beneath his station. “I’ve come to see Captain Coleed.”

Boris, unlike the women chattering away by the river, was a man of few words. He chewed on his pipe thoughtfully, his coal black eyes taking their time to look Jacques up and down. While not quite as dark as an Ombolan, Boris’ skin was deeply tanned and lined by many years working the deck of the Sun Queen. He pulled around his pouch of sk’ovi tobacco, filled his pipe with it, and struck a match on the floor of the cavern. Only after he had taken several deep draws on his pipe and wreathed his head in blue-tinged smoke did he offer some to Jacques.

“Ah, no thank you.” Jacques persisted. “It’s rather urgent, Don Boris, I would appreciate…”

Boris seemed determined to move as slow as possible, as if nothing in the world could hurry him along. He tucked away the tobacco pouch and then turned his hand over to reveal a set of loaded dice. “We play a game, yah?” he said, and though he shook his palm in Jacques’ direction the dice barely moved.

Jacques flicked his wrist and a coin fell into his hand. He tossed it to Brois. “I am in no mood for delays,” he snapped, drawing his face into a hard mask. “Get me the Captain.”

Just as deftly as the woman had done, Boris snatched the coin out of the air. He chewed on the edge thoughtfully. Though it was dark, his sharp black eyes missed nothing. At length he turned in his seat and spoke quietly to someone behind the gate.

It wasn’t long before Captain Coleed appeared, his bare chest glistening with sweat and a rakish grin on his face. He pulled at his chin, his dark features only making him appear more mischievous. Not quite as lanky as his younger brother, Rashka, Coleed gave off an air of assured confidence and easy familiarity. Though clearly a man of good-natured temperament his short goatee and angular face only served to make him look more of a kin to the large camp fox trotting beside him than to any white man of the Sheer.

Coleed combed his callused fingers through his mop of silvering black hair and grinned wide at the sight of Jacques. “Jacky!” he shouted in delight, and swept Jacques into a crushing embrace before the other could say a word.

Jacques struggled to extricate himself from Coleed’s arms, from the rough kisses of greeting the Captain kept planting on his cheeks. He pushed, finally, against Coleed’s well-muscled chest with one hand and against the excited barking fox with the other. As he did so his fingers brushed against the glowing sunstone pendant that hung around the Captain’s neck.

“Muses be damned, get your blasted beast off me!” Jacques turned his knee to the jumping creature and it pranced away, yipping and jittering at his discomfort.

Coleed clapped Jacques firmly on the shoulders and kissed him once more before holding him at arms’ length. “Been too long since I last see you, eh? Too busy to visit you old captain–”

Jacques held himself stiffly, so that there could be no doubt that he would not engage in such a familiar manner. “You weren’t my captain, you just happened to be in charge of the ship I chartered in order to get off Verana. And I saw you two years ago–”

“–all this time I be so worried. You no visit, you no say ‘Coleed, how is you wife?’; no nothing,” Coleed continued, scolding Jacques as if he was a smothering dowager and the toymaker an unruly child. “We Verandi, we stick together like family, yah?”

The fox, a creature of the jungle variety with a thin wagging tail and yellow eyes, leaned heavily against Jacques’ leg. Its rust-red fur came away in soft clumps on his trousers and drool dripped from its panting mouth, oozing all over his polished leather shoes.

Disgust prickled up and down Jacques’ shoulders. He drew himself with a jerk out of Coleed’s grasp and away from the fox. It overbalanced and fell to the ground with a huff of surprise.

Jacques hardened his resolve, biting back the words he wanted to say. Despite what they might think he was not family, he was not a friend, and he was certainly not Verandi. The sharp musk and tang of just-finished sex rolling off Coleed only added to Jacques’ revulsion.

“I’ve…come for business only,” he said, though it required an effort.

Not appearing to notice Jacques’ discomfort Coleed clapped his hands in excitement and then spread them wide. His white grin revealed almost perfect teeth. “Anything for you, Jacky,” he said, using a nickname that Jacques hated.

The fox, thankfully, retreated to Boris’ side. It leaned against him and received much-wanted scratches in return. Even though neither of them watched the conversation directly, Jacques could not have been more aware of his audience. He would not have to choose his words quite as carefully as he had to the guard of the Sundered Carnival, but even gypsies had their rules.

“It’s only a trifle that I need, hardly worth your notice. When you sift through the leavings of the Sheer I’m certain you wouldn’t be able to find a use for it.” Jacques began the verbal dance softly.

Coleed shrugged. “We collect many things, yah? Make new stuff out of old. If Verandi no have use for it, why keep it?”

“To sell,” Jacques parried, “like with the lightning engine you sold me all those years ago.”

“Jacky wants a rare thing, then,” Coleed said, skipping ahead a few steps as though such a deduction was effortless. “Jacky want something he can’t find up in the Sheer.”

Jacques struggled to keep up. He opened his mouth to reply but Coleed began to pace around him.

“All over the city Jacky goes, up to the gate of the sun and down into the dark places.” The Captain’s jovial expression tightened around his eyes, and though he kept his smile in place it became sharper. “People say he looking for something, people say the Baron ask him to find it.”

Here Coleed stopped, just behind Jacques and too close. “I think maybe he won’t find it, this thing he wants. I think maybe he won’t come to the Junkyard, maybe he too smart. Maybe he know better.”

Jacques turned, taken aback by the harshness in Coleed’s normally cheerful voice. “You know what I’m after, then,” he said despite the frown that greeted him.

“I no have it–”

Please,” Jacques begged. “I only need one. It need not be polished or cut or worked in any way. Just a raw leystone, no more than an inch across, that’s all I ask.”

Coleed shook his head. The cold in the cavern was suddenly palpable. “No. I no want to give you one in the first place. Now you working for the Baron,” he growled, and spat to the side. “If I did have one–and I do not–I would no give it to you. Jacky stop looking here; there are no more.”

“Wait, what?” Jacques pulled his coat tighter around his frame, unable to gain any warmth from the lamp nearby. “What do you mean, there are no more?”

“All gone,” Coleed said, adding, “If we find one we take it up, wrap it in silk inside many iron barrels and pop!” He made a gesture of letting go, opening his fingers wide. “We drop them into the sea.”

Anger and horror flushed Jacques’ face at once. “You what?” he cried.

Coleed made the sign of the Goddess, moving his hand in a clockwise motion in front of his breast. Shadows reached up and made the lines on his face longer, settling in the crows’ feet around his eyes and the laugh lines by his mouth.

Jacques felt a chasm of dread yawning underneath him. If he couldn’t find another leystone for Lady Trimaris she would not have nearly the same capabilities for consciousness as Alonzo. “But, surely the mine they came from would still sell–”

“We collapse it,” Coleed said, flat. “After the war. That place…” He shuddered. “Bad luck to everybody. Bad air make many people sick, die, others never get better. Land sick from runoff, coal refineries. Fish and animals all die. Mine is very bad place, Jacky, forbidden.”

Jacques waved this away. “All coal mines are dangerous–why else use the firedamp lamps?” He gestured to the brass cylinder that hung over the gate. Any place processing coal would be bound to destroy the land around it; that was simply the way of industry. But what did coal have to do the leystones?

“No, no.” Coleed reached out his hand and rested it on the head of the fox, who had slunk over to lean quietly against his side. “We find the blue stones inside the mine, deep down where men can’t go.” With a start Jacques realized he meant white men, at the same time that Coleed said, “Deep down, where we find the Phage.”

The Phage did not affect Verandi, but it could make them sick after prolonged exposure, especially if they were very young or very old. And who better to go digging in tight, cramped spaces than young children, eager to help their fathers earn money.

Boris rumbled to life. “Before the flotillas, when the Sheer was young pup, and Baron Marquette rule the city, my people work in those mines. We work for our keep–for land on the peninsula–but he treat us like slaves.” He shrugged his enormous shoulders. “Is story for another time. But after war, when the Baron is dead, we go back and collapse the mine. No more bad luck, no more pain, no more pups dying of Phage,” he finished with a growl that sounded like iron.

“But the stone you sold me?” Jacques asked, even though all the hairs on the back of his neck stood up at once.

“You stone we find by accident, ready to take out to sea.” Boris shifted and then stood up, unfolding himself. He was even bigger than Jacques remembered, and his craggy face pulled into a grimace. “You go. Now.”

“Is there nowhere I can–”

Coleed gripped Jacques’s arm, fingers biting through the coat and bruising the flesh underneath. “Jacky is smart, yah? He know when to stop asking dangerous questions.”

Jacques swallowed hard. He relented and allowed Coleed to march him back through the darkness–this time without the aid of a light–to the lift at the entrance. As he walked his mind raced, scouring his vast store of knowledge for alternatives. Serapin amber, a large enough chunk of it, might be conductive enough to serve the Baron’s purpose. At least, all Jacques could do was hope, even if he knew it couldn’t work.

They reached the cave with the lift and Coleed stepped back, leaving Jacques alone. When the toymaker turned he was just in time to see an enormous blast door, a heavy iron thing with isoprene runners on all sides to keep out the Phage, slam shut behind him.