The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 14 – His Work

Jacques walks the road that no man should, searching for the one thing that will bring him peace of mind.

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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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His Work

Jacques

With a subtle flip of his hand the gypsy made the blue stone disappear. He turned away from Jacques, ready to deposit the crying piece of crystal back among the tumble of packages behind him. “Is not for you, I think,” Captain Coleed said slowly. “Is perhaps for someone else.”

“Wait.” Jacques stood in the middle of the Solsday crowd, pressing into the stall in front of him as though he could avoid the crush of people on every side. He did not often venture out in the middle of the day, but when the gypsies unloaded at Skyman’s Wharf one did not hesitate to do business with them.

The long line of the wharf was alive with hundreds of ships that looked no different from those that sailed over the sea. White sails gleamed creamy white, like a bundled chorus of fluffy clouds. Ropes harped and sang in the wind off Stolenseam. Brilliant tiles winked in the hot sun, here at the edge of the cliff, their different designs on the hull of each ship better than a fingerprint. The tiles matched each flag that snapped at the top of the mainmasts. And not a person seemed to mind that only a few yards away lurked the edge of the quay, and a long, long fall to the valley below.

Ordinarily gypsies made their rounds to all of the major trading ports that bordered this part of the sea. Their annual journey, run like clockwork by several sets of family flotillas who left and returned at certain times during each season, spanned no fewer than three continents, fourteen distinct countries, and thousands of island archipelagos from the frozen fjords of Northern Toulene to the sun-baked city of Citta Roza. They traded with anyone and everyone, whether rights were granted to them or not; sailing through wars and political boundaries as if they were not there.

No one, no matter how prejudiced for their vagabonding and privateering past, could afford to ignore the flotilla.

Coleed–dark, handsome Coleed–wore clothes that would be the envy of any pirate. Wide, striped trousers, a wind-worn shirt, and a sharp red vest set him worlds apart from the saris, blouses, robes, bustle skirts, and waistcoats worn by the citizens of the Sheer. A bright smile, almost too white, split his brown face in two. Strands of black hair peppered heftily with silver, carelessly kept, blew into his mirthful expression with every gusting breeze.

“Jacky,” he said, using Jacques’ least favorite nickname, “Jacky, maybe you want something else, ya? Maybe one of these, I think–” From the pile of treasures behind him he pulled bolt after bolt of fine Rimsean silk, bottles of plumage from distant and colorful birds, and a whole string of Sulisine conception pearls.

There was nothing the gypsies did not carry, nothing too grand or too humble. In all his years visiting Skyman’s Wharf Jacques had seen Tamerlan golems–too crude for his taste by far–round helms from some ancient war burnished to a shine, exotic pets with two tails instead of one, and once even a child for sale–though the bid was purposefully exorbitant. Rags and the twisted ends of ship rope were often pressed at his hands by the urchin children of the ships, perhaps practice for their pushy personalities later in life.

The grandest thing Jacques had ever purchased from Coleed was an Imperial lightning engine–something invaluable to the right collector. He had taken it to task for parts; striping down the copper and strange, whirling mechanisms from the central chamber. Those pieces had ended up–directly and indirectly–inside the lampposts of a few firecats. It had been a risky move, since even he did not fully understand their physiology, but one that had paid off–with kittens.

Jacques, normally excited to peruse the wealth of foreign goods, could think of nothing but the stone. It stuck in his mind like an afterimage. He heard what he could only describe as a kind of weeping, but not sadness. Almost as though the stone wanted nothing more than to be seen.

“Please,” he said, and held out his hand. “I shan’t drop it.” And, when Coleed seemed doubtful, “I only want a closer look.”

Coleed frowned. He brought the stone around again, a big, jagged thing more akin to a chunk of raw amethyst than the basalt rock that was the bedrock of the Sheer. Perhaps he could hear it too, for he hesitated a moment too long before saying, “Take care, Jacky.” and dropping it quickly into his palm.

The world went blue.

Jacques awoke with a start. He looked up to see the concerned faces of his so-called apprentices peering at him and the comfortable four walls of his own apartment. “Hm-mm, my apologies. My work has been getting the better of me most nights; rest hasn’t come easy.” With extreme reluctance he rose out of the chair, wincing at the stiffness of his joints. He made his way over to the stove. “Tea?”

Next to him Thomasine nodded. Her cascade of crimping blonde hair kept falling into her eyes. “You weren’t asleep long.”

Tadeo, his dark Ombolan skin picking up the shine of the cold winter sun, only just suppressed a good-natured chuckle. He ducked his head when Jacques frowned at him. “Ah, as I was saying–”

“Yes, yes.” Jacques waved his hand distractedly as he filled the kettle. “This book you’re making. What did you call it, Creatures in Clockwork?”

Savoy unwrapped the oilskin seal on the papers carefully, the movement of her long fingers purposeful and without waste. “Something like that, Master Augusti. We wanted to compile all our knowledge together, including diagrams and instructions on how to fix the different automatons in the city.”

“Whatever for?” Jacques blinked at them. “If you can know it and tell it to your companions, what is the point of writing it all down?”

Never, from the start of his own odd apprenticeship, had he recorded a single detail. It all fit together in his head, the way the wind and the sea and the tide did for a ship’s captain. Making and repairing the various types of clockwork men and women had always seemed like second nature. He remembered the size of bolts, the exact thickness of copper needed for a rooftop dancer; knew the lifetime of gears by the sound they made. Jacques possessed a nearly complete mental map of all the automatons in the Sheer, though he had not named or numbered them, or kept a diary of their last repair dates.

He did not miss, either, the glance that passed around the room at his words.

“You don’t approve,” Tadeo said, flat.

Jacques shrugged. He was a master at his craft and knew it better than anyone. “A book such as that would be useless to me.” He even remembered all the parts used for Alonzo. Everything he needed for the Baron’s commission was safely tucked away in the same room in his mind, ready for whenever he should need it.

Thomasine took the pages from Savoy and smoothed them. “Not everyone has such talent,” she said gently, “and in the end we hope to publish our work, so that others might follow in our–and your–footsteps, and that the city might be kept in good repair for many generations to come.”

“As it is the lifts are falling apart, they barely work.” Savoy leaned against the display counter and crossed her arms. “If they aren’t fixed soon they’ll kill somebody.”

Jacques made to interject but Tadeo beat him to it. “That’s why we’ve come to you, Sar Augusti. We’d like your help.”

“Out of the question,” Jacques scoffed. “I’m much too busy.”

Thomasine held out the papers to him. “If you could just spare a few days. Walk around the city with us: tell us the last time you repaired which contraption, any special tools that might be needed, the best way to avoid personal injury, or internal diagrams–”

Jacques brought his fist down on the nearest bench, making his tools jump. “I don’t have time to teach you such nonsense!” he barked, unconscious for once of what Alonzo might think. “When machines fail they are repaired, it is that simple. Learn it yourself, as I did–as any apprentice does. If it does not find your meddling as tiresome as I do the city will be your greatest instructor. And another thing,” he continued, “I do not appreciate this constant begging for answers and being awakened at all hours of the night for accidents you can easily manage without my help. I am a toymaker, not the solution to every single wrench the city decides to throw at you. Grow a spine, for goodness’ sake, and leave me alone.”

Wooden silence descended on the shop. Thomasine slowly retracted her arms, bringing the papers in close to her chest.

“Is that how you really feel?” Tadeo snapped, “We are barely to be tolerated?”

Savoy’s pale face grew even paler in shock. “But it’s your work that we do,” she managed.

“I’ve had enough. Out! I have commissions to attend to, important clients to work for.” Jacques’ heart hammered in his chest. He was not a cruel man–conceited and proud, perhaps, but not cruel–and even though he found their company tiresome he did not want to discourage their work.

Despite this he felt the tension of anticipation singing in his bones. The dream had reminded him that though he had already ordered the ivory and gold for the Baron’s automaton, he had yet to find a replica of Alonzo’s stone, and he did not wish to fail.

Thomasine tried once more, as her companions made their way hastily towards the door. “Just one afternoon, then,” she begged. “Just one, with only me. At least let me accompany you to the lifts and firecats and the…the lampkillers. Please.”

“Out of the question.” Jacques shooed her out behind the others. “You’ll learn it on your own in time. No, goodbye Thomasine.”

He shut the door in her face, but gently.

Once free of them Jacques leaned against the wooden surface. It had been the correct decision, he knew that. He refused the twinge of guilt that threatened to make him rush out into the close and call them back.

“A book, hm?” he said to himself as he crossed the shop and set out the fixtures he was going to need for Alonzo’s next stage of construction. “Silly, really. You’d only get use out of the thing if people in this city would bother learning to read.”

It was Sabbatsday, the one day out of the week that Jacques closed his shop and could dedicate himself to his own tasks. He’d already wasted enough time on Thomasine’s group and he set to work on Alonzo’s feet with a will.

Each piece must fit together perfectly. The toes should be able to stretch and curl; sturdy yet beautiful. One by one the joints and bits of carved ivory met to form a greater whole.

Jacques absorbed himself in their making, constantly leaning over to steady the foot on the floor, to be certain that all the necessary points were making contact. He fretted over the ankle, turning it this way and that, trying to recall exactly how the dancers’ had been made. That repair, he recalled, had been much harder. Learning the hard way that their fingertips and soles must be coated in isoprene; chasing after those ever-moving automatons as lighting forked across the sky, filling the air with the smell of ozone.

A resounding crash wrenched Jacques from his memories. He whipped around, finally focusing on Alonzo.

The boy, his arms newly attached, held his hands up to his face in a silent gasp. His blue thoughts whizzed out a second later, shame and sorrow evident among them. On the floor lay the shards of an enamel paint pot.

Jacques sighed. “Tried to grasp something you couldn’t hold onto, I take it.” He rose and cleaned up the pieces, throwing them into the wastebin. The paint itself was a bit easier to mop up, since he had plenty of rags sitting around for just that purpose.

“It’s fine, I promise,” he added, after Alonzo would not stop apologizing. “Mistakes happen. Everything can be fixed, see?” He tapped the side of one cracked pot on the shelf beside them. “There, all clean.”

Alonzo reached out, his movements clumsy, and knocked his fingers into Jacques’ chest. Those blue eyes met his with a depth Jacques had not seen before. Alonzo’s hands moved upward, walking up Jacques’ shoulders until Alonzo was cupping his maker’s face. For a long moment he held Jacques there in silence, his place on the edge of the bench almost making them of equal height.

Jacques stared into that white face; his glance darting between the soft kidskin covering that made Alonzo look almost human and the bald ivory skull behind it. Unless one looked very closely, close enough to see that his eyebrows and lashes were tiny auburn feathers sewn on with fine silken thread, close enough to see the glitter of metal beyond his pearly teeth and living tongue, he could pass on the street for just another eccentric young nobleman. It was Jacques’ finest work, work he was not sure he could hope to duplicate.

It–no, he–for Jacques saw at last that whatever Alonzo might have been, he was now a man. A man with thoughts and feelings of his own. Not a toy and not a child; more than an automaton–a person. Albeit one made of ivory and gold.

“I suppose,” Jacques managed, suddenly truly aware that what looked out at him was a consciousness, and not just a cluster of reactionary questions. “I suppose it’s time to get you a book.”

Alonzo clapped in delight, the ivory palms of his hands clicking against each other. A wide, bright smile spread across his face.

Jacques hauled the whole bookshelf over, dragging it across the stone floor. “I’m afraid none of it is very easy reading–no, like this,” he said, turning the book rightside up in Alonzo’s hands. “Gently–gently, I said. There you go. You know your letters well-enough, read to your heart’s content.”

He returned to his workbench. Though his hands knew what they were doing Jacques found himself unable sink back into the mental quiet he needed. Perhaps it was the soft rasping of pages being turned. Perhaps it was the distorted echo of the music in the pipes, coming up to him shrill and warped out of tune. Whatever the cause he could not concentrate any longer.

“I’m going out,” Jacques said, thinking to himself that it was the first time he felt the need to announce his intentions. He shrugged into his jacket and pulled the curtain closed on Alonzo and the bookshelf. “Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to pick up a gentleman’s manual on etiquette for you.”

That was not the only reason, of course. Once outside the apartment he could feel it descend on him, the singing tension of worry. “Perhaps I will find another stone,” he murmured as he locked the shop behind him. “I shall simply have to be thorough.”

Up to the jeweler’s in the close. Jacques climbed the passage, leaning in to the incline. He started methodically, going swiftly past the violinmaker’s and the lacemaker’s, waving to the owners as he did so. Up and up until he could let himself inside the velvet silence of the shop.

“Master Augusti!” exclaimed M. Armand, a clerkish but pleasant fellow, “I did not expect you today.”

Jacques suppressed a frown. People always had the idea that they should be going out of their way to please him, whether or not he wanted it. “I’m merely browsing–no, M. Armand, please, sit down. Your health, monsieur,” he protested as the older man came wheezing around the counter.

“I don’t mind one bit,” replied the Toulene gentleman, his lingering wisps of cornsilk hair and thick glasses making his eager face appear quite like an owl’s.

Despite Jacques’ subtle protests the other man followed him around the shop as he glanced casually into the many cases of rings, necklaces, and bracelets. One sweeping look was all it took at each shelf to determine that there were no leystones present.

He let himself out, waving and smiling. Jacques hurried back down the close, concerned that he had wasted too much time already.

No leystones presented themselves at the other shops in Wrightsward, even when he asked to see their backstock. Jacques did his best to conceal his dread with a hearty show of disappointment instead, even though he knew it was unfair to take his frustration out on his colleagues.

The same was true in Medtown, in Patchwork, in Philandry, and in the many drawers owned by Jia Sung. Finally Jacques left the neighborhood entirely, climbing up on the back of the Iron Stair.

It was a rickety, iron thing, held half together by the calcification of the stone on either side and half by the pipes that ran underneath. Some sections were missing entirely and Jacques had to jump over dim, yawning gaps. He would have taken the lifts but he did not want to risk missing a single out-of-the-way shop, even here.

Rats and rat king circles, firecats and their kittens, and even one limping figure–always in shadow–followed him up, up through the Sheer.

“Away with you, William,” Jacques called over his shoulder. His voice bounced off the long drop below. A breath of cold winter air bit his cheeks one moment and a scalding jet of steam-seared air warmed them the next. Jacques shivered, even under the heavy wool of his coat.

“I’ll not visit the Reach today.” He pressed on, murmuring, “Not if I can help it.”

Days passed–or seemed to–as Jacques scoured the Sheer. He walked until he couldn’t anymore, his old feet finally growing weary and his knees protesting even one more set of stairs. When sleep threatened to overtake him he stumbled into the dazzling marble and chiffon foyers of nice hotels, sometimes finding dreamless oblivion in their beds, other times nothing but the nightmare of nutcrackers shadowing his footsteps, waiting for the exact moment he should fail.

No matter what sales each shop had, no matter how their managers pressed velvet tray after velvet tray of precious stones in his hands, Jacques insisted on going through the cases one by one. The hot light of the lamps danced on every cut and polished surface, leaving his head with a deep-seeded pain that refused to relent.

He danced in and out of pleasantries–and, once he was above the Teeth, carriages–sipping weak tea and burnt coffee. Thrice he doubled back on someone’s advice, only to eventually find himself in an alley with the rubbish heap of a diver before him, long ago disassembled by his own hand.

Through each tower Jacques searched, the dark districts that changed names in ten paces, going up and down the winding paths until he was more than just footsore. Thief children ran about him, booing softly when there was nothing to find.

Once Jacques thought he heard Alonzo calling him, but his blue voice mixed with the music in the pipes until the toymaker could not tell one from the other.

His search brought him to the Shade, but the merchants there would not serve him, for he had forgotten his business mask. The Warren brought him no relief either and they turned him away, pushing his tired frame to the border and slamming the door with no more than two words spoken.

That left Jacques with no option but two, and he knew which one he preferred. Perhaps Captain Coleed would know where he could obtain another leystone–or maybe even had one for sale–but Jacques was not now sure if he could afford the price. One stone, innocently bought, had led him to Alonzo, to having his heart carved in two. What another one would cost from the hands of a gypsy he did not care to contemplate.

For without that stone the Baron’s commission would be impossible to bring to life. The Lady Trimaris would be like a dead thing, unable to hold or possess anything resembling Alonzo’s intelligence.

Jacques stopped, his boots just shy of the brick road that marked the boundary into the Sundered Carnival. The path ahead of him was dark, unlit by lamps or firecats. No light filtered here, natural or otherwise. No, he was far too deep for that.

Something soft and squeaking bumped into his foot, and then bounced away. He heard skittering in the darkness. “H-Hello?” It did not do to enter the Carnival uninvited.

At length, after listening to the endless drip-drip of water and the distorted rattling breath of the lifts in the distance, he checked his pocketwatch. Only the hour hand could be seen and no ticking came from it. Jacques cursed himself for forgetting to wind the damned thing, very aware that he was alone on a street that was supposed to be full of people.

Suddenly a chill touched his back and the hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up. He whirled around just in time to fend off a wolfish-looking man, who stood just close enough and had somehow approached him while making no noise.

“I beg your pardon!” Jacques tried to say, but the words fell flat and would not come out. Somehow he mastered his fear, despite the eerie, phosphorous glow of the man’s yellow eyes. He slipped his watch back into his pocket, recalling the phrase his master had taught him to say.

The toymaker bowed as low as his stiff body would allow. “I seek permission to enter the place known as the Sundered Carnival and to exit again, safe and whole, exactly as I entered.”

When the yellow-eyed man spoke his voice was as hollow as an empty road, and as jagged as flint. “Seek not the crown of the Thorn King, for he is weary and full of troubles.”

“My regards to the Lord of Briars,” whispered Jacques, “long may he reign.”

The yellow-eyed man paced around him, his steps slow, calculating. “Leave off your looking for the Queen of Stones, her lands are barren, her hands empty.”

“In winter they know that summer will come again; flowers will bloom, life will out.”

“Who seeks water in a wasteland, who asks alms from those that have nothing.” He thrust his face close to Jacques’ and growled. “Who dares to walk the roads alone and expect protection?”

Jacques clenched his fists. It was a trick, a trick to get him to name himself. But he was old enough to know better. He took a deep breath, pulling on fortitude that he was not sure he had. When he spoke next he was surprised to find his voice even and unbroken by fear.

“Those without water may still offer hospitality, those with nothing may still be kind.” He met the yellow-eyed man’s gaze, inches away. “The one who walks alone offers no challenge, and is left in solitude.”

For a long moment it seemed as though the yellow-eyed man was not going to let him pass. Then he grinned, white teeth on a swarthy face, and struck a match that hissed and spat.

The light pierced Jacques’ eyes, blinding him after so much darkness. It burned white hot, like a ship’s distress flare. When he could finally see again the yellow-eyed man was gone, but there was a strange hum in his ears.

Jacques pressed himself against the wall of the tower, as far out of the way as he could manage. Faded shapes passed, paying him absolutely no notice.

The humming increased, pressing against his head in a way that had nothing to do with the Phage. It was a pressure, almost as though he was deep underwater. Jacques clutched at his head, pulling at his ears even though he knew it would do no good. Everything suddenly seemed out of focus, the world spinning and spinning until it popped.

Jacques felt the change, felt his heart give a jump as the Carnival came into view. The pressure in his head and ears disappeared, leaving his senses tingling.

A thick crowd filled the once-empty street. The faded figures had become living people, people of no shape found elsewhere in the Sheer.

Jacques set his eyes on the ground. He left the wall, moving cautiously but purposefully.

In a melting-pot city where every race and every person could find their cultural niche, there was still no place exactly like the Carnival. Creatures passed Jacques, some of them more suited to a woodland forest than a bustling metropolis. Hedgehogs and rabbits, both in waistcoats, ran about underfoot, delivering messages. Deer walked the length of the street, pulling rickshaws without handlers. It was not the animals Jacques tried to avoid however, but the others, creatures of song and story. Creatures that the rest of the world tried to pretend did not exist.

Steam hissed out into the street from the confines of a market stall to his left. From within Jacques could see the enormous, craggy silhouette of a troll, serving skewers of roasted meat to its customers.

Elves glided by, their eyes bright and their features painfully beautiful. They spared no glance for anything in their path but continued on, ignorant of the yearning looks cast their way.

There were others; ugly goblins trudging by with racks of junk strapped to their backs, maenads lying drunk under kegs of mead, dryads weeping in dark corners, sprites spending all their strength just to pickpocket one penny from the unsuspecting. Men with hollow eyes stumbled past, muttering nonsense about rivers and bridges, and bright lights. Lamplight children played in the corners, their fiery ghosts peeking out from behind barrels and doorways. Even tiny daemons scampered about, snickering as they unbuckled shoes or made off with paper lanterns.

Music filled the Carnival, music that was as haunting as it was alluring. Panpipes twittered in their high voices, weaving a melody that was as hard to ignore as the heated expressions on the satyrs that played them. Once or twice Jacques found himself going in the completely wrong direction, his footsteps tracing toward the sound of far-off laughter.

He doubled back, threading his way through a thick crowd. Even though he felt hands brush him he did not stop, did not speak to anyone. By the time he’d found the doorway he wanted a few persistent citizens were pressing him with honey cakes and glasses of elderberry wine.

Jacques was desperately hungry. His stomach snarled but he forced his hands to stay in his pockets. The door ahead opened a fraction. Jacques shouldered his way inside and shut it behind him.

He looked up to find himself in a narrow passage within the tower. The air was cooler here, similar to his own apartment. He saw no one in the hallway, only a set of steps at the end, going down.

One candle sat on a sconce by the stairs, its light flickering off the stone walls. Before Jacques had quite gotten farther than the first step the flame spoke. “Who goes there?” It was a woman’s voice.

Jacques’ head snapped to the side. From within the glow cast by the candle he could just make out the wavering form of a dark-haired girl. “I seek the Mage’s Circle.”

“Who are you?” she asked, then added, “I suppose a better question would be what do you want?”

“I have questions about implements of power, foci, if you will, and where I might obtain one. I have tried everywhere,” he lied, since he had not yet tried the Junkyard. “And no one else knows what I’m talking about. I would appreciate any information you have.”

He could see the woman looking from side to side, trying to ascertain whether he had nutcrackers with him. Finally she said, “I don’t see any harm in it.” A door appeared in the wall to his right. “Don’t take the stairs, they’ll drop you all the way into the Shade. It’s a long way down.”

Jacques nodded. These were Citadel mages, men and women who had every right to be cautious. Rumor had it that not only did the first Baron forbid their settling in the Sheer, but that his soldiers frequently conducted raids to make sure it stayed that way. Any precautions, even those that went as far as to live in the Carnival itself, could not be called too extreme.

Once inside the darkness was nearly absolute. He made his way forward, feeling his way along the wall. From a long way off Jacques saw mage lights bobbing towards him, swirling motes of brilliant green, casting cool shadows.

The same woman who had appeared in the flame now materialized out of the blackness ahead. “Who are you?” she asked, one hand at the ready. “Though bound by the Charter to do no harm to others I will have you know that I am still allowed to protect myself–and will not hesitate to do so.”

“I wish no ill will upon you.” Jacques bowed a little at the waist. “I am the toymaker, Sar Jacques Augusti. I have questions–”

She waved his words away. “You said as much. I am Susan, mage appraisee of the Citadel, seven years’ past graduation. Tonight it was my charge to guard the gate. Come, the others will know more of what you want.” Susan whirled on her heel and marched off down the corridor.

Jacques hurried to keep up. “How long has the Circle been here?” he asked, passing scratched sigils in the stone, shimmering wards illuminated by the glow of her mage lights.

“Longer than I’ve lived in the Sheer, I know that much. As for when the first members of the Circle settled? That’s up for debate, even amongst ourselves.” Susan turned her head to better speak with him, since they could not comfortably walk abreast. “Most of our earliest records were destroyed in a raid back in, oh, 1853, before the war. Back when this was still Circle’s Repast, and not the Carnival as it is now.”

“I was not aware mages had held the district for so long,” Jacques said, hurrying to keep up. His joints ached from their previous toils about the city, and here in the deep places where the moisture stayed he felt even stiffer than usual.

Susan scoffed. At the next doorway she waved her hand. Instead of a lock and key several veridian runes appeared in the air. A sphere glowed pale blue on the wood and the runes slotted into it, until they made ribbons around it. The door swung open silently and they continued on.

“The Circle will stay in the city, no matter what the Barons or the nutcrackers say.” She did not sneer, but in the rimey light her face pulled into a grimace. “Even if few are born with mage talent, they are still born, and they must still be taught to utilize their skills. It’s not a proper school, of course, but even if we can make certain that no child becomes a danger to herself–that is enough.”

Jacques bowed his head as they passed through a low opening. He did not say that it was admirable or selfless, though he well knew the Circle’s work encompassed both of those things. It must be a thankless task, but it was the duty they had chosen; much as the city had chosen him, and he had never asked to be thanked.

At length they came to a common room, bypassing a small guard alcove with a crackling fire through which Susan must have scryed him. The common room was more like one of the mercenary taverns down in Mercy’s Hall, with long benches set to the side, roaring fireplaces in each archway to keep out the cold, and one raised platform at the end piled high with scrolls and alchemical contraptions.

Men and women in equal measure paced about the room, going from one set of tables to the next. Even a few adolescents numbered among them, concentrating on spells in small groups under the tutelage of an older member. The low murmur of private conversation ceased at once as soon as Jacques crossed the threshold.

Within a heartbeat all the younger students rose and filed out of the room through dark doorways beyond, walking with quick steps and glancing back over their shoulders. A few chaperones went with them, mostly those that had been teaching.

At the head of the room the mages working at the high table did not stop their work, though Jacques caught a few furtive looks cast his way.

“What have you brought us, Susan?” asked a tall, red-haired man younger than both of them. He wore a waistcoat of seagreen, and breeches stained with occasional patches of brown. Instead of challenging his tone was soft, almost conversational, and he spoke without lowering the book in front of him.

“An outsider, Sebastian.” Susan jerked her thumb in Jacques’ direction. “Says he has questions.”

The younger–no, older–man set his book aside with a sigh. When he stood, unfolding his lanky frame from the narrow bench, Jacques could see that the mage’s eyes were as old as his own, the only hint of age in that otherwise youthful face. “Run along, I’ll see to his needs.”

He stuck his hand out for Jacques to shake. “Sebastian Way, master healer of the Salvareum.”

Jacques introduced himself, wasting little time over pleasantries. He wondered why a healer would bother associating with Citadel mages, but decided not to question it when he had more pressing matters at hand. “I have come seeking a focus stone,” he said, adding, “a powerful one.”

The healer frowned, thin lines creasing his face. Despite his apparent youth there was one permanent divot between his eyebrows that only grew deeper as they spoke. “A mage’s focus takes a great deal of time and effort to create,” replied Sebastian. “One must work with it, concentrating and meditating and transferring power, weave spells. It is not really something that can be given away.”

“There is a particular type of stone I must obtain for a commission, nothing less will do. It need not be already attuned–I do not wish to steal someone’s work from them. If, perhaps, I could see what you might have available…?” Jacques tried to treat his request lightly, even though he was in the throes of desperate urgency. He wanted to come right to it, to grab the master healer by the arms and demand any leystones he might possess. But certain rules of decorum and etiquette must be followed, just as he had done at the shops in Copperlight and the Pride and Holsgrad and Medtown, and every other business his feet could find. Jacques knew he must dance the minuet of manners, even with the shadow of the Baron hanging over him like the silhouette of a guillotine.

Despite the constant temperature inside the tower Jacques felt a cold draft seize his shoulders, remnants of a door opened somewhere far away and very hastily shut. He plunged ahead further. “Please, sar, if it would not trouble you too much? I can pay any price you ask.”

“I’ve no doubt of that.” Sebastian crossed the hall, retrieved a case after several long minutes of rummaging through papers and scrolls, and returned with it. “This is what the Circle has to offer,” he said.

Jacques’ heart sank. From under the glass many gems glinted in the orange lamplight; amethyst, rose quartz, lapis, aventurine, chunks of raw serapin amber. Nothing with that tell-tale cerulean glow, nothing with power that he could feel seething under his fingertips. “Not quite, but I will take that serapin piece there,” he said, indicating the largest. That, at least, he could work with. He received the serapin gratefully, and pocketed it with a heavy sigh.

As Sebastian made to set down the case Jacques decided he could not wait any longer. “Do you, perhaps, have any leystones instead?”

Sebastian’s head snapped up but Jacques forged ahead, ignoring the dark look the healer threw at him. “It need not be too large in size–I understand they are difficult to come by in any event–but big enough to rest comfortably in the palm of one’s hand. The cut or shape doesn’t matter, but it must be raw and unpolished–”

“Get out.” Sebastian’s clear baritone echoed in the empty hall, his voice crisp and full of frost. “Not another word,” he warned, cutting off the protest Jacques had been going to make. “You have no conception of that which you request.”

Jacques scoffed, drawing himself up until his indignation was as tall as the other man’s considerable height. “How dare you?” He had faced rudeness before–what man hadn’t?–but in the face of an honest inquiry this was altogether too much. “If you don’t have what I seek then you have only to say–”

“Out!” Sebastian demanded, stepping close enough to force Jacques back toward the entrance.

Jacques tried once more, retreating. “I can pay whatever you want–anything!” He reached for his coin purse but the healer thrust him out into the corridor.

Protective wards already crackled and hissed, making ready to reseal the Circle. “Never would I be fool enough to keep a thing such as that under my own roof. I pray that your search ends in failure,” Sebastian spat. “For your own sake.” And with one snap of his fingers the door slammed home.

Immediately the spells jumped into place and before Jacques’ very eyes the wood rippled like water, and then disappeared entirely. He blinked once and found himself out on the border of the Carnival, his feet on stone and the brick just at his heels.

The coin purse he had been going to pull out dropped to the street, musean pieces scattering everywhere in a shower of gold. Jacques cursed, oaths flying out of his mouth that he had not dared utter in decades. “Goddess’ eyes and luck be damned!” His chest heaved and his cheeks burned hot with anger. “No conception? No conception!” The toymaker stomped around in a rage, thankful for once that he was completely alone.

Whether he wanted to or not no longer matter, for there was no other option left, he had to visit the Junkyard.

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 12 – Enter Octavian, Stage Left

The Baron’s commission.

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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.

the-toymakers-opera-cover

Enter Octavian, Stage Left

Jacques

The city stirred, its beginnings like a pebble tumbling down the face of a mountain. A lone carriage set out from Sunsgate, the mechanical driver cracking his whip overhead with the precise rhythm of a metronome until the carriage all but flew down the broad streets and through the open squares, while pedestrians scattered to keep clear of the clockwork horses’ sparking hooves. Down the city’s higher reaches the carriage wove, the automaton footmen in their red velvet coats swaying as the carriage swerved through streets that narrowed with every switchback. When at last it seemed as though the carriage could go no farther without smashing a wheel against the front steps of a townhouse, it drew to a halt before the broad, white Cendrillon Stair leading down to the Lane of Lifts.

With stiff, precise steps, the footmen dismounted, unfolding the carriage steps and pulling wide the door. Two nutcrackers emerged from the satin darkness within, polished black boots clicking on the stone underfoot, their bodies swiveling at the waist to take in the bustling crowd. One of the pair reached a gloved hand, upturned, into the carriage; with a muffled, wooden clack the Baron d’Bardi waved the gesture away with a sweep of his lacquered black cane.

He emerged from the carriage like a prowling wolf, raking the crowd with his gaze, searching, it seemed, for someone or something in particular and, as always, finding the world wanting. Down the Cendrillon Stair he stalked, flanked by his attendant nutcrackers, while behind him the carriage rolled away with a grinding of gears and a clatter of iron hooves.

Those on the Lane already in their lifts swiftly paid their toll, eager to descend. Of those waiting in line every eye now turned to the approaching baron, and for one rare moment the Lifts stilled, awaiting passengers suddenly reluctant to embark until they knew for sure which lift the Baron intended to take–if only so that they, themselves, could avoid sharing it.

Octavian made for the middle, striding across the broad square. His coattails swung, the tip of his cane clicked against the cobbles. Without making a motion to pay he stepped inside the box, nutcrackers filing after. Several more soldiers, those whose job it was to guard the lifts against any kind of vandalism, abandoned their posts and joined him.

As soon as the last nutcracker was inside and just as the sliding door had latched into place the lift plunged down. It screamed in its tracks, setting of a shower off sparks along the rail.

Bitter wind and swirling snowflakes sailed past the Baron as the lift dropped like a stone. He did not grab for a handhold, but stood fast, legs wide apart. The last dying light of day could not reach the heart of the Sheer but each level was announced by the orange glow of lanterns, and so the passage down the city made bars of light and shadow on Octavian’s grim face.

The city made way for the Baron, pulling aside the delicate dreams of those who lived in the tower just beyond the lift. It sent firecats running ahead, fetching nutcrackers broken or not to attend him upon his exit. It called for gas lamps and amberic lights to shrink down as small as they could get, no more than yellow pinpricks in the darkness.

Waterwheels shuddered and stopped, their constant roaring suddenly ceased. A wild party in the Junkyard drew to a stumbling halt, its gypsy denizens hurrying to close all access doors to their stolen district. Airship sailors at Skyman’s Wharf threw off all mooring lines and hovered at the edge of the docks, just out of reach. Thieves slunk away from shadows suddenly grown too dark and deep, retreating to the red lights of the Warren’s twisting passageways. The nine furnaces of the Faid Faran guttered and spat, their embers burning low like narrowed eyes.

Even Sophia closed her windows against the night, against the echo of many marching feet.

Many dangers awaited a citizen of the Sheer over the course of their lifetime but there was one for which no person had ever prepared: silence.

Tucked away in his cozy shop Jacques woke with a start. He struggled against blankets that were not there for a moment before he remembered that he had fallen asleep in front of the woodstove.

Warm, ruddy firelight danced across the otherwise dark room. It threw strange shapes high on the wall, glinting on pots of paint and metal tools. The light only just illuminated Alonzo, who sat where he had been placed on the far bench in the corner of the room.

With little warning the incessant blue curiosity of the boy’s thoughts interrupted Jacques’ still-sleepy ones. Alonzo pressed him with questions–at least, Jacques believed them to be questions–one right after the other, his focus shifting from Jacques himself to other items in the shop to the other pieces of his body on the workbench and finally to the hissing gramophone.

Jacques sighed, rubbing the ache out of his eyes. He had no idea what time it was. Clearly he’d forgotten to wind the clock after coming back from his shopping. By the look of things outside it was high time for dinner–among other things.

“Half a minute, you impatient thing,” he said to Alonzo, a weary smile poking at the corner of his mouth. “I’ll put on another one.” Slowly he rose from his warm spot by the fire, wincing as aching joints recalled themselves.

“Time once again for the opera’s winter season to begin, to coax the starlets and socialites down from their high castles, to mix amongst the rabble of petty musicians and aspiring ballerinas.” Jacques’ deft hands replaced one scroll with another inside the gramophone. “Let me see, surely they would be performing The Raven King tonight, a fitting start. Then, like as not, there shall be all manner of independant performances, some new, some old. And when the sun is at last beginning to strengthen once more they’ll put on The Sleeping Spring, as certain as clockwork.”

A piping question, eager for more, piqued from Alonzo’s direction. The boy searched Jacques’ face with too-blue eyes, almost as if he could compel the older man to look at him.

Jacques chuckled. “And then? Why, and then the Il Susurrus opera house will settle down for a good cleaning and painting and, most important of all, practicing, before their summer season starts. If this were some globe in a backwater frontier town I don’t wonder that they should be able to turn over their props and costumes in two weeks’ time, but those artisans up the city need longer than that to prepare for their forthcoming shows. Yes, perhaps a costume could be reused, but what if the soprano were wider of hips or shorter of build? No, not everyone is shaped the same. Not even the nutcrackers, though it would certainly make it easier to repair them and no mistake.”

Before long water simmered merrily on the stovetop as the snowflakes danced ever more feverishly outside. Jacques lit the lamps and the cheery light made the big shop seem comfortable and intimate, worlds removed from the weather on the other side of the window pane. The deep hum of cello song wound through the room from the gramophone’s speaker, adding to the atmosphere.

From his place in the corner Alonzo was abuzz with excitement. He could just barely see the pieces of ivory that Jacques had placed on a workbench, pieces that would shortly become a part of him.

“Alonzo,” Jacques said, a warning tone in his rich voice. He sensed the boy draw back and sighed. “How am I to work in peace if you are peppering me moment by moment? Here, rest now. I shall show you my progress in the morning.”

The toymaker left his workspace and swiped the hanging curtain across the partition that separated Alonzo’s bench from the rest of the room. For several long minutes he stood there, trying to shut his mind to the sudden barrage of anxious thoughts.

“A young gentleman minds his bedtime,” Jacques said and was relieved when Alonzo complied.

He made his way back to the workbench, shaking his head. The boy would have to learn to mind. Jacques knew that he was no father at heart, but at the least there must be discipline. He resolved to finish work on Alonzo’s arms as quickly as possible, so that the boy might be taught to read–and therefore be distracted for a time.

Jacques loved this strange clockwork creature of his, this boy who would be made with the body of a man. Alonzo often mouthed the words to his favorite songs, his gold-painted lips moving up and down though he had had no lungs until last week. He wanted to know everything, and Jacques was almost hesitant to provide the boy with a slate, for fear that he would start writing out his questions and never stop.

“I cannot work fast enough to suit either of us, it seems,” the toymaker murmured, not unkindly. “For you would be finished right away, and I would have you be as well, if only it didn’t mean that then you would be a man grown…” He picked up his carving tools. “…and no longer in need of me.”

If Jacques had had his way he would have begun work on the automaton’s head first, fashioning the eyes and the smile–his favorite part of each doll. Instead he had been forced to work outward from the heart, and a heart in motion at that. Once set into the golden brackets that would read the magic coming off the stone like tines on a music box, the heart whirled inside its gyroscopic rings, giving sight to otherwise lifeless eyes and motion to a spine that had had to be hastily constructed.

Jacques never overlooked a detail. Alonzo’s construction–though rushed at times–was never anything less than his best.

With the handsome yet beautiful face completed, Jacques had spent these past few weeks engrossed in the complicated work of piecing together the torso. Canvas lungs, lined and seasoned so they could expand to hold air without bursting, breathed now in easy rhythm. Several sets of intricate cams whizzed up and down on their columns, the sound of clockwork so quiet you couldn’t hear it unless you pressed your ear to his chest. These were so small that each set could sit on either side of the heart, gathering the instructions that the stone sent out and passing them along channels of conductive serapin resin to the limbs themselves.

Though assembly on Alonzo had not yet progressed below the waist, he was more alive than not already, and could twist this way and that on his golden spine. Once completed he would be able to bend and waltz just as easily as any lordling, since his chest cavity did not need to be taken up by instruction scrolls. In truth he needed very little of Jacques’ prestigious talents, only the exact knowledge of when to leave off filling him with metal and to let his natural will do the work.

Jacques peered down the core of the ivory arm. The past few nights’ work–Alonzo’s left shoulder and upper arm–gleamed at the edge of the bench, their whiteness undiminished by the yellow glow of the lamps.

Each section of the limb; forearm, hand, fingers, and so on, would be made of ivory. There was gold filigree to affix at each joint, and the pearly joints themselves to fashion. The work on the hands alone a monumental undertaking. It was nothing to the man who frequently dealt with rusted iron contraptions and champing gears, but it was delicate work nonetheless.

Jacques worked in musical silence, narrowing his whole attention to the task in front of him. The fingers must have the same range of motion as his own. They must be able to grip and clasp, to touch and caress. Jacques spared no detail, looking up only when a pounding knock at the door shattered his concentration.

“At this hour?” He frowned. “Who on earth–” Rising, he crossed the shop as quickly as he could. The moment, the exact moment it seemed, Jacques placed his hand upon the doorknob the door itself sprang open with a crash.

In filed the nutcrackers, line after line of red velvet jackets, rusty bayonets, and broken button eyes. They filled the tiny storefront of the shop, spilling out into the workroom beyond like a scarlet tide.

Jacques clawed his way through them, pushing hard against their stiff torsos. “What is the meaning of this?” he shouted, trying to be heard over the sound of their tramping feet.

As one the nutcrackers stilled, freezing between almost one breath and the next. The ones deeper into the shop made no noise, while the ones in the storefront pressed aside. Jacques suddenly found himself in an open circle in front of the door.

He faced two enormous soldiers, larger and broader than the rest. These did not have button eyes but a long strip of black cloth wound around their heads. They wore tall, furred shako hats and tattered golden epaulettes on their shoulders. Despite their somewhat shabby appearance Jacques knew they were Captains of the guard, more alert and perhaps more vicious, than their enlisted counterparts.

As one the captains presented arms, going through the motions of moving their rifles with solemn rigidity. Then they stepped aside in time, revealing none other than the Baron Octavian d’Bardi.

The Baron swept into the room, coattails fluttering. He brought with him a chill breeze, and a few wayward snowflakes that twisted and fell instantly to the ground. “Jacques Augusti, I presume?” he said, biting off each word as though it were distasteful.

“M-My Lord, I–” Jacques fumbled, unsure what to say. He was too proud to say it was an honor to be interrupted so, and at this time of night. But neither was he suicidal enough to demand that the Baron leave.

“You’ve defied my summons for far too long, Sar Augusti. I have a job for you and I will not be ignored.” He snapped his fingers.

The Baron was a tall, thin man, the way a whip was thin. He did not smile; for the arch of a sneer never quite left his brow or the edge of his mouth. Though young in appearance–his queue of brilliant scarlet hair was undampened by grey or white–Jacques knew that the Baron had ruled the Sheer long before his arrival and would certainly do so long after his death. d’Bardi had lived longer than anyone else in the Sheer, longer even than the gypsies if rumor was to be believed, and that was a long time indeed. He spoke and acted in a way that brokered no argument.

By whatever power he possessed the nutcrackers obeyed, instantly fanning out inside the workshop, four to a bench. Quite before Jacques could open his mouth to stop them, they heaved together, lifting each table clear of the floor. Others scooped up armfuls of jars–paint, beads, marbles, powders; it didn’t matter.

“Stop!” Jacques bellowed. “Stop this at once!” He rounded on the Baron. “My Lord, I will not be treated so. Tell your men to put down my things, they are delicate and require special care.”

The Baron’s lacquered cane whished through the air and came down with a sharp crack on the display case next to Jacques’ hand. Several fractures appeared in the glass but it did not break. “If you did not desire to see my nutcrackers treat your shop in such a manner then you ought to have come when I first summoned you. You will come to the Reach now, or suffer the consequences.”

Jacques snatched his hand away. He drew himself up, boiling inside. “You cannot–” he began, but stopped. The Baron could do as he liked, and they both knew it.

“Letters I sent you,” the Baron growled, ticking them off on his long fingers, “and runners. Nutcrackers and requests and appointment cards; I have tried every courteous way to obtain your services, for my need is great. And yet still my delivery boys return empty handed, but no more.”

Pain spread through Jacques’ hand as he realized his nails were digging into his palm. He shoved aside a nutcracker that was trying to get by with its arms full of delicate jeweler’s tools, preventing it from taking another step. Full of fury the toymaker faced the Baron. “I already work for you!” Jacques snapped. “I repair your broken machines, your divers and weavers and rooftop dancers. When you need a firecat’s flame rekindled or a lampkiller’s touch refined, the city calls to me. When the calliopes in your precious opera house are run down and out of time the conductors come to me. I resew the broken buttons on your nutcrackers. I make sure the lifts run on time, and it is I alone who repair the clockwork courtiers you are so fond of keeping–”

A feral snarl edged out of the Baron’s bared lips. He seized Jacques by the collar. “Wrong!” he cried, and slammed the toymaker against the cabinet. “I repair my own creatures,” the Baron hissed through clenched teeth. “Is that clear?”

Jacques’ head whirled. In the confined space at the edge of the shopfront, pressed between the display cabinets and the stone wall, almost all the light in the room was blocked by the nutcrackers. Long, deep shadows like fingers danced overhead. The Baron’s hard fingers dug into his robe, bruising the flesh by his collarbone. Jacques gasped; one nutcracker at the far end of the shop was reaching for the curtain that hid Alonzo from view.

“You…are correct, my Lord,” Jacques said, even though it was not true.

“Indeed. Now–”

“I cannot go to the Reach with you.” Jacques forged ahead, despite the light that lit the Baron’s eyes, even though there was no light to be had from this corner of the room. “All my tools are here.”

The Baron shrugged dismissively. “Those are easily transported. Your presence at the Reach is necessary; you will begin immediately.”

“You there, hands off!” Jacques shouted, motioning in the general direction of the benches. All the nutcrackers paused, including the farthest one, turning their torsos slowly to look between the man who commanded them and the man who fixed them.

Even trapped as he was Jacques knew he had only bought himself time, time he could not squander on bluster. His pride tasted hard and bitter as he swallowed it, turning to the Baron and saying in a softer tone, “Please, my Lord, every tool I own, every scrap of material, has been as well loved and treated as the toys I create. You would not hand over a master’s instrument to these fellows; I implore you to leave my shop and my things as they are, and disturb nothing. Any work you desire of me can surely be done here, and delivered to the Reach later.”

“Impossible.” The Baron’s long queue of scarlet hair stood out like a scream against the pallor of his face. From this close Jacques could see that not a single button on his waistcoat matched, and that the tailcoat was worn about the hems. d’Bardi scanned the shop with shrewd eyes and an expression like iron, perhaps evaluating Jacques’ claim. This was the man who, it was said, could shut down an entire theater–or factory–with a single displeased word.

For a moment Jacques saw his future hang in the balance of that grim expression. He saw his work and his toys and his Alonzo all gone in favor of the endless city repairs the Baron would no doubt set him to. He saw, clearly in his mind’s eye, his own shopfront closed, empty and dark.

Thoughts racing, Jacques sought desperately to appeal to the Baron’s sense of sanity. “My Lord, you might as well ask a soprano to sing in the street, or have a pianist play with cracked keys. If you would not ask it of a musician, I beg you, do not ask it of me. I am a master artificer and I know my needs. Tell me only what you wish and I can provide it to you.”

The Baron considered this, a storm of emotion neatly concealed behind his hard, dark eyes. Only the pressing of his lips into a stern line gave voice to the war that raged within. d’Bardi was not a man of gentleness, after all, but violent extremes. “Very well,” he said suddenly, dropping Jacques and resuming the sarcastic drawl for which he was also known. “I suppose I can’t risk having any less than your best.

“I want a doll–a life-sized automaton, with the capacity to be life-like in every way.”

Jacques stared, only just remembering to close his mouth. What the Baron described exactly matched the idea behind Alonzo’s construction. “Could you…be more specific?” he managed, hoping his face revealed nothing.

“Since her body cannot be made of flesh and blood,” the Baron snapped, impatient, “then it must be made of something else! I need a woman’s body, in iron or steel or brass; I don’t care–”

Jacques grasped for a response. The Baron had plenty of clockwork creatures made by his own hand who walked the Reach. Granted, they were not very life-like. In fact, one could almost call the existence of the nutcrackers and the lampkillers as cruel torture; since it was nothing like living at all. “But what for, my Lord?”

“It does not matter what I need it for,” he retorted hotly, rapping his cane against the glass. “Only that this body must be built as quickly and perfectly as you can manage.”

In his haste to grab for quill and paper Jacques nearly tripped over several nutcrackers’ boots. He stumbled behind the counter. An automaton like Alonzo but created the normal way would not be easy–or inexpensive. So much work would have to go into designing the cams and gears that would pull the limbs and contract the face. Jacques turned, pen in hand, and nearly ran right into the Baron. To his horror he saw that the man had followed him right into the workshop.

He recovered, eager now to get down as many details and get the Baron out of his house as swiftly as possible. “A female automaton, of course. Very well. And how would you like her to be run?”

“I beg your pardon?” the Baron said, raising an eyebrow.

Jacques went on quickly, waving a hand that somehow took in more than just the clockwork creations in front of them. “Scrolls of instruction, miniature cams–should she have to be wound, like some of the servants in Sunsgate are?”

“Do you still not understand? She is to be as alive as possible, as good as you or I. Or as good as you can get without flesh, anyway.” The Baron’s narrow face pulled into a tight frown. “How a man of your education could be ignorant of the theories of Landsman and Harrogate, I ask you.” He sniffed in disapproval, but made no motion to call the nutcrackers to resume their ransacking.

As usual, or so Jacques heard from those who worked in the opera house, the Baron was halfway through a complex topic without bothering to bring everyone else up to speed. “I require more detail, my Lord,” he said, pretending to keep his eyes on the paper while actually watching Alonzo’s curtain.

Now, more than ever, he willed the boy to be quiet. Let him not barrage the Baron with questions or do anything to make his presence known. Whether it was fear or confusion that kept Alonzo silent Jacques did not know, nor did he care, as long as he remained hidden. It was truly luck that the nutcracker standing there had listened in the first place, for the Baron’s next words sent a shiver down Jacques’ spine.

“My automaton will need a stone heart,” said d’Bardi, without even a glance in Jacques’ direction. “A focus, like the ones mages used to use. A…core, if you will, through which life might be viable. Something that won’t be worn by time, something to keep her safe.”

Jacques shook his head. Not because he disagreed that the Baron might need a wife–which was the only reason he could think of for this request–but because he alone knew how truly rare stones like Alonzo’s were. There was always the chance of making the heart out of serapin amber, as it was naturally conductive to magic, but Jacques had the cold, sinking feeling that that would not suit the Baron’s needs at all.

“But what will power the heart?” he asked, trying to buy time and information in the same breath. “A focus stone alone won’t be enough to–”

“I will be the judge of what is or is not powerful enough for her body!” The Baron brought his fist down on the nearest bench, making the ivory arm and fingers jump. “I am asking you to create something well within your scope of talent to do so and–hello, what in the Muse’s name is this?”

d’Bardi reached across the worktable and lifted the ivory hand before Jacques could stop him. He turned it over and over, examining the twisting gold filigree around the joints, the smooth way the fingers moved as they contracted or expanded. “This,” he murmured, “this is exquisite work.”

“That, ah, that, “ Jacques stuttered, trying to edge between the Baron and the rest of the room. “That is part of an experiment in motion and form.”

The Baron held up the hand to the light, his mouth no longer pulled taut in displeasure. “This is what I want. This is how I want her body to be made. Sturdy, yet beautiful. Why, with a pair of kidskin gloves she could easily still pick up tools or dress herself without a maid’s assistance.” His voice trailed off, growing softer as his expression did, until he more resembled a picture of melancholy rather than a mercurial child.

Jacques coaxed specifications out of him, writing down everything from the exact shade of her ebony hair to the alto pitch of her voice. He knew he could not spin miracles but by the Goddess he would certainly try.

Finally the Baron gathered himself and, setting down the ivory, made for the door. “I trust you have enough to begin, Sar Augusti,” he said briskly.

“Ah, no, my Lord.” Jacques took the opportunity to shoo the nutcrackers away from his benches, marching the last one out with a firm hand on its back. “I will need her sizes, of course; waist, shoulders, arm length. I do not wish to create a woman too petite or too large for you.” Internally he shook himself. Clearly the Baron believed that Jacques would be making a person–whole and individual–from the ground up. It seemed callous and somehow intimate to discuss such things about a creature who would be, for all intents and purposes, a member of the fairer sex.

Jacques pulled away from such thoughts, from the disgust of what might eventually be done between the Baron and the wife he would have to create. For a moment he felt he might be sick; sick from the knowledge that if he had spoken a moment too late this would be Alonzo they were discussing.

“I can have one of my men deliver the sizes to you later,” the Baron said, appearing not to notice Jacques’ sudden grey face. “As well as a painting for reference. She must look exactly like it, none of this repeating mold-work as you have done with these other dolls.” He gestured to the ones in the display cases.

The toymaker swallowed. He, too stepped into the shopfront, swiping the dividing curtain closed behind him. “Of course, I am no ametur, my Lord. You shall have what you request.”

Neither of them had to say that there was no room for failure. The last man who had failed the Baron had hung himself off the edge of the Teeth, with no way to tell if it was the nutcracker’s doing or his own. No matter how famous, no matter how wealthy or well-loved, someone might be, it was never enough to escape the Baron.

But if he did not displease d’Bardi; that was a thought. If he succeeded, where only a few opera directors and singers and violinmakers had done so, it would earn him even more renown. That was not something Jacques wanted, precisely, but presumably if the Baron was satisfied then he would leave Jacques in peace. And that was something the toymaker wanted very dearly.

“Good.” The Baron rolled the cane between his fingers. “There is also the matter of compensation. What is your price for such a request?”

Jacques balked. “Surely you would tell me your budget, my Lord. Though she will be rather expensive…”

“Done. What? You seem surprised, Sar Augusti. I do not expect a master craftsman to work for free. And spare nothing in the quality of materials. Whether you get the ivory from Rimsea or the Empire or Ombolan matters little to me; choose only the finest.”

Settling in to the more comfortable rhythm of negotiating, Jacques replied, “Then I will need an advance of no less than three thousand musean gold pieces for materials and to cover shipping costs. You can pay me for my time when the labor is complete.”

“As you wish it.” The Baron motioned to one of the nutcracker Captains. “Bring him a purse with that amount tomorrow. I’ll want you to get started right away.”

“–Once the materials arrive,” Jacques put in, relieved when the Baron accepted this without question. “And now, my Lord, it is late. I’m certain you have an opera to attend and I must make preparations to order my supplies tomorrow, when the shops are open.”

The Baron swept to the door. He stopped and looked back once more, as if he could still see the ivory hand laying alone on the workbench. “I expect,” he said with sudden coldness, “it would be too much to hope for that there is more where that hand came from? It would be so much easier, after all, if my sister’s body did not have to be made entirely from scratch.”

Just then Jacques sensed the bright blue tendril of Alonzo’s thoughts, reaching out beyond the curtain. The alien mind of the stone was made human by its fear and compassion, and its anxious question of whether Jacques had been harmed. Looking at the Baron Jacques knew that d’Bardi must sense it, even if he did not know where it came from.

“As I said, my Lord, it was merely an experiment in independent locomotion. I often get commissioned to work on orchestra calliopes.” Now Jacques was thinking fast. He stood right behind the Baron, hoping to block his way back into the workshop. “They have such delicate fingers, and it is so hard to get them to press upon the strings of a cello or the holes on a flute with just the right amount of pressure and–”

“Yes, yes. I know that.” The Baron waved his explanation away. “My men will return in the morning with everything I have promised–and you will deliver to my expectations as you have promised.”

Jacques bowed low even though he had dealt with prima donnas less demanding. He eyed the nutcrackers as they filed out. “You have my word as a master, my Lord.”

“Goodnight, Sar Augusti.” The Baron left, closing the door behind him so firmly that the windows on either side shuddered. Nutcrackers formed up in little regiments on the Baron’s heels and followed him down along the passage.

For several long minutes the only sound Jacques could hear was the unusually loud pounding of his own heartbeat. Gradually other noises came back to him; the hissing of the gramophone, the pop and crackle of the fireplace, and the gentle ticking of the clock on the wall.

The toymaker grabbed a chair usually reserved for guests and sank into it, his legs suddenly unsteady. So it was a sister the Baron wanted then, not a wife. That fact should have relieved him but how could it? A sister meant love. A sister meant family.

And that, Jacques knew, was impossible.

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 9 – Piece by Piece

As Alonzo is built he learns more, about Jacques, about the city, about opera, but not the meaning behind the Baron’s invitations, which Jacques continues to deny. 

If you like this you can support me on Patreon.

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.

the-toymakers-opera-cover

Piece by Piece

Alonzo

 

“Young gentlemen do not roll their eyes, Alonzo.” Jacques leaned back in his chair and took off his spectacles. “Stop making that horrid expression at once.”

Alonzo turned his eyes around and grinned sheepishly. He had only been testing how far he could move them. Without being asked he settled in again and stared patiently over Jacques’ shoulder at the rest of the shop, however hard it was to remain completely still.

Dawn in the Sheer arrived subdued, head bowed; thin pink light hitting the Reach first. It warmed the tiptop district of Sunsgate to a golden bronze and then continued down on the backs of raindrops and falling steam. By the time morning touched Wrightsward the light had turned clear, except for one yellow patch of sun that crept diagonally across the tower opposite the shop’s window. Alonzo watched it until his eyes could bear the brightness no longer, his gaze retreating inward to the gentler, lamp-lit ambiance of the shop. For once it was neither dusk nor night–Jacques had risen early–and Alonzo had the rare privilege of being able to see farther than a candle alone could illuminate.

From his place in the corner the other workbenches lined up in orderly fashion. Splatters of paint blotted the surface of the nearest bench under the window. Jars of pigment, mixing agent, empty pots of brushes, all clean, and stained slate palettes crowded neatly onto one side. The naked heads of a few dolls sat there, some wanting blush, others lipstick or tattoos. Miniature sailing ships stood on their dry dock blocks, waiting for the white decks and stained railings that would make them skyworthy. Beyond the paint table lurked the varnish one, with its presumably foul-smelling concoctions that even Jacques Augusti could not avoid pulling faces while working at.

A clear gap existed between the first two benches and the third, which held the sewing machine. It appeared for all intents and purposes to be a sleek, yet ponderous thing–when asleep. When awakened by Jacques’ masterful touch it clattered to life, rumbling as if discontented.

Some benches were not exactly the flat surfaces they appeared to be, but small, waist-high cabinets. In these the toymaker kept bolt upon bolt of shiny jacquards and satins, smooth-looking silks and breathy laces. Not only cloth fit for lords’ and ladies’ commissions, but also linen scraps, good wool and soft cotton. He held on to nearly every ribbon ever traded to him in place of coin, sorting them first by color and then by material. Even yarn earned itself the coveted honor of having an exclusive section by the shop curtain.

Beyond those tables stationed under the window line, deeper into the shop, stood the ones where the toymaker fashioned the pieces that he would eventually bring into the light and finish with paint or fabric.

Chisels and gauges for working bone, and knives for carving wood occupied opposite benches. Molds for doll arms and legs sat atop stone ones, deftly separated from their more delicate counterparts in wax. Folding boxes of jeweler’s tools, with their miniscule screwdrivers and endless layers of magnifying glasses, took up the middle of the room, almost as if they were more important that the tables containing brass and silver parts to either side. Leather awls and head knives lay strewn across the remnants of a project from yesterday, their worn handles a testament to their constant use.

Jars of glaze huddled around the warm kiln, the cool depths of the pottery slips placed just outside that ring of bracing heat. Enormous bucksaws for cutting ivory hung on the far wall beside the wood shavers. Pots for rendering dye stood neatly stacked above the bottles of fixative for sealing it. Porcelain fingers, articulated and not, lay in rows by size, waiting to be glazed. Boxes of glass eyes rolled whenever their velvet-lined drawer was opened, as if they were all trying to see at once. Fabric shears, thread snips, gleaming embroidery scissors, and razors for styling hair all waited in their respective places to be used, cleaned, and put away again.

An enormous sink took up one whole section of wall beside the cook stove, its white enamel stained dark from years of dye and paint. This marked the invisible dividing line between Jacques’ little kitchen where he sat to take his breakfast and make a list of the day’s tasks, and the organized insanity beyond it.

For now the wool curtain that separated the kitchen from the shop front had been pulled wide open, allowing Alonzo to see into the mysterious public space where Jacques usually did his business.

If one were to enter as a customer the first thing they would see would be rows upon rows of glass-enclosed shelves and exhibit cases. To the right along the wall and then around in a long L-shape, the display counter split the apartment, leaving a quarter of it to the shop and three quarters to the workbenches. Candles, currently unlit, stood in their sconces and clear lanterns hung from the edge of the counter; the better to shine light on the minute detail of Jacques’ work.

Toy trains and floating ships and tin soldiers sat inside them, perfectly positioned to catch the hot light and show off to their fullest potential. On one end were those toys made of reclaimed wood or dolls stuffed with rags, while on the other Jacques had staged his most expensive and delicate creations; miniature firecats with white glass eyes and intricate coats that glowed from within as they moved on their own, flotilla galleons that sailed through the air seeking the sun, and Alonzo’s favorite; several pairs of gentlemen duelers constantly making war on each other with silver pistols and rapiers.

It seemed as though there was nothing Jacques could not make with his workshop of wonders. He made corn-husk dolls for the mill girls and porcelain ones for sopranos’ daughters. He made music boxes for parted lovers and tiny tools for craftsmen to give their children, to encourage them in the trade. Jacques Augusti made anything for anyone, but never for himself.

Until now.

Alonzo felt, rather than saw, the toymaker’s gentle smile spread across his face. He had been straining to see how the latest duel would turn out between the two silver gentlemen on the third shelf when Jacques’ murmured voice called him back.

“Mankind is born of flesh and blood, bone and sinew, a mother’s body giving life to her child, but you–ah!–you, my dear, are something new. You are born of amber, gold, and ivory, yes, but also of my hands and heart, my mind, my soul…” He trailed off for a moment, the blue light of Alonzo’s heart reflecting on his dark face like water. “…your soul.”

The automaton watched anxiously. He craned his neck down, trying to get Jacques’ attention. Sometimes the toymaker would retreat inside himself, as he did now, his hands pausing in their work, his brows drawn together as if in pain. When these moments came, as they seemed to do more and more often, Alonzo did his best. Before, all he could do was cry out silently. Now he squirmed, rotating his shoulder joints and moving his mouth as though he were speaking.

“Stop that at once,” Jacques snapped, looking up at him directly. “This is a delicate business. One broken gear and you’ll put everything into disarray.”

Alonzo contrived to look apologetic, pulling out his bottom lip in a pout.

“And what have I told you about making faces?” Jacques continued, returning to his work yet warming to his subject. “You are going to be a gentleman, Alonzo, and gentlemen mind their manners. No complaining, no fidgeting, no whining, and no begging to go outside when your studies aren’t even begun.”

Studies–whatever those were–sounded horrid. Alonzo listened, however, as Jacques began to tell him about the intricacies of court life that he was destined for. “Any woman you meet you must address as ‘my Lady’, unless she is Verandi in which case she is a ‘Dame’; common women of the Sheer are ‘Sa’–though I doubt you’ll have much occasion to mingle with them–and those from outside the Sheer are ‘Miss’ or ‘Missus’; unless the Lady you are introduced to is, of course, a singer: in which case you will address her as Sonora. Men are Lord so-and-so, ‘Don’ for the Verandi, ‘Sar’ for men like myself, ‘Master’ for wrights or teachers, ‘Mister’ for those outside and so on, and ‘Sonor’ for the singers. The lords and ladies with whom you will one day make your acquaintance are powerful figures in their communities, whether those communities are in Sunsgate, Copperlight, or at the opera house. They dress in fine clothes, eat rich food, and are the friends of–if not the very people–who are the movers and shakers of the world.

“Perhaps the era after which I am fashioning you is long past, perhaps your waistcoat will be too long and your hair too curled. Perhaps you will dazzle in jacquard instead of the current velvet–curse this stupid piece, come on…there we go–but never forget my dearest; never forget that you are one of them. You are kind to battle their simpering shortcomings, you are polite out of goodness and not malice, you will never falter when you dance–oh, and what a dancer you will make–and you are a dandy to your core. I will teach you, I will,” he said, when Alonzo began to pepper him with questions. “You will learn the meaning of all this and more. You will shine, my darling Alonzo Belrose, as brightly as a silver star.”

Jacques rose in his plain linen tunic and mopped the sweat from his brow. He threw back a glass of water and crossed the shop to the gramophone. “More tomorrow, my dear one. The day is here in earnest and I must see to my customers.”

Alonzo tried not to frown. He did so want Jacques to continue. Every detail he learned about the world outside only woke him further from his long blue sleep, only served to make him more human.

If the toymaker said that he ought to care about manners, well, then he would. It was as simple as that. He would bow–oh yes!–just as soon as his torso allowed it. And he would practice blowing kisses and dandying–which sounded complicated–and sweeping about looking important–which did not. Alonzo promised himself that he would be all the things that Jacques wanted him to be; after all, he seemed to be the only thing that made the old man smile.

With the expert grace of long practice Jacques moved about the shop. He twisted his hips to avoid colliding with tables, ducking just so under the spice rack as he put on the kettle for tea, pulling out drawers in a flash and then holding his hand out to catch them before they could smack against his stomach. In the midst of glass cleaning, flicking the rag to get the last bit of dust from the edges of the front windows, Jacques paused in mid action. He hurried back behind the counter and yanked the curtains closed. That quick jerk of motion hid the front of the shop from view. Still he bustled in and out, setting the fabric swinging.

“Savoy, good morning,” Jacques said, hurrying out to the counter at the sound of the shop’s bell. “What brings you here so early? Not the overseer, I trust?.”

“No, Master Augusti.” The Yuan woman’s humorless voice carried easily beyond the curtain. “There is a matter of repair I would discuss with you.”

Jacques sighed, and made no effort to conceal the sound. “Very well. Out with it, then.”

Alonzo was brimming with excitement. For once he had been left on the workbench and not locked away in the cabinet. He could not know that this was because, with the addition of his torso, he was grown too big and would not fit. Instead of wasting this chance by crying for Jacques’s attention he pulled his thoughts in as tight as he could and settled in to let the day transpire.

As Savoy’s dry, no-nonsense voice droned on beyond the curtain, Alonzo entertained himself by imagining what she must look like. She would be old, he decided, but severe, with high cheekbones and a face smooth of wrinkles–for she clearly never smiled. Since from her conversation it was clear she was a mechanic of some kind, he pictured her wearing grease-stained overalls and perhaps a foreman’s cap. He had just decided whether the stripes on her overalls would go down or across when the shop bell rang again as Savoy showed herself out.

Several minutes later Jacques reappeared behind the curtain. He made straight for the gramophone, inserting a new music scroll after a moment of careful consideration. “De Vega,” Jacques said, “is widely considered to be the most popular opera in the Sheer; it is performed every year–whether d’Bardi wants it to be or not. Oh, the Baron pretends to be able to write music but he can hardly carry a melody through to completion much less invent its harmony. He tries, I’ll give him that, but I rather think he’s more obsessed with the image of being the ‘tortured artist’ than actually doing any decent composing.”

The scroll clicked into place. A second later the soft hiss of the stylus issued from the gleaming contraption. “Andaluz Raj,” Jacques murmured in the moments before the music started. “Unlike other opera the overture is not a string of themes from throughout the performance but instead a single, mournful cello’s cry to set the tone.”

He crossed to the sewing table and pulled down a pattern cutout in blue Yuan silk. From the size of the fabric pieces it was clear that the resulting clothes would be for one of the dolls. Jacques picked up a fine needle that, from several benches away, looked nearly invisible.

“We begin on a barren peninsula where the land is bowed and windswept, where the only thing harder than the work at hand is the crack of the overseer’s whip, where the only thing that does not bend are the people–they stand strong until they break. The plains are home and prison both, loved but hard to love, for the people who live there are Verandi and they have nowhere else to go.”

Jacques turned to look at Alonzo, his hands between one stitch and the next. “The life of a gypsy is not an easy one; always traveling, always hungry, always cast aside. Never loved by the land, never a part of it. The molten sun of Verana lives in all of her people, even though the island is too small to hold all her wayward children now…and too full of sorrow.” For a moment it looked as though Jacques would set his sewing down but he did not, holding it instead suspended. “Civil war, invasion, the turning over of power from one hand to the next; the scars on Verana’s soil run too deep to bear.” He looked down at his brown fingers. “So her people left, by choice or otherwise, to ply the roads and the skies unto eternity. When a Verandi finds a home they hold onto it with all the fierceness of a vixen protecting her den, through any trial and hardship, until death.”

Alonzo listened to the cello weeping and couldn’t resist a shiver that rattled him to the cams. Each solo, each suite of songs that Jacques played for him was more fantastic than the last. He absorbed the overly-complicated dramas, memorized villain melodies, ached to see ballet done in person, and imagined a set of outlandish flourishes for every duel. At first music itself had moved him but now he could discern technique and style, which expanded his appreciation and honed his critic’s ear.

The overture for De Vega threw everything he’d learned to the wayside. It hit him in the heart, filling him with a haggard melancholy that he did not have the words to describe. It crept into the space behind his eyes and somewhere under his brackets, a feeling akin to a winch being turned too tight.

“I was Verandi once,” Jacques said softly, in strange, choked voice. “Once, a long time ago.”

They attended to the music in silence. When the song ended Alonzo did not request another. He stayed tucked in to himself, going over the tune again and again in his mind. Gradually the ache behind his eyes faded but the pain in his chest did not. Whether it was a sympathetic, phantom pain or something real Alonzo could not tell. All he did know was that it must be heartbreak but he could not explain it, nor did he know why it left him feeling empty and tired.

When next the shop bell rang it startled them both and Jacques knocked his knee on the edge of the sewing table as he jumped to his feet. Cursing, he crossed the shop. “Half a moment!” he called.

The new customer made no noise but Jacques greeted him warmly all the same. “William! Good to see you. Oh, cracked another one? It’s no use trying to get into the Shade, you know, they’ll keep you out no matter what you do. New paints? Of course, one moment.” He popped behind the curtain, grabbed a small sack, and disappeared into the shop again. In the brief moment that Jacques slid between the hanging fabric Alonzo glimpsed a flash of red velvet on the stranger, but nothing more.

“Another list?” Jacques was saying, carrying on both halves of the conversation. “No, no, I haven’t seen any punch cards like that in a long time. You’ll have to look elsewhere. That canvas, though, I think I have a spare sheet somewhere. Give me the paper and come back next week; I’ll see what I can do for the rest of this but I make no promises. I’m sorry, William, but they just don’t make machines like this anymore. Don’t worry about the money, please. Yes, good day.”

Jacques saw his customer out and returned to the workshop. This time he got through the sewing of four petticoats and the construction of two tiny panniers before the shop bell chimed once more.

Despite Alonzo’s wish to stay inside himself and contemplate these newfound feelings that De Vega had roused in him, he found that he could not help but turn his attention to each and every one of Jacques’ customers. Over the course of the day he entertained himself by imagining what they would look like.

The only living person Alonzo had ever seen was Jacques, and even then he understood that he, himself was alive also. Jacques often talked of repairing machines that sounded like people–overseers, weavers, dancers. This sounded no different from the titles of ballet master, fortuneteller, ivorysmith, or wheelwright. Alonzo knew that to be alive was a complicated business, involving a great deal of work on the gears, pulleys and so on. It could not be easy to be alive and breaking down all the time.

He used his imagination to picture the shop’s customers not as more people like Jacques himself but as elaborate mechanical creations. This assumption was only helped along by the snatches of dialogue that he caught in between the trance of imagination.

“Articulated fingers on this one?”

“The blush is a little bright in her cheeks today. It brings out her freckles.”

“Porcelain is delicate, Mssr. Gavont, you must tell your son to be careful or he’ll break it.”

“Just give her face a little polish now and then, that will keep the shine in those eyes.”

Alonzo fancied doll women in their sweeping gowns and breathy fichus picking out toys for their doll girls, getting daughter and toy to match until only size distinguished between them. He thought of Jacques carefully repainting freckles on a young woman or replacing a porcelain wrist on a rambunctious youth. As the final customers swanned in and out of the shop Alonzo pictured two gentlemen made all of silver, and their pewter child submitting dutifully to Jacques’ tender cleaning.

When they had left the toymaker breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “At last, peace.” Jacques extinguished the red, glass-walled lantern, flipping off the amberic light outside his shop with the punch of a sturdy button just to the side of the door. He took his dinner at the table in the corner, consulting on one hand the list he had received from William.

“There’s little I can do for him, I’m afraid,” Jacques said to himself, worrying more at his lips than his food. He set the list aside atop a folded length of canvas.

One by one he lit the lamps around the shop, turning the by-now familiar darkness into a warm pool of orange glow. Jacques bent to his tasks, finally able to work uninterrupted. A rag sari folded and hemmed received paint along its border, the auburn wig that Alonzo would soon wear was brushed and then styled with enormous candlestick curls, a flying ship had its black-glazed canons tied securely into place, and a teaching orrery acquired its last moons.

The day ended with the soft striking of the eighth hour. Jacques sat back, rubbed his eyes, stretched his hands, and put the scroll for a calming symphony on the gramophone.

He ducked into the shop and returned to Alonzo’s table with a pile of letters. Music once more filled the apartment, this time the gentle, tinkling voice of the piano speaking of simple beauty and nothing more. “Let’s see what we have today, shall we?” Jacques said, opening the first envelope with a deft flick of the opener.

A petite square of paper fell out. Elegant typeface interspersed with nearly illegible cursive gleamed a glossy black on the surface of a lavender card.

 

Season Opener

“While we live, let there be JOY.”

The Company of S ar Jacques Augusti, Master Toymaker and one other of his/her choice is requested at Sonora Vigaretti’s residence, at Dawnsedge Square, in Copperlight, on Nansday evening, April 25th next, at 5 o’clock.

 

Jacques snorted and tossed the letter aside. Two stamped gold coins fell out of it, their polished faces catching and holding the candlelight. If he saw them he paid them no mind. “‘The company of Sar Augusti, Master Toymaker’,” Jacques mocked. “As if it’s me she wants, and not the draw of my reputation. Oh yes,” he continued, discarding several invoices after nothing more than a cursory glance, “ ‘Master Augusti will be there, Master Augusti favors me’.”

He turned to Alonzo, who did not understand this sudden surge of venom. “I can’t stand people who use others to improve their social standing and for no other reason. If we were acquainted then of course–perhaps I would go. But she is only being selfish, like all the rest of her peers. Opera singers flock to fame like moths to candlelight, whether it be their own or someone else’s. However good her singing is I’ll not pay lip service to anyone offstage, especially some bloody alto’s understudy.”

Alonzo gently chewed his lip with his delicate pearl teeth. He supposed that selfishness was as good a reason as any to refuse an invitation. Yet he could not help but stare longingly at the gold coin tickets and dream of going to such a fancy party. Functions like that were what Jacques was making him for and to think that his first chance to attend might be undermined by the toymaker’s unyielding pride was almost too much to bear. Alonzo resolved to keep an eye on those coins and–just as soon as he could move–to stash them away until he could beg Jacques into going together.

“You must be joking,” Jacques half-scoffed, picking up the final letter. He turned it over and over in his hands. With a disbelieving shake of his head he glanced at Alonzo, waving the letter in the air. “It’s the Baron again.”

Alonzo gasped. He heard little of the city’s mysterious ruler, save the whispered rumors that always seemed to be just out of hearing when Jacques was attending to customers. Despite Jacques’ best efforts to keep such conversation to a minimum–he, at least, was no gossip–the toymaker seemingly could not restrain himself from the position of critic; his appraisal of the Baron slipping easily from his musical talent to the way he governed; or, more particularly, didn’t.

Instead of the delicate flick of the opener this time Jacques cut through the top with a sharp jerk of his hand, the paper under his fingers tearing and giving way. “ ‘Toymaker’,” Jacques began. “‘Your presence has been requested now several times at the Reach, with no response. We require your talents for an urgent matter that can no longer be delayed. Pack whatever tools you think necessary at once and come with all haste by way of the East Courtyard. Any further procrastination on your part in this assignment would not be wise and we strongly counsel you against it.’”

“Can you believe this?” Jacques stood and paced the length of the apartment between the benches, muttering to himself. “Summoning me as if I did not already keep his city from taking its last breaths, as if my hands did not keep his factories humming or the lifts moving. As if I were some runaway soprano and not a master already doing his duty. No, no I will not go.”

Without wasting another step he snatched the letter off the table. “If he wants me so badly he can come to Wrightsward himself,” Jacques said, and threw the letter into the stove.

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 5 – Cogs & Clockwork

Our introduction to the famous toymaker, a man about whom much is spoken but not much is known.

If you like this you can support me on Patreon.

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.

the-toymakers-opera-cover

Cogs & Clockwork

Jacques

Eerie silence crowded into the factory. The textile mill in the Ream, so usually filled with the thunderous clamor of a thousand looms all shuddering and clacking and weaving at once, seemed to be holding its breath. Soft morning light filtered through the windows that faced the open precipice of the cliff face. It illuminated the neat lines of cast iron looms with their wooden frames, the hard swoop of belts that traveled from each machine to the ceiling and back again on giant rollers. Spare tufts of cotton wafted through the air like snow, hanging almost suspended in the absence of the machines’ ceaseless breath.

The Ream never slept. Unlike Medtown and Wrightsward it refused to rest, calling women and children in for odd shifts from their apartments across the street. On any other day women passed back and forth along the champing lines, keeping both eyes on their work and their hands. Children, thin and spritely, dashed underneath the moving pieces, collecting cotton fluff. They reached with nimble fingers toward the teeth of the weaving frames, hoping to be quick enough. Plenty were. More were not.

Every floor of every mill was the same, churning out blankets and towels and bolts of cloth. At the end of each row sat an automaton, sturdy and heavyset. They were man-shaped torsos made of iron and gears, a leftover gift to the district from the first Baron. Two eyes shone on their work, the yellow light of glowing sunstones, for the open flame of a lantern would have spelled easy disaster in such a place as the Ream. Broad shoulders bore down upon the paddles they held in each hand; each paddle connected to the give and take of the frames by a long iron bar. They were the weavers and they drove the looms.

More automatons lined the opposite wall, spinning the wheels that ran the belts. Together weavers and crank turners worked the Ream.

Jacques knelt in the corner by the overseer. Larger than the other devices, this automaton held its hands out to either side instead of in front. With two separate, but perfectly-timed, motions it controlled both lines of clockwork men. The long bar running along each side from its hands had been placed between the weavers and the wall so it would not disturb the foot traffic of the women.

“Damn escapement,” Jacques muttered, reaching blindly around the toothy mess of the overseer’s inner workings.

The old piece had snapped, rust from some long-ago contact with moisture weakening its integrity until pressure and repetition had their say. That one part, so small, yet so necessary, demanded order. Without it–and with the broken sections catching in the gears–the overseer was free to run at incredible and unpredictable speed.

Fingers used to working a certain pattern snapped between the fast-moving frames. Winches grabbed sleeves and skirt hems, pulling women and children into the gnashing teeth of machinery before they quite knew what was happening.

During Tadeo’s frantic run to Jacques’ shop the night manager had attempted to unhook the bars and thus bring the runaway looms to a grinding halt. He started with the crank turners, whose motion was only slightly less erratic. But old hands long grown used to the slower conscriptions of paper and pen could be no match for the nimble touch of someone who walked the factory floor twelve hours of every day. The night manager unhooked a surprising number of turners–four, to be exact–before his ink-stained sleeve caught in the grabbing tangle of racing leather on the fifth. The belt snatched him from his place upon the floor, dragging him kicking and screaming up towards the counterpoint. Bludgeoned with unrelenting, impressive force, the belt drove his arm against the solid steel of the winch. Bone shattered, crunching under the metal as the belt wound around. Within an instant–and with nothing left to hold him up–the manager fell into the threshing maw of machinery below.

Jacques had come then. He came running with a bedraggled group of young artificers hot on his heels. He came shouting, calling for the room to be cleared. Tadeo hauled on the bell-pull, the lights on the walls changing from green to red as new glass shunted into place. Since not even the toymaker’s cries could be heard above the roar of the looms, a series of amberic lights lined each wall, a visual reminder when one shift ended and another began.

Children and women scattered, the true horror and permission to leave their posts coming all at once. Savoy and Thomasine, artificers in training, worked to drag the women away from the masticated corpses already caught between the frames.

Jacques wasted no time, making a dash for the overseer at the end of the room. Nimble fingers leapt over the jousting machinery. He plunged his hand into the overseer’s chest, feeling by memory around the crunching mass of gears. One pin pulled out and the entirety of the overseer ground to a halt with an iron snarl.

Silence descended on the factory, broken only by the far-away thunderous rumble of the rooms above and below, the sound muffled by the thick oaken floors. Crying and a long wail of grief echoed from the ladies clustered in the doorway.

Jacques turned to Tadeo. “Get them out of here.”

Tadeo nodded mutely, his charcoal-black face soaking up the red light of the shift lanterns. He hurried away, rounding up the other artificers to help.

And now it was morning. Jacques cursed as he swept out the inside of the overseer. It had taken several hours to take the device apart and it would take several more to put it back together again.

Rare were the months he was not called out to fix at least one of the city’s failing automata. Clanking, ancient things of iron and steel and ingenious clockwork these device powered the city, lending their eternal strength to the opening of the water locks, the weaving of the looms, the raising and lowering of the Lifts. Not all the automatons remained bolted in place; plenty walked the streets to fulfill their functions: nutcrackers enforcing the city’s laws–such laws as there were–firecats prowling into the dark places, and copper dancers performing alone on the rooftops of Sunsgate to act as living lightning rods.

All these and more had been built long ago, left over machinations of the first Baron, Alecto Marquette. He had built them with every good intention; to help the city, to provide where the strength of men might fail, to make easier the lives of the poor and working, to breathe a little comfort into a cage of otherwise rigid stone and severity.

But no machine can run forever.

At first the Baron himself would fix them, called out by the firecats at all hours of the day and night. He came no matter the occasion, leaving parties and plays in equal measure, leaving other projects half-finished, and never returning. Then the Baroness, sweet lady of the Reach and an artificer in her own right, began to come with him. They worked together, even if their tasks brought them to opposite ends of the city.

“Sar Augusti?” Thomasine stopped several paces away, her young face already marred by a deep scar across her cheek. She wore her plaited cornsilk hair high on her head, the better to stay out of the way of her work. “The manager insists that he speak to you. I tried to tell him–”

Jacques sighed. He wiped the sweat from his brow and left cotton clinging to it. A few yards behind Thomasine he could see the day manager blustering his way up the aisle.

“What’s the meaning of this?” the man shouted, thrusting his purpled face so close that Jacques could see his mustache bristle. “You’ve had these looms quiet for almost seven hours. This is an outrage! Master artificer or not you’d better be ready with compensation for all the money we’ve lost just letting you prance around in here, wasting my time–”

Outside the mill bell tolled the hour; six am. At seven Jacques’ shop was supposed to open. He thought of Alonzo, all alone with nothing but the hissing gramophone and the storm for company. He thought of his orders and the children who were waiting for them. Their smiles and eager eyes weighed in his mind, as did Alonzo’s current state of enforced solitude; they were the few folk he could not bring himself to disappoint.

Jacques rose slowly on aching knees. “Thomasine, fetch the others.”

“Sar–” she began, a perplexed frown momentarily pulling at the hard flesh of her scar.

“At once.”

Off she went, gathering Tadeo and Savoy as they knelt by the weavers.

The manager spluttered when Jacques began to collect his tools. “You can’t do this! You can’t leave a job half-done.”

“He’s Jacques Augusti,” Savoy spat, her severe face unmitigated by her expression. “He can do as he likes.”

“Any master should know how to finish a job in a timely manner.” The manager spun on Jacques again. “I forbid you to leave. I am your customer; you finish this and you finish it now.”

Jacques tucked his toolbag under his arm and once more mopped the sweat from his brow. The air folded in close and still. It would be easy to leave, easy to let his pride take over. He could already feel it nagging at him.

Over the manager’s shoulder Jacques spied Tadeo. The young man who imagined himself some manner of apprentice to the toymaker shook his head once. Beyond him the mill girls crowded in the doorway, weepy and anxious. They had had less sleep than he, and more hours ahead of them when he finished, no matter their feelings. No matter what friends they had lost last night.

Despite the inner rufflings of hubris Jacques set his toolbag down again. The repair must take first priority.

“And be sure you complete your mechanical nancying before the morning bell,” harrumphed the manager. He smoothed out his neckcloth with fat fingers that did not tremble. “There’ll be a boy down every quarter hour to make note of your progress–”

“Savoy.” Jacques scowled. A customer to satisfy was one thing, a headstrong fool quite another.

Savoy’s thin hand snaked out and grabbed the manager by his bias-cut lapels. When he protested she hauled him bodily toward the door, her wiry frame fully in control of the manager’s rotund figure. “The only thing your ‘boy’ is going to do is distract Sar Augusti. I could say the same for you,” she added venomously. “Be grateful he’s even finishing his work after such an insult.”

“But–”

“Out!” She shoved him through the far doorway and onto the landing. “Go home,” she snapped at the girls, “and for the Muse’s sake, get some sleep.”

Jacques shook his head imperceptibly, nothing more than a small ripple of movement. Each of the young hangers-on who followed him to repairs and warned him of them had much to learn before they would be successful artificers.

Several years ago, when Tadeo had first dared to approach the famous toymaker, Jacques outright refused to let the boy become his apprentice. Each time Tadeo asked Jacques gave him the same answer. Yet somehow, quite without permission, every night that Jacques found himself in some rust-ridden part of the Sheer he also found Tadeo shadowing his footsteps. Eventually the boy found like-minded folk who didn’t care about the odd hours or that their chosen master would rather that they didn’t exist. It seemed that Jacques the toymaker would have apprentices whether he wanted them or not.

“Let me.” Thomasine knelt next to him, her calm presence like a radiating coolness. She took his tools in her scarred fingers and looked deep into the bowels of the overseer. “If you would check the weavers for wear and tear, I can reassemble this.” She did not say that he must be tired or that she would learn better by doing; a sure credit in her favor.

Of the three Jacques prefered the quiet Toulene. She didn’t shout or boast his talents or look at him with eager eyes. She only watched and learned and did, no matter the difficulty or the danger, which was partly the reason for her many disfigurements.

He rose again and made his way along the line of weavers. With Savoy cleaning and rehooking the looms and Tadeo hitching the crank turners they four made short work of what would have been impossible for one.

Jacques stumbled home long after the morning shift bell had rung. Cobbles turned to brick under his feet and then to steel grating as he climbed through a myriad different districts on his way back to his home in Wrightsward. His jaw worked on a succession of long yawns, no matter how hard he tried to suppress them.

Nutcrackers marched past him, their mechanical steps and black button eyes a familiar sight on a day that was already proving to be out of the usual routine. Jacques nodded to them as he always did. Almost at the same time the nearest nutcracker jerkily raised its right hand, bumping the brim of its black shako hat.

“Come see me about that shoulder would you?” he called at the battalion’s retreated back.

No response, but then again he hadn’t expected one. The knot of soldiers quickly disappeared into the mist left over from last night’s storm.

Shortly Jacques stepped down into the close from Rue Maitre, the main boulevard of Wrightsward. The streets above him in Medtown, normally quiet at this time of day, rang with the footsteps of a few mediums about their shopping and the discordant clang of a ragman’s cart.

An iron gate, currently standing open, marked the doorway into the close. On either side, at the street level, stood two shops with their lamps burning. Customers came and went, carrying bulging bags and paper-wrapped parcels. Across from the entrance the shoemaker nodded to Jacques through his window.

The road of the close, Rue Assombrir, traveled inside the stone of the central tower. Painted brick paved the way inside, with little channels on either side for water. Once within his eyes adjusted easily to the darkness; a succession of red glass-walled lanterns lined the street above the shops.

Jacques passed the windows of his neighbors, watching as his tired reflection rippled from pane to pane. Lace samplers hung in the window of one store, delicate ivory statues in another. A hat shop marked the beginning of the incline, where the road turned steep. His calves burned, protesting this final abuse after the long climb up from the Ream.

At last Jacques crested the top of the rise, coming face to face with a small crowd.

“Sar Augusti!”

“–been waiting for hours. I must say this is most irregular–”

“We went away and came back, and now this woman is saying she was here first and–”

Jacques bowed low. “My most sincere apologies,” he said, and meant it. Without further delay he crossed to the door and unlocked the shop. “Please feel free to rest yourselves in the chairs provided. I’ll put on some tea.”

Only the quick tread of his steps as he slipped beyond the display counter and the dividing curtain betrayed his worry. “Half a moment, please.” He made his excuses, whipping the curtain closed behind him.

A long sigh escaped his lips. There, unmoved and unmolested sat Alonzo. Now, half-finished as he was, the automaton appeared like any doll during the first stages of its making; bald and wide-eyed and innocent. Jacques knew, however, that that was anything but true.

Before the toymaker had even lifted his foot to stride across the room, the blue curling wisps of magic that always accompanied Alonzo intruded on Jacques’ thoughts. Questions pinged against his skull, a cold sensation of being pricked over and over. Jacques shook his head to clear it.

“Alonzo,” he hissed, trying to keep his voice low. Jacques paused, but it didn’t seem as though the babble on the other side of the curtain had diminished. He continued, filling the teapot with water; and hoped that the scraping would disguise his whispered conversation. “That isn’t anyway for a young gentleman to behave, pestering me before I’ve had a chance to see to my guests.”

The automaton–no, the young man–shrank back. His blue thoughts receded, folding in upon themselves as if bruised.

Jacques cursed himself for being so short with the boy. Afterall, hadn’t he, himself been as curious as a cat when he was young? He’d known what he was getting into, too, the moment that raw leystone came into his hand.

The stone itself had come from one of the gypsy sailors who plied the skies in their wooden airships, with only sails and no propellers or wings to speak of. Captain Coleed had bargained for a high price, a sum they both knew Jacques would eventually pay. Jacques had bought the thing on half a lark; during his own apprenticeship he had learned that most of the city’s oldest devices ran on such crystals.

They were gems that formed along the natural magical leylines of the earth, the raw power condensing and crystallizing into precious stones that gave off their own, nearly-limitless supply of energy. He figured it would come in use one day if he was ever called out to repair one of the larger machines.

What he hadn’t counted on was the stone talking to him. Day and night the nipping questions came, without malice surely but also without cease. At first the stone had only asked “What?”, its thoughts–for they could be called nothing else–all bent on discovering every single detail of its surroundings. “Who?” and “You?” quickly followed, succeeded finally by “Me?”.

Jacques knew then he could not force the stone into the body of some other metal creature, allowing it to harry and nag passersby until it was pulled out and destroyed by the superstitious city folk. He must give it a body of its own; a body to house the soul it already had, though how a soul had gotten into the stone in the first place he had no idea. The body also had had to fit the personality of the soul.

For many weeks Jacques had lain up at night, passing over the framework of every type of person imaginable. At first he thought of a child’s body, aptly suited to housing the stone’s incessant curiosity. That would not do, however. The stone learned quickly–too quickly–and to trap an adult’s fully-formed consciousness inside the framework of youth would be nothing less than cruel.

A young gentleman, then; someone who could go abroad under his own name and power to see the great sights that the world had to offer. Jacques had begun his project, finally, when sheafs of sketches covered the floor; when he could no longer put off the nipping questions, when they became too complex for him to answer without giving the boy the gift of speech. But not for that reason only, not simply to rid himself of an annoyance.

Never in a thousand years would he admit to loneliness. In as equal measure as he denied himself an apprentice so also did Jacques Augusti refuse himself a companion. He had his work; his dolls and toys and of course the city, who depended on him. Many years ago he had recognized himself as a solitary creature; preferring the quiet ticking of clockwork over any real human conversation.

It all ended the moment Alonzo’s construction began; for the stern-faced toymaker suddenly found that, after all this time spent in silence, that he had something to say.

Jacques ran his eyes once more over Alonzo’s partly-finished bust. His fingers ached to attach the cams, to bring to life the waiting eyes. Despite that urge he turned away, laying another scroll into the gramophone for the boy’s comfort. He spared not a glance for those brilliant, motionless blue eyes, instead bustling out through the curtain and into the shop. There was work to be done, customers that could not be ignored even if he did sway on his feet.

“Lady Siria, Lord Belstowe, Sa Nansee; please forgive me–” Jacques began as he stepped out.

The day passed in a delirium broken only by small smiles as he handled his toys off to their new owners and a growing pinch of pain right at the base of his neck. Orders came and went under fingers that he forced to obey him; repairs, new paint, polishing, combing out the tangled hair of dolls under the watchful eye of their young caretakers.

Jacques finally stumbled back behind the curtain sometime after the clock had struck seven. The depth of the night outside seeped in through the windows, turning the normally cosy apartment into a long gauntlet of shadow.

“Now? Now?” he felt Alonzo asking, no doubt wondering when the next step of his construction would be completed.

“Not now, my dear,” Jacques said, though kindly. He crossed to his workbench and the timepiece above, one hand holding a lamp by its iron base. “Great Goddess!”

Though he had tried to–politely–hurry his customers out the door it seemed the hours had run away with him. Even as he watched the clock struck once; half past ten.

Jacques locked the shop front and set aside his tools, pausing a moment to lean on the counter and rub sleep from his eyes. “To bed with me,” he chided outloud, as much for his sake as Alonzo’s. “Or I shall be less than useless in the morning. Tomorrow, my dear one, I promise.”

He made his way through the workshop and up the stairs beyond the kiln, ignoring the sullen, silent reproach that followed.

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 3 – The Toymaker

I have a confession to make and that is this: I have been presenting Toymaker incorrectly to you this whole time. The story is not set up to play Moira’s arc from start to finish, and then begin in on Alonzo (our automaton) and Jacques (the toymaker). The chapters alternate, but I had worked on Moira’s first so that is what you have seen so far.

Now I will be showing you Alonzo and Jacques’ story up until the point when we join once more with Moira. Pay no attention to the chapter numbers, these will correspond with the actual chapters as they’re set up in the book.

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If you like this you can support me on Patreon.

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.

the-toymakers-opera-cover

The Toymaker

Alonzo

In the dark rushing of the night Alonzo shivered without moving. Everything around him was black, the solid doors of the velvet-lined cabinet blocking out all light. Now and again, however, as the storm bore down on the Sheer in earnest, a sudden flash of lightning struck through the gap underneath the doors, making strange shapes on the floor of the shelf.

The Sheer was home to many automatons, many mechanical creatures who ensured the functioning of the city’s water locks or the raising of her lifts. It housed machinations of metal and magic–firecats who appeared as moving flame but who, it was rumored, had steel at their cores. But in all the world, from the dreary cliffs of the Sheer to the southern, sand-scrapped minarets of Rimsea, there was no one quite like Alonzo.

In the temporary prison of the toymaker’s cabinet there were several dolls, all beautifully painted with pink cheeks and perfect lips. They sat or stood on pedestals, silk dresses and flowing lace folded into crisp lines. Only by the touch of a loving child or the toymaker could they move, to have their arms positioned or legs made to walk. Their glass eyes stared at nothing, unseeing and unseen.

Alonzo’s bust stood in their midst. Instead of the petite features afforded to the others who inhabited the cabinet, he was the only one who had been made life-sized, fully to the proportions of a man. His face was soft, white-painted kidskin, his lashes the tiny copper feathers of an unlucky bullfinch, his eyes as real and seeing and blue as any gentleman’s. Like the other dolls he had been made–was still being made–with attention to every exquisite detail. Yet unlike the others–for they differed not only in size–Alonzo had a soul.

Deep within his chest cavity, the brass and gold workings of which were not yet complete, glowed a blue stone. It turned in gyroscope brackets, sending off pulses of cerulean light. The innate magic inside that rough-cut gem flowed outwards, jumping to the conductive lamellae which surrounded it, like the scroll in a music box picking the tines to make a melody. The lamellae fed back to several stacks of intricately-cut cams, from which Alonzo’s will could control other parts of his body.

The toymaker, however, had not yet connected the half-finished pieces of Alonzo’s spine to the cams themselves, rendering him incapable of any movement at all. And as the rain pounded against the workshop windows and the thunder growled like a living thing, all Alonzo could do was sit and stare at the dark and cry for company.

Alonzo was used to darkness, used to the comfortable pressure of rock all around him; used to the cerulean voices of his fellows calling back and forth along the leylines. He was used to dreaming, to the sorts of dreams that only stones know: long, wandering dreams. But then everything had changed. Rough hands had wrestled his stone–his soul, his being–from the earth, plucked him out and carried him away. He had resisted at first, sending out shockwaves of spitting magic yet to no avail; they would not put him back. But as the years went by and he passed from person to person Alonzo’s consciousness grew in tandem with his curiosity.

He felt the minds of men and women, felt their worries and their cares. With each passing year he awoke a little more, listening, leaving behind the dull sleepiness of his former existence. And now here he was, in this place where he could feel other stones like himself, however distant and broken their voices were. He had been given eyes to see with and ears to hear and given a name. Steadily, with each new sensation, Alonzo forgot what it felt like to be only a leystone, and began to know what it meant to be a man.

Alonzo stared into the darkness. He had never feared it before but that had been different. He had been different. Now the roar, like malice incarnate, went on and on in an unending wave of sound. He wished–oh how he wished–he could squeeze his eyes shut for some protection, any protection, from that horrible noise.

Fear mounted in his breast, a wretched feeling like electricity and lead spreading up from his spinning heart and into every fiber of his being. He ached to move; to draw back or to open the cabinet doors he wasn’t quite certain. Anything would be better than this frozen eternity.

Alonzo called out into the night. He cried for the toymaker, flinging his blue thoughts out as far as they would go. For hours he keened, his glittering heart turning faster and faster; pulses of raw magic leaping along the exposed metal in his chest. Calling, calling until finally he heard the sound of hurried footsteps in the passage outside, of a key being pushed blindly into the lock.

“I’m coming, Alonzo, I’m coming.” Parcels crinkled as the toymaker struggled to set them carefully on the counter. He crossed the workshop in haste, muttering curses as his knees slammed into mislaid furniture. There was a rustle of curtains, the spitting whisper of a just-struck match, and then Alonzo could see the door of the cabinet bow as the lock turned.

Warm lamplight dazzled his eyes at the same time that gentle hands reached in to caress his face. “Hush,” Jacques gasped, trying to get his breath back, “hush my dear. You’re safe, it’s only the storm.”

Now Alonzo could see. He saw the brown, hawk-like features of the toymaker soften into the special smile he reserved only for his dolls. Despite this assurance Alonzo quaked. He tried to explain about the terrible sounds and the darkness and being alone.

Jacques winced visibly, as if struck. “Hush,” he said again, this time more harshly.

Alonzo drew back, pulling his fear inside his chest even though now the roaring was louder, closer. He wanted only comfort and did not think that was too much to ask.

“Oh my dear.” Jacques shook his head. “What am I to do with you?” He pulled off his overcoat, raindrops spattering the floor. “Would you like to see?”

Alonzo wanted nothing of the sort and said so by saying nothing. Despite this the room tilted as Jacques lifted Alonzo’s bust and carried him into the center of the workshop.

One lamp burned, cheery and yellow in spite of the storm. It illuminated the full length of the room, something Alonzo had not seen before, as his eyes had only recently been added.

From the door at the front the workshop continued in a backwards L shape, the long part running the length of the apartment with a line of windows on the left. At the back–the location of the wretched cabinet–the room turned sharply to the right. It proceeded to a separate closet that held the kiln and ceramics, then to a set of stairs that went up to Jacques’ living quarters.

He carried Alonzo into the very middle of the room and set him down upon a cleared workbench. Cheery yellow lamplight cast wavering shadows across the floor, a small pinprick in an otherwise dark room. Despite Jacques’ assurances and the bouncing glow of the lamp as he brought it closer, Alonzo shrank inside himself.

Outside the storm raged fiercely. Rain sheeted against the windows until the glass shone silver, the steady pounding drowning out almost every other sound. Lighting cracked its whip across the sky, the sudden flash illuminating everything in stark relief. It flared, as brilliant as a just-struck match, casting distorted shadows on the floor. One head on a doll became two; the sails of miniature ships magnified a hundredfold into a chorus of nooses. Once passed it left behind a deep blackness, a trough of sight. Hot on the heels of the lightning thunder snarled. It echoed off the stone walls, reverberating inside the hollow woodstove. The roar went on and on, a never ending roll of sound as the storm bore down upon the city in earnest.

Alonzo quaked, shaking and crying, unable to look away now from the terror of it.

“It can’t hurt you, my dear.” Jacques crossed the room and flung open a window. Water poured onto his outstretched hand, soaking through the sleeve of his coat. “See?”

But that was impossible. Alonzo stared, unsure why Jacques insisted on putting himself in harm’s way. Clearly the snarling and booming outside could only mean something dangerous was closeby. He begged Jacques to come away, to throw down the sash and shutter the window, but the toymaker only stood there, watching the storm.

At last, when Alonzo felt he could not possibly use his magic to shout any louder, Jacques spun around, closing the window with a sharp snap. “Stop that at once!” he commanded.

Alonzo cut his crying short. He attempted to stuff his worry away but each wicked peal of thunder only hit him harder the more he tried to hide it. To his shame he could not stop; it was all too loud, too new.

Jacques sighed. He opened his mouth to speak, perhaps regretting those words said in anger, when a knock came at the door.

The soft jingle of the shop’s bell announced that the visitor had come inside. “Excuse me, Sar Augusti?”

“What is it boy?” Jacques snapped, unable to keep the frustration out of his voice. “I’m busy.”

Alonzo couldn’t see the boy beyond the curtain that divided the storefront from the rest of the workshop, but he could hear the nervous shifting of feet, the gasping breath of someone who had just been running.

“The Baron is calling for you, sar,” said the runner. “He says it’s urgent.”

“I’m certain he does.” Jacques passed behind the curtain and Alonzo heard the tinkling of silver being exchanged. “A srir for your trouble.”

The boy spluttered for a few moments. “B-But sar! It’s the Baron; you must come at once.”

Jacques snorted. “Perhaps it will do that pompous tit some good to wait for once.” He ignored the runner’s mounting panic and returned to Alonzo’s side. “Now, my dear, let us find a solution to your troubles, shall we?”

He hadn’t crossed halfway to the gramophone before he turned and addressed the shopfront through a gap in the dividing curtain. “What?” he said to the boy. “I’ve paid you for your services.”

“Sar…he said I was supposed to bring you to him.” The boy was nearly sobbing. “You can’t do this. Please, saints above, you must come.” He made a move toward the curtain, twitching the fabric aside with an outstretched hand.

Jacques moved between Alonzo and the desperate runner, blocking their view of each other. “No, damn you! I am busy with my work; if the Baron wishes to commission me he may visit me himself. Out with you, before I call the nutcrackers.”

“On your head be it, then,” the boy spat and left, slamming the door behind him.

Jacques followed after and locked the shop. He swept back into the workroom, muttering under his breath. Long, calloused fingers snapped opened the brackets on the gramophone. After several minutes of near-silent cursing Jacques’s breathing evened as he calmed. “You are my precious secret,” he told Alonzo softly. “My best work and truest creation. However curious you might be I cannot let the knowledge of your existence become an enticement to thieves. Do you understand?”

Alonzo did not. Much about the workings of the outside world did not make sense to him, at least, not yet. What he truly wanted was to lean closer, to see what Jacques was doing. Barely had he thought the question than the toymaker jumped up and turned him, giving Alonzo a better view.

Despite the continuing rumble of the storm Alonzo could not help but gaze longingly at the shining brass cylinders that Jacques had just uncovered. He did not know exactly what they were, only that they were beautiful and that there were so many; rows upon rows of metal gleaming from within their beds of purple velvet.

“This one first, I think,” Jacques murmured, taking out a particularly long one and holding it up to the light. “Yes, yes this will do.”

After a moment’s fiddling Jacques stood back from the gramophone and carefully placed the stylus at the very end. For a while it seemed like nothing had happened. Then Alonzo saw it, the stylus slowly creeping its way along the cylinder as the scroll rotated in its bed of brackets. A soft hissing filled the air, mingled with the sound of rain, and emerged as music.

Quiet at first, the dancing notes of a piano began to speak. Its voice rose and fell, playful and full of grace. Then, as though the ivory keys had reached out asked for a partner, the silver, jumping song of a violin joined in. Strings and piano spoke as one, curving around and around.

Alonzo listened in awe. In all of his short life he had never heard anything so beautiful. He bent all of his will towards the gramophone, drinking in the unfamiliar melody. Everything in this new life made him curious, made him thirst for the knowing of the world both inside and outside the toymaker’s shop; but nothing yet had quite pierced his heart, quite roused the soul inside of him until now.

“It’s called music.” Jacques smiled. He let his hand fall to rest on the velvet bed that held the other cylinders. The cabinet at his side stood no higher than Jacques’ ribs, yet within sparkled an untold number of songs. “This one is a waltz. It is performed at soirees and balls, for men and women to dance together.”

Something warmed inside Alonzo. He was torn between wanting to move and to hold very still, the better to hear the intricacies of the music. Storm entirely forgotten he eagerly attended to Jacques’ descriptions of high society, of the silk-and-brocade-clad bourgeois who had nothing to do but dance and sing and look lovely.

“And that is what you shall be, my dear, when I am finished with you,” Jacques said, caressing the side of Alonzo’s face.

Could it be true? Alonzo wanted to begin at once. First he would learn music and then dancing and then manners–whatever those were–and perhaps also singing, which sounded nice–oh, and not to forget the proper forms of introduction for lords and ladies, and then–

Jacques laughed, an unusual, deep sound. “Oh my darling, all in good time. I can see you spinning there but you must wait; you must be completed before you can go bowing and waltzing all over Sunsgate. I will be sure,” he added, as Alonzo began to protest that he could not possibly be finished soon enough, “to work very hard. Hush, dear. You shall be a gentleman and soon, I swear it.”

It would have to do. Alonzo did not know if the storm was slackening, nor did he care in truth. He turned his attention back to the gramophone only to find that the stylus was winding toward the end. Slowly, against every fibre of his will, the piano drifted into silence.

Jacques noticed at the same time. “What should we listen to next, perhaps an opera?”

Alonzo wasn’t so sure. Was opera different from music somehow? He nearly started when–once the new cylinder had been inserted–a woman’s voice came rising out of the trumpet.

Oh, this was entirely different! This was everything the waltz had not been, yet it was no less wonderful. So high that it seemed she could touch the sky itself, the woman’s solo performance overrode all of Alonzo’s senses. Underneath her song swam a chorus of different instruments and sounds but he could not spare a moment for them.

“This,” Jacques said with a twinkle in his eye, “is the soprano’s aria from Il Ardeo. She is the spirit of the violin he is trying to make, begging him to complete her as she would beg a lover. Together they–oh damn.” He rose as another knock, this one more hurried than the first, rattled the front door. “What now?”

Jacques crossed into the shop and out of sight. “Yes, I’m very busy–oh, Tadeo.”

“You’ve got to come sar!” This was a young man’s voice, high and frantic. “One of the weaver’s broken in the Ream; it’s already killed six women!”

“Which one?” Jacques asked, a quick shuffle of fabric indicating that he was grabbing his overcoat. “Quick!”

Tadeo swallowed, gasping still from his run up the city. “The overseer, factory six, third floor.”

“That would be cotton. Muses be damned!” Jacques cursed. “Where did I set that tool box? Aha!” He reached behind the curtain and snatched it off a bench. Latches snapped as he examined the contents.

“Hurry sar, there isn’t a moment to lose!” Tadeo held the door open, hinges creaking.

Alonzo bit back a wave of worry. Jacques was leaving him again. He could not accompany the toymaker, could not walk by his side as he hurried out the door and out into the storm. One day Alonzo would go out, Jacques had promised. Until then he had to be patient, however difficult that might be. Patience didn’t seem so hard.

Long minutes passed without Jacques’ return. Soaring opera and the battering of rain filled the apartment but somehow it felt empty. Alonzo stared at the dark windows, counting the spaces between the flashes of lighting and the rumble that followed after, noticing as they grew farther and farther apart.

The sweet voice of the soprano faded away into the hissing of the stylus as the song ended. Alonzo sat in the near-blackness and wished he could move. If he could he would put in a new cylinder–putting the first two back in their proper place of course. Depending on how long Jacques was away Alonzo might listen to three–perhaps even four–without permission. The thought made him smile, if only on the inside.

He could not sleep and, by and by, he began to worry that Jacques might be in trouble. The deep shadow inside the apartment and outside the windows did not seem to be lifting. From his vantage point he could not see the clock which hung over the woodstove behind him. Alonzo had nothing to mark the time with, except the rain.

Carefully, recalling the waltz and the opera with an almost mathematical precision, Alonzo tried to run through the tempo of it in his mind. He had completed a full suite of both three times over, committing each piece to memory and reminding himself to ask Jacques for more details about Il Ardeo, when a strange sound threw him off.

At first Alonzo did not know what it was. But as he listened closer he could hear it; a new melody rising from the silence. The song danced across his senses, wild on the high notes and haunting on the lower ones. It pulled at his heart like a far-off leystone plucking the strings of his former life.

Having nothing else to do Alonzo waited, listening to the music in the pipes.

 

First Flight: Chapter 2

Did I mention I wrote this years ago? There’s an awful lot of crying in this chapter and not a lot happens, and I know I need to fix that but I’m still working on Toymaker. I also lost a part of this chapter as I was copying it over from where I had written it at my previous job to my home computer (an incident I had happily forgotten about until this moment.) But all will be rectified in time.
~~~
 
She moved through her dwelling like a ghost, tracing through all the familiar rooms, running her fingers across the walls and archways, touching the things she might never get to touch again. Stella held up a thin crystal prism between thumb and forefinger, making sure its polished sides were facing her.
“Juna eleventh, four hundred and thirty-second year After Descent,” she whispered, standing with her back to the kitchen, “journal entry number two hundred and fifth, one-thirty am. Last counseling appointment today, no closer to resolution with Mother. Spent the evening with Hannah at the lake. He will use the intelligence he constructed in his dwelling to convey the acceptance of my new position to the Federation. I can’t wait to leave at the same time that it hurts so much I wish I could stay.”
She sighed. She would take all the journals with her when she ascended. There would be a shuttle that would take her from the radio station and observatory to the transport ship that was assigned to pick her up. And from there…to other planets, other stars, other suns, and the Federation, who from then on would be both her employer and her home. For as Hannah had said, to go to heaven was to die–so said the myth and the priests who perpetuated it–or rather to say goodbye, forever. Once she left Estraya she would no longer be considered alive among her own people and could never return.
Stella felt the tears dripping off her chin before she knew she was crying. In the reflection on the crystal’s surface she saw her hair turn lavender, then puce, then black. “Please, to the me that will look back on this,” she whispered hoarsely, “please tell me it’s all worth it. Tell me…tell me I have friends, and a space to call my own, that I’m as good a pilot as I ache to be. Tell me that flying through the stars is everything I imagine it to be, that this pain is easier to bear.” And so quiet she didn’t know if the recording would pick it up she said, “Tell me I’m happy.”
She wasn’t sure how long she stayed there, among her mother’s masculine and feminine decorations, in the space she had once hoped to have her declaration party. When she could hold the crystal no longer she lowered it and retired to bed, hoping that in the coming days she would find at least a little comfort.
On Estraya once one had finished their primary education they would take up more and more volunteering hours until their apprenticeship was finished and they could become a full member of society. It was at the weather station and at the courier’s that Stella was thus engaged when an answering message came from the Federation. Or, more precisely, the answer arrived through Hannah.
One afternoon, before the light got too long, he met her when she landed her weather balloon. His skipper had even more scratches on it, if that were possible, but his solemn expression stopped her from chiding him about it.
“What is it?” she asked, tying down the ropes and securing more ballast onto the sides.
He took a deep breath before answering. “The transport will be here on the twenty-second. They said you’ll want to report to the compound two days before so you can be tested and proved fit for duty.”
Blue surprise and then lavender sadness. She had to swallow several times before she could respond. “Th-That’s only a few days away.”
“I know.”
He stuck his hands in the pockets of his tunic. “What do you want to do?”
She put down the weather-reading equipment with extra care on the bench by the balloon and then faced the flat red plains and the setting sun to the southwest. The day had been warm and a gritty wind that would soon turn soothing and cool brushed against her face. Above the fire-streaked sky and the sun’s curving light were the stars she longed to be a part of.
I am one. Heaven, heart, and land are life. She made the gestures both to answer and steady herself.
A molten glow illuminated the side of Hannah’s face when she turned back to look at him. This time she could meet his eyes, even though the black distress streaking through his hair and his pained expression begged her not to go.
“I’m ready.”
He also made a prayer, kissed his fingers, and then opened his hands to her. “Just…tell me what you need.”
“Hide my skipper by the lakeshore, just in case. Take care of my mother. And, Hannah?”
“Yes?”
“Will you come with me to temple?”
He nodded and then flashed his mischievous grin. “I see there are things you still can’t do without me. However will you manage?”
She rolled her eyes. “-Somehow-, I’m sure.”
“As if, you could hardly tie your own boots when I met you.”
She scuffed dirt in his direction, laughing. “Let’s go, silly.”
(Lost some paragraphs here, Stella on Hannah’s skipper, arms around him, dark line of mountains coming up on, his braid between her chest & his back makes her think about: when she would braid her hair and arrange her room in a masculine way, marching up and down in front of the mirror. Then when she stole into her mother’s room and put on her robe, and was among her feminine things (women have loose hairstyles), and was all teary-eyed w/ the shame of invading her mother’s private space, confessed to doing so as soon as her mother got home. Dan forgave her b/c all children do such things, hugged and kissed her. Memories of Hannah, her mum, & his fathers presenting her with her new skipper. Watching Hannah’s fingers singing over the intelligence, until he turned around and said, “I’ve submitted your application to the Federation. Any other heresy I can do for you today?”. Then Hannah’s like, “we’re here at the temple place” interrupting her reverie, and then take a chance to describe the scenery that you didn’t before, and the mountain peak around them. Tall crystal pillars leading up to the altar and the labyrinth path paved in bricks. Single, winding labyrinth, not a maze.)
Under the flickering aurora she walked, her steps following the labyrinth that had been long ago cut into the stone. It spiraled and curved, leading her at first far away, then close, and then away again. Stella did not take her eyes off the altar. It would come, as had her choice. As had the urge to fly, to declare herself a woman, and the ache both intimate and unexplainable to be among the stars.
It was not long before she arrived at the steps up to the altar. She ascended with painful slowness. Even though the way was straight, it was not easy. At the top she stopped and looked back across the wide gulf to Hannah. His gaze met hers.
A thousand things passed between them, hair and expressions and sky mirroring pain and joy. The summer that he, his fathers, and her mother had presented her with her skipper after months of secrecy. The first time she had watched the sunset from a hot air balloon, the long light dragging slowly backwards to the horizon until all at once, yet oh so slowly, everything faded to grey. And the hours he had spent spinning his fingers over the intelligence system in his room, until at last he had removed her message from its port, mopped the hair from his face, cocked a grin and said, “I’ve sent your application off to the Federation. Any other heresy I can perform while you’re here?”
Did she love him? Perhaps. Would she miss him?
Stella hugged her arms. “I can never replace you.”
“I know.”
“Hannah…”
He flipped his braid back over his shoulder. “Sweetness, do me a favor.”
“Anything.”
Even from here his eyes twinkled. “See the stars for me. Dream it so loud that I can hear it, too, however far away you are.”
Dust, heart, sky, and back again. He mirrored her, and they shared the prayer over and over until they were perfectly in sync.
Stella dropped her hands as he did and turned to face the altar. Her eyes stung and blurred but she approached the crystal fountain and rested her palms against its cool surface. The low resonance rose in pitch and harmonized with her, until she and it reflected the same colors, the same patterns, until she was understood.
“I’m going to heaven. I’m leaving soon. Please, help my mother say goodbye. Help… Help me say it, too.”
The priests who lived further down the mountain, who slept in their cells connected to the planet’s fount of sympathetic crystal, would hear her, and so would the earth. She waited, hands still, breathing in and out until her hair was opaque, then its natural white, until she was calm. In a gentle flickering of color that was accompanied by a soft chiming song, the priests spoke back to her, and then, deeper and more subtle, she felt a warm blue acceptance.
She snatched her hands away, watching the shivering interplay of hues on the smooth surface, as Estraya, too, said its goodbyes.
~
The mountain air was calm and cool, though it buffeted her constantly, embracing her in an ever-tugging current. Stella and Hannah stretched out on their backs, his braid entwining like a serpent through her halo of pale white hair. The crystal pillars around them glowed in a pallet of colors, shadows and patches of light rippling across their skin and dusty tunics. Stella felt the labyrinth underneath her, the carved channels of its passage and the weight of anyone who had ever walked it seeking an answer radiating back at her across the centuries, through the curve of the earth.
“What do you think it’ll be like?” he asked, arms folded loosely over his chest.
“Can anyone know the face of heaven?” She was going to die. Each step forward ripped another piece of her heart away. Her mother, her friends, her planet…she could never come back. Now that she had made her peace with the planet that reality was fast approaching, and undeniable.
Hannah looked at her, his braid hissing quietly across the stone. “C’mon, you’ve got to know more than that.”
Stella closed her eyes. She knew she was falling up, bisected between heaven and earth, as though the stars were beneath her. As though gravity worked in reverse. “The Federation is the structure and government of heaven. They have radio temples all across the sky and they fly in huge skimmer ships through the dark sea. Like a parent to their child they protect the people. It’s like…as if Estraya covered the whole sky, as if each town was a planet, and the couriers and delivery skippers and warriors that go between them are the network that holds everything together.” [K1]
He rolled back into his original position. “Other people, huh? Imagine that. And—protection? I thought only the Federation had ships.”
“It’s like skippers; anyone who has the means can purchase one. The wicked people can cause all sorts of trouble. They especially love to attack defenseless planets—like us—people who don’t use space skimmers. The Federation catches them and chastises them appropriately according to their crimes.”
“And what role does a pilot play?”
She stretched her arms out and gazed at the stars through her splayed fingers. She felt she could almost grasp the wind. “That depends. I could be a protector, or a fighter, or an explorer. With the message you gave me they said I would be taken to a pilot’s place of education and evaluated to see which sort of apprenticeship I should pursue.”
“So…do you have to choose just one? You’d make a good explorer.”
“I don’t know,” she said, smiling in the mottled dark, “I like the sound of protector. I could defend all the stars in the sky; you could all be my family.”
“Hey, don’t you go getting ahead of me, now.” His hands brushed her shoulder. She reached up and their fingers intertwined. “Stella?”
“Yes?”
“It would be an honor to be protected by you, to know that you were a part of the night sky, keeping me and fathers and your mother safe.”
The darkness blurred and she gripped his hands tight. Her throat tightened. “I’ll do my best.”
He chuckled. “Shut up, sweetness, I know you will.”
~
Stella stood outside her dwelling and watched Hannah disappear into the star-studded blackness. A protector, an explorer; the shape of the future spread out before her and she felt her heart fluttering in her chest. Soon she would be a pilot, flying through the heavens, seeing things no other Estrayan had seen. Were there any worlds out there like her own? What if all of them were? It was only logical that the aliens would look as she did, or very similar. After all, the old texts said there had been many ships in the heavenly fleet before Estraya was founded[K2] . Nonetheless she couldn’t wait, how could she, when there were so many strange and wonderful things waiting for her.
Stark light sprang over the ground and dazzled her. Dame Oriana stood in the doorway, her long hair disheveled, tears running down her face. “Stella?”
“Mother, I’m here.”
Dame Oriana ran to her, bare feet pattering in the dust. She threw her arms around her child and gripped her tight. “Oh, thank heaven! I was so worried! Where were you?”
Stella let herself be held, relishing in the strength of her mother’s grasp, drinking in the smell of powder, metal, and oil on her robe. Dame Oriana had found her in place in society as an engineer. She used to work in the shipyards by the great North Sea but after her husband’s death she and an infant Stella had relocated, closer to the airfield and the weather station. Many nights Stella could hear her assembling small machines or scale models in her workshop. If the shop door was open it was an invitation, if not—and it hadn’t been, lately—Stella knew her mother was in deep distress. But what could she do? “I was with Hannah, we were at Temple.”
Her grip tightened. “And? Did it help?”
Stella hugged her tight and stepped back so she could look into her mother’s eyes. “I’m not doing this to hurt you. I have to go. Like Hannah knew he was a boy, or Kelsey knew she had to make music. I know this. I feel it, in my heart. Going to heaven, being a pilot, it’s a part of me. If I stayed here, if I did something less, I would be sad, always. And I…I want to be happy. I want to fly.”
“Oh, my sweetness, you are breaking my heart.” Slivers of black whorled across her mother’s hair. She put her palms on Stella’s cheeks. “Tell me how I can help you.”
“Mother, this is the only way.”
“But Stella, I love you.”
Tears rolled down her face. “I love you, too. More than Hannah, more than the lake, more than anything. I love you, I’m sorry.”
Dame Oriana held her child close again. She rocked slowly back and forth, keening a low tune. “What can I do?”
Stella took an unsteady breath. “Help me say goodbye.”
She did not cry out this time but buried her face in Stella’s shimmering hair. She wept, chest heaving, fingers shaking, tears streaming down her cheeks. Stella stayed with her, stayed as Dame Oriana keened from grief. Tugging at her mother’s sleeve she roused her, leading the distraught woman back inside. Stella led her to her bedroom and laid her mother down among her crystals and miscellaneous machine parts. She tucked her in, pulling the blankets up high. As she rose to leave Dame Oriana caught her by the sleeve.
“Stella?”
“Yes?”
“Will it…make you happy?”
She clasped her mother’s hand and replied with all the earnestness she could muster. A soft wave of yellow broke over her hair as she did so. “Yes, yes it shall.”
Dame Oriana squeezed her eyes shut. “Then…I will do what I can. Only—”
“Yes?”
“—pray you stay close to me until you leave.”
Stella kissed her fingers. “I will, Mother, I promise.”

First Flight: Chapter 1.5

I’m going to have to rework some of this later, because this was the original chapter 1 of First Flight. I did update a few things just now but this was written several years ago, and I know the writing voice and flow could be better. I’m still doing some work on Toymaker, making more of a buffer for myself so have some additional Stella!
~~~
 
The long light of evening lay across the lake, swirling shadows in its silver depths. Wind carried over the distant hills, turning like a dervish in the hollows of the tall, smooth rock face that lined the lake’s northern shore. Staircases worn by the first settlers and then by adventurous teenagers led to caves, rooms swallowed in shadow, and hidden pools. And the lake itself held several islands, outlined in the same smooth, dusty rock, each tufted by sparse grass and rimmed with beaches of fine, white sand.
On the innermost and tallest island–for they formed a sort of spiral both in height and in size–stood Stella. They stood tall and barefoot, arms tossed up to the sky, head thrown back to the stars. Wind coursed against their young body, a tender pressure never seen, only felt. Stella watched the tumult of the stars through closed eyes and an open soul.
They prayed, as the Estrayans do, for providence and the stars to guide them. But more than that, Stella prayed that their mother would understand.
She–that forbidden word–stretched her left hand up, up! She could almost touch them, those glittering bodies, that heaven, that…land of death.
I know -you- understand, Stella told the stars, you always understand. If only Mother…
But it was little use and she knew it. A soft chime came to her on the air and she opened her eyes. Her skipper was still where she had left it on the beach, its front nodule pulsing with soft viridian light. It was time.
Stella took the spiral steps back around to the bottom of the island, dragging her toes in the dust, hoping that her Mother might leave her but knowing that she wouldn’t. Her outer clothes, still neatly folded, waited for her at the bottom of the smooth stairs. She dressed, shaking out the sand from her white tunic, and combing out her hair with her fingers. A quick glance in the rippling water pronounced her hardly presentable but it would have to do.
With practiced ease she mounted the skipper, synced the engine, and lifted from the beach with hardly a fluttering of sand. Stella rose higher, just enough to assure herself above any rogue wave caps, and urged it forward. The skipper shot off across the water, and the wet breeze filled her lungs and tugged at her limbs. It begged her to stay late, like she had so many other summer nights with her friends when classes and volunteer work were done, and they had raced each other over the water, shouting and laughing until the stars came out and called them home.
~
Stella fought to keep from rolling her eyes. She, her mother, and the counselor all sat in a loose circle in the dimly-lit room. The quality of the light from outside didn’t matter, for from the ceiling hung dozens of softly glowing crystal lamps. Many things on Estraya were made from or used crystal, so Stella was well used to dark spaces. In many ways Estraya was beautiful, bisected by light and darkness, hills cloaked in shivering red clover and matte silver rivers wending their way through the dry landscape, but to a teenager it was nearly insufferable.
How many sessions had her mother forced her to go to now? She snuck a glance at the counselor; a sumptuous, sexless figure with a warm smile and expressive hands. They had their eyes closed, and so did her mother, taking the long, measured breaths of meditation that began each visit. Stella sat with her hands in her lap, watching the window. The evening sunlight, a gentle molten orange, fell across the back wall of the room and skimmed the crown of her head. Her hair, normally white, pulsed a faint blue.
A quiet shifting alerted her that her mother and the counselor were leaving their mediations and returning to the present. Immediately she closed her eyes and readjusted her posture. She took deep, slow breaths. It was no use.
“Oh, Stella,” her mother sighed. “How–”
“Dame Oriana,” the counselor’s smooth voice interrupted and Stella opened her eyes to see them holding out their hand. Reluctantly she took it. “Your child is troubled. Do you not see?”
Stella did not have to pretend, her swirling color palette was enough. Her hair, still pale and opaque, shifted hue with her mood. Her mother’s worry was clear as well, lavender and cypress beginning to blossom and curl around her up-done braid. “I see,” her mother said. She reached out for both of their free hands until they were all connected.
“Now,” the counselor began, “Stella, it has been some weeks since we have met. Your education for this year is finished. Tell me, have you been volunteering?”
“At the airfield. Hannah and I are on the junior weather team. He codes the models and I gather the data.”
“And this is the Hannah that did so well with the Intelligence program?”
“Yes, he reached his majority last spring.”
“Very nice, always an exciting time. Yours is coming soon, is it not?”
“In a few months, yes.”
The counselor smiled. Stella was sure they meant it to be encouraging. “Do you have any plans for the celebration?”
And there was the sticking point. She wouldn’t be here.
Dame Oriana cut in–talking fast enough that Stella knew she was nervous, even if she had been blind–going over how she had picked out some special gifts, spoken to a few hiring managers at the Airfield about the next steps in her child’s career, and invited a few of Stella’s education friends.
At once Stella felt her palms begin to sweat. Her heart raced and her chest spasmed with tightness. It always started like this. The counselor tried their best, she knew, but nothing could deter her mother, who would take the slightest provocation to lasso her child into a future she didn’t want. She ached to pull away from the circle and the counselor–bless them–sensed it.
“Stella,” they said, that calm, mediating tone interrupting her mother, “I see your heart. Tell us how you feel.”
She knew they knew. They both knew. But she had to say it anyway. It was a part of the game. And she was sick of it. She stood, breaking the contact. The counselor, a sea of patience, simply looked at her expectantly, yet politely, for an answer. Her mother, on the other hand, began to rock back and forth, keening under her breath. The counselor put a hand on her shoulder. “Dame Oriana, please. You must listen.”
“Listen? How can I?” She stood also, struggling out of reach.
Stella turned away from the pain on her face and the ebony rippling in her hair.
Dame Oriana entreated her child directly. “Please, dear, why are you doing this to me? Why are you punishing me? What have I done? What can I do–”
Stella buried her face in her hands and blocked out her mother’s tears. “Mother, it’s not you. Please, just stop.”
“Stella, you must reconsider.” This was from the counselor, also concerned, but still radiating patience. “The pain your decision is causing your loved ones is quite extreme.”
“I know and I’m sorry but I just…” She held up her hands in helplessness. How could one explain? The urge to leave was just inside of her, a scream waiting to come out. If she didn’t go now she might never have the courage to do so. She might be tied down by family or work or other obligations that might make her think twice. “I have to go.”
“Stella,” the counselor said, placing the tips of their fingers on Stella’s arm, “suicide is never the answer.”
“It’s not…” The words died on her tongue. It was useless. Only her father would have understood. She could feel the pain radiating from both of them. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Stella, dear, please–”
She dragged her gaze up from the floor but could only meet her mother’s expression for a moment. She tried again and again. They stood there, the three of them, breathlessly waiting for the words she wasn’t going to say. Stella felt the precipice underneath her, the violent cleft of choice, the fork in the road. And what was better, in the end? She could join the Airfield fleet and live the rest of her days tearing through the upper atmosphere and feeling the wind embrace her skin. Or…
Past the soft chairs that stood around the room, past her mother’s distress, past the ceiling of the counselor’s meeting room lay the glittering stars. Space. Heaven. In Estrayan the words were the same, the meaning was the same. She imagined lifting her arms up like she had on the island and floating inside that never-ending wonder. She could touch the sky but she couldn’t touch the stars. Stella trembled. It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.
She took a breath. The air felt thin around her. Decision loomed, a valley beneath her feet. And, if she took that step…
“I’m sorry,” she said, and felt the ache of tears well up and spill down her cheeks. “I have to go.”
“Stella, wait!”
The counselor threw out their arm, block Dame Oriana’s path. “Dan! Let them go.”
“But–”
Stella clattered down the stairs and burst in the open evening air. Being this close to the dwellings and quilted pattern of kitchen gardens felt like being buried alive. She pulled at her arms and shoulders but the itch would not go away. By the time she had reached her skipper her mother had quitted the building and was running toward her.
Stella’s hands trembled as she engaged the drive. She gripped the handlebars as the machine gave a jerk and lifted off the ground more quickly than usual. She rose straight up, out of reach of her mother’s desperate hands.
“Darling, come back! Please!”
What could she say? That she was sorry? All the sorry in the world couldn’t change her mind, or dry her mother’s tears. The engine purred underneath her as it revved and she shot over the ground, away from the village and away from her mother’s screaming.
Stella threw her head back and drank in the wind. Her cheeks dried almost as soon as they were wetted and her eyes stung. She steered the skipper higher and circled the valley, finally settling out over the dusty plain. Back to the lake. The path to freedom and long summer nights. She did not know the route by heart, it had been carved there.
The dark hills to the north grew steadily closer, their spinal ridges running southwest to meet her there. She passed over sleeping fields of red clover and a few homesteads with cool, welcoming light spilling from their windows. But she would find no solace there. Weather balloons clustered in the sky to the south, like seed puffs in spring, meandering earthward. She herself had spent many evenings there, taking herself as high as the atmosphere and her lungs would allow, watching the thin sunset, reaching for the burning stars.
Heaven. Space.
All Estrayans loved the sky, but very few of them would die to be a part of it.
She parked once more on the beach, not surprised to see another skipper, this one scratched up yet newer than hers. “Hannah?”
The face of her friend poked out from the outcropping on top of the island. His wide grin and sparkling black eyes were a welcome sight. “Took you long enough,” he said, pushing his braid back over his shoulder. His hair ran silver and lavender. Happiness and worry.
She righted his skipper and wiped sand from the console. “You should take better care of it.”
“As if.” He rolled out of sight.
She shook her head and jogged up the stairs to meet him. Rather than bow, as was polite, she simply nodded and flopped down next to him on the rock. Her tunic would be dusty in the morning but what did it matter? If only she could stay out all night, not have to go home, not have to pack. Not have to face her mother.
Hannah’s breath was silent next to her, a calming presence. He had reached his majority some months ago and–before the priest could ask him if he had a declaration that he would like to share with everyone–he had burst out “Male!” and whipped off his cap to show that he’d already braided his hair. The gathered family and friends had cheered, of course. One suspected beforehand, but only the individual could make the declaration.
A ceremony Stella would never get to have.
“So,” he said, bringing out his lunch box and passing it to her, “how’d it go?”
She must have looked wretched because he frowned and said, “That bad, huh?”
“Oh, Hannah…”
His hand felt warm and solid on her back. “Stella, It’s gonna be okay.” She began to cry, stinging tears running down her pale cheeks and soaking into her tunic. She shook and he ran his fingers back and forth over her shoulders. “Hey, hey, talk to me.”
She sniffed and scrubbed her face with her sleeve. “L-Last week I got a message back from the Federation.”
Hannah’s face, genial and soft, froze. He swallowed and looked at the ground before speaking. “Well?” he said finally.
She took one look at his expression and scrambled to her feet. With shaky steps she walked to the edge of the outcropping of rock and stared blurry-eyed at the lake. The wind cooled her and held her. She gripped her arms and pulled her hair in front of her face.
Hannah stood also. He didn’t approach but turned the opposite way, facing the night instead of the setting sun. They stood back to back, across from each other, in tense, then gentle silence. From the rustling of his tunic she knew he was doing his evening prayers, his salutation to the stars. In the quiet she followed him, picking up the poses out of sync.
First the earth. I stand in the dust. Then the heart. I open the doors. And at last the sky. I will return. From the stars to the heart to the dust, I am one.
There were more prayers, but the simplest suited her. Gradually she felt her trembling cease, and her breathing ease, and with each repetition she polished her resolve. She knew when she moved her hands down over her heart and then up the path again that she was still whole.
I am one.
She let her palms fall and stood still, watching the grey light move across the burgundy swirls in the rock. The sun hovered just below the horizon, a dim glow. By now the clover field by the house would have settled down for the night and her mother would have all the crystals shining at full strength, beckoning her home.
“Even…if it isn’t death, like they say, it’s still goodbye.” Hannah still hadn’t turned around. It was just as well. She couldn’t bear to see his distress.
“I know,” she said. “But you hacked their intelligence system for me in the first place.”
Now he did move, his sandals scuffing on the dry tufts of grass that clung to the island. “What’s important to you is important to me even…even if it hurts.”
“Oh, Hannah.” She extended her hand and he took it, joining her on the edge. “Thank you.”
He grinned, though it didn’t really reach his eyes, and dropped her hand. “Your mum lost it, huh?”
“She found the crystal in my pillowcase.”
“She went rooting through your -room-?”
Stella grimaced; the privacy breach alone had been enough to shock her, never mind the scene that had followed. “Mother…was very upset.”
“That’s an understatement!”
She gritted her teeth as she repeated the words, “She says I am disturbing her, and punishing her, and being a hateful child, and-and a thousand other things! I told her it was all right, I would still send messages, I could send presents, I could visit, or make my declaration early or–”
Hannah gaped. “What did she -do-?”
“Took me to the counselor of course. We’d already been going because she, well, my desire hasn’t exactly been a secret.”
“Right.”
“But I missed my shift at the weather station that day. Ever since then I just don’t know what to say, I never know what she’s going to do.”
He reached over and touched the crystal that hung from a chain on her neck. His white hair and the crystal pulsed green in harmony. “There isn’t much I can do, Stella, but I’ll be here for you until you leave.”
She flushed, and saw her hair turn a vibrant orange. She hung her head and touched his crystal. “Thank you.”

First Flight: Chapter 1

So Toymaker has reached a point where I need a little more buffer before I can post more chapters. Until then please enjoy chapters from my science fiction novel “First Flight”.
The Secret Stars
The story of a young woman who was abandoned by her home planet and shunned by her own people, and now must make her way in the wider galaxy. Stella finds strange friends and dangerous pirates during her tenure as a pilot in the Inter-Satellite Federation, and stumbles by accident upon the galaxy’s best kept secret; that things are not quite as peaceful as they seem.
1. First Flight
In which Stella leaves home, disguises herself as a pirate, and has to prove herself at a foreign academy where the people are strange and their troubles stranger.
~~~
Chapter 1
Rain lashed the side of the courier’s sled, threatening to tip it over into the rolling waves below. Stella fought against the unpredictable gusts, struggling to keep the sled level as they sped towards home. Stiff wind melded with rain and sea spray, running in cold rivers across the deck. Stella risked a glance behind at the unconscious Master Courier, Don Michael. He had fallen hours ago, and cracked his head on the edge of a supply crate. A thin trickle of blood—starkly red against his white hair and pale face—ran down his cheek and jaw, spreading in a pink stain along the high collar of his jacket.
Stella gripped the console with numb fingers. There was no time to lose.
A wave reared up off the prow of the sled and, halfway between one breath and the next, crashed down upon them. Stella coughed and spluttered, searching for the tell-tale sweep of the headland’s lighthouse through blurry and stinging eyes. Nothing. For all that could be seen, they were alone on an endless sea.
Nearly blind in the rain, Stella spared a hand to trace their course. The sled’s console rose from a single column at the head of the vehicle. At the top of the column spun the gyroscope wheel, which Stella clung to as tightly as possible. Behind the wheel, fanning out from it, were the sled controls and the map. The cheery yellow light indicating the air jets beneath the sled and the propelling engine could still be seen through the rain. At least something was going right today.
The map itself was little more than a thin line of resin indicating the shape of the coast, and the lighthouses represented by small chips of crystal. Stella’s thumb found their starting point, a small fishing village now several hours behind them. Again, a search through the rain-battered dark. By all accounts there should be two lighthouses to the north, one closer on the point and one farther away up the sound, and one to the south at the cliff’s head, marking the entrance to a protected bay.
Don Michael groaned as the sled slammed against a swell. His head lolled to the side and his braid hung limply off his shoulder. The air jets whined in protest, only just on the edge of hearing. A choppy day wouldn’t even have given them any trouble, but the fact was that the courier’s sled wasn’t made to run pell-mell before—or through, for that matter—a storm. The deck creaked, but the crates on the back were clamped tightly into their brackets and did not move.
Not for the first time Stella looked up, searching for the guidance of the stars that were invisible behind the clouds. A sudden flash of light passed overhead, high up and to the left. Stella waited, breathless, for the answering thunder.
Without warning the scarlet wall of a cliff loomed out of the darkness in front of the sled. Stella gasped and wrenched the wheel to the right. The sled spun, narrowly missing an oncoming wave that would have dashed them against the rocks. Salty spray drenched them. Stella spat, gripping the wheel and bracing against the deck in an attempt to straighten their course.
There! One light off the headland to the north, just off the starboard side of the sled’s prow. Waves boomed as they threw themselves against the cliff wall, adding to the cacophony of sloshing water and the steel sound of driving rain.
Don Michael’s mouth was moving, but whatever he said was lost in the storm. “Just a little longer,” Stella assured him. “We’ll be home soon.”
More rocks, like jagged teeth at the mouth of the bay. If they dared turn away, pointing the nose of the sled back out to sea in order to avoid the treacherous shoreline there was no guarantee that the lighthouses would come back into view again.
Stella took a deep breath and palmed the accelerator. The sled shot forward, skirting the rocks. Stella counted the timing of the swells and the outrush of water right before the waves hit, weaving the sled down into the depressions and then jumping up to avoid the walls of water that followed.
The sled groaned in protest. It wasn’t made to hover more than a few feet above the ground and each time they made a jump the engine strained to keep the vehicle aloft.
No one ever said the life of a courier wasn’t exciting. Delivering packages, food, clothing, supplies, medicine, and correspondence was their sacred duty. A good career they said; rewarding, respected. But certainly not without its dangers.
The line of rocks to their left dropped away and Stella gave the wheel a slap that sent it spinning, changing course on a hairpin turn. Spray washed over them as the nose of the old sled dipped into the water.
Not now, not yet! Not when everyone was counting on them. Not when the stars were waiting.
Stella reached forward and pulled out the stabilizer, opening the engines completely. The sled rose, spitting water from its jets and crying in its high-pitched resonant voice. They only had a few minutes before the crystal components carbonized and Stella intended to make those moments count.
As fast as a gull could dive the sled cantered against the waves, the irregular bouncing of water sucking in and out of the laboring air jets. It was a straight shot from the entrance of the bay to the beach but Stella wasn’t taking any chances. Quick work with a clamp locked the wheel into place. Two hundred yards now.
Don Michael was heavy, even more so with his clothes leadened and soaked through by rain. He moaned as Stella unbuckled him and slipped an arm under his to support him.
“On the count of three.” Stella dared not let go of the steering column just yet. A hundred yards away. “Don Michael, can you hear me?”
Again his words were lost. His head wobbled as they took their position near the edge of the sled. Even though he was upright his eyes couldn’t seem to focus.
Stella glanced ahead of them. There was nothing for it. Better a broken leg if he couldn’t stand than a broken neck if they hit the beach at full speed. Twenty yards. Ten.
“Lookout below!”
Stella saw the sand coming up to greet them and twisted the Don around, forcing both of their bodies into a roll. The world spun. Kelp and driftwood crunched and slapped against them. Sand stuck to hands, hair, and clothes. Everything was a whirl of rain and squelching cotton and shifting ground giving way beneath them.
Just before they came to a stop Stella heard the wet-smack sound of the sled burying itself nose-deep into the sand farther up the beach. A moment later there was a quiet boom as the engine imploded.
Stella sat up, dizzy and breathless. The supplies would be safe but it would be some time before Don Michael could make his way back to the other villages.
“They’re over here!” someone called. Other voices followed, indistinct in the distance.
Crystal lanterns, barely visible through the downpour, weaved to and fro as the rescue party approached. Don Michael was closer and several figures bent around him, everyone talking at once.
“Michael, can you hear us?”
“Don’t move him.”
“Where’s Oriana’s child?”
“They’re here!” The warm, familiar face of Hannah leaned down out of the rain. A small, infectious smile danced at the corners of his mouth, the Estrayan version of a wicked grin. “Hey, sweetness,” he said softly, and held out his hand. “You made it.”
They. Stella returned the smile and let him help her to her feet. It wasn’t as if she could correct him, anyway. “I didn’t have much of a choice, did I?”
“Trust you of all people to make a grand entrance—burning as bright as a falling star.” He draped a dry blanket over both of them and together they ran for the shelter of the boathouse. Underneath the cloth, his ever-changing white hair glowed with golden undertones. Stella knew that hers reflected the same.
Hannah was always teasing her. They were exact opposites. He was always getting into some sort of mischief or leading their group of friends off on adventures during his free hours, rather than doing something productive in the community like the rest of them. Stella preferred the breeze-filled silence of the weather balloons or the feeling of the wind in her hair while running errands for the couriers to any boisterous trouble that Hannah could make. He’d been making a point to spend extra time with her ever since…
Stella shook her head, rain droplets running down her neck and over the already-soaked fabric of her junior’s tunic. “What about Don Michael?”
He shrugged. “He’ll fly again, stars willing.”
Stella grimaced and, not for the last time, spared a glance at the heavens.

Putting My Box Out

Alonzo August

*Deep breath*

It’s time to go down to part-time and finish this book. It’s time to get Toymaker done. I’ve got the cover, I’ve got 2/3 bookmarks.

I AM SO CLOSE.

But I can’t do it alone. If you’ve been reading these chapters and you think Toymaker is a COOL THING please send some money my way. One dollar, five, fifteen, or twenty-five–anything helps. It really does.

The plan is to buckle down and write like crazy until the end of the summer art season, at which point I will hopefully have Toymaker completed and ready for its final editing.

So I am putting my box out and asking for help.

Several times each week during the summer art season here in Portland I go downtown and stand in the costume above, and give out paper hearts to people who pass by. Putting my box out is an exercise in faith–faith that repays itself in love and stories and moments and beauty and art, and yes, money.

Art becomes a currency that has only one set price: the certainty that when I hand you a heart it is because I love you. I love you even if you don’t pay, even when bills get tight. I love you because the art of loving and the art of asking are intrinsically entwined.

I love you, do you love me?

I see you, do you see me?

I need help, will you help me?

Last Saturday a homeless man approached Statue Me. He saw all the money in my box and asked if I could spare a dollar. I handed him one and he looked surprised, saying “Wow, really?”

Yesterday at the  mid-week farmer’s market another artist–a potter–said that one of her customers bought a pot last year and every time she sees Statue Me she gets a heart and that she keeps all her hearts in that pot.

Last year a young gay man took one of my hearts at Pride, and tucked it into his volunteer binder at the beginning of the season. Many months later someone tried to give the same heart back to me from the same binder they had picked up by chance.

“Keep going, you’re spreading a better message.”

Yes, always yes.

And so the hearts and the help and the art circulates, becoming more than just a closed loop of commercial exchange, but a flexible community that trades in smiles and moments and memories.

Please help keep the love and the art going, so that I can finish this book and show it to the world. Please be a part of my life.

Even if all you do is subscribe until September and then cancel after that, that’s okay.

$1 until September = $4

$5 until September = $20

$15 until September = $60

$25 until September = $100

For the next 3 people who sign up for the $15 Patron  reward tier on Patreon I will give you a FREE COPY of Toymaker. And if you keep your donation (of $15+ only) going beyond September I will do something extra special just for you.

Want me to send an entire package of red paper hearts to someone of your choosing?

Want me to add a name of your suggestion into this novel or the next one? (My discretion, it can’t be obscene or conflict with a name I already have, or by copyrighted like “Frodo”, for example.)

Want an interview for your youtube channel?

The long and the short of it is that I need some help right now to make this art, this book, happen.

I’m putting my box out.

I love you.

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 13 – The Crossroads Clock

Dogged by debt, dreams, and fear Moira descends into the oldest part of the city, searching for the one place her questions can be answered–the Crossroads Clock.

If you like this you can support me on Patreon.

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.

the-toymakers-opera-cover

The Toymaker’s Opera

The Crossroads Clock

Moira

Beneath the Teeth, deep in a blackness that shuttered out all thought of light, stood the Crossroads Clock. It waited at the intersection of streets forgotten, of old magic dripping down from above, at the font of a river redirected. It waited, turning hands that did not tell time.

Desperate men came to the Clock seeking answers. They walked the secret roads, treading the path of a labyrinth that was a deadly as it was beautiful. Only the people with nothing more to lose or nowhere else to turn visited the Clock. In return for its advice the Clock could ask for anything, and had. More powerful and less discriminating than Sophia, the Clock was rumored to have demanded sanity and secrets, fortune and fortitude. Whatever the cost, whatever it asked, men paid. Anyone concerned with the price of the Clock’s help did not go, they were not ready.

In the days following the War tenement houses made of iron and steel rose up around the Clock, almost overnight. Those buildings, quickly abandoned, served as the first of many diversions. Other structures came, crowding in over the rubble. They arrived suddenly and silently, without doors or windows; their only aim, it seemed, to box the Clock in or to keep the people out. Yet the citizens of the Sheer found a way, walking the dangerous Arson’s Stair and adhering to the Clock’s one and only rule: to not be seen.

Nobody knew if it was the Baron who had boarded up the Clock or someone else entirely. In any case, the nutcrackers did not try to rescue it as they attempted to tear apart the doors in the Shade.

The Clock itself was an ancient thing, as old as the Sheer, as old as her towers. Its name was carved into the wind that howled about Baron’s Reach, into the souls of workmen who attempted to repair the crumbling city, into the outstretched hand of Trimaris as she reached with her dreams for a better time, another life. The Clock was the Sheer, here before the furnaces, before the firecats and the nutcrackers. It sat at the crossroads of time and magic, men and machines. It sat, and waited.

Moira locked her front door tight and hurried away, her padded soles making virtually no noise on the iron grating. It was the blue hour, not quite dawn yet no longer night. As she walked she turned her head and hands in tandem; first left, then right.

Only steam curled on the boulevard; not a soul stirred. The city thrummed along as Moira walked briskly, darting from doorway to close to awning. In the distance she could still hear the thunder of wind turbines, high up on the Teeth. She knew those sounds, knew the lull in foot traffic wouldn’t last long. Moira ducked out of sight under a stairwell, holding her breath as another seer stumbled home from market. One rule she could not break if she hoped to receive the answers she sought; do not be seen.

Moira’s fingers brushed against the soft fabric of her shopping bag. Inside it lay the only items she imagined would be of use to the Clock; a knife, her cards, and the stone. The Sangrine protested leaving the house, spluttering golden sparks of indignation. Moira ignored them.

She pulled the wool down farther over her eyes. Her eyesight, still weak from years of disuse, would only serve as a nauseating distraction. There could be no missteps on the road to the Crossroads Clock.

Adjusting the strap of her satchel, Moira set out again. Her quick pace took her down Charms, around the corner to Crystal. At the end of Crystal, past the stairs that would take her to Jia’s, Moira turned left and felt along the wall. Cold stone met her fingers as she searched for the seam of a door she knew must be there.

“Dammit, come on,” she cursed, running her hand over a section of wall she had just checked. “Where is it?”

To her right, a few yards distant, stood the stout oak partition that separated Medtown from the waterwheel shed. It stretched the entire length and height of the road, for all intents and purposes a dead end to an otherwise lively street. The roar of the waterfalls resounded through the wood, dull, but still unmistakable.

Finally her fingers found the edge, several feet over from where she had thought it was. She traced the line up and around until the shape of the half door revealed itself. A small tile met her questing hands, only a few inches across. She wondered at it, since she had felt a similar mosaic piece near Jia’s apartment. Was it only Crystal Street that used them? And what for?

The question banished itself as soon as the door swung open, creaking on its hinges. Moira hurried inside, closing it tight behind her. She couldn’t afford to be caught lingering over details; there was a long way to go yet.

In the closeness of the narrow stone passage Moira could hear the echo of her own breath in her ears. The sound made it seem as though there were two people in the tunnel. Moira made her way forward in a half-crouch, cautiously, feeling ahead in case the path had collapsed since her last visit.

Cold, still air pressed in all around her. Moira fought to breathe evenly and not to imagine the million tons of rock pushing down on the roof of the passage. She stopped, arms fully splayed on the walls at a tight section. The tunnel squeezed just in front of her, floor and ceiling angling in. “Just a little farther, just down to Wrightsward.” She licked her lips but could not make her feet continue.

This way, said the memory of Sophia, beckoning her. One step at a time.

Moira shivered. As a child she had known only that the road to the Arson’s Stair was long and difficult, and that Sophia pushed her onward when her ten-year-old feet grew tired. She had not understood the necessity of visiting the Crossroads Clock or the repercussions it might have.

Steeling her resolve, Moira forced herself to shimmy through the narrow opening. Her hair and the rough-spun fabric of her breeches caught on the stone. They tugged, once, twice, and then let go. Moira emerged from the other side into a tunnel almost as tall as she was and wider abreast. Putting her hand to the wall she trotted onward, ignoring the door that led out to Wrightsward. The momentary fear had passed and besides, it would be easier to stay hidden this way. Brisk steps took her down the twisting incline, the wide mouths of old mining passages gaping in the darkness, deeper into the maze of the Sheer.

Many years ago, just after the fever, when she was still busy adjusting to life without sight, the nutcrackers had come for her.

No nutcracker would enter the Junkyard or the Verandi’s quay on Skyman’s Wharf, for fear of the likes of Boris and Rashka, who guarded their people like wolves protecting a den. The heart of the city, however, offered no such safety. The nutcrackers’ knocking voices clattered and argued on Sophia’s doorstep, insisting that the sangerist release Moira into their hard, gloved hands.

Instead of going to greet them, Sophia leaned out of her second-story workshop window. “What is the meaning of this?” she snapped at the man in their midst.

Moira clung to Sophia’s skirts, nine years old and still weak from the ordeal of fever, frightened of the new darkness around her. She remembered the cold gust from the open window, the way the nutcracker’s voices added menace to the rest of that winter, chasing her from dreams like the shadow of a guillotine.

“Margarette is dead,” Gray called up, his voice disgustingly chipper. “She owed me a great deal.”

Sophia’s fingers dug into Moira’s shoulder. “Settle it with the Reach. You have no business here.”

Gray’s laugh, so confident and assured, filled the empty alley. It rang off the polished walls and caused the firecats to flatten their ears in annoyance. “You have the child,” he said, “Moira–”

“The child is mine,” Sophia snarled. “You may not have her.”

“By law she is mine, the heir to her mother’s debt, and the only means to make good on the account.”

Sophia spat to the side. “She was traded to me fairly and in good faith for services rendered, my bill with Margarette was settled when she left. Moira is not yours.”

“But I, also, provided services to both Moira and her mother; food and clothing and rooms to rent. I must be paid.”

Sophia turned to Moira, the young girl still trying to digest the news of her mother’s death. “Is this true?” Sophia demanded. “Did he do as he says he did?”

Moira, well aware which way the law lay, began to cry. “Don’t give me away!” she begged, throwing her arms around Sophia’s waist and holding on tight. “Don’t send me back to the Shade!” No matter how she tried to describe what Gray had done–tricked her mother into running up a tab, plied her with safety and sex, and tried to smother them both into wearing those awful masks–her voice broke each time. Moira feared Sophia’s silence, feared the rising scarlet storm that filled her second sight. But most of all she feared the new stain of the Baron’s magic that, even at this distance, she could sense on one of the nutcrackers.

When the older woman began to pry Moira’s fingers from her skirt, Moira resisted, struggling to hold fast. “No, please,” she cried.

“Listen to me.” Sophia’s warm hands brushed the tears from Moira’s cheeks. “You are my mon nyara and you are not going anywhere. I said I was going to take care of you and I will. Nothing can hurt you here.”

The sharp click of a musket cocking interrupted them. Gray snorted. “A pretty sentiment, if an empty one. Bring the girl out to me and perhaps I won’t have the Baron’s men blow a hole in this nice door of yours.”

“What will you do with her?” Sophia asked. She had succeeded in removing Moira arms, now she climbed onto the tall window sill, skirts billowing in the wind. Made for letting in as much light as possible the window opening came to an arch two feet over Sophia’s head, allowing her to draw herself up to her full height and brace her hands against the thick stone walls to either side.

Gray chuckled. “What do you think? Sell her, of course. It isn’t as if I have any use for a blind beggar.” He twirled a knife in his fingers. “I hear the Auction House is purchasing bodies of any age on behalf of the Pharos Physick. A surgeon could get a good deal of study out of–”

Unnoticed by either Moira or her debtor, Sophia had picked up a knife of her own. She drew the razor-thin edge of the blade across the palm of her hand. Blood, burning like a flame in Moira’s second sight, welled along the cut.

Sophia’s power lashed out and struck the group that stood on her doorstep. The nutcrackers bowled over like matchsticks, clattering together as they fell. Gray screamed. The sound of breaking pottery filled the street, louder somehow than everything else.

“My face!” Gray cried in agony. “You vixen bitch–!”

The Siren storm of Sophia’s anger lanced between the hanging stones in her workshop, funneling into a vortex that lashed around her. Even Moira backed away, flattening herself against the wall. Her whole life she had heard wild tales of Medtown’s one and only blood witch, tales Sophia had taken pains to prove untrue, until now.

“By law she is mine,” Sophia said. When she spoke her voice thundered, larger than life. “I do not deny the debt is yours, but you cannot come for it now.”

“That is not for you to decide!” Gray shouted, covering himself. Despite the show of bravado he edged slowly back up the alley. “You whelpless cunt–you’ll see–I’ll show you–”

Sophia scoffed and held out her bleeding hand again.

Despite himself, Gray flinched.

“Parasite,” Sophia spat. “Get gone or must I show you to Brigid’s Stair myself?”

Gray backed away, delivering one parting shot clear enough for Moira to hear, pressed as she was against the far wall of the workshop. “Ignore the laws of the Sheer if you must, Sophia Nefarli, but remember you do so at your own peril.” And with that he was gone, but his threat hung in the air, an axe waiting to fall.

The next day Solsday, bundled against the weather, Sophia had led Moira from the house in the wee hours just before dawn. They traveled the long, secret road to the Crossroads Clock, going slowly, taking time Moira was sure she didn’t have.

“What if Gray finds us?” she kept asking Sophia. “What if he brings more nutcrackers? What if–”

“Hush,” her Keeper snapped. “Or we shall be seen and have to start all over again.”

Moira had kept quiet then, though she didn’t wish to. She tried to remember the path, to remember the places Sophia said not to step, or to jump, but worry overpowered everything else. Despite all her best efforts the memory of her first meeting with the Clock had faded, a meeting Moira had neither understood nor seen the necessity of in the moment. It left her with only two impressions; the sensation of stones slamming in her head whenever the Clock spoke, and Sophia saying, “Time. Give her time.”

Sharp spring wind drove through Moira’s blouse and stays, chilling her to the bone. The full force of the gust, uninhibited by the towers, swirled around her. It threw her hair into her face, pressing her clothes back against her skin. In all the years since she had last passed this way, nine and one, she had never once thought about the road to the Arson’s Stair.

Well, she was certainly thinking about it now.

Moira edged forward, feeling along the wall to her left. She ducked under a jungle of pipes, pausing in between bursts of scalding steam until it was safe to continue. The tunnel had led her from Crystal Street all the way down to the service catwalks that spread across the ceiling of Tamamil’s Row. Always busy, the Tammy below surged with people tending to the wheels and checking the insulators. Moira walked above them, scurrying from turbine to turbine, hiding in the lee of their copper shadows, until she had made it across to the access door.

Anywhere in the Sheer led to everywhere else and Moira knew that almost as well as the thief gangs did. She knew passages and hidden stairways no posh soprano would have. Without her sight she had mastered every other sense; the crackle of electric wires bringing power out of the Tammy and to the factories across the road, the taste of cotton in the air above the Ream; and now she remembered the bracing hand of the wind along the outside of the Sheer.

Moira’s fingers met the edge of the building and she turned left, meeting the ripping breeze with her whole face. From the Tammy she had scurried across the maintenance bridge, wires hissing and popping on either side of her. Now the Ream, the great textile mills of the city, thundered on underneath her feet. Moira stood on the roof of the factory, on the edge of the Sheer’s middle tower, facing the wide-open plains of Stolenseam and the dizzying drop to the valley floor.

One wrong move could be deadly and when she worked up the courage to move again she placed her feet carefully, keeping the wall of the tower at her back. The path along the rooftop was not very wide, three feet, with only a jagged stone railing between her and open air.

Moira stopped halfway across. Her breath came in frantic gasps. Even though she pressed herself to the wall she felt the wind pulling, daring her to brace herself against it. It felt like a living thing, pausing just long enough before running again, its changes catching her off guard. Her hands scraped the rough rock and she gripped it with all her strength.

How could the gypsy captains could stand it, flying off into the sky in their sail-borne airships; climbing the rigging and hanging off the railings as though death did not frighten them. One misstep would send her on a fall so long she would doubtless have time to regret every decision she’d ever made. The only comfort in such a thought was the knowledge that the impact would kill her outright, though she was sure the panic would get her first. It was a long time before Moira could go on, the danger before her warring with the dangers ahead.

The balcony continued beyond the Ream, becoming jagged and unfinished over the industrial quarter. Candles, lumber, paper, ironworks; all crept on beneath her, the men and women working oblivious to the seer slowly making her way across their rooftops.

Moira turned away from the wind at the end of the middle tower to face her next challenge. She walked inward a few minutes, stopping as the balcony ended abruptly. Very carefully she positioned herself northward, the final tower in front of her. At her feet lay a gap between this tower and the next one.

“You’ve already come this far,” she muttered. In her mind’s eye she could remember Sophia crossing first.

I promise I’ll catch you.

Moira pushed the memory of Sophia away. “I don’t need you,” she said, “or your pity. I can do this myself.”

Bending her knees and flinging her arms forward at the same time as she sprang, Moira jumped. For a moment fear lanced through her. Perhaps the gap between the towers was larger than she remembered. Her feet hit the ground and she ducked into a roll to ease the impact, coming up bruised and gasping.

Moira scrambled to her feet, biting back a sudden scream. A blistering burn covered her hands and one shoulder where she had rolled on it. The wind had numbed her skin too much for her to notice before but now that she was on the roof of the refinery the heat gathered in, bracing around her. She’d have to move quickly. Searing pain through the soles of her boots spurred her into movement.

Giving up any pretense at caution Moira ran. She passed through a forest of smokestacks and roaring gas flares, a vague impression of denseness ahead the only indication she was about to smack into a chimney. Ash and soot filled the air, thick and foul-smelling. Beneath her steel was busy being made, poured liquid-hot into molds, but Moira couldn’t have cared whether it was iron or tin. All her thoughts bent upon getting to the other side as quickly as possible.

Sweat poured down her face. It plastered her breeches to her thighs and stained the gusset of her chemise. The strip of wool squished when she reached up to readjust it. She tore it off and ran on with her eyes closed. In the back of her mind she recalled Sophia, striving for the end of the Sheer with all her strength, a young girl clutched protectively in her arms.

Moira shook it away. She put on a burst of speed, rounding the main flare just as it burst into life. A torrent of fire howled into the sky, so hot that Moira cried out and drew back. The heat off the whole refinery wavered, intense and suffocating.

Hardly able to breathe for the acrid smoke and the bracing waves of flame, Moira inched forward. She rounded the chimney and jumped once more, this time out over open air.

Beyond the refineries and the northernmost tower, beyond the final death-defying drop that separated the Sheer from the raw cliffside that was its wild sister, stood a single stone quay. It stretched forward from the otherwise untamed rock, out over the valley, just far enough so that a brave fool could jump, and perhaps survive.

Moira missed. In the middle of the air she knew she wasn’t going to make it. The angle had been all wrong and she’d been rushing. She had enough time to feel her stomach drop and to open her mouth to scream.

Without warning she landed hard on a wooden bridge that had not been there ten years ago. All the breath slammed out of her. Her face and hands stung as they slapped into the thick pine boards.

Moira lay there, groaning. One of her legs hung completely off the edge, dangling out over Stolenseam. She twitched it back to safety but didn’t move anymore.

Frigid, biting wind cooled the sweat on her skin. It pinched and numbed her cheeks. She lay there so long that she began to shiver, exhaustion finally taking its toll.

With dumb limbs Moira pulled herself across the bridge and onto the quay. She rose, the wind whipping her hair into her face, and trudged up to the cliff wall. Though they ached she forced her fingers to read the words carved there.

The Arson’s Stair.

Moira bent down and ducked through the crevice, emerging gratefully into the dark passage beyond. She rested a little, checking her knapsack to be sure all her possessions were still with her. When she took out her cards they roiled in protest, golden sparks showering off them. Moira put the Sangrine away, relieved that they had not sustained any damage.

No people came here and no automatons. The Arson’s Stair was an ancient thing, disconnected from anything else in the city, except the Clock. As Moira descended she felt the denseness of the Stair all around her, the weight of its age heavy and close on her hands. And, in the darkness, she tasted time beyond a reckoning of time, something not marked on clocks or candles or prison walls.

On either side of her the rock face rose up and up, meeting in a solid roof overhead. Aside from the entrance, there were no other exits. There was only one way to the Clock and one way back.

Moira walked on, eyes shut, keeping her left hand along the wall. Her fingers dipped as they met the scope-like scoring made by miner’s tools, the half-circles of ramrods driven down to split the earth. Later–she did not know how much later, perhaps an hour, perhaps more–the irregular grooves gave way to raw stone. Water, still frigid from its underground journey, seeped to the surface and froze, creating a rippling layer of rimed ice.

Moira stopped at a curve in the path. Ahead of her the tunnel–and it was truly a tunnel now–went down, heading south and back toward the Sheer. It was not the decline that made her pause, she had navigated steeper; but that the darkness in her second sight seemed deeper somehow, tangible.

After a fortifying breath she forced herself to continue. “You’ve come this far,” she tried to say, only have the words die on her lips, unspoken.

Something tugged at her arm and Moira spun around. She searched the air in front of her, only to feel nothing, nothing at all. Likely it was water, dripping down from some stalactite. Moira kept on, trying to ignore the part of her that insisted it was still far too cold.

The Stair curved yet again, this time pointing directly east. Now the steps began, heading down.

Moira almost turned back. She could feel the mikkary ahead. She could feel the weight and the thickness of it, old blood and…other things left over from the making of the Sheer. Lives spent more easily than coin, dreams broken over the back of a city that did not care and did not wish to, greed so strangled it came out as lust; an all-consuming hunger for light, for music, for suffering, for glamor, for freedom. And, all alone and frightened on the Arson’s Stair, Moira felt the heavy hand of hate bear down upon her.

She pulled away with a cry and scrambled back up the passage. The whispers followed her, words on the edge of hearing. Moira flattened herself against a wall, trying not to listen.

Kill them, hissed a thin, sexless voice directly in her ear, kill them all.

Moira screamed. Blindly she flung herself down the passage, away from the ghosts of soldiers and gypsies, away from the almost-there hands that tore at her clothes and ran their fingers through her hair.

How? How could she have forgotten this? How could she have forgotten the eyes, phosphorous and much too high, dogging Sophia’s steps in the dark?

In her panic Moira did not notice the steps until she plunged into the mikkary that clung to them. The temperature plummeted, an icy pressure closing over her head. She gasped as she ran, afraid to look back; afraid to look at all.

The stench of old decay rose up to meet her, sour and coppery. Soot, caked on the walls, crumbled as she touched it, releasing clouds of ashey bitterness.

Moira stumbled as the Stair spat her out, reeling to a stop in the tall courtyard of the Crossroads Clock. Old nattering hate hung in the air like a noose, tight and choking. She barely had time to catch her balance before the Clock spoke.

“So. You. Have. Come.”

Every hair on Moira’s body tried to stand up at once. The voice was sharp, yet deep; a clacking, grating basso profondo. She had to swallow twice before she could answer. “Crossroads Clock, I–”

“Come. Closer. Moira. Mim.”

Oh muses, how she wanted to do anything but! Moira kept her eyes shut tight and advanced through the scouring waters of animosity. Whatever–whoever–had been chasing her had not followed her steps into the courtyard; a wise choice. There was enough pure venom here to obliterate the light of the living, nevermind the last memory of those who had already passed on.

Clicking and knacking filled the air as she approached the Clock, a chorus like but unlike the wooden voices of the nutcracker men. Moira rocked on the balls of her feet, exhausted and shivering and scared, finally unable to go any farther. She wanted nothing–nothing more in the world–than her own bed at that moment. But then would come the dreams, the nightmares of being trapped inside the city’s bones, of being able to see the suffering of the people all around her yet being unable to do anything about it. And that brought her here, to the questions that could not go unasked.

At last the curtain of mikkary condensed in front of her. The Clock took shape in her second sight, tall and menacing. “Where. You. Seen?” it demanded.

“N-No. I wasn’t.” Moira peered closer, trying to make out details at the same time that she wanted to pull away.

A long stain ran down the wall, the sickly brown-red of old blood. It was not a sangerist’s power, but it was magic, and it dripped slowly onto the Clock; feeding the device like water meted out to a starving man. Where it came from Moira did not know but she did hear the high crying of barrier wards, spells of protection written onto strips of cloth or paper. Usually reserved for guarding against evil spirits, they hung across the courtyard on thin washing lines; the only purpose evident to prevent the Clock from abandoning its post. The wards, stacked one on top of another, sighed in the breeze of Moira’s passage.

Below it all, below the restrictions and the magic, stood the Clock. It had no moving parts, at least none that Moira could hear. Chains of iron stretched across it, the natural nullification of the metal showing up as a dull slash in Moira’s second sight. Without opening her eyes she could not see–and did not wish to see–any of the device’s mechanisms, not even the ones that gave it the power of speech. But she could see the thing that had brought her here; the Clock’s heart, shining as cold and fierce and blue as the stone laying even now at the bottom of her bag.

“State. Your. Purpose.” The Clock creaked as it moved, leaning closer to inspect her. As it did so the iron chains pulled taut, the heavy clanking echoing off the buildings around them.

Moira forced herself to unclench her fists, hiding them and the nervousness they betrayed behind her back. “It has been nine years and one since Dame Sophia brought me to you, my Lord,” she began formally. Sophia had spoken little of the Clock since their initial visit but she had cautioned Moira that, here in this place, there could not be too much politeness. “We asked–”

“For. Time!” the Clock cried, rattling its prison. “Seer! Orphan! Luckless. Child. I. Know. You! My. Moments. Are. Precious. Do. Not. Waste. Them.”

The force of its words, every one of them knives, cut Moira to the bone. She staggered back a pace, both from the broad palm of animosity and the blinding flashes of power in her second sight.

Heat rose in her cheeks. All that hunger, all the worry, all the nightmares and threats and the Phage, and now this? Now, when she needed the laws of the Sheer and the structure of its peculiarities most of all, now the city spat upon her efforts. It was one thing for outsiders like Gray and Mrs. Marshall to ignore the rules–to charge or not to charge as they saw fit–but for the Crossroads Clock to treat her so rudely that Moira could not bear.

“Then you know why I am here!” she snapped. Tightness reached in to grip her chest but she shoved it away. “Kindness to you is a custom, my Lord, even if you do not deserve it.”

The Clock hissed, like steam escaping. “You. Dare?”

Moira knew it was foolish but she found that she was too tired and bruised to care. “That depends.”

“On. What. Exactly?” This time the chains and the wards cried out with one voice as the Clock heaved itself toward her. The raucous cacophony shook the courtyard. Several wards shattered into a thousand pieces of fine dust and faded, the old magic dissipating as the thing that bound them together was destroyed.

Moira folded her arms. Inside, her resolve quaked once in the face of the Clock’s wrath and then hardened. She had flung herself at the Arson’s Stair and survived; if that was not the shape of courage she did not know what was. “On whether you are like the seers of Medtown,” she spat, “more pageantry than substance.”

Ticking that was not ticking erupted from the Clock and it took Moira a full minute to realize the device was laughing. The sound was not at all comforting. “You. Are. Sophia’s. That. Much. Is. Clear. Ha.” After a pause, during which Moira sensed the aloof soul of a wayward firecat approaching, the Clock spoke again; this time in a quieter tone. “Tell. Me. Your. Troubles. Then. I. Shall. Listen.”

Moira did. She gave voice to all the things she couldn’t have told Sophia or Tabitha. The nightmares–or dreams, at this point she wasn’t sure which–caught the Clock’s attention and it made her describe them over and over, focusing on minute details; such as the construction of the stage and whether it appeared as though the curtains needed to be replaced.

As she spoke the firecat threaded between them, arching its back against the Clock and purring like a thunderstorm. Its eyes, so hot they shone clear, watched her unblinkingly.

“There’s nothing more, my Lord, I swear it,” she said when the Clock asked her to recount yet again the feeling of becoming the city. “I’ve told you everything I can remember.”

“It. Will. Have. To. Do.” A sharp clatter from the Clock caused the firecat to look up. “Go,” said the Clock. “Repairs. Must. Be. Made. See. It. Done.”

The firecat stretched and yawned. It blinked at Moira very slowly and then hurried away, much like a secretary sent off on important business.

Moira bit her lip. Firecats went everywhere. Did the Clock truly see the workings of the city or did the cats simply bring it information? She shook her head. That was impossible. Cats couldn’t talk anymore than the nutcrackers could. But how then did the Clock expect its orders to be fulfilled?

“The. Stone,” said the Clock, interrupting her reverie.

“Ah, yes.” Moira fumbled through her story, half still thinking about the firecats and half trying to be sure she described exactly what had happened at Hector’s. “And it doesn’t seem as though Sophia’s spell has done anything,” she added, relieved to finally give that worry some air. “My lu–fortune has been as bad as ever. Have I sold my blood and my self for nothing?”

The Clock waited until she had run out of words to say. It harkened to her concerns, the blue light of its heart pulsing faster as she recalled her desperate flight to Sophia’s. When she finished the light dipped, beckoning. “Can. You. Pay?” it asked once she had stepped closer.

Moira nodded. Last time Sophia had paid in blood. But as she brought out the knife the Clock snapped once. “No,” it wheezed, old breath from a bellows. “That.”

With a start Moira realized it was talking about her stone. She fished it out. The strange gem rolled in her palm, cool and dull, completely lifeless. “You want this? What for?”

The Clock moaned, a shivering animal sound. Something wisped against Moira’s arm, something cold and smooth.

She jerked back, out of range. “Tell me first!” she demanded. In the air in front of her something was happening, something she knew she did not want to see.

“That. Stone. You. Carry,” grated the Clock, its voice suddenly taking on the timbre of moving cams. “Sorcerers. Used. Them. Long. Ago. Many. Kinds. Many. Stones. You. Follow?”

“Yes.”

“Stones. Used. To. Store. Magic. Keep. Secrets. Powered. Machines. Cities. Some. Stone. Varieties. Empty. Waiting. For. Magic’s. Touch. Others. Alive!” A great clattering went up before her, as though the Clock were shaking itself in excitement. “Very. Much. Alive. Oh. Yes.”

Moira listened intently. “What…exactly are you saying? How do you mean ‘alive’?”

“The. Stones. Sleep. Singing. Like. Stars. Underground. Sleeping. Woken. By. Picks. And. Axes! Blood. Of. Leylines. Crystalized. Magic. Raw. And. Wild.” A note of anguish crept into that sharp, chopping voice. “So. Wild. They. Beat. In. The. Breast. Of. Machines. But. Not. Men. Do. You. Understand?”

She shook her head. “I know raw magic isn’t seen often in the Sheer, but–”

The Clock howled, an unearthly sound more akin to the whispers in the passage than anything uttered by a human throat. “If. Large. Enough. If. Strong. Enough. The. Wildness. In. Them. Drives. Men. Mad!” The hate, the current level of which Moira had become accustomed to, increased in pressure. It snapped at her like a jackal. “You. Are. Fortunate!” cried the Clock, “Lucky. Yours. Sought. Only. To. Fix. What. Was. Broken.”

Despite the feral circus of emotions all around her Moira stood fast. “But why me? Why not Hector or the merchant who sold it to him? Why would it wait? And why did I not die of Phage poisoning?”

“Crippled. Child,” the Clock said, much to her chagrin. “Stupid. Child. Who. Questions. Her. Luck.”

A sudden dread stole over Moira. “No, I–”

“The. Phage. And. The. Stones. Are. Sisters. One. Power. The. Other. Consequence. With. Great. Power. Comes. Great. Suffering.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t–”

The Clock’s patience ran out. “You. Will. Not. Die. But. Will. See. Now.”

Moira chewed her lip.Was this her luck, perhaps? Was this what Sophia had fought so hard to give her, was this the form in which her fortune was to be received? So great a gift, though, would surely demand an equal restitution. Payment Moira would be unable to provide, if nothing changed.

“And the dreams?” She wanted to ask more, wanted to ask if her finances would ever actually improve, if she would ever step clear of the knife-edge of poverty she had been walking for as long as she could remember–but the surest way to scare off your luck was to talk about it, and so she kept silent.

“They. Are. A. Part. Of. The. Stone. And. The. Stone. Is. A. Part. Of. You. All. Stones. Are. Connected. But. The. Dreams. May. Fade. In. Time.” The Clock shifted. “I. Will. Take. My. Payment. Now.”

Moira rolled the stone between her hands. She had almost as many mysteries as answers but at least one thing was clear; she was not living on borrowed time. She had passed through the gauntlet of the Phage and come out alive; for good or ill, however, was not yet clear.

One does not bargain with the Crossroads Clock, Sophia’s words from so many years ago, echoed in her head. You pay what you owe. Moira feared to ask any more, the Clock’s tolerance was wearing thin enough to see.

Carefully she extended her hand, the stone resting flat on her open palm. “Here you are then. And thank you,” she added.

After a moment smooth, skeletal fingers swept across her skin and lifted the stone away with a hand that clattered like a rune-reader’s tiles.

Hands that did not tell time. The old adage about the Crossroads Clock whipped across her mind.

Moira recoiled from that skeletal touch as though she had been burned, the shock of realization causing her to pitch and stumble backward. Suddenly she understood why none of her fellow citizens seemed able to describe the Clock, why no one even spoke of it unless they had to. They only called it a clock to avoid what it truly was.

“You…you’re…”

“Go. Now. Moira. Mim. And. Do. Not. Look. Back.”

Everything inside Moira rebelled. She had touched death! And worse than that, Sophia had taken her here knowing the laws of Medtown, knowing the anathema she committed. “S-Sophia said I could come to you if I ever needed help. She said I could trust you,” Moira swallowed, unable to keep the reproach from her voice. The hot dagger of betrayal twisted her stomach in knots. “But you–you’re a man!”

He laughed, that ruckus of ticking somehow worse because now she understood it as the smacking of bones, the jostling of ribs. “Yes. I. Was.” The Clock reached for her again, a slight breath of air the only warning Moira had before he seized her wrist in a vice-like grip. “Tell. Sophia–”

“Let go!” Moira screamed. She yanked her arm back but held it out from her body as though it was made of poison. “Oh muses nothing was worth this,” she gasped, “nothing.”

With that Moira turned on her heel and ran back the way she had come, away from the Clock and his mikkary, away from the malicious voices of other men long dead, away from bad luck and a ledger she could no longer keep in balance.

~~~

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