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

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

Some victories are triumphant, others hollow.

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A Most Delicate Contraption



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then dancing?

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

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

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

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

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

“–down the city.”

“–’is men on the move, tha knows–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But, Master Way–”

Sebastian stood. The Rimsean fled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacques balked. “I have commissions–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alive and living were two very, very different things.

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

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

“Midsummer should be sufficient.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Toymaker’s Opera: Chapter 22 – Parlour Predicaments

Things get a little more difficult for Alecto.

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Parlour Predicaments

Trimaris, Memory


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

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

“Your smile is enough,” he murmured.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

“About the city?”

He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm.” Alecto frowned in answer.

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

“What sort of trouble are you having?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who He Was



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

“No, Master Augusti, I only wanted–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Men With Strange Shadows


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

“My Lord! It’s too dangerous!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Lord Baron!”

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

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

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

“Yes, my Lord.”

“And foreman?”

“My Lord?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None, my Lord.”

Alecto gaped. “I beg your pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The People of the Sun


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was when the painting had arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“–gusti? Master Augusti?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I no have it–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there nowhere I can–”

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

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

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

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.


His Work


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.


Enter Octavian, Stage Left


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. 

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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.


Piece by Piece



“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.