Of Shadows and Obsession

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Chapter One

THE POINT OF THE COMPASS
punches through the paper and lets out a tinny squeal as it scrapes against the steel work surface. Unacceptable. My perfect metal fingers lift it straight up, smooth and strong and steady. I slide another sheet of thin rice paper onto my desk and turn the knob at my elbow a fraction to loosen the tension. Sometimes I forget to adjust it when I switch between tasks, when I go from heavy work to intricate calculations. Sometimes I forget how strong I am. Sometimes I destroy things accidentally. Other times, I destroy things on purpose.

Last night was more the former than the latter, but that doesn’t make the situation any better for the family who waits out in the Ring, wondering when their boy will arrive home for the First Holiday feasting. I am the only one who knows the answer to their question.

Never.

He is the reason I need to finish my calculations. Well, not him really, because as I sit here, his bones are slowly turning to ash in the factory’s furnace. This is for others like him. This is to protect them, all of them.

From me.

With my grip adjusted, I dive into angles of reflection, curvature, intensity of ambient light. . . . I live for a while within the grid on my paper, between the axes, contained by lines and degrees. There is nothing as soothing as this, nothing that quiets my thoughts so well. I pull the factory blueprints onto my work surface and make sure I have the scale right. I select each mirror from my collection, choosing only the flawless ones that will give me an undistorted view.

By this time tomorrow, I will be able to peer through one of my pipes and see the entire area around my altar. I can already see all of the cafeteria, including the kitchens. The killing floor from four different angles. Boss Jipu’s office, and Underboss Mugo’s office too. All the entrances to the factory and the compound gates. The furnace room. The roof. The corridors. But there is a blind spot just outside the cafeteria apparently, and that is where the young man was hiding.

I didn’t see him until it was too late. Strongly built and nearing twenty, maybe. I’d seen him wolfing down steamed buns in the cafeteria, and laughing with his friends after shifts. One who came back with candied dates from his mother and a bottle of rice wine from his father after weekends off. His name was Atanyo, and I knew his habits like I know those of everyone else at Gochan One. He didn’t like hard brown bread but loved barley soup. He visited the whores in the Ring sometimes but never stayed long. He lusted after Mugo’s pretty, young secretary, Lovey, like every other man in the factory, including and especially Mugo himself.

Atanyo’s sloppily scrawled wishes were all about Lovey, day after day. He left me a few candied dates each time to convince me to turn her head, as if I had that power.

Perhaps his often-repeated and as-yet-ungranted wish was the reason he was waiting for me. Or maybe he was simply wondering who collects the offerings that crowd that low wooden table every single day, dripping and rolling off its edges, sometimes getting singed by the candles set up in a row over the top. Thirteen candles, for the thirteen years I was alive and whole. Thirteen candles, for the years I was a child, when I believed I would go on and on. Four years have passed since then. I’m not a child anymore. Nor am I alive. Or whole.

Now I am the Ghost.

But sometimes I think I’m something . . . more.

I don’t know what Atanyo thought, though. Perhaps he was only curious. Or greedy. Whatever it was, it made him stealthy. I emerged from the stairwell and walked to the altar to gather the wishes and the gifts, the things that connect me to the people of Gochan One, the things they hope will connect them to the Ghost. I always check outside the cafeteria before I come up here. If there’s anyone there, I wait until they leave. But Atanyo, he must have been snugged up against the pillar in exactly the right place. I didn’t spot him until my bag was full of offerings and prayers, until I straightened up and heard his voice. And then I was running, fast as I could, for the safety of the stairwell. He tried to tackle me, to grab at my cloak, and I barely made it down the first flight of stairs without falling. He jumped down several steps, and in the dim lighting I saw the eager glint in his eye. He thought he’d solved the mystery, caught the Ghost.

He looked very surprised when the first metal spider landed on his shoulders.

After that I was not running. There was no need. He was on his knees, then on his belly, then on his back. He was screaming, but there was no one except me to hear him or save him. But once my spiders are in motion, it is best to let them do their work. And I couldn’t let him go, not after what he’d seen. He sentenced himself to death the moment he saw me, the moment he followed me. I would never be safe if they knew I was here.

Which means I need to finish these calculations and program the spiders to place the mirrors perfectly. I cannot afford to have blind spots. No one else should have to die like Atanyo did.

Unless they really deserve it.

When the door to the upper level slides open, it sets off a chime above my desk. Guiren has come to visit me. He usually waits until later in the evening, when the daily traffic in his clinic has died down, after he’s had a chance to eat a bite or two of dinner. But tonight is First Holiday Eve, and he is going home to be with his family.

“Bo?” he calls as his footsteps tap against my metal staircase.

“In here.”

He appears near the wall I’ve constructed to set my workspace apart from my sleeping space and my pipe room, the place where I watch. I’ve been thinking of adding front walls and doors to these chambers, but that project is low on my priority list. Guiren doesn’t seem to care very much, and he is the only one who knows I’m here.

“A young man, one of the middle-shift workers, is missing. He didn’t return to his dorm last night and didn’t show up for his shift this afternoon.” Guiren’s spindly arms are crossed over his chest, and his dark eyes are full of questions.

“Maybe he started celebrating early,” I say.

Guiren is good at being quiet. He knows when words are the enemy. He also has a lot of patience.

A quality I lack completely. “Say what you want to say, Guiren.”

“If it was an accident . . . ,” he begins.

“It was an accident.” I turn around. “Sort of.”

He blinks.

I touch the tips of my fingers together, metal and flesh. “He followed me. He tried to catch me. I didn’t lure him to the sublevel—that was his choice.” I gesture toward my plans, to the mirrors laid out on the desk. “There’s a blind spot near my altar, and that’s where he was. I’m making sure I have a full view from now on.”

“And his body?”

“Furnace.”

His lips are clamped together as he nods. “That’s too bad.”

“It won’t happen again. Not that way, at least.”

Guiren sighs, and when he speaks, his voice is heavy with sadness. “Perhaps some of this is necessary. Legends are built on truth, and everyone will be safer if your legend is strong, if the same people who pray to the Ghost are afraid of his wrath.”

I stand up straighter. Last year I finally grew as tall as Guiren. This year I’ve shot up a few more inches. Now I am a man. And yet . . . I want to show Guiren that he can be proud of me, that he should be happy he saved me. Sometimes, when he looks at me with that tiny, barely perceptible frown, that sad, almost fearful look in his eyes . . . sometimes I wonder if he regrets it. So I say, “I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just need them to stay away. I’ll be more careful next time.”

Guiren takes a few steps into the room and looks down at my plans, my eight messenger spiders lying, bellies up, on the worktable next to my desk. Waiting for their metal scrolls, the movement sequences punched into the thin sheets, their little steel souls.

“I’m glad.” He holds up a book, a peace offering, or maybe an apology. He always spends more time with me right before he leaves to visit his family out in the Ring, like he wants to fill me up so I can last longer on my own.

Maybe he doesn’t realize how it feels to be alone nearly all the time. It is not a space to be filled. I’m full already, full of the world I’ve created here, that I am building with my own hands. I don’t need anyone else. I will never need anyone but me. Still, I enjoy Guiren, and he is as close to a father as I have ever had. My real father was a customer of my mother’s. Maybe one of the men in this factory, maybe one of the vendors on the street, maybe one of the bosses. She was a whore of the Ring, one of many, and I was a street child, one of many. She managed to keep me fed, and because I was good at fixing things and a hard worker, I did odd jobs for the salon owners to earn my sleeping pallet. Until my mother was run down in the street by a rich man who couldn’t control his steam-powered carriage. After that, the madam at the salon offered to keep me on, but I could tell by her words and her eyes that she didn’t want me for odd jobs. She wanted me to be a toy for her customers with special tastes.

That’s when I stole a stack of coins from her safe and had my work papers forged. That’s when I came to Gochan One. And even then, before I was broken, Guiren was kind to me.

“Maybe for a few minutes,” I say. “But your family is probably eager to see you.”

He smiles, and it is so bright that I can tell he is thinking about his daughter, Wen. He always looks like that when he talks about her, like she warms his soul and delights his mind. He loves his wife, too, but that is a quieter, more private thing, one he does not share with me. But his daughter . . . he is not quiet about her. He is as loud as a man like Guiren can ever be. His expression shouts his pride, his adoration. It is magnetic.

“Shall I read while you work?”

“That would be nice.”

He lugs a chair from my sleeping chamber, which is where he has always read to me, since before there was a chamber there at all. When there was only a sleeping pallet and a gas lantern set down on the damp floor next to the great drilling machines, he read to me. When I couldn’t move more than a few feet without crying for the pain, he read to me. And now that I am strong and have started to build my own kingdom, he still reads to me.

“This is a classic,” he says, thumbing through the pages. “
The Princess and the Bandit.
Have you heard of it?”

I shake my head, my hands and eye focused on a paper-thin sheet of metal. My soft flesh hand sets the sequence into my machine arm so that it can punch the precise series of tiny holes into the metal. This will be the first spider to go, the one that will place the mirror right next to the air vent above the pillar.

“It’s not a long tale, but it’s one of my favorites.” He begins to read. His gentle voice washes over me while I work, and I swim in the story while my mechanical half does its job. It is the tale of a wily bandit who robs the wealthy travelers who pass through his canyon home on their way to the city by the sea. He is a fearless marauder, but he has a sense of honor. And one day he defends a simple merchant’s carriage from vicious thieves who are determined to capture the man’s daughter and sell her into slavery. He is unable to save the merchant, who dies protecting the carriage, but he does save the girl, who turns out to be none other than the royal princess in disguise. He learns the truth of her identity when she throws back her hood and he sees her enchanted necklace, which is famous through all the land. He refuses to accept a reward for his service to her . . . until she offers him a kiss.

I pull my arm back from the metal scroll. “Why didn’t he just take her necklace?”

Guiren gazes at my face with a look that I do not understand. “I suppose this bandit wanted something more precious and elusive than a string of jewels.”

I stare at him. “A kiss is over in a moment and gone forever. A jewel, any jewel, lasts much longer than that and is worth a lot more. This bandit sounds like a fool.”

Guiren laughs. “Well . . . he might have agreed with you. As soon as he kissed her, he was enslaved.”

“Ambushed when he wasn’t paying attention?” Sounds like he got what he deserved.

“No, bound. To her. That was the enchantment in the necklace, though no one realized its power. Anyone she kissed would be tied to her. Compelled to protect her and defend her forever.”

“That sounds awful. He did a good deed and lost his freedom. What kind of story is this?”

“Let me finish it and you’ll find out.” So he does, his knobby fingers flipping page after page. The bandit remained by the princess’s side, guarding her fiercely, forgetting his former life and all the treasures he had gathered in his lair in the mountain canyon. They were nothing to him. But one day he was killed, done in by the poisoned dagger of another man determined to steal the necklace. And even then, he was not free. His ghost remained by the princess, guarding her more effectively than his human body ever could have. For the rest of her life. Until she became queen and ruled the land. Until she passed the necklace on to her daughter. Until one day she, too, died.

“She appeared in the spirit world by his side, looking like she had the day he first beheld her, dewy of skin and bright of eye. And the old bandit ghost fell to his knees before her, and—”

“Wait, wait. He still wasn’t free?”

“No, Bo, he was.” Because it turns out the necklace was not enchanted at all, or at least, not in the way he thought. The bandit was held to the princess’s side by his heart and nothing else, and for all those years, he never realized the truth. He didn’t truly know until she died, too, and still he could not leave her. They journeyed into the land of the ancestors where they were finally free, together.

“That story makes no sense. Next time bring
Kulchan and His Warriors
. It’s been a while since you read that to me.”

“As you wish.” Guiren chuckles as he stands up and stretches. “Will you be watching the fireworks from the roof tonight?”

“Wouldn’t miss them.” I halt my work, an odd, unsettled feeling churning in my stomach. He is getting ready to leave, shuffling his feet, tucking the book under his arm. And I haven’t gotten everything I want from him. I open my mouth, trying to twist my tongue in just the right shape. “Um, Guiren. Ah . . . how is your d—family?”

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