Authors: Beth Cato
For Porom, the wingless, furry gremlin who purrs beneath my feet while I work.
he wrench wasn't Rivka's, but the heft and fit were perfect in her hand. Her tongue jabbed over her lip as she leveraged her weight through her arm. The obstinate bolt finally twisted free. She held up a small washer to her audience.
“This was the biggest problem, the one that caused so many other issues. See? One side is almost worn through.”
The engineers in their coveralls stood around her, arms folded, expressions uncertain. One of the men finally held out a hand to accept the washer. With a grunt, he passed it along. “Well, I'll be. Er. Thank you, miss.”
Rivka knew they had tolerated her meddling because she was an invitee to Balthazar Cody's party. His guests came from wealth and stature. They obviously weren't quite sure what to make of a young woman like her. She wasn't sure anymore, either.
The one-Âman band dismantled around her was the sort of advanced technology the southern nations were known for. A cylinder in the chest played tunes while the figure's sets of arms held a trumpet, chimes, flute, drum, and other instruments, all programmed to play on cue. It had created quite the impression at the party when its first song consisted of a sputtering, flatulent trumpet blast that continued a minute without ceasing. The appalled crew of engineers had hauled it down the corridor for repairs. Like a cat tempted by string, Rivka had followed.
She held up one of the articulated hands and flexed a metal pinky finger. The artistry on the construct was extraordinary, the movement almost liquid. A shame she didn't have her workbook along to sketch the schematics, but she could scribble her memories the instant she arrived home.
Across the room, a grandfather clock began to chime. She glanced up. Little airships adorned the clock's hands and hovered against a backdrop of gray-Âmarble clouds. Nine o'clock? She had been working on the mecha for almost an hour? Beyond the carefully staged metal parts, her gloves and silk cardigan had been discarded in a wrinkled pile. Her fingertips appeared ink-Âdipped, her carefully done manicure ridged in black. Her dressÂ .Â .Â .
“Damnation,” she muttered. Two months of refined southern education couldn't eradicate a lifetime of Caskentian slang and blasphemy. “Grandmother is going to kill me.”
Grandmother Stout regarded this as something of a societal debut for Rivka. Rivka regarded it as a form of torture that stole away time better spent on the machinery she used to pay the rent; it was important to her that she support herself as much as possible, even as she lived with Grandmother in this strange new city. Rivka had shown up on her doorstep as a refugee, a letter of introduction from Miss Leander in her hand. Days before that, Rivka hadn't known she had any living family at all. Grandmother had welcomed her wholeheartedly.
As a show of sacrifice and gratitude, Rivka even let Grandmother choose her dress for this evening. It was a ghastly, fashionable
, and probably worth more than Rivka would have made in a month at the little bakery she had run in Caskentia.
She scrambled to her bare feet. The stiff leather flats hadn't proven suitable for mechanist labor best done at a squat or on her knees. Rivka touched her hopelessly stained dress and was relieved she didn't leave a new fingerprint. She gathered up her unsoiled things and shoved her feet inside her shoes.
“I wish I had time to put the automaton together again, butâÂ”
“We can do it,” a man said, his voice tight.
Conversation and the chimes of crystal echoed down the hallway, and out of the babble she recognized Grandmother's high laugh. Rivka grimaced. Grandmother was
here. She might not be as rich as many present, but she had a commanding way about her that made her seem like more. She
more, though very few others knew that truth.
And Rivka .Â .Â . well. She was supposed to engage in small talk and not portray any of her crude upbringing in the high towers and catwalks of neighboring Caskentia's capital of Mercia. Nor was she supposed to acknowledge reactions to her cleft lip. The polite glances, the pity, the way some Âpeople couldn't quite look at her at all. Grandmother wouldn't let Rivka wear her hair loose to hide her face, either. “Raise your chin!” Grandmother kept saying. It drove Rivka batty and made her all the more anxious to return home, to her workshop, where five projects-Âin-Âprogress awaited. Dismantled engines made far better conversation companions than hoity-Âtoity Tamarans.
Here on the fourth floor of a city tower that scraped the clouds, Mr. Cody had decorated his flat in lush gold and dark wood. The carpet was thick like storybook grass. She spied a sink through a doorway and ducked inside the chamber. Ah, hot and cold tap waterâÂthat was a luxury she had happily adjusted to here in Tamarania.
She scrubbed her hands until the oil faded to gray and tugged on gloves to cover her blackened nails. The cardigan, however, couldn't fully hide the damage to her dress. It had looked wretched on her before, and now the cloth appeared as if it had broken out in some god-Âawful disease.
No point in trying to make a rabbit like you look pretty. Nothin' can hide that lip of yours.
” The raspy voice of Mr. Stout echoed in her brain. He'd been her benefactor, and her tormentor, when he took her in after Mama died. Rivka didn't know he was her father by blood, not until right before he'd been killed.
For a dead man, he was still terribly loud in her memory.
Rivka returned to the fringe of the party, her arms folded to hide the worst of the oil. Slipping out early wasn't an option; Grandmother had only recently dismissed extra guards from the household, certain that the threat of the Waste had abated, and she'd go loony if Rivka was out of sight too long.
If Rivka could temporarily hide from Grandmother, though, that would delay an airship's payload of nagging.
Some thirty Âpeople mingled in the parlor. Balthazar Cody was one of the augusts of the city-Âstate of Tamarania, essentially a councilman over a city of millions. The man wielded tremendous political power, but his Arena was what made him a sensation. The next competitive bout between massive war machines would take place in a matter of weeks.
Rivka spied Grandmother; she was a pasty blot amidst the darker skin tones that dominated the room. The old woman's high mass of silver curls featured a vivid red streak that coiled into a thick bun at the back. Grandmother gesticulated punctuation to most every word in her conversation. Rivka caught her eye to offer a wave and tepid smile. Grandmother nodded acknowledgment and carried on.
Good. Rivka had been sighted. Now she could retreat again.
Cheers erupted on the other side of the room. Rivka saw the tall head of the assembled one-Âman band.
“You fixed it! Good-Âo!” called a fellow.
Rivka swallowed her annoyance. She spied a shadowed space behind two potted trees near the entry doors and stepped within the gap. Her shoulders pressed to the wall behind the trees. From here, she could monitor the room like some Clockwork Dagger engaged in espionage.
The wall quivered against her back as the doors opened to admit someone.
“Well, greetings of the evening to you!” Rivka recognized the rich tones of Balthazar Cody. The man talked like a salesman. She could barely see him through the leaves. He was likely near Grandmother's age, his skin like mahogany, his short and frizzy hair striped in white. “I wasn't sure if you'd come.”
“I wasn't sure if I would, either.” The voice was teenaged, maybe close to her own age. Rivka peered through the plants to see better. The girl wore a creamy column dress that contrasted with her warm, nutmeg-Âtoned skin. Her black hair was braided and molded into triple buns. She looked like the perfect Tamaran young lady. “Why did you invite me? I doubt you've forgiven me.”
Cody laughed. Guffawed, really. “You're so like your brother.” He sobered. “No, I have not fully forgiven you. Because of you, I lost my grandest creation.”
“I lost my brother then, too.”
“Ah, your Alonzo's still alive, and I doubt he's stayed angry with you, even if you did shove his lady-Âlove medician into a box and ship her to Mercia as freight.”
Lady-Âlove medician. They were talking about Octavia Leander. Rivka smothered her gasp with a gloved hand. Miss Leander was the kindest, strongest person Rivka had ever knownâÂand this girl had shipped her as
“I want to know why you invited me to your party tonight.”
“You're so young to be soâÂ”
“I heard your mother has fully recovered from a dreadful illness. Is it true she'll be moving here soon?”
“Yes. She's selling her house in Mercia and will move in the spring.” Silence dragged out. “You want something from Mother. It's because she's in Mercia, isn't it? She knows everyone there. What, did you lose your spies during the riots?”
“Come now, I'm not permitted to care for the welfare of an old friend?”
“You've cared very little up to this point.”
“Your suspicion wounds me. Consider this party invitation a gesture of reconciliation between us.”
“I might as well eat. You do serve good food.”
Mr. Cody laughed as he walked away.
Rivka waited a moment, then leaned out of her hiding place with a rustle of branches. “Hello! I'm Rivka Stout.” The new surname still felt strange to say, but Grandmother said it was for the best, that it would raise fewer questions about their relationship. “I heard you talking to Mr. Cody. I wasn't trying to, but I was right there, and .Â .Â . anyway, you know Octavia Leander? You're Alonzo Garret's sister?”
“Oh. Yes. I'm Tatiana Garret.” She quickly recovered from the surprise of someone emerging from behind potted plants. “You're related to Mrs. Stout, the publisher? Alonzo mentioned her. Why are you back there?”
“It looked cozier than anywhere else in the room.” Rivka stepped out into the open again.
“What's all over your dress?”
“Just oil.” Tatiana arched an eyebrow. “Your accent. You're from upper Mercia, aren't you?”
Upper Mercia, meaning the towers, trams, and high catwalks. Not to be confused with the formal accent of the refined street-Âlevel denizens, with their lilting syllables and absent contractions.
“Yes. I've only been here a few months. I .Â .Â .” Rivka froze. Grandmother had worked her way through the crowd. She spoke with someone only ten feet away. If she turned, she'd see Rivka.
“Damn it. I can't stay here.” She dashed toward a different hallway.
“How did you stain it like that?” Tatiana trailed her.
“The one-Âman band over there. I fixed it.” A cheery flute carried over the conversations. Tatiana's incredulous snort made Rivka turn around with a frown. “What?”
“In the middle of Mr. Cody's party,
fixed a mecha.”
“Why's that so hard to believe?”
“It seems very .Â .Â . Caskentian to dirty yourself like that.”
“Isn't your brother from Caskentia? Aren't you?”
“I haven't lived there in years.” Her tone made it clear that this was a very good thing.
They reached the end of the hallway. Rivka released a huff of breath. This didn't seem far enough from Grandmother, from everyone. As awful as Caskentia had been, as many horrible memories as she had, Rivka missed it the way a bird misses a cage. It was familiar. It was home. Defective as she was, she didn't stand out that much. Among soldiers and civilians alike, missing limbs, scars, and burns were common after fifty years of near-Âconstant war.
Rivka tried the doorknob. It didn't budge. She stooped to stare at the lock.
“It's locked for a reason,” said Tatiana. “Mr. Cody owns much of this building and the Arena next door. He doesn't want Âpeople stealing things.”
“I don't intend to steal anything. I just want to get away from the party.”
She pulled her small screwdriver from where she had threaded it beneath her satin belt. Grandmother was fine with her always keeping such tools on hand so long as Rivka was discreet.
“One must always be prepared!
” Grandmother often said. Considering Grandmother's own past, she'd know.
It took a matter of seconds to pick the lock; Mr. Stout's lessons had come in handy. Mr. Cody had obviously intended the mechanism to slow down rather than prevent an intruder. The high-Âsociety sorts at the party down the hall wouldn't be able to pick their own noses, much less a door.
“Then what are you doing?” asked Tatiana.
“I told you, getting away from Âpeople for a while. Why are you following me?”
“I thought we were having a conversation.”
This side of the hallway looked much the same, but the feel was quite different. The sounds of the party didn't carry. Rivka released a deep breath at the welcome quiet. Seconds later, men's voices echoed down the way. Rivka and Tatiana ducked into the nearest room.
The light was dim, but Rivka could see the sheen of glass and metal. Shelves were lined with display cases of mechanical limbs. Hands, arms, legs, feet. Skin was absent, the artistry of construction bared to the eye.
“Wow,” Rivka said, leaning closer to a display.
Fifty years had passed since Caskentia's Golden Age, and near-Âconstant wars had retarded its development. Not so in the progressive southern city-Âstates. Tamarania boasted well-Âkept tramways, airship buses between the metropolitan islands, even pneumatic tubes for communication within its towers.
Once Rivka was caught up with her academic work, she needed to find an apprenticeship. Tamarania abounded with masters of mechanical crafts, and Mr. Cody likely employed the best of the best. That was evident by the limbs in this room.
“My brother has a mechanical leg. I've never .Â .Â . really seen what it looks like inside.” Tatiana was clearly rattled.