Content: PG Low level violence, pseudoscience, pseudoreligion and supernatural themes.
Chapter One: Em
Common magic (skin magic) is absorbed by the skin directly from the atmosphere. On its own, it forms a weak echo of heart magic, producing light and a sense of wellbeing. Collectively, it will provide sufficient power to advance our industrial revolution.
~Sir Ambrus Grindle, Productivity and Industry
The line of workers stretched all the way from Rhodens Lane to the powerhouse. Here amongst the factories, there was no sunlight to warm people’s faces and little hope of bringing it back. Those who made it past the door now filtered into a basement crammed with chairs.
“I’m regretting this already,” Em muttered, shuffling along a row within sight of the exit. She contemplated retracing her steps, but too many people blocked her escape.
“Your first time, eh?” asked an old woman seated at the row’s end.
Em paused at the chair next to her, frowned at its wooden seat and splintery backrest.
“First time’s always the worst.” The old woman chuckled. Her breath smelled of gin, and her patchwork coat cut a bright contrast against her faded hair. “Don’t fret, my dear.” The woman chuckled again. “Your magic’ll be pulled out of you in no time and then you’ll get paid and forget all about bein’ scared. As sure as my name’s Rosie J, I’ll see you next week when you’re hankerin’ for more.”
Em let out a deep, shaky breath and sat. She looked to Lucien as he sank into the chair on her other side, the pewter charms in his shoulder length hair jingling.
“So this is it,” he said, voice laced with contempt. “The worker’s gold mine?” He grimaced at the gas lamps hanging by chains from the rafters. “They look like eyes. Of automatons. Crouched and ready to chew everyone up.”
“Lucien, please,” Em said. “You didn’t have to come.”
“Yes, yes, I know. But you’re not facing this alone. Besides…” He gave a hint of a smile. “Double our coins, double our savings.”
Em swallowed, mouth dry. She wished she’d not told Lucien of her plans to spend the evening under extraction. Endangering herself was one thing. Endangering the man she loved was unforgivable.
“You two had better get your boots off,” Rosie said. “Here comes the attendant.”
Em did as asked, then rolled up her leggings. As she straightened, she noticed a previous occupant had carved the words ‘Fate Damns’ into one of the armrests. She wondered if she could get away with adding something equally subversive, such as ‘Fate Exploits’, when a lad with tobacco-stained fingers prodded her forearm. “Get a move on, missy. If you’ve changed your mind, you know where the door is.”
Em froze, part panicked and part unsure what she was supposed to do.
“Roll up your sleeves unless you want the mages to come over and make a display of you.” The attendant pointed his chin at two men reclining in armchairs up the front. Their hands were white-gloved and gentlemanly, rumoured to be charged with enough magic to knock a room full of workers senseless.
The attendant wound the electrodes around Em’s wrists and ankles. He fastened straps around her forehead, pinning her head to the back of the chair. “Quicker than lacing a corset, eh?” He patted her knee. “But not as titillating.”
Lucien grunted. “Keep your hands on the job, lackey boy, or you’ll go blind.”
Old Rosie cackled. “Couldn’t have said it better m’self.”
“Mind your manners.” The lad turned his sneer to Lucien. “An’ as for you: them foreigner words aren’t welcome here.”
Em couldn’t move her head to see Lucien, but knew he would be fuming. Foreigner indeed! He may not talk like a local, but he knew the city well enough to belong. Biting her tongue, she fixed her gaze on the two mages, hating them for docking everyone’s pay merely to force them here.
She counted to thirty, willed herself to relax. All too soon an attendant announced the final seat had filled. Other attendants took their places in the aisles.
The hall quietened.
Someone hummed a dirge.
“Get it over with,” Rosie grumbled. “If you take all day, I’ll be wettin’ me knickers.”
Nervous laughter rippled from chair to chair. Em’s electrodes grew cold. In a gut-churning rush, her skin magic surged through them, paralysing her limbs from wrists to shoulders, ankles to hips. The ceiling vibrated. Dust and the occasional cobweb drifted onto heads, faces, shoulders and toes. In the factory above, machines rumbled and whined as they devoured the skin magic of two hundred workers.
Minutes stretched into an hour. A dull cramp spread up Em’s backbone, through her shoulders. Every little whimper, cough or sigh from those around her echoed. Even Old Rosie’s barely audible groan.
There came the sound of water trickling, and the stench of freshly voided pee. At first, Em felt sorry for the poor woman. Then she imagined a puddle spreading between the chairs and reaching her feet. Pee contained salt. Salt conducted magic. Uncontrolled magic sparked.
“Lucien,” she whispered.
“Silence,” an attendant growled.
“It’s Rosie,” Em said aloud. “I think she—”
Em gritted her teeth, closed her eyes, breathed deep and slow. She longed to stretch her muscles, wriggle her toes, flex her fingers. Afternoon stretched into evening. Her discomforts became aches, and her aches pushed her into a sullen, unthinking trance.
At last, the electrodes warmed. Her arms and legs thawed. Not wanting to be pawed again, she wriggled herself free.
“Don’t you be breaking anything, missy,” said the attendant, “or the mages’ll be billing you.”
Ignoring him, she turned to Rosie. The crone should have unstrapped by now. If she were anything like Papa, she’d be keen for a post-extraction tipple.
For a single choked breath, Em tried to convince herself the old woman had fallen asleep, that the puddle beneath her chair meant she’d started the day with too much gin. But Rosie’s blank, staring eyes told a terrible truth.
“You drained her!” Em spat at the attendant. “You should have been watching. You knew her magic was weak so you took every last drop.”
“She was old. Gonna die anyway,” the attendant said.
Em’s voice rose. “How dare you say that!”
“Hush!” Lucien took her arm. “There’s a mage watching.”
Em pulled away. “This is their plan, isn’t it? Kill the elderly, cull the weak.”
“Not now.” Lucien drew her against him, held her tight. He was shaking as much as she, his face clammy. “As I recall, I tried to convince you to give this a miss.”
She ducked aside, pulled on her socks and boots, hurried to the end of the row, legs quivering. She wanted to curse and cry and rage all at once. She wanted to grab the attendant’s weedy shoulders and shake him until he saw sense.
Up at the front, the two mages remained seated, bored and complacent.
“They’re murderers,” Em said, no longer caring who heard.
“Hush.” Lucien steered her to the exit. “Don’t give them an excuse to punish you.”
On the street outside, a night bird shrieked, irate in the slash of night between buildings. Never in her life had Em felt so tired. It was as if the electrodes had taken not only her magic but a piece of herself. As she dodged potholes, wheel ruts and other workers, she wondered if her legs would make it home. Even the shiny new coins in her pocket felt tainted. Probably cursed.
The air shuddered with the clunk-clunking of conveyor belts snaking down from windows six storeys above. Human-shaped automatons stood as tall as lamp posts, inspecting boxes being dropped into lorries. Smoke hissed and plumed from their neck vents, staining the mist dark.
“Nothing like a breath of sooty air to get the muscles pumping,” Lucien said dryly.
As he passed beneath a streetlight, his eyes looked sunken, deprived of sleep.
“I’m sorry,” Em said. “I had no idea it would be that bad. But how else are we going to save up for—”
A mage in white breeches and swallowtail jacket veered past them, his fingers sending ribbons of light onto the path ahead. Lucien poked his thumb towards the mage’s retreating back. “Look at him, flaunting his magic. Smells like a powerhouse owner. I’d like to see how long he’d last in electrodes.”
Footsteps of passers-by clattered on the cobbles. “My love,” Lucien began, “there’s something—”
“Em, Lucien, wait!” The voice belonged to a woman, calling out from behind them.
Em turned her head to see an acquaintance, Solly Flood, running to catch up.
“How are you keeping?” Solly asked, falling into step beside Em. “After I quit the workshop, I hadn’t meant to lose touch. Are you and Lucien still there? At Grindle’s?”
In no mood to chat, Em let Solly’s words hang between them.
“I was just passing the powerhouse when I happened to notice you leaving,” Solly said.
“You didn’t submit?”
“Tried it once. Never again. Besides, what do we get but a handful of copper? Meanwhile our magic earns mages truck-loads of gold.” She looked behind, checked both sides, lowered her voice. “What else can we do except fight them?”
Em glanced at Lucien who was now staring pointedly ahead, clearly as eager to get home as she was. “Fight mages?” he asked. “Who’d stand a chance against them?
Solly continued on in silence. When they rounded a corner, she said, “Mages are a minority. If we workers rise up, we’d have a chance.”
Lucien sneered. “Workers untrained in magic? Facing mages who have it all?”
“Supposing mages don’t have it all,” Solly said. “Supposing some workers have the potential to be trained?”
“Trained for what? Prison?” Lucien paused, considering something.
“What is it?” Em asked, almost tripping over her own feet.
He nodded towards Solly. “You must excuse me. I have business.” He met Em’s gaze and gave a tight, twisted smile. “Sorry, I’ll explain later.”
“Lucien?” Em stared open-mouthed as his lean silhouette merged into the darkness of an alley. She huddled into her coat, thought about setting out after him but did not relish a chase through the streets at this late hour. Instead, she continued towards home, intending to pick up her pace but couldn’t find the strength.
“Remember three summers ago?” Solly asked. “That time we all went down to the park to dance? Before the powerhouses? Back when everyone had skin magic enough to light their way? I remember how you lit yourself up all over. You were the brightest one there.”
“Listen,” Em interrupted, “tonight I heard a woman die. I just want to go home.”
Solly mumbled a curse. “That’s the second I’ve heard of this week. We have to fight. It has to be stopped.”
Em shrugged. Solly was right, but talk was cheap and actions amounted to nothing.
“Āiyā,” Solly hissed, impatiently. “No one should be treated like we are. There are ways to avoid the powerhouses.”
Given that those who refused to submit had little chance of making a decent living, Solly did look surprisingly well. Although her hand-made coat hung as shapeless as a horse blanket, the set of her shoulders and the russet shine in her bobbed hair suggested a robust constitution.
An old man approaching them stumbled. Solly steadied him.
“How am I supposed to see where I’m going without skin magic?” he growled.
“Fate protect you,” Solly said.
“Fate send you home safe.”
As the man continued on, Solly looked to Em. “One day, that will be all of us. First, they’ll steal our skin magic, then later our very last breath. Damn mages. May their greed be the death of them.”
Em raised her eyebrows but said nothing. The air thrummed with the sound of ever-churning foundries upriver. A whiff of burned lard swirled in coal smoke from the tenements and factories not yet fuelled by a powerhouse.
“I know your magic is strong,” Solly said, her voice low. “Way too strong than is lawful for a commoner.”
Em kept walking, refusing to react despite how her stomach tensed.
“Think back to that festival,” Solly persisted in a voice so low that Em could barely hear. “The way you danced. So much light. Suddenly you ran to your father. Your fingers sparked.”
The back of Em’s neck prickled. “No. That wasn’t me.”
“You were lucky no one else saw.”
“It wasn’t me.”
“The truth is,” Solly added, “there are more like us than you realise. One in fifty can channel enough magic to spark. One in a hundred can light a taper. One in a thousand have enough to fight.”
Em blinked. Us?
“I must confess,” Solly continued. “You wouldn’t see me in a powerhouse if my life depended on it. Even so, I pass this way every week looking for people like you. It’s only a matter of time before your magic gets too strong. If you can’t hold it in, chances are you’ll do more than just spark. If you’re lucky enough to escape scalding yourself, one day the wrong person will see.”
Solly’s prying gave Em strength enough to lift her pace, determined to not show anything beyond detached endurance. As far as she knew, no one in her family had ever had that kind of magic. So why would she?
“I want to help,” Solly said. “I want to teach you how to use your power for the common good. Without hurting yourself.”
Solly gave a barely perceptible nod.
“What about Rosie? The woman I heard die. Why couldn’t you have helped her?”
“I wish I could have. Trouble is there are too many Rosies and too few of us.”
Em checked to ensure no one lingered within earshot. “You’re a Groundist,” she whispered.
The edges of Solly’s eyes crinkled with the beginnings of a smile.
“I’m saving up for a proper apprenticeship,” Em said. “I want to run my own workshop and design automata.” Her words fell flat, unconvincing.
“Thanks to mages, the likes of us can never own workshops. Even Lucien, with all his experience, has little chance of being anything other than a dogsbody. As for having more magic than we’re supposed to: where does that get us? Even if we try not to use it?”
Em nodded in reluctant agreement. The street took them past shops, tenements and food stalls, and Em was tempted to ask exactly what Groundists planned to do.
“How’s your father?” Solly asked gently. “Is he better?”
“I doubt he’ll ever be that.”
Em almost added, ‘not since Mama died’ but the memory made her throat ache.
Solly mumbled something Em did not hear and they continued in silence.
“I’m afraid this is where we must part,” Solly said, pausing at a ramshackle bakery. “If you want to pursue this further, return here any day before noon and wait. I’ll tell my scouts to alert me if they see anyone who matches your description. Don’t speak to them, though. And not even to Lucien.” She held Em’s gaze. “On second thoughts, if you took up my offer would Lucien accompany you?”
“He believes magic was created to heal not fight with. To be honest, I agree.”
“That’s all very well.” Solly’s tone suggested refusal would be disastrous. “Either continue as is and risk ending your life, or put up a fight and at least have a chance to live.”
Em closed her eyes. So much to think about and so much she didn’t know. Fates in Hell, she was tired. If her power was as strong as Solly suggested, then why did she feel so unbearably weak? Without thinking, she looked over at Solly and blurted, “Lucien and I plan to marry. Next year.”
Solly pursed her lips. “Will he take you away to Cornica?”
“I can’t go. My da’s too sick to spend all those weeks at sea. If I desert him now, he’ll end up dead in a powerhouse.”
“And so will you, if you allow it,” Solly said. “Then he will follow.”
Em’s head spun. She wanted nothing more than to sleep.
“You need to think hard about my offer,” Solly went on. “But don’t take too long.” Abruptly, she turned away and disappeared into the throng of workers merging with the shadows.
Alone at last, Em could not move, could not make up her mind as to which road to take. Solly’s or Lucien’s? Papa’s or her own? Everything Solly said had made sense despite it sounding too dangerous and too impossibly hard. Even so, the idea of joining the Groundists promised not only hope but a glimmer of excitement. The city needed change. Not the kind that mages were aiming for, but the kind that helped workers.
Tomorrow. I’ll make up my mind tomorrow.
Chapter 2: Lucien
Rotting cockles littered the alley from end to end. To make matters worse, Lucien already regretted abandoning Em in the street with Solly. Circumstances had dictated immediate action, but it would take more than bravery to fix this insufferable city. Even so, to walk away and not look back…
What would that take? A special kind of cowardice? Or strength?
A rat darted between his feet. Before he could react, it disappeared down a drain as if its sole purpose was to vex. Like the man who’d agreed to meet him at the strike of nine and was nowhere to be seen. Yet another reason to hate Forsham.
So much for a city that touted itself as progressive. In the years since Lucien had arrived, everything he’d achieved had slid backwards. Factories spanned entire neighbourhoods. Workers were used as fuel for a single, ravenous machine.
“Mr Boreau!” The trader emerged from the shadows; well dressed and amply fleshed, eyes dulled from a life of dissipation. “Apologies. I was rudely detained.” Three rough-looking men accompanied him. He lit up his fingers and proffered two tickets. “Adjoining cabins. Lockable. If they’re not to your liking, there are buyers who’ll snap them up.”
Lucien glanced at the tickets and tried not to look too eager. No doubt they’d cost more than he could comfortably afford.
“Very well,” Lucien said. “Four silvers.”
The trader whipped the tickets from his grip. “You do realise Cornica is nine thousand miles away; not nine hundred. The fare is five whole silvers. Either that or take your chances in a powerhouse.”
“When does the freighter depart?”
“First thing tomorrow.”
Lucien had expected all manner of problems, but nothing as pressing as this. “You’re having me on. I’m serious, man, when’s the next one?”
“Three months wait. Or maybe forever. Rumour has it, tomorrow’s will be the last.” The trader’s eyes flashed with as much guile as manipulation. “Times are no easier in Cornica. Your queen despises our powerhouses. Trade between our countries may well be—” He swiped a hand across his throat. “Severed.”
Feeling more hamstrung than cheated, Lucien handed over five silvers and pocketed the tickets. He had a quarter silver left.
At the workers’ district known as The Edge, the streets were half-lit, half-ruined and all stagnant. Fog wreathed the lamplights, casting oily shadows onto the rutted dirt below. Tenements sprawled either side, their limed-brick walls as soulless as warehouses.
Lucien crossed the road towards the two-roomed lodgings Em shared with her father. Its unlit window did not bode well. As he made his way up the dark, musty stairs, he tried to conjure finger-light but his skin magic was too depleted. His deeper heart magic shifted, threatening to spark. Reeling it in, he hunkered down to wait for Em in the hallway by her door.
Footsteps came and went. A breeze sighed up the stairs. From somewhere nearby, a man and woman loudly discussed a ruined meal.
What if Em had paid attention to Solly’s suggestion to take up the fight? Nothing good would come of that. Lucien shook his head, knowing all along that a night such as this would catch up with him. He’d always admired Em’s independence. Encouraged it even. Now he feared it would drive them apart.
His teeth clenched at the thought. He’d do anything for this woman. If only she’d allow him.
After what seemed an age, footsteps rattled up the stairs.
“Sweet Fate, for once let Papa be asleep,” she muttered. “Don’t let him be—”
She neared the landing and froze. If he were a thief, Lucien could have knocked her flat.
“You shouldn’t be prattling in the gloom like that.” The harshness in his words came as much from worry as fatigue.
She exhaled sharply. “You shouldn’t be lurking without a light.”
“Can’t be helped.”
“Where’s your candle?”
“Same place as yours, I gather.”
Any other day the two would have kept up their banter until one of them burst into laughter. Instead, their words remained clipped and angry. The thought of what he planned made his voice stick in his throat.
Em opened the door, struck a match and lit her new-fangled oil lamp. She turned and faced him, eyebrows raised.
“I’m very well, thank you,” he said wryly. “How about you?”
“As good as can be expected.”
She hung her cap on the nail by the closet. The kitchen with its beaten metal tub, open shelves and wooden table were as clean as always. Beyond it, the curtain that screened her bed had been left undrawn.
He inclined his head towards her da’s bedroom. “Is he home?”
Em folded her arms. “Can’t hear him snoring, so I suppose not.”
Lucien had not seen her so irritable. He knew it was tiredness, but he was tired too.
“What made you run off?” she asked.
“The powerhouse will kill you,” he said, sidestepping the question. He almost reminded her about Rosie, but her pained expression told him it was too soon for that.
“If I only had myself to support, I’d stop submitting this minute.”
“Where’s your da now? At the tavern? Plastered?”
She turned her back, added fuel to the hearth and prodded it into flames. “He’s my da.”
“You’re a grown woman. He should let you go.”
“If he wasn’t so sick, he would.”
There was so much Lucien needed to say, but how to start without ruining it? Granted, Em’s father had lost his wife nigh on a year before, and then his job soon after that. Enough to drive anyone to the bottle. Even so, dithering wouldn’t help, unless the ditherer actually planned to end up in a graveyard.
“Em,” he began, “if you’re cross about the way I left you on the street, I’m sorry. There was no time to explain. Not with Miss Flood pestering us. I had to meet someone.”
Em looked up, her eyes accusing. “Who? Criminals?”
Her gaze searched his. “I’m sure you had your reasons.”
She put on the kettle, served up some bread, cheese, pickles and a bowl of stewed fruit. They talked about work, about designing and the unlikelihood of earning enough for apprenticeships. He was almost ready to bring out the tickets when familiar footsteps rose from the stairwell. Damn. Something or someone always interrupted them.
“Em?” a gravelly voice slurred. “Em, are you home? I forgot my key. Em?”
“Sweet Fate, don’t let him be too drunk,” she said.
Lucien reached the door first. He opened it to find Em’s father gripping the stair rail and smelling of things no teetotaller would want to see. Lucien caught him before he fell, then steered him to his room where he collapsed on the bed in a boneless heap.
“He’d be terribly hurt if he knew you’d seen him like this,” Em said.
“I don’t think anything could hurt him right now.”
Em sniffed. “He needs time.”
“I’m sorry,” Lucien said softly. “I didn’t mean it like that.” He wanted to smooth the worry from Em’s forehead, embrace her, keep her safe. Instead, he took her hand.
“I can’t leave him in this state.” She pulled away, snatched up a bucket. “I’m going to clean him up.”
She hurried downstairs to the boiler room; Lucien followed.
Em had half-filled the bucket before realising the gas had gone out and the water was cold. “Fate’s Blue,” she said, banging her fist on the tap.
Lucien plunged his hand into the bucket and jolted it softly with heart magic. It felt good to let it out. How dare mages insist he not use it! Magic was his prerogative. Not theirs.
The water fizzled. Hot, but not boiling.
“Ouch.” He withdrew his hand. The skin was red, but not enough to blister.
Em lifted the bucket and tipped its contents onto the flagstones. She flinched at the rising steam. “What were you thinking? If someone comes in and sees…”
Lucien laid his fingers on her arm and plied her with as much well-wishing as he could manage, but this soon after the powerhouse, his skin magic was barely there. He hoped it would be enough to soothe her. “Get some more water and see to your da. We need to talk.”
“Talk?” she said irritably. “After that session in the powerhouse? After hearing Rosie die? I need time to think, not talk.”
“Em, we must leave while it’s still possible. I can’t protect you here, but I give you my word you’ll be safe in Cornica.”
She heaved a sigh, rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand. “Leave Papa? You know I can’t.”
“He can share my cabin. You can have the other one for yourself.” He smiled. “Or else we can marry on board and he can have it.”
She stared, speechless. He leaned in to kiss her.
Em stepped back. “Lucien, I’d marry you this minute, but no good will come of fleeing.” She lifted her chin. “I’m thinking of joining the Groundists.”
Lucien fought hard to not scoff. Right now, she looked barely capable of walking let alone fighting. “The Groundists are disorganised, weak. It’s only a matter of time before they’re beaten.”
“Our survival depends on our ability to rebel.”
“Now you’re sounding like Miss Flood.”
“That’s because she’s right. I didn’t want to face it before. But after Rosie, how can I not?”
“So,” he ventured, “if I offered you a ticket to Cornica tonight, if I told you it was our last chance to leave, what would you do?”
“I’d ask if you’d lost your senses. I’d tell you to flee on your own if you must, but heart magic will be denied us wherever we go. In Cornica, would anyone teach commoners how to wield it?”
“At least if you keep it to yourself, you won’t be punished. You’ll not end up in prison, feeding it to mages from a chair.”
“At least not yet,” she countered. “Laws change. Who knows what Cornica’s future will bring?”
“Em.” He put his hands on her shoulders and it shocked him to discover how cold they felt. Beneath her coat, she’d worn the thinnest of blouses and camisoles, not at all adequate for a night as chill as this. “Fate gave us heart magic to help people, not hurt them. Using it to fight will make us as corrupt as mages.”
Em massaged her temples. “Bitter, damn Fate, my head’s throbbing. I can’t argue tonight.” She pulled away, went back to filling the bucket. “I’m going to see to my da.”
As if in sympathy, a strange fearful ache shot through the base of Lucien’s skull. “Mages are killing us,” he said. “Can’t you see?”
“It’s not just them. It’s everything.”
“Em, wait,” he called to her retreating back. “Please, listen.”
Still walking, she glanced over her shoulder. “Not if it means fleeing to Cornica.”
She closed the door none too gently behind her. He wanted to follow, but his words would be as wasted as a day spent in electrodes. Five silvers those tickets had cost! Plus more risk than a Cornican in Forsham could afford. It occurred to him that no matter what he offered, she’d follow her own dream anyway. Even if she knew it was lost. The likes of her did not give up. Nor did they escape.
Back in his own tenement he felt deserted, betrayed. His head ached. Worse than earlier. He shrugged on the Cornican coat he’d not worn for years out of fear of ruining it in a city that was already ruined. Lucien packed his belongings, his mind seething with anger at Em for refusing him, at her father for being drunk, at mages for turning workers into commodities, at Fate for failing to intervene. He left without locking the door and refused to look back. As for The Edge, he’d not miss it one whit. Even its name felt like an insult, as if those who lived there considered themselves to be somewhat less than human.
Lucien boarded the freighter only minutes before it was scheduled to leave. Deckhands bantered in his native drawl. At last, the sounds of home! How much he’d missed them.
Damn this aching head. It made him feel wrong. It made everything wrong, which of course it always had been. He closed his eyes, gripped the gunwales and inhaled the thick, salty air. In a matter of weeks, he’d see his parents again. His three younger sisters would pester him to take them out. He and his cousins would swim in ponds as hot as bathtubs. Compared to Forsham, Cornica was both a paradise and a sanctuary. Despite its lack of progress, he loved it more than he cared to admit.
Deserting Em was as deplorable as forcing himself to fight. What in Fate’s name was he thinking? If he left now, he’d be missing her every minute of every day. Life would be worse than a year in a powerhouse.
Clutching his suitcase, he ran to the gangplank to find it half raised.
“If you jump ship,” a deckhand warned, “there’ll be no coming back.”
Lucien leapt and landed on the wharf still running, still thinking about Em.
There was a checkpoint beyond the docks before getting back into the city, and he feared the guards would hold him up there, perhaps test him for heart magic. Equally possible, they might deny him re-entry. Keeping to the shadows, he wove between warehouses only to find himself back at the wharves where he began. He paused to catch his breath and get his bearings, then struck out towards a gap between buildings, twice tripping on rickety planks.
“You! Foreigner! Freeze!”
The voice came from behind.
A path veering left promised escape, then quickly narrowed to a dead end. Lucien turned.
Two men closed in on him.
Their faces lit up in a brief wash of finger-light. One belonged to a ruffian he’d seen earlier with the trader. The other, a uniformed guard.
He took the tickets from his pocket. “Here.” He tossed them over. “They’re yours.”
The ruffian sneered. “What use are they? The ship’s departed. What else do you have?”
“Only this,” Lucien lowered his suitcase.
“Not enough. What about your wallet? Your watch?”
Lucien’s head throbbed more than ever. He’d not defended himself with heart magic before, but it was never too late to try. Heart thumping, he raised a hand, attempted a jolt, wincing as his fingertips blistered and smoked. The guard laughed. Lifting a knife, he lunged.
Chapter Three: Ruk
The Fear whispered, piercing the shifter’s consciousness like a thorn.
His name is Lucien… Save him…
There was no shutting it out. Even after a decades-long slumber. Even in the bedrock beneath the city. The whispering continued, driving the shifter up into the cold, stale streets above.
I know who you are, Ruksinubus… Listen…
The name sounded old, familiar. Ruksinubus? Hadn’t it been taken from a vicar when men and shifters were not yet enemies?
Ruk… Help him, The Fear demanded.
The Fear answered with a scream so harrowing that Ruk collapsed into shapeless mist and fled along the surface of an oily, rutted track. How large Forsham had grown. How dreadful the taint of humanity.
Ruk cowered in a gutter, then fled over rooftops of slate, rust, and soot. The Fear followed, as persistent as a wound refusing to heal.
Night deepened. Rain drizzled. Ruk floated between buildings, houses, hovels and taverns, watching and listening while humans talked, argued, coupled and slept.
“I’m hungry,” a child complained.
“I can’t sleep,” cried another.
“This headache will be the death of me,” said commoner after commoner after commoner.
Help him… The Fear howled.
Ruk found solitude in a wooded park. Eucalypts loomed, smelling sharply of years long past when industrialists had not yet arrived in steamships to poison the land with their city.
But still The Fear wheedled.
Go to the wharves… do not lose him…
Ruk could only head where the voice insisted, closer and closer to a place that seemed at once alien and familiar. There came a shout, angry and demanding.
“You! Foreigner! Freeze!”
Ahead, beyond a derelict pier, a young Cornican stood clutching a suitcase, his back pressed against a high blackened wall. Men blocked his escape.
Do not lose him! The Fear screeched.
The tallest – a guard – lunged at the traveller’s unprotected throat, opening it with a flash of steel.
Head thrust backwards; blood gushed. The Cornican sank to his knees. His killers bent over him. Then casually, as if no one would dare challenge them, they picked up his suitcase, rummaged through his pockets and moved on. Seeking what? Another throat to open? Another chance to steal?
The Fear remained poised, hovering at the edge of Ruk’s consciousness. Wear him.
Do not lose him!
The young man slumped forward, shuddered, stilled.
Wear him! The Fear shrieked, hollered, howled, and shouted all at once. SHIFT!
The scent of dying wafted through the air.
Life or death? Ruk asked.
The soul answered in the way of most souls in Forsham. Life!
As you wish.
The shifter swooped, enveloped the traveller and pierced his soul. Mist solidified into bones, organs, arteries, veins, muscles, sinews, skin. A creature of flesh now, Ruk released the dead man’s body, seeing it for what it was: a husk with a face that now mirrored his own.
Lucien. His name had been Lucien.
Water lapped the pylons beneath the wharf’s bloodied planks. Grateful for the cover of darkness, Ruk undressed Lucien’s remains as respectfully as the act would allow. He shrugged on the clothes, dragged the body towards the water, rolled it in and watched it sink.
Shadows hugged him like the darkest of cloaks. Lucien’s memories threatened. Too much emotion. Too much knowing. Ruk knew at once he shouldn’t surrender to them. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not one little bit. Through sheer force of will, he pushed them away until a single thought remained, so deeply implanted it wouldn’t go.
A face. A woman’s face. The one Lucien had been desperate to see.
Chapter Four: Em
From the tone of Papa’s snoring, he wouldn’t stir until midday at least. If only Em, too, could have slept. Instead, she’d spent the night seeing Rosie’s poor dead face over and over in her mind’s eye. But life carried on and the landlord would soon be squealing for next week’s rent. Em had little choice but to drag herself to work. More importantly, she needed to see Lucien.
If only she hadn’t walked out before he’d finished his words. But after listening to Solly and then finding Papa so thoroughly plastered, she’d wanted nothing more than to curl up and forget. Now she had no idea what to do. Get married? Or stay and fight?
Bitter green, she wanted both; but Lucien expected her to choose.
On the street outside, winter’s chill cut through her coat and leggings. Yet another reason to hate Forsham. The city of extremes, as Lucien would say. Summers too hot. Winters too cold. People too rich or too poor. Unlike Cornica, there was nothing in between. Em hefted her bag of books over her shoulder, wishing she could go straight to the library instead of wasting the day fixing gimcracks for Grindle.
At least her head no longer hurt.
The city clock struck six fifteen. Now, even time seemed against her. She quickened her pace, keeping an eye out for Lucien. She doubted he’d be at his tenement, but couldn’t bring herself to pass without knocking.
Of course, he’d be at work already. Lucien was never late.
She continued on, her books and mood growing heavier. The air smelled of smoke and burning rubber. Up ahead, workers crowded the footpath, muttered about an automaton stepping out onto the wrong part of the road.
She rounded a corner and saw a human-shaped loader, arms waving, a ten-foot parody of a witless mage. Its feet were pinned beneath an overturned carriage. It could have easily escaped, but its thought director had succumbed to a confusion loop.
“You! Driver!” a voice shouted down from a third-storey window. A warehouse supervisor, no doubt, but his manner was as common as any worker’s. “That loader’s mine. Now you’ve ruined it.”
On the road beneath, the uppermost door of the carriage popped open. Those closest to it gasped as a mage in top hat and tails clambered out. Em recognised him instantly; one of the pair who supervised extractions in the powerhouse. His face was wiped of its usual complacency.
The crowd shifted a little, allowing Em a better look at the carriage. Its roof had fractured when it had tipped, a crack the width of her palm affording a view of the interior. Em had never seen a woman as terribly broken as the one who lay slumped and bleeding against the green leather seat. Her body glowed softly, yet her face was grey. As grey as Rosie’s from being drained. Em supposed the mage had tried to heal the woman with heart magic, hence the glow.
“Hey, mage!” the supervisor shouted down. “You owe me a new loader.”
“Demons’ balls to you!” the mage shouted back in a most undignified manner.
Time to move on. Arguments with mages never ended well.
The thought had barely formed when the mage lifted his hand and aimed. Em knew what would happen next, but the crowd prevented any chance of escape.
The air shuddered. The supervisor lurched backwards, too late as the window imploded in a torrent of flames. Bricks and ledge-workers plunged onto the screaming watchers below. The crowd surged in chaotic retreat.
Em stumbled and ducked as a burning conveyor belt swished through the air above her head. Its jagged edge clipped her shoulder, then writhed like a serpent, sending workers flying.
The horde stampeded towards the markets, taking Em with it, sweeping around the corner onto the narrow end of Rushcutters Way. Cobbles gave way to mud. She twisted an ankle, slipped and fell. A boot stomped on her hand. Others pummelled the ground inches from her face, dragging her bag of books from her grip, kicking them over the dirt. Yellowed pages riffled and tore in the melee. She couldn’t get up, couldn’t move, could barely draw breath.
Damned if she’d give in to death by trampling. She gritted her teeth and made her fingers spark.
No one paid any attention. She sparked again, barely aware of her skin blistering. Now people yelped and drew away. She leapt to her feet and ran.
As the crowd thinned, Em wound through a jumble of market stalls, past turnips, pumpkins, potatoes and greens. Everything looked too normal and too calm after all that had happened only a block behind. At Pottinger Lane, she ducked into an alley and took cover beneath a portico, away from the gazes of onlookers. Her hands were burnt raw, no longer sparking, but so full of heart magic she could barely hold it in.
She needed water. Yes, that would help. Damn, why hadn’t she thought to stay by the stalls where she could have plunged her hands in a costermonger’s bucket? But what could she have done afterwards? Apologised for cooking his greens? Begged witnesses to forget what they’d seen?
A yellow glow haloed her hands, darkening to red, pulsing its own frantic heartbeat. Certain now, that even water wouldn’t help, she left the portico in search of it anyway.
The footfall in the gravel behind her was light. Something or someone wrenched her backwards. A hand clamped over her mouth, its thumb forcing her jaw closed. She lifted a heel and kicked back, only to be rammed by a lean body front-first against the wall.
“Keep still,” a voice hissed. Male. Familiar.
Its owner pinned her as her skin magic flowed from both arms and legs. It was like being in the powerhouse, paralysed.
“No time for pleasantries unless you want us to both fry,” the voice added in a Cornican drawl. Almost Lucien’s, but not quite. And what of that smell? Smoke and unwashed flesh!
Definitely not Lucien.
He loosened his grip. Em twisted to the side, bit into his palm and tasted blood.
“Don’t. I’m trying to help.”
She wanted him gone, but his closeness felt safe.
His grip over her mouth eased.
“What do you want?” she blurted.
Em shivered. Heart magic flooded away from her, impossibly cold. She knew he was taking it, but no longer feared him.
“You nearly burned yourself up,” he said.
“Couldn’t stop. Not enough skin magic to reel it in.”
“As if that would have helped.”
“Who are you?”
“A friend. Though I doubt you’d agree if you saw me.”
Something pressed against the top of her scalp. His chin?
“What have you done?” she asked.
“Your heart magic nearly killed you. I stopped it. You’ve got more than even I can deal with. If you want to live, you should learn how to use it.”
“Is that an offer to teach me?”
“Are you a Groundist?”
“Of course not,” he sneered. “What would they know?”
His body grew warm. The flow of magic slowed.
Abruptly, he drew away. She swung around to find him already fleeing. His hair spilled about his shoulders, uncombed and unadorned by pewters. His coat looked Cornican. Filthy. Not the kind Lucien would wear.
She started after him. “Stop!”
He turned a corner. By the time she reached it, he was gone.
Even though it had felt like an attack, the stranger had saved her, that much she knew.
Oddly, her hands no longer hurt. She held them up, turned them this way and that. Their burns were healed. Surely she hadn’t imagined the blistering in the throes of panic. If so, why the singe marks on her cuffs? She rolled up her sleeves. Bits of coat lining and blouse crumbled into ash. Not at all unexpected given she’d been burning from the inside out.
Puzzled, she wriggled her shoulder where the falling conveyer belt had hit it, explored the area with her fingers. Coat seams shredded, blouse torn and bloodstained.
As for the skin beneath it, not so much as a scratch.
* * *
In better days, Em and Lucien would spend hours planning the opening of their own studio. They’d truly believed that if they worked and saved enough it would eventually come to pass. ‘Nothing grand’, they’d say, ‘but a place of our own to give us hope.’ Now, as Em arrived at Grindle’s workshop after taking the remainder of the morning to gather her wits, even a trestle table on Argyle Lane seemed out of reach. How in the name of Fate would she and Lucien survive?
He wasn’t at his workbench. Nor were his tools, nor was his coat where it usually hung on the back of the chair. Em’s heart missed a beat at the thought of him crushed beneath the fallen ledges near Rushcutters Way. Or perhaps he really had departed for Cornica.
What had she been thinking, not to listen to him?
She started for her bench only to find Supervisor Cornby blocking her path.
“Didn’t your shift start at six-thirty sharp?”
“Happened at six-twenty,” he announced. “You should have been well past the area by then. Which means, if it delayed you, you were late to begin with.”
Cornby’s jowls hung as limp and pasty as uncured cod. It would have been wiser for Em to have not answered, but thoughts were faster than words and, as usual, hers spilled out.
“I couldn’t help it.” She swallowed. Then added “Sir,” to feign respect. “Yesterday, I went to the powerhouse. It wore me out.”
If Cornby were loyal to Grindle he would have been pleased another worker had generously submitted. Instead, he gestured to her ruined coat. “Look at the state of you. Clothes torn. Face like it hasn’t seen soap in a month. Tell me: where are your injuries? How do I know you didn’t rough yourself up on purpose so we’d believe you’d been in the accident when, truth be told, you spent the morning sleeping in? Who are you trying to hoodwink?”
The other workers gasped.
Cornby pressed his lips into a miserly line. “I’ll take your lateness into consideration when I make up your pay.”
He left in a flurry of outrage. The others glanced up from their benchtops, at once curious and dismayed. Only two made to help: Lofty from three benches away fetched a cup of water. Annie offered to take her coat.
“No,” Em told her. “I’ll keep it on. I’m cold.”
“Cornby’s annoyed because Lucien’s not here,” Annie said. “He’s afraid we won’t make our quota and wants an excuse. But look at you. Are you hurt?”
“It was horrible. There was a mage. One from the powerhouse. It was all his fault.”
“You should have gone home,” Annie said. “I bet Lucien did.”
“I can’t afford to lose any more wages. Besides, working is better than lying around watching it happen all over again in my head.”
Annie well-wished her weakly, soothing Em just enough to pull herself together. “Of course, you’re right,” Annie added. “When Cornby’s not watching, I’ll see if I can give you a hand with what he’s put out for you.”
Em regarded her workbench and groaned. On the floor beside it an assortment of clockwork gimcracks filled her in-basket. Far too many to repair in a single day, let alone in what remained.
“You ’aven’t got your suitor to watch out for you today.” Andy the broom lad had snuck up behind her, his freckled face leering as he swept up fallen washers and screws. “I’m s’posin’ you thought your good luck till now was your own doin’.”
“I don’t require anyone to watch out for me.” Em sat at her stool. She picked up a half-sized imitation of a rooster and unscrewed the metal plate beneath its wings.
Andy remained where he was, no intention of leaving.
“In case you’re wondering,” Em added. “Mister Boreau respects his inferiors and superiors alike, but only if they deserve it.”
“Listen to you, all ’oity-toity,” the lad teased. “Not everyone can earn favours with a pretty face and teasin’ ’at.” He pushed the broom towards Em’s feet, his hips wiggling.
Ignoring him, she peered into the rooster’s crude inner workings. They were caked with oil, and dust that looked suspiciously like dandruff. She poked at it with a brush. “Pathetic.”
“Are you talking about the bird or Andy?” Lofty asked.
Andy made a surprisingly silent retreat.
Em shifted her attention back to the rooster. Although it was nothing more than a ridiculous toy designed by an equally ridiculous mage, there was something altogether calming about the process of aligning cogs, oiling joints and tightening pulleys. The hiss of the workshop’s gaslights, its rough brick walls and the tapping and clinking of her fellow tinkerers faded around her.
She thought about the books she’d lost in the stampede. Now she’d have to save up and replace them, if indeed they were replaceable. One had been a favourite she’d borrowed more than once: a copy of a famous volume espousing the theories of Gottfried Leibniz, a genius who’d paved the way for later scholars to link science and magic. The memory of its pages being trampled and torn made her hands shake. Knowledge was as precious as it was fragile. Losing it was a death of sorts. Eventually it would resurface, but it would never be the same.
Leibniz had said something similar himself: that what we believed to be death, was in fact, only change. This particular claim had always confounded her, but also brought a semblance of comfort. The more she pondered it, the more it made sense. Death wasn’t the disaster it was deemed to be. It was a necessity of Fate.
Unless you’re the one still living. The one who grieved.
She forced her hands to work by rote. That book! It had brought Lucien and her together. Three years ago, almost to the day. He’d started at the workshop, newly arrived from Cornica. The book had fallen from her bag at the end of her shift. He’d picked it up and smiled upon reading its title. “The Elucidation Concerning Monads? Here? In Forsham?”
She’d blushed, thinking he’d dismiss her interest as being too bookish, or overly concerned about ideas that meant nothing among people who were too poor to think of anything beyond their next meal.
“We must talk about der metaphysik sometime,” he added.
“You know of it?” she asked, incredulous.
“I know of science, and I know of the occult. As for Leibniz’s Monadology, where does it fit? With one or the other, or both?”
“Common sense tells me it’s science. Yet the existence of monads depends on both magic and Fate.”
He raised his eyebrows at that. “Would you care to accompany me on a walk?”
“I take it you’re on your way to the library.”
She had been, of course, so she threaded her arm in his and they talked less about Leibniz and more about each other. All because of a book now lost.
And so, most likely, was Lucien.
Was this also a decree of Fate? A best possible world where her magic was forbidden and the man she loved either hurt or killed or on his way to Cornica?
Damned if she’d believe that. More than likely he’d escaped the accident and had taken the day off. She wished she’d had the presence of mind to wait at his tenement. Then at least they’d be together, safe.
The morning’s horrors receded. She cared little about the happenings around her. Not even the afternoon tea siren could break her focus. Or the smell of the corncake that Annie quietly tucked into her pocket, telling her to eat.
A second siren squealed, signalling the daily inspection.
As Forsham’s most prominent factory owner, Sir Ambrus Grindle demanded his workers strive for perfection, despising anyone who didn’t live up to his standards. Usually during his inspections, he gave Repair Shop #18 little more than a surly glance, preferring to admire the assembly lines in the grand automaton factories nearby. So, when he and Cornby ambled into the room, Em feared that something or someone would be targeted.
She concentrated on the task at hand. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Cornby lead Grindle towards her bench. Silently, she prayed they’d keep walking.
“This is the one,” Cornby said. “The weakest link. The slowest spanner.”
“Miss Applebee.” The voice was precise and haughty. “It has come to my attention that your tardiness has caused somewhat of a delay in today’s quota.” Grindle’s titanium fingers drummed an impatient rhythm on Em’s workbench. The rivets in his prosthetic arm gleamed.
Startled, Em dropped the screwdriver. “I’m sorry. Um, Sir.”
“Sorry? The girl can’t look me in the eye, yet she says ‘sorry’?” As he folded his arms, his wrist sockets let out a barely discernible squeak. Em could not help but look to his rolled-up shirtsleeve. According to rumour, the arm’s casing melded with the flesh at his shoulder. She wondered if the skin would be puckering around pins. Or maybe the attachment would be flawless, like a perfectly welded seam.
She looked to his other arm. Although its design almost matched the first, its surface was dull and pitted, manufactured from brass.
“Girl!” Grindle’s voice rose. “What do you have to say?” He glared from beneath wiry eyebrows. The tilt of his cupid’s bow lips made his words all the more cruel.
Before she could answer, he turned to Supervisor Cornby. “How do you suggest we proceed?”
Cornby brightened. “Until she can prove that she’s capable of the required dedication, I suggest she be demoted to the position of cleaner.”
“Go on,” Grindle insisted.
“She can report to the broom lad for instructions.” Cornby’s gaze swept the workshop. “Andy Tricklebank, make yourself known.”
Andy stepped forward, eyes lit up with even more menace than earlier. “At your service, Sir.”
Cornby inclined his head. “I trust you’ll instruct Miss Applebee in the work ethic your eagerness implies.”
Em’s hands clenched beneath the workbench.
“Tardiness will not be tolerated,” Grindle went on. “It perpetuates financial burden. Factories are not built for the pleasure of workers. They are, in fact, the heartbeat of the city. If their rhythms are less than perfect, Forsham will sicken.”
Cornby nodded with vigorous agreement. “Exactly, Sir. Exactly.”
Grindle turned on his heel and made for the door. Cornby scurried in his wake. When at last they were gone, the workshop brimmed with silence.
Andy leaned his broom against Em’s workbench and grinned. “Old Cornby says you’re working for me now.”
“Leave her,” Annie warned.
Em nudged Andy’s broom. Its handle fell across his feet. “Cornby didn’t say I couldn’t finish here first.”
Andy snorted. “I’ll report you for this.”
“You do,” Lofty said, holding up a pair of heavy-duty pliers. “And you’ll find yourself missing a few teeth.”
Andy glowered with pure spite, but retrieved the broom and left without a word.
“You shouldn’t have threatened him,” Annie said to Lofty. “You’ve only made it worse.”
Em looked about the workshop, at the faces that were as dear as family: Annie from Upper Lower Slik. Lofty, Charlie, Flo, Queenie, Chas and Charles from The Edge. The mute concern on their faces mirrored exactly what she already knew. Sighing, she lowered her screwdriver, daunted by the sight of Lucien’s empty workbench. He’d promised to protect her, but what good were promises when he couldn’t be here?
At least she had Solly. If Groundists couldn’t help her, no one could.
She drew in a deep breath. “Cornby will have to find a new cleaner. I’m taking myself home, and I’m not coming back.”
Chapter Five: Ruk
Ruk leaned back in the tub and let the scented water soak into him. Who would have believed bathhouses could be so effective at bolstering the constitution? For this he owed thanks to Lucien’s preference for hot ponds and cleanliness. It was an unnecessary pleasure in the scheme of things, but a little self-indulgence hurt no one. Better still, the whole experience had been paid for by coins pinched from an unwary powerhouse attendant.
He closed his eyes and inhaled lungsful of steam, wondering when The Fear would deliver its next round of torment. How easily it had forced him to corner Em.
‘Do not lose her’, it said.
Then Lucien’s conscience had kicked in, demanding he not hurt her. Ruk had compromised and taken her heart magic as slowly as his hunger would allow. Yet the woman’s foolishness beggared belief. She had no idea how to heal herself, leaving him no choice but to sort that out as well.
Sweet Fate, he’d barely dipped past the surface of her reserves. Yet there she’d stood, oblivious to her own potential. Even Lucien hadn’t suspected it.
Blame it on selective ignorance. The scourge of all humans. Difficult to understand. Impossible to forgive.
He soaped himself up, wishing he could scrub off The Fear like so many layers of dirt. It was a shifter in distress, of that much he was certain, but its terror was like nothing he’d ever felt before. Ruk tried yet again to tune in to the thoughts of other shifters but found only silence. Had they fled the city or had they managed to escape into sleep as he had? Denied that refuge himself, his only option would be to reacquaint himself with being human.
His session over, he climbed out of the tub and padded over the wet stone floor to the change room. The hot, steamy air teemed with male voices – merchants, managers and wealthy foreigners in various stages of undress, preening themselves. He towelled down and turned up his nose at Lucien’s bloodstained clothes, still bundled up in a corner where he’d dropped them. The excuse that they’d been ruined in the accident near Rushcutters Way would not serve him for much longer. Besides, ready replacements lay unattended in a pile on the floor nearby.
“Damn slovenly lot,” he said for the benefit of onlookers. “What makes them think they can throw a man’s clothes around like that?” Assuming an eccentric air borrowed from a human memory of decades before, he sorted through the pile, folding each garment neatly onto a bench.
The plain singlet and white shirt looked unremarkable enough. He put those on first, then followed up with standard grey breeches, a waistcoat, overcoat and fur-lined boots. His Lucien sensibilities were outraged that thievery could prove so satisfying. But what did he himself care? From the garments’ quality, their owners were wealthy enough to replace them.
He made for the door and slipped away, keeping to the backstreets more out of shifter habit than necessity. His gut gurgled. The single coin in the pocket of his stolen coat would buy a snack and little else. That was the problem with being embodied. Flesh required food. Food required money. He’d neither the time nor the inclination to work for it. Gamblers’ Row would provide the quickest and simplest income, so he followed what Lucien knew to be the shortest route.
Disapproval followed with every step. “Gambling is for the desperate,” Lucien niggled.
“Hunger is a desperation of sorts,” he muttered back.
“A day’s work is a better gamble.”
“Not for a shifter with the power of a mage.”
“You’re no mage.”
Ruk curled his lip. “And you’re no shifter.”
So it went on, all the way to the gambling district until finally he came upon the right street, brightly lit by lamps where, decades earlier, finger-light would have sufficed.
It surprised him how little dens had changed over the years, at least from the outside. No less gaudy and only a smidgeon quieter. Unsettled by Lucien’s aversion to them, he took a seat at an outdoor teashop and purchased a pot of tea, a slab of currant cake and a single cigar. He almost sparked it alight in full view of everyone but caught himself and went back for a box of matches to avoid attention.
Lucien hadn’t taken to smoking. Ruk’s first puff had him coughing and spluttering. Even so, the action of its chemicals in his bloodstream made Lucien’s emotions retreat enough for Ruk’s thoughts to sharpen. He soothed Lucien’s airways with a twitch of magic, then leaned back to watch the comings and goings of the patrons from the establishment opposite.
The guard at the door stood a little over six feet tall. He did not turn anyone away, nor did he challenge them. It occurred to Ruk that the guard’s feet were rooted to the ground as if his boots had grown from the cobbles. He explored Lucien’s memories for an explanation, then sneered when he realised that the thing was a machine, created solely to amuse. Even Lucien hadn’t seen it as funny, believing that machines should be put to good use and not wasted.
Ruk finished the cigar and ground the butt into the cobbles. At the gaming house, the guard looked him up and down, steam pluming from a carbuncle in the back of its neck. It opened the door and gestured for Ruk to enter.
Tentatively, he stepped inside.
Light exploded in a chaos of gold, blue, green and something approximating black. The colours of Fate’s four aspects. Typical of humans! When would they grow up?
Laughter and voices rose and fell amid squealing violins, trilling flutes and twanging harps. When Ruk’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, he chuckled, a deep, appreciative rumble. Unlike their facades, the interiors of these places had come of age. Apparently, dim, smoky hovels were not the ideal way to seduce customers.
“How does it compare to Cornican establishments?” a woman asked. She threaded a silk-sheaved arm through his. “Is this your first time?”
“How do you know I’m Cornican?”
“Look at your hair. No Forshamer with access to scissors would keep it that long, nor with so much pride. And what about your pewters? How can you bear not wearing them?”
Pewters? Ah yes. Lucien’s hair charms. When Ruk had shifted, they’d not been part of his body. They’d have to be added.
The woman’s head barely reached his armpit. Her perfume hinted at jasmine, and the pout on her painted lips suggested she’d been sent to distract him. Not that he would succumb. He preferred his women tall, like Em—
No, no, no, no, no. Lucien preferred Em. He – Ruk – preferred no one.
The woman’s kohl-rimmed eyes looked him up and down. She smiled as if she liked what she saw, then squeezed her fingers about his arm, nudging out a brief well-wishing. “No need to be shy,” she said as close to his ear as her lack of height would allow. “William told me to show you around. He said you’d be interested in seeing the poker games first. Come.” She tugged him forward.
“William?” Ruk asked, then instantly regretted it.
She blushed. “Oh. Forgive me. I’ve mistaken you for someone else.” She pulled away.
When assuming Lucien’s form, Ruk had also assumed the man’s full potential of skin magic. Combined with shifter magic and Em’s heart magic, his reserves were unusually robust. He sent the woman a surge of well-wishing, enough to show his aptitude for influencing the dice, but not enough to insult her sense of decorum.
“Oh.” She fanned her throat with her fingers. “Oh, I say. Your magic is—” She looked around as if to ensure no one would hear. “Tell me, have you ever visited a powerhouse?”
Ruk stooped, putting his mouth close to her ear. “Never.”
“Well, my beauty, if you intend to play, you’ll need an escort.” Her smile was as delightful as cunning. “You know, I could tell William a little white lie. I could say I already know you.”
“Yes. Fifty-fifty. Use that undepleted magic of yours to the fullest, and I’ll not tell anyone how you got here.”
“How I got here?”
“Uninvited, I believe?”
She regarded him. Her dark eyebrows made an interesting contrast to her stylish auburn hair. Up close, the contours of her face were at once lovely and stubborn. Her eyes, although pale, suggested a presence of mind that would not easily be fooled. He gave her Lucien’s most charming grin then cut straight to the matter. “Fifty-fifty is about as fair as it gets.”
“Very fair.” She tightened her arm about his. “Come, do let me show you around.”
From a distance, the games in progress looked incomprehensible. When Ruk managed to get close enough for a clearer view, they were nothing more than elaborate adaptations of what he already knew. The roulette wheels were larger and more polished. It didn’t take too much scrutiny to see their spins were easily adjustable, even without the use of magic.
The woman took his hand and guided him past the baccarat, craps and blackjack tables. “Don’t concern yourself with those. The people who play them are drained of magic, so the stakes are low.”
Ahead, a vast saloon jutted from a wall like the prow of a mahogany galleon. “Come on then,” she said. “Let us relax.”
Without being asked, a waiter handed them each a glass of Cornican brandy. Ruk downed his in a single gulp. Lucien’s memories assured him it was good. Attempting politeness, he said, “I’m afraid I’ve been terribly rude for not introducing myself.”
The woman put her finger to his lips. “I think it’s best we dispense with that ritual. Safer for us both.”
He grinned. “A most satisfactory arrangement. You may call me Ruk.”
“Ruk? That’s not a Cornican name.”
Ruk wasn’t sure if he should be worried or pleased about that. “I’m afraid I didn’t choose it. It is what it is.”
“Well, if we’re going to be partners this evening, you may call me Blysse.”
“It suits you.”
She looked sad. “Not really. It’s a nickname I once had. Few people know it.”
Ruk felt a sudden and disturbing surge of regret, as if the fault were his. Lucien’s emotions wouldn’t help him now, so he buried them.
“Come,” Blysse said brightly. “Let’s play the poker automatons. They’re William’s little obsession. The stakes are higher because they’re impossible to cheat.” She whispered close to his ear. “William owns this establishment.” She pressed a silver coin into his palm. “Your first game is on the house.”
She led him beyond the saloon to an adjoining room where the coloured lights and music were no less distracting. She waved her hand at the poker tables crammed in rows from wall to wall. A dealer headed each one with a single player opposite. Ruk watched them with veiled curiosity. Last time he’d played poker, the tables accommodated six. Then it hit him. Although each dealer wore different suits, their faces were identical.
His jaw dropped. The dealers were replicas with movements too smooth and not at all natural. “Steamless, smokeless, life-sized automatons? How?”
Blysse laughed prettily. “Look at their chairs. They’re solid to the floor because they hide the pipes connected to underground furnaces and machines. Fumes are vented through the chimney outside. What you see here are merely their clockwork thought directors.”
“Automatons that play poker!” The idea amused him. If machines weren’t so repugnant, he may well have wanted to tinker with one to see how it worked.
Frowning, he took a step backwards. His thoughts were getting too much like Lucien’s. He needed to take control, act human as circumstances dictated, but not lose sight of his shifterness.
Blysse giggled. “They don’t play real poker. They only shuffle the cards and deal five. The player casts a wager for each hand and if he’s lucky enough to receive four of kind, a full house or a flush, he wins a tidy sum. The outcome is totally random, but the odds are against him, of course. Would you like to try?”
“How do I use magic to influence the fall?”
Blysse gave an amused trill. “That’s the point. You can’t. William invented the machines to attract customers whose magic is weakened by the powerhouses.” She looked at him, brow furrowing. “When did you say you last visited one of these clubs?”
“I didn’t.” To change the subject, he well-wished her enough to show that his magic was not to be trifled with.
“Well, my word.” Blysse fanned herself again. “We really are wasting our time with poker.” She sent a weak surge back. “Perhaps we should go straight to the ward dice.”
“Perhaps we should.”
She led him to stairs where a human guard dipped his gold-studded helmet before barring the way. “You may enter when the match in progress is complete.”
“I assume you’re familiar with ward dice,” Blysse whispered to Ruk as they waited.
“An old hand.”
A waiter brought two more shots of brandy. Ruk and Blysse sipped them in what passed for amicable silence.
“Are you always this morose before a match?” Blysse asked.
Morose? Since meeting her, he’d not considered himself as being anything less than polite. Reserved perhaps, or, as Lucien would say, ‘disinclined to prattle’. But morose? He refused to let the insult sting. “It’s an old trick to keep the mind clear before playing.”
“Make sure you play well, then.”
The guard opened the door to the ward dice room. Ruk gave Blysse one of Lucien’s most charming winks. “It’s not my habit to disappoint.”
She blushed, gave a haughty sniff and linked her arm with his. “Let’s not keep them waiting, shall we?”
The room downstairs was dimly lit like gambling dens were meant to be. As Blysse ushered Ruk inside, the door closed behind them, blocking out the racket of the music and lights. Ruk followed her over plush carpet to a rectangular ward-dice table where four players sat opposite a woman with ash-blonde hair and lips painted to match the burgundy lace of her gown. Ruk’s uneasy gaze traced her low-cut bodice to the curves of a corseted form. She looked up at his approach, her opalescent eyes glassy and dry.
Ruk’s stomach turned. This beautiful creature was nothing more than an automaton connected to machinery beneath the floor. “What use is a replica to ward-dice players?”
“This one is William’s true obsession,” Blysse whispered derisively. “Don’t let it distract you. Your strength will give you an edge.”
She pulled Ruk forward. “William!” she called out brightly. “I have an old friend who wishes to show off his skill. May we join you?”
“Of course,” the eldest of the players answered. He smoothed his steely beard, sizing Ruk up.
A young dandyish man seated opposite William offered a surly glance. “I’m out of funds anyway.” He gave up his chair. “Be my guest.”
“Are you sure, Horace?” Blysse asked. “I’d hate to cheat you out of a windfall.”
“I doubt you could cheat me out of anything, my dear, so don’t concern yourself over my lack of spirit. The hour is late. I must be off.”
Ruk threw Blysse’s coin onto the table, then took the chair. His head felt light from the brandy, but at least Lucien’s aversion to gambling no longer bothered him. In fact, for the first time since being human, he felt more like his true self, enjoying the prospect of a challenge.
The remaining three men matched Ruk’s coin with one of their own. “You know the rules, I presume?” William asked.
“I’ve not played against an automaton before.”
“You do not play the automaton,” William said cryptically. “The automaton plays you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The thought directors have been tuned with utmost precision.” He gestured to it. “My dear, please demonstrate.”
The automaton jiggled two ward dice. “Four!” Its voice was high, like an over-tightened violin string. It rolled the dice along a length of felt. They halted an inch short of its edge: a double two.
“Four,” the automaton announced.
“Impressive,” Ruk conceded with growing unease.
“Do you have what it takes to thwart it?” William asked.
It was Blysse’s money at stake. Without a second thought, Ruk replied, “I do.”
William gave a flicker of a smile. “Let the match begin.”
Slowly and gracefully, the automaton pulled two new dice from a metal cylinder and cradled them in its creaseless palms. “Nine.” It proffered them to Ruk.
He took them, struggling to conceal his distaste at the lifeless feel of the automaton’s rubbery skin. Closing his hand about the dice, he enveloped them in skin magic. Ribbons of light arced from his fingertips, haloing his hand in yellow. He divined at once that the dice were carved from ox bone and filled with quicksilver. The numbers painted on their six faces were perfectly balanced. He focused his skin magic and imagined himself adding weight to the fours, remembering that the resulting roll should end with the opposite sides facing upwards. “Six,” he judged confidently, passing them to William.
One by one, the others held the dice and tested them. From the intricacies of their skin light, Ruk could see that their magic was as undepleted as his.
“Eight,” William said.
“Twelve,” said the man opposite.
“Ten,” announced the last.
The automaton retrieved the dice. “Shoot.”
The four men raised their hands.
The dice rolled.
The instant they hit the table, Ruk caught hold of them with skin magic, urging both dice to fall in his favour. He could feel the other men’s magic, substantial tugs from three directions as each fought to manipulate the dice to their own ends. By the time he succeeded in upsetting their balance, the game had ended: a six and a two.
“Eight,” said the automaton.
William claimed the four silver coins at the table’s centre.
Blysse raised her eyebrows. Ruk shrugged; it wouldn’t be wise for a newcomer to win the first game. Gently, he pulled her to his level and put his lips to her ear. “I’m afraid you’ve discovered my desperate circumstances. My pockets are near empty and the banks are closed.”
Half smiling, she pulled a new coin from her bodice and tossed it onto the table. Her gaze skewered him. He almost matched it; then decided a sheepish grin would be more convincing. If not for her benefit, then at least for the others smirking opposite.
This time he knew exactly what he needed to win, even before the dice were chosen. Even before he weighed them and announced his preference. When they rolled, he threw out his skin magic and wove disruptive circles around the magics of the other four, pushing their halos aside and thus determining the outcome. When the dice halted, the four silvers were his.
The remainder of the match became a tug of wills as the others manipulated their magic to compensate. Ruk allowed each of them to win with acceptable regularity, while at the same time ensuring his pile of silver grew.
“We must talk sometime,” William said, meeting his eyes. “I’ve not seen you in this district before, yet you play like a master.”
“I’ve been abroad,” Ruk said. “I’m re-honing my talents.”
Appeased by this explanation, William played on, betting with smaller coins, throwing Blysse peevish glances whenever he lost.
At last, William said, “Who’s up for all in?”
Undeterred, Ruk grinned. He’d gambled against William’s type before. Their strengths were their weaknesses. If cunning didn’t beat them, patience would.
The other two men stood.
“You’re free to go,” William said, nodding benevolently.
Visibly relieved, they departed.
William pushed his winnings into the table’s centre. “Let us divine which skills are most conducive to a positive result. Abstinence from the powerhouse? Or experience and skill?”
“Before we start,” William said smoothly, “I’d like to raise the stakes.” He held up two gold coins. “If you allow the automaton to change its tactics, I’ll add these to my wager. Because I’ve sprung this on you without warning, you need not do the same.”
Blysse caught her breath. Ruk knew William would be using this to his own advantage, but gold coins did not fall into one’s lap so easily. Besides, if he lost, there would always be another den and even another Blysse to borrow from.
He pushed his winnings next to William’s. “What exactly does this change of tactics involve?”
“The automaton will use ward dice loaded with a more complex magnetic field. It will make them harder to manipulate. However, before we start, I must add that I’m a fair player. I’ll instruct you how to adapt.”
Intrigued, Ruk inclined his head.
“Don’t try to block my magic. Manipulate the dice instead,” William said.
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
William looked to Blysse. “Tell him.”
“It’s true,” she said. “But the technique requires a good deal of practise.”
Ruk guessed from the low tone of her voice that she thought it best to claim the winnings while he still could. Although Lucien’s sensibilities suggested the same, the challenge of playing loaded ward dice could not be passed up. “Can you give a demonstration first?” he ventured.
William pursed his lips. “You drive a hard bargain.”
Ruk very much doubted it.
“As you wish,” William said. “I sense you are more than capable of performing, but first you must commit to the game.”
“Six,” the automaton said blandly. The dice rolled.
Ruk felt the magnetic fields at once. He tried to manipulate them, but his magic fell away like water sliding over oil. His skin crawled.
The dice halted.
“Double three. Six,” the automaton said. It snatched the dice up, cupping them in rubbery hands, shielding them from Ruk’s view.
“Fascinating, don’t you think?” William asked.
Ruk kept his voice steady. “Unnatural.”
“Mechanical,” Blysse corrected.
William shot her a stern glance. “Shall we begin?”
Puzzled, Ruk searched Lucien’s memories for anything that would help. But the man had been torn between science and the occult, magic and Fate. The four weren’t identical, but right now he couldn’t be sure.
The automaton handed him the dice, the same ones it had used in the demonstration. He tried to discern their loads, but this time their magnetic fields felt different; blocked. His best hope, he realised, was to try for the unlikely.
“Twelve,” he guessed, passing the dice on to William.
William took his time judging them, turning them over and over in his fingers. His skin magic seemed sharper and more angular than it had previously. For an instant Ruk thought he could see his way in. Then William gave a self-satisfied chuckle and the opening closed over.
“Two,” William said. He handed the dice back to the automaton.
Ruk kept his magic closely aligned with William’s, but the surfaces of the dice remained smooth and impenetrable. As did William’s magic, tightening like a clamp, nudging Ruk’s aside, slowing the roll to the point of barely progressing. Sensing defeat, Ruk recalled an aspect of being human he’d so far forgotten: the infuriating taste of gall.
But Blysse had said ‘mechanical’. What could it mean?
The dice appeared to be impervious to magic, as if their interiors no longer existed. Odder still, Ruk sensed the presence of cogs and wheels attuned to William’s commands. The scenario was perverse.
Also impossible. How could it be?
Unless it was an illusion. And William was cheating.
Steeling himself, Ruk threw his skin magic against William’s and sensed a flicker of what he assumed to be monads. According to Lucien, these were the building blocks of reality – immaterial substances – constructions of magic. Supposedly, the interior of each one held the past, present and future forever progressing like the workings of eternal machines. Not that Ruk had ever believed such knowledge to be useful; except for now when the lack of it would strip him of advantage.
Briskly, he fought against what he imagined to be some kind of reflection and unbalanced the fields surrounding it. William’s double-one began to fade.
William must have felt it because his own magic tightened in response. Ruk lost his grip. There was no time for stealth, so he shoved his magic in.
The dice sped to the table’s edge, halted.
William’s magic obscured Ruk’s. Ruk’s obscured William’s.
“If you wish to give up,” William said, “do so now and I’ll allow you to return for a second match.”
Ruk couldn’t tell if he were winning or losing but was too caught up in the challenge to care. “How can you be sure you’ve won? Admit defeat, and I give you my word I’ll not return to beat you.”
“Bitter green,” Blysse said curtly. “You can stay like that all night, but it won’t change the outcome.”
Together, Ruk and William lowered their hands. Their skin magic swirled, faded, revealing first one six, and then another.
“Twelve,” Ruk breathed.
William broke out into forced laughter. “Beginner’s luck or an old hand?”
Ruk gathered up his winnings. “Neither.”
“Well played. I presume you’ll be back for a rematch?”
“Maybe,” Ruk said, not at all intending to. The effects of the brandy were beginning to wear off. The prospect of challenge no longer appealed.
Blysse handed over a linen pouch, and Ruk filled it with his winnings.
“Can I take those too?” Ruk asked, pointing to the dice. Their magnetic fields still irked him, but Lucien wanted to study them.
William scooped them up and returned them to the automaton. “Of course, but only if you pay.” He pointed to Ruk’s winnings. “And that, my friend, would barely cover it.”
Ruk celebrated his fortune with Blysse over a meal of kidney pudding and fine ale. Cigar smoke vied with coal fumes from the poorly ventilated hearth of the chop house. The chatter of patrons did little to relax him, nor did the clockwork flute playing a strident rendition of an old love song. At least his money pouch sat comfortably inside his coat, enough to provide not only meals and board for several months, but also a regular bath. All he needed was to rid himself of Blysse, who insisted on prattling about spending her winnings on clothes, and furnishings for a flat she rented near Observatory Hill.
“Would you like to see it?” she asked, her expression full of pleading.
“I’m afraid it’s been a long day. I regret I must retire.”
She pouted. “Well, if your circumstances should ever leave you with your pockets empty and the banks closed, don’t hesitate to tell me.” She held out a fist. “Here, take this. William’s dice slave isn’t as beholden to him as she looks.”
A ward die dropped into Ruk’s hand, its magnetic field prickling against his skin. He wasn’t sure what to make of her generosity.
“You earned it,” she said.
Pocketing the die, he nodded an amused acknowledgement, and considered taking up her previous offer. Those auburn curls were pretty. If he let down his guard, he imagined their time together would be a pleasant complement to his hour in the bathhouse.
Lucien’s conscience niggled, reprimanding him for taking advantage of her. Cursing inwardly, he downed the remainder of his ale, said his goodbyes and paid the bill.
Outside, early winter fog had begun to settle. It was too late to find a respectable inn, so he started out for Lucien’s tenement, promising to use it for only one night. No point in immersing himself too deeply in the man’s lifestyle. Some of the memories he’d delved into were outright dangerous.
Turning down an unlit street, he breathed easier than he had all night. The road was pleasingly deserted. He need not worry about how to behave. Above, a smattering of stars peeked through cloud, reminding him that the city was a mere speck compared with what the rest of the world could offer. As soon as he learned how to shut out The Fear, he’d find a new bed to sleep in, far from where Forshamers could disturb him.
Like the Forshamer treading softly in his wake.
Ruk swung around, glimpsed a flash of steel, lurched away.
The agony of a blade sliced into him. He had no time to draw on heart magic to counter it. No time to remember he wasn’t human.
He fell to his knees. Not again, he thought stupidly. Hadn’t he learned anything from what happened to Lucien?
The knife withdrew, then pierced his chest. For a long, searing moment he felt the muscles of his heart pumping against it. A wash of blood pooled over the ground. He looked up into a face looming over him. The dandy! The one who’d given up his seat at the dice match.
“Horace! You said you wouldn’t kill him!”
Ruk felt not so much enraged as offended.
She knelt at his side. It occurred to him that she’d probably planned it like this all along. That she and Horace had been working together. Disgusted, he pushed her away. Ruk wrenched the knife free, wincing as it scraped his ribs on the way out.
Horace gaped, uncomprehending.
He caught the man exactly where he’d intended, at the base of the heart. As he twisted the blade upwards, there was no sense of victory or accomplishment but he wished instead that he’d simply walked away. Of course, those were Lucien’s instincts. He didn’t know if he should embrace them for the way they reined in his anger, or push them down and let his predatory skills prevail.
In a sickening flash, he sensed Horace’s dying. The heart ceasing to beat. The lungs exhaling their last laboured breath. But the man’s soul wanted nothing to do with him. Which was just as well, no human had any right to be worn by the very shifter they had just tried to kill.
Blysse shrieked and lurched backwards.
Gasping, Ruk ran his hands along the dark stains soaking his shirt and breeches. He stared at the blood pooling at his knees then willed it to evaporate into mist. Crying out, he used shifter magic to pull the mist inwards. All signs of his injuries vanished, except for the holes in his stolen shirt and coat.
“What are you?” Blysse demanded.
She’d spoken as if he were a thing. Did she think her betrayal justified?
She made as if to run.
He snatched her arm, ignored her pathetic little scream, and slammed her face-up onto the ground. Ruk pinned her with the length of his body, drawing on her skin magic to paralyse her limbs. He should have been a dog. He could have torn out her throat, chewed on her bones and—
No. He was part human now. Part Lucien.
“I trusted you,” he said at last.
She lay unmoving. Supposing she needed air, he stopped pulling on her magic, shifted his weight, couching on his elbows either side of her.
She whimpered. “Horace promised. He… he said he wouldn’t kill you.”
Ruk shuddered, afraid he’d lose sight of both himself and Lucien. He focused instead on locating her money pouch and found it in the silken space between her corset and bodice. He eased it out. It weighed less than it had earlier. Horace must have dipped into it already. “This will do nicely,” he said, “to replace the clothes you helped ruin.”
Blysse’s body shook with deep, wracking spasms. “W-w-what are you?”
“I’m not a thing.”
Her skin smelled of terror. He wanted to kill her and let her go free, all at once. He wished he weren’t embodied in anything so contradictory as a human.
“Betray me again,” he breathed. “And I’ll seek you out. Next time I won’t be so lenient.”
He hauled himself to his feet. His heart still ached from where the knife had pierced it, and rage sizzled at the edge of his consciousness, threatening to explode. Blysse still cowered on the ground. He almost laughed. Look at her! Too afraid to believe he’d let her go.
“You’re not much of an adversary,” he said. “Like the rest of your kind, you can’t see past your own greed.”
He wanted to kill her, feared he would. With a low growl, he drew on a good measure of Em’s heart magic and directed it at Horace instead. The body flared in a whirlwind of flame, then diminished. The ground smoked with a skeletal imprint of ash. Only half-satisfied, Ruk took a quarter silver from Blysse’s money pouch and threw it onto her bodice.
“A token,” he said. “So you don’t forget.”
He pocketed the pouch then fled into the shadows, despising the emotions threatening to boil up inside him, forcing himself to draw on Lucien’s less volatile instincts instead.
At the park, he cowered beneath the gloomy bulk of an airship passing overhead. A thing made of wood and steel. A thing fired with coal. One stray spark and its gasbags would explode, flames engulfing it and everything underneath. He tried not to think about that time years before when he’d seen, heard and felt such a thing. The arrogance of Forshamers made him want nothing more than to bury himself and sleep.
Then in the quiet, The Fear began whispering again. Words swarmed through Ruk’s head like the buzzing of wasps.
Don’t lose her… help me… help us.
Chapter Six: Ambrus
Forty Years Earlier
The Vena Magica – colloquially known as the Vein of Fate – is a subcutaneous conduit which splits into five branches at the left wrist and terminates at the fingertips. It forms a direct line to the entelechial ganglion situated beneath the heart’s left ventricle. This ganglion is the seat of the body’s dominant monad, commonly known as the soul.
~Magnus Krempe, The Anatomy and Teleology of Magic
Ambrus did not believe he would follow through with his plan to kill Edmund Winterberry, but he liked to imagine himself doing it. First with a sword, later with a flintlock, then later still with enough magic to down an airship. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence would have to admit the fool of a tutor deserved it. His lectures on history, language and art were as exciting as a lifetime studying gruel.
Now, at last, Ambrus had been able to make himself scarce, hiding on the window seat in his father’s library. When he drew the curtains all the way around, the alcove felt like a cave. Undisturbed, he could devote his full attention to his latest discovery: an essay on the fusion of science and the occult. It was a welcome contrast to Mr Winterberry’s dreary sermons. Not that Ambrus’s ten-year-old mind could decipher it all, but its blasphemous diagrams pleased him.
He turned the page and wished Mr Winterberry were capable of seeing past the obvious. The old man disbelieved anything untested by tradition. “If atoms are the building blocks of reality,” he’d once said, face turning red from the effort of thinking, “then how can monads exist? You cannot have something smaller than the smallest possible thing, which only goes to prove that monads are a figment of philosophers’ imaginations.”
“What if monads are altogether different?” Ambrus dared ask. “What if…” He thought hard, trying to grasp an idea he’d not yet heard the words for. “What if they’re something made from nothing? And atoms are made from that? It makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, monads react to magic. Atoms do not.”
“Are you questioning Fate?” Mr Winterberry thumped his book closed. “Let us pray.”
As Ambrus relived that conversation for the eleventeenth time, he couldn’t understand if it was stubbornness or stupidity that led Mr Winterberry to ignore a single, delicious detail: if monads did not exist, then neither would magic nor mages.
For as long as Ambrus could remember, everyone had failed to note his aptitude for finding value in the unexpected. If they weren’t focusing on his peculiarities, they’d be shaking their heads at his inability to wield heart magic.
For the most part, he would ignore them, confident his future would remain as blessed as his birth right. His father, Sir Joseph Grindle, was Forsham’s wealthiest mage; while his mother, Victoria Lilith (nee Swain) was an heiress of impeccable bloodlines. Although Sir Joseph could be dense at times, his accomplishments inspired awe. “Versatility will lead to progression,” he would say, “while progression will lead to prosperity.”
On this at least, Ambrus agreed. He liked to imagine himself a grown man, expanding his father’s empire, turning the entire city into the world’s most enviable factory. Would anyone notice his lack of magic then? He very much doubted it.
Afternoon darkened to evening. The window seat remained agreeably secluded. As he wondered if anyone even missed him, voices filtered up from the stairwell, along with footsteps and a waft of expensive tobacco.
Go away. Ambrus dimmed his finger-light. Libraries are for reading not partying.
His older sister, Arabella, had recently betrothed herself to Valentine Morthock, a mage from upriver with more wealth than magic and a surplus of profitable connections. Ambrus had slipped away when the two families had gathered to celebrate in the winter conservatory. He knew the men would eventually repair to the library, but he’d hoped to have at least another hour to himself.
Hunkered behind the curtains, he yawned as the men settled onto his father’s squeaky leather sofas. Their conversation turned to governments and taxes, factories and women, as if the existence of all four were easily controlled and inseparably linked.
“What more could a father hope for?” he heard Joseph say. “To see one’s daughter so wonderfully matched.” There followed a discussion on the business of investing in children. At the mention of his own name, Ambrus sat up straight. At last, something worth listening to. Would his father hint at which factories Ambrus would oversee? Would he brag that his son’s extraordinary intelligence would lead to the improvement of Forsham’s automatons?
“If only the boy were capable of as much success as his sister,” Joseph complained. “But I fear he’s witless. How can he not see that a mage without magic is as useless as a factory without coal?”
Ambrus chewed softly on his knuckles, not enough to hurt, but enough to stop a decrying shout. How could his father be so stupid? How could a man who knew so much see so little?
When the festivities ended, Ambrus fled to his mother. In his haste, he knocked over a vase. He did not see it hit the floor, but the shatter of antique porcelain had him wincing at yet another excuse to be called witless.
When a valet discovered the breakage, Ambrus wasted no time. “She did it,” he said, accusing a maid, then glared at the other servants, daring them to contradict him.
“Then she’ll be punished,” his mother replied, all too happy to collaborate.
Ambrus hugged her, reassured that her maternal pride would protect him.
“I wish I understood why Fate denied you magic,” she said. “The fault must be mine, but I cannot for the life of me fathom what I did.”
She touched his arm. As healing magic leached from her fingers, goosebumps followed its course over his skin. “Come on, help me,” she urged.
He closed his eyes, tried not to listen. She’d repeated this so many times in the past, he knew it word for word.
“…imagine yourself growing a vena magica. Imagine it forming beneath your skin, the thinnest of tubes snaking from your fingertips all the way up your arm, then down between your lungs to the base of your heart and entelechial ganglion. Imagine it connecting to Fate and channelling heart magic. Make yourself wield it.”
Ambrus bore it with fidgety irritation. “How do you know I have an entelechial ganglion?”
“No human can be born without one. They’d be soulless, disconnected from the love of Fate.” She well-wished him with a warm surge of skin magic, a futile attempt at soothing. “Bitter and Cruel would refuse you, but they’re only two aspects of Fate. What of Sweet? Remember: Fate is perfection. Perfection rules.”
“But two aspects are stronger than one,” he observed. “Don’t forget Indifferent. What would it do?”
“Aspects are human concepts,” his mother said, clearly unaware she’d now resorted to contradiction. “They’re inventions to help us understand how our best possible world can include anything less than perfect. Now, hold still and help the magic take root. Try not to blaspheme.”
By his thirteenth birthday, all the healing his mother could conjure had made not a single improvement. Nor had his frequent visits to physicians or Arabella’s nightly prayers to Fate. Ambrus had read enough of his father’s books to decide the usefulness of prayer was a lie to appease commoners.
“How can you heal something if it’s not injured?” he asked. “If there’s no vena magica to start with, how can you heal a vacuum?”
“You must believe,” his mother said with bland devotion. He pulled away. “I do. In myself.”
Copyright © 2021 by Carol Ryles
The Eternal Machine is currently available for pre-order worldwide including Amazon US Amazon AU Amazon UK Barnes & Noble Kobo US Kobo AUS and Kobo UK. The trade paperback will be released 14th January, 2022.