Vienne of Seferpine

 

 

Vienne Quigley had been good at almost everything she’d ever put her mind to.

 

A forgemaster in all but legal title, she could swing a hammer as well as any man - with a little help from pymary to lighten it on the upswing and send it crashing back again on the down. She managed a rowdy crew of soot-faced smiths twice her size. Their forge and artifactory maintenanced mining equipment, supplied the nearby towns with wrought hardware, and kept their little Plat village of Seferpine stocked with enchanted hotboxes, hound tack, and light weaponry.

 

When Vienne’s father had died, it had not been with fear in his heart for the future of the family business.

 

But what good was an artificer who could not cast? And Vienne could! She could feel the khert as keenly as any other Plat, intuiting the willy-nilly dancing of its infinite lines. With her father’s farcyte geode she could look down those lines and coax ghosts back into reality, listen to their songs, weave those songs together into new symphonies; into whole narratives that became feelings; and from all those feelings she could craft a personality eager to follow commands and guide a programmed pymaric along a scripted routine. She’d always been uncannily good at it. Her mother had said as much with some of the last breath left in her failing lungs.

 

“But don’t forget about the living,” she’d cautioned afterwards.

 

And Vienne didn’t! She could keep a house when she had to. She could make sure her husband’s dinner was hot and in place for him those rare nights he was home to eat it (and she in the mood to wait on him). She could entertain a five year old. Her son Matty had never been bored a day in his life, even now, a year after he should have separated from his mother to live in the Childrens’ House. It was no good for a white-haired child to love their mum or dad too very much, believed the short-lived Plats. Their parents would be gone soon and life was too precious to waste it in mourning.

 

But Vienne thought she was very good at loving Matty; far too good at it to send him away. She was as good at loving him as she was at pymary or smithing or wifing or housekeeping.

 

And that was why she sat in her workshop now, hunched over a bundle of sackcloth with a needle jabbed in one finger, swearing like Mathis did whenever it was his turn to pluck that night’s dinner.

 

“OUCH,” she snarled, freeing her finger. The sackcloth was a frayed and sloppy pocket in her other hand. She crumpled it and gnashed her teeth.

 

Vienne Quigley was not good at sewing.

 

Fabric was not like iron. Iron was as gentle as a lover if one but kissed it first with fire. Easily aroused and easily overcome, it tumbled in an obliging swoon from the gate and into the mold, as malleable as clay for all its hardheadedness. Or a beseeching swain might bathe it in the forge until it was ruddy and ready, then coax it compliant with hammer blows, hear its ringing song, and feel it give its bosom away with the hot sparks of kisses against its brow.

 

But fabric was mysterious. Coarse and unyielding, it had to be joined in the most fussy, roundabout manner, with stitches that felt like falling down a flight of stairs. They puckered the seams and disjointed the whole shape of the thing, confounding any attempts at form. Vienne’s calloused fingers were too clumsy for the delicate pushing and pulling and pinching. In the forge she had broken those fingers too many times to count. Burnt herself daily since she was three. Dropped a two-hundred pound bar of steel on her boot and torn a toe clean off. Pushed a tiny human out of a very sensitive place.

 

But these needle jabs! Why did the needle jabs hurt so much?

 

She poked herself again and tried not to cry.

 

“Mamaaaa,” Matty trilled from the kitchen, “Mamaaaaaaa.”

 

“It’s too early for supper!” she called back, kicking the wall beneath her desk, “And you had bloody well not be climbing on the kitchen counter again. Matty, I hate sewing!”

 

“Mamaaaaa!”

 

Kick, kick, kick.

 

She’d wanted to make him a dog poppet. All mothers made their children toys when they went away to the House. Though she had no plans to send him, Vienne wanted Matty to have what the other children had, and never-ever suffer for his unorthodox mother!

 

But the damned thing looked nothing like a hound! She’d thought the corners would stick up like ears when she turned the body inside out but no. It looked like a bloody tobacco sack. It looked like it should have coffee beans spilling out of it! Vienne thought about stomping into the forge and throwing the disappointment into the smelter.

 

“Mamaaaaa, I need youuuu.”

 

Pretty Penulte Perierre had made her little girl a wee rabbit out of real rabbit fur with a waistcoat and glass eyes. Vienne had seen it last week at service. Penulte was an artist. She made beautiful things and everyone thought so highly of her. Vienne Quigley worked like a man and made ugly things like a man. Bugs and awkward constructs and monsters that snorted and pawed. Ugly things like this tobacco sack of a stitched hound.

 

“Mamaaa!”

 

Vienne huffed and slammed the half-finished failure onto the desk. “Are you on fire?”

 

There was a pause. She could imagine Matty scanning down his legs and between each finger to be certain there were no flames. “No!” he answered at last from the kitchen, “Mama, there’s a firebug though!”

 

“A firebug?”

 

Vienne stood and stretched in the twilight blue of the workshop. Her crew had gone home an hour earlier. It was quiet save for the toads in the mill pond next door and the crisp pops and snaps of the kitchen fire. Her favourite time of the day, when the air turned still and moist, and daytime people went away. Now was the time of the wild-eyed nightwalker.

 

Her slippered feet padded quietly across the two-hundred year old floorboards of her family home, a place of slouching lintels and peeling paint. Built directly against father’s forge and workshop, the house was always warm, always pungent with steel and smoke. She stopped in the kitchen doorway, all lit up with pumpkin-coloured light from the stove. Matty was crouched on a stool beside it, his chin resting on the oak slab counter, attention rapt, staring.

 

“Loooook,” he whispered, and pointed towards the containers lining the back of the counter: a flour canister, the sugar, a fat earthenware jar of bacon grease. Somewhere among them Vienne heard a sound like a sigh. Something… something was glowing golden behind the sugar. Hair-like tendrils whispered into view, vectoring away in gentle curves. She widened her eyes and crept in quickly next to Matty, resting her chin next to his.

 

“That is a ghost,” she said.

 

A choked moan came out of Matty; a sound as full of warring excitement and terror as she’d ever heard. But he didn’t retreat or even flinch away from the glow, and Vienne was very proud.

 

The mnemonic phantom tickled the khert-ports in her palms as it crept down its khert-line, slow and cautious as though it knew the warden of the world was after it. And it was. Ghosts belonged in the khert, not flitting about reality where they could infect enchanted artifacts or frighten little boys in kitchens. Vienne caught up Matty’s right hand by the wrist and moved it slowly nearer the illuminated fuzzball, until the center of his palm intersected the ghost’s line. She watched his expression, waiting, and laughed when his lips suddenly puckered in excitement.

 

“It can’t hurt you at all,” she reassured him, “But do you feel it twanging the khert-line? Like a gnat in a spider web.”

 

“Why? Why? I feel it in my hand!”

 

“Because we’re hethllot. We’re special!”

 

“I want to hold it, mama!”

 

She released his wrist and, slowly, Vienne stretched out her fingers. The glow behind the sugar shivered but didn’t retreat. She tried to think of something soothing to say to it but all that sprang to mind was the song of thanksgiving they’d sang to Yerta last week in the chapel. She murmured the words and wriggled her fingers, beckoning. Eager to help, Matty stumbled over the tune himself, and together they filled the firelit kitchen with their thin, high hethllot voices, to let their visitor know it was among friends. The ghost-glow steadied.

 

Vienne’s fingers brushed the sugar container’s smooth ceramic. She slid it aside and hoped she wouldn’t find an eel.

 

Her singing was ruined with a laugh. The little ghost flickered, startled, but didn’t flee, and Vienne allowed her fingers to dip and mingle in its light.

 

It was not a hateful eel at all! It was not much of anything but a tangle of glowing tendrils, like a snarled ball of infant’s curls pulled from a hairbrush. It felt like nothing; like a weightless sigh from a remembered dream. No eyes glimmered from among its curls. It could not see its hosts, but of course all ghosts could feel within themselves the vibrations of sound; all ghosts could hear. Vienne took up her singing again as the phantom tasted her fingers and, quickened, slowly began to feel its small way up her arm.

 

“It’s not an eel,” Matty said softly.

 

Vienne nodded in encouragement. “So what does that mean?”

 

Matty screwed his face up, thinking. “Bad ghosts are eels... Other ghosts are not eels. Is it nice?”

 

“Ask it.”

 

He squinted his eyes and dipped closer to the squiggling ball of light. Its glow settled so gently on his eyelashes, like flakes of snow. “Are you nice?” he asked.

 

Intoxicated by kindness, the ghost rolled further up Vienne’s arm and tangled itself in her hair. How keenly she could feel the line of it! The living chord of it, like the deep thrum of a piano wire singing through the port in her palm. That thrum vibrated the myriad lines of her own mind, picking out a song that was also a picture.

 

She was a young man in a smart red jacket - a Crescian school uniform - balancing on a wooden board floating atop a river. The current was carrying him towards a humming cataract. He was laughing as his friends cheered him from the shore. The board was tied to his ankle, so he could retrieve it if he fell. The sky was searingly blue over him, the sun beating down on his cap, and Vienne could smell someone grilling marinated meat nearby; smell sun-baked grass, boy sweat, the clean tang of the river. The waterfall roared like a vliegeng as he approached, arms outstretched to catch a low hanging branch. Oh, the girls all were watching and wouldn’t they think he was the boldest boy in town when he swung himself and his board up into the tree just short of tumbling over the falls?

 

Would they?

 

The memory ended. The ghost dripped down Vienne’s shoulder and landed in Matty’s palm. He laughed, pawing at its jellyfish tendrils.

 

“The khert wants it, mama, doesn’t it?”

 

“The khert wants every ghost,” she answered, “Every memory is precious to it. And this is a good memory. Bold and clever and fearless.”

 

“Good for Uaid?” asked Matty.

 

She tweaked his ear, startled he’d guessed her next thought. “Should Uaid be bold and clever and fearless?”

 

Matty nodded. He carefully put the dancing light in his mother’s hands and Vienne hurried with it into the workshop to save it from the khert.

 

------

 

Over the next six hours the ugly hound poppet and finger-ravaging needles were forgotten. Vienne dissected the captured ghost with maternal tenderness, cleaning it of confusing details as though skimming the scum from soup stock. She took out the sensory information - the metallic scent of the river, the pork on the grill, the hot sun, the burble of water, and all the visual details of the scene. These were all too specific, too limiting. When they were gone at last she was left with a broad, untainted distillation of excitement, bravery, ambition. It was a memory that could serve as a reassurance to any mind wondering what it might be capable of; any mind that looked back on itself and saw this crystallized moment in time as its own.

 

And Vienne had in her possession a pupating mind that needed such reassurances very badly.

 

It was nearly dawn by the time the ghost was cleaned and prepped. She emptied it from her spellburner and into a First Glass bulb for safekeeping, then labeled it, found the proper place for it on the rack currently holding the rest of Uaid’s developing mind, and added its placement to the spellwork routine that would one day join all the disparate pieces together. This stack of parchment doubled as her pillow for, exhausted, she didn’t make it to her bedroom.

 

“You’re a disgrace and a scandal,” scolded Gerald, her forge manager, that afternoon. The condemnation lacked teeth.  “And you’d better tidy up your house before Mathis returns.”

 

Vienne scoffed. Then yawned. “He doesn’t care about things like that. I’m going to boil a hen and make a cheese pie, he loves those.” She was sleepy but jolly, for today they would finally finish the shell of Uaid’s cavernous torso. All around her its rivets were hot and smoking. She loved the smell of hot steel; like a heart beating in the open air. Mathis was due back home tonight as well, and he’d have stories to tell of his last two months away on a mission for the Window. He might have gifts, too. He might have new pymary journals from the city!

 

Gerald was so moody. Vienne side-eyed him. “Does Molly make you cheese pie?”

 

Her forge manager checked a clipboard of measurements against the blueprints tacked to the wall, shrugging. He was large-framed for a Plat, his fair skin glistening around the marriage brand over his heart. “Molly isn’t making me much of anything these days, Vi. Don’t make me get into all that and say hurtful things again.”

 

“They don’t hurt me.” Vienne pulled a baking rivet from the fire and smashed it flat on the anvil. Rrring! “I’m making Matty a poppet, you know!” Rrrring! “I can be a proper goodwife when I need to be and you can tell your Molly that!” Rrrrring! “You know, I could be just as scandalized as she claims to be. I could hate her forever for insinuating I can’t control myself here alone with my crew. Or insinuating there’s something improper about all of you being here with me in my employ!” Rrrrring! “It’s insulting to you! But I’m not going to be angry at your Molly, Gerald. I simply am not going to do it!”

 

“That’s fine for you, Vi.” She could hear the unhappiness in his voice for all the singing metal. “But I have to live with her! You know she’s talking about us going to town? Moving to Idarin?”

 

Vienne laughed humourlessly, an ugly noise. The next hammerblow shook her bodily and knocked her glasses an inch down her nose. “Molly’s lived in Seferpine all her life! She doesn’t know how the big towns think of Plats. It’s safe here. We’re respected here! What looks will you get in the town, hmm? They’ll take her for a prostitute and wonder why you’re not a wright.”

 

Gerald grunted, flipping through his measurements. “You know I love it here. I’m like you, little girl. I never wanted to do anything but what me own father did, right here in this damned hotbox soon as I was strong enough to work a pair of tongs and earn a paycheck off your old man. And now from you. And you know I think you’re every bit the forgemaster he was. But where’re you taking us?”

 

The rivet hissed as Vienne slotted it into place, sealing it with another tooth-rattling blow. She looked back at the Plat and followed his gaze up to Uaid’s dead eyes. The baby ogre they’d found buried in the grazing field that night was a corpse, picked apart and ancient, but it was hard to think of it that way. It smelled of fresh earth, not decay. There was a day coming very soon when its limbs would quicken and it would look down at its creator with the boldness of the river boy igniting in its eyes. Vienne’s heart crowed at the thought. Her chest tightened. “Someone from The March is coming tomorrow,” she whispered, “I’m going to show them what we’ve made.”

 

“Why?”

 

Now there was passion in Gerald’s voice, hot and crackling like the forge fire. “You’re bleedin’ crazy,” he answered himself, “You talk of Molly never leaving Seferpine but neither have you! But you’ll steam out the mouth for hours about how unfairly you think we’re treated. What’s it to do with you? Daughter of the richest bug in town who hasn’t ever wanted for a thing a day in your life. Why are you poking about with them dissidents? And doin’ it like this? Twins, Vi, you’re dancing on a knife’s edge. Just doin’ and dancin’ without thought for the morrow! Or for any of us and how good we have it here!”

 

Vienne shook her head. “The ones who get the worst of it don’t have the means to do anything. For any of it to change, someone’s got to help who has the means. And these are my means, and this is how I’m going to use them. For as much sport as you make of my Mathis, Gerry, you sound just like him now!”

 

“I’m worried is all.”

 

Vienne understood. They’d all humoured her a year ago, laughed, shrugged in helpless surrender when it had been just talk and drawings and plans. But Uaid was coming to life here, hunched and crowded though he was beneath the cobwebbed warehouse roof. Vienne was turning fancy to reality, and there wasn’t a man around her who knew what to do about it. And it was funny to her. It reminded her how Mathis had helplessly paced and railed and darted his sweaty eyes about when she’d been in labour.

 

“It looks like you,” Gerald remarked of the ogre. Vienne laughed in mock affront.

 

“Are you saying I’m getting fat?” She patted her middle. “I wish I was. Mathis and I have had precious little luck soliciting the Twins for Matty’s brother or sister.”

 

“Is that why you’re building this monster with a womb?” Uaid’s hollow midsection gaped, awaiting the installation of the freshly finished plate-doors spread around it. “Aye, he looks just like you,” Gerald said again, “You want everyone safe inside; accounted for, but out of your way so you don’t have to pay them any attention. You’re making a walking womb.”

 

“Gerald Kilpenny, you are a lot of hot air today, aren’t you-”

 

Vienne had a quip for him but a sudden shriek from the adjoining house cut her short. She dropped her hammer and flew from the smoky workshop, then through the parlour and into the kitchen.

 

Beet-faced and bawling, Matty was half-collapsed on the floor. The sugar cannister was broken all around him, granules poured out all over the floorboards and carpet. His nose was streaming blood and the red stain against his chalk-white cheek sparked panic in Vienne. She dove on him like a raptor and covered every inch with prodding hands and anchoring arms.

 

“I told you to stay away from that sugar!” she scolded, “I told you not to climb up the counter to get to it! Now look at this mess you’ve made!”

 

Behind her Gerald thundered into the kitchen in his workboots, soot flying all over Vienne’s mother’s fine lace curtains. Mother’d used to scold father for the very same thing, and Vienne rambled the tale thoughtlessly out to Matty as she balanced him on the kitchen counter and cleaned his face. Just a nick to the nose, she determined, and kissed carefully around it.

 

“I was looking for more ghosts,” Matty sniffled, “Ghosts like sugar.”

 

“That’s an intriguing theory,” Vienne said, “But you have only anecdotal evidence to support it. Until you can provide more compelling data, no more climbing on the kitchen counter! You’re going to be the death of me! And then who will finish building your little brother?”

 

She hugged him until he squirmed from her arms and dropped to the floor. Red-cheeked but oblivious now, he toddled to the front door, scooping up a bucket of wooden balls along the way. It had been raining all morning. She heard him kick his way through the puddles beneath the eaves outside, then onto the muddy road.

 

Gerald had no reassurances once they were back at work. His brilliant hethllot eyes were hard, dark slashes across his face, thinned with judgment. “You have to stop leaving him alone,” he hissed, “If you won’t mind him he should be at the Childrens’ House with the keepers.”

 

She shook her head. “I don’t like the keepers.”

 

“Because they don’t like you, but should the lad suffer for that? Godsdamnit, Vienne, you’re the most selfish woman in the district. Why do you even want another child to ignore?”

 

She wanted to strike him. She wished she was a man so she could strike him. “We’re casting the hinges tomorrow,” she said instead, “Come in an hour early, I have the whole shop scheduled for the morning.”

 

------

 

It rained through the afternoon and into the evening; a droning, dismal downpour of icy needles. Vienne thought about the half-finished hound poppet while she made dinner. She thought about Gerald’s accusations and his wife Molly’s hate, but none of it stuck. She moved on to pondering the problem of something she had only last month started thinking about: a method to extend the First Material fields from Uaid’s valuable flesh to his conventional metallic machinery.

 

“We could sell even more of the mountain ogre,” she told Matty as he picked at his boiled chicken, “And then buy even more ore, and high grade starfly ‘lymph for the lighting.” He stuck a chicken bone in his monny milk and looked to his mother for a rebuke, but Vienne’s thoughts had become integers and her mind spun with calculations.

 

She almost didn’t notice the dark and dripping figure when it framed itself suddenly in the kitchen doorway. It cleared his throat.

 

“Mathis!” she said, standing.

 

“No.”

 

He stepped into the light and no. Not Mathis. This man was thickly set and sallow skinned. His tiny, red-rimmed blue eyes darted over Vienne’s head and hither-thither like an uncertain squirrel’s. Vienne slipped protectively to Matty’s side, mind racing for offensive spells.

 

The stranger put up a placating hand. “Wick Madigan,” he introduced, then bowed stiffly, “It is a privilege to meet you at last, Mrs. Quigley.”

 

A bolt of lightning ricocheted from heart to heels, and Vienne’s hands flew to her mouth. “Oh!” she gasped, “Oh! From the March!” She vaulted forward to greet him as Matty craned around with his mouth halo’d in chicken and gravy, staring at the stranger’s tar-black cap of hair. He’d never yet seen anyone but Plats, and if Vienne weren’t now so positively vibrating with excitement she’d have laughed at the thousand questions painted across his face.

 

“You weren’t supposed to come until tomorrow!” she breathed, reaching for Mr. Madigan’s gloved hands, “My husband will be home soon!”

 

The March had gained some ground in Alderode these past few years but as revolutionary dissidents with an agenda that included the establishment of a secular Aldish government and the abolishment of the caste laws, Vits Council hunted them without pity. Madigan stared at the woman’s hands a long, suspicious moment, then politely clasped and bowed over them.

 

“You won’t see your husband tonight, Mrs. Quigley,” he said, “The highway was washed out and he’s decided to stay in town until daybreak.”

 

“You spoke with him?”

 

“No, but I have been tailing the local authorities all day, waiting for the right moment to proceed to Seferpine. I overheard his conversation with a deputy.“ The Jet glanced over his shoulder and moved further into the room, tugging at the collar of his dark brown overcoat. He was a wright. Vienne could feel a certain pregnant wavering about his palm-ports; a certain indicative quiver of the lines. She thought he must have walked through a wall to get inside.

 

He seemed to sense her suspicion and inclined his head apologetically. “You must forgive me. I do not find punctuality nor propriety prudent. An erratic schedule confuses anyone who might have caught wind of my movements.”

 

“Of course!” Vienne agreed. She imagined him picking his way through the rain like a midnight assassin while Aseptics, the government’s wright-murdering agents, snuffed after him like bloodhounds. Oh, it was brilliant. “But I haven’t told anyone you were coming.” Except Gerald, of course. And Mathis. And maybe Overseer Millard, the village mayor who had been handling the smuggling and sale of the mountain ogre’s valuable spare parts…

 

Madigan flashed his teeth, reading her mind again.

 

He wasn’t as attractive as Vienne had imagined while poring over his letters: pock-faced, with lined eyes. As a Jet, if he was showing signs of age he might well be over 150 years old. Vienne wanted to touch his inky hair, clasp again his ancient hands. Instead she retreated to the table and pulled a chair out for him. “If- if Mathis can’t enjoy this meal perhaps you can in his stead,” she suggested, feeling suddenly small and very young. All Gerald’s recriminations flooded her brain.

 

But the Jet nodded politely, waited for her to retake her seat, and joined her.

 

“How did you first hear of the March?” he asked some time later, washing down Mathis’ dinner with a long swig of barley wine, “You are not the type of woman who usually seeks our company.”

 

“My forge manager said something similar to me today,” Vienne sighed, cradling a sleeping Matty against her breast. He should have a bath after sticking pie in his hair, but that would have to wait. “A friend - I won’t give his name - passed me one of your pamphlets when I was a girl. My cousins had just been taken by the military. They were so small. I was so angry. But no one understood. ‘This is the way things are,’ was all I heard. ‘This is the price we pay for Yerta’s favour.’” There was no favour generous enough to account for the terror she remembered in her cousins’ eyes that day nor the unending grief of their mother, who had also been too good at loving her boys. She’d gone into the khert soon after they’d been taken from her, leaving Vienne’s already widowed father with only his daughter and a broken heart.

 

“I put it out of my mind,” she went on, fingering Matty’s greasy hair, “Until this rascal was born. Now it’s all I can think about. I don’t believe the way we’re treated has anything at all to do with Yerta’s favour. Yerta’s a mother herself. The Great Mother. She wouldn’t want children leaving their parents.” Vienne shook her head, working herself into a froth. “No, it’s always been about Alderode exploiting hethllot abilities. What if the government comes for Matty one day? I tell you, Mr. Madigan, that if it happens I won’t die of grief like my aunt did. I have pymary that she didn’t have. I have weapons. I have a pymaric so compacted with Pressure Aspect from the Soud Veghal that it could level the village. I have a pymaric that can dissolve a man’s head off his shoulders quick as I can snap my fingers.” Madigan’s eyes widened. Vienne nodded sharply. “I keep it hidden, in case they surprise me. This has to stop and the March can help it stop. And I can help the March.”

 

“A construct though,” Madigan said, quirking his lips, “Elarosny desires it very much, of course, but it’s a strange sort of gift to offer, and you are risking yourself terribly.”

 

“Aye,” Vienne agreed, “But it is the best purpose towards which to put the great resource of the mountain ogre. First Earth is a lower class of First Material. In moderate quantities it cannot hold a great deal of Aspects or spellwork. If we keep it largely intact, however, supplementing it with machinery, we can put it to fullest, most powerful use. And what better use for a humanoid form than a massive construct?”

 

“You do know your own mind,” Madigan admitted with a chuckle. He finished his beer and stood from the table when she did.

 

“All of my life I’ve only been acquainted with hethllot men,” said Vienne, “But the few men of other castes I have met… they seem to expect we hethllot women to act like… like porcelain sculptures; fragile and dull and tongue-tied.” She toed a few floor pillows into a nest and set Matty into them. Madigan shuffled awkwardly, and Vienne, too, felt suddenly exposed. To be unchaperoned with this stranger was a terrible trampling of propriety. Mathis was supposed to be here with her, but of course he wasn’t. Of course he could never be relied upon. Bitterness bloomed beneath her excitement but she tamped it down.

 

“Most hethllot women I have known were ah, painted ladies,” he said carefully. Whores. It was a strange and old-fashioned phrase to use. Vienne remembered again how old he must be. “It is both foreign and familiar to visit these small villages, Mrs. Quigley, and see the old ways preserved and well. In the larger cities there is a slow shift being brought on by Copper women, in particular. Did you know there is a market in Ratteesser in Durlyne city owned and staffed entirely by female efhghersit?” Street people. Those who had been born out of or ejected from their caste community. “Owned by, managed by, run by women. It’s been a bit of a scandal. They get around the law by keeping everything in some old man’s name. I hear rumours every month about Vits planning to raid it, imprison them all, but I think even Vits realises it must be careful to measure its brand of public order against public opinion.”

 

“Do you think I should open a general store here in Seferpine then?” asked Vienne, brightening a lantern on the wall. Madigan smiled as he followed his hostess into the workshop.

 

“No, Mrs. Quigley, but it seems you have a similar scheme in place with this forge. Perhaps the day is not too far distant when no one will look askance at a beautiful white-haired lady working pymary instead of hiding behind her husband. Ah, look at this glorious space!”

 

Madigan spun about, taking in the size of the workshop, the enormous, ancient smelter, the forge, the hulking trestles creaking beneath ironworking equipment as old as he was. Pride in her family’s business dissipated Vienne’s discomfort. Coatskirts susurrating, Madigan glided beside the massive forge, ran his gloved fingertips across the warm anvils, the neatly arranged hammers, and the great pouring vessel sleeping over the mold trestles. “But honestly, I don’t know why any of you would leave these villages,” he murmured conversationally, “The towns aren’t set up for Plats.”

 

Vienne harrumphed. “They should be. We’re one of the largest castes in the country and we should be catered to!”

 

Madigan came to a stop beside one of Uaid’s gargantuan green feet. It was longer than he was tall but still and cold and lifeless. “Go on,” coaxed Vienne, laughing, “You can touch it.”

 

Madigan did so, gingerly. He tapped its dark green toenail. “Like quartz,” he said, “And the flesh… like wet sand?”

 

“He’s a whole world unto himself, even in death. He follows his own rules - the khert cannot tell those materials what to do or how to behave.”

 

The Jet whistled appreciatively. “You want to talk about what Yerta wants? I think Yerta wants us to have this bloody senet beast. Why else would you have stumbled across it?”

 

Vienne laid both palms flat against Uaid’s chilly sole. Her palm-ports felt so odd against the First Material! It muted her awareness of the khert, quieting a sense she’d had since she was born. No unending shiver and pulse of Aspects traveling through the lines. Just muffled, lonely peace.

 

A gift from Yerta? Yerta wanted Alderode mended. The Great Mother understood.

 

“Will it have pressure cannons?” asked Madigan, backing up to get a view of the half-finished shoulder plates beyond the scaffolding, “The Crescians have just come out with new eight tank models that get fifty shots apiece, I hear. Vits is scrabbling to match it but they can’t keep the tanks stable.”

 

“The March must have good spies,” said Vienne, smiling, “No, no pressure cannons. Uaid will have nets and retractable grappling hands that shoot along practical wires. He’ll have shields, too, like nothing else ever seen before.”

 

Madigan’s face fell. “Nets and grappling hands?”

 

“And a shield, Mr. Mardigan. It will render its passengers safe not only from pymary but from the Dammakhert. No stings, no surveillance.”

 

“That’s not possible,” said the Jet.

 

“Not yet,” Vienne agreed, “But you can tell Miss Elarosny I’m going to find a way for her to come out of hiding. She can lead the March from inside Uaid, and no one will be able to harm her.”

 

Madigan chuckled, but only said again: “You do know your own mind, Mrs. Quigley.”

 

She offered him coffee, then, but the dissident Jet claimed he dare not tarry too long, and vanished soon after into the rain. Wistful, from the window Vienne watched his dark shape move down the night-black village road. She wished Mathis were coming in the opposite direction so she could talk to him about the strange, brave man and Miss Elarosny’s mighty efforts against their overbearing government. The hound poppet on the desktop caught the corner of her eye as she turned away, but she let it go. Another night. for now she spread out a long scroll of calculations and whispered words over the spine of papa’s theory book, so it hovered open beside her.

 

She said a quiet prayer to Yerta. She scribbled, and she schemed, and she tried to change the world.

 

------

 

“Vienne!”

 

She startled, and she slipped backwards, and she fell out of her chair. Daybreak sent pink knives through the window. From the floor Vienne squinted through sun blades to find Gerald staring down at her, Matty squirming in one arm.

 

“You said to come in early and you aren’t even awake.” He all but dropped Matty on her head. “You said to come in early and you aren’t even awake!” He wheeled about without waiting for a response.

 

“Such is my trust in you!” she called.

 

“Millard’s here for fresh First Earth. I’m bloody giving it to him, I don’t even care if his account’s settled!”

 

“It is!” she replied cheerily, and turned to Matty, “We’re going to import millifikhit parasites from Madishane and repurpose them into interior restraints. I came up with it last night, my lovely, it’s going to be brilliant!”

 

“I want oatmeal, mama!” Matty whined.

 

“We can have oatmeal and gastric parasites both! Let’s make breakfast.”

 

Almost twenty-eight autumns old, Mayor Millard was one of Seferpine’s senior Plats. Broad-faced with strong features, he was still easy on the eyes despite the ends of his long hair having gone as transparent as glass, and his brittle skin cracking and bleeding when he smiled. When Vienne found him tallying up the chunks of First Earth Gerald and the lads had stacked for him in his handcart, she said hello with a polite incline of her head.

 

“You are being prudent, Lord Mayor, aren’t you?” she asked later, walking beside him with a hand on his arm as he wheeled the tarp-covered cart from the warehouse. The road was a muddy mess. She momentarily removed the Solidity of her skirts so they’d phaze through it and not be soiled. Two men across the street shot her sour looks. “I know it is not my place to question you, and my husband and I are endlessly grateful for your expertise in handling the sale of the First Earth, but…”

 

Millard laughed dismissively. “Now your nerves settle in, do they? Well, it’s no wonder, little mouse, with Quigley leaving you home alone for months at a time. But you know I check on your house every night before I retire.”

 

“You’re very kind,” said Vienne, concentrating pointedly on her hand so it would not dig aggravated fingernails into his sleeve, “But I am far more concerned about the parties to whom you are selling our First Earth, Lord Mayor. They are reputable and discreet, yes?”

 

“Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Now is a grand time to be moving First Materials about, you know. The Foi-Hellick affair is settled, relations with Cresce are cooled, and Vits has better things to do than worry its head over a bit of black market First Earth.”

 

“It has never been a very desirable First Material.”

 

“Absolutely, absolutely. I should have this round unloaded by quarter’s end, and a cheery sack of sem ready to deposit in Quigley’s palm then. Oh, Riv’s Beard, there is the man himself!”

 

And there he was.

 

Soggy, unkempt, his Window uniform stained from the road, Mathis pulled his packhound Jenner through Seferpine’s rain-wet gate. Vienne nearly fell into the mud at the sight. Releasing Millard’s arm, she cleared three blocks in what felt like two long lopes, and threw herself against Mathis’ wet chest. He smelled like purple weed, coffee, and wet hound. Vienne squeezed him tight, realising in one blunt and sudden rush how much she’d missed him.

 

“Ach, little chick,” he whispered into her hair, “I thought I’d never reach home. It poured from Trebill Road to Everli.”

 

She touched his jaw with loving fingers, smoothed the white strands back along his temples, laughing, fidgeting. “Look at you, you look a fright! Oh, and your spectacles are all dewdropped. Have you had breakfast? There’s some cold chicken and pie, but I can make eggs-”

 

“I ate at the inn, chick, but let’s get inside.”

 

It took some time to unload muddy Jenner. Vienne bade Gerald’s apprentice give her a good scrubbing down, then followed Mathis into the parlour, where he awkwardly patted Matty’s shoulder and pressed a handkerchief of boiled sweets into his possession.

 

“Why isn’t he at the Childrens’ House?” he asked his wife without turning, “You said he would be by the time I returned.”

 

Vienne choked a moment, fiddling with her resolidified skirts. No, they would not fight already. Not already! She artfully settled on: “Well, he isn’t. How was your assignment? Did you rout every villain? Right every wrong?”

 

“Three of the four,” sighed Mathis, easing out of his boots. He stooped a moment to Leech the mud from them, then fell backwards onto a cushion. “Lad, put my things away and then go help Ernest with the hound.”

 

“Oh, but you just got home!” Vienne protested as Matty jumped to comply, two-fisting the straps of his father’s traveling bag. Mathis cut Vienne off with a flick of his hand and, when the boy had dragged the luggage from the room and they were alone, said: “Your March friend is dead.”

 

It felt like someone stripped the Solidity from her legs. Vienne stumbled forward.

 

“He was here,” she said stupidly, “Last night. We had dinner.”

 

“You ate dinner with him? Alone?”

 

“You were not here!” she said, “How do you know he is dead? Perhaps it is another-”

 

Mathis shook his head, smudges burning red beneath each pale eye. “They have him stuck through with darts and hung at the Idarin crossroad, a bloody bootprint across his face. That’s how they’re stringing up the March radicals now. I think it’s meant to be funny.”

 

“Was he a Jet?”

 

“Aye.”

 

Vienne moved carefully towards him. She chose not to see the anger in his eyes and shrank down next to him on the cushion. Was he angry at the government? Or at her? She was afraid to ask but, after a moment, he put an arm around her.

 

“Do you think they know about us?” she whispered. He shook his head.

 

“They would have come by now if they did. But Vienne… we must be very, very realistic now, about all of this. It is beyond you. It is beyond me. It is beyond all of us. You’re tempting a great monster, and it’s close enough now I can smell its breath.”

 

Vienne picked at the buttons of his uniform, but didn’t answer. Poor Mr. Madigan. How awful to think that 150 years of life and wisdom were gone now… gone into the khert like a book placed on the shelf of a library that no one would ever visit. “They are cruel,” she whispered, “They are cruel bastards.”

 

“Order is not maintained through pretty words,” said Mathis gravely, “The March speaks and acts boldly, and Vits reacts boldly against them. Such things I have seen even the Window do, Vienne… Such things I have seen the Aseptics do.” He trembled against her, faintly, and Vienne held him very tightly. “I brought them an artificer from Cotemer. A Silver with eyes so full of fear I thought they’d catch on something as I dragged him to the podium; catch on something and halt him, like loose threads in a jumper. He’d been crafting pymarics without a license. Had lost it, couldn’t pay that year’s fee. He wasn’t hurting anyone. He wasn’t crafting trapweavers or weapons, only sewing aids. Self-fastening buttons. A wee chattering mechanical moth with a glowing body. It fluttered at his shoulder asking what was happening and when the Aseptic smashed it the Silver wept and wept.”

 

“What did they do to him?”

 

Mathis shook his head, his voice creeping hysterical. “They cut off his hands, tore out his tongue, and sent him north, to the oubliettes in Valyne. And you know, they came back from the sentencing, those two Aseptic bastards, and they said he was fortunate. That if he’d not been so young and pitiful they would have simply executed him. ‘Fortunate,’ Vienne!”

 

She stroked his back and whispered into his neck. “The March will fix this. All of it. We’ll make a new government, one freer and kinder, where people can do what they want. Poor Mr. Madigan… but he knew the risks, Mathis, and I know them too. We’re not afraid. We’re going to put Alderode right.”

“You don’t know how foolish you sound when you start preaching!”

 

Vienne laughed to hide her hurt. “Would it work better if I put on a cassock?”

 

He flinched away, and stood. She saw a familiar stranger wake up in his expression: a Mathis made bitter by too much time doing horrible things for the government’s coin. “You don’t know what it’s like to starve or live in a ditch. You don’t even truly know what it’s like to not be allowed to do precisely what you want. Your father indulged you, I indulge you-- but that upsets you, doesn’t it? You hate your ignorance. Or maybe not. Maybe this is only some sick fascination with the lesser order. What do you have to fear, Vienne, except circumstances you have stupidly entered into of your own volition?”

 

“I fear Vits,” she replied calmly, “The castes. The whole order of things. That order only changes when people think outside themselves. When the people who have power act on the behalf of people who don’t-”

 

“That order keeps us fed and better off than anyone else in the village!”

 

She sighed. “Stop talking like that’s enough for you... as though it’s enough for you to just be hethllot. If it was, you wouldn’t break your back for the Window like you do. You’d stay here in Seferpine, work in the forge-”

 

A bitter, bitter smile crawled across Mathis’ handsome face, and ruined it. “Work for my wife? Aye? That was never an option, Vienne.”

 

“The forge is yours, Mathis!” she reminded him, reaching for his hand, “It’s yours in title and deed, and we can change the name if you want. I told you I didn’t care if we changed the name! Papa wouldn’t care either if it sways your heart towards it-”

 

“I don’t… care… about the forge.” He took her fingers but didn’t look in her eyes. Instead his gaze rolled to the kitchen table, the shadowed ceiling, Matty darting back inside to cart off his boots. Then he hid it awkwardly behind one splayed hand. “I work with these people. You haven’t seen what I have. You have to give up this business with the March. The construct.”

 

“I’m not afraid,” Vienne said, joining him on his feet, “Let me be not afraid for both of us.”

 

Mathis allowed himself to be embraced again. As they stood in the parlour, the forge crew playing a smithy’s symphony on the other side of the walls, Vienne knew Mathis wasn’t hearing it. In his head he was still in those awful places he’d spent the last two months. He was hearing that Silver boy scream as they lopped off his hands, or listening to the wind scream like dying children as he tramped across the frozen wastes of eastern Tain.

 

Why did he go? There was work for him here.

 

Vienne knew the answer. She even knew the solution, but both were intolerably ugly. She didn’t even want them in her head. Instead she called in little Ernest, gave him a coin, and told him to have fun with Matty for an hour after Jenner was tended to. Then she led her husband into their bedroom and tried to create some temporary absolution for them both.

 

------

 

It was strange to be in bed after avoiding it for so long. When Mathis wasn’t home Vienne slept elsewhere: her desk, the floorpillow in the parlour, the kitchen table, even once in Uaid’s splayed palm. It was doubly strange to be under the sheets in the middle of the morning, with all of Seferpine going about its business on the other side of the bedroom wall.

 

But she laid beside her Mathis until his breathing evened. She watched the cracks smooth around his eyes and brow. He could make himself so ugly. When she was certain he was asleep, she removed his spectacles and petted his hair, then dressed herself.

 

The half-finished hound poppet was on the workshop floor. Vienne rescued it and put it back on her desk, fingers lingering guiltily. She should finish it.

 

Instead, hours later, Gerald found her poised over a farcyte window into the khert, her hands aglow and her eyes shielded by dark glasses.

 

“Fish biting today?” he asked.

 

Vienne shook her head in exasperation, blinking after-images of ghosts away. “No, nothing I want. I need kindness. Uaid needs to be kind. All my soundings are full of petty ghosts and selfish ghosts and ghosts fiddling with themselves in the washroom.” She flipped her glasses up and sighed at Gerald chummily. “You know, sounding the khert stands to make me a cynic. Did the Tanneguy order go out the door?”

 

“Aye, Willy’s only tidying up now, we’re about to shut down for the day. I sent out your order for those stomach bugs, but they’re at least a month off.”

 

“Aww. They’ll be grand fun to play with.”

 

“Aye, if you say so.”

 

She looked back at the farcyte, frowning. If only there was some way to map the khert, some way to make it hold its form from moment to moment. But that was the same futile wish every wright since the first one had expressed, and none were any closer to understanding. She could look through the farcyte again now and find it utterly changed from the scape she’d been mapping before. It never held still, never maintained its shape! It did not matter the vantage one took from reality. The khert had no respect for space or for time. It danced with all the guile of Matty in the chapel, caught up in the flutes and the chants, and no mortal eyes couldn’t freeze its gyring.

 

The First Glass bulb holding the memory of the daring Crescian boy glimmered like a jewel in Uaid’s mnemonic array. Vienne stared at it. Mr. Madigan was inside the khert now, somewhere, in thousands of pieces. Would one of them twirl into her dark kitchen one day and hide behind the sugar?

 

She should have made him stay the night.

 

“Vienne!”

 

She blinked, having forgotten Gerald existed. Had he been talking to her? “Ah, thank you for ordering those parasites,” she ventured, “You said you were closing down for the day? Is it suppertime already?”

 

Gerald kneaded the bridge of his nose. “I said I may not be coming in tomorrow, you daft and delusional nitwit. Focus, Vi!”

 

“What? Why?”

 

A shadow fell over the broad-shouldered Plat’s expression. His voice dropped. “Molly moved out. She went to her sister’s. She said she will not return so long as I continue to work for you.”

 

Vienne tore the protective glasses from around her throat and slammed them with such force on the nearest counter than a lens popped free. “That hysterical sow,” she hissed, “I will duel her.”

 

Gerald gibbered for a moment and tripped a step backwards. “You can’t- women don’t- you’d kill - stop it! You know it isn’t just my Molly! Everyone talks about what you do. Everyone says it’s a disgrace. And you know what they bloody say about Mathis letting you do it-”

 

Every drop of blood in Vienne’s veins exploded before her eyes. Everything glowed red. “Let them say it in front of me, Gerald, and their thirty years will no longer be a concern to them. You work for me. You come into work tomorrow or you don’t ever come in again.”

 

Gerald blinked back tears. To Vienne they were only water. She would pour hot rivets into them until they steamed away. She felt the sentiment slathered all over her expression; felt it crinkling in the crevices of her face like mud. It was too much for Gerald. He slunk from the workshop and then, a moment later, she saw him outside the window and stumbling towards home.

 

Vienne tidied up around the farcyte, stacking her notes into a satisfying sheaf. She ran her fingers over Uaid’s array. “Still no kindness here,” she apologised.

 

A lazy shuffling drew her attention. She turned to find Mathis yawning in the doorway, his right cheek slashed with cherry-red pillow marks.

 

“You look all of ten years old,” she laughed, throwing a sheet over the precious, memory-laden pymarics, “Put on your specs.”

 

He picked the sleep from the inside corners of his eyes, then complied, but she thought she saw a brief and furtive glance towards the door through which Gerard had exited. Then he was rolling his shoulders and cracking his knuckles. “I needed that. I didn’t sleep but an hour or two in that poxy inn. They’ve bedbugs, you know.”

 

Vienne clucked her tongue, sitting down at her desk and sliding her notes tidily back into their folio. “No problem for a wright.”

 

“Aye, but wrights charge for that service! Don’t you think he must have put me in that room specifically hoping I’d spell away the bedbugs? Freeing him from the expense of hiring a professional for the task?”

 

“So you spent the night in an infested bed?”

 

Mathis huffed, throwing out his hands. “Principle, Vienne! Principle!”

 

“Skinflintedness, Mathis! You’ve skinnier flints than a cricket’s tinderbox!”

 

She squealed when he suddenly squeezed into the chair behind her, hugging her around the arms and trapping her between his legs. Then his teeth were nibbling behind her right ear, raising gooseflesh down her back and the tops of her arms. “That doesn’t even make any sense,” he growled, “Gods, I missed you. I’m sorry I was a right grebber this morn.”

 

“It’s all right. You feel better now?”

 

“A shag and a kip can beat the bear out of anyone.”

 

“Out of Mathis Quigley, anyway.”

 

She craned about and captured his lips for a long minute. When his right hand wandered towards the button of her bodice she whispered: “I made a chicken last night.”

 

Mathis chuckled. “You always whisper the most romantic things. What’s on the menu tonight? Fricasseed mountain ogre?”

 

“Millard would suffer an apoplectic fit. But let me do a walk around the shop and then I’ll see what I can conjure for my lads. I don’t suppose I could convince you to bathe your son, hmm?”

 

Mathis sighed and rose from the chair like a petulant teenager. “Fine. Although why he needs help washing himself is beyond my comprehension. I have managed on my own since I was four summers old. Vienne, do you think he is touched in the head?”

 

Vienne threw a book at his face that he narrowly caught in a crossways khert-line. He shot it back to her and she let it slap into her palm, then refrained from a killing blow as he dashed out the back door in search of Matty.

 

------

 

Over the next hour, every confused tangle of thought led Vienne to Gerald. She layered butter and dough for a new pie shell and chatted with Mathis through the wall as he scrubbed Matty, but was glad he couldn’t see the ghosts she knew were haunting her eyes.

 

She peeled the potatoes properly, like a woman, though pymary suggested an easier way. She sliced them with deliberate uniformity. She stoked the charcoal in the stove and slid the laden pie tin among it with as much care as she ever showed the delicate arch of a new lamp fixture wrought in black iron in her forge flames. She was full of strange and ugly things but she could create something normal, something useful. That was something. That was something.

 

Dinner came together well, but Vienne Quigley had been good at everything she’d ever put her mind to (she would not look at the hound poppet). Mathis sat too close to her at the table, his off hand resting on her thigh, and she leaned against him as they ate.

 

“I can hear you swallow,” she complained, “But not as loud as Matty chewing.”

 

Matty smacked his lips louder and laughed. Mathis sighed dramatically.

 

“Look at him. He’s wearing more pie than he even managed to bully down his gullet. What was the point of the bath? I’m going to put him in Jenner’s food dish and then we’ll raise whatever’s left.”

 

“It’s goooood,” Matty complimented the stewed pork accompanying the pie, “Papa, eat your dinner or no sweeties.”

 

“Are there even any left, Vi?”

 

“Of what you brought home? A few, but I gave the rest to Ernest for minding Matty.” Mathis gaped in mock affront.

 

“Matty! Lad! Your mother gave your sweets away! Perhaps she doesn’t deserve what I brought her from town.” Matty ignored him, maneuvering another spoonful of stew. His father flicked him in the head. “Matty! Should I give mama her present?”

 

“Yes!”

 

Mathis tilted dangerously sideways as Vienne lunged, patting down his pockets. “Did you bring me sweets too, Mr. Quigley?”

 

“Only a proper offering for a proper lady, I’m afraid. Do you know where I can find one-?”

 

He caught her wrists and shoved her lightly back into her chair, buying time enough to slip a hand up the back of his shirt and produce a package wrapped in brown paper. Vienne sucked the Heat from the wrappings and he yelped in surprise at the crinkling cold and flash of violet light, dropping the prize. Reversing its momentum and revectoring its fall with a sharp gesture, Vienne caught the icy bundle. She smirked in self-satisfaction. Mathis harrumphed.

 

“Oh, thank the gods,” she breathed, tearing the paper open. A modest cache of periodicals emptied onto her lap. “I was afraid it was those dress patterns you threatened!”

 

“You could use a few,” said Mathis, “But I thought the new Standard and Durlynian Theory would go further towards preserving domestic peace. I asked about for that Hersch transcription but I think you’ll have to wait until next I’m in Durlyne. It’s a touch esoteric for poor Idarin.”

 

Vienne beamed, crushing the magazines to her chest. She pulled Mathis against them and showed her appreciation in a flurry against his lips.

 

“Is that dessert?” he asked, laughingly breaking free, “I’ll have to remember this recipe.” He dipped forward to deepen the kiss but Vienne’s head was already bowed, the affection forgotten with the alacrity of a wino with a new bottle. She bent reverently over the pymary periodicals, scanning the indices with monomaniac fervour. Somewhere in the dusty rear of Vienne’s mind she knew there were dishes to wash, a kitchen to tidy, a five year old to put to bed, a poppet to sew…

 

Yes, Composer Barre had new farcyte settings he’d finally been allowed to publish. Might she use these in conjunction with Oriele’s and manage another ghige deeper? Ach, what a delight he was! And afterwards a new article from Ballanstern of the Ilganyag! Bless the Standard for their impartiality. They’d print anyone with something interesting to say.

 

“I’m glad you like them, chick,” Mathis said, distantly. Vi murmured some wordless assent. “You know, they’re sending me to the north of the ginnal next and I’ll pass through Durlyne. I’ll find the Hersch for you.”

 

A hole opened in Vienne’s stomach. She climbed through it back to reality. “Next?” She reached for his arm, “How next?”

 

Mathis looked to his dinner and polished off his pie. “They want me at the north office by week’s end for the next assignment. I’ll let Jenner rest up tomorrow and then we probably should set out the day after.”

 

“Don’t,” Vienne blurted. His eyes narrowed. She watched his thin lips compress and his knuckles whiten around his fork. She petted his off hand gingerly. “I mean, Millard’s done so well selling what I’ve given him of Uaid. We’re doing so well for money, Mathis. Why not let a few jobs pass you by?”

 

He shook his head. “I have to go where they send me, when they send me. It will be a short assignment, Vi. Six weeks at most. I’ll be home for Treenahinn. We’ll dance the week through.”

 

But before then, she would be dealing with Millard alone. She would be ignoring the disapproval of the village alone. She would be eating and sleeping and tending to Matty alone. She would be hated by Molly and abandoned by Gerald and unliked and uncertain and --

 

“Are you afraid?” he challenged, “Is the great Vienne of Seferpine afraid? Give up the construct then.”

 

“Ah.” She chuckled hollowly, tightening her hold on the periodicals so her hands would not tremble. “An ultimatum.”

 

“A plea,” corrected Mathis, no malice in his eyes, “And send Gerald Kilpenny away. Vienne, if you knew what people say about the pair of you-”

 

Vienne asked quickly: “Do you believe any of it?”

 

“It doesn’t matter. They say it. And I have to know they say it.”

 

“I’m sewing Matty a hound poppet,” she said meanderingly. Would he stay if Matty was sent to the Childrens’ House?

 

The thought entered her mind through a roach-crack. The rest of the swarm came with it. She stood quickly and began clearing the table. Mathis didn’t notice or did and made no move after her. “I love you,” he murmured by way of defeat.

 

------

 

He was in bed and asleep by the time her chores were done and she’d tucked in Matty. Vienne leaned in the bedroom doorway, both relieved and hurt to be so readily abandoned. She wanted to work. But she did love him and had missed him. But she needed to work.

 

She would pretend dinner had ended perfectly and he was not leaving the day after the next. There. Now it was just-so in her mind. Gerald would be at work in the morning. Uaid was coming together so well, and poor Mr. Madigan would not go unavenged. Tomorrow she would burn a lock of hair for him in the chapel.

 

It was drizzling outside. She stirred the embers in the kitchen stove to battle the damp, and read more of Composer Barre’s thoughts by its warm light. She wondered if he was married, if he had children. He was a Plat. He lived in the capital city. If she found his calculations useful she would pen him a letter of gratitude and sign it with Mathis’ name so he might write back.

 

Would he side with the March? If Miss Elarosny, its leader, came thundering into the capital inside the safety of Uaid’s pymary-proof ribcage, would Composer Barre leap to aid her? No, he was a Plat. He’d surely be dead by the time that came to pass. So would Vienne, come to think of it. Thank the Gods Miss Elarosny was a Copper. She had a wealth of years to put towards the benefit of others. Vienne burned with admiration for her.

 

Her great-great grandmother’s clock struck the midnight hour almost the very moment she finished calibrating the farcyte. She grimaced at the irritating alarm, refused to acknowledge the idea of sleep, and wrenched her goggles tighter. Uaid needed kindness. She had to find pleasant memories for him, for Miss Elarosny, for poor Mr. Madigan.

 

“Isn’t that where I left you?” queried a voice from the dark. Vienne gasped and stumbled from her workstool, peering back at the dim workshop. The forge mouth pulsed fiery orange. Against it was Gerald’s silhouette. A liquor bottle glimmered in his hand. Vienne’s nose wrinkled at the scent of Millard’s cheap barn-brewed booze, the stuff he sold on the sly to the village rowdies. Mathis said it tasted like hound piss but it did the job well enough.

 

“Are you all right, Gerry?” she asked faintly. The hour and the surprise put a meekness in her tone she didn’t like. She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry I was so beastly earlier. I know Molly is your wife. You have to respect her wishes. So do I.”

 

“You don’t respect Quigley’s.” Gerald dropped heavily onto a workbench. His hair was greasy and his hands unwashed from the day’s work. Vienne wanted to take him to the water basin and scrub him down like a pie-faced Matty.

 

“That’s not true. He’s my husband and I mind him. Unless he’s being silly.”

 

Gerald snorted. Vienne saw a dark spatter on the front of his tunic. “They should have put us together. You know?”

 

“No,” said Vienne gently, “They shouldn’t have. I love Mathis. And you love Molly, Gerald. You light up like a starfly when she comes with your lunch-”

 

“I hit her,” Gerald blurted, raising his right hand and glaring at it. “I dragged her out of her sister’s parlour and I hit her across the mouth.”

 

“I-”

 

“Ronald said to. He said if she would not mind me it was because she didn’t have a reason to, and I ought to give her one. He said it wasn’t her place to make threats to her husband.” Gerald scraped tears from his eyes and threw his bottle at the forge mouth. It struck off-center against the bricks and shattered. “So that’s what I did, Vi, and I wanted you to know. I wanted you to know I’ll be at work in the morning. And every morning after.”

 

At this moment pretty Molly Kilpenny was pressing ice to her lip and sobbing into her pillow. The idea left Vienne numb. Molly had said such vile things about her. Molly had threatened to relieve her of her most valuable employee. Molly had threatened Uaid and all her work.

 

A sudden insectile tickling caused Vienne’s palms to twitch. Her mind instantly cleared and refocused. Her heart thrilled. Her stomach buzzed. The images of Mathis and Matty asleep in their beds flashed behind her eyes, then slid obediently out of the way. “Do you think Mathis should hit me?” she asked Gerald.

 

He considered for a long moment. His sky-coloured eyes were bleary with drink and misery. They turned to Vienne and she thought about what ugly ghosts the memories behind them would one day make. “Probably,” he decided at last, “Probably. But he never will. Quigley’s weak.

 

“You know, I understand it now, Vi. Why you want another child. Of course you do. What friend do you have other than wee Matty? But Mathis, he’s too weak to even give you that. Won’t stay with you, won’t give you another babe. The elders should have put us together.”

 

She stared through Gerald, through the workshop wall behind him. A sing-song spell touched her lips, as quiet as she dared hiss it, and questing pulses slid through the drizzling rain falling upon Seferpine’s streets just outside. Gerald watched the forge coals and tucked his forelock behind one ear. “It ain’t your fault,” he whispered, “When you think about it, a woman never does anything but what a man lets her do.” He clenched the fist that had split Molly’s lip, regarding it. “Everything foul that a woman does is only for the weakness of the men around her allowing it. But everything fair, too. We’re stronger than you. We’re supposed to… to regulate all this.”

 

“And do you think what I do is foul, or is it fair?”

 

Vienne walked around the wooden trestle supporting her father’s farcyte crystal geode. There was a battered cabinet behind it. She extracted a small red marble from the top drawer. Gerald flexed his sooty hand against the thigh of his trousers, lost in his drunken ruminations.

 

“It’s foul,” he said, smiling, “Foul as anything this village has seen, and like to put us all in the ground. And it’s for my weakness and Quigley’s that it’s happening. Blaming you is like… it’d be like blaming Quigs’ hound Jenner for eating that whole damned bag of feed when Ernest forgot to lock it up-”

 

Vienne felt very cold inside. The words that poured suddenly out of her lips were cold too: icy, slick, quick as frigid water gushing down the brook during the first thaw.

 

Gerald looked at her in confusion when she touched the wall behind his head. She ignored him. Her spell slid the workshop wall’s Solidity aside and she stepped through it, into the rain.

 

Vienne knew what she would find. She had been imagining it while Gerald spoke, and here it was, waiting in the midnight blackness like an eavesdropping burglar. Vienne didn’t stop to look at the Aseptic’s black cloak, the black cowl over his face, the black glasses hiding his eyes. Maybe there was shock in them to see a Plat woman using pymary. Uncertainty. Was she a decoy for another wright? Vienne gave him no time to act. She raised the red pymaric in her right hand and put it between herself and the stranger - the Aseptic - kissing his brow with the cool, red sphere of spellwork-laden First Glass. Another syllable of Old Tainish served as a trigger-

 

And then the stranger’s head was gone. The stump of his cleanly-truncated neck gouted poppy-red blood. Vienne flinched away. The rest of him spasmed like the chicken she’d strangled for Mathis’ uneaten dinner two nights earlier. Then the body slumped to the mud and Vienne remembered to breathe again.

 

Gerald cried out. Vienne regarded him over one shoulder, dropping the pymaric in her pocket.

 

“No one lets me do anything,” she said.

 

------

 

Two days later, Mathis was gone. He had vanished as cleanly as the dead Aseptic.

 

Vienne hadn’t told him. She wasn’t ashamed of what she’d done - she didn’t feel anything but cold relief when she remembered it - but maybe he would leave her if he knew she was a murderer. Combined with the construct, the forge, Gerald, the wholeness of her unwomanly strangeness, maybe that would be what finally made him leave. And Vienne could not strike him in the mouth and drag him home.

 

Gerald never spoke of the body he’d watched her Core Leech piecemeal in the rain. She never spoke of the wife he’d beaten. Molly hadn’t been seen outside since that night, and the rumour was she had caught a chill. Vienne made her a cheese and potato pie and sent it home with her husband, emptying into it all the forgiveness her heart could muster. Vienne couldn’t pass judgment on anyone when she loved her own husband in such an impossibly ugly way; loved him so much she could never be entirely glad for the distraction of him when he was home, and yet forever lonesome for him when he was gone.

 

They were cursed, really, and it was all Vienne’s doing. This was the price she had to pay for Yerta’s favour. The gods gave you nothing without first taking something else.

 

“Matty!” she called that evening. Gerald had left and the crew had shuttered the shop. Mathis wasn’t yet so gone that the indentation of his head had puffed out from his pillow, but that was when his absence felt keenest. It was raining again and poor Matty had been stuck inside all day filling butcher’s paper with drawings of vliegeng and knights. He rounded the corner from the kitchen in his nightshirt and tumbled into Vienne’s skirts.

 

“I finished it,” she whispered against his temple.

 

“Uaid!” Matty gasped. Vienne shook her head and pulled her hand from behind her back. The little hound poppet looked like nothing more than a tiny, bean-stuffed flour sack with a yarn tail and wooden button eyes. It was ugly but it was finished. If the government came for her at least this would be one thing she hadn’t left undone.

 

“I know it’s not as fine as the waistcoated rabbit Mrs. Perierre made but you can imagine it’s whatever you want-”

 

“It is a hound!” Matty said, grabbing it in his porcelain-white hands, “It’s Jenner! Can we put a ghost in it, mama? Like Uaid?”

 

“No more ghosts for now,” Vienne said, wrapping her arms around him, “Let’s go out into the rain tomorrow. No ghosts, no Uaid, no work. We’ll have a picnic with the sheep and monnies in the grasslands. We’ll bring the paper and make predictions over all next quarter’s duels. All right?”

 

Matty nodded, flipping over the poppet’s button eyes in mild fascination. Vienne fingered his hair.

 

“But you know, Matty, if you want to go to the Childrens’ House instead, that is all right too.”

 

“No,” he said without hesitation, “You would be alone.”

 

“But I have Gerald here and Ronald and the lads and Uaid too. It’s not your job to be my friend.”

 

“No.” Matty shook his head. “No.”

 

In a nest of cushions and blankets they slept together in the parlour that night. Vienne awoke at every sound; at every itching in her palms. When great-great grandmother’s clock struck the fifth hour, she left Matty and crept towards the workshop, grabbing her notes along the way.

 

Vienne Quigley was not good at everything she wished she was good at. She could not sew. She could only stuff pies and boil chickens. She could not love Matty properly, nor be the sort of wife that Mathis needed. She couldn’t make the weapons that the March wished for, nor find the kindness that Uaid’s half-formed mind required to be the fair and sagacious overseer of the powerful body she was making for it. Her house was a shambles, her business had been overtaken by her obsession, and there was not a single person in all the world who understood why she could not sleep at night. Why she had never been able to sleep at night.

 

“You can’t be selfish, Uaid,” she whispered, pulling the tarp from father’s farcyte. The khert was an eye looking back at her; an eye twinkling with the light of a billion other eyes. “You have to be better than me.”

 

2015 Ashley Cope
Commissioned by jardindelanuit - Thank you!