Authors: Beth Cato
I gathered my own cadre of guards, and we traced her path back through camp. I recognized the area where I had collided with that horse, and ordered a quick search for my wand. I imagined how it must have flown from my hand at impact, and looked inside the nearest tents.
It was in the third that I found the body, and recognized the insignia. This man had not succumbed to enteric illness. I called over one of my men. “Fetch Captain Yancy immediately.”
Just minutes later, the Captain arrived with his full retinue. We stood over the corpse of Sanitation Officer Wagner.
“Arsenic, no question,” I said. Wagner's hands had the blue tint of oxygen deprivation, his skin shrunken by dehydration in a way not dissimilar to the other sick soldiers. Most every Caskentian camp had seen such suicide cases, often among officers. A quick search of the tent uncovered Wagner's own admission of guilt recorded in a note. He confessed he'd been paid a bag of coins by a Waster and intended to use the money to move his family south and out of Caskentia. He had thought that the contamination was meant to merely sicken men, not kill thousands.
Miss Leander needed to see this note later. She needed to know the cold truth. Perhaps it would pour some much-Âneeded common sense into her brain.
“If he'd gone through court-Âmartial, we would have burned him.” Captain Yancy shrugged. “Now we can't even give his body to the dogs.”
I nodded. “Arsenic causes unimaginable agony, but his dose was high, his symptoms brief. If he had any sort of honor, he'd have endured the same prolonged misery he wrought on his peers.”
“Sir! M'lady!” called one of the privates. He stood amidst Wagner's luggage. “Is this the missing bellywood bark?”
“Let me see!” I gasped in relief. “Oh! Rush this to the wards. It must be sanitized as a precaution. With this, we can save hundreds more men.”
“Yes, m'lady!” After a nod from Captain Yancy, the soldier dashed away.
“All my men looking, and here you find Wagner, and with him the missing healing herbs.” Captain Yancy gazed upon me with something akin to adoration. I couldn't say I minded. “This is something of a miracle, Miss Percival.”
Miss Leander would undoubtedly credit such good fortune to the Lady. Perhaps that was true. Perhaps this
the Lady granting me a small measure of gratitude for doing her work. I had even recovered my wand nearby.
“I absolutely agree, Captain. Now if you'll excuse me.” I had earned my miracle, but now I had a rogue medician to find.
My inquiries led me and my guards back to the water tanks, and beyond. Her group stood out like black cats against the blank hillside about a half mile away. The pickets were none too pleased that we were following the others across the pontoon bridge and up the hill. I didn't debate the foolishness of leaving the camp so soon after an attack. My escorts had their guns in hand as we trudged upward.
The snow was rendered deep gray by the afternoon shadow of the peak above. There were no trees. On this side of the Pinnacles, the bleakness of the Waste was already evident. This snow seeped into soil that could grow little more than sharp grass that made most beasts sick.
Miss Leander had set out her medician blanket. The sewn edge of the woven honeyflower stem circle glinted on the enchanted white fabric. On either side of it, she had used ground honeyflower to form smaller circles. These would likewise attract the Lady's focus for healings though these were far too small to encompass human bodies.
“Miss Leander!” I called. “What is this nonsense?”
She faced me, her fingers tangled together at her waist. “Miss Percival! If this works, maybe it will help. But I don't know. Oh Lady, I don't know.”
“If what works?” I looked between the blankets and her soldiers, several of whom held metal buckets. By the strong stench, it seemed one contained vomit.
“You said earlier that water couldn't tell us if it carried poisonous zymes. Those words have itched in my brain ever since. What if I could hear poison itself?”
“You cannot because it's impossible.”
She shook her head like a horse trying to slap away flies. “Nothing is impossible for the Lady. She's connected to all life, even zymesâÂ”
“Miss Leander, do I need to repeat the fundamentals you should have learned as a child? Zymes are living beings that require a magnifying scope to be seen. We cannot hear them, only the cascading consequences they create within a body.”
Avoiding my glare, Miss Leander took a bucket from a soldier. The contents sloshed. She set it in a circle on the snow, then grabbed another bucket. The soldiers looked unsettled by this confrontation between us.
“I sanitized these buckets with my wand before filling them,” said Miss Leander. “One has expulsions from a sick man. One has water from the river, just downstream. These two have snow from the slope here. Guards sighted Wasters in this vicinity about three days ago, and they exchanged gunfire. It makes me wonder .Â .Â .” She set another bucket in a honeyflower circle.
wonder how many men are dying because we're not in the wards,” I said.
She flinched as if I'd struck her. That gave me a petty sense of satisfaction. “I must try this, Miss Percival.” Her tone was soft. She knelt within her medician blanket. Snow crunched and squeaked beneath her as she folded herself into an Al Cala position.
I felt the profound urge to grab her by the arm like an unruly child, drag her back down to the camp. But no. She could look like a fool and get this charade over and done.
“Lady,” she whispered. The heat of the Lady's magic flashed against my skin. The soldiers made a collective gasp of surprise.
“We need your help, Lady. You know how these men have suffered from poison. Please, grant me your insight. Help me find the source.” Her voice was muffled, her face pressed to kiss her blanket.
After a moment, she sat up, expression puckered in a frown. I turned away, ready to return to the wards. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her stand and step across the still-Âactivated circle. Power lapped against me. The intensity crackled like a bonfire.
Such sheer power was not normal. Not even for Miss Leander.
She stooped to touch a circle that contained another bucket. Another ripple of heat passed over me. “Please, Lady. Grace me,” she said, tone reverent. An instant later, she gasped, touching her ears. “Oh, Lady. Oh my.”
“What is it?” I asked, stepping closer.
“IâÂI hear something. Like hundreds of mice, gnawing at wood. There's a rhythm to it.” Tears filled her eyes. “It's the zymes. I can hear the zymes.”
“That's not possible.” And yet, I knew it must be true. Deceit of this nature wasn't in her.
I had devoted my entire life to the Lady's work, to teaching her magic, her majesty. Now Miss LeanderâÂthis mere girlâÂhad succeeded in
Miss Leander was not listening to me. She was listening to music that no medician had ever heard before. She moved from circle to circle, whispering as if in a conversation with the Lady. With her glistening white robes against gray snow, she was a figure worthy of a stained-Âglass window in a cathedral.
It was at that moment I realized I loathed Miss Leander.
I could have shattered that window, clawed every shard of glass from its leaden pane. Miss Leander had always been closer to the Lady than anyone I had ever known. A better healer, a more giving person. She was nice, oh so very nice, and pure and righÂteous. And here she had proven me wrong by simply thinking to
something of the Lady.
She finished her rounds and returned to her blanket to murmur her thanks to the Lady's Tree. The circle disengaged. She looked up at me. Her expression mirrored that of the men around us, a mixture of terror and awe.
“The music of the zymes is the same in the vomit and in the river, though the vomit is far more potent. As with many zymes, they multiplied inside the body. This first pail of snow is nearly silentâÂwe grabbed that from over there,” she motioned, “But this one here, from farther down the slope, it bears the same poison. They laced it into the snow itself.”
“Bloody brilliant,” whispered one of the soldiers.
She nodded, clearly assuming he spoke of the Wasters and not her. “They must have tainted a large stretch of snow above the river.”
“Good work, Miss Leander.” I tried to place sincerity behind the words. “Your .Â .Â . eccentricity, your closeness with the Lady has likely saved many more soldiers. I'm certain the security of our sanitation efforts will be the highest priority of the command here and elsewhere.”
But as I looked on her, I couldn't disguise how I felt. My hatred flushed my cheeks, constricted my throat, trembled through my fingertips. My gaze was pure, bullet-Âeyed envy, and I didn't care that she knew. Her throat bobbed as she swallowed and turned away. I stood taller in satisfaction. I could still make the girl quail.
“Saving the men is what matters most,” she said hoarsely. “I must speak with the Lieutenant Commander, or the Colonel, if he's awake.”
“Your pardon, Miss Percival. I'm used to being the highest-Âranking medician here. That's your jurisdiction, of course.”
“Yes.” I paced around her, slowly, my boots crunching in the snow. “All of my medicians have toiled this day. I'll tell them this is an extraordinary discovery in the name of our academy.”
“They'll know.” Her words were almost indecipherable.
I stepped closer. “What was it you said, Miss Leander?”
She met my eyes. “They'll know this came from the Lady, not any of us. I was just the vessel.”
My rage could not form words. I paced by her again and again. “Since you're still laboring under the belief that you're the lead matron here, you go tell the Colonel how
Lady has graced you. Leave the honeyflower circles here. I will listen to the zymes as well.”
We both knew I would not be able to hear the zymes, that I was her superior in title alone, but I still had to try. She collected her blanket and walked downhill with her cadre of guards.
“Miss Leander!” I called when she was about twenty feet away. She half turned toward me. “I found Officer Wagner, dead of arsenic poisoning. A suicide, complete with a note. The Wasters paid him to remove the rods. Be careful whom you trust. Your naivety might get you killed.”
Grief flashed across her face. She turned away, wordless, and continued her march down the slope.
I walked around the buckets in their circles. My own blanket was in my satchel, right at my hip. I had no immediate urge to pull it out and prove my inadequacies.
“M'lady?” asked one of the men. I recognized him as the one who had made the “bloody brilliant” comment. “Would it be all right if we all had something to drink? I have these tea cans. You're welcome to one, too.”
From his haversack, he pulled out slender tins of Royal-ÂTea, one of those newfangled commercial drinks.
“No, thank you, though it's wise of you to stay hydrated. Such tins should be safe.” Empty words, advice recited from memory.
He smiled, the thick length of his mustache curving. “Do ask if you change your mind, m'lady. It's an excellent drink. Good for health!”
“Better than poisoned tank water, I'm sure.” I wavered on my feet, suddenly overwhelmed by weariness, by everything. The sick men who lingered. The injured from the battle and the nearby trenches. The dead, and paperwork that came with their demise. The security of our barracks, and the water tanks, and the camp itself. All demanded immediate attention.
“She's an amazing medician, isn't she?” asked the soldier, his gaze turned to follow her downhill. “That Miss Leander?”
“Yes,” I said, my voice hollow. “She's the best.”
And I was not.
he wrench wasn't Rivka's, but the heft and fit were perfect in her hand. Her tongue jabbed over her lip as she leveraged her weight through her arm. The obstinate bolt finally twisted free. She held up a small washer to her audience.
“This was the biggest problem, the one that caused so many other issues. See? One side is almost worn through.”
The engineers in their coveralls stood around her, arms folded, expressions uncertain. One of the men finally held out a hand to accept the washer. With a grunt, he passed it along. “Well, I'll be. Er. Thank you, miss.”
Rivka knew they had tolerated her meddling because she was an invitee to Balthazar Cody's party. His guests came from wealth and stature. They obviously weren't quite sure what to make of a young woman like her. She wasn't sure anymore, either.
The one-Âman band dismantled around her was the sort of advanced technology the southern nations were known for. A cylinder in the chest played tunes while the figure's sets of arms held a trumpet, chimes, flute, drum, and other instruments, all programmed to play on cue. It had created quite the impression at the party when its first song consisted of a sputtering, flatulent trumpet blast that continued a minute without ceasing. The appalled crew of engineers had hauled it down the corridor for repairs. Like a cat tempted by string, Rivka had followed.
She held up one of the articulated hands and flexed a metal pinky finger. The artistry on the construct was extraordinary, the movement almost liquid. A shame she didn't have her workbook along to sketch the schematics, but she could scribble her memories the instant she arrived home.
Across the room, a grandfather clock began to chime. She glanced up. Little airships adorned the clock's hands and hovered against a backdrop of gray-Âmarble clouds. Nine o'clock? She had been working on the mecha for almost an hour? Beyond the carefully staged metal parts, her gloves and silk cardigan had been discarded in a wrinkled pile. Her fingertips appeared ink-Âdipped, her carefully done manicure ridged in black. Her dressÂ .Â .Â .
“Damnation,” she muttered. Two months of refined southern education couldn't eradicate a lifetime of Caskentian slang and blasphemy. “Grandmother is going to kill me.”
Grandmother Stout regarded this as something of a societal debut for Rivka. Rivka regarded it as a form of torture that stole away time better spent on the machinery she used to pay the rent; it was important to her that she support herself as much as possible, even as she lived with Grandmother in this strange new city. Rivka had shown up on her doorstep as a refugee, a letter of introduction from Miss Leander in her hand. Days before that, Rivka hadn't known she had any living family at all. Grandmother had welcomed her wholeheartedly.
As a show of sacrifice and gratitude, Rivka even let Grandmother choose her dress for this evening. It was a ghastly, fashionable
, and probably worth more than Rivka would have made in a month at the little bakery she had run in Caskentia.
She scrambled to her bare feet. The stiff leather flats hadn't proven suitable for mechanist labor best done at a squat or on her knees. Rivka touched her hopelessly stained dress and was relieved she didn't leave a new fingerprint. She gathered up her unsoiled things and shoved her feet inside her shoes.
“I wish I had time to put the automaton together again, butâÂ”
“We can do it,” a man said, his voice tight.
Conversation and the chimes of crystal echoed down the hallway, and out of the babble she recognized Grandmother's high laugh. Rivka grimaced. Grandmother was
here. She might not be as rich as many present, but she had a commanding way about her that made her seem like more. She
more, though very few others knew that truth.
And Rivka .Â .Â . well. She was supposed to engage in small talk and not portray any of her crude upbringing in the high towers and catwalks of neighboring Caskentia's capital of Mercia. Nor was she supposed to acknowledge reactions to her cleft lip. The polite glances, the pity, the way some Âpeople couldn't quite look at her at all. Grandmother wouldn't let Rivka wear her hair loose to hide her face, either. “Raise your chin!” Grandmother kept saying. It drove Rivka batty and made her all the more anxious to return home, to her workshop, where five projects-Âin-Âprogress awaited. Dismantled engines made far better conversation companions than hoity-Âtoity Tamarans.
Here on the fourth floor of a city tower that scraped the clouds, Mr. Cody had decorated his flat in lush gold and dark wood. The carpet was thick like storybook grass. She spied a sink through a doorway and ducked inside the chamber. Ah, hot and cold tap waterâÂthat was a luxury she had happily adjusted to here in Tamarania.
She scrubbed her hands until the oil faded to gray and tugged on gloves to cover her blackened nails. The cardigan, however, couldn't fully hide the damage to her dress. It had looked wretched on her before, and now the cloth appeared as if it had broken out in some god-Âawful disease.
No point in trying to make a rabbit like you look pretty. Nothin' can hide that lip of yours.
” The raspy voice of Mr. Stout echoed in her brain. He'd been her benefactor, and her tormentor, when he took her in after Mama died. Rivka didn't know he was her father by blood, not until right before he'd been killed.
For a dead man, he was still terribly loud in her memory.
Rivka returned to the fringe of the party, her arms folded to hide the worst of the oil. Slipping out early wasn't an option; Grandmother had only recently dismissed extra guards from the household, certain that the threat of the Waste had abated, and she'd go loony if Rivka was out of sight too long.
If Rivka could temporarily hide from Grandmother, though, that would delay an airship's payload of nagging.
Some thirty Âpeople mingled in the parlor. Balthazar Cody was one of the augusts of the city-Âstate of Tamarania, essentially a councilman over a city of millions. The man wielded tremendous political power, but his Arena was what made him a sensation. The next competitive bout between massive war machines would take place in a matter of weeks.
Rivka spied Grandmother; she was a pasty blot amidst the darker skin tones that dominated the room. The old woman's high mass of silver curls featured a vivid red streak that coiled into a thick bun at the back. Grandmother gesticulated punctuation to most every word in her conversation. Rivka caught her eye to offer a wave and tepid smile. Grandmother nodded acknowledgment and carried on.
Good. Rivka had been sighted. Now she could retreat again.
Cheers erupted on the other side of the room. Rivka saw the tall head of the assembled one-Âman band.
“You fixed it! Good-Âo!” called a fellow.
Rivka swallowed her annoyance. She spied a shadowed space behind two potted trees near the entry doors and stepped within the gap. Her shoulders pressed to the wall behind the trees. From here, she could monitor the room like some Clockwork Dagger engaged in espionage.
The wall quivered against her back as the doors opened to admit someone.
“Well, greetings of the evening to you!” Rivka recognized the rich tones of Balthazar Cody. The man talked like a salesman. She could barely see him through the leaves. He was likely near Grandmother's age, his skin like mahogany, his short and frizzy hair striped in white. “I wasn't sure if you'd come.”
“I wasn't sure if I would, either.” The voice was teenaged, maybe close to her own age. Rivka peered through the plants to see better. The girl wore a creamy column dress that contrasted with her warm, nutmeg-Âtoned skin. Her black hair was braided and molded into triple buns. She looked like the perfect Tamaran young lady. “Why did you invite me? I doubt you've forgiven me.”
Cody laughed. Guffawed, really. “You're so like your brother.” He sobered. “No, I have not fully forgiven you. Because of you, I lost my grandest creation.”
“I lost my brother then, too.”
“Ah, your Alonzo's still alive, and I doubt he's stayed angry with you, even if you did shove his lady-Âlove medician into a box and ship her to Mercia as freight.”
Lady-Âlove medician. They were talking about Octavia Leander. Rivka smothered her gasp with a gloved hand. Miss Leander was the kindest, strongest person Rivka had ever knownâÂand this girl had shipped her as
“I want to know why you invited me to your party tonight.”
“You're so young to be soâÂ”
“I heard your mother has fully recovered from a dreadful illness. Is it true she'll be moving here soon?”
“Yes. She's selling her house in Mercia and will move in the spring.” Silence dragged out. “You want something from Mother. It's because she's in Mercia, isn't it? She knows everyone there. What, did you lose your spies during the riots?”
“Come now, I'm not permitted to care for the welfare of an old friend?”
“You've cared very little up to this point.”
“Your suspicion wounds me. Consider this party invitation a gesture of reconciliation between us.”
“I might as well eat. You do serve good food.”
Mr. Cody laughed as he walked away.
Rivka waited a moment, then leaned out of her hiding place with a rustle of branches. “Hello! I'm Rivka Stout.” The new surname still felt strange to say, but Grandmother said it was for the best, that it would raise fewer questions about their relationship. “I heard you talking to Mr. Cody. I wasn't trying to, but I was right there, and .Â .Â . anyway, you know Octavia Leander? You're Alonzo Garret's sister?”
“Oh. Yes. I'm Tatiana Garret.” She quickly recovered from the surprise of someone emerging from behind potted plants. “You're related to Mrs. Stout, the publisher? Alonzo mentioned her. Why are you back there?”
“It looked cozier than anywhere else in the room.” Rivka stepped out into the open again.
“What's all over your dress?”
“Just oil.” Tatiana arched an eyebrow. “Your accent. You're from upper Mercia, aren't you?”
Upper Mercia, meaning the towers, trams, and high catwalks. Not to be confused with the formal accent of the refined street-Âlevel denizens, with their lilting syllables and absent contractions.
“Yes. I've only been here a few months. I .Â .Â .” Rivka froze. Grandmother had worked her way through the crowd. She spoke with someone only ten feet away. If she turned, she'd see Rivka.
“Damn it. I can't stay here.” She dashed toward a different hallway.
“How did you stain it like that?” Tatiana trailed her.
“The one-Âman band over there. I fixed it.” A cheery flute carried over the conversations. Tatiana's incredulous snort made Rivka turn around with a frown. “What?”
“In the middle of Mr. Cody's party,
fixed a mecha.”
“Why's that so hard to believe?”
“It seems very .Â .Â . Caskentian to dirty yourself like that.”
“Isn't your brother from Caskentia? Aren't you?”
“I haven't lived there in years.” Her tone made it clear that this was a very good thing.
They reached the end of the hallway. Rivka released a huff of breath. This didn't seem far enough from Grandmother, from everyone. As awful as Caskentia had been, as many horrible memories as she had, Rivka missed it the way a bird misses a cage. It was familiar. It was home. Defective as she was, she didn't stand out that much. Among soldiers and civilians alike, missing limbs, scars, and burns were common after fifty years of near-Âconstant war.
Rivka tried the doorknob. It didn't budge. She stooped to stare at the lock.
“It's locked for a reason,” said Tatiana. “Mr. Cody owns much of this building and the Arena next door. He doesn't want Âpeople stealing things.”
“I don't intend to steal anything. I just want to get away from the party.”
She pulled her small screwdriver from where she had threaded it beneath her satin belt. Grandmother was fine with her always keeping such tools on hand so long as Rivka was discreet.
“One must always be prepared!
” Grandmother often said. Considering Grandmother's own past, she'd know.
It took a matter of seconds to pick the lock; Mr. Stout's lessons had come in handy. Mr. Cody had obviously intended the mechanism to slow down rather than prevent an intruder. The high-Âsociety sorts at the party down the hall wouldn't be able to pick their own noses, much less a door.
“Then what are you doing?” asked Tatiana.
“I told you, getting away from Âpeople for a while. Why are you following me?”
“I thought we were having a conversation.”
This side of the hallway looked much the same, but the feel was quite different. The sounds of the party didn't carry. Rivka released a deep breath at the welcome quiet. Seconds later, men's voices echoed down the way. Rivka and Tatiana ducked into the nearest room.
The light was dim, but Rivka could see the sheen of glass and metal. Shelves were lined with display cases of mechanical limbs. Hands, arms, legs, feet. Skin was absent, the artistry of construction bared to the eye.
“Wow,” Rivka said, leaning closer to a display.
Fifty years had passed since Caskentia's Golden Age, and near-Âconstant wars had retarded its development. Not so in the progressive southern city-Âstates. Tamarania boasted well-Âkept tramways, airship buses between the metropolitan islands, even pneumatic tubes for communication within its towers.
Once Rivka was caught up with her academic work, she needed to find an apprenticeship. Tamarania abounded with masters of mechanical crafts, and Mr. Cody likely employed the best of the best. That was evident by the limbs in this room.
“My brother has a mechanical leg. I've never .Â .Â . really seen what it looks like inside.” Tatiana was clearly rattled.