Authors: Beth Cato
The circle was activated again and sent a faint wave of heat over Rivka's skin. Outside the ring, the workers waited with military posture. The medicians began to work, which involved a great deal of muttering and hand-Âwaving and herb-Âsprinkling. The mechanist stared at them and every so often tweaked the mechanical arm or said something too low to hear.
It was hard to see the creature with Âpeople in the way, but they occasionally stepped aside, and Rivka could see its face.
Beady black eyes stared straight at her, unblinking. Its countenance seemed .Â .Â . blank. Braced for whatever was to come. Rivka knew that numbness. She'd known it every day for months after Mr. Stout moved her into the bakery. That constant dread of what he'd say. What he'd do. What he'd make her do.
Rivka twisted her skirt. She should speak up. She should do something. What? A hand gripped her, forced her to stay still and down. Tatiana's expression reflected dismay as she put a finger to her lips.
“This is taking forever. It's as if the Lady doesn't want to grant us help. Pah!” Miss Arfetta used a cloth to mop her brow. “At least this chimera is smaller than the first one we made. Less flesh, smaller limbs. Agility over brute strength.” She stood back and nodded to herself.
“It'll need a smaller jockey then, too, won't it, m'lady?”
Beside Rivka, Tatiana fidgeted.
Miss Arfetta snorted. “Don't get any ideas, Broderick. You might be skinny as a tram rail, but you're too tall. Watch out for that jar youâÂ” Something struck the floor with a loud ping. Her screech rose like a siren. “You clumsy oaf! You spilled pampria all over the floor! You'll need to sanitize all of it, every shred! Do you have any idea how expensive this is?”
“Yes, m'lady! I'm sorry!” He knelt and vanished from Rivka's line of sight.
“Scoop it up. Use that bag there, yes. That kind of mistake could kill someone. You know what happens when you kill a patient?”
“Yes, Miss Arfetta. You don't earn a profit.”
“That's right. Now take that mess and the wand and go over there.” Miss Arfetta waved. The bangles on her wrist jingled. “Make sure every last zyme is cleansed away.”
“Yes, Miss Arfetta.” He walked straight for their hiding place. Tatiana grabbed Rivka's arm. They couldn't retreat to the other crates, either; Mr. Cody's men still stood close by. Broderick set his things atop their crate. His white trousers showed through the gap between boxes. The sharp cinnamon-Âlike odor of the pampria filled her senses.
Some of the red herbs spilled again, drifting between the boxes. Broderick stooped down.
His gaze met with theirs. His jaw fell slack as he emitted a yelp.
Seconds later, the other men rounded the backside of the crates. “Damn t'all!” one cried. “Where'd you gals come from?”
Tatiana stood first, arms folded over her chest. “I'm Miss Tatiana Garret, a guest of August Balthazar Cody.”
Rivka felt the intense stares of the men and ducked her chin as if to hide her lip. “Me, too. A guest of Balthazar Cody, I mean. I'm Rivka Stout.”
“What is this hullabaloo?” Miss Arfetta swept over, her face a dark storm cloud. “You girls, spying on us?”
“Best let Mr. Cody know,” said one of the men.
“Best let me know what?” Mr. Cody's voice boomed from the entrance. “That my two youngest guests decided to explore the premises?” He glanced behind him. “Go fetch Mrs. Stout.”
Tatiana curtsied as Mr. Cody approached them. Rivka followed Tatiana's example.
“It's very good to see you, Mr. Cody,” said Tatiana. “This laboratory you created is a marvel!”
One of his hands rested on the great swell of his gut, which was barely restrained by a red vest. “Well, yes, butâÂ”
“I had heard you were making another chimera, but it's amazing to actually see the process.” Tatiana clutched her hands to her chest.
“I don't perform for audiences!” snapped Miss Arfetta.
“I didn't invite them down here, Miss Arfetta, I assure you.” His cool gaze shifted to Rivka. “This must have been especially educational for you as an aspiring mechanist. That one-Âman band upstairs is playing better than when it was new. I hire the best engineers in the city, and you bested them when it came to a mere toy.”
She kept her chin ducked, unsure of what to say.
“There you are, my dear!” Grandmother strolled into the room. “Goodness, the tizzy you caused! We have searched here, there, and everywhere!” She embraced Rivka, almost crushing her against the magnificent cushion of her sequined chest. Her lips pressed to Rivka's ear.
“Tell the man as little as possible. He's a rabid mouse in search of any crumb,” she whispered. Grandmother turned in a dramatic gesture to beam at Tatiana. “And you are Alonzo's sister! My goodness, the resemblance! Blue eyes and all.”
Tatiana curtsied again, wariness lurking behind a poised smile.
Grandmother turned her bright smile to their host. “Oh Mr. Cody, I'm so very glad for your help in finding my dear granddaughter. I hope we haven't been too much trouble. I can walk them upstairs. Tatiana, do you have an escort home?”
“One of my manservants brought me since it's after dark. I can send a messageâÂ”
Rivka glanced at the medician's apprentice, Broderick, who stood at the back, forgotten in the fuss. He gazed at her, clearly chagrined. She gave him the tiniest of nods. They'd surprised him, so she couldn't blame him for giving them away.
Behind him, the torso of the gremlin lay very still in its circle, though it had turned just enough to keep its gaze on her. Rivka ached to hug it, even with all the risk involved, just so the chimera knew it wasn't alone. That someone cared.
She cared about the yellow-Âflagged little gremlins, too. What could she really do for them? The apprentice had been kind enough to give the large chimera blankets. Surely, he'd take good care of the little ones, keep them comfortable at the end.
That cart would be emptied tonight, only to be filled again.
Mr. Cody's wide grin exposed brilliant white teeth in contrast to his rich skin. Disturbing, really, how most everyone here lied through smiles all at once. “Of course they've been no trouble. They're inquisitive young ladies, dangerously bright. I hope to see you again soon, Mrs. Stout.”
“I will call on you, Mr. Cody,” she said airily. “Perhaps you'll need more mechanicals repaired.”
Rivka turned enough to see the chimera one last time. Its brand-Ânew arm rose, just a tad, as if to wave her farewell.
To an Arena audience, it didn't matter if mechas were destroyed in the processâÂthey were just metal. Mr. Stout used to rejoice when word spread that jockeys were burned or crushed; he liked it when Âpeople suffered as he had.
That chimera was not metal. It knew pain. It had a soul. Rivka could tell, looking in those eyes. Same with the little ones in their cages.
Grandmother, Rivka, and Tatiana waited together for the lift. “I'm appalled, Rivka,” Grandmother murmured. “Your new dress, spattered in oil!”
Rivka glanced down. “I'm sorry. I started to work, and I didn't even think about it.”
“One must always think of one's attire! It's how you present yourself to the public, as important as a smileâÂyes, even your smile, dear child. I should note, a smile can disarm someone more readily than fisticuffs, and it will
“Maybe my next dress should match oil stains,” Rivka muttered, feeling guilty at Grandmother's waste of money on her attire. She had to depend on Grandmother for too much alreadyâÂher private tutor alone cost a fortune.
“A dress that allows spatter to blend in! Excellent idea.” Grandmother nodded, not sounding the least bit facetious.
“Mrs. Stout, my brother Alonzo mentioned you when he was here,” said Tatiana. “You were on that airship together?”
airship. One way of describing it though I certainly hope he granted you a more sanitized version of events.”
The lift lowered into place. This time, an operator manned the station and returned them to the fourth floor. They disembarked into a quiet hallway. The doors that had been locked before were now wide open in wait for them.
“You girls make your farewells. I'll proceed to the party to fetch our hats and coats. I trust neither of you will wander again?”
The look in Grandmother's eye governed both their responses. “No, m'lady,” they said, almost simultaneously. Grandmother granted them a prim, royal nod and strode down the hall.
“That was very clever, how you acted for Mr. Cody,” said Rivka. “I thought we'd be boiled meat for sure.”
“Like your grandmother said, a smile's a powerful thing. Mr. Cody might not be happy with us right now, but I'd much prefer to have him as an ally.”
“The gremlins down there. He just creates and re-Âcreates .Â .Â . living things? No one tries to stop him?”
“Why would they? Mr. Cody's probably one of the wealthiest men in all the city-Âstates, and an august, too. He's not a fellow you say âno' to. ÂPeople love his Arena. They loved his first big chimera, too.”
“I can't bear to think of that new one being ridden into the Arena like that. It's cruel. It's horrible.” She paused, realizing how that sounded. “I'm not judging your brother for what he did beforeâÂ”
“You'd better not.” Tatiana's voice had an edge to it.
“Your brother was put in terrible danger by being a rider, too. That doesn't have to happen again.” Rivka nodded to herself, decision made. “I need to return to Cody's laboratory.”
“Why? To go into the circle again and get your head chomped off? Open up all the little cages?”
“No. Those gremlins are hurt, some of them wingless. Setting them loose in the city won't save them. It's a different sort of cruelty.” So many were dead or about to die. Too many. “I need to fix this. Somehow.”
That's what it came down to. Rivka couldn't tolerate it when things were broken. It made her itchy, anxious with need to get her hands into the guts of a machine and make it work. Mr. Cody seemed to do a good job of making gremlins, but assembling the big chimera .Â .Â . he was completing the job, but there was an inherent
to it. Death was supposed to bring peace, and those little gremlins were granted no such consideration. How could a medician even be party to such a thing? Miss Leander wouldn't be. Rivka was sure of that.
“The apprentice,” she said slowly. “Broderick. Maybe he would help. In any case, he'd know more about the process.”
“That's an idea.” Tatiana clenched Rivka's bared wrist, her fingers dark against the golden skin. “I bet I can find out where their shop is. We can ask him.” For once, her smile seemed bright and genuine. “I'll call on you!” With that, Tatiana left in a swirl of skirts.
In the party, the one-Âman band seemed even louder, the laughter higher, the liveried servants scurrying about like ants. Like Tatiana, many of the guests wore cream-Âcolored attire; Tamarans certainly loved their trends.
Grandmother waited by the door. She remained silent until they were farther down the hall.
“I didn't have a proper chance to nose around down there. Am I correct that Mr. Cody is in the thick of creating another of his hybrid mechanicals for the Arena?” she murmured.
“Yes.” Rivka didn't feel like talking about it with Grandmother. She'd want to meddle and control.
“Hmm. Those white robes are the signature of a woman trained at Miss Percival's academy. She must have come after my time.” Grandmother had no magic but had taken sanctuary at the academy through her teen years. “A medician doing that kind of insidious work. My goodness. I tell you what, Octavia Leander would be outraged. She has a peculiar fondness for gremlins.”
Judging by the big chimera's reaction to Miss Leander's name, that fondness seemed to be mutual. Rivka pursed her lips in thought.
“TatianaâÂMiss GarretâÂsaid she would call on me soon.”
“It does my heart good to see you make a friend through mischief! Though mind you, that girl's sharp as a knife with both her wits and tongue. She cuts anyone who gets close. You know what she did to Miss Leander?” Grandmother waited for Rivka's reaction and nodded as well. “Still, I have to admire the way she handled Mr. Cody. That smile of hers could
fool me. Almost.”
“I don't think I'd call her a friend yet.” Rivka scarcely knew what to make of Tatiana Garret, but she was willing to help with the gremlins. That was
“Whatever she is, if she's able to pry you from your gadgets for a time, bless her! Oh, I know you have excuses aplenty. You need to pay your way. You need to prove yourself. But you also need to get out! And do lift your chin when you're in society. You have nothing of which to be ashamed! Well, on
account. That dress of yours is a totally different matter .Â .Â .”
ays later, Rivka and Tatiana sat together on a train headed south. Tatiana looked at ease, but Rivka could not relax. Mercia's trams were nothing like those of Tamarania. Their railcar had full-Âglass windows, clean floors, clean
. No one tried to sleep under the seats or stank of pox or tried to pickpocket or grope. The foreignness of it was disconcerting.
“That medician, Miss Arfetta, lives on the south end of the isle,” said Tatiana. “It's a few more stops away.”
“That far away from the plaza? What weapon do you have?” Rivka fingered the tiny screwdriver tucked into her sleeve. It'd do no good unless someone was mere inches away, but she wasn't half-Âbad if it came to a brawl. Her formal academics may have stopped at age nine, but Mercia had been quite educational in other ways.
Tatiana gawked. “A weapon? No one is going to bother us.”
Rivka cast her a sidelong look. “Really. How often do you wander from the safety of the plaza?”
Out the window, the sky sagged with gray clouds. Raindrops dappled the glass. Airships passed every which way. Their brightly colored envelopes stood bold against the dreary backdrop. Mercia didn't have colorful airshipsâÂthey were too good a target in Caskentia's constant war with the Waste.
“The south isle isn't
dangerous. It's not like the tenement district where most Caskentian refugees live. That's on another island altogether. This one is for .Â .Â . lower caste. Magi. Day laborers. Tamarans who get their hands dirty.”
Tamarans held aether magi in good esteem, from what Rivka understoodâÂthey were necessary to run airshipsâÂbut it vexed her that other magic was regarded as quaint, the very opposite of science and progress. It seemed idiotic that Âpeople couldn't appreciate magic and science together.
But then, maybe there'd be more Âpeople like Mr. Cody, too.
“How long have you lived in Tamarania?”
Tatiana continued to stare out the window, and for a minute, Rivka wondered if she had heard her. “A few years now. When Mother started to get sick, that's how she tried to hide it from me. She acted like it was all for my education, of course.”
“It'll be nice for her to be here. For you to be together.”
Tatiana grimaced. Rivka wondered if Tatiana's help with the gremlins was a sort of last hurrah before her freedom was greatly curtailed. Rivka could understand that, in a way. Tatiana had known years with no parents present, a life of wealth with a household of undoubtedly indulgent servants.
“It sounds like your mother was very sick. She could have died without Miss Leander's intervention.” Rivka leaned closer and lowered her voice. “Trust me. Don't take her for granted. I was very close to my mama. After Papa died in the war, all we had was each other.” Papa, who wasn't really her father. Her mind could never stop wrestling with that. “I was out delivering bread and making machinery repairs when our building caught fire. Mama was on the ninth floor. I watched from a neighboring tower as our tenement collapsed.”
Tatiana's eyes were wide. “There were no firemen?”
“This was Mercia. The firemen came, eventually. The neighboring buildings paid to be sprayed down with water. My home .Â .Â . was mostly gone by then.”
“It'll be a change for you to have your mother here. I know. My grandmother makes me feel like a bug beneath a boot sometimes, but I don't take her for granted. I can't.”
Tatiana nodded and withdrew closer to the wall, her hands clenched on her lap.
Rivka sat back. It was strange to speak of what happened. She'd only told the full tale to Grandmother, and that had been especially hard, because of her son's role. Rivka wouldn't talk to Tatiana about
. Tatiana lived a different sort of life. She would never understand.
The tram squealed to a stop. Tatiana stood, and Rivka followed her to the door. Two young women in broad hats whispered to each other as they passed by.
“She looks Frengian with that light brown skin .Â .Â . sounds Caskentian.”
“That lip .Â .Â . should wear a mask. Travesty here .Â .Â .”
That old, festering rage welled in Rivka's throat, and she ducked her chin, self-Âconscious. Soon enough, she'd have money saved up to have her lip fixed. She wouldn't need to try to hide her face anymore, or deal with these stage whispers.
She pounded out her frustration on each metal step going down, and by the time they reached street level, she was breathless yet felt better. Brick buildings around them looked old and eroded but in good shape, with windows intact and doorsteps swept. Residents reflected the same shabby tidiness, as mothers with out-Âof-Âfashion hats pushed prams loaded with babies and groceries. Older-Âmodel steam cabriolets cluttered the streets, as did numerous bicycles.
The smell struck Rivka as strange. It took her a block to realize whyâÂthere was almost no horse manure in the street, even in a poorer neighborhood such as this. The few horses they encountered were in good health, too, quite a contrast to the bony nags that dragged wagons throughout Mercia.
Rivka spied a parasol jutting out of a rubbish bun. The stick was wooden and curved. The cloth of the parasol was stained yet mostly intact, barring a few tears near the edge. She pushed the canopy open, causing Tatiana to glance back in surprise.
“What are you doing?”
“Picking up a weapon just in case. Back in Mercia, I used to carry one of Mama's old rolling pins.”
“That's just a parasol,” scoffed Tatiana. “And this isn't Mercia. ÂPeople are
Rivka pulled the parasol shut again, her grip tightening. She had imagined how her rolling pin would meet Mr. Stout's skull so many times. When Mr. Stout finally did dieâÂthough not at her handâÂRivka had been unnerved at how accurate her imagination was. The way his skull crunched. The strange, almost chemical smell it emitted.
She still dreamed of that moment. Sometimes, she wasn't sure if she'd call it a nightmare.
“A parasol can do more than ward away the sunlight and rain,” she said quietly, and hooked it on her arm. “As for the civilization here, Tamarania likes to think well of itself, but there's still the Arena and that bloodlust. There's still Mr. Cody.”
Tatiana dismissed the argument with a flick of her wrist. “That's still not as bad as Caskentia and its fifty years of war. You don't even see many teenaged boys there. So many are already wounded or dead.”
“There are different kinds of awful.” She hefted the parasol and walked on. Tatiana tried to act as nonchalant as always, but Rivka noted she was much more alert. Good.
The address Tatiana had acquired led them to a redbrick building five floors high. Beyond the roof were high spires of airship-Âmooring towers, some with ships attached. The wind carried a stronger scent of the sea.
They took two flights of stairs up to a cramped hallway with mostly functional electric lights. The wooden floor griped beneath every footstep. Doors were adorned with signs of various residents and businesses, ranging from homeopath to seamstress to baker. That latter made Rivka smileâÂa home baker, just like Mama
She inhaled deeply to take in the lovely, yeasty smell that had penetrated the corridor. Maybe as they left, she'd buy something.
Tatiana knocked on the door bearing Miss Arfetta's sign. Even her knock was clipped and commanding. The floor creaked in warning of an approach. The door cracked open.
“Miss Arfetta's Medician Shop .Â .Â . oh. It's you two.” Broderick opened the door wide, his expression puzzled. “What are you doing here?”
“We're potential customers.” Tatiana, short as she was, breezed inside beneath his extended arm. Rivka offered an apologetic shrug and ducked beneath his arm to follow.
They each made formal introductions. The small room sang of fragrances. Shelves lined the walls to shoulder height and displayed jars of ingredients and poultices used in common doctoring. On a table sat a large mortar and pestle, the bowl mounded with partially ground red leaves.
“Miss Arfetta is out on rounds. What did you need? I can sell you doctoring herbs, but I can't do much more, not without her present.”
“We don't want to talk to her. We want to talk to you.” Tatiana leaned on one hip as she gazed up at him. “We want to know more about the big gremlin.”
“I'm not supposed to talk about the behemoth chimera. Trade secrets.” He said it wistfully. He
to talk. Good.
“Okay then,” said Rivka, her arms folded across her chest. “What do you think about the creature?” The behemoth chimera. It was good to know the proper term.
Broderick blinked. “What do I
“I .Â .Â . I just .Â .Â . I do my job, but .Â .Â .”
“Miss Arfetta doesn't treat you very well,” Rivka said softly.
A flush darkened his cheeks. “She's willing to apprentice me. I'm grateful for that. Most young medicians here give up, or have to go to
for training. But, uh. You're Caskentian, aren't you?”
Her smile was wry. “I know better than to be offended every time Âpeople shudder at the mention of my home country.”
He still looked discomfited. “Sorry. It's just, Tamarania is my home. I don't want to leave if I can help it.”
“Did everything go well with attaching the behemoth chimera's other arm?” Rivka asked.
He hesitated a moment, then shrugged, as if giving himself permission to talk. “Yes. The arms aren't the worst part. The legs are, and that's next. After that is the wings. The physical construction on them is about done.”
“The next Arena bout is in what, three or four weeks?” asked Tatiana. “That seems awfully close.”
“We started on this right after Mr. Cody lost the last chimera. The most time-Âconsuming work is done. We made the living body, the mechanist made the limbs. We then prayed over the metal, infusing it with magic.”
“Why do the arms first?” asked Rivka.
“It has to be taught how to manipulate items with hands and fingers. That fine motor work takes longer to develop than learning to walk.”
Rivka recalled how it had awkwardly waved her farewell. “Don't you get tired of calling it âit' all the time?”
“Yes, you really should name the thing. It's much tidier,” said Tatiana. “Is it a girl or boy? I couldn't .Â .Â . tell.”
“A behemoth gremlin doesn't have .Â .Â . outward parts. It creates vulnerability.” He flushed more. “Most creatures are female by default, but Mr. Cody wanted this one more male, more aggressive.”
“It didn't seem aggressive to me,” said Rivka.
“Well, sure. It's chained in a circle. Get up close, and it tries to bite. Did you see those teeth? They're made to tear through metal.”
Tatiana gave Rivka a direct, appraising look.
Rivka pressed her hands together, thankful she still had them. “I say we call him Lump, because that's what he looks like.”
“Not exactly the name of the next victor of the Arena,” said Broderick.
“Is that what it's all about for you, making this .Â .Â . Lump into a winner?” Tatiana wrinkled her nose.
Broderick's mouth was a hard line. At midday, his jaw was already fuzzed with hair growth. “I'd rather heal Âpeople, but the behemoth chimera is Miss Arfetta's biggest contract right now. I do my job.”
“And how often does she leave you here to grind herbs all day, mind the shop while she does
“Tatiana?” Rivka wasn't sure why Tatiana was goading him like this, but she didn't like it.
His brown eyes turned cold. “I'm learning from Miss Arfetta.”
“Certainly. Learning to use your mortar and pestle.” Tatiana motioned to the work in progress on the table. “What if you could learn more? Really learn?”
“How? There are only five other master medicians in Tamarania and they already haveâÂ”
“There will be one visiting here at some point, I imagine. The best of all. She's the one who befriended that other mecha-ÂchimeraâÂ”
“Tatiana!” snapped Rivka.
Tatiana ignored her. “See, this medician is marrying my brother,
she has taken over as headmistress of Miss Percival's school, so you know she's the best. Since I live here, I know they'll return eventually.”
“You're talking about Miss Octavia Leander,” he said slowly.
“You've heard of her?” asked Rivka.
“I suppose most all medicians have, with what she did during that poison attack during Caskentia's war last year. She's
.” He shook his head as if dazed. “But why? What are you wanting?”
Tatiana scowled; her manipulation was too transparent. “We want to watch you work on the big chimera. Lump.”
“We want to do more than watch. We want to help,” added Rivka.
“Help, how?” Broderick looked between them.
“Can you get us in?” Tatiana offered a bright smile.
“Is this one of those games where we keep answering questions with questions?”
“We're not sure what we can do yet.” Rivka frowned and worked her lips together as she tried to articulate her emotions into words. “But down there the other day .Â .Â . all those little gremlins, missing parts .Â .Â . seeing Lump like that, knowing he'll be sent into the Arena to maybe die .Â .Â . and the jockey would be at risk, too. Tatiana's brother was the rider in that last Arena bout. She understands the dangers involved!”
Rivka looked to her for support, but Tatiana's expression was unreadable. Maybe she couldn't bear to think of her Alonzo in such danger.
“I get it.” Broderick's voice was soft. “I don't like it, either, but you two shouldn't do anything aether-Âbrained.”