Authors: Beth Cato
“Do you want this beast to suffer? To die?” Miss Arfetta asked. “It's bleeding as I talk to you. You should thank whatever you hold holy that you have no magic, that you cannot hear the suffering in its song right now.”
“Then go help him!” Rivka snarled. “You're choosing to stand there. How can you call yourself a medician, make money off doing
“Mr. Cody, I won't work in her presence.” Miss Arfetta folded her arms and continued to stare.
Lump couldn't suffer more, not because of her. Rivka turned away. “I will go. For Lump's sake.” She managed to keep her voice cool and even. Her steps were controlled and precise, her chin held high; she almost burst out in hysterical laughter at that thought. Wouldn't Grandmother be proud to see her now?
Compared to Mr. Stout, Mr. Cody and Miss Arfetta were nothing. Rivka refused to cower before them.
She bypassed the gremlin room. It was only when she was far down the hall that she began to jog as fast as her tight Tamaran skirt allowed. Her eyes burned with checked tears. She punched the buttons at the lift. Footsteps raced behind her. She tensed, ready to confront Tatiana, ready to scream and rage. Instead, it was one of Cody's men.
“I'll operate the lift, miss,” he said, panting. He didn't meet her eye. She wondered if it was because of her harelip or her tears. “Where do you want to go?”
She thought of home. Her old home, before she met Miss Leander or Mr. Stout. The high towers of Mercia, with their rickety catwalks and tramways between buildings, the skyline forested with billowing smokestacks and foul gray skies. Her building, its paint peeling, furnaces cranky, the glowstone lights in the hallways so ancient that their enchantments scarcely worked at all. Her kitchen, perfumed with yeast and sugar.
“The roof. I need air,” Rivka said, the words hoarse and slurred.
At the top, the cage doors opened to a brightly lit hall.
“Go left and up the stairs to the access door,” he said.
Rivka barely noticed her surroundings as she followed his directions. She opened the door to find yet another stairwell. Wind nipped through the wooden slats and reminded her that she hadn't spared the time to grab her hat and coat. Birds rattled in the darkness of the eaves.
The view from the roof was far different from anything she had known in the high-Ârises of Mercia. Both cities had towers and compact populations, but here buildings were not quite so compressed, or stained dark by coal coke. Gray clouds thickened the sky, the faint taste of rain on the air. Four black-Âsteel mooring towers were spaced along the roof, none of them occupied by airships.
She leaned on the icy railing. Mr. Cody lived on the famed plaza of Tamarania. The Arena was just next doorâÂa lower, squat building with a magnificent stained-Âglass dome. It had mooring towers as well. A crane loaded goods onto a fat airship.
Things clattered and fluttered around her. Rivka jerked back. A gremlinâÂno, several gremlinsâÂlanded on the railing feet away. More sounds made her turn around. The shanty of the stairwell had a roof lined with green bodies. She hadn't heard birds in the eaves, but gremlins.
“Does Mr. Cody come here to capture your kin?” she asked, her voice choked again. “You shouldn't let him grab you. You should fight back. You don't know what he's doing.” A gremlin hopped closer, its black nose twitching. “Or maybe you do,” she added softly.
Rivka braced herself against the railing. Directly confronting Mr. Cody had done nothing. What would make the man realize that he wasn't simply building metal constructs like a mechanist did but living creatures? Even Tatiana intended to use Lump for her own pride and glory. Could Rivka persuade
that gremlins weren't tools to use and discard?
The wind dried tears on her cheeks, stiffened her skin. She barely flinched as a gremlin landed on her shoulder. Then another. One perched atop her head, its feet struggling for purchase in her hair. Her sob turned into a giggle.
Then, with a mad flutter, they took to the air. Rivka heard a throat clear behind her.
Broderick stood there, long and lanky in his white medician garb. “IâÂyou don't mind if I join you?”
She turned away. “What, don't you have work to do?”
He snorted. “You saw how much actual magic I get to do. I set things up, then stand there. I happened to knock over the mechanist's wrenches just now. Miss Arfetta ordered me away, full of reminders that I'm a terrible apprentice, that I'll never be a full medician.” He leaned on the railing where the gremlins had been a moment before.
“You shouldn't believe her.”
“Oh, I don't, most of the time. She's a leaky gasbag, never pleased with anyone. You should see her go shopping. She makes clerks cry.” He gazed out on the plaza. His hair, done in a hundred tight braids with metal beads, chimed softly beneath the wind. “I know I'm not a good medician. Not simply because of the lack of practice but because the work she does ask of me, it's .Â .Â .
Rivka stilled. “She has you do the dirty work. You're the one who harvests from the gremlins and eventually kills them.”
He flinched, not meeting her eye. “They're not human, but they're alive. I can hear the life in them, the way it fractures with each limb, each wing. Did you know an arm by itself in a circle still sings for a while?”
Horror silenced her. He shifted uneasily, and Rivka realized she should speak. “I didn't know that. The only medician I've been around is Miss Leander, and she was .Â .Â . different. She could hear body songs without a circle.”
“I would go mad,” Broderick whispered.
Rivka stared out at the city. “The color tags denote what stage the gremlins are in, right? The ones missing wings are labeled red today .Â .Â .”
“Blue means they are new and need a full examination. Green designates that's done, they are healthy, and I can proceed.” His voice sounded empty. “Red notes the primary harvest is done. Yellow means I need to do a final culling. Organs and skin. If a cage has that tag, I need to finish the task as soon as possible.”
Rivka tasted bile. “The gremlins in the cart were considered yellow, then?”
The gremlin who clutched her fingers the other day had been so
and she had wiggled free of its grip and abandoned it there. She had assumed the medicians knew best.
She was an idiot.
“You saw the cart?” asked Broderick. “Of course you did. Yes. It preserves them for the evening's work. Miss Arfetta wants to keep a lot of skin ready in anticipation of Arena injuries. That's going to be my major duty once Lump's attachments are done.”
“Your major duty. You're going to kill
all of them
“If they've contributed any parts, yes. It's more .Â .Â . merciful than releasing them. I'm trying .Â .Â . you see .Â .Â .” He took a deep breath to compose himself. “There's a group that fights against gremlin abuse. Not a very popular cause around here. I get some gremlins to them, but they don't have much money or enough space. And I can never sneak out enough of them. There are so many that .Â .Â .” He seemed to lose the ability to speak.
“I guess you expect me to ask how you can stand it since you know what you're doing is wrong.” Rivka stared into her hands. Her fingers had turned ruddy with cold, but she welcomed the brisk air. “I'm not going to judge you like that. I know you hate it. I know you hate yourself.”
“But I keep doing it.” His laugh was choked. “I can't even figure out why. It's not even for money.”
“No. It's never that straightforward. I understand that much. You're not the only one who's stained, Broderick.”
She caught his steady sidelong glance. “You don't have to talk about it.”
“I can. I think you'd understand more than anyone. More than Grandmother, even.” Over the sprawl of the city, distant airships almost blended in with the clouds. “About the time of armistice last year, a man moved onto our tenement roof. He was badly scarred on his face and wore a mask. We all took to calling him Pigeon Man because he lived up with the birds. He came down to our flat most every day to buy bread from Mama.”
Pigeon Man never said his true name. He never acted like he'd known Mama so many years before. He and Mama would have been so young back thenâÂyounger than Rivka was now. And the war had changed him. Those changes seeped far deeper than the burns across his face.
“Pigeon Man told me he wanted me to construct something for him. He had to gather the parts first. Weeks later, I was out on rounds when our building caught fire. Mama .Â .Â . hundreds of others .Â .Â .”
She drew quiet. Broderick said nothing. Even the wind slowed down to listen.
“Pigeon Man found me near the wreckage. He said he didn't think the materials would be that volatile on their own.” Seeing Broderick's confusion, she continued, “I didn't know until then that what he wanted me to make was a bomb. He had stored the components on the roof.”
“You didn't cause it, then. You hadn't done a thing!”
“I know that. Most of the time,” she said, purposefully echoing his words. “Pigeon Man never acted sorry for what had happened. More .Â .Â . inconvenienced. Out of nowhere, he offered me a bakery to manage. He'd just won it by betting on a game of Warriors. I said yes, because it had always been Mama's dream to have a shop of her own and not work out of the flat. Besides, where else could I go?”
She couldn't say more, and not simply because of the tightness in her throat, or that the cold had shifted from being brisk to being painful. She couldn't describe the months after, her numbness, his sneers, the beatings, the horror at finding out Pigeon ManâÂDevin StoutâÂwas actually her blood father.
Rivka and Broderick stared out on Tamarania City. The roundabout below was packed with steam cars and automated cycles, and few horses and wagons. Mr. Cody had said something about Rivka sounding like Âpeople who had worked to save horses. She wondered what he meant.
Miss Leander had saved Rivka from Mr. Stout. Now Rivka needed to save Lump and the other gremlins in turn. It was only right.
She looked at Broderick. “What Tatiana was saying yesterday, about Miss Leander helping with your training. I know Miss Leander, too. I think she would help you, if possible, but Tatiana can't make any guarantee. She uses Âpeople. She used me, us, from the very start so she could find some way to become a jockey.” The words tasted foul in her mouth.
“I understand.” Broderick slowly nodded. “I appreciate your honesty. I envy you, your strength. The way you stood up to Mr. Cody.”
She said nothing. “
You're not strong, rabbit. Just a weakling, ugly girl. Leave such work for men.
“No one stands up to Miss Arfetta or Mr. Cody,” continued Broderick. “You did.”
“There you two are!” Tatiana's high voice rang out. Rivka spun around. Tatiana stalked toward them. “Rivka, you need to come back downstairs. That chimeraâÂLumpâÂis awake and he's growling if I step near the circleâÂ”
“Good. You shouldn't be near him, and you certainly shouldn't ride him,” snapped Rivka. “That was your plan from the start, wasn't it? You never cared about saving the gremlins. It was all about your being a gallant mecha jockey like your brother.”
Tatiana recoiled as if struck. “I wanted to be a jockey, yes, but I care about the gremlins. Riding on Lump is part of the grand plan to save them!”
“Then please, share this grand plan,” said Rivka.
Â“People need to see chimeras in a different way, as something more than monsters. They only know gremlins for stealing silver and food. They can cheer for Lump!”
Broderick shook his head. Â“People may cheer, but they cheer for the all-Âmetal mechanical beasts out there, too. If Lump is injured, they'll cheer even louder. It's all entertainment.”
Public opinion mattered. Rivka might not be able to convince Mr. Cody and Miss Arfetta of their wrongness, but what if her voice was one of a multitude?
“How can we get Âpeople to understand that chimeras aren't really monsters?” she slowly asked.
“But they are monsters. Don't look at me like that.” Broderick held up his hands. “I'm not saying they deserve this treatment. You know I don't believe that. But behemoth chimeras are made to be both vicious and intelligent. The first big chimera killed and injured scads of men. Every time I go inside that circle these days, I wonder if I'm next.”
“See, Rivka? That's why I need your help!” said Tatiana.
“Why do you say that?” Broderick asked, looking between them.
Rivka shrugged, a bit embarrassed by her own initial idiocy. “The first day we found the laboratory, I walked right up to Lump and petted him. He purred.”
“Really?” His expression brightened. “No snapping, no lunging? That's curious. That doesn't mean you can let down your guard, though.”
“So it's a good thing we'll have a medician with us, isn't it?” Tatiana smiled at him. He didn't smile back.
“I still don't see how riding him in the Arena will help,” said Rivka.
“We'll figure that out.” Tatiana flicked her wrist as she turned toward the stairs.
“No.” Rivka lunged to grab her by the shoulder. “You're not going to dismiss the issue like that. This isn't about you, Tatiana. This is about Lump and the other gremlins. If you ride Lump in the Arena, we give Mr. Cody exactly what he wants. For him, it would make the deaths of the little gremlins worthwhile. Plus, it encourages more scientists to do the same awful thing.”
“Wait,” said Broderick, “Mr. Cody might not be the only one who gets what he wants from this. If you two really can work with Lump to get him Arena-Âready, that plays into what you need, too: continued access over these next few weeks. It gives you more time.”