Authors: Beth Cato
“There's a problem with that,” said Rivka. “Miss Arfetta gave me the chuck.”
Tatiana grinned. “Miss Arfetta left already. Mr. Cody doesn't mind if you're in there, he said so before he departed. He thinks it'd do you good to see the mechanist's limb construction up close before the shielding skin goes over it.”
Mr. Cody was setting out bait for Rivka despite all she said before. Why? What did he want from her? Could they really outmanipulate a politician of his caliber? “What if Miss Arfetta comes back?”
“If both legs are done, she won't return today,” said Broderick. “She has a hair appointment this afternoon.” Rivka stared at him, hoping he was being facetious. He didn't smile. “I'm the one who works down there much of the time, not her.”
“See? That awful woman is gone, so come help me! Let's show Mr. Cody we can do this, and we'll figure out our plan of attack from there.” Tatiana skipped toward the stairs. Rivka and Broderick followed her much more slowly.
“Damn her,” Rivka growled beneath her breath. The world continued to revolve around Tatiana Garret. The noise of the gremlins faded as they entered the interior stairwell.
Broderick lingered next to Rivka. “I know you mean well,” he said quietly. His words didn't echo in the passage. “But you're taking big risks here. I tranquilize the chimera if I work in close proximity. And .Â .Â . I'm not a full medician. If something happens .Â .Â .”
“If I'm stupid enough to get my arm ripped off, that's my own fault. Will Lump be in a lot of pain right now?”
“Yes. And that could make him even more aggressive.” His brow furrowed. “Chimeras, even the little ones, lead hard lives. Their bodies fight against their mishmash of parts. Organ failure and tumors are common. Chimeras like Lump are so much
in every way, and injuries are inevitable in the Arena, too.” He sighed. “Death is the only way to truly stop a chimera's pain.”
ump stared at Rivka, one cheek scrunched against the floor. His round black eyes were lined with severe wrinkles of strain. He was still chained in place in the middle of the circle though now on his opposite side.
“Hi there,” she crooned to Lump as she crept forward. His ears perked up.
She was keenly aware of how Broderick and Tatiana stared. Tension thickened the air. Rivka's hand quivered as she rubbed Lump's forehead. Sporadic whiskers poked her. It'd be so easy for him to twist around and bite her.
The purr started like a cabriolet engine. He leaned into her touch. Rivka almost sagged in relief.
“He can purr. I knew it was possible, anatomically, but .Â .Â .” Disbelief was clear in Broderick's voice.
“Silly medicians,” Rivka whispered to Lump. “All that magic, all that power, and they really don't know what they're doing, do they?”
Chains rattled as Lump lifted his head off the floor and to her knee level. Broderick yelped a warning. Rivka, stunned, didn't move back. Lump nuzzled her legs and almost bowled her over. A nervous titter escaped her lips.
“By the Lady, you're giving me a heart attack,” said Broderick.
“This is your vicious behemoth chimera.” Rivka rubbed Lump's head and ears. Her hand trailed around the protrusion of Lump's nose to his catlike mouth, as if she dared him to bite her. He continued to purr.
“Rivka!” Tatiana called. “Can I come over?” She waited at the copper circle.
“I think so. Approach slowly, okay?” She turned to Lump and pressed her head against his. “Tatiana is .Â .Â . well, I don't know if she's really a friend. She confuses me. But don't kill her. It would probably upset Miss Leander.”
Lump chirped, the sound positive, his breath appalling.
“Where should I stand?” Tatiana stopped a few feet away, fidgeting.
“Here. Come right up next to me. Gremlins seem to sniff a lot. Don't worry. I don't think he'll bite off your arm.”
so? That's not very funny!” She squealed as Lump snuffled at her, his black nose leaving a moist trail down the front of her pale dress.
Rivka snorted. “You sound like an air-Âraid siren.”
“I need to climb on Lump's back. Mr. Cody said he'd return. He needs to see that I can do this.” The words were brave even as Tatiana's voice rattled like a loose turbine.
“What are you trying to prove, really?” Rivka spoke low enough so that Broderick couldn't hear from where he packed away materials.
“From the time I was young, I looked in awe at mecha pilots, but until Alonzo's match, I never considered that it was something I could do. I still wasn't sure if I could do it, then Mr. Cody laughed at me.” Her gaze turned cold. “Now I
“I wish you had a different need. I don't want either of you in the Arena.”
“Then stop us before the bout happens. Stop Mr. Cody.” Tatiana stated it as a challenge.
Challenge accepted. “Broderick?” Rivka called. “Can you loosen the chains?”
“I can, but if Lump rolls with her up thereâÂ”
“I won't blame you if I'm crushed to death, all right?” said Tatiana.
“Will the weight of a rider hurt Lump?” Rivka asked Broderick.
“No. His own weight is substantial. Both of you would be nothing compared to that.”
“We can trust you, right?” Rivka murmured to Lump. The chimera's gaze shifted to follow Broderick. The purr stopped, replaced by an unmistakable growl. The lips bared, showing two rows of gleaming teeth. Tatiana leaped backward and to the far side of the copper line.
“Lump?” A sickening wave welled in Rivka's gut. She didn't want to lurch away, but she was keenly aware of the proximity of his mouth. It'd take a split second for her to lose an arm, or worse. She stroked his forehead again, her fingers trembling. Tense lines furrowed his green skin.
Suddenly, she understood, and realized her own stupidity. “Stop, Broderick! We can't expect him to trust you. He shouldn't trust you.” The apprentice medician had torn apart gremlins to piece together Lump. His very presence meant pain and death. “Tell me how to go about adjusting the chains.”
“I wish you'd get away from him,” Broderick said. “This is dangerous. I don't want to be in a place where I have to heal either of you.”
He didn't think he'd be able to do it.
Rivka continued to pet Lump. His hackles lowered, the growl vanishing. The purr didn't return. Lump watched Broderick with the wariness of a dog often kicked by its owner.
“Then I'll do it myself,” said Rivka.
“I have the key.”
“I don't need a key.”
“She doesn't,” added Tatiana. “That's how we managed to come down here the other day. She's good.”
Rivka reached to her sleeve, where her trusty little screwdriver was threaded. She heard a frustrated, masculine growl behind her, and the hard chime of keys hitting the tile floor.
It took Rivka a few minutes to adjust the chains. Lump was tethered at the neck and behind his front legs, with extra shackles restricting his new feet. Leather bound his arms against his torso, and Broderick slid her a knife to slit those bonds.
At last, Rivka stepped back. “Up, Lump,” she called, making a rolling motion with her arms. He blinked, then imitated her gesture and rolled to his new feet for the first time. A prolonged groan escaped him.
“I'm so sorry,” she whispered, and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, embracing him as well as she could. His ribs heaved as he keened in agony.
Heat crackled against Rivka's skin as the circle activated. A sudden, strange breeze caused her skirts to waft around her ankles. “Broderick, should I leave the circle so you can heal him?”
“No. Stay put. I'd never confuse your songs, and neither will the Lady. Lump is like a drum corps. YouâÂyou're wind instruments. Flutes, clarinets, a piccolo.”
“Oh.” That pleased her.
Broderick pulled a bag from a supply shelf. He stepped just inside the circle, sending a new warm ripple around Rivka, and threw a handful of red powder toward Lump. To Rivka's awe, it spun in the air as if dancing, bobbing until it flowed onto Lump's broad back. The red vanished. Rivka caught the wonderful scent of cinnamon.
The chimera's keening stopped though his shoulders still heaved. He pushed himself to stand, briefly stretching and testing his new legs, then squatted.
Rivka rubbed his long, tapered ears. “See, not everything Broderick does is bad.”
The magic dissipated, the circle cooling in an instant. Tatiana lingered at a distance, her expression worried. She was obviously building up her courage again.
Rivka looked between Tatiana and Lump. “You know what? I'll take the risk. If he lets anyone on, it'll be me.”
She flung her upper body over his back. It was wide enough that she balanced there, stiff like a plank. She hooked an arm around the far nub for a wing and dragged herself to straddle him. Her skirt hitched up and uncomfortably swaddled her thighs, exposing her petticoat and the lace of bloomers beneath.
“It's just me, Lump. I'm riding you. It's okay.” He quivered, and she kept rubbing circles into his neck. Her heart thrummed like a revved engine. She'd never even been on a horse, and here she was, atop a behemoth chimera. A designer monster.
Lump's quivering stopped, and he suddenly stood erect. Rivka gripped the wing nubs as she surged upward. His body shifted from side to side as he tested the joints of his new legs.
“Tatiana, your turn.” Rivka pressed down on Lump's neck. “Down,” she said to him, and he lowered to squat again. He learned incredibly fast. She slid over his side to the ground and tugged her dress to proper length.
Tatiana looked terrified yet resolute. “Well, you survived. That bodes well.”
Rivka snorted. “Yeah. If I'm going to kill myself in a stupid way, it'll probably involve machinery going amok.”
She shushed and soothed Lump as Tatiana took her turn. Unlike Rivka, Tatiana had ridden on horsesâÂsome family friend's estate outside of Mercia, she saidâÂand made a point of showing how to properly sit. Straight spine, relaxed seat, knees lined up just so. It also helped that her skirt was looser. Rivka let her nervously prattle on as she walked around to get a proper look at the mechanical additions.
Mr. Cody was right. This was highly relevant to her interests. She ran her hands over the smooth lines of exposed copper and brass. The soldering was almost invisible. The constructed femurs were a good ten inches across, made to support a heavy bulk. The big, clawed feet could squash a person like a bug. The knees were ball-Âin-Âsocket and about the size of her head. She'd made repairs on similar limbs for automaton beasts back in Mercia.
Rivka sucked in a breath. She
replicate Lump's limbs on a smaller scale.
It'd take practice, some example schematics, and time to scrape up money for crystals to power each mechanism, but she could make it happen.
“I thought I was entertaining a silly whim by letting you stay. I didn't think you were fool enough to actually go near the thing.”
Mr. Cody's booming voice caused Rivka to spin around. He stood in the entrance, a cadre of engineers behind him. Mr. Cody looked furious, while the other men's expressions ranged from horror to awe. Lump stiffened at Mr. Cody's words. A low growl emanated from his throat.
“Mr. Cody, sirâÂ” started Broderick.
“Shut up,” Mr. Cody snapped. “You should know very well that the chimera shouldn't even be on its feet at this point, and you're lucky thatâÂ”
“Mr. Cody, I'm the medician.” Broderick's voice was level. “I listened to the chimera's song. He's able to cope with the pain for now, and I don't believe them to be in harm's way.”
Mr. Cody stared at Broderick as if miniature airships had begun to fly from his mouth.
“Lump has bonded with us. He's not going to attack us,” said Rivka. Though the chimera would certainly go for Mr. Cody and his men if they came within range. She knew that by the tension in his muscles and metal limbs.
“Miss Stout, that's not some pet. Miss Garret, don't move a muscle, or it may try to roll and crush you. Neither of you are Miss Leander. You don't have her incredible power. Your delusions will get you killed.” He motioned to his men. “Ready tranquilizers. We need to rescue these flibbertigibbets.”
Rivka thought fast. She had to show Mr. Cody that they were in control of the situation and most certainly
in need of rescuing. “Lump, follow my example. Wave hello to Mr. Cody. Like this.”
Lump angled his head to watch her, black eyes blinking, then mimicked her motion with his own right arm. The copper hand had three fingers, the tips featuring deep gaps where claws or other devices could be installed.
“Now do this.” Rivka stomped her left foot. Lump did the same, taking care not to bring his foot too near her. The ground shuddered from his impact. A low, quiet squeak escaped from Tatiana as she clutched the wing nubs for dear life.
“Hold, men.” Mr. Cody gawked at them. “You, how .Â .Â . ?”
“Let's show him a Frengian peasant dance, Lump!” Rivka said loudly, then whispered, “Tatiana, don't you dare fall off.”
Rivka was a wretched dancer, but that didn't matter now. She knew the moves from Mama, sure as she knew any recipe. She angled up her arms and kicked out her right leg, as much as the skirt allowed, and pointed her toe, then did the other leg. Her knee-Âhigh boots peeked from beneath her petticoat. She didn't want to hop around and get squashed by accident, so instead she bent to one side, then the other. More kicks, these at a diagonal as she pointed the toe as if at the quarter-Âhour notches of a clock.
Lump's big claws scraped the stones as he struggled to lift his feet. A rumble of agony escaped him, and Rivka felt a lurch of guilt. She bowed to each side, undulating her arms, and ended with a curtsy. Lump mirrored her, copper arm curled as if he held a skirt in his broad hand.
All was silent for a long moment. Mr. Cody and the other men stared. It was Broderick who started clapping. The others joined in, slowly, as grins crept across their faces. Mr. Cody looked downright exuberant as he stepped up to the disengaged circle. Rivka heard Lump's swift inhalation, but he didn't budge.
Mr. Cody shook his head, dazed. “How did you achieve this? From my research, I surmised that Miss Leander had some insight through her magic, but that's not possible for you.”
We did this by being kind, Rivka wanted to say, but she knew that would mean nothing to Mr. Cody.
“It doesn't matter how. Look. I can ride this chimera,” said Tatiana. She had her arms crossed over her chest and gripped Lump by her legs alone. Show-Âoff.
“Your mother would have me skinned alive if I let you ride.”
“I'd be even more worried about Alonzo finding out. He's much more familiar with the risks of the Arena, and he tends to be rather protective. But they don't need to know.” Tatiana's grin was tight. “Keep me a secret. Just advertise that you'll have the Arena's first female jockey on your new chimera. That will get you all the publicity you want, right?”
“Yes,” he said slowly. “The press would create itself. But after your mother moves hereâÂ”
“That doesn't matter yet. She won't be here until after the bout.”
Tatiana and Mr. Cody stared at each other, assessing. In the quiet, chirps of gremlins carried from the far room. Lump made a loud mew, as if part of their conversation. Rivka looked between the bold brass structure of Lump's arms and legs, then to the distant doorway.
“Mr. Cody,” Rivka said. “I'd like to take a few gremlins to nurse them back to health.” Ones with yellow tags.