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   Chapter 1 Into the Dark

Clockwork and Cinders By m i c h e l l e p a k Characters: 15967

Updated: 2018-01-16 23:18


My first moments of freedom begin with a crash and end in the back of a warehouse, my neck dripping with sweat and my limp, throbbing wrist lashed to a pillar. I stifle a groan, letting the heat seep through my bones and the ache through my muscles. If the picture were any prettier, I'd have it framed.

A throaty voice drifts to my ears, words elusive as mist in the dizzying heat. "And who are you?"

"Uh." The airship's steam and smoke mingle in the back of my head, stinging my nose though I'm far, far from the wreckage. I lift my shoulders in a meek shrug and let out a breath, the taste of sour and acid tingling on my tongue. "Who am I?" The words come in fragments. "Uh… I can't… I'm not sure…" I try to think back far enough to remember a name, but it's all a blurry haze, like of what I can remember I dreamt in a fitful nightmare. From the snippets of memory left still intact, I hope that's the case.

"Yes?"

MN-9 buzzes in my vest pocket, rolling anxious circles against my ribs as if to say, Luciel, please don't go into another bout of existential crisis. I've known you for years and years and I needn't see it again. Luciel. My heart throbs. My name is Luciel.

"L-Luciel, sir." I move to pat my droid, but my fingers hang stiff at my sides, too heavy and shaky to lift. I raise my head instead. Memories swirl like circus colors behind my eyes, hints of tastes and textures, faraway laughter and pains in my chest. They come back slowly, settling into my conscience like paint through cotton canvas. Traces of a ship's bow flit before my eyes when I blink, seared there from the crash, the darkness so heavy it encases the room like a lid of smoke. My eyes can't even adjust; I only see black.

"Speak up." The voice is harsh, the type that snaps words into barks. A militia man, no doubt. I feel a chill crawl through my skin despite the temperature. As time passes, I remember a few things. I remember how the moon shone through the hole in my box, the vertigo of the fall, the footsteps of scrambling ladies as they raced through the cargo hold and left me to die. I tip my head back.

"Luciel." A blush rises to my cheeks. My voice has a way of falling into a whisper when I speak.

MN-9 hums, driving a thorn through the silence. I don't know where I am. I don't know who I'm speaking to. Maybe pirates, maybe scavengers. All I can figure is that when the airship crashed and the blackness slunk into my conscience, they took me. Whatever happened, I don't want trouble. "Luciel Cheng. Nineteen. I mean no harm." I blink hard. Images move like ghosts at the edges of my vision, taking form if I tilt my head just the right way and squint just the right amount.

A man, portly and squat, looms over me, his belt buckle glistening in a faint glow as a slouchy creature prowls around me in tight circles, almost like a zoo cat. A strip of light flickers across the floor paces away. Even straining on tiptoes, that's the most I can see. I grip the edges of my jacket and hold my breath.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. The steps feel all jumbled in my head. It happens sometimes, forgetting how to breathe. It happens when you're part alive, part not.

It's thinking that, me being only part alive, that snaps me to my senses.

The creature straightens. "Cheng, " the light, lilting voice of a young woman says, rolling the name over her tongue as if trying it for taste. A little shiver creeps through me. The room drips with shadows, the air stale and pitch-black, the type that suffocates. Cheng. My head throbs like a mallet's striking away at it from the inside. "As in Clara and Arabella Cheng?"

My stomach drops to my toes. It's been years since I've heard anyone utter those names, but everyday I've cursed them. Questioned them. Missed them. MN-9's wheels spin though he has nowhere to go. My chest stings, and I nod, a throat too full of cotton balls to choke out words.

The woman sighs. "Speak up, boy."

"Yes, ma'am." I try not to squeak, bouncing from one foot to another. Pressure replaces the throb in my skull, like my thoughts have substance and if they keep filling up my head my skull will burst. I need to know the time and I need to get home, before the strike of midnight, before my transformation takes place. My chest heaves, if only a little, as I tug harder on the strap. No give. It only hurts my wrist. My body, sturdy and well-designed as it is, has little strength left in it. That's what happens when you spend a years of your short and somewhat miserable life in a cage.

"And you expect us to believe that?"

I stare bleakly ahead and will myself not to fidget. "I'm their stepbrother." My fingers wriggle weakly, my free arm dangling limp and my opposite elbow twisted at an odd crook. An earthy, pungent odor taints the air, like wilted herb. I stiffen. Shouts echo in the distance, the scraping sounds of heels dragging on an uneven floor. I did nothing wrong. You have no right to lay a hand on me!

"Is that so?"

I gather the last of my breath and finish. "I've been sent away. We've been estranged for five years." The words hurt to speak, so curt, so dry, such bones of the story they can't seed a sprig of the betrayal or loss that have dogged my entire little life. It's all still there, wound up deep inside. I can tell you the taste of spice candy, the jerk of frayed ropes around my wrists, the sticky heat of late summer. Some memories just don't fade. The edges never blur, crisp and clear as they were when they came.

Which is okay. These people don't need a sprig, not even a taste of what happened, but the thoughts still cuts deep to my marrow.

"Proof, " the man says.

"I-I have identification papers." I lift my hand to my pocket. MN-9 nests in my papers, his round mechanical skeleton snug against my body. Glass shatters across the room and a man yelps. The hairs on the back of my neck rise. "Who are you, anyway, may I ask?"

The militia man snorts. "Doesn't know who we are, he says. A Cheng, he says. A Cheng."

The woman whistles, long and low. When she does it sounds more like a canary song than a catcall. A red jewel sparkles on her pinkie finger, her slim hands propped on her hips. "Beautiful women, aren't they? They will make great royals."

"Aye."

Gasps. Splashes. I swear, I know nothing! Sparks rush to my chest. Part of me itches to fight back, to save the person being hurt. The other part is so wrapped in thoughts of my stepsisters I can hardly move. Beautiful women. They were pretty girls when I left, though I only remember them in fragments. Black eyes, thick lashes, glossy brown hair hanging in perfect ringlets down their necks. They matched in every way, but you could always tell who was who. Clara had a certain pride to her gait, chin up and back straight, her nose pointed in the air while Arabella clung to her petticoats, a shadow. I lower my head toward my bound wrist. They must still be pretty women now. A pretty family I can never be a part of. Someone snaps, yanking me from my stupor. "Identification papers?"

"Right. The papers." I force my voice louder as I wrestle the crumpled pages away from MN-9. He whistles his disappointment and I mutter an apology to him. I shove them into the woman's hand, fingers clammy and breathing labored. She doesn't even look at me. The man leans over them, so close I can feel his body heat. The smell of his spicy soap makes the room spin. Another sound of struggling, water splashing, gasps and hissed curses spill to my ears. "Can I go now?" I ask as she reads through my papers. I can't stand here. I have to do something and I have to go home.

The woman makes a 'hmm' while the man snorts. "Scandal, " he says with a click of his tongue. The two sound like twittering birds, and their very voices make me dig my fingers into the strap until I rub my skin raw underneath. How can they ignore that someone's being hurt?

"How do we know these aren't forged?

"

"Who are you?" I ask, raising my voice just enough to sound out. A hinge squeaks and a hint of light creeps into the room. Only a pinprick, but I take advantage and drink up every detail of my prison I can make out. Badges glint. The officials wear uniforms, blue jackets of rough fabric that wrinkle at the shoulders and cream-colored lace cuffs that hang limp over the wrist. The slouchy captor has a feminine figure, too feminine of a figure, the lines and curves drawn up so tight the poor woman must be in pain. A corset. I recoil. Even Queen Charlotte refuses to wear a corset. Women just don't dress like that in this kingdom, their ribs crushed and squeezed painfully tight by brass and whalebone. Not since the dark ages.

We're traders and inventors, and we dress like it, especially our women. We're more queendom than kingdom, always have been since war swept the system. My heart flutters in my chest like the wings of a caged bird. Something is wrong.

A polite laugh. "We're your people, if you really are a Cheng."

My head snaps up. My step family is nobility from across the system, settled here as an act of diplomacy. My father, the Inventor, just married into it. Took the name with the wealth. "Look, I won't cause trouble." I wet my lips enough to speak, holding up a hand. Changes must've occured while I was away. "I just need to get home before midnight."

"Midnight?"

"Curfew." Lies. My stepfamily wouldn't mind if I rotted in the streets, but I won't tarnish their reputation with such truths. I force a weak smile, wondering if they can see it in the dark, wondering if I can drop it because it hurts to keep on my face. When you're a man like me, you can feel the night as it presses in. Tingles crawl up my legs and through my torso. Stiffness fills my muscles."Please…"

Another mutter. "Very well, " the woman says after a hesitant pause, but the man won't let up. He crosses his arms over his chest, wrinkling his jacket. His features are big. Bulbous nose, thick eyebrows, a handlebar mustache oil black. A shadow passes over his face. I shrink away, if only a little. Militia men aren't often kind.

"You're an adult. Why do you care about curfew?"

I roll back my head, popping a finger into my pocket to pat MN-9. He usually hates being touched, hissing and rolling away at any opportunity, but now he only fidgets with the same nervous energy burning me up inside, purring in the peculiar way machines do. "Please let me go." Strands of unruly brown hair hang limp before my eyes, ponytail tossed over my shoulder. I don't answer the question. I don't want to.

The woman paces tighter circles around me, her red bun glistening in the faraway oil light's sheen. The struggling plays out louder. The man's deep voice is as smooth as it is tight, each word drawn out with pain. My heavens, calm down! I'm not the man you're looking for, and if you think drowning me will help, I can promise you it won't.

I feel a squeeze in my chest, like someone took my heart up in their fist and clenched it.

A pause. Murmurs. Wood cracks and a dazed squeak follows. Sir. My fingers curl into fists. All the magic pouring inside me surges into my chest until I can only shake. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. Someone is getting hurt and I can't do anything, anything to help. Breathe in. Breathe out. I let the words ribbon into a rhythm in my head.

"I asked you why you care." The man leans so close I can smell each distinct spice in his ginger-root soap. I stare at my leathery shoes, feeling the chill of floor through the holes. It's only a little mercy, but still an appreciated one. The woman's brisk steps snap in my ears like musket fire. "Answer me."

"You asked." My voice dips below my breath, the words more of a croak than I care to admit. I pinch the inside of my palm, drawing pink to the surface of my pale skin. My wrist looks so thin and translucent you'd think it could slip right through the strap, like a ghost's. A sad grin twitches on my lips. If I could do that, I'd be far, far away by now, probably a planet across the system. "I-I care because—"

"Speak up, child!" He steps to me, thrusting his chest in my face. I flinch. Stucco digs into my neck, the edges of my hair ribbon brushing my sticky skin. The voice from before, the man in pain, comes again. I'm not who you think I am. Don't jump to conclusions.

The energy leaves my body with a shaky sigh. "Because I'm enchanted, sir." I never raise my voice. I never look up. All I know is the nervous ticking of my heart. It feels horrible to say aloud, like confessing to a crime. And it was a crime. My whole existence was a crime, outlawed years and years ago. I'm not supposed to be ashamed, now that I'm legal, now that I have papers, but my head stays bowed and my eyes trained on a crushed spider leg smeared by my foot. The woman stops. I know because her footsteps cease, the staccato sound silences, and the pressure in my head eases up. The coolness of her shadow is more than a welcome relief from the heat, though my stomach twists when she steps closer.

"Enchanted." The man's lip curls. I see it when I tip up my head, searching the dark for a door to the prisoner. A string of spit dribbles down the man's chin that he quickly wipes away. The officials stare at me, backing away with giant steps as if I'll transform into something mystical and they don't want the fairy dust to hit them.

I bite the inside of my quivering lip. I will transform if they don't let me go, but it'll be a dash less 'mystical' and a pinch more 'monstrous.' My skin crawls, my insides laced up so tight I imagine the air folding around me like a body bag. Breathe in. Breathe out. The woman laughs. It's a hoarse thing, almost drunken. I think of bird caws. "Now that is a scandal, Horace. An enchanted Cheng boy."

Heavy breathing sounds from the far side of the room, shot with a groan of pain. A muscle twitches under my jaw. Right now, I don't care about the 'Cheng' name or my stepsisters or the tarnish I am to my family. There's another cry, and all I can think about are the people I've seen hurt, just out of arm's reach. The children, greasy-faced and shambling. The men and women, frowning and choking on the bile in their throats. Now that I am free, I can finally help. "What are you doing to that man?"

And they are doing something. I hear the scrabbling of nails on the floor and something heavy crashing to the ground. Every muscle in my body tenses, images of cruel laughter and rusty bars trickling through the back of my mind. I have to help, no matter what the time is or who these people are. I have to help and I have to do it fast.

The woman blinks, heavy-lidded eyes round with faux innocence. "What man?" she asks. I huff, silent as she rolls her sleeve to her elbow, revealing an arm so white veins show under her skin in clustered webs. MN-9 squirms. He's good at sensing trouble. He knows. When I grasp his clunky body, he gives a mechanical cry and I immediately let go, greasing him in a film of sweat. His mechanisms are sensitive like that. Sometimes I wonder why he doesn't melt in the rain.

She flicks out a knife from an armband. I don't flinch. It flashes at the edge of my vision and she brings it down in a smooth motion that almost looks graceful. The blade slices the leather strap and I let out a little sigh, rolling my wrist and flexing my hand, watching the long, sinewy muscle rise between my veins. "Thank you."

The militia man shoves me to the side, my dress shoes cutting into my tattered stockings and scuffing on the slatted floor. "It's eleven o'clock, " he says. "Go home."

One hour before my soul is shut back up in its prison. The thoughts come in a tumble. I'm free. I should listen. I should go home before I malfunction, before I collapse, before they see what I really am.

But when I hear a cry, I duck under the man's arm and race deeper into the dark.

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