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   Chapter 2 Him

Clockwork and Cinders By m i c h e l l e p a k Characters: 16635

Updated: 2018-01-17 19:36


"Boy!" The official grabs for my shoulder, but I slip out under his arm, skidding on the grimy floor by the heels of my shoes. I take deep, trembling breaths and squint for a glance at where the prisoner may be. The glow leaking under the door has an oily, fake sheen, like a spill the officials forget to clean up. I wonder if they're hiding something in the dark, but I can't dwell on it. Rain patters the ceiling and I grimace. I lace my fingers together so hard my knuckles go numb, a shard of pain nearly splitting my ribs.

When The Inventor tore my soul from my flesh and stuffed it into a clockwork shell, he could build me any way he wanted. So he did. Not in the way I was supposed to grow, distinguished and tall like all the men in my family before me, but in the fashion of the times, when women wanted their men like they wanted their terriers—small and delicate, looks over stamina. I'm all feminine features, face-wise, big eyes and a dainty, upturned nose. My waist is so narrow sometimes it's hard to eat, the food just won't go down.

Each step I take is stiff and curt. Gentlemanly. There's a corset sewn up inside me, squeezing my heart, lungs, and stomach all the wrong ways when I move too fast. The pressure crushes me from the inside as my feet hit the floor in brisk, choppy strides, but I try to endure the pain. Ragged gasps spill over my lips. I'm breathing, at least.

Look. The voice pants. If I knew anything, I would tell. It's hot out and it'll storm. I want to go home. I'm sure this is just as unpleasant to you as it is me. The words come garbled, spewed in a rush, traces of a cry lingering at the edges of the man's shaky voice. I lunge toward the splash of light, tucking my chin into my chest so the hit doesn't shatter all the bones in my neck. MN-9 whirrs and I wrap my fingers around him to save his fragile body from impact as I charge the door. I'm pretty light, too light to make a good battering ram, but I have to try. I close my eyes and brace for the crush of pain.

But the impact never comes.

At least, not in the way I expect it. When I spring off my toes and hurl myself into the door, it swings wide. A little cry leaves the back of my throat as I slide in my shoes. I can't stop myself in time. My momentum carries me and I hit the ground in a tumble.

The pain comes in a wash. Instinctively, my knees curl to my chest, my arms flung wildly out on the floor like that of a mangled corpse. Water bleeds through my jacket, cooling my flushed face as I sputter and wheeze. The smell of cologne, musky and rich, hangs thick in the air. I blink, sneezing, my vision fading in and out. The perfume clings to everything in the room—the gilded ceiling, the arched shelves, the mostrosity of and oak desk propped in the corner. I almost hurl. Under the nausea-inducing perfume, I smell something much more concerning, something sharp and metallic. The odor seeps through the cracks in the checkerboard floor. Brown splotches streak the ground in broad jags. I clutch my stomach and force the bile back. Shards of glass lie in scattered heaps, fresh red roses torn into ragged petals on the floor. They smell of blood and flower sweet.

There comes a weak chuckle, almost a croak. I lift my head, MN-9 flailing his balled prongs to escape my fist, his exposed gears tickling my hand. He nicks my thumb to the bone, leaving blood to bubble and spew. I hardly notice. As I lie gasping on the floor, a face leans close to mine. I smell cinder and blood. A man's eyes flit down to meet mine.

They're green. A striking shade of green so bright they're almost iridescent. My heart twists up inside, ticking against my chest like a clockwork toy. In the room's weak gold glow, the man's beautiful eyes flash like cat's. I've seen them before. I've seen his face before. Lean and hungry, high cheekbones and an angled, firm chin. His black lashes flutter, a curl of unruly hair in his face and the rest of him soaked through. There's something about him so familiar, like the memories are just in reach but I haven't stretched far enough, searched hard enough. Where have I seen him before? I roll my head back. A nervous smile twitches on his lips. We're almost at the same level, him on his knees, me curled in a trembling ball. I scramble to my feet. A long scratch runs along his cheekbone, crusted with dry blood and still oozing. All I know is that I want to stop the bleeding.

"Are you supposed to be a knight in shining armor?" he asks, head tipped and eyebrow raised. His grin is a tentative one. Silly. Many people mask pain with humor, and he's shivering. I peel off my ratty jacket to clean him up, to wipe away the blood and water, but there's something about him that looks too proud to accept my pity. His head is held too high, his shoulders rolled back too casually. But I don't care. I just want him to be okay.

"You could say that, " I tell him, though I'm as far from a knight as one can get. I kneel, black jacket wound over my hand. It's ragged at the seams and much of the threading is coming undone, but it's all I have. The man flinches when he sees it, eying me with a bite of his lip and a tip of his chin, settling his gaze above my head. He reminds me of a kicked dog, scared, but too in love with people to run and hide. His smile fades, his body all tensed up like he's built of coiled springs, well wound and ready to pounce. When he looks back down his grin is sad. There's a bruise under his eye, mottled purple and blue on his dark skin, but even with his scars, he's a handsome man.

"That's real nice of you, " he whispers, and his voice is so deep it's almost musical, "but you're being watched."

Of course, I'm being watched. The silence around us is heavy. Too heavy, with all the people around. I know a second person hangs back, the man's torturer, and I know the people outside the door are waiting for me. They haven't attacked because they're watching my every move. Won't be the first time. I shrug and lean forward, dabbing the jacket to the cut on his face. He winces, but he doesn't pull back. "Hey, relax." I try to say what I wished someone would've said to me years ago. "It'll all be okay, I swear. Everything will be okay. And I don't mind being watched if you don't. Need some help getting home?"

"You could say that, stranger." He opens a single eye, smirking though he's still trembling. He steadies his voice, and for a moment, he sounds totally in control, like he chose this fate. "I would've gotten back sooner, but it seems I got a little tied up in the situation at hand." He motions his head back and I catch a glance at the ropes around his wrists.

I shudder and watch a blot seep through my jacket. "Bad pun." My jaw tightens. I tilt his chin up and press the jacket to his throat to soak up what oozes from a shallow cut there. He glances into my eyes and I let mine wander. "Almost punishing, really." I'm waiting for a sign of the torturer.

The man puffs out his chest and beams as I wipe away the blood, his eyes bright and round. A little black curl falls in his face, and he gives me his big, goofy smirk. "They're my speciality."

"Really?"

"Really. But I wouldn't want to rope you into my antics."

"Oh, sweet heavens."

Someone clears his throat with a dry, raspy chuckle. I wheel around, dropping the jacket at my feet with a 'plop'.

An oil lamp lights the room all the way to its corners, so I make the torturer out clearly. I squeeze MN-9, all the muscles in my arm taut like chains. It's no wonder I didn't notice him before. The man just blends in much too perfectly, with his polite smirk and faded blue uniform. Brass buttons gleam in a perfect line down his chest, a thin pair of silver glasses perched low on his upturned nose. He looks down appraisingly, his gray, expressionless eyes taking in every detail of me and giving away very little. His white hair falls in a sweep over his forehead, styled in a neat, distinguished crop. He doesn't look like a torturer, leaned on his hooked black cane like that, his expression as passive as if he were watching a stage play. But I'm not fooled. If I've learned anything, it's that the most unassuming people are always the most dangerous. I root my feet to the floor and hold my breath.

"Who

are you?" the man asks, no hint of emotion in his voice, his strides rigid as he moves toward me. I release MN-9 and the droid drops to the ground, scurrying up my shoe and perching there. The official taps his cane against the floor, a simple thup-thup that makes me tremble. I notice the silver tip and how the prisoner shudders when he sees it. I try to stand straight and roll my shoulders back, to face him with dignity, but I can't. I've forgotten how, it seems. It's almost funny. I've forgotten how to do anything but cower.

"Um, that…" I swallow hard, my mouth so dry my tongue feels like sandpaper. The man on the ground meets my gaze again, his look curious. His chest shudders, brown pinstripe waistcoat tattered over a dirty white workman's shirt.

Making out a gray, dented bucket pushed a little to the side, I remember him saying something about drowning. My chest tightens. MN-9 drops off my shoe, risking the wet spots on the floor, and glides toward him. "That isn't important." I motion toward the man. "You shouldn't, uh, you shouldn't do that—"

"For the love of the Empire, speak up!" I snap my head toward the door. The woman stands there, tall, nearly taking up the entire frame, her long, delicate fingers curled around her blade. My knees weaken. So there's an empire, now. It's such a jarring detail to miss I straighten. A familiar pang of homesickness hits my heart, but this time it isn't just for my kingdom, it's for a different time.

The man on the floor mutters, his playfulness sapped. He looks grave. "For the love of the Empire. No one loves your empire." He's a tall man, even on his knees his size is obvious. Broad shoulders, a thick neck, muscles showing through his sleeves. Brass goggles hang limp around his neck. Black hair gleams animal slick, curls tumbling to the nape of his neck. His mouth is twisted into a tight grimace, his expression darkened, his head held high. Suddenly, he looks wild, like if the ropes weren't in place he'd lunge. Clara had a name for men like this, lean and starved, men God cut from the same material as wolves. Scoundrels.

"What?" The woman doesn't say it like a question. Drawing the word out into a low growl, she says it like a threat. Her shadow stretches over mine, but this time the relief from the heat is unwelcome. I play with my fingers. She tosses her hair over her shoulder, fixing the man with a scowl. He dips his head, swift and chivalrous, shooting me his silly grin with a wink in my direction. My heart thumps faster. He turns back to the other man and the grin disappears.

"Down with the Empire, " he says. The oil lamp casts blotchy shadows across his face that cuts his expression into shards, giving him a look so intense and so hawkish I almost draw back.

"You." The torturer raises his cane, lip curling into a snarl. The silver cap glimmers, flashed so quickly it doesn't even look real, like glitter on a wave's crest under morning sun. MN-9 uses his prongs to crawl up the man's waistcoat, leaving puncture trails as he perches on the man's shoulder. The droid's shell is drenched, and he makes an odd sound between a whistle and a purr. The tortured man laughs quietly at my droid, the corner of his eyes flicked to the cane. His tremors becomes more violent, though the dead calm on his face never fades. It's as if his mind and his body function separately. The cane cracks down. "You Elizrians are all the same, you—"

"Wait!" My hand snaps out. Sometimes that happens, my body reacting in perfect time, like clockwork. I dive forward. "Wait! You can't, you shouldn't, you—" I aim to grab the cane, to stop it before it hits my droid, the man. My dress shoes slip in a puddle, kicking up water and sending me skidding forward. I flail out with a cry and my hand whaps the cane, flinging it sidelong.

I hit the ground harder than I did before. The pain is sharp this time, like stab wounds all over my body. The brown walls and rich-cologne smell go spinning, spinning, spinning until they come to a stop so sharp it snaps me out of my haze. Clammy hands grab my elbows, yanking me to my feet. My breath shudders. The punny scoundrel mutters something to MN-9, gentle words that coax the droid down his sleeve. I struggle and kick and cry while the torturer looks on. Inside, I'm calm. Inside, torture and death don't scare me, not as much as they're supposed to, anyway, but I'm not afraid to put on a show if that gives the man a chance at escape. The woman slaps her hand over my mouth, muffling my screams. The man blinks his brilliant green eyes, murmuring urgently to MN-9. She shakes me once, twice, until I feel my brains batter the inside of my skull. I squeeze my eyes shut and limpen just a little.

"We found this one at the crash site of an Luthinian airship, sir, stuffed in a cedarwood box and left for dead. Says he's an enchanted Cheng. Has the papers to prove it. We let him go, but the little urchin won't split." She hisses when she speaks, tilting my chin up like she's lifting the muzzle of a prize dog to show the numbers on its neck. I cry out, and with my head at this angle, it admittedly does sound a little like a yap.

"An enchanted Cheng." The uniformed man swipes a finger across his glasses, light reflecting off the lenses in a way that make his eyes gleam hellishly. "A boy one, huh?" A slow grin spreads across his lips. It looks cruel on his distinguished face and I brave a glare in his direction. "Interesting."

He approaches, strides brisk and airy, like he floats instead of walks. The man on his knees squirms, glancing over his shoulder at a gleam of rusty metal. MN-9. He got MN-9 to help him. I almost laugh, wondering whether the man is a god or a king. Some say Queen Charlotte and her son can talk to animals and bots. It's supposed to be a trick of the special magic coursing through their precious royal blood, but I've never seen it first hand. I don't think anyone has. The man twists a little, exposing the ropes around his wrists. MN-9 buzzes and pokes at him with the dull edge of his prongs.

The uniformed man pushes his glasses up, surveying every feature on my face, on my body. I twitch, kicking out. He tugs my ponytail, my ear, searching for the part of me so enchanted. I scratch and thrash, struggling to catch a fisful of him until he steps back and glances at the woman. "Let him say his piece."

The woman lets go of my face without argument. "You shouldn't torture people, " I rush, gasping in case she tries to smother me again. "I-it's not very nice, you know."

The torturer cups his hand over his mouth and laughs in that quiet, sickeningly polite way that makes me want to hurl. He turns and sweeps a hand toward the tortured man, an explanation probably on his tongue, but the man isn't on his knees anymore. He's on his feet, smiling wryly. Curls of black hair wisp in his face, fluffed up in all the wrong spots. The torturer's glasses hit the ground and shatter. I almost laugh.

The man whirls away and the torturer says nothing, just grows paler and paler until his skin is the color of talcum powder. As if adhering to an unspoken command, the woman drops me and races after the fleeing prisoner. He's already halfway across the floor. I brush imaginary dust off my pants, ignoring the pain of the fall, pretending not to care. The woman wheezes when she runs. Corset troubles, no doubt. The man shoves a bookshelf aside with a single push and I scramble toward the door. He tosses his head back and laughs. The sound is low and scratchy. Starlight trickles through a low, newly revealed window, dust and dander lifting in the air in a yellow drift. The torturer lunges to stop him, but he's too slow.

"Good luck." The scoundrel looks up and locks eyes with me. I almost look away, my heart beating too fast for comfort. He lifts his fingers to his temple in a tentative salute, his smile so genuine, so wide, I feel the warmth all the way in my toes. "See you again, knight, " he says, and his voice is smoother than the finest symphony.

"S-see you again." I watch as he hops up and barrels out the window, shattering it in a thousand pieces that dice the air like throwing knives. I duck.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. MN-9 races across the floor and I bolt out the door.

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