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   Chapter 6 Bargain

Clockwork and Cinders By m i c h e l l e p a k Characters: 5792

Updated: 2018-01-21 23:06

Though Stepmother had more than a few practical reasons to scare me as a child, her appearance always had an equally unsettling effect. It's not that she's mean-looking, or witchy—no long pointy nose or a scar through her eye. It's a sense of ferality to her, married with this dignity. High, angled cheekbones so sharp they could cut, her eyes, a soft shade of green, jade-like. When they focused, it was like they seared through you. And yet, this softness. A few wrinkles in her sharp face, her hair, long and wild when it fell to her waist. Perfectly elegant, perfectly feminine and sleek in design, perfectly terrifying.

Though she's gone gray, little else has changed concerning Stepmother. Hair in a knot, cream nightgown loose and lacy around her thin, stiff form, she looks just the same as she did all those years ago.

"Hello, " I say, and the sound is so soft and melodic it sounds like something out of a music box. Her mouth hangs open in a silenced scream. "I've returned."

Stepmother smooths down the pages in the book that's been spread across her lap, snapping her mouth shut once she sends me a final, panicked glance. As if finally deciding I'm real and human enough to perform before, she slips into her facade of royalty. Her reddened eyelids droop, like she's bored with me, one leg crosses in front of the other at the ankle, her back stretching even straighter. I wonder if she's wearing that cologne the Inventor gave her, the one that smells of lavender and burnished wood.

"I see that… Luciel?" she says my name as a question, as if I'm an old acquaintance she isn't particularly happy to see. Drawing a finger over a red lip, she lifts an eyebrow, flicks me another appraising glance and shudders. I must look awful, all chipped and cracked, breeches and shirt soaked to my half-humanoid form.

I nod, crawling out of the fireplace and over the iron grate. All I can hear is the ticking of my heart, the grinding of my ears, and the jiggling of loose parts like the brassy sound of loose coppers tumbling together. A loose strand of fake, flaxen hair flounces in front of my eye. "Yes, it's been a while. It's nice to see you."

"I suppose you want a place to stay." Her voice is flat. Smooth. Her expression has taken on a blankness, aside from her drooping eyes. The ticking of my heart becomes grinding, images of her watching me, always watching me with her lip curled and some remark about what a danger I was, what a terrible liability I was to her family just waiting on her tongue. Once more, a pressure breaks inside my head. I want to cry, and I can't. So, I lift up my head instead.

"Your daughter sold me." The words cut. Even as an automaton, even without sensation, they ring inside me with this resounding ache. "I'm as much family as she is, I have a right to—"

"You have no right to my home." Stepmother relaxes for the first tim

e tonight, sinking back into my favorite chair with hair hands flung over the arms. A smile broadens across her face. "You're an adult, nineteen. Why, you're old enough to drink."

"I have nowhere else to go." I grip MN-9 so hard he squeaks. Franky, he's all I have left. my glassy eyes roll in their sockets, searching for somewhere else to stare, the prim papering, the books, but they settle on Stepmother. I have to gather up all my courage to speak together directly. "I'll leave, I promise. The Galactic Promise legalized enchanted two fortnights ago, so I'm legal, no longer a threat to the safety of your daughters. If you don't want to take me in, I understand, but at least… for my father's sake."

Stepmother whips to her feet, quicker than a serpent. Her eyes narrow, her face drawn up so tightly, so pointy, I don't see the beauty in her anymore, just the ferality, just the threat. My fingers curl up into fists before dropping limp at my sides. It's not fear that makes my gears whir, it's frustration. That nothing for me comes easily, though I suppose I don't deserve that, that something I yearned for so desperately for so long doesn't want me, despises me. It aches. Tirelessly, constantly. I'm exhausted, of being let down, of being hurt.

"How dare you!"

"Please." I hold up my hands, both of which have begun to tremble. "I'm sorry. If you won't house me as your stepson, then house me as your servant."

"A servant." Her eyes flutter back to their normal width, and I let out a relieved huff out of reflex. It's a relief I'm feeling much too soon, because her lips curve into a snide, ugly smile. "I could have a number of servants. Why should I take in you?"

I levy a few quick blinks at her. "Because if you don't, your friends will learn you conspired with your daughter to sell me?"

With those words said, I have little left to leverage. I clasp my hands behind my back, wincing at the squeak of joints. It's an attempt to look still and serene, to steel myself against Stepmother's possible rage. She straightens. The lace hem of her skirt brushes the floor, her hands balling up the fabric at her hips. Her lips purse as she eyes me one more time, a flush of pink in her face that smooths into her practiced blankness. "There's a pantry, " she says, her eyes flashing. "You'll sleep in it."

I dip her a bow. My key click-click-clicks in the glassy flesh of my back, filling the silence with the relentless throb like a heartbeat. "Thank you."

As soon as I finish, she turns her back to me, the tenous muscles of her shoulder blades distinct as they extend under the cream seams of her dress. "Get out of my sight."

The tone of her voice sends a thrill of fear in me, and I nod, my head dipping so low it might as well be a second bow. As I wobble toward the door, I don't feel like I won a battle, I feel like I'm about to lose a war.

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