This story was first published in the anthology Ghost in the Cogs, a collection of steampunk ghost stories from Broken Eye Books, and was later included in my collection Learning How To Drown, from NewCon Press. I am putting it up online for Pride 2022.
It is winter in Pal-em-Rasha and all the roosters have been strangled. We are in mourning. The prince was born white and strange, his dead sister clinging to his heel, and since then, three weeks have passed without cock-crow.
People work with their heads bowed and their lips pinched. In the markets—normally ringing with calls and shouts and trades—money falls from palm to palm in muffled offerings. Even the People of the Dogs wrap the hooves of their shaggy red oxen with rags when they come down to the city from their mountain homes. Peasants chase the monkeys away from the orange groves and the tamarind trees, and the leaves hang dry and limp. The little brown doves do not heed the king’s order for silence, and they line the buildings, chuckling at each other in low coos, taking turns to steal the fallen rice from between the road stones.
Our city is divided like a lotus, each petal some stronghold of trade or class. My Bee lives in the cogworker’s district on Iron Ox road in her father’s house. She has no memory of him. Like many men, he has fallen to war. There is only her and her mother, both pretending that this house they run, that they inhabit like snails inside a shell, belongs to them. They eke out his small fortune, watching it dwindle with every passing day.
Her mother climbs the stairs to the loft where Bee has her workshop, and I follow dutifully. I am not permitted to serve food these days. It pains me to see Old Mother struggling to carry the heavy tray up the narrow staircase and know that I am forbidden to help her. She pants as she manoeuvres the tray into the crook of one arm so that she can swing the door open.
Bee waves her mother away as the old woman clears a space on the clutter-strewn desk for the tea tray. “Kavi,” Bee says without looking up at me. Her voice is low. Even in our own homes we speak in whispers, scared of offending the dead. Bee is at work on one of her creatures, its innards spread out across her work table: minute shining cogs and coiled wires fine as the tongue of a butterfly. Her eyeglass is strapped in place with leather bands, flattening her dark hair against her skull, and she looks like a drowned monster hunched over an open treasure chest.
I wait respectfully for Old Mother to leave before I answer. “What is it, my little bee?” The fragrant red sweetness of the tea lifts some of the oppressive funk of the dimly lit room. Even with all the shutters open wide, there is not enough light. The skies are weeping too, cold and bitter with dry snow.
The queen is dead, her children monsters or ghouls.
“I’ll need new lenses,” Bee tells me. “This one, even on its highest setting . . .” she pauses to unbuckle straps and pull the offending thing from her face. “It’s not good enough.” She takes the tea, sips, sighs. “It’s simply not up to the kind of work I want to do.”
The city of Pal-em-Rasha is famous from the high mountains to the bay of Utt Dih for its clockwork beasts. The temple mages from the mountains may sneer and call our people toymakers, but it only shows how scared they are of what we could do. The toymakers are the little gods building horses of bone and wood and metal for princes to ride into battle and birds to take messages, beetles to watch from the walls. Not all their creatures are simple cog and gear contraptions, wound to life with a key. The very best toymakers have also graduated from the floating university.
They are artists and metalworkers and magicians, skilled and powerful. My Bee builds creatures from shining metal and breathes life into them. She has made fine work. Not the finest, perhaps, but she did her time in the university, and her skills are much in demand. Just last month, she completed an order for a hair ornament for a prince merchant’s wife. A moth made of silver, delicate as a live creature. After she’d breathed her soul into its metal heart, I pinned it to her own hair. We stood together in front of the bronze mirror her father had brought back more than twenty years ago from some borderland skirmish. Her reflection was bronzed as the mirror. The moth stirred its grey wings softly, shimmering against the black coils of her hair. I stood at her shoulder. Already, I was too pale and unhealthy against her brightness. She’d smiled in satisfaction, and I’d carefully caught the moth and boxed and wrapped it.
Now, she is working on something grander. My Bee is done with crawling things, small mechanical lives.
While she leans back in her chair and sips at her tea and nibbles on her mother’s little coconut pastries, I pick up a feather from the open drawer in her beast-box. She spent many nights perfecting each one. There are flight feathers of heavy gold and thousands of down feathers no bigger than a baby’s pinkie nail, each one made of metal filaments. The one I hold is from the wing, heavier than a real feather, of course, but otherwise almost identical.
My Bee is a master. One day, soon, I think, they will know her name in the palace tower. She will be richer than the merchant princes who buy her art now. She will teach kings the meaning of life.
“You’ll need to go down to the Oculary and buy me something better, higher magnification,” she says. “I don’t have the time now to go myself.”
I’m her servant, true, but I am more than that, and I frown at her in wounded annoyance.
She catches my look and runs one hand through her hair. “Sorry, love.” Her smile is tired, these long nights eating away at her brightness. “Please,” she adds, almost as an afterthought.
It’s not always easy: love. Especially when you love someone caught in their own genius, like a child trapped in a never-ending dream. Sometimes, they forget we are out here. Sometimes, they forget everything.
I nod. I will leave Old Mother a note telling her what Bee needs, and she can send one of the delivery boys out to collect it with the household orders. “Magnification?” I ask, carefully writing Bee’s words down. I can still do this, at least. The quill-beast responds to my touch, clattering as it reacts to the pressure of my finger, the lightest brush. Bee made this one for me, back when we first fell in love.
We passed our hearts across doorways, secret and nervous. She, the treasured only child, burdened with talent and an expensive education, and I, a women’s maid, burdened with hairbrushes and pins and pots of shadows. I had every excuse to touch her, and I took them all. These days she has no time for preening, and I drift through the house, neither one thing nor the other.
The rooster takes shape, day by day. First the skeleton, in gleaming bronze, its skull polished under the floating gas lamps Bee has gathered in the corners of the pitched roof. Then, as the hours pass and I watch, quiet from my cushion, the muscles and sinews of cogs and wires. At the end of every night, Bee folds her tools back into velvet, sighs and taps the creature, and sets it bobbing and pecking. The eyeless skull bowing to her.
“Why a rooster?” I ask her. I’ve enjoyed this time without the pre-dawn shrieking of the backyard barons.
She shrugs. “They are handsome, gold and green, crests and wattles like new-spilled blood, dragon eyes and claws. What’s not to like?”
Because, I say inside my head, because then the spell will be broken, and I will have to go. I’m not the only one to have enjoyed this brief reprieve. We pass on the streets and nod to each other in unspoken acknowledgement. We watch the city hens with their trains of new-hatched chicks and wait for these little suns to grow feathers instead of fluff and brash voices instead of peeps. Some of them will grow spurs and proud tails, will crow the day awake.
And then we will leave.
The rooster’s eyes lie on a work cloth darkened with metal dust. They look like beads strung on black wires. Bee has made them silver grey to stand out against the golden feathers. I watch them, and they watch me in return.
“Make something else.” At her elbow is a glass bowl of leg scales made of electrum. I stir them with one finger as I talk, not looking at her face. “There are jungle crows in the south that have feathers of gold—you would only have to make a few small changes.”
“The queen’s standard was a rooster,” she snaps.
“You think he will care?”
Bee stands in a huff, throwing a fallen loop of her silk wrap back over her shoulder. “Jealous, Kavi, because you have no art? Or scared that success will ruin what we have?” She dashes one hand across her eyes as though flicking away a lazy fly. “I’m doing this for us—if I can get a royal patronage, we can buy our own home, go anywhere we like. We can pay for the finest doctors and do as we will.”
She’s bitter because she’s tired. She forgets because it’s easier that way.
I say nothing. The rooster grins at me with its metal beak.
“Sorry,” Bee says. “I don’t mean to be so sharp. It’s been a long day.” She holds her arms open to embrace me. Her apologies always were as quick and raw as her attacks.
I step out of reach and slip past her.
Old Mother is waiting for me on the stairs.
We stop across from each other. Her wrinkled face, cross-hatched with sadness and fear for her daughter, peers up at me. I try to keep my own face a mask to hide my guilt. Guilt? What have I to be guilty for, I ask myself as I wait for Old Mother to speak.
“You should go,” she says.
My answer catches in my throat, rust and broken edges.
“The longer you stay, the worse she gets,” Bee’s mother says, and the tears wash through the tiny valleys that map her cheeks. “You are driving her mad. You are hurting Bijri, and I do not think you want that.”
I know, I want to say. But it’s not me who chose to kill every rooster in the city. Perhaps, even now, the king sits in his high tower, in the Pistil of Pal-em-Rasha, holding his queen’s cold hand and praying for miracles. I nod at her instead. I have heard, I have understood.
I wander into the little room that used to be mine when I was still just a servant. It’s unoccupied, and I lie down on the narrow bed. It is colder and harder and meaner than Bee’s, but it doesn’t feel right to go lie there now.
Through the wooden walls, the voices drift. Old Mother, coaxing Bee to come with her to a friend, to take in some fresh air and clear her head. Bee argues, but eventually, she gives in, and their feet patter away, down hallways and staircases.
Alone in the house, except for the maid and cook who avoid me anyway, I take the opportunity to go into Bee’s loft. The gas lamps are dead, but thin winter light still bathes the room enough that I can see. Bee must have been tired—she bowed to her mother’s wishes. Far more telling: she left her tools out on the work bench, not rolled up in their velvet and put gently to bed like fragile children. She was working on the eyes again. Near them lies the clockwork heart, a bright ticker waiting for winding.
Childish temper, fear, anger. I don’t know what it is that drives me, but I flick those watching eyes from the bench, and they rattle and bounce, lost to the wooden floorboards and the dark corners. I press one finger through the mechanics of the heart, upsetting the delicate balance of cog and wheel.
This will hurt her more, I realise. Not because I’ve broken a trinket, but because it will only make the leaving harder. I search the floorboards until my skirt and hands are streaked with dust. When I find the eyes, I put them back carefully next to the broken heart. That at least, I know Bee can fix. I leave the destruction and go hide in my old room. It is familiar-strange, a place I only came back to when I hurt, when I didn’t want to distract Bee with my pain. It’s hard to cry, but I find myself dampening the sun-bleached bedding with my faint tears.
“Found you,” Bee says, her voice bright again, waking me. It seems the walk has done her good. “What are you doing here?” She lies down next to me on the servant’s bed, gently shoving so that I will make room for her. We fold each other in our arms. We kiss and sing the song that only those who love know, that sweet low song.
“I was just thinking,” I say when I have air again to speak.
“Don’t,” she commands. “It’s made you miserable, whatever it was you were thinking about.” She kisses me again, her lips warm, her tongue soft. She has eaten honeyed figs and drunk imported tea from the Ten Thousand Island Heaven Empire. “Never leave me,” she says between kisses. “I know I’m a pain, but you make me human,” she says between touches. “You are my right eye, my right hand—”
“Shh,” I tell her.
“My right ventricle, my right foot, my right big toe—”
I quiet her with my mouth.
The rooster is almost done. The gas lamps are turned low, and the beast stands regal on the table. The feathers are soft gold, warm and welcoming. The tail curves high, black and green, each filament enamelled. It is a thing on the scalpel-edge of living. I look to the open windows where the darkness is still looped with stars. Outside, the birds have not yet woken, but they stir in their dreams of rice and grain.
“So?” Bee spreads her hands and looks to me. Under the arrogance is her fear. Am I good enough, or have I wasted my time, my money, have I deluded myself, tell me, tell me, tell me that my work is sweeter than palm sugar, more precious than salt. Please tell me. “What do you think?”
“It is very beautiful.”
She sniffs. “Of course,” but she winks after she says it and smiles shy as a child.
“When will you present it to the king?” I lean forward from my seat and touch its beak. It shivers gently.
“Tomorrow,” Bee says, and before I breathe deep at my momentary stay, she continues, “but first, I need to make sure it will work.”
I tuck my hands back in my lap, and the bangles she gave me as marriage gifts clatter softly.
“Pray for me, Kavi. Pray to your funny little house gods.” But she doesn’t wait for me to say yes or no, so eager. She’s a child showing off, caught up in the joy of her creation. Bee bows her head, her eyes closed. She looks like a temple reverent, her dark lashes spider leg shadows on hollow sockets, her ringlet hair unbrushed for days. Like all students of the floating university, the first thing she ever learned was stillness, to tame her breath, to use it to call up power from the earth and channel it. Her breath is her magic, machinery her art. The air changes as the magic builds, gathering in her belly. Minutes pass as she charges her breaths, pulling energy from the lifewells that track below the skin of the world. Before, I wasn’t attuned to these currents of power, but now, I can feel them. I can see ribbons of light. The dark hair on my arms stands up, and a million spiders dance out a strange new song against my skin.
The breath moves from body to body. From warm lips to cold bright beak, and like paper catching fire, the energy crackles along every wire and cog, turns the dead heart into a lightning pulse. The rooster opens one dragon eye on me.
There is still time before dawn, before daybreak, but my lover’s art has no care. It throws back its gleaming head, heavy feathers flushed with warmth and magic.
The sound is harsh and over-loud in the loft, and it tears the anchor of my heart, uproots me.
“Kavi!” Bee says, cheeks and eyes shining. “Look! Oh, Kavi, our fortunes are made.” She turns away from her monster to catch my hands and draw me to my feet, to spin me around in a tight dance. She is hot and breathless, and her kiss tastes like bitter tea and too little sleep and funerary coins. “Oh, love, you’re so cold,” she says when she draws back from me, brow crinkling in concern. “You’ve been so patient with me, and I’ve been ignoring you.” She holds me tight, drawing me close to her until I can pretend her heartbeat is mine.
My feet disappear first. Bee cannot see them, hidden under my long skirt of red ochre. My legs and hips fade, and all that is left is painstaking embroidery and rustling linen. I grow light.
“Are we still fighting?” she asks me, her breath damp against my ear, and I will her magic into me. If I were made of cogs and wires, she could make me dance again.
“You forgot,” I whisper back, but the rooster has thrown back his sharp head, opened wide his savage beak. He crows again and there is no more time left.
Three crows to call the dead home.
We leave Pal-em-Rasha in a sea of misting grey, thick as dreams. The shades that have spent the weeks since the king’s command in a hell of waiting. The pull rushes us, whistling hard in our ears, dragging us willing or no. I force myself to turn my head and look back down at the house where I died alone, retching up blood in a servant’s room so that my lover would not see.
Bee dances in her loft, the empty pleated skirt and tunic top held crumpled in her arms. Her tears fall bright as feathers. On the workbench, the golden rooster struts and calls.