King Leonard was in a bad way by the time he finally consented to the marriage. He was seventy, which was already old by the standards of his court, and a long life of drunken carousing and exposure to court magic had not preserved him well. It must have been an incredible disappointment to Eleanor when she arrived at the palace to marry him. Everyone in the kingdom knew that the King was old, but the court had done a fine job of concealing his mental decline, and the girl could not have expected the man she met at the end of the aisle: a trembling, narcoleptic hump of a man, no longer fully acquainted with continence and rapidly losing his grasp on the concept.
The royal court did most things as a unit——dissension was not their strong suit——and, as a unit, they approved of Eleanor. She married the King, cut his meat for him at meals, helped him to find his slippers, and presumably withstood his withered attempts to sire an heir——and she did it all without complaint. She could have stamped a slippered foot and pouted prettily about her circumstances, but she just wasn’t that kind of girl. The court breathed a collective sigh of relief and treated her with removed kindness. The King’s Council——the scaffolding that shored up the affairs of the state——discreetly made it known to Eleanor that they would not question the paternity of any children she should bear, so long as she stepped lightly around the issue of the King’s marital abilities, which they assumed were hampered by his tendency to drift off in the middle of basic tasks.
The Palace Alchemist, on request of the Council, arranged for Eleanor to have an armed escort who would not have anything to say about evening visitors to the Queen’s chambers. Claude was the head of the Kingsguard——he should have reported directly to the King, but in practice, Claude worked for the Alchemist. The arrangement was to their mutual benefit: the Alchemist supplied Claude with recreational opiates, and, in return, Claude supplied the Alchemist with information on Eleanor and kept his mouth shut around everyone else. He reported on the girl for the first six months of her new life in the palace. He informed the Alchemist of her loneliness, and of her hesitation to accept the Council’s permission to stray from her marriage vows. He reported on her tentative overtures of friendship to various parties, who were too polite to tell her that they couldn’t be friends with someone in such a position of power. He reported on her dreams, which prominently featured clocks and empty chairs.
As Claude——and, by proxy, the Alchemist——watched, Eleanor began to find her feet. She was, Claude reported, kind to the staff, patient with the King, and keenly intelligent. At first, the guard objected to his assignment, but as the months passed he grew devoted to the girl. He sat watch outside of her chamber every night as she dreamed. He escorted her each morning to the palace library; there, she devoured information on the diplomatic and domestic concerns of the country whose next mint of coins would bear her profile. Claude took his opportunity to sleep, eat, and bathe as Eleanor gorged herself on data. That girl, he reported to the Alchemist, was in this for the long haul. She wanted to be a true Queen. His face grew animated as he described her devotion to the task of learning her new job. It was clear that he admired her, and she confided in him enough that the Alchemist suspected she might admire him, as well. For a long time, Claude was Eleanor’s only friend at the palace; if things had gone differently, they might have gotten closer than that. If things had gone differently, he might one day have fathered a bastard who could pass for a prince.
But things did not go differently.
The King was the problem. About a month after King Leonard wedded Eleanor, he began to peer at her with uncertainty. The Alchemist was the first to notice it: the old man casting suspicious sidelong glances at his young wife as she developed her Queenly bearing. He narrowed his eyes at her with apparent skepticism, and pursed his lips whenever she laughed.
The tension built for months before he snapped.
“Impostor!” Spittle flew from the sides of his mouth as he bellowed. “Fraud! You’re not her! You crone, you fake, what have you done with her? Where is my bride?” He pointed at the Queen with one gnarled finger, his sunken chest heaving with the effort of his outrage. Eleanor looked around her as though there was anyone else to whom the King might have been addressing his fury. Her mouth opened, closed, opened again—but she seemed unable to form words.
The Alchemist yanked her from her throne by one arm. She gave a little gasp at the strength of his grip.
“I’ll see to the impostor, Your Majesty.” His face betrayed no mercy; his voice, no hesitation. Claude, standing at his appointed place behind the King’s throne, went grey in the face, but, duty-bound, could not leave his post. His eyes tracked the Alchemist and the girl as they left the throne room.
As the Alchemist dragged the bewildered girl away, the King’s raving faded behind them. “Execute her! Execute the impostor! Where is my Queen?” In the hall, Eleanor babbled explanations – she was Eleanor, she was the real Queen, she didn’t know what the King could possibly mean, calling her a ‘crone’ – and just like that, she was hyperventilating. The Alchemist pulled her into an alcove and slapped her hard across the face, shocking her into silence. “Hush, child. Of course you’re the Queen. There’s no question to anyone, in the court or on the Council, of your identity. The only person in that room who doesn’t know that you are the Queen—”
“—is the only one who could order my execution,” Eleanor whispered. Tears streamed down her cheeks, but her mouth was set in a firm line. This one doesn’t tremble, the Alchemist thought. He gripped her shoulders and searched her face for some sign that she trusted him. “We’ll fix it, Highness. You stay in your chambers—I’ll find out what’s happened to the King to make him speak such madness.” He thought he saw a thread of steel in her eyes as she nodded; he wondered if he might actually be able to save her.
It took three hours and a great deal of careful prodding, but the Alchemist finally put it together. The aging King’s mind had been caving in on itself for some time. The King’s Council had hoped that he would hold up long enough to see the birth of an heir—legitimate or not—but it had taken them a full year to find and approve the trade magnate’s daughter, and another year after that for her to come of age. She had been fourteen and a half when she arrived at the palace, fifteen when the Alchemist bound her in blood and cups to the King. Fifteen when the circlet was placed atop her bowed head and the words of binding were spoken.
And she had been fifteen when, unbeknownst to anyone, the King’s mind closed its doors to new memories.
She had changed—quickly, as girls do at that age. The King was not so sharp as he used to be, and his vision was cloudy, but he had spotted the half-inch of growth and the blossoming bust and the broadening jaw, and his rotting mind insisted that this girl was not the girl he married.
The Alchemist gave the King poppy brandy to quiet his anger and fear. He retired to his own chambers and sat at his workbench. The King was beyond repair, there could be no question. Cursory probing had revealed a mind that was shut tight to any external influences; the doors were locked while the house was burning. He could not be saved. But perhaps…? No, it was too outlandish.
The Alchemist toyed with one of his clockwork hares as he weighed the idea in his mind. It would be dangerous. It would cross boundaries that those in his profession generally considered sacrosanct. It was unthinkable. Or, it had been unthinkable, until he had thought of it. Now, it seemed like the only option. It could save the girl. He could save the girl.
It could work.
The Alchemist breathed the appropriate words over a few drops of quicksilver and began sketching out calculations.
The sky outside the palace was the bloodless grey that precedes true dawn. Claude paced before the door to the Queen’s chambers; his hands worked over a set of prayer chains. His voice was hoarse from what must have been hours of chanting prayers for the Queen’s safety.
“Well? Did you find a spell? Can you fix the King?”
The Alchemist licked his lips, shook his head. “I’m so sorry, Claude. There’s nothing to be done. She is to be executed.” He was surprised to hear the steadiness in his own voice.
The guard blanched. As the head of the King’s guard, the task would fall to him. “When?”
The Alchemist swallowed. There was no going back. “Now.”
The guard took twenty minutes sharpening his sword. He prayed under his breath the entire time; the Alchemist did not interrupt him until he had finished the prayer cycle. “Your helm, Claude?”
Claude shook his head, keeping his eyes on his sword. “Not for executions. No helm for executions. It’s—they’re supposed to be able to see your face, before they die.” The Alchemist allowed himself a grim smile. This would not be so hard, then.
When they entered the Queen’s chambers, she was already awake, ready for them. She did not appear to have slept. She grasped her own prayer chains in a white-knuckled fist. She looked to the Alchemist with hope; he shook his head, and her face fell as she looked from him to Claude’s sword.
“I am to die.” She did not sound afraid. She met their eyes, each in turn; when her gaze landed on Claude, she tried and failed to favor him with a comforting smile. She gave him her prayer chains, pressing them into his hand. The guard blinked rapidly, his eyes fixed on their hands, which were touching for what must have been the first time. His breathing grew shaky. The Alchemist cleared his throat.
“You must kneel on the disc, Highness.”
She glanced at him with a furrowed brow, but made her way to the bronze Alchemist’s disc set into the floor of her chambers and knelt. The disc was there to amplify magic—it was meant to mark the critical moments of her reign. Her true coronation; the binding of her marriage to the King; someday, the birth of a child. She did not say what she must have been thinking—that the disc was not meant for death. Instead, she was silent as she bowed her head and parted her hair, exposing the smooth, white curve of her neck.
The Alchemist looked from the Queen to Claude, then back. All was as it needed to be. “Be very still, Your Highness. It will not hurt as much as you fear.”
Claude’s voice trembled. “For the crime of impersonating the, the Queen, you are sentenced to death.” He wiped his mouth on one sleeve, and hoarsely whispered. “I am so sorry, Your Highness.”
He unsheathed his sword, laid the broad edge of the blade across the back of the girl’s neck. A thin line of blood rose where the metal, honed with such care, met bare flesh. He lifted the sword, preparing to make the final swing.
As Claude’s arms stretched over his head, the Alchemist reached around the guard’s throat and slit the taut, tender skin with the sharp edge of a silvered fingernail. At the same time, he spoke an incantation to freeze guard and girl.
Claude’s throat opened and rained blood over the kneeling Queen. The Alchemist spoke sigils referring to fear, to blood, to eternal youth, to stopping time.
It took a long time. He finished speaking the words just as Claude’s blood stopped flowing. He spoke the final phrase to close the incantation and release the freezing spell; the husk of Claude fell to the floor beside the young Queen.
Eleanor remained still, hardly breathing. Her blonde hair hung over her downcast face, dark and dripping with Claude’s blood. She whispered,“Was—was that a spell, Alchemist?”
The Alchemist nodded, then realized she could not see him. “Yes, Highness. I am afraid it was the only way. The initial casting required blood that was saturated with fear and sorrow and—it’s very complex. I do wish that there was another we could have used.”
Eleanor scraped her soaked hair back from her face with one hand and cleared her throat. Her voice was thick. “He is dead.” It was not a question. “What was the spell for? Will it heal the King’s mind?” She tried to stand, and slipped in the pool of steaming blood that surrounded her, already blackening where it touched the bronze of the disc. The Alchemist caught her by the elbow before she fell.
“I’m afraid that magic is what’s addled his mind. He’s used it for years to see the outcomes of battles and alliances—it was too much for him. I tried to warn him, but he was too sure of himself. It’s rotted him. He’ll live for a very long time—well into his hundreds, on the strength of the magic he’s already taken in—but his mind is irretrievable.
“No, Highness—the spell has healed you. You look now as you did six months ago, on the night of your wedding. The King will recognize you, now. He’ll know you as his wife, and he’ll let you live. As long as you never change.”
At this, the girl finally looked the Alchemist in the eye. “Why? Why would you help me like this?”
“It is in my interest to have an ally on the throne, once the King finally dies.” The Queen looked surprised at this candor. The Alchemist hoped that his honesty helped her to understand the severity of her situation. “We’ll need to renew the spell once every month or so. Do you know how long your cycle is? Never mind, we can figure that out. We won’t need to use this much blood every time – just a spoonful should do the trick.” His mouth buzzed with magic. He spat onto the bronze disc in the floor. His saliva sizzled where it landed. “And we don’t need the sorrow every time, either—just for the initial casting. Going forward, as long as fear is in the blood, we can use it.”
The Queen’s mouth was set in a grim line; that thread of steel was back in her eyes. As the Alchemist watched, she struggled with the new reality of her survival, and came to a decision.
The Queen flicked blood from her fingertips. A drop of it landed on the Alchemist’s shoe. “Fear in the blood. All right. That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Highness, there’s a problem with the Surgeon.”
After twenty years in the Queen’s service, the Alchemist probably could have called her Eleanor, but it felt like a bridge too far. One would think that everything they had done would have brought them closer, but it had the opposite effect. They had seen too much together. He did not care to be familiar with her.
“What? Did he cut too deeply? Is this one already dead?” She did not look up from the letter she was writing. “Just get rid of it, and tell the Surgeon to use one of the new kitchen girls.” She signed the letter with a flourish and sprinkled the wet ink with sand, muttering, “We’ve got a glut of them anyway, what with the blight. As if I need another indentured servant.”
“No, Highness, it’s not that. The Surgeon is refusing.”
That got the Queen’s attention. In twenty years, the Surgeon had never once refused when the Alchemist delivered orders to escalate torture immediately before a harvest. The Queen’s face—still smooth and dewy, unchanged over the course of two decades—lost most of its color. She stood, knocking over her bottle of ink in her haste. She did not stop to clean the mess or lament the ruination of her letter.
“Take me to him.”
The Queen had not visited her private wing of the dungeon since it was constructed. Although she had a strong enough stomach to pen the orders that the Alchemist delivered to the Surgeon each month, she did not care to witness the horrors inflicted on those who inhabited her dungeon. Now, she descended the narrow stone steps with sure feet; the Alchemist admired the confidence she had developed over the course of twenty years on the throne. She had hardened during that time; she had grown sharp and impatient. Ruthless. But those qualities also made her a formidable player on the international stage. She was well respected by foreign rulers as well as the King’s Council. She may not be not Good, he thought, but she is a good Queen.
She raced down the dungeon stairs, apparently without fear of stumbling. Her speed was not enough.
By the time they reached the Surgeon’s chambers, his feet had stopped kicking. A letter on the Queen’s own creamy parchment sat on his crisply made bed. The smell of his excrement was overpowering; his swollen face looked like the overripe fruit of some grotesque vine. The Queen waited outside of the Surgeon’s chambers with a handkerchief pressed over her nose and mouth while the Alchemist verified that the Surgeon was beyond help.
“I’ll send a guard to clean that up, Highness. I am so sorry that you had to witness—”
“It doesn’t matter.” The steel in her eyes had thickened to near-impenetrability over the years. “It’s almost time. We need the blood by tomorrow. Which prisoner was he supposed to— ah, which one was it supposed to be?”
The Alchemist consulted the Queen’s orders, upon the back of which the Surgeon had written his suicide note. “Cell Four. Albert. This is likely to be his last donation.”
Albert was very old. The Queen looked at him with the fascination she afforded all of the elderly. Her skin and her bones and her hair had not changed for twenty years, and something about the living decay of age had become mystifying to her. He was unconscious in his cell, breathing like a man underwater.
“Will he even be able to feel fear anymore? Or perhaps he is feeling the fear of death already?” Her gaze upon the old man was like that of a cat staring at a beetle between its paws—more curious than predatory, but there could be no doubt as to her intentions for her prey. “Open the cell, Alchemist.”
The Alchemist hesitated long enough to earn a sharp glance from the Queen. “Highness, I will need to find another Surgeon to perform the task. I don’t know how to, ah.… carry out your orders.”
The Queen ran the tip of her tongue across her teeth. “You don’t know how to carry out my orders. I see. So you’re not going to help me with this?” The Alchemist considered for a moment before shaking his head. The Queen took a deep breath in, and did not release it for several seconds; a muscle in her jaw shifted. She pulled a pin the length of her index finger from her hair. “Do you think this will be enough? The Surgeon was always pestering me with requests for more tools, but I think we can be resourceful.” She pressed the point of the hairpin into the meat of her palm without looking away from the Alchemist. Her smooth skin bowed under the point until finally, it broke; unnaturally dark, magic-tainted blood welled up, puddling in her palm. “I’ll handle it.”
The Alchemist buckled with what he would recognize in hindsight as practically no resistance. He opened the door to the cell, and turned his back as the Queen began to work.
It took one year for the pin to break. The Queen moved on to other tools—she even had one of her fingernails permanently silvered and honed by the Alchemist—but after fifteen years, she did not find anything that satisfied her in the same way as the pin did. She had a custom set of them cast by the silversmith for the work she did in the dungeon. The Alchemist offered to find her a new Surgeon, but she put him off several times; eventually, he gave up.
Once, when she was towards the bottom of a bottle of brandy, she confided in The Alchemist about it. “It’s not that I like it, Alchemist. The torture. Not so much. It’s more like it likes me. The torture is… it’s like the clockwork creatures you make, that need to be wound up every few minutes—it’s like the little key that you turn to wind them? But it’s also the hole that the key goes into. Like there’s a hole somewhere in me that it can pour out of, and into—and it just, I can’t help but—” She never finished the sentence; she merely stared at her goblet with wide, wet eyes, until the Alchemist eased it from her white-knuckled grip.
The Queen became familiar with the people she ruled, in a way that was more visceral than her prior understanding of their census data and statistical disease rates. She confided to the Alchemist that she did not especially like them. Poverty leached the color from their weary, hungry faces, until they were a wash of beige misery. Beige skin, beige hair, beige teeth. But that was all on the outside; on the inside, they were as red as Claude had been.
All this was true of the peasant girl in Cell Four of the dungeon. She was perhaps six years old, and most of her was the color of dishwater, with the exception of her eyes—blue. The Queen spared the girl little attention as she stretched a leather strop taut and whisked a blade along it. Her movements were quick and efficient as she argued with the Alchemist.
“I don’t care, Alchemist. She’ll be just fine for my needs. Drop it.”
The Alchemist did not typically dare to oppose the Queen, but he had to push back this time. She wasn’t listening to him. “Your Majesty, I understand. I do. But children, they can cope with fear in ways that—”
A dangerous glint entered the Queen’s eye. “I’ll get around whatever ‘coping’ she tries to do, Alchemist. I’m very good at that kind of thing. Do you want to continue to push this issue? Because if you do, I can find the materials elsewhere.”
The Alchemist took a breath as if to respond, but faltered at the edge in the Queen’s voice. She had never threatened him before. He let his gaze drop.
“Good.” The Queen gave a decisive nod and turned to Cell Four, testing the blade against her thumbnail and finding it satisfactory. “It’s settled. Worry less, Alchemist. I’ve got this under control.” The Alchemist did not think that was true, but he kept his mouth closed around the opinion, although it was bitter and he could not quite swallow it. The Queen entered Cell Four.
“Hello, child. Do you know who I am?”
The Queen descended to Cell Four in a rage. The girl within the cell did not cower as she had when she was a child. When the girl still had both of her legs, she would stand in the doorway of her cell to prove her bravery in the face of the Queen’s inflictions. But her ability to do that had long ago been whittled away, so she sat up as straight as she could, mustering defiance. When the cell door flew open, she took in the Queen’s veiled face and bared her teeth in an approximation of what she remembered a smile to be.
“Has he died, then? Does this mean you’ll stop taking from me?”
The Queen slapped the girl, hard. Then again, harder. The girl’s one remaining arm, missing most of a bicep, was too weak to catch her. Her head hit the stone floor with a sound like an egg breaking. She did not cry out, but hissed out a slow breath against the cool stone. She had not cried out for many years.
“What have you done? What have you done to your blood?” Eleanor pulled back the veil, revealing her face—which, to the untrained eye, still looked fifteen. To the mad eyes of the king, however, it looked fifteen and a half.
Eleanor had aged.
There was terror in the lines of her face, but it was coupled closely with anger. The Queen never seemed to feel fear by itself. The Alchemist hesitated in the doorway behind her.
“Your Highness, if you would just listen to me. I believe that it’s a simple matter of potency.”
She rounded on him. “Why isn’t it working? What’s wrong with her?”
“I tried to warn you, Your Highness. It’s just that she was too young. Children cope differently than adults do. She’s been down here for nearly fifteen years, Highness. She’s come to terms with it.”
The Queen shook her head as if she was trying to shake water out of her ears. “What? Come to terms with—what do you mean?”
The Alchemist frowned. “She’s lost the capacity for fear.”
A complex emotion washed over the Queen’s face—something between pity and envy. The Alchemist’s last shred of optimism stirred—was she perhaps feeling compassion? “Then she’s useless. Isn’t she? We’ll have to get another.” The Alchemist nodded as the hope he’d felt for her soul sank back into the shadows. He felt as though he was at the bottom of a very deep, dry well, looking up at a distant, fading light.
“Very well. Dispose of her. And find me another.”
“Highness.” She ignored him. “Eleanor.” The Queen looked up sharply at the sound of her name—a name he’d never been so bold as to speak. “The King is ill.”
Her nostrils flared. “I’m aware.”
“I don’t think that there is anything to be done, Highness. He will die. You will be Queen Regent, until your nephew Phillip is of age to take the throne. And he won’t be of age for another fourteen years or so. You—you won’t need a replacement. You won’t need to harvest anymore.” The Alchemist’s tentative smile was not returned. The Queen’s face was as still as a frozen pond; there was no telling what creatures swam beneath the surface.
“Dispose of this one, and find me another, Alchemist. And be quick about it. ”
She strode out of the dungeon, her spine as straight as a sabre.
The King died, as predicted. The Queen attended the funeral with a veil over her face; by the time the King’s tomb was sealed, the veil was off, and if she was not smiling, she was not weeping either.
The Queen Regent was efficient, bordering on cutthroat. She developed strong diplomatic ties with neighboring regencies, and instituted a mail system. The kingdom prospered enough that the court did not ask any probing questions about their queen’s unchanging face—a nobleman, Eleanor knew, will never fuss with a system that makes him rich. A day’s ride away, Prince Phillip learned to walk and talk and sit a horse. The Alchemist visited him annually, examining his teeth and listening to his lungs and leaving behind small clockwork animals for the boy to play with: a deer one year, a scorpion the next.
He did not speak to Queen Regent Eleanor anymore—not unless he had to. She still looked like the girl whose life he’d saved so many years before, but there was corrosion in her blood. The magic had eaten at her, leaving her hard and brittle and cruel. She summoned him once a month to perform the spell, handing him still-warm vials of blood and kneeling on the Alchemist’s disc in her chambers. She looked terribly hungry during the ritual, sometimes grinding her teeth as though she could chew the magic. She watched him like a tigress as he poured the blood over her and spoke the words that kept her young. After the ritual was complete, but before dismissing the Alchemist, she would inspect him; she studied his drooping skin and hunching spine with removed fascination over the years. When his hair turned grey, she ordered him to stop cutting it. Her own hair had not grown since Claude’s blood had saturated it, and she wanted to see how long the Alchemist’s could get. He had taken to binding it into a braid to keep it from getting caught in the gears of his machines. It was heavy. He longed to cut it off, but did not dare.
The Alchemist went to his chambers at the end of each day and stacked the gears on his desk, in order from smallest to largest. He labeled bottles and he mixed tinctures and he wrote runes in various configurations to ensure the health and longevity of Prince Phillip. He rubbed warming salve into his aching joints. He worked on personal projects in the evenings. He tried to ignore the fact that it was his magic that had rotted the Queen’s heart, just as surely as it had rotted the dead King’s mind.
The Queen Regent summoned The Alchemist by sending a clockwork bird to get him. He had made the bird for her when she first came to the palace, so very long ago. It was a brass sparrow, all clicking gears inside. When it reached The Alchemist’s quarters, it would speak in the Queen’s voice, asking him to come see her right away, please.
She did not like many things these days, but she liked the clockwork bird. Its little brass eyes never looked at her with fear, or judgment, or admiration. It did what was required, and nothing more.
The Queen sent the bird to fetch the Alchemist, but it returned without him. It spoke to the Queen in her own voice—“He’s not there. He’s visiting the young prince.” As it spoke, it wound down; the Queen would not wind it up again until she needed to send it back out. If only people worked the same way.
She held a vial of blood in one gloved hand. The gloves were for her protection. The blood was warm, and these days, the heat of it had started to hurt her. Her own blood was saturated with magic, and it had turned cold and nearly black. The warmth of the fear-tainted blood in the vial was so foreign that it felt almost like a poison—but it was a poison that she craved.
It wouldn’t do to let the blood cool. If it congealed, she would need to go get more, and her arms were tired from this most recent harvest. The Queen pursed her lips and looked at the motionless brass sparrow.
“Fine. I’ll do it myself.”
The sparrow did not reply.
Eleanor had never performed the ritual on her own before, but she had heard the Alchemist speak the proper words every month for the past fifty years. They were as familiar to her as her own name.
She knelt on the Alchemist’s disc and uncorked the vial. She raised it over her head, preparing to anoint herself. It would sting, because of that strange, vital warmth, but the sting would quickly give way to a rush of crisp pleasure as the words wove themselves into the blood and into her own ageless flesh.
Before the first drop of blood could touch her head, her chamber doors opened with a bang, and the sound of ticking filled the room. Startled, Eleanor dropped the vial. Blood spattered across her slippered feet. She swore and looked up, prepared to unleash the full weight of her fury upon whatever hapless servant had burst in.
But it was not a servant at all.
The Thing that stood in the doorway was beautiful and terrible. It was brass from the pelvis down; the left arm was composed of an intricate network of gears and cogs, as was the upper right arm from the shoulder to just above the elbow. The lower right arm, torso, and face were flesh. Gears and bone creaked together to form the skull. One eye was a dull, watery blue; the other was crafted from quartz and copper, and clicked as it rotated to look around the room.
The Thing’s gaze settled on the kneeling Queen. Its face was bright with some combination of excitement and rage. Neither the Thing nor the Queen could know, but the expression was identical to the one that the Queen wore when she was torturing her prisoners, infusing their blood with the fear that she needed to burn youth into her body.
The Queen started to stand, drawing breath to scream. The Thing threw a handful of pebbles onto the Alchemist’s disc, spoke the names of four runes. The Queen’s body froze; she choked on the scream before it could escape her throat.
The Thing spoke with a pendulous resonance. Clicks and whirrs sounded from behind the skin of its throat as it greeted Eleanor.
“I’ve come to kill you.”
That voice was somehow familiar, but Eleanor could not place it. A wisp of memory entered her mind, but was dissipated by the clicking of the clockwork in the Thing’s legs as it advanced.
“He forgot my key. He left it. He usually takes it, lets me wind down so I can’t come to you, but this time he forgot.” There was a giddiness in the Thing’s words. It seemed on the edge of hysterical laughter.
And, Eleanor saw, it was telling the truth—a lovely little brass key with a dangling crimson tassel hung from the Thing’s temple, where clockwork and bone fused. Vomit rose in Eleanor’s throat at the thought of the Thing inserting the key to wind itself up. She found herself able to lean over, and she heaved, adding a pungent puddle to the already ruined floor of her chambers. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve and did not look at the Thing again, although she could hear it approaching her.
“You’re… you’re one of the Alchemist’s creatures.” It was obvious—there was no other mage in her kingdom who could animate clockwork so elegantly. She hadn’t known that he was toying with hybrids, but Eleanor supposed it was a natural progression in his work. Her mind raced over his other creations. They usually wound down within a few minutes of being wound up. She prayed that this one would be similarly constructed.
A clockwork hand stroked the Queen’s cheek; it did not feel as cold as she would have expected. “I’m one of your creatures, Highness. He gave me my legs and my arms, but you.” The Queen tried to move and felt her calves twitch faintly. “You made me.”
Eleanor forced herself to look at the Thing. It was close to her, and for a mad instant Eleanor thought it was going to kiss her, but it was unnaturally still, studying her. “You look the same. I knew it. He would never tell me, but I knew you were still doing it. Still harvesting. How many do you have in the dungeon now, Highness?” The copper and quartz eye ticked over every facet of her face, calculating. The Queen flexed her hands—they could move. Her feet were stuck fast to the disc, but her hands were free.
With a speed she hadn’t known she possessed, Eleanor snatched the tasseled key from the side of the Thing’s head and threw it as hard as she could. By luck, or by adrenaline, or by providence, she managed to hurl it through the glass window at the far end of her chamber. The glass shattered; the key was gone. The Thing screamed, a long, low sound, and sprinted to the window.
The Queen laughed, giddy, her fear dissipated by the Thing’s outrage. “Every move you make now, you’ll be unwinding yourself. I wonder how much time you have left?” The Thing started to walk back towards Eleanor, and she felt a spark of triumph—it was already slowing down. It noticed this too, and screamed again, long and loud.
Heat blossomed in the Queen’s temples as she realized what the Thing was. She gasped in spite of herself.
The Thing stopped short. “Of course. You wouldn’t recognize me, but you know that scream, don’t you, Highness?”
“It can’t be. Cell Four.”
The Thing shook its head. “My name is Claudia.” Eleanor felt bile rise in her throat again, but swallowed hard against it. “The Alchemist gave me the name. I couldn’t remember my original one, and he didn’t want to call me Cell Four.” The Thing—Claudia, a girl’s name, but this could not be called a girl—smiled, showing several brass teeth. “And yes, Highness, he did tell me why he chose that name. I hope it hurts you to hear it.”
Eleanor could not quite accept what she was hearing. “He—he disposed of you. I ordered him to.”
“No,” ticked Claudia. “He didn’t. He couldn’t bring himself to. He took me home, and he saved me, Highness. He built me.”
Claudia drew a pin from its clockwork bicep. It was about the length of Eleanor’s index finger, and it glinted wickedly. Claudia approached her with deliberate steps—it was winding down quickly now. Eleanor’s gown was soaked with sweat; she tried to calculate whether the thing would be able to reach her before it finished winding down.
“And he’s kept me, Highness. All this time. I’ve lived in his home, and he’s locked me in. He usually winds me down before he goes to visit the Prince, because he knows that I would kill you if I had the chance. And I’m going to.” Claudia was ticking toward her at an agonizing pace. It stopped, considering. “I wonder if he forgot to wind me down this time—or if he decided? He told me all about why you did what you did—why you had to hurt people. But then, you don’t have to anymore, do you?” The ticking in its throat was slowing, too, making its words thick. “You don’t have to anymore because the King died. You could have stopped. But you kept going. The Alchemist has been hating you for it for years. Maybe he decided to leave without winding me down. Maybe he decided to let you die.”
Eleanor wiggled her toes inside of her slippers. They were stiff, but loosening. The spell to freeze her to the spot was winding down, just like the clockwork creature.
“You look exactly the same as you did the last time I saw you. You kept going because you liked it, didn’t you? You’re looking at me like I’m a monster. But you. mmmaaaade. mmmmmmeeeeeee.” The words were molasses. Claudia didn’t speak anymore, conserving precious energy as it took a final few steps toward the Queen.
It was too close. Eleanor reached out one arm and struck the Thing hard on the side of the head, making it stagger. Her mind raced, Have to keep it moving.
In response, Claudia lashed out with the pin; a long line of black, tarry blood oozed out of the Queen’s arm. It was thicker than blood should be, and shimmered with magic; the Thing and the Queen both stared at it for a moment.
The moment was enough. Eleanor managed to heave her feet off of the bronze disc and turned to run.
It was too soon. She fell, sprawling headlong across the floor of her chambers. The Thing took a step toward her, slipped in the puddle of blood and vomit in its path, flailed for balance. It was winding down too quickly; it was too slow to catch itself. It fell beside the Queen, and did not move again. The human eye rolled with ire, but the quartz and copper eye was still. The clockwork arm lay limp and shining. The other arm—flesh from the hand to just above the elbow—flexed from side to side, useless without the pivot of the dead clockwork shoulder.
Eleanor choked out a hoarse laugh and sat beside the Thing that used to be a girl. She was shaking, but that was just adrenaline—it would die down soon enough. Just like the girl in Cell Four, the Queen had abandoned fear long ago. “I’m going to dismantle you. And then I’m going to sit you up in a little chair so you can watch the Alchemist’s execution.” She leaned over Claudia’s face—just close enough to look into its human eye, close enough to make sure that it was listening. “And then, I’m going to find a way to make it so that you can feel fear again.”
The Thing twisted its neck hard to one side and slammed its temple against the floor. Something rattled inside its head.
Something slowly, slowly ticked. Ticked again.
It was enough.
The Queen’s brow furrowed at the two little ticks, but by the time she realized what had happened, it was too late. Claudia swung its half-flesh arm in a heaving arc toward the Queen’s face, missed her eye, landed on her throat. Eleanor shook the hand off, and lifted her fingers to the painful spot it had left behind.
Less than a centimeter of the long, cruel pin remained above the surface of the skin. Her thick, dark blood bubbled around it like cooling magma. She tried to speak, and choked on the syrupy blood that was filling her throat.
As she clawed at her throat, gagging, the Thing called Claudia lay its cheek on the cool stone of the floor, and let out a long, satisfied sigh.
When the Alchemist returned from his trip to visit Prince Phillip, he found them there. The Queen was stretched out on the floor, sticky blood around the corners of her mouth and around the rims of her nostrils. The magic that had kept her young all those years had not quite worn off—she looked like a dead fifteen-year-old girl, but there was something indefinably old about the topography of her corpse.
The Alchemist did not immediately recognize the Thing that lay next to Eleanor’s body. Once he recognized it as Claudia, he found that he still did not want to run to it. It did not seem to realize that he was there. Its half-flesh arm flexed again and again at the elbow, methodically prying out cogs from the place where gears and skull fused. It stacked them in tidy, bloody rows along the stone floor, going from smallest to largest. The stacks were already quite tall, but the Thing called Claudia showed no signs of stopping. As the Alchemist watched, the tallest stack of gears toppled, and the tinkling of metal on stone filled the Queen’s chambers like rainfall.
Sarah Gailey is a Bay Area native and an unabashed bibliophile, living and working in beautiful Oakland, California. Her fiction has appeared in Mothership Zeta and The Colored Lens; her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and Fantasy Literature Magazine. You can find links to her work at http://www.sarah-gailey-writes-stuff.squarespace.com. She tweets @gaileyfrey.