by Robert B. Finegold, M.D.
"Does it hurt her?" Dominic asked.
Astolfo looked up and peered with disdain over the array of clockmaker's lenses perched upon his nose.
Dominic's face was pale, and he tugged at the waxed point of his beard with neatly trimmed nails painted topaz and turquoise. They flashed like the carapaces of agitated khitins.
The old artificer tapped a wire-encircled lens over each eye and again studied his instruments. What his daughter had seen in the man, he still couldn't fathom. Dominic was too tall, too thin, and too enthralled with the latest court fashion. He sighed. But Astolfo could not deny that the lad had been a good husband and very much in love with Mirdath.
At the thought of Mirdath, his vision blurred, the instruments before him multiplying in faceted light as if within a kaleidoscope. He muttered a curse and blinked the world back into solidity.
"Stop twitching, Dominic," he said. "It's distracting. Sit if you wish, but you must be present for the transition."
Dominic lowered himself toward the stool behind him but stopped halfway, and then bobbed slightly up and down with indecision.
Astolfo snapped at him, "Be still! This is delicate work."
Dominic straightened as if poked in his arse with an awl. He released his beard, its point now curling like an infant's forelock. Clasping his hands in front of him, he tried not to move but his body rocked to and fro like a metronome in accelerando.
Astolfo shook his head and lowered his gaze to the young woman seemingly asleep upon the table. His expression softened.
Lirazel was bare above the waist. Below, a maroon satin drape covered her from navel to feet. Her chest plate lay upon her belly, connected to her thorax by a half-dozen translucent umbilicals. Through them, small bubbles percolated like an endless string of pearls floating in clear oil.
Selecting a slender screwdriver, he held the blade motionless above her beating heart. Her wondrous heart. An oblate spheroid of finely-oiled brass plates sliding over one another with each pulsation. Beneath them, a delicate mechanism of valves and pressurized chambers whispered and laughed, encircling a central still pocket now vulnerably exposed. The screwdriver dipped like a hummingbird sipping at the nectar of a flower, gently drawing one of four screws from the plate of a small gold box within the center of her heart. Mindful of Dominic, he asked, "Am I hurting you, Lizzy?"
Her eyes opened, revealing flawless opalescent glass orbs with irises of blue sapphire. They swiveled to regard him and brightened beneath the dark fronds of her lashes as she smiled. "No, Master Astolfo. I am well."
Dominic blanched, his left hand extending to clutch the table for support. With his right hand, he tentatively reached out and gently cupped the bare flesh of her chest plate. It compressed beneath his fingers. "She seems so real," he said. Lizzy blushed.
The old man's screwdriver twirled and struck the back of Dominic's hand, eliciting a cry more of surprise than pain. Dominic quickly withdrew it and held the stinging flesh to his lips.
"Show some respect, boy," Astolfo said. "In a moment she will not be able to speak. Mind yourself."
The screwdriver whirled again and dipped back into the hollow of the girl's chest. In moments, four shiny screws lay in the artificer's palm.
With a pair of long hook-tipped tweezers, he carefully lifted the square gold lid off the box in the center of her heart, revealing two inner chambers. The larger was filled with a mesh of dried broad-leaved grass, semi-translucent and almost as golden as the box. A hidden object glowed from within the mesh like sunlight obscured behind clouds.
"What's in there?" Dominic whispered.
"The treasure of our house," Astolfo replied. Gently, he spread the dry grass mesh.
A beam of silvery light shot upward like water spouting from a fountain. It crested and broke upon the quadratura of the ceiling with a prismatic radiance containing a thousand hues.
Dominic's eyes widened. "A soulstone! Where...? How...?"
"A chance find of my youth," Astolfo said, and then he shrugged. "Or God's will. I was caught by the dark upon the cliff face far above Aerie seeking a particular vein of feldspar. The path was a mere six handbreadths wide, and I feared the Long Fall. But as I prayed in that darkness, a wisp of silvery light appeared, then a second, swirling together like wind-spun mist. It took me a moment before I recognized the frantic spiraling of two entwined ethereals. With a brilliant flash, they shot up the wet cliff face and vanished, and the dark rushed in, smothering everything save for a single point of light resting upon the ledge like a fallen star." He nodded to the radiant stone within Lirazel's heart. "This kept me safe and sane through that long night." He let the grass mesh close around the stone.
Its light faded from the room save for a thin pearlescent beam illuminating a small metallic object within the smaller of the two chambers. Substituting straight-nosed tweezers for the hooked ones, Astolfo removed the object and held it up. It was a one centimeter circle of tin with a precisely serrated circumference and a small hole at its center.
"A cogwheel?" asked Dominic.
The old man didn't answer at once. It had been long, so very long, since he'd seen the small gear piece.
"Hm? Oh...yes." Astolfo turned his hand, inspecting both sides of the tiny wheel, admiring it and the pleasant memories it reawakened. "This was part of my most cherished childhood possession: a toy horse no bigger than my hand. It would gallop across the floorboards of my nursery like one of the wild stallions of the great eastern ledges." He chuckled. "A gift from my great-grandfather Stoddard when I was barely out of my clouts and pinchers."
Dominic's eye's widened. "King Stoddard?"
The old man smiled. "Yes. King Stoddard. However, his legend does not do him justice; but that is the way of legends, isn't it? They exaggerate what a man does...not who he is. You see..." He stopped and coughed, a small wheezy exhalation like air slowly forced through a bellows and then, as if his diaphragm was tugged and released like a bowstring, he discharged a salvo of hacking coughs like the clattering of misaligned gears. His body shook violently.
The tin cogwheel fell, bounced once when it hit the floor, and rolled beneath the table as if recalling its life within the old toy horse.
Dominic took a step around the table, his face lined with concern, but Astolfo waved him away, his cough subsiding. He took a rasping breath. "I'm...I'm fine. It's...passing. We don't have much time." He straightened as far as his wizened frame allowed, drew another shuddering breath and leaned over the table.
Lirazel's heart softly huffed and chuckled. The gold box at its center gaped vulnerably open and emitted a faint silvery glow.
"You brought what I asked?" Astolfo said. "The thing you most cherish?"
Dominic withdrew a silk handkerchief the color of blood from his waistcoat pocket and, like parting the petals of a flower, he unwrapped it to reveal a gold ring. Mirdath's wedding band.
The old man inhaled sharply, barely staving off another coughing fit. "No! That won't do. Won't do at all."
"She was my most cherished possession!" Dominic insisted. "This is all I have left."
"Mirdath was a person, not a thing," Astolfo said angrily. "And you have Brandon, your son. Lirazel is to be his when he comes of age, not yours. You've promised. You will hold my books and tools in trust for him." He pointed a long finger at Dominic. "And Lirazel as well."
"I have sworn it, haven't I? The Barristers have recorded it as you've directed." Trembling, he held out the gold ring upon its bed of scarlet silk.
Astolfo snared it with his tweezers as he might a khitin he'd feared would sting him. Yet...it had been Mirdath's, the daughter who had stolen his own heart. Only chance had left it with him for cleaning when her ship took the Long Fall.
He sighed and glanced at Lirazel, alike and yet unlike Mirdath, golden haired, flawless flesh, long lashes draped over eyes closed in restful repose.
"She will not be her," he said. "You understand?"
He held up the ring between them and examined it under the quartz ceiling lamp. It cast ghostlike reflections that fled across the walls of the room. "This will transfer Lirazel's loyalty and love from me to you...until Brandon is ready to take up my work and selects the thing he most cherishes to place within her heart. Until then, she will be obedient to you, be nanny and governess for the boy, and compliant to you in all things, even..." He let his tone soften. "Find another wife, Dominic. It would be best."
The tendons on the back of the young man's hands grew taut in gripping the table's edge. "Mirdath is irreplaceable!"
The two men's hardened gazes met through the center of the wedding band. "True," Astolfo said. "Do not forget it."