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."
A lilac-scented wind whistled between the fluted columns of the veranda. Somewhere above, the banner of House Ariosto fluttered and snapped. Astolfo leaned upon the sun-warmed balustrade watching the retreating figures of Dominic and Lirazel pass down the umber and amber flagstones of Poictesme Boulevard.
She had not looked back. Not even once.
His hands shook with a sudden palsy and he glared at them until they stopped. His fingers, as long and slender as in his youth, were now as pale as drowned earthworms and as wrinkled and crevassed as the wall of the world.
He lifted his gaze to the cracked and furrowed stone of Precipice. The world cliff rose above Rivenfell to mist-shrouded heights and plunged far below the ever-churning Sea of Clouds to mythical Utterfall. Stoddard's great city was but a tiny gem upon the face of the world cliff, thrust out upon a broad lip of stone at the mouth of the deep rift that was Riven Vale.
The tiers of the city fell before him: rows of ordered townhomes where the court functionaries dwelt; the jumble of brick dwellings lining the maze of the Old City; and farthest below stretched the ordered blocks of warehouses, the long broad avenues, and the stone piers of the merchant harbor. Skyships floated at anchor, their ballonets of azure and gold visible within transparent envelopes like organelles inside paramecia, their riggings lined with pennants and signal flags rippling like cilia. Wreaths of mist wafted about their keels, blown up from the many crystalline cascades of falling water where the divided Rill poured in great gouts from the colonnade of arches ringing the promontory of the city only to fall and disperse as mist into the Sea of Clouds. He could hear the river's continuous muffled roar, calming and reassuring, like the rushing of blood within his ears when he slept. He wasn't dead yet. No, not yet.
He again lifted his eyes past the city's walls to the great cliff, its innumerous fissures and ridges, topless towers of stone and soaring spires all blending and fading to a blur at the vertical horizon.
A skyship rose from its pier trailing mooring lines rapidly drawn up by deckhands. The sharp retort of the ship's trumpet echoed within the deeps of the Vale, and then faded away. Accompanied by circling terragulls, the ship drifted westward, passing out over the Cloud Sea where it diminished and became lost in the stinging glare of the Shepherd's light. The sun's warmth bathed Astolfo's face. He closed his eyes.
He'd never see Aerie again.
Never see her again.
With trembling steps he walked to a violet-cushioned divan and lowered himself upon it. A pitcher of lemon water and a half-filled glass rested upon the octagonal plinth beside it. They had been set out for him by Lirazel that morning. The ice had melted and a ring of condensation encircled the base of the glass. He touched the ring of water with his fingertip and slowly drew cogwheels atop the porcelain-covered stone.
It was Mirdath who had encouraged him to create Lirazel, as she had encouraged him in all things. Mirdath had been a precocious child, too serious, and he had delighted in eliciting from her smiles and cries of wonder. She had marveled at the toy men and animals he created for her. She'd wind them up and they would dance, play shrill flutes, tat-tattle at drums, and bray or neigh.
But it was the mechanical doll, the 'little princess', he'd made for her as a companion, which had most elicited her awe.
His beloved Amoret had succumbed to the plague that had swept Precipice in the year of the Shrew's last flaming passage. She had been their sunlight and joy, ever-circling and supporting her work-obsessed husband and temperamental daughter. Her passing was an eclipse one feared would never end. He had thrown himself into the making and fixing of his clocks, self-propelled carts, and other mechanisms, but Mirdath simply withdrew and would not speak, would barely eat. Naught that he devised, not tiny song birds or tumbling jesters nor toy skyships that would circle her room, could draw her from her melancholy and silence. There'd been too many funerals, too much death and despair. Then one night a horrendous storm lashed Rivenfell and Mirdath awoke screaming. He'd rocked her in his arms while forks of blue-white lightning sizzled against the cliff face and thunder echoed like the roar of monsters in the Vale. She'd clung to him, shuddering, until he drew forth the soulstone from the leather pouch around his neck, recalling how it had once eased his fear and repelled the dark so long ago. When he placed it upon her palm, it became luminous. Swirling tendrils of silvery light spun in its heart, growing in brightness until it blazed like a star and bathed their faces and nightclothes in an unvanquishable light. The black of the night withdrew before it, and its brilliance elicited wonder, not only from Mirdath, but also from the toys who shared her bed. The tin men and small animals moved closer to its light of their own volition. Astolfo and Mirdath had watched in silent amazement. There they sat together, human and mechanism, in a circle around the glowing pearl Mirdath cupped in her tiny hands. She fell asleep upon his lap, slowly nodding off to peaceful dreams.
In the morning, she could not stop talking to him about the magical night they'd shared.
Rose, as Mirdath named the little princess, helped her dress, cleaned her room, played games with her, and calmly accepted the disapprobation that composed Mirdath's emotional tirades. The soulstone he'd placed in Rose's head gave the automaton animation...but she responded the same to everyone, be it Astolfo, Mirdath, or Mirdath's friends, doing so with complete obedience and equal dispassion. She lacked an élan vital, lacked the capability to form attachments or loyalty.
She lacked the ability to love.
And just as with her childhood toys, Mirdath outgrew her. Her father became more and more the object of her attention--and not all of it approving. While her peers gossiped over nobles' sons or court fashion, Mirdath managed her father's business and household. She arranged for shipments of the rare metals and the fine Aerie-crafted tools he required for his work. She kept the larder stocked, the house clean, and his workroom in order, at least what could pass as a semblance for one. He had no head or concern for such things. Thus, when she agreed to marry Dominic, she said, "You must let me hire a housekeeper for you."
"No," he said, his back bent over the worktable, the bald spot atop his head beading with sweat under the warm light of the quartz lamp. Deft fingers joined screw to gear to spring for some tiny princeling's plaything. "The last thing I need is someone disturbing the way I have things organized."
Mirdath eyed the clutter of tools and gears and metal sheets; the stone fragments and half-painted canvases; the stacks of folios and scrolls overflowing shelves; and the cairns of books stacked high upon chairs and piled under tables, their loose pages sticking out like children's tongues at her attempts to instill order.
She pursed her lips and then said, "You should have taken another wife, Father."
He waved her words away. "Had one. A good one. You don't repeat perfection." He stopped a moment and added looking up at her, "Except with you." He winked.
She harrumphed. Her eyes swept over the disarray of his workroom and her brow furrowed with frustration that suddenly smoothed when she saw Rose sitting on a stool in the corner. The little princess sat quiet and unmoving, long disregarded. She cradled metal shears in her small arms. An old rolled canvas taller than she was leaned against her head. Mirdath's expression softened. She moved the roll of canvas aside and ran her fingers over the automaton's hair. Turning her hand, she noted her fingertips were coated with dust. "Take a helper then. One who will do solely as you direct."
His eyes flicked above the panoply of lenses resting upon his nose to Mirdath and the little princess, then they dove back down and focused upon his work. "Too short. She'd only get underfoot. I'd more likely trip over her and break my ankle. You want that?"
"Make one taller."
"Taller?" His fingers halted, and he looked up again, eyebrows bristling in consideration. He put down his tools. Pulling at the loosening braids of his beard, bedraggled things that Mirdath was at pains to keep neat for their calls upon his aristocratic clients, he stood beside her and examined the old automaton. Its bronze skin was tarnished, dark patinas made port wine stains upon its cheeks like fading bruises. Its plum-colored dress with apron skirt had faded to pale lavender. One thin shoulder strap dangled halfway to its elbow in childlike disregard. His hand lowered to the pouch around his neck where the soulstone again resided ever since Mirdath had moved on to human companions...he frowned...and to boys, leaving behind all the trappings of her childhood, including the little princess. He tapped his lips with an oil-stained finger, and then shook his head. "Such a mechanism would be an even greater annoyance. Without self-initiated attention to my needs, it would need constant direction." He looked at Mirdath and saw Amoret's eyes gazing back at him, large as hen's eggs with irises of gold-flecked blue. They were filled with the same mix of concern, frustration, pride, and... When had Mirdath grown into such a beautiful woman? And how had he come to be blessed with two women who had willingly filled the gaps in his being that the concentration of his genius had caused to languish?
He took her hand. Her fingers were as long and as graceful as his; but when they closed upon him, he felt Amoret's strength.
"The soulstone can animate an automaton, but it cannot make it love," he said.
Mirdath lowered her eyes to the little princess. Tears welled behind the veil of her lashes. "And yet I look upon her and I am filled with love for her and for you." She raised her head. "Even though she is just a machine."
"We all possess objects of affection," he said, squeezing her hand.
Like a tentative mouse darting from its burrow to grasp a crumb and then flee back into its hole, she quickly kissed his cheek and rested her head upon his shoulder. It had been years since she had kissed him with such affection, her expressions of love being instead a patient forbearance of his eccentricities, making sure he ate regularly, was stocked with the materials and tools of his profession, and ensuring he publicly received the respect that was his due as Rivenfell's Master Artificer. He had become accustomed to the perfunctory filial kiss upon his cheek or brow; thus when he felt his neck become wet with her tears, he was somewhat at a loss. Awkwardly, he patted her back and rested his cheek upon her head. Inhaling the lilac scent of her hair, he looked over Mirdath's shoulder to the little princess, the object that had inspired this sudden baring of their souls and the hidden love they shared but had been too cautious to express ever since Amoret's passing.
And then he knew. Such are moments of inspiration born, unsought, unexpected and with joy. He laughed and then kissed her cheek. "You are the child not merely of my body, Mirdath, but of my soul and my heart!"
She leaned back from him, and her brow furrowed with bemusement.
Lirazel hesitated in the shadow of the columned archway that opened upon the veranda. Astolfo saw her from the corner of his eye as he leaned upon the balustrade watching the skyships drift beyond the city. They cast frail shadows like passing clouds upon the unforgiving face of Precipice.
"You needn't worry," he said to her. "I am not yet so weary of life that I would follow Mirdath."
Lirazel glided across the sun-warmed tiles and rested a hand upon his forearm. The broad sleeve of his robe rustled loudly in the breeze then settled under her touch. "I don't understand, Master Astolfo," she said. "Where has Mistress Mirdath gone?" Her voice was as sweet as the fountain in the center of the promenade below where children laughed and servants chattered. Her breath was of scented oil as fragrant as that of the gardens and bowers that girt the city in a joyous spring. Except here. Along the edge of the balcony, the lintels of the arches and doorways, and the fluted columns of the long colonnade of the veranda, hung the ebony drapes of mourning. The black shrouds rippled and snapped in a sudden surge of warm wind, casting cool shadows upon the parapet and upon his heart.
"Mirdath has gone to where our souls reside, Lizzy," he said. Out beyond the city walls, the endless roiling of the Sea of Clouds stretched to the horizon. "Her body and the ship that carried her have taken the Long Fall to Utterfall, but her soul has ascended to her Creator." He drew a slow breath as his chest tightened and then slowly released it. "That is what we believe."
Lizzy followed his gaze, first down to the Cloud Sea and then up to where the broad wall of the world disappeared in the haze of the sky. She tilted her head to one side as she always did when cogitating. She blinked once and studied him. "Are you not her creator, Master Astolfo?"
He chuckled at her look of bewilderment and presented her with a wry smile. "Yes and no, dear one. I played but a small part in providing her the shell in which she dwelt. Her mother, my Amoret, must be accorded the greater acclaim for that honor. Even so, her soul...all souls...are the gift of the One Creator who even at my best I can but poorly imitate." He touched Lirazel's cheek and gently straightened her head. "Even your soul is not of my creation, Lizzy."
Taking the crook of her arm, he walked with her along the parapet. A pair of sparrows alighted upon the railing and paused a moment to preen their wings. With indignant chirps, they took flight as he and Lizzy approached. They twirled above their heads and then sped up the ivy covered stone that sloped upward and inward to the walls and towers of Rivenmount castle.
"I take comfort in the knowledge that some things are unknowable, that some things are eternal--like my love for Mirdath and her mo-ther..." His voice cracked. "...and they for me," he forced himself to finish.
Lirazel took him into her arms and held him. When he regained mastery of himself, she pulled a white handkerchief from her sleeve. He took it and nodded his thanks. They walked back, paralleling the promenade below, listening to the buzzing of khitins and the call of drivers and the rattle of their carts while the black drapes flapped and cast their fleeting shadows. She helped him settle onto the divan and adjusted the cushions behind his back before handing him his medicine and a glass of water.
"Thank you dear," he said, passing the glass back to her. "I'll rest a bit. Would you bring me Tchan's Poetica Memento Mori? It should be on..."
"I know where you left it, Master Astolfo." She touched his hair, attempting to flatten an errant strand twisting in the wind. She finally succeeded with the application of a drop of water she snared with one finger from his glass. Satisfied, she stepped toward the archway where she paused. Turning, she said, "I love you too, Master Astolfo."
"For a time," he said, smiling at her. "For a time."
She tilted her head again regarding him a moment, and then turned to do his bidding.
The canopy of stars shone down in brilliant glory upon Rivenfell. The city mirrored them with its thousands of lights: actinic jets of blue flame shone from gas lampposts lining the promenades; fire danced atop torches in synchrony with the revelers in the Old City where the Rill's muffled passage gave the Dull Drums its eponymous name; faceted emerald, ruby, and lapis lazuli sunquartz sparkled like gems in the windows of the palaces, mansions, and townhouses of the city in the midst of its Yuletide celebration.
Astolfo turned the valve of the circular brazier. The rush of gas caused the flames to lick the covering iron grate with a sibilant hiss and exhale a continuous hot breath around the divan from where he enjoyed the spectacle of the night. He fell back against the satin pillows and one toppled onto the tiled floor of the veranda. He reached for it, but his weakness chose that moment to assail him, and instead he caught himself upon the edge of the couch as he began to fall. Pain lanced up his arm and shoulder and buried its barbed tip in his neck.
"Lizzy!" he called, the exclamation reflexive. It was one so oft-repeated in recent years that it fell from his lips without volition. For a moment he was overcome with memory: Lizzy handing him a wheel stretcher or barrel contractor as he sat poised over the innards of a noble's watch; Lizzy finding him Matilio's treatise The Wonderful Instrument from wherever he had misplaced it; Lizzy helping him from his bath and selecting the appropriate clothes for whatever interminable court function he was required to attend...and wetting a finger to tame any errant strand of hair that sought to be its own master.
Astolfo carefully lowered himself to lie prone upon the couch and, with a grunt of effort, retrieved the pillow from the floor. Lifting himself upon one elbow, he tossed the pillow against the headrest of the divan and let himself turn and fall back against it. It fluffed up around his ears. Closing his eyes, he waited until his breathing slowed and then opened them. He gazed up at the stars and luxuriated in the blanketing warmth from the brazier.
Even such a minor exertion tired him now, he thought with contempt. The wasting sickness was progressing rapidly. In a month, maybe less perhaps, he'd be unable to continue his work. Had it been merely a fortnight ago that he had performed the delicate craftwork upon Lirazel's heart? At thought of her, he smiled and gained strength enough to push himself semi-upright. He took his reading glasses and a small journal of Design Mechanics from the octagonal plinth beside him. Resting the book upon his chest unopened, he held it beneath intertwined fingers. Purse and Drum had risen from behind the shadow of Rivenmount to cast their wan silver and violet light, eliciting tiny diamond like flashes here and there from the great cliff as if the wall of the world would not be outdone by the shining light of the city and the stars.
Singing revelers passed in the street, and Astolfo closed his eyes and listened to their refrain. "The Master of all is born, the light of our heart renewed!" Their joyous song and laughter leapt over the balustrade and rang like wind chimes...and then broke off with sudden discord. Cries of "Hey!" were followed by angry muttering, but only for a moment. Like chirping khitins disturbed into silence by the passage of a predator, the celebrants, a few at a time, again took up their happy prattle and song. Astolfo heard the muffled slam of the door of his manse reverberate up through the stones.
"Father Astolfo!" Dominic's voice called from the floor below. A louder and more intense "Father Astolfo!" battered against the damask drapes separating his workroom from the mezzanine behind them. He heard the slap of Dominic's boots as he raced up the stairs.
The old artificer started, suddenly fearing that some harm had come to Brandon. Jolting upright, he sat precariously on the edge of the divan and looked back through the half-lit archway into the dim jumbled clutter of his workroom. He had risen too fast and felt suddenly lightheaded. Under his desks and along his shelves, and upon his workbench of dropped and scattered tools and gears and springs, shadows chased memories. The curtains parted, admitting two dark forms silhouetted in the flood of light from the mezzanine's sunstone chandelier. One stepped forward as the curtains flowed back together and Astolfo could discern the troubled yet perfectly coiffed and painted face of his son-in-law. And yet, all was not in its usual perfect order. Dominic's ruffled collar was undone, street dirt formed a chevron upon one leg of his black slacks, and tear-smudged eyeshadow and rouge betrayed a discord of spirit inconsistent with the tenor of the holiday.
Astolfo's arms trembled as he kept himself upright. "Dominic! What is it?"
"It's Lirazel," Dominic said. "There's something wrong!"
"Wrong?" Astolfo straightened, concern casting the weakness from his limbs. "What's wrong?" He stood up, but too fast. His mind clouded and his vision blurred. Teetering, he felt himself beginning to fall when a firm hand caught his arm and helped him back to a seated position. "Thank you, Dominic," he said as his vision cleared, "I forget..." and the shadow before him resolved into the calm and perfect visage of Lirazel.
Her lips curled into a pleased smile as she saw his recognition of her. Their eyes held, but under his continued scrutiny, her face colored slightly and she lowered her long lashes and bowed her head. She released his arm and took a step back to stand beside Dominic.
Dominic gave her a distressed glance, sucking in his lips and running the tip of his tongue across them before sighing.
Astolfo straightened his glasses upon his nose and studied her. Lirazel was wearing an ankle-length white dress on which a faint brocade of hawthorn leaves and berries glistened like spider silk. A thin trim of ruffled lace bordered the hem, the close-fitting cuffs, and the low cut bodice. Astolfo took pride that no trace of a seam could be detected upon the flawless skin of her chest. She stood demurely, hands clasped in front of her, face turned toward her shoes, exquisite low heeled pumps of silver satin. Her eyes glittered like sapphires beneath her lashes when she raised them for brief moments to snare a glance of him. He relaxed. "She looks fine, Dominic. Exquisite even." However, at his words, he observed a sudden tremor of her shoulders. He leaned forward and took one of her hands into his own and noted the vibratory shuddering. He frowned and examined her palm. "Is it a mechanical problem?"
Dominic exhaled strongly and said, "No, but..."
Astolfo took a small rubber tipped hammer from the pocket of his robe and tapped lightly along her wrist. Each of her fingers curled in turn as he tapped. "Is she failing to follow your instructions?"
"Is she acting aberrantly or...?"
"No, no, and no!" Dominic interrupted, and Astolfo released Lizzy's hand with mild regret and studied his son-in-law with rising irritation. He tapped the hammer against his own palm, considering the boy.
"Lirazel's a capable nanny, housekeeper, and cook," Dominic admitted. "She's obedient and...compliant, but..." He clasped his arms in front of his chest and then raised them with pent-up aggravation shaking both hands in the air. "...disinterested! Apathetic. Indifferent! She never complains, but she never demonstrates initiative, interest..." His voice lowered and the light from the amber quartz lamp glistened in his eyes. "...or love." He walked to the balustrade, leaned upon the railing, and gazed down upon the lights and the laughter of the city.
Astolfo knew that look, knew that stance, and knew the feel of the cool stone railing beneath his fingers. Beyond the parapet were the living, all who dwelt in the great city balanced precariously over the unrelenting ever restive Sea of Clouds. By this time of evening, the sea would have risen to swaddle the piers and broadways of the merchant harbor. Its misty emissaries would have seeped from sewer grates to creep along the narrow cobblestone alleys of the Dull Drums.
More softly, Dominic repeated without turning, "There is something wrong with Lirazel's heart."
Lirazel stood, hands clasped by her waist, her face turned to the tiled floor where the orange flames of the brazier flickered and warred with the steady amber beam of the quartz lamp. "Is there something wrong with your heart, Lizzy?" Astolfo asked.
She raised her eyes and, for the first time in weeks, he felt the pleasure of hearing her voice. "I am sorry to have disappointed you and my lord Dominic, sir. But I... I believe..." She lowered her eyes. "'Yes', Master Astolfo."
Dominic strode back from the parapet, drawing with him a draft of cold air that pierced the brazier's warmth. Taking Lizzy's left hand in both his own, he cast his eyes upon Astolfo with a beseeching look that declared his request more desperately than any spoken word.
Lirazel asked. "But how does one tell, Master Astolfo?"
Carefully, Astolfo stood and took Lirazel's other hand and raised her chin with a pale finger. "We tell as we tell with all of us, my dear, by looking inside our hearts."
The interleaved brass plates of Lirazel's heart chuffed and sang under the quartz lamplight. Lirazel's elegant dress was draped over the little princess' arms in the corner, the satin shoes neatly placed beneath it upon the silent child automaton's lap. Lirazel's chest plate rested upon her belly but was modestly concealed by a maroon drape that covered her from abdomen to toes.
She'd insisted Astolfo take his restorative, a concoction of coltsfoot, thyme, and Echinacea that he detested despite the peppermint she added for flavor. She commanded he rest while she gathered and oiled his instruments and prepared the worktable for his use. Then she doffed the dress and lay immodestly upon the table in only her petticoat and stockings. She displayed a singleness of purpose, a focus and determination that reminded Astolfo, with a sudden pang of loss, so much of Mirdath. As he covered her with the maroon drape, he noted her tremor had stopped.
She trusted him to find and fix the problem.
His own hands shook a moment but then stilled as he asserted his will upon them. Another week or two and this would not have been possible, but he set that thought aside. He felt the familiar telescoping focus and detachment from the world as he lowered his clockmaker's lenses over his eyes. Lirazel disappeared and the flawed automaton lay upon his workbench awaiting his mastery over gears and springs, screws and gems, and wheels and casings.
Her heart beat with precision, rectangles of light reflecting off its brass leaves. It pitched slightly to and fro like a babe rocked gently in its cradle. Dark tubes of compressed air and clear ones of translucent oil infused with gas pearls were inspected and found unworn. No spiderweb of cracks marred their surfaces, no tracks of leaking fluid stained them, no loosening gaskets hissed. With no other choice left to him, Astolfo martialed his remaining strength and, selecting his delicate instruments in practiced sequence, he opened Lirazel's heart.
The gold box was again revealed, unblemished and perfectly still amidst the sarabande dance of the surrounding chambers. With the fourth screw held securely in his palm, Astolfo took up his hooked tweezers and carefully lifted the gold cover to reveal the two smaller and silent receptacles within.
He and Dominic bumped heads as they both leaned forward. Dominic looked up in alarm, expecting a scolding, but Astolfo only displayed a look of wearied patience and then looked within Lirazel's heart.
The two chambers within the gold box appeared undisturbed, the larger with its mesh of broad-leaved tan grass glowing faintly with the light of the concealed soulstone. Within the smaller chamber, a gold object glittered and reflected a small prismatic ray of opalescent light. Astolfo reached down and touched it with the tip of his tweezers.
Lirazel gasped and Astolfo also drew a quick breath as a current passed through the handle of the tweezers into his fingers, a sensation initially alarming in its strangeness and evoking the sudden fear of electric shock.
"What's wrong!" Dominic said, looking from one to the other. "What is it?"
In wonder, Astolfo lifted from the chamber the object most cherished in Lirazel's heart.
A tiny golden cogwheel.
"How...?" Dominic said in a whisper, his mouth falling open in amazement. "How could it change?"
Astolfo was speechless. Lirazel with her soul box open could not speak; but looking up at the aged and dying man with her azure eyes so like Mirdath's and Amoret's, she mouthed, "I love you."
Finally, and with infinite tenderness, Astolfo placed the object back where it belonged and enclosed it under its golden lid. To Dominic he said, "The inner workings of the heart are a mystery, even to the greatest of physicians, poets...and artificers."
"I don't understand," said Dominic.
"Does anyone?" said the old man.