‘Strange Engines’, Jordan Taylor

Illustrations © 2020 Eric Asaris

 [ Spring, © 2020 Eric Asaris ] The light changes when the train passes into the forests that surround the capital. The roar of the engine is muffled by the swirling snow and the silent ranks of trees. My leg is propped on the plush seat across from me, bound tightly to a plank, and it still feels as if nails are being driven into the bone. My rifle lies on the seat beside me, within easy reach. My guards have offered to find me a stick to help me walk—to carry me in a chair between them, to bear me on their backs—but I laughed. I prefer to lean on the butt of my rifle.

Helpmeet sits across from me, her gears clicking and whirring, the jewels of her eyes glittering in the light of the swaying overhead lamp. The warmth of her metal body is soothing.

I press my face to the window, my breath fogging the glass, reciting in a murmur the ranks of verse I have sent you over the past five seasons, as if they are tiny spells of the Divine.

I wonder what your face looked like as you read them.

When I became the Eighth Queen of the Empire of Ash, I swore an oath to love and serve my Empire and no other. I vowed to never speak of the life that came before. I was reborn into my role, my old name dead and forgotten.

I took the name of Our Lady Spring. I entered training under your rule, Our Lady Winter, and if I wondered how it came to pass that you were not so much older than I, and yet ready to pass on the mantle of queenhood, if I wondered which stories of your childhood and Ascension were true, I did not ask.

But now I have broken my vow. Any minister reading our mail will have thought my lines only pretty bits of verse, jotted down as a headline to my reports of troop movements and battles won and lost, but not you.

It was you who taught me to weave tiny spells together into a whole, that the Divine Empire is strongest when made up of cooperating individuals.

My queen, have I learned my lessons well?

At your voice my new self
Tumbles from my open chest
Black silk in snow

Do you remember the first time I saw you?

You stood in a stone courtyard between two arms of the palace, your ministers and courtiers a shifting blur behind you. I could hear the splash of running water, impossible in the cold, the scents of coal and ash replaced by those of firs and snow.

Your courtiers whispered among themselves. Your soldiers knelt around me, their faces pressed to the stones. The silence was so vast, I could hear the ripple of their wolf pelts in the biting wind.

Just that morning I had been a girl of the capital’s outer district of Bracken. I had grown up trapped between the dark forest on one side and the seething factories of the district of Shadowfall on the other. I’d had six older brothers, and a skill for small cantrips and for piecing together gears and bits of metal my brothers brought home from the factories. If I felt the magic of the Divine Flame filling me I had hidden it, burying my face and hands in the dirty snow to cool my skin.

I was that kind of girl, then. The kind that hides.

It was there that your soldiers and your Mechanical had found me, wearing my brothers’ cast-off clothing, surrounded by soot-blackened walls.

The soldiers had carried the Mechanical into our home wrapped in layers of fur and wool. It clanked and whirred as they set it down, and its wrappings fell to the floor.

It was nearly human, its exposed copper workings clicking as it strode forward, the pistons in its knee joints hissing. Its face was crafted from a hammered sheet of copper, its mouth a dark slash, its eyes twin oval windows on tiny gears and levers, the steam engine of its heart pumping a regular rhythm.

“Ylena Stone,” the Mechanical spoke my name, its thin voice whirring. “Do you know why I am here?”

It reached up, each separate joint in its fingers curling, and opened a small compartment in its chest. It pulled out a billow of black silk and silver fur, waves of fabric pooling on the floor, like a false street conjurer’s trick.

When it held up the cloth, I could see that it was a cloak, a single red flame sewn to the middle, surrounded by embroidered gears.

And then I understood.

Now I was a queen.

The palace rose above our silent courtyard in impossible glass domes, silver against the grey sky. Tall, narrow towers tipped with iron spires, red with rust like dried blood, pierced the low clouds, dwarfed only by the snow-covered mountains behind them. The dark shadows of those towers stretched over me like reaching arms.

When you stepped forward, at first I did not understand who you were. You were small, and young. You wore all black, as you always do, the hood of your cloak thrown back, leather gloves over your hands. Your straight black hair fell down your back, flakes of snow and falling ash caught in the strands. Your face was marble, impossible to read.

When you spoke, your voice was low, almost a man’s.

“Who have you brought me?” you asked your guard, and you turned your dark eyes on me, your face shimmering as if seen through a haze of flame.

Your laughter paints the cold sky
In Divine characters
My skin tingles

You are not patient.

We are very different, you and I.

When I began my training, I believe you considered me hopeless. I’d had no formal schooling, and I struggled to memorize the long chants for drawing forth the Flame, to copy their tall, spiky characters, to balance the equations behind the engines we built.

Natural aptitude is all very well, but I was like a child thrown into the sea, and you, I think, then would have been happy to watch me drown.

You set me the task of building my own rifle, and here at last was something I understood—simple, brutal, a single chain reaction. The muzzle of my rifle is soldered wavily into the barrel, and it took me an entire morning to fit together the handful of tiny gears which make up its workings, but when it was finished I felt a surge of pride very like the flaring of the Divine Flame in my chest.

When you took me into our courtyard to practice my aim, when I used a quick spell to ignite the powder in the pan, firing across the icy stones at a bale of straw, elation lit me up from head to toe.

Of course, I missed the bale completely. We were using hollow, round bullets for target practice, and mine pinged off of the far stone wall and rolled to my feet, rocking to a rest between two cobblestones inches from my boot, accusingly.

You laughed.

I had never seen you laugh before, never thought that I would. The bright peal of it echoed around the stone courtyard, your head thrown back, your arms wrapped around your chest, your breath fogging in the cold.

I looked at the bullet, and I looked at you, and I joined in.

My heart beats
With the weight of silence
Leaves dropping to the forest floor

“Our engineers and divinities will tell you that a queen carries the Divine Flame with her at all times,” you once told me, and I remember that my heart leapt unaccountably to hear you say “Our.”

“That it is ever lit inside of her, filling her as a divine vessel. So that she may carry out its will, the divinities will say. Guiding her hands, giving the spark of life to everything she touches, the engineers will tell you.” Your mouth quirked.

“Obviously, such a thing is fiction. A pretty story for those who need a divine queen.” And then you smiled at me, your eyes narrowed. “But you must never let them know that. And so you must be able to call upon the Divine Flame in an instant, like that,” and you snapped your fingers, a loud crack in our silent chamber.

A crack.

A crack in the silence.

Do you remember the sound of our horses’ hooves in the snow, the day you took me hunting in the forest? We wore thick leather gloves, fur-lined trousers and cloaks, our rifles slung over our backs. Your guard followed at a distance, their bridles jingling. Nicola, your falcon, rode on your forearm, his eyes hooded, his wings half-raised against the cold.

We rode through a tunnel of green firs and knotted branches, some with brilliant red leaves still clinging to their tips. My horse huffed as he picked his way across the frozen ground, his breath fogging. The silence was vast, stifling, a living thing. The red leaves fell around us like drops of blood.

We paused in a clearing of short, stubborn grass, white and silver with frost. The forest rose in a dark wall around us. To the north, the distant mountains climbed into the sky.

The howl of a wolf broke the heavy silence, and I shivered.

You dismounted, your boots thudding against the frozen ground. I followed suit, swinging my rifle around, and two guards rode forward to take our reins.

“There are rabbits and foxes in the forest still,” you told me, “And right now they are sleepy and slow, easy prey for Nicola. There may be deer and boar too.” Your red mouth curled on one side into a smile. “A deer is not such a hard target for a girl with a rifle, if you can get close enough.”

I remember touching the barrel of my gun, wondering what it would be like to kill.

There is a long history of the queens of Ash killing their predecessors before their assent to the throne—the fourth queen of Ash poisoned the third, the fifth queen hired assassins to kill the fourth, and so on… They say that you, at nine years old—

But I did not want to think of that, not then.

You helped me prime the barrel of my rifle, to add the right amount of powder and shot. “So that you’re ready.” And you winked at me.

You reached up to remove the hood from Nicola’s eyes, and then many things happened at once.

Nicola took off into the sky in a rush of feathers and wind. Several large shapes broke from the cover of the trees and ran towards you, covering the space of frozen grass in loping bounds. Our horses reared and attempted to flee, the guards hauling at their reins, crying out, reaching for their rifles.

Snarls and panicked whinnies echoed around the clearing. You fumbled with your gun, your fingers stiff in their gloves, powder and balls of shot spilling into the grass. A wolf slammed into your side.

You turned your face towards me as you fell, fear like a veil over your dark eyes. The wolf sank its teeth into your leg, and your guards beat it away with the butts of their rifles. A second, larger wolf lunged towards you.

I raised my rifle against my shoulder, settling its weight against the muscle there.

The Flame filled my chest, my skin tingling, my senses heightened. I sighted along the barrel, the oncoming rush of teeth and silver fur filling my vision, and with a thought I ignited the powder, tightened my finger around the trigger, and pulled.

The crack split the clearing like a thunderclap. A rush of energy left my chest. The horses panicking behind me, the yells of the soldiers, faded away, and there was only the huge silver wolf on the ground, a hole in his chest smoking and bright with red blood. Only the red leaves drifting between the trees. Only the red of your open mouth, the black stains spreading across your trouser leg, your white fingers gripping your own gun as you struggled to your feet. The dawning understanding in your eyes.

“Spring. You brilliant, brilliant girl.” Your voice in the cold air.

Winter melts briefly into Spring
I fear only
What I will become

By the time the war broke out, I was a different person. I had found something I was good at, a use for my magic beyond the making of your engineers’ intricate Mechanicals or the vague petitions of your divinities.

You let me train with your guard; you had your sergeants drill me like a foot soldier. You sent me away for weeks at a time, to observe and assist in border skirmishes. You taught me to fight alongside your lumbering Mechanical war engines, to prime and fire their cannons from their cockpit, to guide them using the Divine Flame.

Perhaps you knew, even then, that you would need an Imperial heroine.

At night you dressed my bruises and drew me warm baths, sitting by the side of the copper tub with your face turned towards the wall as you quizzed me on the rules of governorship and the art of combat.

I was no longer a thrumming wire, an overclocked engine, but had settled at last into a rhythm all my own. During the rare moments I did not train, you guided my hand in the formation of the characters that make up the poetry of the Divine, listened to my chants, and seemed surprised by the steadiness of my hand, the evenness of my voice, as I spun out the spells.

You called me your warrior queen, and rarely now did your mouth curl with sarcastic humor when you did so.

I was patient.

On the day that I left to join your troops in the South, you called me into your private chamber and pressed a leather writing case into my hands.

“The army’s messengers will carry all your letters,” you told me, “No matter how trivial.”

And then you kissed me.

I had to bend my head down to reach you, my eyes open and fixed on your face in surprise. Your wide, warm mouth was like melting ice. Like Southern honey.

You held my face between your small hands, our noses almost touching. “My name,” you said. “My name is Tatiana.”

I skirt Death so close
She can glimpse the gears
Turning behind my eyes

 [ Skirt Death, © 2020 Eric Asaris ] You sent your Mechanical maidservant—a delicate, clockwork thing—into the South with me, and at first I did not understand why. Was she your spy? Your scribe? If I questioned her, she would say only “I serve the queen of Ash,” and leave me to puzzle out which queen she meant.

In your wisdom you had willed her observant, so that she could anticipate your every need, and I took advantage of this.

“What did you see today, Helpmeet?” I would ask her each evening, and she might answer “Private Yorrik had red eyes this morning, from sobbing for home the night before,” or “Sergeant Glass hesitated, before moving his line forward to protect you,” or even “General Snow fiddles with his cuffs when he speaks to you—do not trust him.”

Your generals had never seen such a Mechanical before; few people outside the palace have. Though she can stand so still in the background that she might go unnoticed, often when they approached she would turn her head—so slowly, her gears whirring—that they’d startle and blink.

I think she knew it made me laugh.

She is stronger than she looks. She cannot, however, ride a horse, and so when we’d reached the fighting in the South and disembarked from your train with my guards, she’d ridden in front of me on mine, her metal body warm against my chest.

There were black trenches dug through the fields, valuable crops trod into the mud and left to rot. The landscape was dotted with charred and empty wooden homes, snow blowing through their dark windows and open roofs. The wrecks of war engines lay in the fallow ridges of the fields, their hulking bodies reduced to jumbled twists of metal. Plumes of smoke rose in the distance.

Occasionally, the ground shook beneath the hooves of our horses, booms of too low a register to hear echoing in my chest. The horses shied and shook their bridles. Something between fear and elation pounded in my chest and ran through my veins.

We rendezvoused with the sergeant and the contingent of soldiers who were to lead us to the bulk of your army and your generals. Together we rode into the night, towards the smoke.

The broken ground was treacherous in the dark. Around me, I could feel and hear, more than see, the soldiers riding on all sides, the line of us snaking into the fields. A dim, orange-red light grew on the horizon, like a smoky dawn.

“A bonfire, Our Lady,” one of my guards murmured. His voice was low, his face a blur in the dark. “There was fighting here, as recently as a few hours ago.”

We rode towards the light, tendrils of smoke curling around us. I buried my face in my shoulder, my chest spasming. My rifle bounced against my spine. Tiny orange fires flickered in the trampled grass. Our horses shied and balked, tossing their heads.

“This way, Our Lady,” the guard rasped in front of me. “We’ll skirt around it to the left.”

I followed. I could hear the roar and crackle of the flames now. The scent of charred meat filled my nostrils.

We passed the fire on our right. It was huge, as wide as three men riding end to end and much higher than my head. The orange light danced over our skin, in our horses’ wide, terrified eyes, in the gleaming metal of Helpmeet’s body. Sweat ran down my back and soaked my blouse. Helpmeet’s head swiveled to follow the fire, and I turned to look.

They were bodies in the fire. Man, woman, and Mechanical, Imperialist and Resistance, were twisted together, the black of a charred leg here, a scrap of dark uniform there, a river of shining metal spreading here. A face, eyeless, its mouth open. The thick timbers of someone’s home.

A single gear fallen in the dirt.

“You understand,” you’d once said to me, “Don’t you?” Your dark eyes were filled with the dancing flames of the fireplace in our private room, your perfect red mouth slow as a dream. “We are all nothing but strange engines.”

This girl of flame burns away
To Ash…

Even as a broken thing I can remember the elation I felt, riding the cockpit of my war engine, high above the seething battlefield. Can remember the chants of your soldiers rising in the cold air, a thousand voices speaking as one. The energy of the Flame crackling between your soldiers and filling my body so that it shone from my pores, so bright that no one could look at me, that the Resistance fled before my face.

But that is not what war really is.

You don’t know this, do you?

Most of all I remember the fall. My Mechanical shuddering to a halt in the midst of our last battle, the sudden emptiness as our minds parted, the churning mud rising to meet me. The pain—the air pressed from my body, my leg crushed in the twist of metal that was my cockpit, my rifle flung wide, my eyes fixed on the eyes of the fallen soldier beside me.

Her eyes were blue, like the tiny flowers that grow on the forest floor for a week in the spring and then die. I do not know if she was one of yours, or one of theirs.

That night in my tent, when I could not stop shaking, Helpmeet showed me what she dreams when her eyes grow dark and she rides the Divine Flame.

In her dreams, she is human. Did you know that?

I have killed for you and I have nearly died for you. I have questioned all I was taught about our Empire in my heart. I have kept your people from starving, and I have sealed the fates of others. I have shared the mechanical thoughts of your war engines and I have dreamed the dreams of your enemies and my veins have run with the blood of your soldiers. I return to you now, broken and victorious and all grown up, don’t you see?

I still share Helpmeet’s dreams.

We dream of an Empire without war. Of Mechanicals walking the streets of the capital, sitting in classes at the academies, helping grow crops, their metal bodies shining in the sunlight. Of a world of equality, where no one starves through the winter months or is forced to fight over dwindling supplies.

The Empire of my dreams will need more than a puppet master and her broken doll.

My spell is nearly complete. I must believe that you have understood.

My spell says: “This is who I am.”

My spell says: “I loved you.”

It says: “Why did you send me away?”

I lean my head against the plush seat of the train and close my eyes. The dark trees fly past the windows. Helpmeet hisses beside me, steam curling orange in the light of the overhead lamp. My leg throbs.

The army’s healers have told me that my leg is useless, that I will never walk again. I believe, were I to let you, you would replace it with a leg of copper and gears.

Make me a Mechanical girl.

I have a little silver knife, sharp as the Northern cold, which I keep with me always, hidden in a sheath in my sleeve. I take this out now, to distract myself from the pain, and pass it from hand to hand, my eyes still closed.

Tomorrow we will make the capital.

Tomorrow I will disembark at our private train station, leaning on the butt of my rifle. It will take you a moment to recognize me—I am harder and tanner and infinitely more beat-up than when we last kissed.

You will be wearing black, and when you see me, your dark eyebrows will creep up your forehead, and you will be too surprised to turn your expression into something sardonic.

Maybe there will be tears in your eyes.

I will step forward and embrace you, and although you are small, you are strong, and you will hold me up.

“Ylena,” I will say, so low that only you can hear. “My name is Ylena,” and then I will reach for my little silver knife, and I will stab upwards, towards your heart.

First published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 39 (2019).

© 2020 Jordan Taylor

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