By E.C. Ambrose
The clockwork girl stumbled along the rocky trail somewhat faster than her joints were intended to operate. Her left knee squealed its protest. The bent edges of the gash in her chest creaked as well, showing glints of gear chains, and drips of oil fell from the empty socket where her left arm had been. Red silk still fluttered from her shoulders, shreds catching on the little needles of the pine trees as she passed, sometimes leaving threads behind. Below, far below the upthrust mounds of stone, the village hunched among its rice paddies, green with foliage and shimmering with water. The clockwork girl skidded and plunged onward, barely maintaining her balance, her ballast stones pivoting and groaning.
By the time she reached the village, a crowd stood, the various clatters, screeches and twangs of her approach having alerted them. The foremost held out long spears, and one of the school masters held a sword, but he lowered it when she came into view. “An artifice,” he grunted, shoving the sword back into its wooden sheath and stalking away.
Some of the others followed the school master, but not all. One of the students put out his hand to the clockwork girl, catching her by the waist. He moved with her as she passed, slowing her gently until only his blue cotton sleeve still moved, swishing back and forth, like the pendulum of a careful sort of clock. “It’s damaged,” he called out, and a few other students edged closer, peering at her, trying to get a look at her face. It had been years since a clockwork had emerged from the fortress, and the madman never left that place any more.
The young man allowed her to straighten, then twisted her skewed wig back into place. He regarded her sternly, gave the wig another tug, and stepped back. She was beautiful, a work that joined the precision of mathematics with the grace of calligraphy. His hand trailed down to part her ruined garment, examining the great gash that bent the brass of her carapace and exposed the gears inside, the same gash that had severed her arm. His fingers slid along the metal skillfully shaped to resemble the slight impression of ribs beneath skin. “Who would damage such a thing?”
“He’ll be wanting it back,” said a woman. She tucked her hands into her sleeves and frowned at the construction before her. “He’ll come down from his fortress and be furious with us—you’ll see. Leave it there, and pretend we didn’t see it.”
“Only someone blind to beauty could ignore such a creation, Mama Chen,” said the young man, giving the slightest bow.
“Leave it,” she said again. “You have lessons, Jianyu. Unless you apply yourself, you will not pass the examination, and then, what shall become of you?”
What indeed? Without the civil service job the examination could win him, without the income that would support him if he returned to his overcrowded home, Jianyu must be lost, as damaged as the girl herself.
“Yes, Mama Chen.” Jianyu bowed more deeply, glanced at the clockwork girl, and followed Mama Chen as she led the retreat of the other villagers.
Alas, the little study where he worked alone overlooked a single rice paddy and that broad place where the mountain trail began. He could see the clockwork girl still standing there, and his brush dripped ink onto the floor. Her presence showed him that the world was greater than rice paddies, more intricate than calligraphy. The gash that wounded her suggested a problem more keen than any civil service exam.
As the sun began to set, her brasswork glowed, lighting her face. Beneath the ruined black wig, done up in a peasant’s knot, enamelled eyes stared back at him, incapable of sight. She posed as if about to bow, or maybe to serve tea. The remnants of a gown embroidered with butterflies draped her brass shoulder and shivered over the rude hole where her other arm had been. She ran down here from the mountains, all this way set upon that narrow path. She needed . . .something.
With a soft clack of his wooden shoes, a master paced by, and Jianyu dipped his brush once more, sweeping out a series of strokes, a poignant poem about a cherry tree, its blossoms battered by early rain. He copied the next few characters, but each image he transcribed only brought his eyes back to the window and the girl beyond.
The clacking of shoes came again, from the deck this time, and the open ricepaper door slid shut, interruping Jianyu’s gaze.
“A student should be working when the light is good,” the master said, clacking across the front of the house to enter Jianyu’s study.
“Should the madman not have come down from the mountain already, master? To take her away?”
“Our concern here is with poetry, Jianyu.”
“But why did she come?”
The master growled. “It did not come. It went wrong, mad in the gears. It is a machine. It does what the madman tells it, on little disks of metal. You have ruined that page. Begin again.” He swept the page from beneath Jianyu’s dripping pen.
“That implies that he sent it here, to us—”
“Poetry! Not logic!”
Jianyu bent his head low, until it touched the wooden desk before him, and the master growled again, but left him. He worked, copying out the poem, noticing its meter and voice, trying not to think of the ruined petals and the broken girl. When the light had faded so his marks could not be seen for shadows, Jianyu set down his brush and rose from his knees, groaning. He should go on to the kitchen with the others. Hunger gnawed his stomach, but no less than the curiosity that gnawed his heart. Instead of walking to dinner, he slipped out of his shoes and quickly crossed the floor, sliding back the ricepaper door.
She stood there still, waiting.
Discs. Metal discs, the master said. At her back, a door flapped open beneath her ruined gown, revealing a dark opening below an ivory handle. Jianyu examined her closely, gently moving her arm, only to have it strike him again, heavily. Inside her remaining sleeve he found a short rod stacked with discs, the edge of each one notched in a different pattern. The whole assembly was about the same size as that opening in her back. Jianyu reached around and slid the rod inside. The two ends clicked down, and the girl gave a jolt.
Jianyu leapt back from her as she abruptly knelt down and leaned forward, her arm swaying before her. Her hand worked up and down, back and forth, a series of deliberate movements, then the girl rose up again and stood still, the metallic shiver of her movement hovering in the air followed by a series of soft pings as the mechanisms resumed their places. Jianyu blinked at her, but she did not move again. He removed the stack of disks, squinted at it in the dim light, and replaced it. Again, she knelt, reached, moved her hand back and forth, up and down. Twice more he replaced the rod. He tilted his head, watching her from different angles, coming to stand behind, then laughed. Of course!
Gently, he took her in her arms. She was heavy and cool against him, but his arms slid naturally about her waist, her head leaning against his shoulder as if weary or sad. Her wig brushed his throat as he walked and he thought to pat her back gently and whisper that all would be well. Soon, she could tell him what she must.
He carried her up onto the porch and stepped into his room, setting her down as carefully as he could to avoid any unfamiliar sound. He hesitated over the door. If he closed it, the room would be too gloomy to work in. If he left it open, someone might see the girl, earning him a caning for disobedience, but the moon would rise up soon and share its light. In deference to poetry, he chose the moonlight.
Eying her critically, Jianyu placed his desk before her, just so. It was the sort of desk every student possessed, made here in the village. Jianyu prepared fresh ink upon his stone and set the brush on its holder. He laid out a sheet of rice paper as smoothly as he could. Finally, he rose and took the rod from her sleeve, sliding it into the door at her back. It clicked into place and the movement began. Jianyu dove for the desk, giving it a slight nudge so that her reaching hand grasped the brush and swished it over the ink.
The rising moon gleamed upon her shapely arm as it swung to and fro, the brush stroking lightly over the page, returning from time to time to the inkstone to dance again across the page. Her penmanship took his breath away, the grace and flow his masters urged upon him was captured here, in this machine, but she herself was full of lessons they could not teach him.
She leaned forward again, replaced the brush, and rose with that delicate music of metal, her robe swaying.
Jianyu crept forward, leaning close as she had done. Characters bold and lovely traced the page from top to bottom in a cascade of ink.
Cracked by winter’s cold blow
The pine stands alone
In a grove of seedlings false but true
None shall grow come spring.
Again and again, he traced the strokes with his eyes. The girl wrote it, true, but on behalf of another. A poem of what—of sorrow, apology, even. A poem of loneliness. A madman spent days, months to craft his discs of metal. Had he broken her first? Was this apology for his false seedlings? Was it why he had not come for her?
Jianyu drew back onto his heels, and let his gaze rise up the mountain to the fortress high above. He could barely see it from here—a square tower, the pitch of a tiled roof, the glimpse of a distant lamp. The madman, alone with his creations, but for this one, who carried his message beyond, joining Jianyu’s tiny world of rice and poems with that distant realm of wonders.
He left the desk as it was and took his few possessions—anything brought from the home to which he was not asked to return. Wrapping his things in his spare robe along with the rod that wrote the madman’s words, he tied his bundle across his back and lifted the brass girl. She felt lighter, this time, as if the writing had spent her grief. Together, they skirted the rice paddy to the trail’s edge where he set her down. He could not carry her stiff body all the way, but she had negotiated this path before. The discs that made her walk must rest someplace within. The only thing remaining was the ivory handle which warmed his palm as he turned it so.
The clockwork girl shivered and stepped, and Jianyu followed. Her brass feet clinking the stones of the path in time with the clop of his sandals, they climbed majestically toward her home.
E. C. Ambrose wrote “Elisha Barber” and the rest of “The Dark Apostle” historical fantasy series from DAW books. Published works include “The Romance of Ruins” in Clarkesworld, and “Custom of the Sea,” winner of the Tenebris Press Flash Fiction Contest 2012. In addition to writing, the author works as an adventure guide. Past occupations include founding a wholesale business, selecting stamps for a philatelic company, selling equestrian equipment, and portraying the Easter Bunny on weekends. The author blogs about the intersections between history and fantasy at ecambrose.wordpress.com and can also be found at www.theDarkApostle.com or on Twitter @ecambrose.