Breath by S.A. McKenzie

The bedchamber of the dying woman was hot and crowded. Five daughters, two sons’ wives, a double-handful of granddaughters and a couple of bewildered great-grandbabies all milled about the bed of the matriarch of their family. In a corner, a bored fire priest droned the prayer of departure, his censer of burning incense adding to the overall fug.

I waited by the door, absently fingering a frayed thread on my tunic. The crowd around the bed parted as the eldest daughter stood up and beckoned to me. I moved to the bed, drawing Dimity along with me. She was Master Herron’s newest apprentice, and this was her first deathbed.

The dying woman lay on her back, eyes closed. She was breathing unevenly, with long pauses between each breath. I opened my carrying case and removed a jar from the padded interior. Even in the dimly lit room, the glyphs etched in silver on the glass sparkled. I stood with the jar in one hand, the lid in the other and watched her sunken chest rise and fall.

The rattling breaths came further and further apart. I waited, watching for the signs that would tell me the moment was right. And then, a gasping wheeze. I bent swiftly and held the jar to her mouth as she exhaled for the last time—and died. Capping the jar, I stepped away.

I paused in the doorway to discreetly pass a small purse to the eldest daughter. Behind us, the old woman’s descendants began to wail.

“It seems rather mercenary,” Dimity observed as we navigated the twisting dirt roads of the rough town that sprawled across the plain, outside the protection of the city walls. I shook my head.

“They’ll be able to afford a funeral worthy of their mother now, and can take some comfort that a part of her will live on to serve the Imperator,” I said.

I knew that it was just as likely the old woman’s essence would be used to quicken one of the mechanical singing birds that we made to enliven the parties of rich merchants than one of the Imperator’s famous clockwork soldiers, but I didn’t mention that. Some clockworkers selected the first essence jar available when the time came to activate their latest work. Master Herron, however, liked to take care, matching an automaton with what he considered the most appropriate essence. His automatons certainly lasted years longer than any other, so there could’ve been something to his methods.

“Did you see the spark leave her?” I said. This was why I’d brought Dimity with me. Master Herron preferred apprentices who had the rare ability to see the spark that enlivens all living things. That came easy to me. Master Herron had once observed that my ability was strong enough that I might have been taken to become one of the Imperator’s black-clad mages if I’d been a man. The thought made me shudder.

“Yes,” Dimity said tentatively. I looked at her. She frowned.

“I saw something,” she said. “Master Herron says it gets easier with practice, but it gives me an awful headache.” She shrugged. “I don’t see why we need to collect essence for the automatons anyway. My uncle says that in the desert lands they use blood to quicken their automatons. Wouldn’t that be easier?”

I rounded on her, suddenly furious. “Your uncle is a fool who’ll find himself staked out in front of the Traitor’s Gate if he doesn’t learn to keep his mouth shut! Blood magic is heresy, and forbidden by imperial edict. We’re clockworkers, not necromancers. You should know this.”

Dimity paled and stammered an apology. I ignored her and walked on ahead. I needed to have a word with Master Herron about her. The last thing we needed was the inquisitors taking an interest in his workshop.

We joined the crowd waiting to pass back through the Eastern Gate and into the city. Up ahead, I recognized one of the guards on duty. Sula was back in the city. One glimpse through the crowd of her unruly mop of sun-streaked hair, and for a moment, I forgot how to breathe.

We’d both been born Portside brats, but she was nearly three years older than me. The age difference might not mean so much now that I was eighteen, but when you’re a child, three years is a gap wider than the Tiberian Straits. That didn’t stop me from following her and the other older girls around, watching them play at sword-fighting with sticks. Sula could climb higher and jump farther than any of the boys and I longed to be like her. She wasn’t afraid of anything. When I first began to see the life-giving spark inside people, I saw a blazing fire in Sula.

The cart in front of us rolled forward and suddenly I was right in front of her. She stood tall and proud, her armor polished to a fine gleam. Her grandfather had been a sailor from some cold northern land, and she’d inherited his red-blonde hair and pale blue eyes. She smiled when she saw me.

“Well, look who it is. Oreste, right?” I could feel a sudden heat in my cheeks. I didn’t think she even knew my name.

“Hello, Sula. I heard you’d gone into the Guard,” I managed to say.

“Yes, I’ve just been posted back to the city garrison. And what about you? You’re an apprentice clockworker now?”

“Journeyman. I’ve nearly finished my masterwork.” Sula noticed the queue building up behind us, and waved us through.

“Good to see you again, Oreste,” she said as I passed.

I floated back to the workshop in a dream, barely aware of Dimity trailing sullenly behind.

We found Master Herron on a stepladder making a final adjustment to an Imperial clockwork soldier.

“Just in time,” Master Herron said. “Dimity hasn’t seen a quickening yet, have you?” He smiled down at the girl from his ladder. “You do the honors, Oreste.” He clambered down to the floor.

I found the orison on a silver platter on the workbench, and examined it for flaws. The narrow strip of parchment contained a series of glyphs beseeching the gods to grant the automaton life and ensure it obeyed its master. I climbed the ladder and pressed on the automaton’s chest plate. A panel popped open, exposing a small cavity containing a piece of pale crystal the size of my thumb. I placed the orison inside, and then removed the capped essence jar from my bag. The old woman was going to get her chance at a second life.

“Dimity, could you pass me that pipe?” The girl handed up a copper pipe with a tapering sharpened end. I placed the wide end over the crystal, covering it entirely. With one smooth movement I shoved the sharp end of the pipe through the jar’s calfskin lid. The crystal hummed softly as the essence touched it. A shudder went through the soldier, then it slowly turned its head toward me, red glass eyes glowing behind the snarling silver mask.

“Excellent,” Master Herron said, and began putting the soldier through a series of movements to ensure all the joints were working smoothly.

He didn’t need my assistance, so I returned to my masterwork at the back of the workshop. She was standing now that I’d finished her legs, demurely draped in a sheet. The underlying metal armature was complete, and now I was installing the external covering. I was experimenting with a new process, using hardened ceramic sections for her skin instead of heavy metal plating. My hope was that she’d be able to move lightly, even gracefully, unlike the heavy clomping soldiers we usually made.

Master Herron allowed all his workers a free afternoon every Seventh Day. I always went back to Portside for dinner with my family. As I came down the hill, the forest of ship masts below me, a familiar voice hailed me from behind. Sula. I waited as she ran to join me.

“Going to visit your family, Oreste?”

I nodded, struck dumb again.

She smiled. “Me too. Well, it’s just my father now. My brother joined the navy.” She looked at my carrying case. “What’s that, then?”

“Essence jars,” I said, patting the case. “Master Herron insists I always carry them.”

Sula raised an eyebrow. “So if you see anyone looking a bit peaky, you’ll follow them home and suck the life out of them?”

“It’s not like that,” I said indignantly, before realizing she was teasing me. “But now that you mention it, you do look rather pale…” I reached in my case for a jar and she danced away nimbly, laughing.

We passed a high stone wall. Sula looked up at it and grinned.

“I remember when us girls used to raid the Sylvester’s apricot trees. They never caught us.” She paused, a shadow passing over her face.

“They’re all respectable ladies now. Hella went to the temple, and the rest are married with a couple of littlies clutching their skirts. Except for Scylla. She died birthing her first babe.” She shook herself and looked down at me.

“You were always there too, Oreste. I remember your dark eyes peeping around the corner watching us. Like a little mouse.”

I found my voice. “My mother insisted I set a good example for my sisters. No running or shouting. And definitely no orchard raids.”

We’d reached the street that led to my family’s house. She smiled at me. “I guess I did enough of that for the both of us.” She hesitated, her booted foot tracing a pattern in the dirt.

“The fire temple is having a display of sky blossoms for the festival next Sixth Day. Would you like to watch them with me?”

It was a strange sight to see, bold Sula hesitant about anything. About me. I hastened to end her confusion. “Yes, I’d like that. I won’t be able to get away from the workshop until after fourth bell though.”

She grinned. “Meet you at the dolphin fountain, little mouse.”

And then she was gone, dodging the carts to cross the street toward the alley where her father lived, leaving me standing there like a complete ninny. It’s a wonder I didn’t get run over.

I shook myself and carried on, wearing a grin so broad it felt like my face was stretched like the leather lid of an essence jar.

Sula was sitting beside the fountain when I arrived, cupping her hand under the water spouting from the bronze dolphin’s mouth. We bought fried honey-dough sticks from a vendor and went looking for a good place to watch the fireworks.

“Do you like being in the Guard?” I asked as we walked.

She shrugged. “It’s served its purpose. Once my contract is up, I’m going to sign up as a caravan guard and see the world.”

“You wouldn’t join the Imperial Army, then?”

She flicked her hair out of her eyes. “Not me. Too much pointless marching and being ordered about.” She licked a stray drop of honey from her wrist. “And what about you? Do you like being a clockworker?”

I nodded. “I enjoy the work. Once my masterwork is finished, I’ll be a full guild member. I’ll keep half the price of anything I make, and when I’ve saved enough I can start my own workshop. Even better, I’ve no need to marry unless I want to.”

“And do you…want to?” She was watching me closely.

I grinned. “There’s no suitors beating on my door.”

Sula pursed her lips. “Don’t you ever think about living somewhere else?”

Leave Iskandar? All the world comes to our city, everyone says. I’d never considered going elsewhere, but Sula was watching me hopefully.

“You know,” I said slowly. “I’d like to see the mountains in Albia, where they grow the crystals that we use to power the automatons.”

“It’s a start,” she said with a laugh, and tucked her arm through mine. We went up the street without finding a gap in the crowd anywhere. I heard the drums signal the start of the procession.

“This is no good,” Sula said. “We won’t be able to see anything. Come on.”

She led me down a series of narrow alleys to where the hill grew too steep and rocky for anyone to build houses, then disappeared behind a thorn bush taller than me.

“Good, it’s still here. Come around the back, Oreste.”

Gingerly, I flattened myself against the rock and crabbed sideways. To my surprise, there was a tiny path up the hillside with steps gouged out of the chalky stone. It looked better suited to goats than people but Sula was already climbing. I followed more slowly. Halfway up the hill the track opened out onto a wide ledge. Sula was sitting there, long legs dangling over the edge. I flopped down next to her and took in the view. We could see the red lanterns of the procession wending its way down Temple Hill. Below us the setting sun painted the city gold, brightening the sails of the ships in the harbor and the red terracotta tiles of the roofs of the houses. Swallows swooped past us, calling to each other.

“You can see half the city from up here,” I said, delighted.

Sula nodded. “I used to come here when I was a girl. I’d watch the ships sailing out and dream of sailing away with them, like my grandfather.” She produced a small wine flask and offered it to me. I swallowed a few mouthfuls and handed it back. Sula drank, and I watched her pale throat move as she swallowed.

We passed the wine back and forth for a while in a companionable silence. The warm stone at my back and the wine in my belly gave me a feeling of sleepy contentment. Sula was watching me.

“You don’t relax around anyone very often, do you?” she said softly.

I shook my head. She reached out slowly, giving me time to pull away, and gently cupped my cheek. I leaned toward her until our lips met, just the lightest brush. She made a small noise in her throat and slid her hand around the back of my neck. Our lips met again and that sense I have of the spark that animates all living things flared up, tasting her. It was like being bathed in a fire that didn’t burn me. I let it flow over me and then breathed it back into her. Sula pulled back with a gasp.

“Well,” she said, leaning back against the rock. “I suspected you had hidden depths.” Her smile had a wicked tilt to it this time.

The sun slipped behind the hills, and over the harbor, the first of the sky blossoms bloomed. Sula put an arm around me and we watched the sky painted with expanding globes of red and gold sparks. She offered me the wine again but I shook my head.

“I have to be up at dawn,” I said.

She sighed. “Me too, little mouse. I’m on patrol in the West Quarter.” As the echoes of the final rockets faded away, she stood up and brushed off her breeches, extending a hand to me.

“We’d better get back down the path while we’re still sober.”

Sula insisted on escorting me back to the workshop. We stopped in the street outside.

“You’ll have to give me a tour sometime,” she said, admiring the giant illuminated clock that adorned the front of the building. “See you next Seventh Day?”

I nodded. She checked the street was empty and bent down for a quick farewell kiss, before turning and walking briskly away.

I had a bed in the barracks-like building that housed the apprentices, but I wasn’t ready for sleep yet. I let myself into the workshop and lit a lantern, setting it down by my masterwork. I removed the sheet and stepped back to admire her. Tall and pale with a cap of auburn enamel for her hair and milky sapphires for her eyes. Her porcelain lips were slightly parted, one eyebrow raised as though she’d just seen something amusing. For the first time, I allowed myself to really see how much my swordlady automaton resembled a certain person.

I wasn’t sure what Sula’s reaction would be to seeing herself in the form of an automaton, especially a naked one. I put the sheet back. I would get some clothes for her tomorrow. I’d planned to make her decorative armor and give her a sword but the funds allocated for my masterwork were running out.

The following morning I was deep in the innards of a clockwork peacock, trying to determine why its tail wouldn’t open, when there was a commotion at the front of the building. I heard Master Herron greeting a customer but didn’t pay much attention. Dimity popped up at my elbow.

“Oreste!” she hissed. “The Imperator’s here. He came to inspect the new soldiers himself!” I wiped the grease off my hands and followed her up to the mezzanine floor. We joined the apprentices looking over the railing as Master Herron put the newest clockwork soldier through its paces for our visitors.

I’d only seen the Imperator from a distance, waving to the crowd from a palace balcony. Up close, he was shorter than I’d expected. He was accompanied by a small entourage—a clerk with a wax tablet, a couple of bored nobles, and three imperial bodyguards. A man wearing a black silk tunic stood at the back of the group. As if sensing my gaze, he looked up, and I quickly looked away. People said imperial mages could read your thoughts. I tried hard to think of nothing.

“Excellent work,” the Imperator was saying to Master Herron. “Now, I should like a tour of your workshop.” Master Herron led him through the workshop, stopping at various works in progress—an array of the singing birds popular this season, a mechanical rose bush with blooms that opened on the hour, an animated head that recited stories. The group came to the corner where my masterwork stood.

“How intriguing,” the Imperator said. He tugged off the sheet, revealing the automaton. From our vantage point, I had a clear view of his face. He ran his eyes over my swordlady’s exposed breasts and licked his lips and smiled. Master Herron had often remarked to his apprentices that the current Imperator was more enamored of automatons than his father, but I don’t think he meant the fervid look our ruler was currently wearing.

“Master Herron, you have truly surpassed yourself here!” he said. Master Herron began to explain that this was a journeyman project, but the Imperator silenced him with a flick of his hand.

“Have it sent along with the soldiers. I shall add it to my personal collection.” And with that he swept out of the building, his entourage bobbing after him like a brood of ducklings. I clattered down the stairs.

Master Herron read the look on my face and shook his head.

“Get that automaton finished,” he said. “You’re excused from all other duties. They’re coming to pick up the latest batch of soldiers next First Day.”

“But—”

Master Herron took my arm and led me to my corner. “I know I said you would be permitted to choose which customer would buy your masterwork, but this is the Imperator,” he said in a low voice. “Now get to work.” He turned and chased the rest of the apprentices back to their workbenches.

I wrapped the sheet back around my masterwork.

“He doesn’t deserve you,” I told her softly.

By Seventh Day morning, I had finished my masterwork. My automaton was fully dressed. Of course, the clothes I’d found were not fine enough for royalty, but at least she wouldn’t be exposed to the gaze of every man in the city as she was taken to the palace. All that remained was to quicken her. I was stalling, trying to decide which of the essences in the storeroom was most suitable. Master Herron expected me to finish this evening, but first I was going to visit my family as usual.

Sula was waiting at the top of Portside Hill. Seeing her made my bad mood lift. When she asked how my week had gone, I pursed my lips, unsure what to say.

“The Imperator is taking my masterwork,” was all I said in the end.

“That’s an honor, surely?” Sula said carefully. She looked around to see who was in earshot and leaned closer to me. “I mean, if you have any respect for the greasy little turd.”

“Sula!” I said.

She sniffed. “Our commander makes sure the female guards are never left alone with him when he comes to inspect the garrison.” She looked fierce all of a sudden. “He didn’t try anything with you, did he?”

“He never even saw me,” I said.

“Good,” Sula said. “Because if he so much as harmed a hair on your head, little mouse, then Imperator or not, he’d be answering to me for it.”

I wasn’t sure whether to be delighted or terrified at this treasonous talk, and settled for walking down the hill in silence.

Halfway down, a group of children dashed across the street in front of us. The smallest one, barely past the toddler stage, tripped and fell flat on his face in the middle of the street. He scrunched up his nose and let out an anguished wail. With a clatter, a cart drawn by two horses came over the brow of the hill. The child lay in the middle of the street, bawling. Sula uttered an oath and dashed out in front of the cart to grab the boy. The driver did not appear to see her until the last minute. As Sula snatched up the child the lead horse knocked her down. Somehow she managed to twist and toss the boy to safety as she fell, and then the cart was on top of her. I was running before the cart had come to a halt.

A couple of men helped lift her out from under the cart.

“Send for a doctor,” someone said from behind me, but I could see at once a doctor wasn’t going to do any good. I dropped to my knees and gently lifted her head to my lap. Her eyes were open, her chest heaving, gasping for air as her punctured lungs filled with blood. Her eyes swiveled to me desperately. That light that burned so bright inside her was dwindling fast.

Like an automaton, my hands moved without conscious thought, taking a jar from my bag, holding it to her lips and catching her last breath as life left her body. Mechanically, I replaced the lid, put the jar in my bag, and eased her head down on the hard cobbles.

“Her father lives down the end of Saffron Alley by the spice warehouses,” I said to no one in particular, and walked away.

I don’t know how much time passed before I found myself staring at the back door of the workshop. I had a feeling I’d been standing there a while. Finally, I let myself in and went straight to my swordlady. Not yours. She’s the Imperator’s automaton now, a small voice whispered to me. I reached up to brush the curve of her cheek, and stopped at the sight of my red-stained hand. I looked down and found my tunic spotted with Sula’s blood.

Before I could think about it, I stripped off my tunic and used my belt knife to cut a long ragged strip off the bottom. Master Herron kept the priest-blessed ink we used for the orisons in a locked cupboard, but I knew where he kept the key. I’d told Dimity that clockworkers are not necromancers. That doesn’t mean we don’t know how to construct forbidden orisons. It’s obvious once you’ve learned the glyphs.

With careful precision, I painted three glyphs on the bloodstained rag. Live. Be Free. And Sula’s name. At the end of the line I added a final glyph, which we give to every automaton: the glyph for obedience. I slashed a line through the glyph, negating it. My swordlady would never be forced to obey anyone.

I placed the orison inside her chest cavity and for good measure wiped some of the tacky blood from my hand onto the crystal. Next came the jar, and the pipe. Sula’s last breath brushed the crystal with a barely audible sigh. Something inside me twisted painfully, as if my life was draining away as I closed the chest plate. No movement or hum of new life came from the automaton. I slumped down on the floor and buried my face in my hands.

A hard hand lifted me by the arm.

“You’re a mess, little mouse. Let’s get you cleaned up.” She nudged me toward the big sink at the back of the workshop and worked the pump for me. The cold water on my face brought me to my senses. That face—it was Sula, but not Sula. Frozen in a permanent half-smile. An automaton, and yet—I looked closer. I couldn’t see the seams between the ceramic sections that comprised her face. And her hair—for a moment it seemed to move like real hair. I blinked, and it was vitreous enamel again. She noticed my scrutiny and gave an experimental twirl.

“Well, this feels odd.” I hadn’t given her a jawbone or a tongue and yet somehow she was speaking. I stepped away from the sink and swayed abruptly, and she caught me. Somehow I read concern in those unmoving eyes.

“I think you need to lie down,” she said.

I woke to the sound of clanging metal and Master Herron shouting, telling someone to be more careful. I rolled over, disorientated. I was curled up under a canvas drop sheet. Hauling myself upright, I looked over to the corner where my masterwork had stood, but it was empty. The back door stood open. There was a cart there, stacked with recumbent automatons, straw packed around them. And atop the pile, wrapped in a cloth, a smaller bundle. Sticking out of it were two feet wearing the calfskin boots I’d bought for my swordlady. Human soldiers milled around the cart and then formed up behind it as it lurched away.

“No!” I shouted. “You can’t take her!” I charged at the cart only to be intercepted by a pair of soldiers.

“Here now, what’s all this then,” one of them said, grabbing me. I sagged between them, eyes fixed on the retreating cart.

Master Herron hurried over. “That’s my apprentice,” he said. “Here, I’ll take her.”

“Not so fast,” the first soldier said. “Interfering with imperial business is a crime.” They hauled me round between them and put me in a second cart next to the last two clockwork soldiers. Master Herron followed, trying to argue with them until one of them pointed out that he could be charged with interference too. He stepped back, hands raised. As the cart started moving I made a dive for the side, but the soldier next to me snatched a handful of my tunic and dragged me back.

“That’s enough out of you, girl,” he growled, and drew his dagger. Reversing it, he struck me on the temple with the pommel and I collapsed back into the cart.

I woke in an unfamiliar place, my head throbbing. This is getting to be a habit, I thought, slowly sitting up. Wherever I was, it was dark and cold and smelled very unpleasant. I felt my way to the nearest wall—stone—and then to a sturdy wooden door. There was a little light coming through a barred slit in the door from a torch on the wall outside. This must be the imperial dungeon.

I curled up next to the door and leaned my aching head against the cool stone. After what seemed an eternity I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. There was a clunk as the door to my cell was unbarred. A familiar shape was silhouetted in the doorway.

“Oreste?”

“Sula?” I stepped out into the light, blinking. She’d added a soldier’s leather jerkin to her outfit, and a sword. She shoved a bundle at me.

“Here, I got you a cloak, to cover the bloodstains. Sorry I couldn’t find you a clean tunic, but it’s been a busy day.” She helped me wrap the cloak around my shoulders. My brain finally caught up.

“Where are the guards? What happened?”

“You wouldn’t believe what the Imperator wanted to do to me!” She cocked her head to one side and studied her hands, flexing the fingers. “You made me well. I strangled him.”

She looked up. “It’s like someone kicked over an anthill in the palace. Everyone’s running in circles looking for an assassin. I just stood in the corner every time anyone came by. Nobody looks twice at an automaton in the palace—they’re everywhere.”

She took me by the hand and started hauling me toward the stairs.

“Wait, where are we going?”

She looked back at me, her face still frozen in that perpetual half-smile.

“I think it’s time we saw something of the world, little mouse. I don’t think we’ll be welcome around here, come morning.”


S.A. McKenzie is a New Zealand writer of offbeat and blackly humorous science fiction and fantasy stories featuring time traveling rabbits, carnivorous unicorns and man-eating subway trains, because someone has to speak up for these misunderstood creatures. Find them online at their website.