The Toymaker's Opera: Chapter Four - Midnight in Medtown
 


The Toymaker’s Opera is an alternative-world steampunk adventure. It is a story about a poor fortuneteller, a living automaton, a mad Baron, and a city that dreams. It is a story about the price of friendship and happiness, about legacy and talent, blood and luck. But most of all, it is a story about the things that have no price.

~~~ Chapter Four

Moira

“Ow!” Moira hissed and drew her hand out of the mixing bowl. She flexed her fingers a few times to dull the pain. Two weeks ago she had been certain that her luck wasn’t going to get any worse and then of course it held steady and did just that. As if the damp getting into her barley flour wasn’t enough now she only had enough crushed ship’s biskets to bake one more loaf and then it was back to eating whatever she could get.

Unable to pound the hard tack into as fine a flour as a mill was able to, the tiny dehydrated pieces felt more like shattered glass than food. She went back to mixing the unruly dough, bracing her body against the bowl and working it with all her might.

Moira tried to ignore the whispering cries from her cards in the other room. Their thin magic swirled through the air, begging to be put to use.

“It’s no use complaining,” she snapped at them, even though it was pointless. “It’s all your fault Barshon wouldn’t pay more than he did.”

A seer in Medtown wasn’t bound to tell the truth. They could make any kind of predictions they liked, placating their customers by telling them what they wanted to hear. That was how her mother, Margarette, had been; pretending she had the gift of sight when she really didn’t, which wasn’t that far off from how the rest of the district did their business. Few folk did have the talent, after all.

Moira ground her teeth. She knew it was half the fault of her own rudeness that she’d been paid so little. If she’d been able to give Gray something--anything--it might have at least gotten her an extension rather than an ultimatum.

With the bread set to rise she took to her sewing. Below her window the carnival that was nighttime in Medtown went on, rowdy and frustrating. It would be easy to set her work aside once she heard someone knock but given the complete lack of patronage over the course of the past fortnight she half-wondered if there was a point lighting her lantern at all.

“Thank you, Rashka, for not telling me what color I’m using,” she muttered. Moira could make a neat, economical stitch as easy as any sighted seamstress. Not that she could have spared the thread to set aside until she had cloth to match, but at least Sophia would have told her whether it was cerulean, vermilion, cinnabar, or saffron; any one of which being a dye frequently used by the Verandi.

Dame Sophia.

Moira lowered her hands, letting the sounds of the street fill her ears and echo off the bare walls of her apartment. She stood at her kitchen counter, cloth spread out evenly on the slate surface. Even the mental taste of her former Keeper’s name conjured up a shower of scarlet in her second sight.

If she concentrated she could hear that lovely, thickly-accented voice like a purr just over her shoulder. Hear it describing the block print of a new petticoat, hear it demanding her knowledge on the meanings of a certain card. Moira saw the heavy stain that Sophia’s powerful presence left on everything it touched, making it that much harder to study the Sangrine with only her second sight to go off of. She remembered the strength in those brown hands as she was impatiently dressed each morning, the swift smack she received when she had been obstinate, or the tender caress across her bare back when she was sick and needed to be cared for. Sophia had been more mother to her than Margarette, even if, as the master to Moira’s apprentice, she had bristled with callousness and little tolerance for failure.

“You’re wrong,” Moira said out loud. “I can do this. I will.” Even to her the words sounded hollow.

The nights passed in empty succession. Moira felt the itch to read grow into an almost unbearable frustration. She chewed on her thick, rough bread slowly, trying to make it last.

A day and a half beyond the reach of the last of her food she stood abruptly from her reading table.

“Fine!” Moira whirled away and stomped off through her apartment, grabbing her front door key from its hidden place in her bureau and marching out into the night. If the customers wouldn’t come to her then she’d go to them.

Moira stopped when she felt her thin-soled shoes hit grating. Breathing hard she turned her head left and then right. Rambling music and the hubbub of the crowd overtook her senses almost at once. Getting a paying customer in all this would be like pulling the right puzzle piece out of the pile, but right now she’d settle for a handful of trinkets rather than nothing at all.

She held her hands up very carefully and then turned her palms outward, one north and one south, feeling the tide of energy all around her. The swell of people surged and moved, walking and laughing, calling out to one another. During the day the streets of Medtown were nearly deserted but now, between dusk and dawn, was the time that the district came alive.

Like an undertow rushing back when she was trying to move on, Sophia’s advice came trailing to her on the current of memory. Open your mind, her Keeper had chided. Look beyond your own thoughts and find the people who need you.

It was an old trick, something she had learned early in Sophia’s service when she could still see. Trailing along behind her Keeper with her palms out, listening to the unspoken questions that burned like points of lantern light in the people desperate enough to pay the price for truth. She had tugged on Sophia’s fluttering sash, pointing to the men and women who shone the brightest, their frantic queries hushed on the street amidst all the noise.

Moira listened now, watching the aurora of dazzling colors and emotions dance across her second sight. She turned right, the heaviness of magic against that hand finalizing the decision.

Not for the first time she threaded her way through Medtown’s press of potential customers, seers, gawkers, and commuters on their way to other districts. It wasn’t that she disliked the crowd, but rather that she was always working--or at least trying to--that kept her from participating in the local nightlife. Whether she could see it now or not didn’t matter; she had grown up on Charms and the nocturnal festival of fortunes was as well-known to her as the feeling of the Sangrine dovetailing in her hands or the smell of steeping tea.

Juggler’s pins and carnival tricksters wheeled through the air at the edge of the street, attracting small circles of onlookers. Merchants flocked along the narrow boulevard, calling out the names of rare incenses, seeing stones, or touting good-luck charms that--depending on the vendor--might be nothing more than strips of colored paper. Fire-throwers tossed their torches in the air and read customers their fate out of the swirling patterns of smoke. Down a side-street through the tower’s heart, Moira knew, was the covered market that sold the residents their supplies: crystals to aid those with clairvoyant inklings, smudges to cleanse the air, replacement rune stones, lengths of red paper or cloth to restore broken lanterns, polished spheres of clear quartz, talismans, and a thousand other things. Those shops did not open until the wee hours of the morning, since their sundries were less for the customer and more for the seers themselves. Wherever Moira went, weaving in between knots of people, she could hear the soft flapping of the cloth banners that lined the grating above her. And, punctuating the darkness between the banners were a thousand points of lantern light, half of them in the windows of those people who were open for business.

There were many ways to be a teller of fortunes in Medtown. Cards, similar to the Sangrine that Moira used, were popular; casting runes came in a close second. Phrenologists and palm readers ran delicate fingers over their customers’ skin. Women who could afford the constant expense read tea leaves or coffee grounds; the warm, half-bitter smell of those brewing drinks enticing clients out of the cool evening air. A rare few folk, always well-dressed and looking down their noses at the rest of Medtown, professed to be astrologists. Opera stars and noblemen and women happily paid exorbitant fees to let their favorite astromancer cast off from Skyman’s Wharf in an airship until the glow of the Sheer faded in the distance, knowing that whatever secrets the stars might hold would be celebrated on their return. Horoscopes from every race that had ever settled on the cliffside passed from hand to hand at the edges of the street. Blessings and curses were cooked up and given out almost as fast as they were made, and people who were too trusting with their money returned for a second visit with their oneiromancers to hear what the previous night’s dream had had to say.

No one in their right mind would hold a seance, however, not unless they wanted their bad luck to stick. Seers, just like the rest of the Sheer, kept their own unwritten rules. Like sailors they delighted in their superstitions, holding onto old beliefs like a badge of civic pride. Among a handful of smaller rules that were picked up or discarded depending on the person, like the insistence that a reading room could not be used as anything but, there was one prominent law that every seer followed to the letter: do not touch death.

It was not to be spoken of. It was not a curse to be invoked or a fortune to be told; no matter whether the question was “How will I die?”, “When will I die?”, or “How might I end another’s life?”. There was no place in the Sheer where a medium would reach out beyond the veil unless she wanted to end up there herself. Even the runes that casters used would not be made from bone or ivory, but rather smooth river stones, wampum, or obsidian. Those who could see ghosts pretended not to, dead men were not spoken of until at least three days had passed after the funeral--nine, if you were Verandi, and those who had had contact with such black misfortune did all they could not to spread it to others.

Among the hundreds of seers who packed Medtown to the seams, only one of them flouted that law as if it was nothing. Only one, who held death and life in both hands as easy as two sides of the same coin; a person Moira could not tell if other people feared because of the power she commanded or if she was respected because of that fear.

“Tarot readings!” Moira called in her most cheerful, sing-song voice. The energy in the crowd was infectious and it put a sorely-needed smile on her face. She plied her way through the busy throng of people, aiming for the brightest knots in her second sight, happy to be out in the fresh air and not alone with her mending.

“How much?” a cultured woman’s voice asked after what seemed like hours of wandering up and down Charms.

Moira paused, catching her balance. It was well past midnight by now and her feet ached as well as her voice. She turned toward the speaker, relieved, and bowed a little at the waist. “Ah, you must be new to the district, my lady. A fortune’s worth is a complicated thing. My cards are happy to answer any query you design.”

“Yes, but is it based on your experience; whether you are a journeyman or a mistress of your craft?” The woman came closer, so that they two became a pocket of conversation inside the larger flow of foot traffic. “I’m on rather a tight budget at the moment, I’m afraid.”

“I understand completely,” she said, attempting to be as genial as possible. There was no way she would let this opportunity slip through her fingers. Besides, someone from out of town might even be willing to part with more money. “Then you’ll want to stay away from the scryers, diviners, and astrologists, I’m afraid. They charge a base price for the materials they use during each session. After that it’s all up to the customer; it depends on how important the reading is to you.” Moira turned that last word, bringing it up like a question and holding it out like a fisherman with his line.

The woman’s worry rocked back and forth, a grey-green tide behind which her question burned. “Well, it’s my son, you see--”

“Tell you what,” Moira said gently, taking her by the arm, “why don’t we go somewhere private?”

“Yes, of course. Thank you.”

Moira could have walked on air. “Think nothing of it,” she said, and led the poor soul back along Charms and right up the steps to her front door.

Not half an hour later she shuffled the much-consoled woman back out into the night. “There, Hailise, you see? An apprenticeship in Wrightsward is nothing to be frightened of after all, even if it wasn’t what you were expecting.”

“Oh, Moira, how can I ever thank you?” Lady Hailise clasped her hands tightly, seeming almost unwilling to let go. “I was sure he’d take after his father and--”

“There’s nothing wrong with a little change, and no, thank you, it’s enough,” Moira said, thinking back on the pile of sam coins she’d just had to stash away about her person. At this point she’d take pennies--anybody’s pennies--even though she was certain her client could afford more. The sams would get her new flour at least, and the rest she could put aside for Gray.

As Moira walked down the street once more, hoping to get at least one more customer before the crowd thinned too much and folk started to head home around dawn, she put up her hands to feel her way forward and almost at once collided with her neighbor.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Moira stumbled and flung out her arms to catch herself. Unbidden, her fingers brushed against the fine cotton sleeve of the person she’d just bumped into.

Her neighbor, a man as flamboyant as a tropical bird to make up for his lack of real talent, snapped at her. Cotton sighed as he drew away from her. “Watch where you’re going, sa Moira!”

“I said I was sorry, Jean-Marie,” Moira shot back, though not sounding anything of the sort. “Perhaps if you looked where you were lumbering once and awhile, you wouldn’t go barreling into passersby with all the grace of a newborn hog.” She bobbed a mocking curtsey. There were plenty of folk in Medtown that she got along with, people that she looked forward to greeting each week. Jean-Marie and the other scryers like him, were not among them, however.

“How dare you!” Jean-Marie cried, the tone of his lilting voice going up and down. “You’re lucky I didn’t drop my supplies. If your carelessness has put a crack in my new crystal ball, well I--Hey! Just where do you think you’re going?”

Moira felt his flashing and popping anger like the sparks over a fire. It didn’t help things that he lived right below her, either. Customers came and went from his door all night, satisfied enough with his theatrics during each reading that he could afford fine clothes and decent food. And right about now her jealousy of his good fortune burned hotter than her worry that he might send the nutcrackers after her for some slight; real or imagined.

Scryers were an important facet of Medtown. Moira knew that she passed at least a dozen of them every few strides. Almost all of them were charlatans: folk who ‘read’ the empty surfaces of crystal balls and bowls of water, or ‘interpreted’ the meaning in the patterns made by smoke, flames, or melted wax. It’s not that there was nothing to read in those items, but rather that most of Medtown got by on one part
lore and two parts pageantry.

Like her mother.

Moira walked headlong down Charms, not paying attention to anything except the jostling flow of traffic. Each step hit the grating with a solid smack of leather, despite how thin her soles were getting. Every turn, every twist, every shop and market stall, she knew them all. With one hand held before her she sensed the oncoming world, the star-studded blackness of the teeming street and the dull whorls that announced doorways and pipes.

“There goes the blood witch’s apprentice,” someone laughed, the speaker immediately lost in the press of the crowd.

Moira stopped. People parted around her like waves around an island, and she swayed to keep her balance. She held up her hands and stared blindly at them. Why was it that those who had no talent could lure customers off the street as easily as a whore holding a platter of expensive chocolates but she, one of the rare few who could answer the questions burning all around her, could barely scrape two pennies together for her trouble? It wasn’t fair.

Even Margarette Mim, who had had nothing to her name but a battered paper lantern, hands chapped from long overuse of Hex, and a daughter that she barely cared to feed; had more customers than Moira did now.

Rain cascaded down through Moira’s memories, a dull grey roar that swallowed everything, including the echo of her mother’s voice. If she reached back through the years she could just see the dim alleyway where her mother sat hunched over a much-patched white lantern, her thin linen dress plastered to her pale skin, brilliant yellow hair turned a wet silver-brown. Margarette’s lips moved, unsmiling, for her customer. Her fortunes always bleak, a reminder that when the wheel of prosperity turned, it inevitably turned down; were not well-received. She took to Hex to make it look like she gave a damn; the trance-inducing drug coursing through her veins and granting her visions of grandeur that her customers loved to hear about.

As Margarette’s capital increased, instead of taking tithe on an apartment out of the rain or buying food that wasn’t near-rotting scrap, she traded her coins and favors for more Hex. Hex for dreams, Hex for happiness, Hex to forget.

It hadn’t been long before her mother had stopped reading altogether: selling her hair and her body and finally herself, taking out a tab with the all-too-willing dealers in the Shade. They plied her with hot drinks, sweetmeats, and a comfortable bed that she couldn’t afford and didn’t care to. And when Gray’s graciousness ran out Margarette sold the only two things she had left to her name: her blood--since she had long ago run out of luck to trade--and her daughter.

Moira clenched her fists. Around her the crowd was breaking up, the scattered pieces of conversation floating away into the misty darkness of early morning. She turned on her heel and started the long walk back to her apartment. At least one patron meant that the night hadn’t been a total waste.

A seer does not touch death. It was Medtown’s most sacred law, a law that, like those surrounding the Crossroads Clock, could not be broken. But a sangerist couldn’t help where her talent lay. Dame Sophia, Moira’s--former--Keeper, even took pleasure in invoking the ire and consternation of the entire district. Blood and death crossed her doorstep in equal measure, yet no matter how long the gap between one customer and the next Sophia never seemed to mind; there would always be someone desperate enough. Like Margarette.

Coins sang from Sophia’s brown palm to her mother’s pallid one, their sound loud in the empty street of Moira’s memory. She didn’t recall the words that passed between the two women, only the flash of silver pouring in a seemingly-endless stream. And when Margarette turned to leave her daughter, Moira remembered not the outline of her gaunt shoulders and the ghostly step of her bare feet, but the warm, spicy smell of stewing beef and the bracing heat from Sophia’s kitchen stove billowing out into the road.

Sending children to an apprenticeship was a common practice in the Sheer; whether that tutelage was in a thief gang, at the feet of an accountant, under the eye of a headmistress at one of the ballet schools, or alongside one of the many craftsmen in Wrightsward. Moira knew she should count herself lucky that she had been sold to Sophia and not given over to Gray instead, yet the bitterness of her near-empty stomach and the high crying of her cards remained. Not in a thousand years would she accuse her Keeper of being the source of her bad luck, even if there was nowhere else she could honestly place the blame. Her lot was what it was, for good or ill.

Moira passed another knot of scryers, women who showed up as swirls of moonlit mist in her second sight. They snickered, just loud enough to hear. Moira kept walking and tried to smooth the pinched frown off her face without success.

Only the most desperate visited Sophia. Anyone who had would never dream of offering the sangerist insult, even behind her back. Some seers used potions made with strange-sounding herbs to make the future come true, and those that had magic knew that their concoctions were not the thing that actually caused the desired events to take place, but rather that the brew was what allowed the wheels of change to begin moving. The elixir was merely the grease in the gears that opened the door to new possibilities.

Sophia used blood; the blood of her customers, to be more exact, to drive the events that they wanted to set in motion. And once the fruits of her labor had come to pass then she would come to collect. No one spurned her; how could they, when there were horror stories of the consequences that would be incurred if they did not. Sophia seemed to be a law unto herself, someone that death’s misfortune refused to touch, even if that same protection did not seem to extend to her apprentice.

Moira chewed over her options as she walked, desperately aware that between her hunger, Gray, and the nutcrackers, she was very quickly approaching an impossible choice. Leaving the Sheer was out of the question. Traveling down the same path that her mother had chosen was also not on the table. Moira knew she would rather walk off the end of the Teeth and out into open air if it came to that.

She could visit Sophia. She could go back. Back to trying to sleep through the crying of Sophia’s customers; to having a fire in the woodstove and someone to talk to; back to being dressed like an invalid or treated like an obstinate child for wanting to live on her own. Moira tried not squeeze on her wrists, tried not to feel the old scars from her first meeting with the sangerist, hard ridges on otherwise smooth stretches of skin.

There was, of course, another way. She didn’t have to return as an apprentice, the choice to arrive as a customer with her head held high was always there, instead of with her tail between her legs, begging to be taken back and cared for. Moira huffed, tossing the idea away. Somehow she would manage, even if it meant settling for a smaller apartment or--she flinched from the idea--asking Mrs. Marshall for the charity to sleep behind the counter in her shop in exchange for some work that wasn’t tarot reading for a while. Sophia would not--could not--understand why she had to do it her way, not even if Moira talked herself in circles trying to explain it.

Cold drops of rain hit her shoulders and the crown of her head. Moira held out her hand and shivered as a breath of cold air gusted between the towers. She picked up her pace, glad that most of the festivities were over and that the crowd had dissipated.

Seven hurrying steps took her up from the street to her front door and Moira threw her arms backward just in time to avoid colliding with a nutcracker that stood waiting on her landing. Unlike people, who appeared as whorls of color and energy in her second sight, she could just barely feel the denseness of presence that accompanied these strange automatons. “Good evening--morning! I meant morning. Good morning!” she babbled, trying not to overbalance and fall down the stairs.

It caught her arm with its firm, gloved hand and steadied her. Then, as gently as one might do for a child, it took her palm and signed into it a number.

F-O-U-R S-R-I-R.

Moira stared at nothing, her mind blank. Everything she had just earned, gone if they would take it. A small part of her argued that the tally for tithe ought to be higher, considering that she hadn’t paid in over two months. Yet her legs and feet ached, dulling the math until the numbers were meaningless. It had been a long night and all for this. Gray’s obnoxious, self-satisfied voice whined in her head, a reminder that this wasn’t the only receipt she had to balance. Money that she didn’t have welled up like a wave, ready to come crashing down.

When she was silent too long the nutcracker’s grip became a vice. It took a step toward the stairs, a step toward the Reach and the city’s mad Baron and whatever they did with the bodies of foolish thieves and the people who couldn’t pay tithe.

“Wait!” she cried, almost breathless. “I can pay!”

At once the nutcracker released her. It clacked its wooden mouth together once, twice. Through the dull denseness, impatience reared.

Moira stuck her fingers into the secret pockets of her bodice and skirt, not caring that the automaton would see where they all were. She pulled out sam after sam, shoving the smooth wampum coins into that gloved hand as fast as she could. When she could feel no more she patted herself down, front to back, collar to hem. “That’s...that’s all.” Her breath was coming fast; it wouldn’t be enough.

The nutcracker waited.

“Please.” Moira’s mind raced. Automatons couldn’t be distracted like people. They could be damaged or destroyed, but only if you wanted several more to show up in its place.

High above the Sheer, thunder growled low. Rain that had been dripping all the while increased in intensity, soaking into her shirt and plastering her hair to her face. Inside her chest her heart beat like a hare’s, fast-paced, as though she was running. “Please, sir,” she tried again, voice low and threatening to break, “I don’t have anything else inside. Not even a half-penny. I’ll give you whatever you want just please, please come back some other time.”

Moira held her breath, not even sure that it had heard her.

Slowly, as if the movement was coming from a long way off, the nutcracker put the sams in its wooden collection box. With a loud snap the lid of the box shut, each piece rattling inside. Then the nutcracker man put its black shako hat back on, turned an about-face, and marched mechanically down the steps, around the bend and out of sight.

~~~

Disclaimer:
 As this is not the finished version the author reserves the right to change this and any following chapters in full or part; including but not limited to grammatical, editorial, stylistic, or plot-related changes. The author does not expect, however, for this version to differ vastly from the version that will be published in the near future.

Author's Note: I only posted this thrice because the paragraph formatting software for Patreon is proving to be exceptionally frustrating.