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.
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.
9. Fame & Fortune
“It’s very nice,” Mrs. Marshall said earnestly. She looked around Moira’s apartment and, without a trace of sarcasm, added, “Very quaint. Have you given much thought to decorating?”
“I don’t see much point,” Moira replied, but Mrs. Marshall seemed not to notice.
A whole month had come and gone since she’d run from Gray. A whole month of minding the Marshall’s store and their young children. Moira was grateful to be home and even more grateful that their plan had worked; not one ruffian from the Shade had been waiting for them.
Moira grimaced to herself as she deposited a sack of potatoes in the kitchen. It wasn’t that she disliked Mrs. Marshall, far from it. But the woman seemed determined to give Moira more than she felt she’d earned; whether it was friendship, motherly advice, or extra food. In fact, as Moira made her way back into the parlor, she caught Mrs. Marshall in the act of laying out food on the reading table.
“Oh no!” she gasped before she remembered herself. Moira took Mrs. Marshall by the wrist, knowing the other woman must look confused. “Ah, no thank you. I can manage with what I have.”
Moira picked up the crate of oranges and firmly thrust it back into Mrs. Marshall’s unresisting hands. How to tell her that it was too much? “Riya,” she said, “no more, please. Everything you’ve done is more than enough. I’m home and I’m safe.”
Mrs. Marshall gripped the crate and the creaking of the wood fed the silence. Finally she nodded, the soft whisper of her braid against her back the only indication of movement. “It seems I still have a great deal to learn about living here. Very well, but don’t hesitate to come to us or Tabby if you need help again.”
“I won’t,” Moira assured her, and escorted Mrs. Marshall to the door before the older woman could change her mind.
Tense hours passed before nightfall. Moira took the few pennies she had let herself accept from Mrs. Marshall and tucked them away at the bottom of her salt jar. No matter what happened tonight, whether Gray arrived or customers did, at least she had something. She passed through her apartment, restless, touching everything twice, chewing on the strange feeling inside of her. Despite the confidence she pretended her nervousness got the better of her and she lit her lantern early.
Moira drew a deep breath that still felt shallow. She tried to distract herself by counting the measures of the music in the pipes, but it was far away and faint, and she couldn’t keep the time. Prickling anxiety crawled up her shoulders and down through her chest and into the pit of her stomach. She ate without tasting, staring off at nothing.
Slowly, like the hum of a concert rising out of silence, the normal sounds of the nightly festival filled the street outside. Moira rose and cleaned off her reading table. As she shook out the tablecloth the prickle under her skin became a rush. Carmine magic flowed through her fingers in a blood-red river, twisting and jumping through her cards as she shuffled them clear.
A few customers moved through her parlor that evening; a poor engineer who worked in the Tammy, a Rimsean desperate enough for advice she would ignore her culture’s superstitions, and a prostitute who just wanted to talk but at least paid Moira for her time. There were others, the same stories about love and work and hardship that she heard everyday. She learned and forgot the secrets of her customers in confidence, cleansing one reading from another as the night wore on.
In the lean hours of the morning, during a lull that she had expected as much as she hated to have it, a firm knock came at her front door. It was a different sound, assured and confident, not in the least like any of the people who came slinking across the threshold uncertain and worried. It was a sound that expected to be obeyed.
Moira allowed herself a frown before she smoothed her face into a pleasant mask. “Come in!” she called cheerily. If it was someone from above the Teeth, well, they could just learn to open their own damn doors.
The old oak door creaked as it opened. “Good evening,” the man said in a cultured baritone. As he entered the parlor his energy moved with him, a solid presence of shimmering gold outlining his figure and covering his hands as though they had been dipped in paint. Rather than take his place opposite her, he hesitated. “I do not often see fortune tellers.”
Something about him didn’t feel like a lordling, though. Perhaps it was his honesty that he had never done this before that made her smile a real smile. His hands held very still, clasped together gently over his breast. Moira could see almost every detail of them and the longer she looked the more she could make out the smudges of cobalt blue on his fingertips. The man didn’t feel distant or aloof on her second glance, merely steady and formal. Moira decided she was being ungrateful and grinned, facing him with her blind eyes. “Neither do I.”
To her relief he chuckled and sat, producing a shower of golden sparks in her vision as he did so. He adjusted his sleeves and leaned on the edge of the table. “So, my lady, what sort of fortunes do you tell?”
“I read the Sangrine--tarot cards,” she said, fumbling her introduction. He had called her a lady. Only women living above the Teeth could claim to hold such a title.
“And is it real?” he asked quickly before apologizing. “Please, forgive my rudeness. My mind is full of my own craft, I cannot think.”
Moira swept her cards across the table, a little hurt but used to such questions. “Every man and child wonders the same, sar. Yes, it is real. I am no charlatan, I can promise you that.” Even as she spoke the words she could feel his critical gaze upon her, sizing up the worth of that statement. With so many fakes in Medtown it was no wonder that he was curious about her talent. Unlike Jean-Marie or the scrying sisters who lived above her Moira knew she couldn’t lie with a straight face.
The man rapped the table in approval. “Good. I have no patience for pretenders or their petty theatrics.” What he didn’t say, that he thought his question too important to risk on anyone with less than real talent, was obvious enough.
“Tell me your name.”
“Jacques Augusti, and yours?”
Moira only just managed to keep her mouth from dropping open in surprise. Jacques Augusti! What on earth did the famous toymaker want with her?
Over the years she had told many fortunes, mostly to those without means, some to working folk who could afford more but paid less, and to a few bratty lordlings whose family names meant nothing to her. Never in her whole career, never during all the times she had helped Sophia during her apprenticeship, never had she been in the presence of someone so well-known throughout the Sheer. It was said that he fixed the old Baron’s machines and repaired the nutcrackers, and had no fear of either. It was said he had a skill with gears and toys that was only rivaled by the prowess of the alto Vigaretti, who could sing two notes at once.
“Sa M-Moira Mim,” she said, stumbling, and felt her face begin to flush. The last thing she wanted to do was to make him uncomfortable. She turned her attention back to her cards. After their last shuffle the magic in them had been heavy, blocky, and hard to deal. Just for good measure, to be sure they were ready, Moira moved the cards about, separating piles and combining them, until the energy was chopped up, then lumpy, then smooth. “Your question...Sar Augusti?”
Jacques leaned back and folded his arms. “I want to see what they have to say,” he said carefully. “No one else has gotten it right tonight and I won’t explain myself again. I’m sick of being flattered and pandered to; I need answers, not cheap tricks.”
So he had already tried other seers. In his voice she heard the disgust and the tired ache from having been awake all night. Moira swallowed. “I won’t disappoint you,” she said, “I promise.”
Her hands moved again, sliding up over the edge of the table and meeting at the small tower of cards in the middle. Slowly, she began to shuffle. The cards’ energy wafted under and over her fingers like steam, and she pulled their voices together to form a united golden thread.
Jacques leaned closer. Half of his face swirled bone-white out of the darkness. No matter what he said out loud, perhaps he could feel the magic in her.
Without speaking she fanned the cards and lifted nine from their ranks. The others she laid on the end table behind her. She divided and combined the nine once, twice. Her hands hesitated as she opened them for a third shuffle. For a long moment she held them, waiting. The golden light stretched. She replaced them without shuffling and, picking from the top, arranged the cards in a wide spread.
Lights twinkled before her, a web she had to illuminate one string at a time. “The corner cards anchor the four cardinal directions, but the others...”
Before her the reading spread out in a quiet landscape of darkness, a vast sea of possibility. The meanings she had to find were inside that sea, lighthouses invisible until her magic lit their lamps. Everything funneled to a single point as she flipped over the top card.
In the blackness of her vision a ship sailed, driven by a howling gale. A lone figure clung to the rigging. “The Sailor is your past, Sar Augusti, the triumph of will in difficult circumstances. You have…struggled, built yourself up from nothing.”
She heard Jacques tapping his fingers against the table, impatient, but the power of the reading overrode everything else. From far away Moira felt the rush of Sophia’s magic pushing at her, the force of the wheel turning and the relentless tug of the rivers that moved it. All the other fortunes she had told tonight were a part of the same old slough, a part of a routine that was as normal as it was necessary, but for some reason everything under her hands now was clear, so very clear.
Moira flipped over the bottom card. Grinding and hammering filled her ears. “The Eight of Mountains. Crafting is your trade and you do it well. Your hands and your thoughts express your innermost desires; your friend is your work.”
Jacques waved that one away. “And my path—my future—where does that lead?”
Between the sea and the towering peaks laid the blank canvas Jacques was looking for, the answers he had sought with the other seers but been unable to find. Moira wondered what they had told him. Empty flattery, she supposed, eye-rolling scryers telling him that his latest project would succeed or that he would soon find himself to be a very rich man; or some other such nonsense. Not for the first time Moira chewed on the worry that the cards would come out wrong, that the fortune they told would be as stupid as the ones her mother had given; hollow and cheap.
As she turned over the middle three cards she felt a sharp pain nip at her wrists, the ghost of Sophia’s knife. The feeling fled almost as soon as it had arrived, leaving only the reading itself, gold and true.
“The Page of Forests, The Lovers, and the Ace of Mountains.” All of Moira’s breath went out of her in a rush of relief. He had asked her to appraise an unasked question--a challenge she heard more often than she liked--and the Sangrine had not failed her.
“Let me guess,” Jacques said, the frown evident in his voice, “I’m going to succeed. What rubbish. I knew this was a fool’s errand.”
To Moira’s surprise he started to stand. “W-Wait!”
Jacques shook his head. “I appreciate your time.” Everything about him felt tired, suddenly. “But I’ve had enough.” He placed a few coins on the table and made for the door.
Moira was so stunned she didn’t catch up to him until he was half-way down the steps to the street. She chased after Jacques, catching him by the arm only by a chance grasp in the darkness. “I said wait,” she demanded. “I wasn’t finished.”
“Well I am,” Jacques replied stiffly. “Unhand me.”
The words pushed at the back of her throat, unspoken. If she let him go now the Sangrine would never forgive her. No, more than that, she would never forgive herself. Some fortunes had to be told. “I will not.” Moira hung on though he jerked away from her. “Listen to me.”
Jacques stopped, watching her. With one swift tug he yanked his arm from her grip. “Fine, finish your charade if you must; I refuse to waste another penny on such a bold-face lie.”
Cold wind tossed Moira’s skirt and chilled her skin, but she was too close to boiling to care. It was still there, barely on the edge of her mind, the images and the sense of meaning that the cards had left her with. So much symbolism, pieces Moira was used to teasing out and weaving into a larger whole. Yet Jacques left her little time to condense it all. And then there was the insult, words that she couldn’t swallow.
“I’m not asking you to pay me,” Moira spat. “I wouldn’t tell you how to work your craft, how dare you suppose to know my own!” She advanced down the steps, chasing Jacques back to the street.
The toymaker nearly stumbled as he retreated before her. Few folk were about at this wee hour of the morning, and for all that Moira could tell they were alone on this section of the street. “And I suppose you ‘saw’ my success?” Jacques shot back, voice bitter and full of venom. “False words and parlor tricks only! I have as good as failed already and you--”
“She will live!” Moira cried. The hot rush of blood was so loud in her ears that she did not hear the silence until it slammed into them both. She had meant to say more, to convey the deeper knots of knowledge and the complexities that the Page represented, and to break off his argument before it could begin in earnest. But she had not expected the quiet, the absolute shocked stillness of Jacques’ reaction. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the swirling blue around his fingertips, she wouldn’t have been sure that he was still there at all.
At length, and after he had taken a breath several times as if to speak, but said nothing, Moira forded the silence, unraveling the golden web and choosing her words with care. “The woman in your life,” she said, “the one whose presence presses you into strange circumstance, it is her that I speak of.”
Jacques nodded, a movement almost imperceptible to her senses.
Moira took this as the indication that it was and continued on. She held up first one hand and then the other. Each word she spoke slotted into place beside its fellows, leaner and truer than the last. “The Ace is your talent, your ability to take the dreams and visions and ideas of your patrons and yourself, and--” Here she brought her palms together. “--make them real. I don’t know how it shall happen but I do know this: your ability and this woman will together make something that is more than the sum of its parts.”
People passed them on the street, distant impressions of shapes and thoughts curling at the edge of Moira’s second sight. The wind died down, ceasing its howling throughout the towers, and the leaving the air only marginally less harsh. No longer quite as angry, Moira rubbed her arms to warm herself, and wondered if she had said too much.
Jacques watched her for a long moment, seeing her as she couldn’t see herself. Quietly, he said, “And you think she will live?”
“Yes,” Moira said. “Although I don’t know what that means.” Only that he needed to hear it.
Finally, when it seemed as though he would wait until the sun itself rose clear and aloof in the frigid eastern sky, Jacques spoke again. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely, the words gravely delivered. And then, taking her palm, he pressed a coin into it and walked away, his footsteps ringing on the grating, gradually getting softer, until she was alone.
Moira opened her hand, disbelief already seeping through her. There, heavy and delicately-minted with the silhouette of the Il Susurrus opera house gleaming upon its front, lay one musean gold piece.
Loving it? Hating it? Questions? Leave your feedback in the comments below! I can’t wait to hear from you. :) Please support me so I can post more often!