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.
Steam rose heady and thick from the water. Moira took a deep breath and plunged under. For a long, glorious moment she was encased in sweet, sweet warmth. She rose with a gasp and shook her hair out. Slick droplets cascaded down her skin. It felt so good to be clean, really clean, at last.
“I just don’t understand,” Moira said, finishing the story she’d started earlier. “If my...fortune has really turned--and getting paid by the nob from Wrightsward certainly felt like it--then why did everything go so wrong in the Shade?” She turned in the bathtub--an enormous, claw-footed thing--toward the whore she’d hired, listening for a response.
Despite the obscene price Gray was now demanding of her Moira couldn’t let herself withdraw her appointment in Philandry. She wouldn’t give back any of the food or supplies she’d bought, and she refused to let Gray’s intimidation barr her from the nice things she’d told herself she was going to get. If one didn’t live a little now and then, what was the point? There was no sense being poor and miserable.
Philandry was the companions’ district. There were no guilds allowed in the Sheer; nothing that would give leeway for bargaining power against the Reach, but the prostitutes and lovers-for-hire were a force to be reckoned with. Philandry was twice as large as Medtown, taking up more space than even Wrightsward and Copperlight, and had all the importance due to such a district.
The whores who chose that line of work came in every shape and size. There were fat Yuan men who served cups of steaming tea, lithe young boys ushered to and from their patrons under the watchful eye of a master as stern and protective as a mother goose, and voluptuous Ombolan women who made an elaborate ceremony of consuming a small banquet before taking off so much as a stitch of clothing. Thin, awkward girls learned the art of shyness, well-muscled Toulene warriors and laughing Verandi women made dance and art and sex into one and the same, old soldiers missing limbs and pieces of their hearts told tall tales long into the night, and a precious few who studied and smiled and turned clients into friends left their draped boudoirs nightly for the gilded estates above the Teeth. Even a few Rimseans made their home and their work in Philandry, performing long, secret rituals with others of their race that no outsider was allowed to see.
Regardless of their gender or ethnicity or age, any worker in Philandry had the right to refuse any patron at any time for any reason. The customer who did not listen to the request to leave, or was not of a mind to, soon found himself being flung face-down on the grating just beyond the district’s border and barred from re-entry. Unlike Medtown, in which each seer had to fend for herself, the citizens of Philandry pooled for tithe and bouncers together, paying both at least a month in advance. It was no paradise; plenty of the men and women went hungry when they couldn’t entice in enough business, gossip and disease ran rampant--though neither worse than the other, and not every madam or pimp could be said to be kind; but thankfully it was a better place than most, at least there were more broken hearts than broken arms, and that was something to be happy for.
Many folk visited Philandry. Some went for sex, some for pleasure. More than a handful came to breed; usually Verandi women who could not have children with their otherwise infertile partners. A few went to observe the rites and trappings necessary to pass into adulthood or to honor the culture of their homeland. Some visited friends, sharing drinks and stories over dinner, some to make them. Others asked for advice and conversation, like Moira was doing now.
The whore who rose and swept across the room was a Sulisine lad, tall and lissome, with a long waterfall of hair that felt like ink when Moira touched it. His skin had a strange texture, both rough and smooth, as though he had fish scales running up and down his limbs just under the surface. They were a sea people by nature, long interbred with the locals on whatever coast they inhabited. Gentle, webbed fingers caressed Moira’s skull, easing out the lingering tension there and working shampoo into her hair.
He was quiet for a long time, as his people were wont to be. Moira had chosen him more for a need to be bathed than anything else and to have somebody to talk to; since she refused to admit outright to anybody in Medtown that she had gone to see Sophia in the first place.
“Have you considered, perhaps, that it is because you have not yet paid your Keeper?” the lad said, the suggestion cutting deep.
Moira winced inwardly and spent the rest of her visit chewing this over. She paid and tipped, as was proper, and went out into the street again feeling fresh but worried. It wasn’t that she was avoiding Sophia, but that her Keeper had not yet requested a price for her services. What Sophia would want, however, was beyond Moira’s power to guess. There was little she could offer a blood witch.
“I won’t have her doing me any favors,” Moira griped, “if she thinks she’s being helpful by waiting.” That had to be it. Sophia must be holding off on charging her, conscious of Moira’s money troubles. Moira resolved to have none of it. After all, the debt to her Keeper must now come first, and Gray be damned. Perhaps then the spell would take hold and the wheel would turn and she would be able to pay faster than the rate of interest, even if it did take years.
In this mind Moira made her way down the back alleys and twisting staircases to the Pride at the bottom of the city. She toiled over Gray’s parting words, on one level muttering curses on him and all his kin, while on another she resolved to pay him fairly. “As if he’s worth so much money,” she scoffed, setting off another circle of inner debate.
Undecided still, Moira stepped down from the broad stones of the Harvest Stair and onto the wide, cobbled street that led directly to the Pride. If she were to turn right and walk the length of a tower and a half she would soon find herself at Mercy’s Hall. North along the outskirts of the cliff would take her to Skyman’s Wharf where the airships and flotillas came in, their captains sending goods along the boulevard by cart and wagon, past the gilded bathhouse of Troi Matabla, south to the Pride.
The market of the Pride sat on the lowest level of the Sheer. Instead of clinging directly to the side of the cliff face it sat inside the tower itself, the middle tower of the outer three. Two great archways at either end ushered shoppers into the plaza, leaving the market itself open to the air. Once inside the ceiling stretched up into darkness, the sweeping sides of the walls coming to a fine keystone point. It was far from dark, however, as several rows of stained glass windows high along the eastern wall let in more than enough light. On the western facade an enterprising engineer had at some point affixed several beaten sheets of polished tin angled towards the ground. These caught the refracted corals, golds, cobalt blues and deep sea greens from the stained glass and threw them down upon the market in long stretches of color. The cloth tapestries hanging from cables flapped gently in the breeze, not advertising Guilds as they might do in any other city, but businesses.
Both sides of the plaza, western and eastern, boasted fine shops; tailors, wig sellers, cobblers, and jewelers. Wrightsward was where things were made but the Pride was where they were sold. Many districts had their own shops, usually grocers and those folk who specialized in whatever items locals usually bought; like Tabitha, who always had a hefty spread of smudges for the discerning seer. Plenty of folk who created their goods farther up the city chose to advertise or keep a booth in the Pride, which generally saw more foot traffic.
Down the middle of the market plaza stood rows upon rows of tented stalls, rickety wooden booths and permanent ones, food stands from which emanated the crackling of frying oil and the piquant smell of exotic spices; young apprentices darted between the crowd, drumming up business. The market was never quiet, and the noise once inside the tower was nothing less than a dull roar.
Moira generally did not visit the Pride, except when absolutely necessary. The grocer’s market in Patchwork was usually sufficient for her needs and anything else she might be lacking could easily be sourced from nearby. Not only that but the press of people made it far easier for thieves to do their work. Moira smiled a little, secure in the knowledge that her last few coins for the day were hidden too deep to be stolen.
A new stone, perhaps another quartz, was on her shopping list today. She needed something that would counteract the denseness of the malachite that she already had, anything to give her more difficult readings a boost. Another amplifying stones wasn’t necessary of course, she could read just fine without it. Soon, too, she would have to make a decision about Gray’s offer; whether to bow her head and take it or try to fight for something more reasonable. Either way the days ahead looked lean even though the weather was warmer. The least she could do was treat herself now, while she still had the funds to be able to do so, thereby making the long slog towards freedom that much more bearable.
Thus satisfied, Moria ducked into stall after stall, searching for the perfect stone. She didn’t press herself against the cases or ask many questions of the staff. In each gem shop she drifted the length of the tent, hands out and open, her second sight watching for the curl of--not magic, but a ‘rightness’ that would tell her she’d found the perfect stone. It was like trying to complete a puzzle without the rest of the pieces.
More than once she slapped away the brushing fingers of a thief, not bothering to turn and confront them. “Oh, off with you!” she sighed as yet another child made the attempt toward her side pocket.
“Wasn’t doin’ nuthin’, miss,” mumbled a boy so young his voice still had the clear timbre of a soprano.
She ignored him and ducked inside the last stall along the eastern edge. Moira reeled back at once, pushed to the side by the hard, gloved hand of a nutcracker. Just in time she caught her footing and managed to stay upright.
“Oh, I do beg your pardon,” the man behind the nutcracker drawled, not sounding sorry at all. His voice, sharp and as cutting as the crack of a whip, equally matched the icy spears of scarlet that came showering down in her second sight when he moved closer. “I should think that even the scum of the Warren would have greater manners--along with greater sense--than to go blundering about into their betters.”
Any shock at the sudden push disappeared in an instant. Moira squared her shoulders and shook her finger at the stranger. All the rage and teeth-gnashing Gray’s ridiculous scheme induced came pouring out of her before she could stop it. “Listen here you pompous, imbecilic, chord-fretting, overgrown, overpowdered narcissist: I have had it up to here with men like you! Ha, betters indeed! What right have you got to go shoving folk around? Surely a woman of my station has more right to the Pride than an officious ninny-dandy like you! And I wouldn’t have run into you anyhow,” she added, so full of venom she could spit. “So you may take your stupid errands back above the Teeth, where you belong, if you so hate to mingle with us lower folk. What?” she continued, only marginally away of a growing silence around her, “afraid to sully the gloves mama bought you--”
The slap hit the side of her face with all the force of a cane. Moira crumpled underneath it, her cry cut off. She sank to the stone, surprised to find that the earth was not also spinning beneath her. Numb cold lasted only a second before hot pain blossomed. She brought her hand away, unable to tell through the trembling if she had bit her lip and drawn blood. Regardless, that cheek would bruise, a more-than-lovely sight for her next customer.
Dimly, overhead, she heard the lordling say, “May that teach you a lesson in humility. Count yourself lucky I am in fair spirits today, or we would soon see how silent you could be, if you had buttons for eyes and wood for teeth. Men, get this detritus out of my sight.” With that Baron d’Bardi strode past her, allowing his nutcrackers to seize her and throw her aside.
Moira fell hard. Her clean hands scraped over rough edges on the rock, nails digging into the grime and dirt between the ridges of stone. Gradually the hubbub of the crowd’s normal activity returned, people moving swiftly around her without stopping. Wincing at a new pain in her side and holding her stinging arms gingerly, Moira staggered to her feet and tried to wipe the muck from her dress.
Hot tears spilled down her face, making tracks through the soot. The whole left side of her head ached, and a terrible throbbing had begun. Dazed and exhausted she trudged through the market, now and again wiping away the tears that leaked out. Moira bit her lip and refused to keen, trying to hold it in until she could lock her front door on the world.
“Sa Moira!” a familiar voice greeted her at the next stall. “I haven’t seen you in--oh my.”
“Oh my is right, Hector.” Moira felt her way forward under the hanging curtains and rested gratefully on the offered stool. The last few shops had laughed her right out, one had even told her that she could incur the wrath of the Baron elsewhere and sent her away. So much for getting herself a gift. Moira doubted now whether a new stone would even make enough of a difference to matter. Tentatively she touched her left ear again. It was still burning hot. “Maybe I should just go home.”
Hector, an Ombolan merchant with a bass as robust as his body, patted her shoulder with surprising gentleness. “Nonsense, Moira!” he boomed. Hector was always booming; his enormous belly jiggling from some joke or calling customers in from six stalls away. He had a smile to match, Moira remembered from her childhood, perfect white teeth on an ink-black canvas.
“What you need is a good cheering up, my girl. No more of this dreary face, no more!” Hector cried, clapping his huge hands together. “Any more of that and I shall have to find a cure to sadness itself and then--huzzah!--I would be the richest man in the Sheer and then where would you be?”
Unlike the men and women who worked in Philandry Moira had no friends with which to share stories over coffee or tea. She had only her customers, who were much too busy telling her their stories, and the people who owned the shops she frequented. The lack of companionship had never bothered her before--she was a solitary creature by nature, if a stubborn one at that--but now she wished more than anything for a sympathetic ear. Tabitha was too wrapped up in the laws of Medtown to be an impartial judge, Mrs. Marshall was better suited to the homey farm life she and her husband had left behind in Elleswhar than a tough one in the Sheer, and Sophia was as likely to tell Moira she had brought it on herself as she was to smother her former apprentice with motherly attention.
Nonetheless, Hector’s roaring good humor continued unabated and after a while Moira found herself smiling. “Aha!” he laughed, having brought her behind the counter while his attendants served the other customers. “So you do have a lick of cheer left: I thought so!”
“Only you,” Moira replied dryly, but he seemed not to notice. As far as she could tell there was no stopping the man. Hector was a force unto himself. “You’d sell your own apprentice to himself if you thought you could get away with it.”
He snorted. “And I’d turn a damn fine profit off it, too. What can I get you? If I know my Moira she doesn’t come to the Pride for just anything.”
Years of loyal patronage proved him right and Moira explained the type of stone she’d been searching for. “Something to see, to help amplify my readings and...make clear the path. Sorry,” she said, pinching the bridge of her nose. A headache was coming on. “I know it doesn’t make much sense.”
Hector rumbled in understanding, like the purr of some giant cat or the far-off roll of thunder. “I’m more than used to you Medtown folk, coming down here all bug-eyed in the daylight and crooning on about whether the stars are aligned well enough to actually buy anything.” Drawers and cupboards slammed as he rummaged through them. Packing paper rustled.
Moira turned her head to catch a soft breeze that billowed through the tent. Sitting there, in the middle of the market, it was hard to hear anything beyond her immediate vicinity. Next door someone complained loudly about the recent losses in ivory stock, the thriftiness of the Verandi flotillas, the exorbitant cost of shipping anything by sea. It almost, but not quite, drowned out a strange droning noise that shifted in and out of hearing, so that Moira wasn’t sure she was hearing it at all.
“What you need--what you really need,” Hector half-muttered as he banged through drawers and cursed his assistants, “is this!”
She paused just long enough and then tapped the right side of her face, twisting her mouth into an aching grin. “Blind, remember?” The joke felt flat but he laughed anyway.
“Ha! You know your way around the city better than any blind person I’ve ever met. But very well.” Hector cleared his throat and resumed a theatrical air. “What I have for you today, young lady, is an item so rare, so beautiful, and so obscenely rich in its design that any sane man would ransom off a flotilla and a soprano just to be able to afford it. But for you, my Moira, for my dearest customer I shall offer this lovely, perfect blue stone for just the simple price of--”
“Hector.” Moira stood, shaking her hands out. The stinging of raw skin had passed, leaving only a dull ache. “Let me hold it a moment before you go naming prices.”
“--one srir and twenty sams,” he finished. Then, with the exquisite care known only by the largest of men, Hector leaned forward and placed the stone in her palm.
In the split second it took the stone to fall from his fingers to hers, Moira saw a stain of glowing blue where the gem should be; a phosphorescent star of raw magic. She tried to jerk her hand back but too late. The stone hit her palm, heavier than its size. Moira waited, frozen.
Though large for a gem--at least an inch across--the stone nestled neatly in the hollow of her hand. It was uncut and had not been polished; unusual for anything that was normally sold in the Pride. Instead of the shock of magic that she had been expecting or the the fading warmth from Hector’s hand on it, the stone gave off a frosty cold that burned. It was not harming her--though it was hard to tell with anything sorcerous in nature--and the bright cerulean was steadily leeching out of the thing and running all over her hand and down her arm.
“What...is it?” she asked, and then shook her head to clear it. That sound--the droning--was louder now.
Hector chuckled, but not quite as heartily as before. “Oh, the Verandi used to mine them on the southern peninsula. That was before your time and mine, before the War of the Flotilla Fortuna. The gems used to be all over the Sheer, still find them in some of the old Baron’s machines, too. But the Reach won’t buy them anymore and when I can’t rightly call it sapphire, nobody wants much of anything to do with them.”
Moira felt queer; numb, as if she had been walking for hours against a northern wind. Her hand closed around the stone, though she was not conscious of the motion.
“Well?” Hector asked after a long minute of silence. “Is it what you need?”
“I’m not certain…” In truth Moira wanted nothing more than to give the stone back to him, to shove it into his hands and walk as fast as she dared for home. Something about it seemed off, a minor note in an otherwise major concerto.
But the stone did not want to be given back, for all Moira could tell. She could not make her fingers release it.
“I’ll take it,” she said, holding it as far away from her body as possible.
Hector did not immediately reply, distracted no doubt by something he could see and she could not.
Moira’s second sight consumed her entire attention. The blue stain, which had begun by running over her hand and down her arm like water, now raced up her bicep and shoulder at an alarming rate. A frigid wave, far colder than the sea in her dream, came frothing on the heels of that cerulean light. It spread from her fingertips to her neck, a burning like ice. Moira gasped as the feeling invaded her skull, flowing over her aching cheek and settling behind her eyes.
She swayed, everything suddenly blue and bright and tinged with frost. Second sight gone--completely overtaken--her one free hand felt very far away as it cast around for support. Whatever balance she had had vanished and Moira blundered to the side, turning over a rack of shawls that fell around her like soft rain.
“--speak, Moira, whatever is the matter--” she heard Hector saying.
Her mouth would not answer. Words refused to come. “Just...just let me pay you,” Moira managed through gritted teeth. If she could only get back to Medtown. The last thing Moira wanted to do was throw Hector’s stone to the ground, incurring further bad luck and insulting him in the same turn.
“My dear, you are not well. Rest here a while.” His gentle hands touched her and she reared away, the gesture more unexpected than unwelcome.
Every inch of her body was on fire, searing layer upon layer of stinging ice. Meanwhile, as Moira struggled to extricate the two srir out of her bodice with hands leadened by cold, the blue grew brighter and brighter in her vision. Any minute now it would burst.
“Take it,” she said, thrusting the coins in front of her.
“Just take it!” she cried. Unable to tell his direction Moira made her guess and fumbled. She missed Hector’s hand by a hair and the coins went spilling down.
One of Hector’s apprentices burst through the flap of the sales tent from the plaza outside. “Master! Master, we’ve got to go!”
The coins and the blue and the Phage hit all at once. A solarflare wreathed in frost exploded inside Moira’s mind. It consumed all senses, sending her careening into the cloth wall of the tent. The sound of silver on stone and the wrenching wail of iron cried out in the same breath.
Rough, thin hands grabbed Moira’s shoulders and flung her out of the tent and into frenzied foot traffic. The droning had finally reached its familiar fever pitch, jumping up the register too quick.
People rushed by, shoving Moira aside. She fought for balance; no sooner having found it than to lose it again. Men and women ran, scattering before the Phage. They pounded up the steps to nearby shops along the wall, screaming when they couldn’t get in. The mob began to seethe, pulling in different directions, hauling Moira along with it.
A scarf, still clinging to her shoulder, slipped and fell on the ground. Moira scooped it up and held the thick fabric to her face. Nothing, she could see nothing, except a roiling, all-consuming indigo light, with dark shapes moving within it.
Moira closed her eyes and began to run, one hand holding the stone and scarf to her mouth and the other held out in front, finding the way. A man stumbled into her, already thick with Phage and dying of it. He crashed into her elbow and fell, each breath rattling in his throat. Moira rushed on and did not turn back.
Balance returned. Long, quick strides carried her across the plaza, toward the southwestern edge. Moira tried not to gasp, not to fill her lungs with poison. She panted, despite all her efforts, and tasted the queer copper bite of the Phage.
Moira prayed as she ran, ducking under a small half door along the western wall of the Pride and setting her foot on the bottom step of the Crimson Stair. She prayed for minutes, knowing she had only seconds.
The Crimson Stair was an ancient thing, one of the first of its kind. Like the old bridges between the districts it connected the Pride with the next level, Evenrhyme. That district had been destroyed in the War, however, and now the Crimson Stair went up and up, cutting through all that empty space. Eventually, after switchbacking through a score of lesser quarters and bypassing the Tammy completely, the Crimson Stair poured out into Wrightsward. From there it was only half a block left, up the shorter and more sedate Brigid’s Stair, and half a block right to her own front door.
Moira wheezed as the high steps and the incline began to take their toll. She coughed, trying to catch her breath, any moment expecting to feel a thickness in her lungs. Pure fear replaced the numbness that had come before. It didn’t take long to die of the Phage.
The close tunnel she had been following stopped abruptly as the stair kept going, protruding out of the back of the tower and continuing over open air. Down below and up above Moira could hear the hissing of the killing fog as it issued out of every grating and vent in the city. The sound echoed, trailing itself in a never-ending susurration. Like a giant serpent, ready to spring.
Moira felt the curve of the stair just in time, narrowly avoiding a tumble over the open sides. There was no railing to protect her. Sweat already soaked the scarf through. Wind assailed her from either direction, teasing and pulling her towards the edge.
Her mouth thinned to a grim line and she wheeled to the side, flying around the turn and up, up towards Medtown.
First Gray, then tithe, Sophia, the Baron, and now this damned stone. Moira put her head down and ran flat out with all her might. If none of those things had killed her, if she had any fire left in her breast, she would live, dammit.
No sooner had Moira crested the last step of the final stair and crossed into Medtown than the second wave of burning cold crashed down upon her. She faltered, tripping over her own two feet; feet that she could barely feel.
Instead of making for her own apartment Moira turned left, toward the closer haven of Sophia’s. She stumbled into the side of the middle tower and jogged along it, hardly able to breathe through the stitch in her side.
“Soph--Sophia!” she called, gasping. Her own voice sounded distorted and strange in the fog.
Moira felt her way along the wall, slowing without meaning to. An ache she could not get rid of clutched at her chest, drawing each breath out painfully. She heaved and heaved, panic seizing tired limbs.
Just a little farther. Only a few more steps.
Hands caught her before she fell. Not the wooden, gloved hands of nutcracker men but the broad, callused hands of Verandi sailors.
“Is okay,” Rashka purred in his thick baritone, “you safe now.”
Moira let herself be carried inside. She only needed one touch--Sophia’s scarred fingers brushing against her brow--to know that she was safe.
“I ran...all the way…” Moira tried to say. “The Phage--”
Sophia covered her lips. “Not now, mon nyara. Coleed, Boris; get her to bed. Rashka, lock the door,” she barked, and a moment later the wood slammed home, locking out the Phage.
Moira felt herself slipping away. Horror gripped her: someone had to know. She made another attempt, reaching up to claw feebly at the men carrying her. “The stone, please, take--” Her voice broke into winded coughing and she could manage no more.
One of the men patted the back of her hand. “Is right here,” he assured her, “no worry now, yah?”
“Quiet,” rumbled Boris, the larger of the two. “Sophia say.” Moira didn’t have the strength to argue.
They laid her on her old bed and drew the covers over her. One by one they left, Coleed last. He brushed her sweat-soaked hair out of her eyes and murmured reassurances that Sophia would be up in a moment, ready to heal whatever ills her lungs had sustained from the Phage. Moira reached to catch his arm as he left, but with no success.
When he was gone Moira opened her streaming, aching eyes to a whirl of color. There, clutched in her palm, dulled now but still beautiful, sat the stone.
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