The angel appeared on the same day as the goldfinch, and of the two it was the far less strange.
The first the Golem Keeper knew of either was when the bird golem she was walking with through the steampipe forest suddenly hissed and reared its articulated neck. She ran her fingers across the warm brass and bone of its head to calm it, but she could see no threat, so she continued along her customary path and crossed into the hazy shadows of the trees. It had snowed again a few hours before, and faint white patches still clung to the oldest and deepest pipes, those that had been dead for as long as she could remember (and she had lived all her life with the golems, here in these halls and these corridors). The snow brought a clean and steely smell with it, even as it melted under the breath of the steam, and she leaned forward to test it with the tip of her tongue, holding her chador aside so that she could press her lips into it and drink the the cold, clean taste of it: water without dust or rust or oil.
Then, with her mouth still curled against the cold metal, she caught the faint scent of ozone and myrrh. She stood up and covered her face quickly before she turned.
Where the light slid between the metal branches to fall on the corroded concrete behind the pipes, an angel was forming in a pale shimmer. Already its smile was clear, beatific and patient, and it folded robes were growing brighter as she watched, cleaner than the snow. Unlike the golems, she had no fear of angels, but she kept her face covered. They had eyes, even if they never opened them, and who knew what could come from letting your face linger in the memory of an angel?
She was so fascinated by the angel's slow apparition that she was taken aback by the sudden sound behind her, a high, squeaky chi-ti-ti. Turning, she saw a flash of yellow, bright as the angel, and the bird alighted on a branch above her, wings ruffling as it chirped and squeaked. None of her bird golems could fly, and it took a moment before she realised what it was – like her, it had no cogs and gears beneath its skin; it bled and pulsed and breathed.
Then it took off it a flurry, wings flashing between the pipe trees until it rose into the misty heights of the hall. When she looked back at the angel, its painted head had tilted slightly, as if it was watching the bird through closed eyelids.
Her life was like clockwork, with its routines and repetitions. Each cycle began with sleep, and waking out of strange dreams of colours she had never seen among the gears. Then she tended the golems, one by one: first Bear, dreaming on his plinth through his long hibernation. She could barely remember when Bear had last moved, last scooped her up and carried her through the long corridors, his slow, heavy steps making the dust dance in their wake. She knew, from the rattling squawks and jerky dances of the birds' storytelling, that it had been Bear who carried her here, when she was smaller than his paw, flushed and soft and screaming.
Next was Badger, if he deigned to join them, his joints groaning and grumbling and his armour always scratched. He would submit to her hands for a while, let her oil his joints and pick the scraps of root and grease and mud from under the edges of his armour, where he could not easily reach. Badger had cleared their path whilst Bear carried her, though the birds' mime was never clear enough to tell her what he had fought.
When Badger had stumped away again, his grumbling growing steadily more distant, the clanging of his feet fading into a muted tap-tap-tap, she turned to the birds. There were three of them, and they greeted any attempt at numbering with a great cacophony, and they were easier to tend than the rest. All they wanted was polishing, and the occasional fix, and her company as they wittered and sang the few words they knew.
“There's a bad egg on the rise,” one of them crooned, as it spread its metal tail and preened, poking its smoking beak into the joins until the Keeper could smell dust burning away. This was the one who was almost all metal, who liked to hang from the smaller pipes and needed its furnace stoking whenever they could scavenge oil or wood shavings. “I know the end is- cover her face! Cover her face!”
She tugged her veil across again and looked up, but there was nothing there, just a distant soft rustle which could have been the sound of wings.
She returned to the birds, until they were all happy, crooning in their pipes. Then she tended to the other golems, the ones that had gathered here even before she could remember. Some of them might have come with Bear and the others; some, the squarer, blanker ones whose wires had left burns streaked across their bones, were older, so old that she could sometimes feel time humming through them when she touched them. She had to remember to earth herself before she touched them, or they would send jolts through her, making her hair stand on end. Like Bear, they all slept, plugged into the pipes, but she did not think they would ever rise again.
After she had finished with the sleepers, one of the others would bring her some kind of food. If it was Badger, it would be a fish, still slimy, or rat, carried in his steam-powered jaws and cooked by the time he reached her. The walking birds would bring mushrooms, or beans, or tubers torn from low, exposed ceilings. As she ate, they would watch her out of fixed eyes, intent and anxious.
They would not move until she had finished her meal, down to the last scrap of bone or gristle. Then, with a sigh, they would scatter, and she would start to walk, with at least one them moving with her. As she walked, she looked for new doorways and fresh corridors, places that could bring danger or treasure: once a storeroom five times her height, teetering with piles of cogs and wire and cans of oil with strange sigils painted on their seals; another time a cascade of waterfalls, descending into a shallow pool where translucent fish swam and purple flowers swung heavily over the water. The birds golems had perched by the edge and chittered at her as she bathed, letting the water stroke her brown thighs and soft belly as her hair tangled darkly around her like roots snagging in the gears.
But that had been long ago, and now the room was gone.
The angel was still in the pipe forest, smiling tranquilly through the steam. She paid it little heed – angels came and went from time to time.
But this one did not pass. When any other angel would have faded into stains and must, it lingered, bright and gleaming. Furthermore, the goldfinches returned, flocking through the halls in bright sweeps, building nests between the cogs and filling the corridors with the shrill, sweet echo of their song.
Badger didn't like it, and the bird golems fussed and sulked and hissed at the sight of them. The Keeper rather liked them, small and fleshy as they were, but did not expect them to stay long. The angel concerned her more – she knew what to expect of angels, and it was not following the rules.
When the roots that dripped from the faucets began to grow for the first time in memory, white tendrils seeking out soft ground, she began to feel uneasy. Then the walls above the faucets cracked open to show streams of tiny flowers twisting among the gears beyond, red and yellow and blue like sparks. The snow ceased to fall, and the goldfinches sang triumphantly as the mists thinned and a stranger, more golden light sometimes glowed above the pipes.
She went to the angel then, and its painted mouth moved and it spoke, but she did not know the words. The only language she had was the phrases spoken by the bird golems, and she had never understood what those sounds meant. At last, it tilted its head at her, paint sliding across the wall like light, and pointed towards the far end of the hall.
There was a door there, but she had never passed it; never walked out into darkness. She moved that way now, but the bird golems set up a wail and clatter and sprinted on ungainly legs to block her way. Even Badger came thudding out of the shadows to step in front of her, head lowered and growling.
She knew Badger would never hurt her if she tried to push past, but she trusted them more than some strange angel. Obediently, she returned to their own hall, where they settled into a suspicious heap, watching her through sleepless eyes. Tired, she climbed up onto Bear's plinth and settled herself into his still embrace. His rusted arms were warm beneath her, and if she shut her eyes and pressed close to his smooth, round belly, she could hear the steam hissing through him, the slow mechanical revolution of his heart, and the steady hum of his generator, restoring all the power he had once lost. She could remember, lying here, how he had carried her once, when he was more steel than rust, and his glassy eyes had watched over her, her face reflected in every glowing facet.
When, much later, the sound of gears roused her from her sleep, she thought it was just Bear, she could hear, sleeping below the press of her cheek. But the noise was too loud, too discordant, and the tiles in the walls were shaking. Silently, she slipped down and padded across to the wall, where the pipes were shuddering. When she pressed her ear to the concrete, she could hear the truth.
Somewhere deep below, gears which had long been stilled were moving.
The bird golems were aflutter with fear, and did nothing to stop her as she ran forth, through the shaking corridors to the forest and through the far door, following the angel's direction.
The corridor here was low and narrow, with fossil moths caught in the concrete she passed. It sloped up, floor broken and damp, and the further she ran, the stranger it smelt, like snow and water and water lilies, reeds and beans and fire.
And she came forth into light.
Before her, the brown gears were broken, and beyond that there was only green, stirring and fragrant. These trees did not carry steam or flower into verdigris blooms, but split and frayed into green and living masses, all aglow with light that streamed down from above.
And beyond the trees, there was only blue.
She was trapped there, by the glory and terror of the sky, until a goldfinch came coasting down to perch atop the broken gear and flute a laughing query at her, eyes dark and bright.
The Keeper ran.
Back through the dark tunnel and into the steampipe forest, where she stumbled over rusty roots and spigots, grazing her knees on the tiles until she knelt before the angel.
It was still smiling, and its head turned as she gasped for breath, looking down on her with mute beneficence. Then it spoke to her again, this time straight into her mind, foregoing words.
Fear not, the angel quoth. The gears turn.
The world beyond the gears began to break through faster and faster. Every time she woke, there were more roots creeping in than before, more flowers twining around levers and cogs. The pipetrees in the forest began to exude a rough and crusty bark. Leaves blew in, gathering in the corners of the corridors in bright sweeps before they collapsed into mould, faster than anything should rot, and sent forth new growth, pressing tiny, hungry roots through every crack in the wall.
The Keeper tried to follow her routines, but it was hard not to linger: in the pipe forest, where green-gold light now slanted down where steamy mist had once clung; in the golems' hall, now carpeted with flowers; at the end of the tunnel, where the goldfinches darted in and out in gleeful, triumphant play.
The gears were still moving, rumbling steadily below the floors and in the walls, louder and louder as the changes gathered pace. The angel still did not fade, but grew brighter and brighter, until she had to squint to look upon his blazing robes and polished halo.
The golems suffered, and she spent long hours cleaning leaf mould and flower petals from their fragile engines. Sometimes, perched on Bear's lap, she wished that she could close her eyes and wish the roots away. She longed for the old quiet days, of concrete and rust, of silence in the walls and the only song the bird golems' ragged chanting.
But every time she opened her eyes to green, to the scent of flowers and sound of birds, she missed the days before a little less. She began to spend whole days sitting below the angel, among the roots that no longer carried steam, pondering gears that moved in mysterious ways.
She was caught in a dream of sunlight and sycamore when Badger found her, stomping across the green floor with crushing force. She followed him reluctantly when he led her away from the angel.
He took her to the other golems and stood back, growling until she looked at them. They were all dirty, scratched and muddy. The metal bird golem was trapped on its steampipe, vines winding around its feet and its fires almost dim. Bear was a dim, indistinct shape under quilts of clematis.
They could not stay here, and she knew what Badger wanted.
She returned to the angel, looking at its closed eyes and fixed smile as if truth would emerge from its painted light. But all it said to her was the gears turn, straight into her mind and then aloud, mouth creating strange sounds.
That evening, when the sun dimmed, she returned to Bear and Badger and the dull-eyed bird golems. Carefully, she lifted the flowers from Bear, and pressed close to him. His engines were still purring, the steady, reassuring beat of her childhood. Gently, afraid to do more harm than good, she disconnected the pipes that had been feeding his generator, noticing that some of them had already started to change to roots.
Then, softly, she kissed his warm forehead and whispered the words that the angel had spoken.
And Bear woke.
While he stretched and rumbled and shook the long sleep from his stiff limbs, she did as much for the others, She saw Badger lift his head, and the light spark again in his eyes, and the furnace in the metal bird's chest kindle and glow with something more than wood and oil.
When she led them away from the sun and forest, Bear carrying the metal bird on his broad shoulder, the bird golems chittered in dismay and plucked at her skirts with their beaks, urging her to come away with them. Badger went quiet, every step pressing down with a hard clang. Bear waited longest, watching her steadily and she could feel the beat of his steady clockwork heart through the souls of her feet and in the clench of her throat.
At last, he too turned and left, crawling into the dim, concrete world, and she thought that perhaps, like none of his kind before him, he wept tears of rust and glittering dust.
The angel was waiting for her in the forest. The gears were almost covered now, and she knew that in some other place it was the trees that were wilting and crumbling into rust. Quietly, she sat before the angel and waited in the changing light of the sun.
At last, when no more steam ran through the veins of the forest, the angel stepped out of the wall. She held out her hand, and the angel took it, its palm cool and heavy against her own, flesh like her flesh. And only then, when she smiled and led it forth, did the angel open its eyes and look upon her.
And for a while, they walked in the world beyond the gears, and when she returned she had another name. And they said of her that her kiss stole life from the trees and put it into steel, that she was terrible and beautiful, scorned by or beloved of angels, that she was the daughter of golems, with gears beneath her skin, that she had been stolen from her cradle and raised by angels, that her face will always be hidden and she will always be watching the gears turn.
They said many things, and some of them were lies.