"On my mark," I said. We braced ourselves against the side of the ship, and I counted down. "Three, two, one, mark."
Our cables hissed as we swung down through the air and landed lightly on the top of the railway carriage. I unclipped almost instantly, signaling for the Canavar to keep pace with the moving train. Her skull and crossbones flag dipped in acknowledgement, and she hovered expertly above us.
I had brought only two men with me for this part of the job, and if all went well, we could be away in only a few minutes. Marwan, my first mate, and İbrahim, one of my more promising able airmen, were already scrambling down either side of the carriage to set the charges on the couplings.
I had perhaps four minutes to verify the cargo. I unclipped a small electric lantern from my belt and cranked it, clinging to the swaying carriage, before crawling across the roof to the access hatch. And then I grasped the huge wheel in both hands and cranked it, opening the hatch.
The crack of a pistol shot greeted me, and I swore. I was lucky I had not leaned over the hatch to peer in! My contact in Prague had told me only that the train carried supplies for the Austro-Hungarian artificers, and had been unable to tell me how they might be guarded. But we had been careful, I thought, in accounting for the guards; I had not been expecting opposition.
Not only was someone down there, the crack of that pistol shot had just alerted the whole train that something was amiss. I revised my estimate of our timeline rapidly.
"Marwan!" I yelled. "İbrahim! We've got trouble!"
I grabbed the lantern again, waving it at the ship for the pre-arranged signal. My crew was good; I knew they would be watching, and sure enough, the long metal prize-claws unfolded almost instantaneously, swinging down in graceful arcs to puncture the sides of the carriage with a screech of metal. The Canavar kept such perfect pace with the train that I hardly felt the impact, and I felt a swelling of pride in my crew, even as I ran to the back of the carriage and dropped down over the edge. I was just in time to avoid another shot from the hatch. Whoever was down there knew they had a tactical advantage, and they weren't going to emerge and give me a chance to attack.
That was okay - I wouldn't need to. I clung to the ladder and called down to İbrahim, "On three!" and he nodded. Marwan, on the front of the carriage, would know what to do as soon as he heard the noise. I held up my fingers and folded them down - one, two, three - and İbrahim lit the charge and swarmed up the ladder, clinging to the rung just below mine.
Even a small gunpowder charge makes a loud racket, and my ears rang when it blew. Dimly, I heard another explosion, at the front of the carriage, and then the whole thing was rising up with a creak of tearing metal. We were flying upward with a sort of wild vertigo, watching the train separate and the back cars decelerate as we sloped off to the west, clinging to the carriage exterior.
I whooped, and I looked down to see İbrahim grinning his broad white grin as well. Only for a moment - and then suddenly he shouted in alarm and his eyes went wide. Another crack of the pistol, and İbrahim choked back a grunt and was dangling from the ladder by only one arm, the other blossoming red at the shoulder.
I looked up, expecting to see the guard who had shot at us earlier. But there was no guard. A large automaton, wearing the military uniform of the Empire and carrying a rifle … no, it was a rifle, its right arm ending in a long muzzle that trailed smoke even as the automaton's left hand re-loaded it at the elbow. I stared at the monstrous thing for a heartbeat, revulsion freezing me in place, and then the rifle arm was aimed at me.
The train carriage swung and rocked as the Canavar hit a pocket of turbulence, and the shot went wide. The thing stumbled, and grabbed the edge of the roof with its left hand, denting the metal in its iron fingers.
My cutlass and my knife would be useless against the creature, but it was clearly unaccustomed to midair combat. That gave me an edge; it would not expect aerial tactics. I unclipped the weighted cord from my swordbelt and hurriedly clipped my belt fastener to the ladder's rungs.
There was no room on the side of the train car to swing the end of the cord properly, and the automaton was regaining its balance, letting go of the roof and starting to reload. I scrambled up the last two rungs of the ladder and threw the cord at the automaton's neck as hard as I could. It wrapped, praise Allah, and I dropped my full weight down, letting go of the ladder with both hands and clinging only to the cord.
For a moment, I dangled in midair, as the immense weight of the automaton resisted the pull. But it was tall, and its stance was not meant for shifting terrain. It stumbled forward and the balance of the car shifted slightly under its weight.
The rope almost took off my fingers as the giant metal body tumbled from the car, but I let go before it could twist around my hand. It fell past me and one heavy foot clipped my elbow as I swung from my belt fastener alone..
There was a beat of silence and İbrahim and I watched the falling automaton dwindle until it looked like a child's lead soldier against the landscape.
My waist ached from where I dangled by my belt from the ladder and my arm had gone numb where the automaton's foot had crashed into it. All my blood had rushed to my head as I dangled upside-down for another dizzying moment. I struggled to right myself with only one good arm.
"Fuck those Austro-Hungarian bastards, anyway," I shouted to İbrahim, still clinging to the ladder with his uninjured arm and both legs. He looked shocky and pale and I was relieved to see he'd clipped on to the ladder as well - I wasn't sure his limbs would hold out.
It was another hour before we could be sure that we would be free of all pursuit, and the Canavar was able to set us down in an open field. Marwan, who had survived unscathed, took İbrahim to the medic while I supervised the unloading. The crew was shifting crates to the cargo bay with admirable speed when I saw Bulbul running toward me, her headscarf trailing behind her. "Captain!" she called, and my crew parted to let her through.
"Engineer Bulbul," I said, but she was having none of my formality. She wrapped her arms around me and held me tight. I couldn't help but let out a hiss of pain as she jostled my elbow.
"Allahım, what have you done?" she asked, releasing me and looking for the damage.
"Not I," I said crossly. "The damned Austro-Hungarians had one of their abominations guarding the train car."
Bulbul looked wildly around. "What?! One of the soldier-automata?"
"Hush, love," I said, quietly. "We threw it overboard, it just bruised my elbow on the way down."
"Bruised? Or broke?" She touched my arm gently. "And what are you doing out here when you should be with the medic?"
I made a face. "İbrahim was shot, and Marwan took him up already. Just let us get the crates loaded and we will be off. You may fuss as much as you like, then."
And she did, of course. The moment we were airborne and she could leave the engineering deck to her crew, she came and found me and hauled me off to the medic, muttering about fragile humans and foolish risks.
It was only a bruise, as I had told her, though it was deep and ached abominably now that the numbness of initial impact had worn off. She insisted on staying, while the medic gave me a sling we all knew I wouldn't wear and lectured me about rest. She insisted on accompanying me back to my berth, and on helping me bathe, as I couldn't fetch the water one-handed.
"Bulbulcuğum," I said.
"I was worried," she said quietly, brushing out my hair until it fell damp and straight down my back to my waist. Bulbul has always had a fascination with my hair.
"I know," I said. "When that thing came after us I was a bit worried myself. I'd never seen anything like it."
"Are the rumors true, then? They are built for war?"
"The one I saw had a gun in place of a hand."
She shuddered. "The Emperor goes too far."
"There were crates of Austro-Hungarian shards in the shipment, and other automaton components; we will take samples to the Guild when we get to Tehran," I assured her. "If anyone can oppose the Emperor, it will be the Artificer's Guild."
"All their power might as well do someone some good," Bulbul agreed. "So we are going to Tehran, then?"
"Yes. We risked, perhaps, more than we ought to have to take the lapis eye from the Duke, and the authorities will be on the lookout for us from Warsaw to Bucharest. We need to leave the area until things settle down a bit."
"So no more jobs for a little while." Her fingers were deft as she braided my hair back in two long rows and coiled them together at my nape.
"This was the last. The crew will be grateful for a bit of land leave, and we can trade to advantage in Tehran."
"And you can heal, inşallah."
I sighed. "It's just a bruise, love."
"A bone bruise, the medic said." She tucked something under my coiled hair and draped it over my neck; it was the sling the medic had given me. When I protested, she said "please," quietly and I sighed and maneuvered my arm into the thing.
"I must seem very fragile to you," I said. "This flesh and bone body is so delicate compared to yours."
She snorted. "Hardly delicate. You are a pirate captain, after all, not some swooning society lady. But fragile, yes." She kissed the crown of my head and put her arms around me. "I suppose we cannot all be made of iron and brass."
"It might be simpler," I said, thinking of the Artificer's Guild. "Then you would be just one of many, and I would not be fragile, and we could go back to Istanbul and see Selim again without worrying that the Guild would find you."
"We are as Allah made us," Bulbul said, placidly.
I find it ironic that the one of us who was made by men is the one of us who truly believes. I wonder what the imam of my mother's mosque would have made of the prayers of an automaton; he was quite conservative and would have turned her over to the Guild, most likely. But she has faith enough for us both, and the mullah who leads the prayers for the Canavar's crew has never minded that she has carved glass for a heart.
I relaxed back into her embrace for a moment, then stood up, swearing as my arm protested even with the sling in place. "I will tell Marwan, then. Tehran and a week's land leave."
"Two weeks," she said. "The medic said you must rest."
"Ten days," I countered, and she poked me in the thigh with one finger, careful as always of her strength.
She turned back to her panels as I left, but I saw her smiling as she bent down to examine a tangle of wires.
It was cold that night, and my arm hurt like the devil. I tossed and turned and finally crept down to the engineering deck and curled up around Bulbul, wrapping my blanket around us on the thin pallet she kept there for me to rest on. She was warm - the heat from her boiler made her clothing as warm as the steps of a mosque at midday, and the click and thrum of her gears as she adjusted the panels was as comforting to me as any lullaby.
She worked silently, and I fell asleep to the warmth of her back and the small noises of her workings ticking and hissing in harmony. We flew on toward Tehran.
The Canavar is my home, but I will never fail to feel a certain peace in my heart to see the Alborz mountain range rising above the rooftops of Tehran, light snow dusting the highest peaks even in summer. The air shimmered in the heat, and the tall spire of the Artificer's Guild rose above it all, copper plating dull green against the brown of the palace walls. It is a peaceful city whose people value art and poetry and knowledge. I have been many places in this world since I left Tehran, and I have never seen its like for beauty.
We ran up the Persian flag and landed at the skyport, and our bosun Emir paid out an advance to each of the crew. We had not yet traded our cargo, but the crew needed the reassurance of the ready money. Any additional funds we managed from shrewd trading would be theirs at the end of the land leave in a week. There is always grumbling, but most of them stay with me because they know I will be fair with them in the end.
I left Emir with instructions to do the trading and re-provision the ship; a man gets a better bargain than a woman with the merchants in Tehran, and Emir is honest. I had other duties to discharge. A crate containing samples of each of the shards and automaton parts we had taken from the train had been set aside, and I needed to bring it to the Guild.
Rather, I needed to make sure that it got to the Guild. I had no desire to alert the officials to my presence in the town, so I hired a carriage to take me to the workshop of the shard carvers, on the outskirts of the Sangelaj neighborhood. The driver unloaded my crate for an extra few quiran, and I knocked at the door.
I didn't recognize the apprentice who opened the door, but when I told her I was there to visit Artificer Omid, she helped carry in the crate and then left the little front room to go into the shop at the back. I could smell the heated glass and hear the careful scrape and clicks of dozens of carvers at work, and I suddenly missed my days apprenticing here fiercely.
Omid came through the door, smiling broadly, and embraced me. "Selamün aleyküm, Behiye, it has been too long!"
"Wa alaikum assalam!" I kissed his cheeks and smiled warmly at him.
"To what do we owe the pleasure?"
"Well, I'd like to say it was purely social, but I came across something in my travels that I think the Guild needs to know about right away."
"Ah," he said. "Parivar, if you don't mind?" The apprentice bowed and left us. "I'm sorry we don't have anywhere more private to discuss the matter."
"There's not much to say. I acquired some Austro-Hungarian parts in my travels that I have reason to believe may be of interest to the Guild." I kicked the crate lightly. "Would you be able to send them on? Without mentioning me?"
"Nasty business, those Austro-Hungarian artificers," Omid said. "I don't blame you for not wanting to get tangled up in it. How'd you come across this stuff, anyway?"
"A merchant in Vienna got a wrong shipment," I lied. "He was a spice merchant, so he was just as happy to get rid of the stuff, but it's like nothing I'd ever seen before."
Omid frowned. "I'll get it to the Guild offices as soon as possible, and thank you. But you should stay, visit a bit. Laleh and Vashti will want to see you, and Darien's not here today but he'll be so sorry to know he missed you."
"Oh, I can't," I said, eager to distance myself from the crate as soon as possible. "But I'd love to buy you all a drink and hear your stories later, if you can."
"Tomorrow night?" he asked.
"Would the next night work as well?" I smiled. "At the same café?"
"Indeed. I'll let them know," Omid said. "It will be good to have enough time to hear your stories, world traveller."
I took my leave of him with another embrace and went back to the city center to visit the telegram office. There is no way to get messages to the Canavar in flight, but I sometimes receive telegrams in Tehran from my contacts elsewhere. There was only one, this time, sent two months previous from Istanbul and addressed to Captain Behiye bint Kasim, of the ship Canavar. The bored clerk handed it to me, still sealed, and took my coin without comment.
I left the office and ordered a tea at a shaded shop nearby, then cracked the seal and opened the telegram. My eyes drifted at once to the bottom to see who had sent it; I sat up straighter when I saw the signature. Selim Paşaoğlu, the Artificer of Süleymaniye! This was no ordinary missive.
I needed to take it back to the ship, as he had encoded it using our agreed-upon key, and Bulbul would need to decipher it. She is much faster than I at decoding things, as she can keep the whole key in her head; I have a written copy in a safe onboard, but I am slow and inaccurate in comparison.
Bulbul was still in the engineering room, of course, when I returned. She scanned the telegram once quickly, and then again, slowly, writing a translation on another piece of paper. When she finished, she handed it to me wordlessly.
I breathed out a heavy sigh and looked at Bulbul. "Looks like he has made his choice at last," I said.
RECEIVED MESSAGE; MY THANKS. MAKING PREPARATIONS TO DEPART ISTANBUL. WILL MEET YOU IN AGRA IN FOUR MONTHS' TIME. TELL NO ONE; THE GUILD IS WATCHING.
"Or had it made for him," she pointed out. "The Guild has been watching him since the beginning. Perhaps they have begun to suspect that he knows more than he has told them. He has chosen the safe path for many years; why would he choose now to change?"
"He did it to protect the others," I reminded her. "He's kept them safe all this time."
"And does that mean they are not safe now? Does the Guild know of us?" There were only three automata left of the four Selim and I had built together. They were all unique in their self-awareness, and the Guild had destroyed the only one they had found.
"I hope not, Allah forbid," I said. If the Guild had discovered their existence then they would know of Bulbul as well. I could not protect her from the full might of the Guild.
"We must go to Agra, then," she said, and her voice was tight with anxiety. "We must know what has happened."
"We will, sweetheart," I reassured her. "But I have promised the crew a week of land leave, and you must go in for maintenance, and Aylin will have our heads if we do not visit. Selim will not expect us in Agra for two months yet anyway. We must be patient."
"Maintenance?" she said. "I am fine, Behiye, I do not need repairs!"
"Nor will you, if you get regular tune-ups. Tehran has the best mechanical artisans, you know that."
She shuddered. "I hate it."
"I know. I'm sorry. Here, I will wear the medic's stupid sling all week in penance if you will only go."
"Tomorrow, then. And you will wear the sling for two weeks, as the medic directed."
"Two weeks it is. And I will go with you tomorrow."
It is no wonder Bulbul hates maintenance, and I would spare her it if I could, but I am not skilled in that sort of artifice. I felt guilty as she followed me to the shop the next day, walking stiff and blank-faced behind me like any mid-level service automaton. She is good at the pretense of soullessness; she has to be, to survive. But I could see the unhappiness in her eyes as the shop attendants brushed and polished and oiled and tightened and adjusted.
Once, I had asked her to spy for us in Madrid, to gather information that people might spill in front of an automaton with less thought than for a dog. And she had done it brilliantly, my Bulbul - stood stiff and expressionless when not required and exaggerated the mechanical stiffness of each movement when called on. They spoke in front of her freely, and we gained the details of the steam-carriage route along which the Baronesa would travel in less than a day.
But she was silent and withdrawn for weeks afterward. "It is bad enough," she told me later, "to have the world deny that you have a self, to treat you as a freak. I don't like to deny it for them."
I have never asked her again.
She does not like for anyone else to touch her, either, and as I watched her endure the tune-up team's work in mute misery, I promised her silently that I would learn to do this myself. After Agra, I would find someone I could apprentice to, someone who would not take word of my interest back to the Guild, and I would learn.
When they were done, she walked back to the ship behind me, stiff and blank and shining, and once we were onboard, went to the engineering room without a word. I gave her an hour or so to recover while I met with Emir, and then went down to see her.
She was standing and looking out the window at the city, flexing the fingers of one hand absently. With most of the crew off the ship, she had not bothered with her usual coverings, and the smooth copper dome of her head gleamed in the last light of evening. As I drew closer, I could see the delicate gears working just behind her jaw.
I put my arms around her, and we stood there, watching the city go dark.
"Well, at least that's done for another year," she said finally, and turned to face me. This close, I had to lean back and look up to see her face. She still looked a little blank, a little far away around the eyes — I don't know how else to describe it — but she put her arms around me in turn.
"Next time I will do it myself, Bulbulcuğum. I will learn, I promise you."
She smiled sadly and kissed my forehead. "You have a ship to run, Behiye. It is alright."
"No, it is not," I countered. "I hate how unhappy it makes you."
She hummed non-committally. "Will we see your sister tomorrow?" she asked.
"In two days," I said, letting her change the subject. "Tomorrow I must meet with the shard carvers and my old colleagues from the Warrior's Guild."
"You mean tomorrow you must go out drinking with friends and come home reeking of spirits," she translated, not incorrectly.
"That too," I admitted cheerfully. "But I often get useful information that way."
And I did, too. We all met at our usual, one of the open-air cafes near the bazaar, and got pleasantly soused together. I genuinely like my former colleagues and it was good to hear their stories, to congratulate Laleh on her new status as a Master carver and commiserate with Damien about the difficulties of mastering a new cut.
But about halfway through the evening, when we were feeling loose and the lamps were starting to blur into soft nimbuses of light, Vashti leaned over the table and asked, "Have you heard about these crazy nuns in Madras?"
Omid was the only one of us who looked like he had any idea what she was talking about.
I said, "Crazy nuns?"
"Oh," she said, eyes sparkling. "Wait until you hear this!" We all shifted a little bit closer.
"So Catholic Christians have these sects where women live without any men and dedicate their lives to their God, right? And these nuns, the ones in Madras, are convinced that they will one day find an automaton with a soul. They have a collection of shards, rumored to be the most unique and ornate anywhere, gathered from all over the world."
"They … collect shards?"
"Yes, but not just any shards. Special ones. I wonder what that would look like, the shard of an automaton with a soul?" Vashti looked wistful. "I bet it would be beautiful."
I knew, of course, but I kept my mouth shut.
Damien snorted. "Automata with souls are just tales told to children. There have always been rumors. People like the romance of it. They'd like it less if all their automata suddenly demanded to be treated like people."
"So you don't believe it's possible?" Omid asked mildly.
"I think those nuns are on a fool's errand," Damien said. He knocked back the rest of his drink. "Sure would like to see that collection, though."
"I hear it's amazing," Vashti sighed.
"So what do they do with them?" I asked. "Do they build automata?"
"Nobody knows," Vashti said. "I heard of it from a client who heard of it from an African merchant who heard of it from someone else, you know how it is."
I laughed and toasted her. "To rumors and gossip," I offered.
She clinked her cup with mine. "Vashi!"
I did not tell Bulbul that night, but when I awoke, with a throbbing head and a foul taste in my mouth, I found I'd written a note to myself - "nuns - Madras - shard collection." I remembered well enough from the night before, but was amused that I had apparently taken no chances. Once I had refreshed myself and dressed to face the day, I went directly to the engineering deck.
"I have a lead in Madras," I told Bulbul. She was under a steam pipe, adjusting a gasket, and I found myself talking to the soles of her boots. "I think we might find Mesut's shard there."
She eeled out from under the pipes and sat up. "In Madras? But we have to go to Agra!"
"In two months," I pointed out. "We can go to Madras and check it out and be back in plenty of time to meet Selim in Agra. And what a gift, to finally be able to present him with the shard!"
"Wait, wait, start from the beginning," she said, standing up and walking to our pallet. She patted the space next to her with the spanner she still held in one hand. "Sit down and tell me why you think the shard would be in Madras at all."
Bulbul thought the whole thing sounded improbable, but agreed that it was worth checking out. We had found many pieces of Mesut, the first of Bulbul's peers, and had sent each back to Selim Paşaoğlu. But we had never before heard a whisper of anything that might be his shard. We couldn't ignore even the most unlikely lead.
The Bay of Bengal is a rich hunting ground, in any case; we'd be sure to make the trip worth our while one way or another. And it would give us something to occupy ourselves while we waited to meet Selim in Agra.
I spent the next several days with Emir, working out the provisioning necessary for a trip to Madras, and seeing to maintenance and repairs on the Canavar. He'd made fairly advantageous trades for our cargo, and he worked out the remainder of the shares for each of the crew by lanternlight while I fretted over fuel tables and maps.
Bulbul and I did take one night to go see my sister Aylin and her ever-growing brood. She met us at the door, outlined in the light from her electric lamps, an infant at her hip and a wide-eyed toddler clasping one leg. "Behiye, Bulbul, come in!" She kissed us both on each cheek and welcomed us into her noisy home.
Aylin and I had been close, growing up, but while I apprenticed to the carvers, she had married a railway man, and settled into domesticity. We had grown apart, but I still felt at home in the warmth of her house, eating food that reminded me of our dear mother's cooking and bouncing her latest babe on one knee.
Aylin looked tired, but happy. As we ate, she caught me up on more than six months of family news and goings-on. Once dinner was over, the older nieces and nephews ignored my presence in favor of pestering Bulbul.
"Aunt Bulbul, Aunt Bulbul," they shrieked, "I want to ride on your shoulders."
"No, I do!"
"No, me first!"
She laughed at them indulgently and galloped around the house with one on each shoulder, held secure in her strong hands, and the eldest clinging to her back. I love to see her with children; she is always so gentle and careful with them, even as she gives into the wild physicality of their play.
And they love her. After the roughhousing, she read them stories, and then sang to them and petted their hair until their eyelids began to droop.
Aylin looked at them fondly. "Bulbul is so good with them," she said. "It is really too bad she can't have any of her own."
"Our lifestyle isn't exactly conducive," I pointed out.
"I know," she said. "I'm glad you come home to visit sometimes, though."
I nudged her knee with mine under the table, and the baby made a crabby noise at the interruption. "Me too," I said.
But then there was no more time for visiting, only preparations. Two days later, Marwan and I were fishing the last of the crew out of whatever dens of iniquity they'd fallen into, and then we were aloft again.
By the time we landed in Madras, my arm had been out of the sling for five days, and I felt fully healed. We landed at night, at the airship port by Fort Saint George, and the next morning, set out to find the nuns.
The streets of Madras were crowded and Bulbul, Emir and I pushed through the throngs in the street outside the harbor as best we could. A shop on the corner was selling strong, sweet tea and cut fruit, and I bought a cup for each of us, though I traded my cup for Bulbul's when I had finished. The Artificer's Guild was allied with the British, and those Indians who were not allied with the British had no love for automata. Best be discreet; I would have left Bulbul in the ship if I thought she would be safer there, but the customs guards are corrupt through and through. Besides, I would need her English if we were to get anywhere in this town; mine was pidgin at best. Emir drank his tea silently; he would re-provision the ship while Bulbul and I sought out these shard-collecting nuns.
The first order of business was the marketplace, where we purchased fresh provisions - water, as our stores had grown low, and spiced lentils and rice. I was growing tired of spiced lentils and rice; we would have to engage in some proper piracy soon, as we were down to the last of the hard cheeses, cured lemons, and salt beef and could afford nothing more to augment our stores.
The vendors weighed and wrapped the packages to be delivered to the harbor under Emir's watchful eye, while I pawed through the spare parts at the salvage booths to see if I could find a new hinge for the rudder that was at least somewhat less rusty than our current one. I couldn't, but I bought some oil; a good cleaning and oiling would probably let the rudder hinge we had last another winter, and maybe by then I'd have found - or liberated - a quality replacement.
I slipped the oil into my satchel, ignoring Bulbul's admonitions about spots on the leather, and confirmed with Emir that we would meet him at the harbor shortly.
Not knowing how else to begin, we asked for the nearest Christian church and were directed to a neighborhood west of Fort Saint George. The church stood off a side street, a white cross above the door the only sign that it was, in fact, a church. The Mass and confessional schedule hung in the single window indicated that services had not yet begun for the day, and when we knocked on the door an old priest in a worn black kurta with a white collarband answered the door.
He said something in Tamil, and Bulbul asked him, "Do you speak English?" He had enough to understand our question, though he seemed reluctant to answer. I dug in my purse and left a few coins in the offertory by the door to loosen his tongue. I am fluent in that universal language, at least!
Once that had been done, the priest bowed to me and gave Bulbul what I assumed were directions, though my English was poorer even than the priest's. He began to shut the door almost as soon as she had thanked him, bowing to us with more haste than politeness, and we rather abruptly found ourselves looking at the closed door and the white cross once more.
Bulbul said to me, "He says the order we are looking for are called the Sisters of Didacus, and that he and other true Christians will have nothing to do with them and their blaspheming ways, but that it is on our own souls if we wish to speak with them."
It seemed odd to me that one member of a church would so criticize another, but I am not a religious woman. I am sure even churches are not too holy to have petty disagreements marring their internal workings. They are, after all, made up of people.
The directions he had given us led us away from the market and into busier streets, closer to the center of town. We got many strange looks, as we do everywhere we go - a bare-headed woman wearing a cutlass and a patched leather coat with a shy, pale woman in goggles and overalls are unremarkable in no country I have yet visited - but we made our way through the crowds without trouble, and found the side-street that housed the nunnery.
It looked less like a religious institution and more like a shabby boarding-house in the British style. It had a plain yard and simple muslin curtains in the windows. The door opened when we knocked, and a shy local novice motioned us in, saying something in Tamil. "French?" I asked her in Hindi. "German? Turkish?" She pointed mutely to the stiff-backed chairs against one wall of the receiving room and disappeared through a door to the back, calling out to someone.
Bulbul and I remained standing. The door to the back opened again and an older woman with a prominent nose and deep lines in her face came out. She greeted us in adequate French. "Geetanjali tells me that you wish to see our collection of automata shards," she said, her dark brows drawing down. "What is your interest in this?"
"We are collectors of unusual shards ourselves," I lied, "and we have heard that you have several that are quite unique. We would love to see them, of course, but perhaps also to trade for them, if you are amenable."
"Our collection is not for sale," she said flatly.
"But perhaps you would let us see it? We would be happy to invite you aboard our ship to view our own collection in turn; they were too many to bring with us," I said, and her eyes lit up with a most unholy avarice.
"And would you be open to trade some of your pieces?" she asked.
I smiled - the hook had been set. "Of course, Sister," I said.
"Sister Panimalar," she said, and extended her hand as the British do.
"Captain Kasim, of the Canavar, and my engineer Bulbul," I said, shaking her hand.
"Captain," she said, and peered at Bulbul with those sharp dark eyes. "And Engineer…Bulbul, was it? Come with me, please."
She led us through the door by which she had come in, and back to a crowded, dark, and humid office. A wind-up fan was whirring ineffectively in a corner, ruffling the papers spread over the desk. "Pardon our disarray," Sister Panimalar said, and pulled a key on a long bronze chain from the front of her salwar. She unlocked a high cabinet and reached up to draw out a long, flat box of teakwood with elaborate carvings adorning its top. This, too, she unlocked with a smaller key, and placed on the desk, pushing aside a few books that looked to be in the local language, perhaps copies of the book of Christian scriptures.
She opened the teakwood box and gestured us forward. "It is not a large collection," she said, "but each one is unique. Do not touch them with your hands, but you may look."
As though we would be so unlearned as to touch the shards directly. She must think us fools, but that could ultimately work in our favor. I only nodded politely and stepped to the desk to see the contents of the box. There were only a handful of shards on the dark velvet background, but they were all luminous in their beauty. Bulbul, at my side, caught her breath audibly.
I had recognized my own handiwork as well. Still, I gave no sign, bending to examine each shard carefully. "Truly remarkable," I said.
I heard the door behind me open and turned to look; I believe that was all that prevented the blow to my head from killing me outright. Instead, I felt a heavy, painful blow to my ear and the base of my skull at one side, and staggered back. Sister Panimalar had attacked me with the heavy gilded crucifix she wore; Her teeth were bared and she screeched imprecations as she raised the heavy cross again. I raised an arm to fend off the blow, distracted by the nun who had entered the room.
She was wielding an axe, small but clearly heavy, and had struck one blow already, shattering the lower half of Bulbul's torso and backing her against the desk. Her eyes were mad and she swung with both hands, chopping viciously toward Bulbul's neck.
I drew my sword to help, but my head exploded with pain again and my vision dimmed.
Sister Panimalar had little room to swing her improvised weapon in the cramped room, but she was making up for the lack with enthusiasm.
Piracy, however, prepares one admirably for fighting in close quarters. I blocked the crucifix's descent and spun, whipping my cutlass down, striking so hard at Sister Panimalar's neck that I felt the blade lodge in bone. I twisted it free as she dropped, and turned back to see Bulbul struggling with her attacker.
Bulbul had no weapons, but her metal arms were strong, and she had one clamped around the woman's neck, holding her off. Despite this restraint, the nun was still hacking wildly with the ax at any part of Bulbul she could reach. Even as I slashed at her weapon arm, she sank the axe deeply into Bulbul's hip and Bulbul crumpled to the side.
The nun screamed, a wheeze of anger and pain that used what must have been the last of her breath, and raised her working hand to scrabble at Bulbul's grip on her neck. I didn't wait for her to asphyxiate. I pulled my dagger, reached over Bulbul's hand, and slit the nun's throat.
Bulbul released her and the body sagged to the floor. We stared at one another, my harsh breath the loudest noise in the room. And then the room began to spin and I sat down on the body of the nun I'd just killed with my sword in my lap. Bulbul leaned toward me - why was she not standing? - and said something, but I couldn't focus on her words.
My brain must have been shaken in the fight, I realized dimly, but it felt remote, like something read in a book somewhere. Bulbul was tugging at my arm, and I crawled over to her and grabbed her shoulder, using it to stabilize myself so I could stand. She stayed crouched over, and I reached for her other hand. My palm stung and I snatched it back, staring in incomprehension at the bloody gash that had appeared. "My hand … damaged," I heard her say, and she gripped at the desk and used it to pull herself up from the floor without touching me again.
She was standing oddly, and I saw the axe still stuck in her hip and remembered. I tried to pull it out, but my hands were shaking and she waved me off. "We have to go," she said, and yes, of course we couldn't stay here. I lurched past her, tripping over the body, and slammed the lid on the case of shards. I didn't lock it, just crammed it into the satchel with the oil I'd purchased earlier and the remainder of our coin, and ducked under Bulbul's shoulder.
The vertigo brought on by the ducking motion almost made me vomit, but I choked back the saliva that filled my mouth and took some of Bulbul's weight, the haft of the axe banging awkwardly into my thigh. I am much taller than Bulbul, and she is far heavier than I; our limping progress toward the door was slow and awkward. I had no idea how many of the Didacian Sisters were in the convent, but I sent up a prayer to Allah to help us - I may not be a religious woman, but it surely can't hurt - and put my hand to the handle.
It turned under my hand, and the novice we had seen before almost ran into us. She took one look at our blood-soaked clothes, and then a horrified glance beyond us into the room, and put her hands to her mouth in shock.
And then she raised her hand in the universal gesture for "halt" and put a finger to her lips. "Wait," she said in heavily accented English. "Help." And closed the door in our faces.
That was unexpected. Bulbul said, "Should we go?" and I knew that the novice could be out raising the alarm, I knew people could come at any moment, but I shook my head. Then the room dipped and faded, and I remembered why that was a bad idea. "No," I said. "We wait." I could barely walk, and Bulbul was reduced to awkward hopping; we were both covered in blood. We would hardly have a chance of escaping, given how far we had to go. We could use any help we could get.
Several more excruciating minutes passed, while Bulbul and I tried mainly to stay upright and wipe off as much of the blood from ourselves as we could with Bulbul's already-ruined headscarf. We both jumped when the door opened, and my bloody cutlass was in my hand and in guard position by instinct, but it was the novice again. She carried a large rucksack and a pile of cloth that turned out to be crisply pressed nun's robes and those white and black head scarves they wear.
Getting Bulbul into a nun's costume would have been an occasion for merriment at any other time, given the Christian teachings about automata, but now it was awful. I was terrified that someone would come in at any moment, and Bulbul couldn't stand, and her left hand was out of commission. Her torso was slipping as the cracked porcelain moved inside her engineer's overalls. The novice and I had to work together to prop her against the wall and dress her, and the novice ended up doing the bulk of it. My head began to swim every time I moved, and I was barely keeping myself upright. I managed to get my own robe on, but the strange rigid head scarf was beyond me.
We must have looked a fright as we limped out the front of the convent, robes and scarves askew and leaning on one another. The novice ducked into a side alley and brought back a cart, a sturdy wooden wagon-type thing the nuns must use for market-going. I'm sure we looked even crazier once Bulbul was seated in the cart and we set off toward the harbor, but we were much faster than we had been, and the novice seemed to know which streets would be less crowded.
I expected a hue and cry to rise behind us at any moment, as the bodies were discovered or our odd appearance raised suspicion, but the heat of the day was stifling and the few people we met seemed dulled into incuriosity.
We arrived at the harbor and found Emir waiting with our purchases on a pallet, ready to load. "Captain Kasim? Merciful Allah, what happened to you?" he exclaimed, recognizing us only when we had halted in front of him. "And Bulbul!" He bent to help her out of the cart, but I stopped him.
"She is injured, Emir, and we must leave as soon as possible. Please begin the loading and ask this young lady what we can do to repay her for her help."
He turned to the novice as if seeing her for the first time and asked her something in Tamil. A brief conversation later, he reported to us, "Geetanjali wishes safe passage to Balasore, to the north near Calcutta, Captain."
I had no time to question her motives. If she were a spy for the Sisters, it seemed unlikely that she would have helped us escape, and we needed to leave now. "Done," I said, "Bismillah. Load Bulbul and the cart with the supplies and let us be gone."
Geetanjali climbed the ropes behind me slowly but without complaint, and I had Emir show her to the narrow passenger berth. I took Bulbul down to the engineering deck, still on her cart, and we lifted off with all haste.
My crew knew their work; they stowed the provisions and headed north with only a few words from me. I needed to sleep, but it is unwise to sleep too soon after a brain commotion; many never awake. So once we were airborne, I brewed myself a cup of strong, bitter tea and went - carefully, clinging to the ropes as I have not done since I was a midshipman - back down to the engineering deck. I needed to assess the extent of the damage.
It was bad. Her torso had sheared off across one breast, leaving chips and porcelain dust behind to clog the delicate gears of her breastwork. The edges of the broken china were sharp, and I cut myself more than once trying to clean the debris from her inner workings.
Her left hand was all sharp ridges where the axe had scored the metal, and some of the cables that controlled the movement of her fingers were severed at the wrist and their pulley mechanisms damaged.
Worst of all, the axe in her hip had destroyed the right-hand ball and socket of her pelvic plate. One of her assistants had to help me remove the axe head, as I was still weak from the blows Sister Panimalar had dealt me, but when it came out and I saw the extent of the damage, I felt sick for reasons other than the brain commotion. The socket gaped, and the tip of her thigh rod pushed through it obscenely, canted at an unnatural angle and heavily gouged at the rounded end.
This was no minor injury; I could neither fix it myself, nor afford to hire an Artificer with our current funds. And here we were, ferrying a young Christian novice half across India and expending precious fuel instead of finding a fat merchant ship to better our situation.
I touched the sharp ridge that sheared across her belly, and my hand shook.
"Don't," she said. "You'll only cut yourself."
I busied myself getting her out of her engineer's overalls so that she would not see my face, but a tear escaped me and splashed on the warm metal of her thigh.
"Oh, Behiye," she said, and drew me down with a warm hand to the back of my neck. I snuffled unprettily over her shoulder and wiped my nose on a scrap of the discarded nun's robe.
"I don't feel it, you know," she said.
"I know," I said, "not pain, alhamdulillah, at least not that. But," and my throat was so tight I couldn't force the words; all that came out was a strangled sob. It made my head hurt.
"It is frustrating," she said, "not to be able to move, and to have to be so careful with these damned sharp edges. But it is worse to see you so upset. Don't cry, darling, I can be fixed, it doesn't hurt. Don't cry."
But it hurt me, to see her beautiful smooth workings so disarrayed. I wiped my nose again and tried to smile for her. "I will fix your hand tomorrow. At least you will have your fingers back, love, but," and my voice broke again and I took a shaky breath, "your hip will have to be re-forged, and your chest…"
She petted my hair and smiled up at me. "It will be all right, Behiye. We can grind the sharp edge down so that it is not a danger to you, and it can wait. I am not vain."
So brave, my Bulbul. I kissed her cheek and wrapped her as best I could in a sari one of our crew had offered her.
"Go on," she said. "I know you have not had that head seen to, nor that cut on your hand."
I had forgotten all about it, but it throbbed at the mention. She saw my sheepish look and laughed. "Go on now."
I left. The engineering crew had all politely busied themselves elsewhere on deck, to give us some room to talk, but now they went about their work as usual. They were solicitous of Bulbul but focused on their tasks; the engineering deck ran more efficiently than any other part of the ship. They would take care of her if she needed anything urgently.
I saw the medic, of course. But then instead of resting, as he recommended, I went in search of Geetanjali.
I found her in the passenger quarters, chatting amiably with another crew member, Mahesh. "I did not know you spoke Tamil," I said to Mahesh, and she ducked her head. "We are speaking Bengali, Captain, which is the language of my mother. Geetanjali is from West Bengal, and she is telling me about her family."
A ragtag band of misfit ruffians from all over the East my crew might be, but it regularly came in handy having such a polyglot ship.
With Mahesh translating, I was able to determine that Geetanjali had been sent to the convent to get an education, but that the nuns had cut off all contact with her parents in Balasore, who were of the Hindu faith. She had been kept isolated in the nunnery with only a few Tamil novices for company, and wanted only to go home. The nuns were strange and cruel to their charges, "obsessed with automata and convinced that they would find one with a soul and convert it to the worship of their god."
The words shook me to my core. They had not just attacked us out of madness, then. Had they recognized Bulbul as an automaton? Surely if they had been after our fictional shard collection, they would have waited to be invited to the ship to view it. What had given us away?
I tried to learn more, but Geetanjali was not privy to the secrets of the nuns, as she had not wanted to take orders. She knew only what she had heard whispered around the convent, but that was enough to let me know we were lucky to have escaped as easily as we had.
I asked Mahesh to assure Geetanjali that we would convey her safely home, and to thank her for her assistance, and returned to Bulbul's pallet on the engineering deck.
"I dare not sleep just yet," I said. "Would you keep me company?"
"Always, love," she said.
"A game of cards, then? I may not be able to concentrate well enough."
"Then I might have a chance, for a change." Bulbul is an indifferent card player, and I think she only plays to humor me at the best of times. "But I think I would have trouble holding them. I would rather see the shards again, if you do not mind."
The shards! I had almost forgotten, in my concern over Bulbul's injuries.
I pulled the ornate case from my satchel, where the oil I had bought had indeed spilled, staining the wood. The shards, on their dark velvet, were as beautiful as they had been in the Sisters' office, and the facets and curves of Mesut's shard nestled among them. I wondered if the nuns had known what they had, not that they would have been able to use it.
"It really is his, isn't it?" Bulbul said, wonder in her voice.
"Yes," I said. "I remember."
"How long until we can take it to Selim?" she asked.
"A little more than a month. But Balasore first." I told Bulbul what Geetanjali had said about the nuns, and she shivered.
"I am glad to be gone from there, Behiye," she said in a small voice.
"They were madwomen; that priest was right. But hush, let us not dwell on it. Tell me instead about that modification to the engines that you made on the journey south; I notice that they are quieter now."
Her eyes lit up. I do so love to see her joy in what she does; she is a natural engineer and takes great pride in her work. "Oh, Behiye, it is quite interesting! The fuel mix was causing some small fluctuations…"
I had heard her talk about it before, but it is always good for a Captain to understand what is going on with her ship. And it was good for my heart to see her so animated; I sat and listened and tried not to move my aching head.
We reached Balasore in a few days, but it had little to recommend it; the harbor was small and shallow, and the Dutch, having recently abandoned the place to the British, had left behind little in the way of infrastructure.
We handed off Geetanjali to her shocked and grateful family. She hugged Mahesh — they had become fast friends, it seemed — and I handed her a small purse of coins from my own account with an expression of our deepest gratitude. And we were grateful, but we had business to attend to. We left as soon as we politely could, our debt discharged.
Then the hunt for a prize began.
With the Calcutta boycott of British goods still in effect, few ships were in the area; the unrest in the capital had made it a less popular trade site, and more cautious merchants were taking goods in through Mumbai and moving them westward overland.
China, however, was still trading freely with the eastern coastal towns, and we were able to snatch up a modest cargo of silks and jades from a junk that proved too slow for the Canavar. I led the attack myself, glorying in the swift drop from the deck, the pitched battle with the crew, the smell of musket fire and blood. There is nothing like a good fight to clear the head of anxieties, I find.
We left the boat intact and most of her crew alive. I know there are all sorts of terrible stories out there about pirates who leave no survivors, but I've always thought it's a waste of energy to kill them all. Trade would wither if we sank or ruined every vessel we captured, after all; best to keep some margin in the business.
The captain seemed to share my thinking, and was remarkably polite and gracious about the whole transaction, once it became clear that her crew would not prevail against us. We dined together and, with the help of Min Wang from my boiler room, she told me that they had meant to go to Calcutta but had turned back after finding the city in the throes of revolution.
"She says there was cannon fire from Fort Mitchell, smoke over White Town, and rafts of refugees fleeing the harbor," Wang said, his mouth full of rice. I winced. His table manners were appalling, but he was the only Chinese speaker among all my crew, or I should never have brought him to dinner. "A damn mess, begging your pardon."
I sighed. There'd be no chance of selling the goods in Calcutta, then. Silks were less valuable in Chittagong, but it was the closest other major port, and Bulbul's repairs couldn't wait for us to search out better terms or richer prizes.
We set out for Chittagong after dinner, leaving the stripped junk to her crew.
The Canavar drifted north and east, our flight navigator observing the stars from the main deck while I continued work on Bulbul's wrist, below. I had replaced all the cables but that which ran to her thumb; the eyes it ran through had been damaged when the axe scarred her hand, and I needed to have the eyes and several of the joints re-forged before I could do anything more. But I splinted the thumb, so that it would not just dangle limp from her hand, and removed the cable up to the shoulder, so that it would not tangle with the other workings.
The metal of her arm was smooth and shone in the lantern light. I ran my hand along the smooth copper plate of her forearm, and tried not to look at where it parted in an ugly furrow just below the wrist joint.
"I'm all right, you know," she said to me.
"I know," I said, and let go her arm, but she caught my hand again in her undamaged one and laced her fingers with mine.
"Behiye," she said, and I rested my forehead against her headscarf and snorted softly.
"I can never fool you, can I," I said, and she raised her damaged and splinted hand and stroked my hair. We sat like that, propped up on one another by the controls of the engineering deck, late into the night.
Marwan and I were going over maps the next afternoon, plotting our course after Chittagong and discussing whether the unrest would extend to Agra, when a cry went up from the lower deck.
Though Bulbul could not move her lower body much, she had been maintaining our course and keeping a lookout through the lower spyglass while I met with Marwan, and she had spotted something.
"A hydrofoil," she was saying through the speaker, when I swung down to the lower deck and unclipped myself. "Not a prize, but people fleeing the fighting, perhaps. They are taking on water."
Bulbul has a soft heart, for all it's made of glass, and it was clear that she wanted to rescue the passengers. And I, practical though I may be, have a soft heart in turn when it comes to Bulbul, so the conclusion was almost foregone. We would try to help.
The Canavar banked and then glided perfectly downward, mechanical claws extended toward the boat. She was so beautiful, a queen of the air, and I felt fiercely proud of her. An Artificer I may once have been, but I often feel now that I must have been born to be a pirate, and Captain of this ship. The Canavar seized on to the vessel so smoothly it seemed as though we hovered in mid-air, stabilizing it, and I readied my harness to belay down to the wallowing hydrofoil.
I hung in midair above them - there was no room to stand on the crowded deck - and shouted down in my terrible pidgin Hindi, "You speak French? German? Turkish?" There was a murmuring and one of the crowd shouted back, "English?"
My English was better than my Hindi, anyway. Between us we managed to establish that yes, the hydrofoil was sinking, and if I could convey them to Rangoon, there would be money. I would likely have done it anyway, but money always helps, and Rangoon was out of our way. Airship fuel isn't free, after all.
The crew handled the onboarding, letting down the nets with Bulbul speaking through the horn up from the engineering room to give instructions and assurances. Her Hindi was far better than mine, and it was a shame that she could not have taken care of the negotiations herself, but she could not defend herself until we can afford her repairs, and I was not about to risk her safety with a cargo hold full of Indian Nationalists.
So I loaded them into the nets and the crew pulled them up into our cargo area. It was still a bit crowded, but as it was not taking on water, they seemed to think it an improvement. Mahesh brought out our stores of water, rice, and the last of the spiced lentils, as they could not eat our salt beef and we had no salt pork aboard, being largely a Muslim ship. I was just as glad, as beef is dear and the money they were offering was, it transpired, that of a Burmese ally rather than any sure thing.
It was less than two day's travel to the mouth of the Rangoon river, and only a few hours more to the city itself, but my band of rescued revolutionaries would never have made it in that poor excuse of a boat. The must have been desperate to attempt it. I landed on one of the airship plinths ringing the port, a white flag fluttering from the Canavar's mast, and went to declare my unusual cargo to the harbormaster.
The young woman who seemed to be the leader of my refugees accompanied me; her command of the Burmese language proved necessary, as the harbormaster spoke not a word of any language I knew. Burma has been rumored to be unfriendly to outsiders, but my passenger spoke at great length to the official at the dock, and when she had finished he bowed deeply and hurried away.
She was not my English speaker, but she was very patient with my efforts at Hindi and spoke to me simply and slowly, as with a child. "You go ship. Someone come." I asked who would come, but could not understand her response. She saw my incomprehension and waved me off. "Is good. Friend. You go."
I returned to the ship, and to Bulbul, and did my best to disguise her. The blankets over her lap, her headscarf, and the concealing salwar ensured that her true nature was masked to any inspectors; it was the best we could do, as she could not leave the ship.
Marwan was left with strict instructions to let no customs agents or other officials onboard until my return, and I knew he would protect her almost as I might have myself. Still, my heart, already heavy with her injury, twisted at the thought of leaving her onboard.
But there was nothing to be done for it. Within the hour, several carriages had been sent, drawn by the leogryph automata that seemed to be everywhere in the town, and my passengers and I were spirited off to meet their mysterious ally.
We were taken through streets of progressively richer and more ornate houses and temples. Finally, the carriages stopped outside an edifice so grand it could only be the palace.
The palace! I never would have thought that our rag-tag band of refugees had friends in such high places. The guards required that I give up my cutlass at the door, and I couldn't help but feel some unease, unarmed and so far from Bulbul and my ship. But our treatment thus far had been fair, so when the throne hall doors were opened by guardsmen, I strode as confidently as I could down the path of rich carpets toward the Lion Throne, trailed by the anxious Master of Ceremonies and my Indian refugees.
I bowed low to the man on the throne. King Pagan was not what one might have expected, based on the tales of bloodthirsty rebellion that circulated about him, but the tales were largely told by the French and British, and their perspective on the matter was necessarily suspect.
He had a calm face, with smooth dark hair pulled into a large knot atop his head. His person was largely free of the ornamentation that I had seen in ceremonial pictures of kings, and he wore only a plain shirt, a simple sash (though I could see the hilt of a dagger tucked into it near his waist), and a beautifully woven sarong of some sort. He nodded his head to me, and greeted me in perfect Parisian French.
"Captain Kasim, we are grateful to you for the rescue of our allies. Name your reward, and it shall be yours."
That was … unexpected. I did not know whether to ask for wildly improbable amounts of gold or to temper my request with realism. I decided to temporize. "One might ask for a great deal, given such opportunity. I do not know what to say in the face of such generosity."
The King's mouth twisted in a wry smile. "Riches are usually a popular request," he suggested.
There had to be a catch somewhere. Much as the idea of riches appealed, I needed safe harbor and help for Bulbul more; could I ask for that? Was Burma friendly to human-simulacra automata? There was too much I didn't know about the situation.
"Your gratitude is overwhelming," I said, stalling again.
He leaned back on the throne. "And why should we not extend our gratitude to the one who has aided our most valiant ally, Jhansi ki Rani Lakshmibai, and her loyal attendants?"
I whirled around and the young woman who had accompanied me to the harbormaster's office winked at me. My mouth dropped open, and I am afraid I completely lost all semblance of self-possession and positively gaped at her.
The king said something sharply to her in Hindi, and she answered in that same language.
A low growling chuckle came from the left-hand side of the throne and what I had previously taken to be an ornamental extension of the throne itself raised a giant porcelain visage and looked at me with glowing eyes. Ah, well. There was at least one somewhat human-seeming automaton in Burma, then.
"You did not know, Captain Kasim? How delightful. And yet you helped." It uncoiled - and uncoiled, and uncoiled, until it filled the back of the throne hall - and stretched, its leonine tail lashing. "Worthy of reward indeed. And what shall you ask for, now that you know?"
My back stiffened. I am a pirate, yes, but not without honor. "Only that which I would have requested before! My companion remains on the ship. She is…gravely wounded, and requires care. I would ask for your shelter and assistance."
I could feel the eyes of the Jhansi and her fellow passengers on my back. They had, of course, seen no injured crew while aboard, and only heard Bulbul's voice through the loudspeaker. I steeled myself, and bowed low to the king. "Please, your Majesty. It is all I ask."
He smiled, and it was not the benevolent and distant smile of royalty, but a true smile that touched his eyes and made him look, for a moment, like any other young man. I could not help but return it.
"Manussiha will go with you to retrieve your friend, then. And any assistance I can render you will be yours."
The giant automaton nodded its head to me in a regal bow and rumbled, "I will await you in the courtyard, Captain Kasim."
The king inclined his head slightly to me, and I bowed as deeply as I knew how.
"Go with Manussiha now, and my thanks to you."
As I turned to go, the Jhansi and her companions also bowed to me, and I returned it, almost tripping over my own feet. So much bowing! I am not accustomed to formalities, and I was beginning to feel a bit like a rough country bumpkin, despite my years in the Guild.
The palace staff met me outside the throne hall and directed me to a courtyard east of the palace. The large paved area was surrounded with beautifully carved and decorated doors leading off in all directions, but they paled in comparison to the gleaming giant that occupied the space in the center.
The automaton's body was that of an enormous gilded-iron lion, with a curling mane of ruby-studded metal and claws large enough to lift a man in their grip. But unlike the eagle-lion leogryphs of King Pagan's army, its torso and face were that of a man, painted dark ceramic coarser than the pale porcelain used by the Artificer's guild. It had dark faceted eyes of amber and a strong jaw, and its hair blended into the enormous ruby-studded mane that shrouded the lower part of its human torso.
"You are the Manussiha, then?" I enquired, as politely as I could. It always pays to be polite to creatures who could crush you without a second's thought.
"Not the Manussiha," it corrected. "It is my name, not a title or descriptor. Although I am certainly unique, so I suppose it might be either."
"I confess myself unfamiliar with Burmese automata," I said. "I certainly have not seen any others like you here, or anywhere else. Who is your maker?"
It grinned, baring curved teeth in a way that I found quite unsettling. "I am my own maker, lady."
"I was once a children's toy, but I have" and here it paused, as though searching for the correct word, though its French was flawless, "…made more of myself. As you see."
"But your shard…"
"You are more than your own components, surely?"
I stared up at it in shock. Could it be? I had thought Bulbul and the others unique to Selim's work, but here was an automaton, claiming to be self-made and self-aware.
"And you are safe, here?" I asked, though it seemed silly to ask any creature as fierce as Manussiha about safety. Surely it could take on armies on its own. "The king knows you are …self-made?"
Manussiha laughed, a strange sound indeed, but not unpleasant. "I serve as the king's advisor, and he listens to me as he would any other. Or perhaps more closely, for the others often give poor advice."
Well, that would certainly make it easier to get Bulbul the help she needed.
"My friend," I said quietly. "She is…like you. We were attacked in Madras and she requires repairs."
Manussiha's eyes widened. "She is … like me?"
I looked around. Regardless of the King's disposition toward automata, I did not feel comfortable discussing this in the open. The Artificer's Guild has spies everywhere.
"She is injured," I said instead, "and requires help. Will you help me bring her here from my ship?"
Manussiha shook itself and its mane of rubies and copper seemed to ripple in the sun. "Of course, Captain Kasim. I have been remiss." It extended a claw and I could see that a teak chair with a sturdy-looking harness had been strapped to its back. "Please, accompany me to the harbor."
I put my foot to the mounting straps and climbed into my seat. No sooner had I buckled the leather harness and confirmed that I was ready than Manussiha began to run.
Its run was more of a great leaping bound, and it rattled my teeth with the sheer force of its leaps, but it was glorious. If I had never known what it is to fly, I might have thought that this was what it felt like.
We reached the harbor in half the time it had taken us to get to the palace by carriage. Manussiha craned its head into the harbormaster's window and soon there were cranes and pulleys and Marwan and I were loading Bulbul into a chair to be lowered down to Manussiha.
Once the men had left, it examined her closely. It was strange, to see a man's face on that great lion's body; I almost expected it to sniff her out of curiosity. But it only said, "Lady Bulbul, I am Manussiha, and I am pleased to make your acquaintance," and bowed deeply on its front legs.
I swear if she could have blushed, she would have. She adjusted her headscarf and smoothed the fabric of her salwar with a nervous hand. "Engineer Bulbul, please," she said. "And it is a pleasure to meet you as well."
I gripped her shoulder firmly from where I stood behind her chair. "Manussiha is here to help us, Bulbul. It will take you to the palace for repairs."
She looked at me, startled, and I nodded.
"Do not be concerned, Engineer," Manussiha rumbled. "We wish only to help. I myself will assist in your recuperation."
I looked at it sharply.
"Oh, did I forget to mention?" it asked, with a grin that was more teeth than smile. "I am also the king's Head Artificer. The Artificer's Guild is not active in Burma; I have a forge and shop in the palace and do much of the work on the king's army myself."
I started to laugh, though it wasn't really funny, and stepped out from behind Bubul's chair to give it a deep bow. "Well, then, King's Advisor and Head Artificer Manussiha," I said, "we shall be delighted to have your help."
Manussiha transported us both back to the palace as easily as it had taken me alone, despite Bulbul's added weight. I was given a comfortable room in the palace while Bulbul had to stay in Manussiha's shop, but I was exhausted and knew I needed to rest. I left the two of them talking quietly in the evening air; when I arrived after breaking my fast the next morning, they were still in conversation, and laughing like old friends.
"Ah, Behiye," said Manussiha, catching sight of me. "You are here. Shall we begin?"
Watching it work was a revelation. I would never have thought that a creature with paws that size could be so deft and delicate, but it did not need them, really. I began to understand how it was that it might truly be self-made as I saw it sheathe and unsheathe claws tipped with fine metalworking tools, or grip iron bars with its supple tail for heating in the forge.
All Iranian shard carvers are artists of one sort or another - dancers, poets, and the like. I myself had studied the sword and the fine art of calligraphy in addition to my focus on carving. But within artifice, we do specialize somewhat; while I could make basic repairs to automata such as replacing Bulbul's severed wrist cables, I could not yet do her mechanical maintenance, and I had never even attempted the heavier arts of the forge.
Manussiha had no such limitations. That first day, it forged a new pelvic plate, from raw iron to smooth metal. By the time we left the forge, I had blisters on my hands from working the bellows and a raw red spot on one arm from a flying spark. I was damp with sweat and my ears rang with the echo of ceaseless measured hammer blows. Manussiha, who had stopped only to fill its own boiler in the afternoon, looked immaculate.
"You are amazing," I said to it, exhausted and in awe. "How on earth did you learn to do all of this?"
"I was once a child's toy," it said, sitting on its haunches as I drank deeply of the fresh, cool water the king's courtiers had left for me. "A clockwork leogryph like any other in the Royal nursery. But there was some spark in me that drove me to … become more."
We were in the little courtyard outside the forge, where the water and some rice and vegetable stew had been left on a small platter for me. Fresh vegetables are always a luxury to those of us who spend a great deal of our lives aloft, and I was so hungry after our day of work that my stomach growled loudly.
Manussiha laughed. "Go ahead and eat, Captain. My tale can wait."
"I can listen and eat at the same time," I pointed out, "if you do not mind."
"Indeed," it agreed, settling into a comfortable curl on the tile mosaic.
"Wait," I said, "may Bulbul join us? I know she would like to hear your story as well."
"We touched on it last night, certainly, but she is welcome to hear the full tale if she likes."
I ran back to the shop, my every muscle protesting, and brought Bulbul out in her chair, which had an ingenious little wheeled frame on the legs that allowed it to be moved smoothly from place to place.
"Manussiha," she greeted it, and I could hear by the warmth in her voice that she genuinely liked the other automaton. She does not trust easily, nor do I, but Manussiha had won us over almost instantly. It would make a wonderful pirate, I thought to myself, imagining its leaps and fiery breath in action against a foe.
"Do you not miss your wings?" I blurted.
It looked at me, startled.
"You said you were a toy leogryph, once. But you are no longer winged. Don't you miss flight?"
It looked upward, at the evening's bats wheeling and circling against the dusk. "Nobody has ever asked me that before, Captain Kasim."
"Behiye, then. And yes, I miss my wings. But they were one of the first sacrifices I made, as I grew. I barely remember how it felt, now, to fly."
Bulbul laid her good hand on its shoulder. "I am so sorry," she said.
It nodded gravely. "Thank you, Engineer Bulbul. But I shed my wings in order to gain size and power; the young prince rode on my back wherever he went, out into the halls and gardens of the palace, and thus was our friendship forged. I would not have it otherwise."
Bulbul glanced at me. "I understand," she said. "You would give up much for your King."
"And he for me," Manussiha said. "We have shaped each other. Not in the way that I have shaped myself, with claws and teeth and forged metal. But I can say, because I have heard him say it as well, that Burma would not have its current peace and independence without our friendship."
"And how did that come about?" Bulbul asked.
"Ah," said Manussiha. "Well. What do you know of the history of British trade and involvement in Burma?"
"Only that much of the rice, oil, and timber they ship through the Suez Canal originates in Burma."
"Indeed. And when Prince Pagan was young, British influence was primarily confined to trade," Manussiha said. "But they grew greedy. His half-brother Mindon was first in the line of succession, and much under their influence. My prince and I headed the army, and as unrest grew in the countryside, we were increasingly called on to protect British trade interests against our own people."
"Against your people? But why?"
"The old king was not well, and Prince Mindon had made too many concessions to the British — and to the Guild. British companies and moneylenders wielded so much power that farmers were starving because they could not afford their own rice, and automata replaced the honest labor many citizens, depriving them of their daily bread. When the British began to annex our territories and Prince Mindon did nothing, Prince Pagan and I felt we had to act. "
I listened, captivated, as I ate. The meal was rich and savory, but I felt as though I barely tasted it, so caught up was I in Manussiha's story.
"And together you have changed Burma to a place of peace and prosperity. An amazing tale indeed!" Bulbul said, when it became clear that it felt its story at an end. "Had you not been the king's plaything, what would have become of you?"
"I do not know," it said. "I feel that my King and I have grown together. And together, now, we have abandoned our impure ways to pursue the virtues of the Buddha's teaching. No longer do I take what is not mine to make myself greater, as I did in the nursery. No longer does he take life, rather dwelling in the gift that is compassion to all beings. I cannot say what might have been, had we chosen otherwise."
Copper lids drooped over the great amber eyes and there was a moment of silence as it seemed to contemplate the possibility. Then it shook its great ruby mane, and said, "I am pleased to meet you, Bulbul. I have worked for many years since my own taking of the precepts, to give to my automata brethren as I once took from them, and to lift them up though this daana as best I might. But whatever I have done, I have met or made no creature with the same atman that drove me to become what I am, nor any that is more than its metal."
"Until now," I said, understanding. Manussiha inclined its head.
"It is a strange relief to know that I am not entirely unique in this," it said.
"Not unique, no, but rare. And in great danger," I said.
Manussiha raised its painted eyebrows.
"The Artificers have declared Bulbul's kind to be abominations," I said. "One of the others was destroyed by the Guild Council when it was discovered that he had free will; his shard was stolen and his body broken into a thousand separate parts. I left the Guild to protect Bulbul, then."
"There are others like you?" Manussiha said to her.
"There are two," she said. "Both in hiding."
"Those are the only ones of whom I am aware," I added. "And I had thought that the Guild did not know of them, or of Bulbul. But someone has been spreading rumors."
"Of an automaton with a soul." I told Manussiha briefly of our encounter in Madras with the Didacian Sisters, and of what the novice had said of their beliefs. "They seek the shard of an automaton with a soul, to convert it to the ceaseless worship of their God."
Manussiha hissed, the steam from its boiler exiting its mouth and making it look, for a moment, demonic in the fading light. "To force worship on any being is distasteful," it said. "These Sisters must be a most unwholesome sect to seek such a conversion."
"We are not such enlightened beings as you," I told it, rather cheerfully. "So the two we met, at least, are quite dead. They will convert no-one now."
"I cannot find it in myself to be too troubled by that," Manussiha admitted. "But I am sure that such an encounter will not diminish the fervor of the rest. They sound quite mad."
"Behiye," Bulbul said. "If you will take me back to the shop, I must pray." I could tell she did not want to hear further talk of the Sisters. Though she had not killed her attacker — my knife had done that — the nun's death had troubled her. Bulbul was not a fighter. She preferred to work with machines, not weapons, and the violence in Madras had been profoundly disturbing to her.
"Of course, Bulbulcuğum." I kissed her head and wheeled her back, pointing her chair west toward Mecca. Then I returned to the courtyard.
The cicadas pulsed in the trees, and the last orange of the setting sun was fading in the darkening sky. Manussiha's presence was comfortable, and the silence between us was not expectant, so I surprised myself when I spoke again.
"They recognized us, somehow. They attacked us when they had nothing to gain from doing so, and they used a weapon that was designed to cut through metal." It was what I had been thinking this whole time, the worry that I had held back from sharing with Bulbul. It tumbled out of my mouth and I had not realized how heavily it weighed on me until I felt the relief of a burden shared.
Manussiha looked grave. "Who else knows of Bulbul's atman?" it asked.
I sighed. "I do not believe that the Artificer who made her and the others would speak of it, but piracy is not a job that attracts the trustworthy, for the most part. We have a good crew, many of whom have been with us for years, but certainly others have come and gone that might bear tales. My sister and her children know, but they love Bulbul and would never betray her. She is - was - quite human-seeming, and often passed in public for human. Either the Sisters are more keenly observant than most and recognized her to be an automaton, or they had heard of her specifically."
"Either way," Manussiha rumbled, "this is disturbing news. I will warn King Pagan of this sect and he shall ensure that none of the Sisters of Didacus enter his lands. You will be safe here."
"And you," I pointed out.
It smiled, amused. "And I."
"And you say the Artificer's Guild is not active here?"
"They left with the British," Manussiha said. "King Pagan had me, and our Burmese Artificers share aesthetic and personal differences of opinion with the Guild. So it was agreed that they would leave."
"The Guild knows about you?"
"Oh, no. They think I am an automaton steed that King Pagan rides into battle! They might not have left so willingly - nor so peacefully - if they had guessed that I am more."
"Likely not," I agreed. "When they came for Mesut, they were not peaceful."
"We do not need them, in any case. The Guild's Artificers do not know how to measure the worth of our non-human automata."
I smiled. "The British seem to have learned."
"Well," Manussiha laughed, "we did our best to teach them."
Bulbul's repairs did not all go as quickly as that first day, of course. Manussiha had other duties than helping wayward pirates, however favored we might be by the king. And after all the pieces were forged and polished, there was the delicate and painstaking work of dismantling Bulbul's existing workings to replace the damaged part before rebuilding and recalibrating.
I helped with that, as well. My small hands could do things that Manussiha's great paws could not, and I and another Artificer, who spoke only Burmese but had sure, swift hands, did most of the disassembly and assembly of Bulbul's hand and wrist. Manussiha was a patient tutor, and I learned from it and from the other Artificer's example.
The hand was now complete, and the hip pieces forged, but we were delayed once more, this time for several days, by urgent negotiations in the palace that required Manussiha's presence. I took the time to visit the Canavar, and Marwan and Emir met me onboard.
"It has been more than a week," Marwan said. "The crew have gone through their land leave advances and are asking when we will leave again."
Emir said, "The silks from our last capture traded adequately, but I will need to know your plans in order to provision us, Captain."
I had been thinking about this as well. We would need at least a week to reach Agra, maybe more. Travelling during monsoon season was always uncertain. And time was growing short.
"Tell the crew we will leave in four days," I said, and returned to the palace to request another audience with the King.
The negotiations ended two days later, and I was able to make my proposal to King Pagan. Afterwards, Manussiha walked with me back toward the workshop to see Bulbul.
"We can finish the hip before you leave," it said, "but the torso will take more time. Can you not stay longer?"
"Alas," I said. "My dear friend and mentor, the Artificer of Süleymaniye, is expecting us in Agra soon. We dare not disappoint him; I think he may be leaving the Guild at last and need our support."
"And why would the Artificer of Süleymaniye leave the Artificer's Guild?" Manussiha asked.
"I couldn't say why he's leaving it now. I thought he should have left it long ago, when they came for the first of Bulbul's kind, but he was afraid, and he felt he could best protect us all by staying."
"Then he is Bulbul's maker?"
"I carved her shard; he fashioned the rest of her. That is how they all came about, all four of our automata with souls; no other shard of mine has ever seemed to create that spark, nor creation of Selim's.
"After they came for Mesut, our first, I took Bulbul and left; Selim helped finance the purchase of my ship. We found employment for the other two in out-of-the-way places, where they have thus far been safe. One drives a steam-carriage route out of Antalya, the other is a cook in Vienna."
Manussiha cocked its head, interested. "And they have not been discovered?"
"Not last I heard," I said, "but something has changed his mind, to make him leave. I hope it may not be that. Though in any case, I have found something he will want to see, and I must go to Agra to deliver it."
"What have you found?"
It was a testament to the trust that Manussiha and I had built over our time working together that I did not hesitate to tell it. "Mesut's shard," I said. "It was among those I stole from the Sisters of Didacus in Madras. They could have done nothing with it, as they lacked the strange alchemy Selim's work has with mine, but I recognized it at once."
Manussiha's eyes went wide. "You have this shard? May I see it?"
The case was with Bulbul; she was looking after it, as I dared not leave it unattended on the ship. When she opened it, I felt the breath seize in my chest once more at the glittering array. Manussiha, beside me, let out a low growl of wonder.
"These are some of the most beautiful work I have ever seen!" it exclaimed. "Viennese, Russian, Turkish - tell me, Captain Kasim, which of these is your work?" I indicated Mesut's shard, with my own unique spiral carvings etched over and among its facets.
"Stunning," Manussiha breathed. "I had no idea you were such an artist. It must have cost you a great deal to leave carving behind."
Bulbul looked distressed — this was a point of contention between us — and I put my hand on her shoulder reassuringly. "In Tehran, all artificers engage in several crafts," I told Manussiha. "We believe that all knowledge and art are inter-related, and while I was there, I studied the sword as well as the art of calligraphy. There are many paths to beauty, Manussiha. I would say that I did not give up the art of carving so much as gain the art of piracy."
Manussiha laughed, its teeth showing sharp and white in its brown face. "The art of piracy indeed! Behiye bint Kasim, you are a strange one."
"And I have Bulbul with me," I said, and she lifted her newly-repaired hand and placed it atop mine on her shoulder, looking up at me. "So I am content."
Manussiha closed the case with a delicate push of one claw. "Perhaps, when you return," it said, "The Artificer of Süleymaniye will come with you?"
I shrugged. "I cannot say, Manussiha. I have not seen Selim Paşaoğlu in many years, and I do not know what is in his thoughts or what he plans."
"Tell him he is welcome," Manussiha said, nodding to itself. "As are you, Captain Behiye bint Kasim and Engineer Bulbul. You will always be welcome in Burma."
Bulbul was able to assist with her own repairs now that she had full use of both hands, but I stayed to help as well, and to comfort her. Bulbul is very strong, but she hates even to have her maintenance done by strangers, and this was much more invasive. The night before we were to leave, I did the last of her calibrations and tuning myself, under Manussiha's tutelage.
And then the day of our departure dawned. We rode to the harbor on Manussiha's great back once more, and as sorry as I was to leave, it was a great balm to my heart to see Bulbul swarm up the rope ladder to the ship as she always had before.
I kissed Manussiha's cheek and followed her up.
The crew were as surly as they always are, after a land leave, and doubtless half of them had the pox, but they went about their jobs with a will as we rose slowly and set our course northwest.
Bulbul did not go immediately to the engine room, but rather stayed at the rail, and I joined her, putting my arms about her from behind. I could feel the strange raised scar beneath her overalls where Manussiha and I had installed a bronze torso patch to replace the missing porcelain.
We stood there, looking over the Canavar's railing until even Manussiha was a speck in the courtyard of the palace.
"Will we really come back?" Bulbul asked.
"After we take the shard to Selim, love. I have promised you I will learn mechanical artificing, and Manussiha has offered to tutor me."
She smiled, wide and surprised. "Behiye, you never said!"
"And King Pagan has offered the crew a privateering commission, which I think would suit us well, don't you?"
Bulbul laughed and threw her arms around me, and her joy was as bright as the sun. "Perfectly well indeed!"
Around us, the Canavar moved upward and onward, into the clear blue sky.