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Anamnesis

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Odyssey on odyssey and land over land
Creeping and crawling like the sea over sand
Still I follow the heartlines on your hand
This fantasy, this fallacy, this tumbling stone
Echoes of a city that's long overgrown
Your heart is the only place that I call home.

 

Florence + the Machine – Heartlines



He had worn boots all his life, but he had never paid much attention to them before: their weight, their suppleness, the bite of their soles into the earth. But he was aware of them now. He could hear the rhythmic creak of leather as he placed one foot in front of the other. He could feel the pull of the laces against his calf as his weight momentarily shifted and resettled, and he could hear the metal teeth of the buckles chiming quietly against their frames.

It all made him intensely, uncomfortably aware of the deafening silence around them, and how his companion's footsteps made absolutely no sound at all.

It was the sort of observation which normally warranted an irritable comment from him, but to speak then would be an unforgivable breach of sacred tradition. No one spoke at all – that was the point. Silence was never darker or more profound than when it was attended by thousands of terse, expectant faces, and in the pre-dawn gloaming it was strong enough to cast shadows of its own.

Not even the babies cried. They were there, of course, along with every other citizen of the City, whey-faced and clinging to their mothers. But their eyes were like the rest: dry and watching. In all the years that he had done this, that had always struck him as the strangest part.

Not that the rest of it wasn’t surreal.

He could smell the dust of the parched earth as they continued, side-by-side, along the crowded, silent street, the acrid scent mingling with the aroma of rusting metal and crushed flowers as men and women tossed bouquets of autumn-withered blooms at their feet. “Like a funeral procession,” the knight had commented grimly after his first Journey. But the king doubted it phased him much now. He had never managed to get used to it all himself, though. The scent of decay gave him vertigo, and behind his scarlet and gold mask his eyes were too focused and apprehensive.

The knight's solid shoulder occasionally pressed into his while they walked. The crowd had pressed them close enough together that it could have been accidental, but the king suspected that it was not, and he was grateful for that, too. The warmth he could feel between the twin layers of their uniform jackets grounded him in the frigid dark.

When at last they reached the end of the street, the two men paused at the City gates and turned to look back over the watching crowd. These gates, as heavily ornamented as the king's mask, were meant to keep the darkness at bay and were only opened one time a year. There was no fence: only the massive, rusting portal. The trees planted to either side of the structure, grown into powerful oaks over the course of the years, licked the copper and iron with the tips of their blood-red leaves. Their branches were woven in and out of the intricately wrought iron, old but strong, as though the gate had grown up between their limbs instead of the other way around – the never-ending battle between nature and machine that marked his reign. In the quiet and the stillness he could hear the whisper generated by their tortured caresses, soft and hollow as a prayer at the end of the world.

The king glanced briefly at the knight at his side, wondering if he heard it as well, but as always the other man's copper-green eyes were unfathomable and calm and focused straight ahead. I am the spectacle, the king thought as he looked out over the people one final time. They have come out to see me pass from hope into the dark. But they draw their courage from him.

Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, the king raised a gloved hand in silent salute as the knight rested his own leather-clad fingers over the hilt of his sword. The king could see the shuttered face of his brother-in-law at the top of the armory stairs, standing silently beside the pale waif of his sister. For once, the older man's face was devoid of all hostility. He had made this Journey, too, a different knight alongside a different king, a lifetime ago. Careful not to meet the monarch's eyes, the two joined the rest of the assembled throng in raising their hands – Go now in peace – as was customary at the sending off of an already departed soul. The two travelers turned towards the gate once more.

There was no lock, and there was no key. Neither of them made any move to touch the weathered iron, but it swung open anyway. It belonged to the City, not to them, and the City was beckoning them forward. The shriek of its rusted hinges, older than they were and full of mourning, made even the knight shudder.

They did not look at one another, and the reassuring press of the knight's shoulder was gone as he fell back the traditional step behind his lord and master. Together they were alone as they ducked through the twisted archway.

Silent this time, the gate swung closed behind them as the crowd turned its back on the pair and, just as silently, began to walk away without looking back. There were special Darkling cakes waiting for them at home, cakes and warm, spiced cider to accompany their speculations and nervous laughter, but not for the departed.

For the travelers, there was nothing but the end of the road, and the Journey which lay beyond it.

 

When he was a boy, the promise of an oncoming storm was a little like a holiday. He would loosen the knots and buckles and fastenings of his dusty, hand-me-down clothes to let the cooling air in, and then he would stretch his lean, tan body out on the little cot in the bedroom they all shared with his eyes closed – listening with every single atom of his being, and waiting.

The sound of the first, soft patterings was like a cool, sweet kiss against his dry skin. His entire body broke out into gooseflesh at the music of it, and he’d open his eyes wide to watch the shadows from the small window begin to drip down his arms.

(The first time they were together, it was like that; and when he licked the sliding rainshadows clean of his lover’s collarbone, salt-sweet as the sea, it felt exactly the same as when he’d watched the dusky fingerprints of forgotten storms caress his sun-scorched skin. The thunder was in his blood and in his bones as surely as it was in the sky, and it was the closest to worship he’d ever come.)

Light, spring rains left tattoos; the vicious summer storms, scars. The shadows impressed their shapes deep inside the secret, silent memories of his muscles, where they continued to exist long after the night had blurred away the rune-like markings on his skin.

He thinks they might be visible now.

There isn’t much that he can feel, and even less that he can place. But each time the distant agony forces him back into consciousness, he is aware of the moisture dripping down onto his face from above – not sweet at all, but thick and viscous, and hot as fire, and tasting like copper and blood and failure. This storm will not mark him, he thinks absently; it will strip him to the core.

And it’s the closest to hell he’ll ever be.

 

There are certain things he remembers about the moment, and certain things he does not – the same way that true stories, repeated often enough, become fiction. He knows that it was sunset, because the colors have stuck with him over the years: the reds and golds and the russets which hovered somewhere in between, dripping down the walls like fresh blood, painting the metallic gears and chains in the tower with new coats of time-refined rust. Foreshadowing, he thinks now, not without a certain stab of disdainful irony; but he did not think it then. No, then he was only nine years old and awed by the colors, astonished at how they managed to breathe life into the inanimate objects around them and into his father's cold, stern features.

“Put your hand here,” his father commanded him, taking a bruising hold of his thin child's wrist and guiding his spindly fingers to where the uncoiling mainspring thrummed and shivered. (This is one of the parts that he is less certain about, though it feels right – nothing gentle, and everything sluggish with significance.) He does not recall whether he noticed that the massive clock was ticking exactly in time with his own heartbeat, or whether his father had to point it out to him. Either way, it was true then and it is still true now. The heartbeat of the City is and always was his own heartbeat, as it always would be.

“You will guard this City with your life, because it is your life; and you will guard this clock with your life because it is the City's heart, which is your heart. It cannot survive without you. You cannot survive without it. Do you understand?”

The boy did not, of course; he was only nine years old, still awed by the colors and the uncharacteristic light of fervor burning between the spinning gears in his father's cold irises. The man who had always been entirely bereft of emotion was still holding tight to his son's wrist as though it was a lifeline, and somewhere between the press of his father's war-calloused fingers and the hollow of his wrist bone he could feel the man's hammer-steady pulse, too, ticking away in time with his son's and with the clock and with the sum of all things that breathed and shuddered beneath that gold, bloody sky.

There was strength in that harmony, strength and a sort of aching fear which cut deep into him on the back swing of every tick, even then. He remembers that much, at least. It was an all-too vivid recollection as he turned from the scarlet-hued walls and looked down into the wide eyes of his nine year old son, the child's face pale with expectation.

“Put your hand here,” he commanded the boy, taking a bruising hold of his child's thin wrist and guiding his spindly fingers to where the uncoiling mainspring thrummed and shivered. The massive clock was ticking exactly in time with his own heartbeat, as true then as it had been before.

“You will guard this City with your life, because it is your life; and you will guard this clock with your life because it is the City's heart, which is your heart. It cannot survive without you. You cannot survive without it. Do you understand?”

He did not, of course; he was only nine years old, still awed by the colors and the uncharacteristic light of fervor burning between the spinning gears in his father's cold irises. The man who had too often behaved as though he was entirely bereft of emotion was still holding tight to his son's wrist as though it was a lifeline, and somewhere between the press of his war-calloused fingers and the hollow of the boy's wrist bone he knew the child could feel his hammer-steady pulse, ticking away in time with his and with the clock and with the sum of all things that breathed and shuddered between that gold, bloody sky.

There was a strength in that harmony still, strength and a sort of aching fear which cut deep into him on the forward swing of every tock – even then. That pain has only intensified with time, though it is a special agony reserved for certain occasions: on his coronation day, when he surrendered himself to a fate he did not want; on the day he pressed his shaking hand above the irregular, defiant heart he loved and told its owner that the City demanded its sacrifice; in the moment he first held his newborn son in his arms and realized that they were standing in the shadow of the clock tower already, always; on the day of the boy's ninth birthday, when he brought him to meet the agent of his success and the harbinger of his doom.

On the day he turned from the scarlet-hued walls, the light dripping down the stones along with the fresh blood, and looked down into the empty eyes of his son, the child's face pale with unrealized expectations.

It is hard to differentiate between all the memories now. The mind is elusive that way. All the happiness and dread and fear and exhilaration in his life have begun to bleed together and overlap, setting all the circular moments of his preordained existence spinning painfully in his tired head. All his emotions have been inherited, the crown jewels passed down between generations: his joys were his grandfather's, his fears simply echoes of his sire's.

And as he stands here now, the setting sun tipping the ends of his gold hair the color of fresh blood, he thinks wearily that only one fear belongs to him alone, and it is crashing around his aching chest like a tidal wave: the one moment no one predicted, or experienced, or expected. The one moment that was not supposed to happen.

 

Standing just beyond the shadow of the tower, feeling each labored second in his breaking heart, he knows that he is about to watch the clock stop ticking.

For all time.

In the stories associated with his youth, ghost were tangible things. They occupied space, usually space they were not meant to occupy, and became visible to torment the wrong-doers in the world: the murderers and the grave robbers and, in his case, the children who refused to go to bed when they were told and went climbing out on the roof instead. These specters usually wore white and carried chains, and – assuming they spoke at all – they delivered their fearful condemnations in low, wavering tones.

Children were still told stories like that during the Darkling Days. He had overheard his son discussing one just days before. But those old tales confused him now, because ghosts were not anything like that at all. This one in particular had been following him since he'd emerged from the Main Street station over an hour ago.

It was not unusual to see ghosts during the Darkling Days. They may not have carried chains the way the ghosts in the stories did, but they often rode in on one – denizens of the Dead City caught like leaves in the main spring as the great clock began to wind down. It dragged them past borders they would not normally have dared to cross, and tangled them up in the gears and cogs of everyday life again. It was a fleeting, if unsettling, phenomenon; the specters would linger in the City a fortnight or so until the Rending, when the clock would be rewound and the dragging chain would pull them home again.

But this was different. The Rending had come and gone, but this year the ghosts still lingered. And this one had gone from being a disconcerting blur in the corner of his eye to an almost fully-formed image, real enough now to follow him silently through the crowded streets. The people around him could see it, too, though they gave it a wide berth. That was what you were supposed to do with the Darklings. Everyone knew that acknowledging a thing made it real.

Besides, the citizens of Clarior were already shell-shocked enough as it was. They had absorbed it as best they could: the bakery was open, the newspapers had gone to print, women were still hanging out their laundry and gossiping on the street corners. But the entire City was dressed in the black clothes of mourning, and the rotting pumpkins and tattered crepe ribbons were still on display. No one seemed entirely sure what to do with them now that their protective charms had proven futile.

And, of course, there were the ghosts.

He saw one lingering by a news stand, head tilted to the side as it frowned at the late edition of a local paper. He saw one on the outdoor terrace of a cafe, poking its translucent finger into the tea cup of a patron who was heroically pretending not to notice.

He did his best to ignore them, too, and turned up the collar of his old army coat against the autumn chill. A bit of a defiant fashion choice, that; it alternatively earned him nods of respect and sharp glares of disapproval. Had he had the option, he would have chosen something else to wear – but he was a beggar now, and beggars could not be choosers.

The scent threaded permanently through the worn-soft fibers, a mixture of coffee grounds and woodsmoke and skin, was both a comfort and a torment. In all the days since, he had not been able to bring himself to put his hands in any of the many assorted pockets, terrified that what he'd find there might shatter his already wavering resolve.

But the ghost had no similar reservations.

As he stopped on the street corner to wait for a rattling tramcar to pass, the ghost stopped beside him. It was impossible not to notice it then. It smelled of wet, dark earth and wore a uniform that he did not recognize, moth-eaten and dry rotted and a particular color that could only be called 'decay.' When the creature turned its head towards him, the lit street lamps, mere fireflies now this early in the dusk, were still powerful enough to reflect on the brass half-mask welded directly into its exposed skull. The phantom had no eyes, but he could sense that it was watching him.

The closer the calendar crept towards the Rending, the stronger the ghosts became. They could move things, sometimes, though nothing heavy or for very far. But he had never known one substantial enough to grab his wrist and force something into his hand the way this one did now.

It was a gear about half the size of his palm and coated in flaking bits of rust. (No, he would realize later, not rust; blood.) “What -?” he began, forgetting himself in his confusion and looking directly into the leering skull's empty eye sockets. The chill that flooded him then was cold enough to hurt, but he did not look away.

The ghost was unperturbed, reaching past his arm to dip its rotting fingers into the right-side pocket of his coat. It withdrew a piece of folded paper, worn soft with age and repeated creasing, and pressed that into his hand, too.

The missive bore his own handwriting in faded ink, the letters overlapped by a steady if hesitant hand in graphite. Time had smeared most of the words into incomprehension, but three remained visible still, the two handwritings tangled together around the letters: come find me.

He looked up with a startled inhalation, but the ghost had abruptly vanished.

All that remained was the silver tendrils of his startled breath in the gathering dark, just as frail and just as quickly gone in the glow of the gaslights overhead.

 

Finding the back-alley shop proved more difficult than he had been anticipating. Navigating the City could be a challenge even during the best of times, and these were hardly that. But his uncanny sense of direction appeared to be failing him. The City wore a new face now, and it wasn’t one he recognized.

Ansia's city, he thought darkly, giving the cuffs of his jacket sleeves a self-conscious tug over his cold, scarred hands. They were healing, now just one more injury to ache during troubled weather. But they were the very least of what he had to forgive.

There was a small brass bell which chimed, cheery and sparrow-like, above the door when he finally located it. It was rather at odds with the man seated at the front desk, though, somber and cradling a wicked-looking rifle across his lap. He had his booted feet up on the desk and his covered head bowed in an attitude of sleep, the brim of his hat concealing most of his face. He looked up when he heard the bell ring, focusing both eyes – one normal, one mechanical – on the newcomer. The sight of the old army jacket elicited a scowl from the man's weather-hammered features, so the newcomer held up his hands in a universal gesture of peace and supplication. “I am looking for Mr. Hivern,” he explained quietly. “I have a job that needs doing, and I understand that he's the man for it.”

“He ain't here.” The gunman spat a cheekful of tobacco juice into the corner of the room and readjusted his hold on his rifle. “Been outa town awhile. No idea when he's comin' back.” There was a touch of annoyed bitterness in his tone.

“Perhaps you can help me, then,” the visitor countered smoothly. False; he needed Hivern's particular skills. But maybe if he could make a proposal interesting enough to -

His train of thought was abruptly derailed by the shifting of the gears inside his head; an unusual sensation just shy of pain as the mechanism reversed direction. The gunmen winced and rubbed at his mechanical eye. Clearly he felt it, too. It was known colloquially as ‘the Switch’, and it happened whenever the City changed something.

A door banged open overhead, followed abruptly by the clatter of annoyed footsteps on the wooden stairs. “That's it! I can't stand it anymore, Tercer!” A second door, this time along the back wall behind the gunmen’s desk, was suddenly wrenched wide and a flustered young woman emerged. She was darker than either man, with sooth brown skin and curly black hair and almond-colored eyes, dressed rather thoughtlessly and scandalously in brown trousers and a shirt at least two sizes too large for her, the long sleeves rolled up to reveal her well-toned forearms. She was also quite pretty, though those observations would occur to the visitor later; for the moment, he was mostly distracted by the colorful riot of feathers stuck haphazardly through her hair.

The girl’s livid, flashing eyes passed over him briefly and without interest, unconcerned with his identity or his business in the wake of her own problems. “An aviary, Tercer!” she spat angrily to the gunmen, plucking a molted yellow feather out of the nest of her dark ringlets. “Why does an attic workshop keep insisting that it is an aviary?! This is the third time in as many days!”

Tercer gave her a meaningful look with his stoic grey eye, indicating the visitor where he still stood by the door, but she would not be dismissed so easily. “Five hours!” she cried insistently, gesturing towards the stairs with an arm which was entirely mechanical. “That is how long I spent getting sand out of the damned carburetor to his damned horse. Would you like to guess what that carburetor has just turned into?” The look Tercer shot her now was a touch helpless. He had risen in response to the commotion upstairs, and now towered over the girl by a good foot and a half, broad-shouldered and scarred, and yet it was obvious that he had absolutely no idea how to handle her rage.

“It is now a birdcage,” she continued without waiting for a response, throwing her small hands into the air. “A birdcage! Complete with a little yellow bird that has the gall to hop around and whistle at me! Of course, the cursed sand is still there, though – it fell through the bars of the cage during the transformation and is currently spilled all over my workshop floor!”

“Ocell, we'll discuss this later, alright? I'm kinda busy right now with a customer -”

Ocell waved her mechanical arm again to cut him off. “What about my customers, then? I have got a broken train mechanism up there that needs fixed, and two jammed handguns, and guess what? All three are now operating – or not operating, actually – under the delusion that they are birdcages! What am I supposed to tell their owners when they come to retrieve them? Seeing as how I'm the only one actually making rent at the moment -”

“We'll come up with the rent money,” Tercer interjected quickly.

“Forget the rent money, I want to move!”

“How are we supposed to do that when we're broke?”

“I thought you just said -”

“People, please,” the visitor cut in smoothly, in the sort of quiet voice which carried great weight across great distances. They were both looking at him now – the woman with defiant expectation, the man with annoyed confusion – and so he very deliberately reached into one of the inner pockets of his coat and removed the object he had hidden there. The metal was warm with his body heat and, as always, felt far too heavy for its size. That was what he noticed as he set it carefully on the cluttered, battered desk. What they noticed was the robin's egg-sized ruby glinting at the center of the solid gold broach, a bright crimson circle in the middle of an intricately wrought sun.

“I believe that I might be able to assist you with your financial concerns,” he finished in the same quiet, commanding tone. “Should you be willing to listen to my proposal, of course.”

Not surprisingly, they were.

. . . . . . . .

The City's streets were quiet now, in part due to the deepening hours but mostly because of the storm. The umber edges of the sun-seared desert, brittle like leaves and starved for rain, lay not ten miles south of where the snow now gathered, but no one thought that strange. The great Northern Express had thundered into the port station that afternoon, refugees packed shoulder-to-shoulder in every cargo car. The streets practically hummed with the bittersweet memories of the homes they had left behind. The storm belonged to them, and now it cluttered the streets like baggage they no longer had the strength to carry.

The white powder had begun to drift along the sidewalks, deadening the footfalls of the brave few still willing to risk the hauntings and the hostile weather. The ghosts themselves didn’t seem to know what to do with it all; weightless and boneless, they drifted with the swirling wind, occasionally fetching up against windows and lamp posts and the rusting grates which lead down to the sewers. He ignored them as he had before, walking steadily down the center of the gear-cobbled street. The steam of the departed trollies lingered in the sizzle of every frost-tipped kiss of moisture, keeping the stones mostly clear of the storm’s smudged footprints, and he went on unchallenged until he reached the little café.

The man shoved his numb hands deeper into the pockets of the worn army coat, grimly braving their detritus now as fraying cuffs caught on keys and loose change. Then his eyes, such a sharp, cutting blue in the grey twilight, lifted to gaze into the shadowed depths of the building’s third story windows.

And the building met him stare for stare. Its glassy gaze took the measure of him, white-rimmed and peeling (the windows, too) with the gas lamp glimmer it mirrored back and through him. After a pause, it moaned softly in acquiescence (or was that only the wind?) and then its old gears began to turn.

The teeth-and-groove seam splitting the plaster down its center became suddenly visible as the old building shook off the dust of its current identity. The cogs turned and clicked and the bricks twisted like the rotating squares of a puzzle-box, slowly at first until they worked up some speed. The men and women sipping tea and hot chocolate in the cafe suddenly found themselves sipping beer in a tavern – watching a show in a dance hall – reading books in a library – as the building's clockwork parts circled through all the memories of what it had once been.

No one commented or complained. They all knew about the refugees. New faces in the neighborhood meant that things were bound to change.

Finally, the shifting components settled on the inn they had comprised during his youth, right down to the stone facade and the window planters with their riot of colorful flowers, now pale and shivering in the driving snow. The windows themselves, however, remained as they had always been: shadowed and depthless and watching.

But he no longer had any use for them. He moved forward into the alley sheltered against the inn's hulking side, a narrow space which first the tavern and then the cafe had encroached upon, but which was there now. He slipped through its dark recesses without hesitation, knowing it would not be there again after he had gone.

It was the shortcut he was after. Eventually, the mouth of the side street deposited him out of the labyrinthine back alley passages, a tangled web of soot-smeared brick and rusting fire escapes and fluttering wash freezing in the unexpected storm, and into the courtyard at the heart of the City.

The massive clock tower looming at its epicenter advised him that he was right on time, but he could hardly have been anything else.

Still, he had been racing against the dying twilight. The storm had greyed it, true, but it was still light enough to fade, and in its absence even his eyes would not be good enough to see what he had come to find. His visit to the shop had been a necessary detour, but he could not risk any further delays.

Head bowed, his heavy, salt-licked boots began to carry him the width of the courtyard. The iron lion at the base of the tower was watching him, but he avoided its accusing glare. It must have been here – but no. Perhaps, then, over here - ? But nothing. In desperation, his gaze finally lifted to the massive clock face, squinting against the snow rapidly dissolving into a cold, bitter rain. “Where?” he growled softly, voice hoarse from grief and exhaustion or maybe just from the cold. “Then where?”

The sky replied with a sudden, wildcat snarl of thunder that curled around each iron tooth in the lion's open jaws, the sound both judgmental and warning. He dropped his eyes to the cobbled gears again and trudged forward in the freezing rain, breath smoking silver in the gathering dark. The lank strands of his golden hair fell in frozen ropes around his unshaven face; he could no longer feel the toes which stubbed against the steel tips of his boots. Hunger gnawed at his insides like a wild, savage thing, and every ticked-off second echoing above him felt like a hammer blow against his tired, brittle bones. He had to hurry. He was running out of time.

Had it not been for the sudden flash of lightening, he would not have seen it, and had he missed it in this first pass, the driving rain would have stolen it from him altogether. Diluted in the deluge, the halo of blood had become pink in hue. The shape was already blurred, tendrils leaking into the cracks between the pavement and trickling towards the gutters, but his eyes knew it for what it was.

Twelve. The stranger had said twelve.

He hit his knees without hesitation, ignoring the shock of cold water as it bled upward into the fabric of his trousers. Pale fingers left the relative safety of his pockets and crammed themselves into the cracks instead, blindly groping for the promised pieces of metal. What if the storm had already swept them away? What if someone else had already found them? What if he had guessed wrong? What if –

No. No, they were here. He almost sobbed in relief when the teeth of the first bit into the chapped pad of his index finger. The second was glossed with mud, but still unmistakable; the third was rusted with blood, like the one the ghost had pressed into his hands mere hours ago. One by one, they emerged from the safe, secret places between the stones, scattered wide around the vanishing crimson circle. He cradled them in his hand like precious gems, letting them cut into the raw skin of his scraped palm to reassure himself that they were really there.

When he pried the twelfth gear free, he did cry, hot tears mixing with cold rain beneath the lion's passive stare.

“Can you hear me?” he whispered raggedly, raising the fistful of metal to his cut, swollen lips.

“I am coming for you. I am coming.”

 

The knight slowly lifted his head.

He could feel her fingers inside his heart, the heat of her wrist where it brushed against the bone of his third rib with every turn: one, two, three. The winding gears tightened something inside his chest, opening his lungs and opening his eyes. It was the same room as always. Same shadows, same Spartan furniture, same cobwebs lingering in the high corners of the ceiling. He alone was different.

Ansia stepped back, the key dangling now from the slender gold chain threaded between her fingers. The hatch between his shoulder blades was still open, the rust-colored exterior of his softly whirring heart visible between the white curves of his ribs. She stared at it a moment in rapt, horrified fascination, watching the little pistons pumping blood and oil into his corded veins. “Can you hear me, Tren?” she asked softly.

“I was dreaming,” he answered after a long, pregnant pause, in a voice which had been systematically stripped of all emotion and inflection until it wasn't really a voice at all.

“About what?” The hatch closed with a reassuring click, hiding gears and bones behind a small, rectangular square of metal set into his skin. The skin itself was purple yet, bruised and swollen, but its many hurts were mending. He was resilient. Far more resilient than she had ever given him credit for.

“There was an army in a field – a desert,” he murmured in the same listless monotone. His green eyes lifted from the floorboards as she came around to face him. “And there was a man – a man -”

“Only a dream.”

He said nothing in response, though his scarred lips worked soundlessly behind the leather mask encasing his head: a precaution to hold his shattered skull in place.

“You must dress.” Ansia pointed to where his shirt and jacket lay draped over the back of the room's single chair. “There is much pertaining to the castle which requires your attention.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“I will send in a servant to assist you.”

“That will not be necessary, my lady.”

She studied him a moment longer, noting the jagged scars stripping his bare chest, the bars of shadow and the shadows of raindrops scrawled like tribal tattoos across his masticated flesh – thrown through the window and into him by the gas lamps outside. 'My lady,' he called her now. Not 'domina'; not like before. “You do not recall what happened, then?”

The fingers resting on his black-clad knees rippled, metallic joints clicking through the leather of his gloves: the soundtrack of his scattered thoughts as he struggled to marshal them into order again. She waited until he raised his masked face once more and sought hers out within the poorly-lit darkness. Though his battered body was some cobbled-together monstrosity of corpse and machine, those eyes were exactly the same as they had always been: still impossibly human, still painfully piercing. His scarred lips worked again, still learning, remembering, how to form words around a tongue and a set of teeth which were no longer entirely his. “Oh, yes,” he managed finally – flatly:

“I fell.”