Twelve Seasons in the Engine
...is the season of beginnings, but for the girl, it is an ending - golden
motes of dust shining in the attic as Maman prepares, painstakingly, bathing in
oils, having her skin rubbed down by mugwumpi servants below, being dressed in
her finest silks. It is Death Day.
"Now darling, go play with your dolls, dear, Maman must prepare for her
ceremony. Your father is quite proud, dear, we're finally of the noble ranks,
and suitable to take the lichseed - we shall live forever. Now go, don't bother
me - your whining is displeasing to the ear."
Maman is already dead. She lets the doll fall in the light, and the motes
rising in the golden light look like smoke rising from the porcelain skin.
...is the season of ceremonies, and she is slightly taller this year, and
brought out of the crowds and up to the wall with the noble families of the
Engine, looking out over a vast, smoggy city. From here, the banners are dimmed
through the miasma, and the crowds are toys.
Father is fine, she thinks, in his shining armor, with spikes upon the
shoulders - how fine, she thinks, leaning over the parapet to see him beside the
A nursemaid yanks her back then, sets her proper in silk and velvet, scolds her
with a shrill voice, her wings fanning the choking air on the wall. Maman,
remote in blue silk and a half-moon mask, gazes down with distant, disapproving
eyes, her thin lips (stitched together primly with black thread) compressed into
a straight line.
...is the season of battle. Father isn't here any more. The girl remembers the
smell of the oil when she was smaller, and they were warm and smiling in the
cozy hallways of the manse upon Corona Lane. Her father would show her each
fastening of his old armor, and teach her the proper care of it - each plate on
the battered piece had born the story of five generations of the family going
forth into battle.
Now, Father has fine new armor, all black and red, and the trill maid won't
allow her to polish the armor in her new dresses. When he left, Father gazed
down at her, remote and cold-eyed, with a funny haze over his eyes (not tears,
she thought), and told her to be good and mind Maman.
Which was funny, anyhow, because Maman had been chained up in the basement for
...is the season of funerals, and she is straight-backed and proud herself, so
much like Maman it hurts in her steel-boned corset and proper black gown, hands
clasped demurely around blood-red orchids (bought specially by the maid for the
He died, they say, a hero's death, drowned while standing over a cherub. The
girl has seen drawings of cherubs in her school texts - dreadfully obese little
babies with stubby wings and idiotic expressions, drooling out of a beaming
mouth. She remembers the golden feather on the maid's head that didn't match the
white pinions already there, and the bruises on the trill's fair skin.
When they slide the remains of her father into place beneath the Cathedral, she
kneels and offers the orchids properly, then stands and walks away with the
rest. The girl does not look back.
...is the season of school, and her relatives are polite, but distant, even
living and breathing as they are. So the girl is sent away from the house to
live in a drafty dormitory with other noble girls, who say fine, silver-tongued
things about mercury poisoning, and commoners being unsuited for the lich seed.
The girl is civil and calm, and perhaps a bit slow to answer. In time, they
mark her as stupid, and move on to easier targets - the fat halfblood mugwump
whose grandfather is rumored to be a merian.
She, the girl, practices applying makeup in the darker corners of the school,
with a mirror and makeup stolen from her mother, who manages to scream, even
after her tongue was cut out.
...comes in with knives. Her cousin, to be precise, who was a tad too forward
in his advances to a twelve-year-old. The girl has been practicing embroidery
this year, however, a proper lady-like pursuit that pleases her maid. The weak
point in the wrist, however, that allows for a smooth pivot of the sword hand,
belongs to certain anatomy texts which are not approved of for ladies.
Nor is the poison she has been coating certain of her longer needles with, and
quite certainly, the strength in the hand that drove one into the wood through
flesh and bone and wood.
Flesh, she remarks rather mildly to her appalled aunt, is much easier to move
than heavier leathers. Her cousin will not be swordfighting - or touching her -
...is when the wedding flowers are picked, and traditional young men pay court.
She is serious and straight-backed in widow's weeds, her mother's garments,
stolen from a trunk, but still fresh of limb and face - and so, when the
Seditionist pays suit, all rotten breath and wilting flowers, she is
appropriately flattered. A Viscount already, he has risen high on account of his
back - but, she judges critically by a sore at his mouth, he will not be rising
She turns her face demurely away when he slobbers towards her mouth, and washes
her face with strong spirits each night. He likes, she discovers, strong tea
with liquor. The taste hides a multitude of sins.
The girl needs only the one. Syphilis will help her. Quicksilver will cement
...is studying. They are beginning to whisper - not entirely loudly, mind you -
about the madness that runs in the women of House y'Bolgari, and moves from
mother to daughter to husband. The girl, now a young woman and dressed in the
black of an Urth, is a devoted wife, and sees no need to correct them. The
Seditionist, quite rightly, will not be coming to her bed.
He has, she has learned, a particular preference for fresh-faced young lads,
and none at all for women who have sudden spasming fits - nor an urge to share
even a bedroom with her.
This suits her quite well, as she steals his books at night and draws
conclusions regarding the Portal.
...is the coming chill. The old fool, a year on, has taken to his cups and the
horrid itch. Quicksilver seems to slow the sores, she notes - and has stopped
serving him tea. The madness is less, but creeping sickness takes him even more
now. So too have certain Penitents shown sores about their person.
Talk of a plague whispers about the Tower of the Dark Fates like ghosts to
Baalphegar's web. She, left to her own devices, begins to lay in supplies and
detailed letters to herself. Her soul will not be unwoven so easily, she vows.
At night, she spikes her own tea with foul herbs, and the smell keeps away any
who might be suspicious of her astoundingly good health.
She had, she discovers, astoundingly good handwriting, which has not endured
through the shining Portal, but has faded away into an elegant cursive, which
suits her long-boned hand and the crimson of her skin. None are sure of quite
who she was, and that suits well - her husband is in the ground, the gold
dispersed to quiet funds and lawyers who shall see her interests preserved.
The cousin y'Bolgari, she discovers, has not half the ledgers nor the capacity
for scrupulous note that her former self once did. Lines of numbers down crisp
pages speak more than the best accountants inherited money can buy.
They have not, she notes, in sharp black calligraphy, found her Maman's will,
carefully set inside of her jewelry box with the vial of quicksilver.
Quicksilver preserves her, speeds her through the night, properly processed,
and it becomes both baleful, shining poison and a miracle through her lips,
slipping like a serpent into her stomach. It writhes beneath her skin, both
destroyer and preservation.
The last of the unprocessed vial goes into the stew, and in the coming days,
the madness of the y'Bolgari becomes legendary. A certain crippled son, much
given to brooding and abusing the whores of the Undercity, is found to have
perpetrated bloody murder upon his parents.
The Penitent attends the funerals in black, and takes the house.
It is black and white in the dead of winter. When the Mystagogue has her kneel
to receive the sacrament, she takes the lichseed with both eyes open, gazing
into the face of those assembled to receive the blessing of the Lords.
The motes through the tower window are golden. As she watches them drift, past
the robes of the Mystagogue, and as the cold slips through her porcelain veins,
she fancies her skin is smoking.