Iron Heart – Nina Varela

It was barely midmorning and Ayla had already cheated death twice. Maybe that was dramatic. More accurately, she’d already been this close to getting caught by two different members of the royal guard—but then again, it was the same result in the end, wasn’t it? Ayla was a stowaway and a human. Either crime was often punishable by death. Thalen, the capital of Varn, was a glittering white city surrounded by high white walls. Like Sovereign Hesod’s palace in Rabu, Ayla’s home country, it was seated on the coast, on the shores of the Steorran Sea. But Thalen was a good hundred leagues south of the palace, and here the sea wasn’t an icy black expanse; there were no cliffs of sharp black rock, slick with ice, just waiting for someone to take a wrong step, slip off the edge, and be swallowed by the freezing water below. Here, the sea was jewel green and almost warm. Instead of cliffs, there was a beach of coarse yellow sand heaped with piles of washed-up seaweed, and farther up, short sloping bluffs of gray rock spotted with green moss and beach grass. The bluffs formed a crescent-moon curve around the port that Ayla and her best friend, Benjy, had managed to smuggle themselves into. After they’d fled the sovereign’s palace. Fled Rabu, the only home they had ever known, in the hold of a cargo ship, hidden among casks of grain. The journey had been brutal: Benjy seasick the whole time, Ayla fine at first and then, after the grain was switched out for barrels of rotting sardines, violently ill. She remembered that week and a half at sea in sweaty, nauseous flashes, head spinning, stomach lurching. But they’d made it.

This port was the largest on Varn’s coastline. Massive docks jutted out into the sea, bustling with sailors and fishermen and traders and seamen of all kinds. All human, as this was dirty work, hard labor, and therefore beneath Automakind. Hundreds of ships docked here, some of them floating inns and taverns, many of them flying the royal colors, green and white. Queen Junn’s emblem was everywhere: a brilliant green phoenix clutching a sword in one clawed foot and a pickax in the other. Varn was a mining country. A nation of rolling hills and deep quarries, of iron, coal, precious metals, and gemstones buried deep beneath the earth. The air smelled like salt and fish and human sweat. The sun shone brighter than it ever did in the frozen north. Ayla hadn’t been this warm in a long time.

She hadn’t been this warm since— Since— Midnight. Moonlight. Soft bed, softer blankets. Dark hair spilled across the pillow. A body beside her own, breathing too slow to be human. But Ayla wasn’t thinking about that, or her, now. She ducked out of the narrow alleyway she’d been hiding in and headed back toward the center of the port town, satisfied she’d thrown the second guard off her track. She’d given them no reason to chase her—the meat pies in her knapsack were paid for, thank you very much. But in a town of burly dockworkers, a small shifty-eyed girl stood out, drawing suspicion from humans and Automae alike. The port town was little more than a collection of inns and pubs clinging like barnacles to the shore, every third building marked with the crest of a shipping company or major merchant.

Bobbing just offshore was a cluster of houseboats—and houses on stilts, floating like long-legged insects on the surface of the water—where the stevedores lived. That was it. All the important business happened in the capital. Wherever you stood in the town, or in the port beyond, you could see the monolith of the white walls of Thalen, rising up from the shore like strange, too-perfect cliffs. Ayla didn’t like looking at them for too long. It made her nervous, a capital city so deliberately hidden away. Walls that high, you had to wonder: Were they keeping something out, or in? Benjy was waiting for her outside the Black Gull, a tavern that seemed busy at all hours of the day. It was a good place to meet if you didn’t want to be noticed. Ayla sidled up next to him, sticking to the shadows below the sloping roof. They kept a careful distance between them, looking ahead, speaking only in whispers.

Benjy was smoking a pipe, presumably to look like he had a good reason for hanging outside the tavern instead of going in, which Ayla found hilarious: he grimaced with every inhale, clearly hating the entire experience. “You’re late,” he murmured, exhaling blue smoke. “Got tailed twice,” she said, frowning. “Had to lead the leech guards on a merry chase for a while. I felt like a damn fox. The sooner we get into the city, the better—it’ll be so much easier to blend in.” “You’re sure you lost them?” “Positive. Anyway. Got a couple meat pies, if you’re hungry.” He glanced over at her, and she couldn’t help but glance back.

Just for a split second, just long enough to catch a glimpse of his face, tawny skin and big doe eyes, the freckles on his nose visible even in the shadows. “You know full well I’m always hungry.” “How could I forget the bottomless pit,” she said dryly. “Well, come on, then. We can eat on the way into Thalen.” The plan was to find Ayla’s brother, Storme. It was a horrible plan, as it involved sneaking into the single most dangerous and heavily guarded place in all of Varn: the Mad Queen’s palace. Bestcase scenario, Ayla and Benjy would somehow, by some miracle, get to Storme and tell him everything they knew about Scyre Kinok. About why they’d risked everything to sneak into Sovereign Hesod’s palace that night. The night Ayla had stood above Lady Crier’s bed, knife in hand, failed to do the one thing she’d been fantasizing about for years, and fled with Benjy, surviving the night only because they knew the treacherous sea cliffs better than the sovereign’s guard.

Kinok had been a Watcher of the Heart, a member of the elite guild of Automae who dedicated their lives to protecting the Iron Heart. Automae didn’t need to eat like humans did—their bodies depended on heartstone, a red gemstone imbued with alchemical power. The Iron Heart was the mine that produced heartstone. As it was the sole source of the Automae’s power, and therefore their greatest weakness, its exact location—somewhere in the vast, thousand-league spine of the Aderos Mountains—was known only to Watchers. Only one Watcher had ever left their post. Kinok. For those last weeks at the palace Ayla’s goal had been to steal a special compass Kinok had in his possession. She was positive its arrow pointed to the Iron Heart itself. That was the main reason she and Benjy and the others had staged the attack on the sovereign’s palace: to break into Kinok’s study and steal the safe containing his valuables. But the only thing in the safe had been a piece of paper with three words: Leo.

Siena. Tourmaline. She needed to tell Storme about all this and more. About Kinok’s desperate search for Tourmaline, a potential new life source for Automae. About Nightshade, the mysterious black dust he’d given to his followers to consume instead of heartstone, even though it seemed only to ruin their bodies, to drive them half mad. Best-case scenario, Storme would relay the information to Queen Junn and—Ayla didn’t know. The queen would arrange for Kinok’s death? And Storme would finally give Ayla the answer she was looking for, the answer to a question that had been reaffirming itself with every beat of her heart since they’d first been reunited for those few precious days: Why did you leave me after the raid on our village? Why did you let me think you died along with our parents? I thought you were dead, I mourned you, I never stopped mourning you, how could you leave me? And Storme would give her a completely reasonable answer, and everything would make perfect sense, and she would forgive him, and they would embrace as brother and sister, and then Ayla and Benjy would live out the rest of their lives in the luxury of the queen’s court. Best-case scenario. Worst-case scenario, they died a bloody death before they even made it inside the city walls, taking Kinok’s secrets with them. Worst-case scenario, Ayla would never see Storme again, and he would never know she’d died so close to him, so close, her body at the bottom of a harbor just outside his door.

He would board ships above her, sail across her grave, and he would never know. Worst-case scenario, the queen wouldn’t find out about Nightshade until it was too late. Of course, there was one other person who could tell the queen, tell anyone, about Kinok’s plans. One other person, and Ayla’s mind wouldn’t let her forget it. A thought kept repeating itself, demanding acknowledgment: She knows. She could still do something. Crier knows. And then it hit Ayla—as it had been hitting her over and over again since yesterday morning, when she’d first heard the whispers circulating on the docks, in the small marketplace, outside the Black Gull, everywhere she went—as it had been hitting her over and over again, a series of gut punches, each one a sick terrible swoop, leaving her breathless— The date of the wedding between Scyre Kinok and the daughter of the sovereign of Rabu had been pushed up. Unknown reasons, people whispered to each other. I heard something about an attempted coup, someone would whisper, and then someone else would reply, No, no, I heard that wasn’t true.

I heard a servant went mad and tried to burn down the palace. No, no, that’s not true either, do you just believe everything you hear? Crier was getting married today. Today. The ceremony had probably already begun. Not that Ayla was thinking about it; not that she cared. Not that she was thinking about the way Crier used to look at Kinok, wary at best and fearful at worst. Or about the way Crier edged closer to her, Ayla, whenever Kinok entered a room. Ayla kept her head low, trailing a good ten paces behind Benjy as they followed one of the narrow, veinlike roads that fed into the wider road connecting the port town to the city gates. She was thinking about Storme and the Queen and nothing else. She’d traded one goal for another.

One mission had failed. (Was it really less than two weeks ago that she’d last seen Crier? That their eyes had met for one terrified instant before Ayla dropped the knife and ran?) No matter. She had a new mission. She was going to stop Kinok, stop him from growing even more powerful, tightening his hold over Rabu. Whatever it took. To do that, she had to find Storme, and tonight was her best chance. Varn was celebrating the Great Maker’s Festival, an annual holiday in honor of Thomas Wren and the other early Makers, the creators of the Automae. All of Thalen had been thrown into chaos, the frenzy of preparation. The city gates were open wide for the streams of travelers and merchants and vendors and festivalgoers from all corners of Varn. Ayla and Benjy didn’t even need to sneak in.

As the sun began to set, the crowds growing ever thicker, they simply walked through the gates with everyone else. Strings of lanterns swayed along the streets of Thalen, a glowing path through the darkness, leading from the gates to the festival itself in the heart of the city. Ayla and Benjy were swept along by the crowd of revelers, the sea of green and white ribbons, white roses, and white masks, some shaped like long, white beaks. Green feathers fluttered everywhere: they were braided into long hair, woven into bright pluming crowns and shining, iridescent capes. Ayla felt like she’d stumbled into the middle of a royal menagerie, a city of magnificent birds. She kept seeing Automae in the crowd, unnaturally beautiful, glossy hair tumbling down their backs or twisted into crowns, and every time her heart stopped before she realized it was normal here. For humans and leeches to share a festival, to celebrate among each other. For humans to attend a festival not as servants but as guests. Not equals, never equals, never truly safe, but closer to it here than they ever were in Rabu. Despite all the sovereign’s posturing about Traditionalism and respect.

Ayla couldn’t reckon with it, couldn’t wrap her mind around it. She didn’t know if she was more shocked about Automae wanting to mingle with humans or humans just . letting them do it. Don’t you know what they do to us? she wanted to shriek at them. Don’t you know what they’re capable of? Don’t you know they’re just waiting for any excuse to hurt you? Don’t you know some of them don’t need an excuse? Her skin prickled. She was sweating, even in the chill of winter. This place wasn’t a menagerie. It was a pit of snakes. Queen Junn’s palace lay at the northernmost point of the city. Ayla heard it before she saw it: the roar of thousands of festivalgoers, all those rivers of people converging in the same place, laughing and singing and cheering; the wild rhythmic crash of what sounded like a hundred lutes, and drums, and horns.

The buildings lining both sides of the street began to thin out the closer they got to the palace, granaries and cobblers and masonries and other little shops and sharehouses replaced by manor houses, the buildings becoming larger and more ornate. More Automa. Still, the streets were lit with lanterns signaling the way. This wasn’t forbidden territory. This wasn’t like Yanna, the capital city of Rabu, where humans starved on the streets in plain sight. As Ayla and Benjy continued, even the manors fell away, the street spitting out everyone into a massive square—a white stone courtyard that could have easily held the entirety of one of Sovereign Hesod’s sun apple orchards. The courtyard was filled to the brim with people, lanterns and firepits lighting the crowd with a flickering orange glow, banners emblazoned with the queen’s phoenix and Thomas Wren’s insignia—the alchemical symbols for salt, mercury, and sulfur: body, mind, and spirit —flying overhead. Smoke billowed up into the night sky, obscuring the stars. Ayla took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the smells of frying fish and frying dough and something almost sickeningly sweet, wine and cider and the copper scent of liquid heartstone, the charcoal-and-grease of a roasting pig, and rising above it all the delicate fragrance of white roses, bushels of them. Ayla saw people wending through the crowd, passing out crowns of white roses.

Past the smoke and banners, she could just barely make out the palace itself on the far side of the courtyard. The white walls, a smaller version of the walls ringing the city. The gates. Someone bumped into her from behind and she realized she’d been standing there, frozen, at the edge of the courtyard. She couldn’t help it. She’d never seen anything like this kind of—luxury wasn’t the right word, opulence wasn’t the right word. This wasn’t an Automa gathering, this wasn’t the controlled splendor of Crier’s engagement ball. This was lavish, beautiful, overflowing with food and color and light despite the late hour, and it was so deeply human. Chaotic, unrestrained. It was like the Reaper’s Moon celebration the sovereign’s servants held each year in the seaside caves, but a hundred times bigger.

Ayla blinked hard and found Benjy a few paces ahead of her, equally frozen. She joined him, reached out to lay a hand on his arm, hesitated. Ever since the night they had snuck into the palace, when he had pulled her aside right before they’d parted ways—him to Kinok’s study, her to Crier’s bedroom—and kissed her, quick and hard, she couldn’t touch him without remembering it. They hadn’t talked about it. They hadn’t talked about anything, really; that night or the aftermath. Ayla still didn’t know if the kiss meant something to him, or if it was just the act of a scared boy who knew he could be dead within the hour, wanting to experience something for the first and last time. She didn’t know which answer she’d prefer. Maybe that was a lie. “Benj,” she said, quiet enough for no one else to hear but loud enough to be heard over the music, the ocean-roar of a city drunk and merry. “The palace gates.

Come on.” He nodded. Heads bent, they made their way through the center of the courtyard, where the music was loudest and the smoke thickest. Sticking to the edges would have been easier—but that was where the royal guards were stationed, watching everything from behind their white masks. So instead Ayla and Benjy wriggled their way through the tightly packed crowd, pressing up against dozens of sweaty, drunken, laughing bodies. The smoke stung Ayla’s eyes. Even after the meat pie, her belly panged at the sight of so much food: tables piled high with a dozen different types of fish, platters of cheese and fruits and shimmering black eels, fruit pies, baskets of oranges, loaves of sweet dark bread, honey and oil and butter, mulled wine, and honey cakes, seed cakes, ginger cakes. There were a few humans in what looked like green servants’ uniforms flitting around the tables, refilling platters and pouring cups of wine. She was so hungry, and she’d eaten nothing for three days but pilfered bread and the meat pies she’d bought. Before that, the week and a half at sea, sick and delirious in the cargo hold, she was unable to keep down anything but water.

Ayla’s stomach gnawed at itself, crumpling, rolling over. She clenched her teeth and forced her eyes away from the food. She didn’t have time to eat. She just had to get through the gates, inside the palace. While the main festival was in the courtyard and the city streets, there seemed to be a smaller, more exclusive celebration within the palace walls. Ayla could see more lanterns and banners, more smoke, the shift of a second crowd. The gates were open, though still heavily guarded. She tapped Benjy’s wrist as they approached, nodding in the direction of a troupe of what looked like actors or dancers. Even with the masks, it was easy to tell who was human. Automae carried themselves less like people and more like statues that sometimes moved.

They were tall, angular, their skin smooth and poreless, their movements measured. Their hair was always sleek and shiny, dark in Rabu and lighter here in Varn, where fair hair was more common. Human bodies were more varied: a thousand different shapes and sizes, skin freckled or scarred or pockmarked, hair any number of lengths or textures. Ayla had always thought that was the great irony of the Automae. They were created to be perfect, inhumanly beautiful, and all it did was make them less interesting to look at. Unless they were bent over a book, a tendril of loose hair curling at the nape of their neck. Unless they were sliding into a tide pool, silver under a Reaper’s Moon. Unless they were her. Don’t. Beside her, Benjy huffed.

“I don’t want to wear a wig. Or take off my shirt.” The actors were all human. They were masked, like everyone else, but their masks weren’t plain white—they were painted in bright, swirling colors, green feathers trailing off the edges. They were in costume, though Ayla didn’t recognize any of the characters. A woman in a blue yarn wig, another in a shining silver crown, a trio of men all shirtless, their bare chests painted with red and orange flames. Must be a Varnian folktale. “Relax,” said Ayla. “Look, there’s some in the back dressed more plainly. They don’t look so different from us.

We can probably blend in with them.” She started forward, but Benjy’s hand shot out to grab her arm. “Wait,” he hissed. “Look at their wrists.”

.

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