Mist, Metal, and Ash – Gwendolyn Clare

When no one is listening, the Clockwork Creature breaks the rules. She knows all the ways out of the world, the easy ways and the difficult ones, the paths where you must walk on the ceiling or jump twenty meters over a bottomless chasm. She has mapped and completed every route. There is not much else to do, while the Broken Boy sleeps. Tonight the Clockwork Creature crouches on a windowsill and spies through the glass. Her bronze-tipped fingers dig grooves into the stone, and her wings snap open for balance. The Mad Boy has returned home and brought another with him. The Lost Boy is golden-blond where the Mad Boy’s hair is coffee-black, but they have the same eyes—glinting like chipped amber in the warm yellow light of the gaslamps. The Clockwork Creature watches the boys argue. Though she can hear them, she does not understand. They are using the Voice Words, the ones she does not know. She does not like the Mad Boy very much. He is unpredictable—by turns kind, or cruel, or indifferent. Nothing like the Broken Boy, whom she loves with all her heart. Perhaps this new boy is broken, too.

From the outside he looks whole, but there are many kinds of broken. Perhaps he will be given to the Clockwork Creature. She leans forward, overeager, and the tip of one curved horn clacks against the glass. A mistake— the Lost Boy glances in her direction. The Clockwork Creature lets go of the sill, twisting and falling through the night. But she’ll be back, she decides, wings spreading to catch the air. She’ll come back to watch the Lost Boy. And perhaps to take him. 1 STUDY AS IF YOU WERE GOING TO LIVE FOREVER; LIVE AS IF YOU WERE GOING TO DIE TOMORROW. —Maria Mitchell PISA, KINGDOM OF SARDINIA—1891 Elsa flipped through the pages of Advanced Alternate Physics by Joseph Fourier, desperate for inspiration.

The quiet inside Casa della Pazzia’s octagonal library felt oppressive, three stories of bookshelves staring down at her failure in silent reproof. Could she apply integral transforms to scriptology? The science of creating new worlds with lines of script in a book usually came so easily to her; Elsa loved the subtlety and precision of syntax, combined with the endless applications. She had created a laboratory world with stockrooms that never depleted, and even a book that linked one location on Earth to another for instantaneous travel. But the particular worldbook she most needed at the moment was refusing to function. Elsa set aside the Fourier and opened the worldbook again, its pages vibrating softly against her fingertips like the shiver of a butterfly. It was a map world she’d created to serve as a locating device for people here on Earth, and there was someone she needed to find: a thief. A traitor. A lying liar who lies, as Faraz once called him. Faraz’s words had seemed like a harmless joke among friends at the time. Not anymore.

Elsa took up her fountain pen and set to work adding new lines of text to modify the book’s tracking property. Worldbooks were not confined by the physics of Earth, and it was difficult to predict how their unique physical properties would function. She was out on the edge of known science, trying to solve a problem no one had ever seen before—a thrilling prospect, if only the safety of the whole planet weren’t teetering on the brink with her. In the center of the library a black hole irised open, a corridor through the fabric of reality connecting Earth to a scribed world, and out of the darkness stepped Porzia Pisano. As the portal closed behind her, Porzia arched one dark eyebrow. “You altered the worldbook. While I was still inside. You do know that’s dangerous, don’t you?” Elsa blinked. “My mother does it all the time with Veldana.” Veldana was her home, and the only scribed world in existence with a native population.

Porzia managed an even more skeptical expression, which was a feat in and of itself. “Mm, yes, and as we’ve established, Jumi’s judgment is always flawless.” Elsa’s instinct was to jump to her mother’s defense, but the truth was Jumi had started this whole mess when she scribed the most dangerous object in existence—a book with the power to edit the real world. Whoever controlled the editbook could permanently alter anything they wished on Earth, up to and including the complete destruction of the planet. The editbook was supposed to protect Veldana from European interference; instead, it became the focus of a power struggle, one that had nearly cost Jumi her life and her world. And if Elsa failed to steal it back, there was no limit to the havoc the editbook could inflict. Elsa exhaled her tenseness and leaned her head back. The gasolier hanging from the center of the domed ceiling dazzled her eyes and cast intricate shadows. “Did I at least change something inside the world? At this point, I’ll take any kind of improvement to the tracking process as a victory.” “You turned the sky red—which I have to say looks very ominous—but no, the tracking property was unaffected.

” Porzia pulled out a chair and flopped down with an uncharacteristic lack of decorum, her full skirts puffing like a thrown pillow. She tossed her handheld portal device on the table, its brass casing clattering against the wood. “So still no fix on Leo’s location, then.” Porzia, who was a talented scriptologist in her own right, reached for the worldbook and dragged it closer to scowl at the text. She flipped through the pages, glowering as if she could make the world do what she wanted by intimidation alone. “We’ve expanded the tracking map to function globally; we’ve been through every line of script looking for optimizations. It’s no use.” Elsa nodded, trying not to let her frustration show. A week had passed since Leo stole the editbook and rejoined his father and his brother, Aris. Despite all her efforts, Elsa wasn’t so much as an inch closer to recovering the editbook—or to confronting Leo.

No, better not to think about him. The memory of his betrayal felt like fragments of glass grinding together somewhere behind her sternum. Elsa made herself focus on recovering the editbook. “So either they’re hiding off-world, or Aris figured out a surprisingly effective way to block the tracking map.” Porzia sighed. “Looks that way.” “First he designs a way to detect portals, now he’s blocking our tracker,” Elsa grumbled. “Does this guy have a clone? How does he work so fast?” “I suppose it doesn’t hurt being a polymath,” Porzia said. “Wait—what?” Elsa sat up straighter. “Aris is a polymath?” Porzia gave her a confused look.

“You didn’t know…?” Elsa got the sense she was trying hard not to say, Leo didn’t tell you? Another secret withheld from her; another shard of glass sliding between her ribs. Elsa shook her head. “Signora Pisano told me I was the only living polymath.” Most pazzerellones, people with the madness for science, specialized in one of the three disciplines— mechanics, alchemy, or scriptology—but Elsa could perform all three. “When Mamma said that, she thought Aris was dead,” Porzia pointed out. “Oh. Right.” Certain moments of Leo’s behavior toward Elsa suddenly made more sense—the odd flashes of jealousy and insecurity. “What about Garibaldi?” she asked. Ricciotti Garibaldi was the father of Leo and Aris, and the madness often ran in families.

He had two pazzerellones for sons; their scientific impulses must have come from somewhere. Porzia cocked her head to the side. “Um … alchemist, I guess. Leo never talked much about his father’s work.” Elsa frowned. Garibaldi was obsessed with unifying the four states of Italy into a single country. As far as she could tell, everything he did—faking his own death, going into hiding, stealing the editbook—was done in the service of that cause. It seemed to Elsa that he treated Aris more like a soldier than a son. If Garibaldi had expected Leo to be a polymath like his brother, and left him behind in Venezia because he wasn’t … Against her better judgment, she felt a pang of sympathy for Leo, but it shifted quickly into anger. “How could Leo go back to that horrible man? Garibaldi abandoned him, and we’re the ones who cared.

I even thought Leo and I were—” Elsa cut herself off before she could voice the words. When she was young, Jumi had told her, They call it “falling” in love in some Earth languages. To fall, as one falls into a trap. Porzia looked at Elsa steadily, a kind of grim resignation visible in the set of her mouth. “Garibaldi is still his father—you can’t break the ties of blood. We were naive to assume he wouldn’t turn against us.” The door creaked behind Elsa, and she glanced back as Faraz entered the library with Skandar riding on his shoulder. Faraz was tall, dark, and awkward; Skandar was all tentacles, with a pair of wings and one giant wet eye in the middle. Since Leo left, Faraz had taken to carrying Skandar, his alchemical masterpiece, everywhere with him. (Except the dining hall, which Porzia had declared absolutely off-limits for tentacle monsters.

) Faraz was one of the orphaned pazzerellones raised at Casa della Pazzia; Elsa worried that, given his history, this latest abandonment was like a blow to a tender, unhealed wound. “Hi, you two,” Elsa said. Faraz made a poor attempt at a smile. Skandar, however, raised a few tentacles cheerfully, pleased to see her. Elsa held out an arm as Faraz approached, allowing the beast to crawl from Faraz’s shoulder onto hers. She’d grown accustomed to the feel of suckers clinging to the back of her neck, though Porzia wrinkled her nose just at the sight of the transfer. “Sorry I’m late,” Faraz said. Porzia muttered, “Not that it matters.” “Actually, I’ve had a thought.” He pulled out a chair and sat.

“So far, we’ve only tried targeting the tracking map with Leo’s possessions in order to track Leo. Right?” Elsa nodded. “True.” “Well … what if the block—whatever it is that’s blocking us—only applies to Leo? For example, if they’d scribed a prison worldbook to keep him in.” “Interesting,” Elsa said. Privately, she found it impossible to share Faraz’s faith in Leo—that he had been tricked and was being held against his will—but his idea still had merit. “We might be able to track Aris or Garibaldi, instead of Leo.” Porzia said, “Except for the slight problem that the only possession we had of Garibaldi’s was the pocket watch, which Leo took with him. We have nothing to target the map with.” For the first time in days, Elsa felt a spark of hope.

“No, but we know someone else who might: Signora Scarpa.” Porzia rubbed her temples. “For heaven’s sake, Elsa. We ought to be working with the Order, not the Carbonari.” The Order of Archimedes was the secret society of pazzerellones that Porzia’s family were members of; the Carbonari were revolutionaries fighting for an Italy free of foreign rule. The two groups had an occasionally tense agreement to keep out of each other’s way. “The Order?” Faraz looked genuinely shocked at the suggestion. “They only care about retrieving the editbook, so it won’t threaten their precious political neutrality.” Elsa saw anger and frustration in the set of Porzia’s jaw, portending an argument as surely as storm clouds promised rain. Elsa quickly said, “Yes, but we’re not going to let anyone else take the lead on this.

We’ll be the ones to find the editbook. And, if he needs it … rescue Leo, too.” She didn’t believe her own words, but she knew this was what Faraz wanted to hear. He nodded. “We’ll have to plan our approach carefully, if we want to rescue Leo and retrieve the editbook before Garibaldi knows what hit him.” Porzia snapped, “I can’t do it any longer. What is wrong with you, Faraz? He left us! He’s gone! He’s not coming back.” “How can you say that?” Faraz stared at her, aghast. “It doesn’t make any sense! We were his family, for seven years, and he just up and turns on us with no warning? There must be something else going on.” Porzia stood, slammed the tracking worldbook closed, and snatched it up angrily.

“Wake up, Faraz! He had a choice to make: us or them. And he chose. It’s that simple.” She whirled around, knocking over her chair in her haste to leave. She slammed the library door as she went. On Elsa’s shoulder Skandar shivered with distress, and she put a hand up to soothe the beast. Elsa herself was too stunned at Porzia’s outburst to know how to respond. That sharp, constant pain in her chest—the pain of betrayal—certainly agreed with Porzia, but she knew Faraz clung to hope like a lifeline. “Don’t listen to her,” Faraz said, sounding shaken. “She’s only distraught.

She’s trying to make sense of this as best she can.” “Right,” Elsa said. It did not escape her that, perhaps, Porzia was not the only one at a loss. He stared at the closed door through which Porzia had left them. “She’s wrong—blood and family aren’t the same thing. We’re Leo’s family, not them.” “I know.” Elsa squeezed his arm reassuringly, but then felt guilty for encouraging him. What if Porzia was right, and Faraz was simply weaving an elaborate self-deception to soften the blow of Leo’s absence? The doubt ate away at her like rot in the heart of a tree, and Elsa wondered if she’d ever be sound again. Elsa followed Faraz through the cobbled streets and airy piazzas of Pisa, relying on his familiarity with the city and his general street-savvy.

They were headed to see Rosalinda Scarpa, the Carbonari operative who had been Leo and Aris’s childhood fencing instructor, before Garibaldi faked his death and splintered from the Carbonari. Elsa had met her only once, but once was enough to make her apprehensive about asking the woman for a favor; she didn’t seem to like pazzerellones very much, with the exception of Leo, whom she treated with a strange sort of maternal possessiveness. The walk through the city streets only worsened Elsa’s nerves. It felt like traversing the floor of a never-ending valley, entrapping her on either side with row upon row of red-tile-roofed buildings. Faraz looked naked without Skandar on his shoulder; he’d left the beast at home so as not to draw attention, but Elsa still felt the weight of sideways glances, of gazes lingering a little longer than propriety would dictate. She didn’t know whether the cause was their brown complexions, giving them away as foreigners, or her sartorial choice of trousers and a leather bodice. Elsa said, “So you’ve never been there before?” “I had to ask Gia to write down the address.” Faraz crumpled the scrap of paper in his hands. Gia was Porzia’s mother and headmistress of Casa della Pazzia, which made Leo her ward. “She must have been thrilled about that request,” Elsa said dryly.

“Though I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that somebody knew about Rosalinda at all.” They crossed an old stone bridge over the river that bisected the city, and the openness came as a relief to Elsa. It was a clear day, bordering on hot as May surrendered to summer, and the sunlight glinted off the water. “Yeah,” Faraz agreed halfheartedly. “I guess there was some sort of custody disagreement between the Order and the Carbonari after Garibaldi faked his death.” Elsa was getting the distinct sense that Faraz did not want to talk about Leo right now, and especially did not want to talk about the things Leo had chosen to keep secret from the rest of them. She decided to shift the subject. “Speaking of the Order…” Faraz shook his head. “We’d be gambling on the reliability of their assistance. The more people become involved, the more opportunities there are for someone to slip up.

” Opportunities for a slipup … or opportunities for a betrayal. Porzia’s father was in Firenze at the headquarters of the Order, and the Pisano family had influence. But Elsa had been betrayed once by someone she trusted completely, and she was not about to make the same mistake again. “There is an alternative.” Faraz tucked his hands into his pockets. “I’m all ears.” “We don’t involve anyone else. We use just one person, infiltrating Garibaldi’s operation.” “You want to become a spy?” “Think about all the levels of security Montaigne designed to protect the editbook, and he was just one scriptologist working alone. Montaigne was the original creator of Veldana, who had betrayed the Veldanese by helping to steal the editbook and then double-crossed Garibaldi to keep the book for himself.

Garibaldi has Aris and a whole squadron of ex-Carbonari assassins. It may not be possible to get it back by force. What if the best way to steal the editbook is to trick them into giving me access?” Faraz stared ahead, his expression thoughtful. “We’d need to somehow convince Garibaldi that you want to join his revolution. And if Leo is locked up, you’d be operating alone.” “Well,” said Elsa, “it’s a possibility to consider.” They arrived at the door of a narrow town house. Elsa tugged on the bellpull, which produced a muffled twang somewhere deep in the house. As they waited, she snuck a glance at Faraz: his features looked composed, as if he’d regained his usual unflappable resolve. The sound of heavy, not especially ladylike footfalls preceded the door swinging open.

The woman on the other side was tall, thin, and severe. She was dressed in men’s trousers and a long black frock coat, and her steel-streaked hair was pulled back in a tight chignon at the back of her neck. Elsa cleared her throat. “Rosalinda…” “Signora Scarpa, if you please,” she corrected. Her expression closed down at the sight of them, as if she had shutters she could lock behind the windows of her eyes. Elsa felt her own expression darken in response. She opened her mouth to reply, but Faraz smoothly cut in. “Our apologies, Signora Scarpa, if we’re disturbing you at an inconvenient hour.” Instead of replying, she scrutinized them with that hooded, hawk-like gaze of hers; she glanced at Elsa’s hip, noting the revolver Elsa had taken to carrying. At least she didn’t slam the door in their faces.

Faraz took this for an invitation to continue. “We’d like to speak with you about Leo. May we come in?” With a sigh, she let them in and led them down a short hall to a sitting room, where she grudgingly waved them toward a pair of chairs. Signora Scarpa’s sitting room was neither particularly fancy nor particularly “lived-in,” as Alek de Vries liked to call his cluttered flat in Amsterdam. The thought sent a pang of guilt through Elsa— for leaving her home world of Veldana, and for asking Alek to stay there to look after her terribly ill mother. Alek had mentored Jumi when she first learned scriptology, and though he was the closest thing to a grandparent Elsa ever had, she still felt that the responsibility to care for Jumi was hers alone. What’s done is done , she chided herself. If she wasted time dwelling on decisions already made, she’d never get anywhere. Faraz was telling Signora Scarpa about what happened with the editbook, Leo, and Garibaldi. If Scarpa’s expression had been closed before, now it seemed to have turned to stone.

Impenetrable and unreadable. Not an especially good sign; Elsa had hoped for some kind of reaction. “So what are you doing here?” Signora Scarpa said, when Faraz finished the story. “We came to you for help,” Elsa said. “That is, assuming you care at all about what happens to your world, or to Leo.” Talking about Leo as if he were an innocent victim felt like drinking acid, but she doubted the alternative would get her anywhere. “Under my roof, you will watch that mouth of yours,” Signora Scarpa snapped. “That boy is like a son to me. Do you think I live in Pisa by happy coincidence?” Elsa shrugged. “I don’t pretend to have any notion why you do the things you do.

” “I trained him since he was old enough to pick up a foil,” Signora Scarpa said. Her voice started out tight and soft, but her volume rose as she continued. “I was the one who got him out of Venezia alive, and I was the one who comforted him when he woke up screaming in the middle of the night for months afterward. Then the Order exerted their right of custody—caring only that he was a pazzerellone, not that he was a scared child—and I was expected to simply turn him over to the care of strangers. So yes, I asked the Carbonari to transfer me to Pisa. Not so I could manipulate him, as you seem to believe. But because he was a child and he needed me.” Elsa felt heat rise in her cheeks. Perhaps she should not be so quick to distrust everyone. Faraz cleared his throat.

“If you want to help Leo, he needs it now more than ever. Assuming you aren’t”—Faraz paused, his gaze flicking over to meet Elsa’s for a fraction of a second—“pleased to see him back in the custody of his father.” “He’s being manipulated,” Scarpa said with rock-hard certainty. “If he isn’t simply held against his will.” Faraz offered a weak smile. “That’s what we think, too.”

.

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