A House of Gold and Steel

Issue #162

My grandmother and I went into the almshouse together when I was seven. I was a sturdy little thing, hardy enough to survive the consumption that had taken the rest of the family, and Gran was a hale old lady. But she had no property to speak of, and there wasn’t a lot she was allowed to do to support herself as a widow, so into the almshouse we went.

We survived. That’s about all I can say of those years: we stayed together, and we survived. There was a lot of jute and a lot of gruel. And soon I got old enough to begin going to hiring fairs, to piece together work here and there—not yet enough to rent us a room in a boarding house, but soon, we said, soon.

When I was fifteen, I got a call to be a lady’s maid. “There must be a mistake,” I told the woman who ran the hiring fair. “I can’t dress hair, and my hands are—” I flushed and twisted my hands in my dress. They were rough and gnarled from the jute. “I’m not a lady’s maid. You mean scullery.”

She shrugged. “Not my problem. They want a strong, hearty young lady’s maid from the workhouse girls. Sort it out when you get there.”

I only had one dress, so there was no question of wearing my finest in case it would convince them to keep me as a lady’s maid. I rebraided my hair to look as tidy as possible, and off I went.

The house that had summoned me was grand enough that there was a servants’ entrance and large enough that the boy who answered its door had no idea who I was or why I was there. I felt sure that as soon as I found the housekeeper, I’d hear why it was all a mistake and be out on my ear, with a few idle hours to show for it.

Instead, the housekeeper looked me up and down and huffed out a sigh, blowing the wisps of hair that had come loose from her bun up in the air. As they settled back around her face, she said, “Well, you’ll do, but we’ll have to find you something else to wear, without delay. I can’t have you seeing the Mistress in that.”

So they bundled me into one of the housemaid’s spares, with a promise to replace it rather than make her take it back from me, and shuffled me off upstairs. I hoped that the Mistress wouldn’t look at my holed boots or my unwashed cap. For myself, I was too busy gaping at the finery around me to pay much attention to what the dress looked like. Belowstairs was serviceable and warm, far better than anything I was used to, with threadbare castoff carpets and even some ornaments on the tables.

Upstairs was beyond my ability to describe, except that everything I looked at either glistened or invited the touch of cleaner fingers than mine to glory in its softness. I had not ever imagined a world like I saw upstairs. The housekeeper, a gruff woman who seemed to keep things running with the tiniest glances, was kind as she hustled me along to the Mistress. I think she knew what it was like to come the way I had. Maybe she’d come up that way herself.

The Mistress was a tall, bony woman in a dress with more lace than I had ever seen. Whatever had been done with her hair had ten loops at least and looked like something I would have to have three assistants and four days to even try to reproduce. I was even more certain that this had all been a mistake. But she looked me up and down and said, “Yes, fine, all right. Let’s go introduce you.”

And then I saw how it was not a mistake that they had called me for the lady’s maid position, not a mistake at all.

The young lady in question lay in her bed with her eyes closed. It took me only a moment—I had lived around enough consumptives to know—to see that she had not been out of that bed on her own in quite some time. Possibly could not. So when they said lady’s maid, they really meant nurse. They meant that I was to manhandle her body about and wipe her arse and make sure she didn’t get weeping sores, and clean them if she did.

Well. It wasn’t as though I was too good for it.

“Can you?” said the Mistress sharply.

I nodded.

“Do you speak, girl? Because you’ll be wanted to speak to her some. Gently. In case she can still hear.”

“Does she—” I coughed, wanted to spit but swallowed it instead. I could see this was not a place to spit on the floors. “Does she wake?”

“No, not so you can see. I want you to talk to her so she hears a human voice. We come in and talk to her, her brothers and me. But more is better.” The Mistress peered at me. “We’d better do something about that cough. Can’t have you breathing it into her.”

And she touched my forehead, and there was a swift burning in my lungs and throat, and then it was gone. I’d lived with the consumption for at least eight years, likely more. It had weakened my Gran and killed the rest of my kin. And now it was just gone, like she would have wiped smuts off my face. Easier than that, even.

And I wanted to fly at her and kill her, because if she could do it that easily, why wasn’t she doing it all the time? Why didn’t she come to the almshouse and cure us all? Why didn’t she cure my Gran?

But if she had the magic to clear me of the consumption, she could fight me off with barely a lifted finger. My kicking, spitting rage would die against her, and take my chances at the job with it.

I took a deep, ragged breath. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t make the Mistress be good. I could just take her money and try to pay for a healer for my Gran myself.

“Right then,” she said briskly. “That’s taken care of. Dabrowski will show you where everything is and acquaint you with Miss Aneta’s routine. She’ll also give you an advance on your first week’s wages to get yourself some suitable clothes. Be here at dawn each day. We make an early start here.”

“Yes, Mistress,” I said, and bowed my head and made as if to follow her out. She looked at me as though I was insane.

“Wait here. Dabrowski will return. Your work starts now.”

Dabrowski, it turned out, was the housekeeper who had gotten me the maid’s dress. She walked me through the invalid’s routines—when to bathe her limbs with infusions and when to anoint them with oils, how to hold and turn them, how to feed her the thin gruel that kept her alive.

Like a fool, I made reference to the story of the sleeping princess with the hedge of thorns surrounding her, even though Miss Aneta was no beauty.

Dabrowski snorted. “It’s not magic that keeps her asleep, little idiot. It’s magic that keeps her alive. Because it’s her magic they need.”

“What—what do you mean?” I had assumed that the Mistress kept Miss Aneta alive because she was her daughter, and I said so.

“Oh, certainly the Mistress would do her best for an untalented daughter,” said Dabrowski. “At least, I would hope she would. But in addition, the young Miss, bless her, was the best transmuting talent of her time. Before she grew ill, that is.”

“What’s wrong with her? Is it—” I swallowed. “Is it catching?”

Dabrowski grinned. “Not as I’ve ever heard. It’s a disease in her magic, and that’s not likely to be a problem for you and me. And the Mistress is mucking around with Miss Aneta’s talents every time you blink, so... whatever’s wrong with her magic, I’d say, no, it’s not catching.”

I worked the whole day and went back to the almshouse—to my shame, I had started thinking of it as home—with money in my pocket. It was enough money that I could buy a hot baked apple to split with Gran to eat just for the joy of it and still have enough to give to Gran for her to find us a new place the next day while I was working. Enough that she would be warm too, when I was gone to the big, bright, warm house.

“So you’ll mostly work with this Dabrowski?” said Gran as we huddled together under our one blanket that first night of my new position.

“I expect with the maids, and maybe some with Dabrowski, and occasionally the Mistress,” I said. “Miss Aneta won’t give me much to chatter about, poor thing.”

Gran put a finger beside her nose. “Look sharp, Kasia. You may be surprised.”

In fact I was surprised. I was constantly surprised for weeks after I started working there. Every time I thought I understood how far the luxuries of rich folk could go, I would stumble upon something more—indoor plumbing was a marvel to me in the servants’ quarters, where the basins and seats were plain white porcelain. The first time I saw the masters’ version, I could hardly recognize it for what it was.

And that was only the beginning. Everywhere I turned, there were ornaments made of dazzling gold. If I had been a housemaid, I would have discovered from their weight when I dusted them that they were not merely gilded, but it took me longer to find out since I had no reason to heft them, and longer still to realize that not all rich people had a treasure trove spread around them in the form of gewgaws.

More curious still were the self-propelled devices I had never heard of that were assisting the household with their work, from the Mistress herself down to the lowest bootboy. Most were made of brushed steel, and they swept the carpets and refilled the inkstands and performed tasks I could not entirely identify.

They did nothing to help with Miss Aneta.

That work was mine and mine alone. I changed her position on the bed, massaged her limbs to keep the blood flow high, fed her, bathed her, changed the swaddling cloths that only courtesy kept me from calling her nappies, changed the delicate nightclothes she wore above them.

Miss Aneta’s room was filled with the things she had loved before she had fallen ill, and the maids kept them from growing dusty, in case she awakened to want them: tidy folders of music, tied shut with ribbons in shades of blue; lutes in three sizes, all kept tuned and oiled and strung but played only to check that they were still in tune; shelves with the sorts of knickknacks a much younger girl would have loved, horses and shepherdesses and tiny perfect sheep, things that you would ordinarily see in wood or porcelain, but each had been turned to solid gold.

The boarding house where we moved was threadbare compared to my new place of employment, but it kept my Gran warm, and as her hands healed she could do more delicate piecework without the cloth catching on her calluses. The woman who kept the boarding house was hearty and kind—rather like Dabrowski, though not in such exalted surroundings. She was called Mrs. Kaczmarek, and she let Gran sit by the parlor fire in the second-best chair all day long as she worked. I loved her for that.

When I had started my work in the employ of the Mistress, I had little notion of what a transmuting talent meant. The magical toffs who ruled our city had taken little interest in me, and I returned the favor. I had been caring for Miss Aneta for a fortnight when the Mistress first interrupted me with visitors.

I had not expected visitors at all, but if I had, I would have expected ladies of the Mistress’s class, possibly Miss Aneta’s own age, who would sit by the bedside and chat in hushed voices or possibly sing, who would bring flowers Miss Aneta would never see, and who would leave after a decorous amount of time.

I would not have predicted a trio of pinch-faced whey-colored men and a woman who could easily have been their sister, dressed in the fashions of the moment or possibly the next moment—brilliantly dyed waistcoats for the gentlemen and an improbable lozenge-shaped hat for the lady. I would not have expected the Mistress to fling the door wide and proclaim, “Well, there she is.” When she did so, I started and half-thought, for a moment, that she meant me. I dropped a curtsey quickly enough to avert any kind of wrath for my cheek, and I waited.

“Oh, Kasia,” said the Mistress. “These are—some of my colleagues.” Her face curdled when she said it. I had the first inkling that something in the world might not be fully to the Mistress’s liking. “They are here to examine my daughter. Please assist them as needed.”

I bobbed again, like an apple core on a choppy sea. She did not leave as I expected, having delivered such comprehensive orders. Instead she stood in the doorway while one of the gentlemen and the lady seated themselves in the straight-backed chairs that we kept by the bedside and started poking and prodding my charge.

“May I... assist you?” I offered.

“I believe we have the matter well in hand,” said one of the gentlemen who remained away from the bedside. And sure enough, the lady took Miss Aneta’s hands in her own and closed her eyes, taking the sort of deep breaths I was used to seeing from strong men about to lift something improbably heavy. I realized after a moment that her breaths and Miss Aneta’s were falling into rhythm.

The lady nodded once, and one of the gentlemen reached around her to place an object in her lap. Her dress sagged under the weight of it, and I realized that it was a brick. She breathed with Miss Aneta, and then, still holding her hands, she began to hum different pitches on her outgoing breaths. Her voice wasn’t any great shakes—I knew half a dozen people at the workhouse who sang better than her—but the air got prickly and still, like the height of summer when no breezes blow.

And then she let go, and the brick in her lap plummeted , ripping her dress as it fell between her knees with a great thump to the floor. I let out a gasp, because that dress could have fed me and my Gran for months, but the lady just reached down and picked up the brick with both hands, rising to her feet as though her torn dress made no difference in the world.

The brick was now solid gold.

When Dabrowski said Miss Aneta had the best transmuting talent of her time, I’d had no idea what that meant. We didn’t see a lot of that sort of thing in the workhouses and the slums, for obvious reasons. The Mistress returned in and saw the lady holding the gold brick. She said, grimly, “Well, I suppose you have what you came for, and you can leave us in peace?”

“For now,” said the lady. The gentlemen surrounded her—I suppose that was what they were there for—and swept her out past the Mistress like they were afraid the Mistress would soil them.

Like she was some servant girl.

“Mistress, what—”

“She’ll be hungry, after that,” she said, as though I had not spoken. “You’ll want to feed her early, or she’ll fuss.”

I had never seen Miss Aneta fuss, never heard a peep out of her. The Mistress didn’t even cross the room to look at her face, to see that she was all right. I touched Miss Aneta’s cheek. It was like she’d been sitting too close to the fire. I got her gruel into her, though she thrashed and tossed like a child.

I sang to her, tentatively, and she quieted down for that.

After that I could tell when I arrived in the mornings when her mother had done the same with her the night before. The ravenous mornings, the restless mornings: those were the mornings when the Mistress had used the transmutation power for her own needs.

I once tried to ask, “Ma’am, have you ever tried to—”

“Tried to what?”

“Tried to transmute her into healthy?”

“What a ridiculous thing to say. Don’t get above yourself, girl. Go warm some more stones for Miss Aneta’s bed.”

“Yes’m.” I fled, feeling foolish, and did not speak to the Mistress about it again.

Every few weeks, the Mistress allowed others to come in and use her daughter as a living transmutation machine. Mostly the whey-faced group did, although it was clear that the Mistress had some serious distaste for them and they for her. The longer I worked there, the more comfortable the Mistress became with me. The more I became a piece of furniture. After a few months, she even began to allow me to be present, to hold things and in minor, unobtrusive ways assist when she used Miss Aneta’s transmutation powers. I began to see where all the golden decorative objects and steel automated devices around the house had come from, and how the Mistress could afford to hire more servants and purchase more luxuries all the time.

Dabrowski saw how I didn’t like it, and every time I had to do it I found that there was mysteriously a cake for me in the kitchen, or my coat had been brushed, or some other small kindness to let me know that someone was paying attention, that someone cared.

“Dabrowski—” I said to her once.

“Funny world,” was all she would say. “Funny world for my young mistress and me. Funny world for us all.”

I looked at her hard, but my gran was waiting, so I nodded and put my freshly brushed coat on.

“I heard you ask,” said Dabrowski. “About healing my young mistress. It was kind of you to ask.”

I ducked my head and said, “Well, it came to naught, didn’t it.”

“It was kind to ask,” Dabrowski repeated. And then she was off after one of the steel automated devices, which was supposed to be sewing seams on a sheet and instead was pursuing a shrieking bootblack, sewing the sheet to his coat. Dabrowski managed to get the device working again, but the moment had passed.

The whey-faced people were there the first time I realized I could use the powers myself. Miss Aneta had twitched and moaned at the wrong moment and ruined the attempt at transmutation, though all that meant was that it came to nothing, the brick lying red and sullen in the lady’s skirts. “Hold her, girl, what are you here for?” snapped the lady impatiently.

I did not like to bind Miss Aneta like a prisoner to perform for them, and yet I felt that it would go poorly for me if I let her thrash and ruin their transmutation when the Mistress had allowed them in. So I came around behind Miss Aneta and took her by the forearms, bracing her shoulders with my elbows.

For the first time I saw and felt clearly just how they moved, just how they acted, and how she responded... how the breath went in and then out again, and the spark... oh, I can’t explain it, I can only show it, and when I’ve finished showing it now I have a silver pigeon feather, or a copper button.

Or a brick of solid gold.

I’m afraid I was inattentive with Miss Aneta after they left, going through the motions of quieting her and feeding her without my mind on the tasks. I had actually spooned a little of the rosewater with which I bathed her temples into her mouth before I noticed what I was doing—some people make cooling ices of rosewater, in my defense, and it would do her no harm, but still, it was all I could do to keep my mind closely enough on my work that it wouldn’t be noticed.

I had seen how to transmute.

I had no idea how to use this. But I knew I had to use it.

The gold bricks would be too much, of course. I couldn’t smuggle them out without someone seeing, and even if I could, where would a maid of my station or an old woman of my grandmother’s get a brick of gold? We’d be arrested for thieving right away, and the Mistress would be the first to swear we’d gotten the gold from her household.

I felt sure she believed that anything Miss Aneta transmuted was rightfully hers, and that she made the whey-faced crew pay dearly for it.

On the other hand, I couldn’t let my Gran continue to live as she was, even in our improved circumstances, if I had the opportunity to learn how to do magic that could improve our lot so concretely.

Then there was Miss Aneta’s state. She was clearly agitated, distressed or uncomfortable or something after each time she transmuted. Was that because she didn’t like the people she was doing it for, didn’t like the tasks she was being asked to do in specific, or because it hurt her, made her uncomfortable? I couldn’t say that I wouldn’t do it at all if Miss Aneta didn’t like it, but I’d grown a bit fond of her in the time I’d worked for her, even though she’d never spoken a word, and I couldn’t just... couldn’t use her, causing her discomfort without at least thinking of it. Without taking it into account.

I didn’t sleep well that night, and in the morning, after I’d gotten some of the thin porridge into Miss Aneta, I made my first try with a scrap of fabric torn from the inner hem of the cloth I used to wipe her brow. I positioned her like the whey-faced people and did what I’d seen the day before.

And there was the snap, the spark I’d felt, and suddenly I had a heavy, ragged-edged scrap of gold.

I tucked it away in my shoe and went on with my day. Miss Aneta, much to my shame and chagrin, did not like it any better coming from me than from the others. I think there was a part of me that had hoped she would not object if she knew it was to make my life better, or if it was someone who cared for her a bit. It didn’t make my questions about what to do about Miss Aneta easier, or my day. Dabrowski the housekeeper gave me extra at lunch, for the “hard week” that she saw we’d been having, the miss and me, and that made me feel worse.

When I’d got home in the evening and finished with dinner, I must have shown that there was something bothering me. Our landlady Mrs. Kaczmarek looked from me to Gran and back again, smiled with none of her teeth showing, and picked up her sewing. She found somewhere else to be, I think the kitchen. Once we were alone, I pulled out the scrap and showed Gran.

She looked at me hard. “That’s real gold.”

“We made it together, me and Miss Aneta. I learned how to channel her transmutation.”

Gran sucked her teeth, which were mostly still good, considering what she’d been through. “Does the Mistress know?”

I flinched back. “Perish the thought.”

“Does anyone?”

“No.”

Gran thought about it some more. “Can you only do gold?”

“Gran, I’ve only just done it today.”

“Well, think about what else you can do.”

“I know copper would be more useful. I asked the Mistress if they’d tried to transmute Miss Aneta’s sick tissue to healthy, but—”

“Oh, good girl,” said Gran softly. “That’s my Kasia. That’s how I raised you, poor but honest.”

“The thing is,” I said, swallowing, “I don’t think she likes to do it. I don’t feel right about it. I don’t feel right about asking her to do more, and I don’t know that I even feel right about leaving her there for her mother to make others make her do it, if it—well, I don’t know if it hurts her. But the rest of the day she thrashes and kicks and—a person’s a person, Gran,” I said all in a rush. “Whether they can talk or not. They can let you know something’s going on. I just wish I knew whether she didn’t like gold or didn’t like transmuting or—I wish we could get more out of her.”

“Well, perhaps if you can transmute her to health, it won’t be a problem any longer.”

“Perhaps,” I said. I didn’t know what to think, how to look at it. When I had asked the Mistress about Miss Aneta, about transmuting her to health, I thought all the fine people knew how it worked, and here I was, with enough to eat, a glimmer of thought, on my way to being one of the fine people myself.

Or possibly on my way to throwing it all away.

There was plenty of wood in their fireplaces, plenty of coal for their stoves, but the house of the fine people, with all its transmuted gold and steel, still chilled me the next morning. I brought Gran in to sit by the kitchen fire with a mumbled excuse. Dabrowski was kind, not the sort to turn away a girl’s old granny, especially knowing as she did that I wouldn’t ask for more than a day of it. Especially when the girl’s old granny set to shelling peas right away without being asked, for no greater price than the warmth of the fire.

Late in the morning, I had my chance to smuggle Gran up to help me hold Miss Aneta, and I tried to see my way to transmuting her sick tissue to healthy.

It was a lot harder than transmuting cloth into gold.

A lot harder.

I was dimly aware that my gran was no longer holding Miss Aneta, that she had gotten up to tend the fire in the middle of it, that Miss Aneta had gone still and was no longer fighting. I didn’t think there was anything ominous with her stillness. If I had to guess, I’d have said she was curious, but I knew by then how easy it was, when someone lay so still, to pretend that your own desires were hers. And I had wanted to think that she would like to transmute gold for me, for someone who had cared for her, and she had not done so. Perhaps she wasn’t curious at all. Perhaps the flicker I thought I felt wasn’t her health improving. Perhaps there was nothing.

I was absolutely certain, as morally certain as I’d been of anything in my life, that I’d heard a negative response from her.

“Miss Aneta?” I said aloud.

“Is that you?”

“What would you like, Miss?”

“Would you like anything?”

Oh. Oh, sweet saints, I’d done it, I’d done it, I’d done....

The tiniest bit of it imaginable. The very smallest part of healing that I could think to give her.

“Is it—” I had to get out the question, though I feared the answer. “Is it that you can only manage to get across yes and no? Is that all we’ve gotten from what we did together today?”

The Mistress’s voice sounded behind me, harsh as a parrot. “What is this?”

I jumped to my feet. “Oh, Madam!”

“Who are you, beldame!”

I turned to try to shield my gran and Miss Aneta behind me at the same time; Gran did her part to help, scrambling to join me. “This is my gran, Mistress, who came to help out today—she won’t be wanting any wages, we just had hope—we just had hope that we could try to cure a bit of what ails Miss Aneta, and so—”

“You? You? Could cure my daughter? With what? What have you given her, goose grease and prayers?”

Gran looked the Mistress dead in the eye. “My goodwill has never once harmed a mortal soul, be she never so fancy, nor will it ever. Begging your pardon.”

The Mistress, to her credit, flinched. “Well, girl?”

I saw how it would be, and I saw that I would do myself no credit if I mentioned that I, too, could use the transmutation ability. “Miss Aneta—”

And the Mistress did not appear to hear a word.

“Miss Aneta seems entirely calm now,” I said as smoothly as I could, bobbing a curtsey. “I’ll take my gran down to the kitchens and get her settled for the night.”

The Mistress frowned. “Have Dabrowski give you the last of your wages when you’re done settling the young mistress in. You ought to know by now what’s appropriate, and dragging your relations in off the street is most certainly not.”

“Please, Mistress,” started Gran, but I held up a hand.

“No, Gran, it’s all right, we’ll find something.”

The Mistress sniffed and left the room.

If I had a daughter as poorly as Miss Aneta, I’d never leave her with someone I’d just treated the way the Mistress treated Gran and me.

If I had a daughter as poorly as Miss Aneta, I’d have at least tried to get her powers to work on healing her. And we’d managed something—even yes and no would give us so much more to go on, and—

I realized, with a start, that I had no intention of leaving Miss Aneta.

“Gran,” I said very quietly. “I’m going to examine the backstairs to see how we can get her out, whether we can find a cart that we can drag without a donkey or something. If we can wrap her in a rug or, I don’t know, we just have to find a way—”

“No one will ever believe she’s our kin,” said Gran. “Just look at her, how delicate, how well cared for.”

I hated to admit it, but Gran was right. Even in the months with enough food and warmth, without the worst of our labors, our hands and faces proclaimed us to be what we were, a couple of women the barest step above indigence, and hers... poor thing, even with her illness, the meanest intellect could tell she had never picked jute a day in her life, never trodden a mill, never scrubbed... well, anything.

“In a donkey cart without a donkey, or even with!” Gran snorted.

“I’ll have to look,” I said stubbornly. “We’re taking her.”

“Yes. See? See? She says yes.”

“What do you mean, she says yes?”

I took a minute to explain, and once I did, Gran immediately agreed. “If you’re the one who can hear her, of course we can’t leave her behind. We’ve gotten somewhere! And her mother not even willing to try with—”

“Not even willing to try with what?”

And there was Dabrowski the housekeeper in the door behind us. We stared at her as though we’d been caught pilfering the silver, which I suppose we had, but worse.

“And don’t try to sneak,” continued Dabrowski, “because unless I mistake myself rather thoroughly, your grandmother is saying that you can hear Miss Aneta.”

I stammered incoherently.

“Whom I have known since she was a babe in arms,” continued Dabrowski, “who used to beg raisins from me, who ate my honeycakes for her every birthday before this dread disease felled her, when I was still cook as well as housekeeper. My young mistress.”

“Oh no,” I said, collapsing on the floor and starting to cry. “Oh, Miss, oh no.”

“I should tell Dabrowski.”

So I did.

Dabrowski joined me on the floor crying, but just for a moment, because Dabrowski and my Gran and me, we were none of us raised in circumstances were you get to have time for that, much though you may need it. “Oh, my lass, my lass,” said Dabrowski, wiping her eyes, and for a minute I thought it was me she meant, but she smoothed away a nonexistent strand of hair from Miss Aneta’s brow.

“Well,” she said briskly in another voice completely. “I have a sister who lives out, we can keep her there a time. We’ll get her in the marketing cart.”

“You’ll lose your position,” Gran said. “Someone will see you and tell—they’ll be sure to, they’ll have everything to gain by it—and you’ll be out in the cold. And we won’t be able to keep her, the Mistress will just fetch her back.”

I had a thought. “Those fancy faces who come, in their fancy clothes. Do you know their names, Dabrowski?”

She made a face. “I do, all too well. They present a card every time they come, though it’s always the same buggers.”

“Do you think they—” My throat stopped.

Gran finished for me. “Do you think they could protect us from consequences if we rescued the young miss from her mother? If we promised to transmute things for them from time to time?”

No. Yes. Long pause. Yes.

“Miss Aneta thinks it’s a good idea,” I said. It had been a long time since Dabrowski had been able to hear that and believe it, know it nearly for certain. She wavered, and then her face set. She went to get the card.

We found carriage rugs to wrap her in, quickly, quickly. She almost looked like a carpet, all swaddled like that, but while I had hoped we would find that the healing was progressive somehow, that Miss Aneta would get better as we went, her limbs were as limp as ever, her head as floppy as a newborn’s.

The upstairs maid gawked at us until Dabrowski snapped at her, “Your eyes’ll pop out of your head! Unless you want to lend a hand?” And then she scurried off, no doubt to tell the Mistress, but not fast enough, because we got Miss Aneta into the marketing cart and away to Dabrowski’s sister.

I left Gran and Dabrowski in charge of her and went to talk to the toffs just myself, thinking that if it all went wrong and they handed me over to the city police it should just be me, that someone should stay with Miss Aneta, although once I was on the doorstep I thought we should have sent Dabrowski instead, since I could communicate with Miss Aneta at least a little, and Dabrowski looked more respectable. But that’s the sort of thing you think of later, not in the moment when you’ve got a sick girl in a marketing cart and a Lady Thisich to meet.

I did ask for Lady Thisich, but it was her brother I got. He was dressed all in orchid, but honestly I could not tell whether he’d been the one all in orchid before or whether they all had different colors and changed round.

“I cannot think what your business with my sister would be,” he said, “nor can she, as she does not know how anyone of your description would have obtained her card. So you may state it quickly and then—in all likelihood—see yourself out.”

“I am the representative of Miss Aneta Czarnecki,” I said in my most careful voice. “I am here to discuss you giving her your protection.”

“You are the... I beg your pardon?”

“I am Miss Czarnecki’s servant, and her voice,” I said. “I have transmuted some of her sick tissue to healthy. She can approve and disapprove things through me. She has approved her removal from her mother’s care to—we hope—yours.”

“What an extraordinary claim. What on earth would make you think I would believe even the tiniest piece of this?”

I held out what remained of the scrap of gold cloth I’d transmuted, hope receding. Of course we could show her to him. But if they tried to take her—if they returned her to the Mistress and she turned me out or, worse, took me to the city guards—I tried to keep my voice steady. “You’ll not want to care for a young woman as sick as she is, and I’m practiced at it, me and my Gran and—another of the servants. Easier to have us than to train another.”

He turned the bit of gold over in his hand, looking at the fraying as Gran had done. “What’s this cut side here?”

“We’re not rich, sir,” I said. My voice was getting steadier as I talked. Good. Perhaps this would work after all. “We needed some to go on.”

“You are resourceful, I see.”

“We try our best for our young mistress.”

“You claim that she can approve and disapprove things, through you.”

“She can, sir, whether you believe the claim or not.”

He put on a pince-nez and looked at the gold more closely, then at me. “Young woman, this is the most extraordinary tale.”

“I have seen you work with Miss Aneta before, sir. I was in the room when you came, you and your brothers and sister. To make the gold bricks. We could do that for you, Miss Aneta and me. When she is ready.”

The pince-nez was not entirely an affectation, but I saw that Lord Thisich was using it and the orchid clothing to make people underestimate him. “And we would provide...?”

“A little house, sir. For Miss Aneta and the three of us. And protection from her mother. We want—” I took a deep breath. “I want to try to continue to heal her.”

“I don’t want you to.”

There it was on the table. I thought he might not. “That’s very cruel of you, sir.”

“No, it’s very sensible. If Miss Czarnecki is well, she is a free woman and may transmute what she pleases. As ill as she is, she is dependent on those who support her, who keep her alive, and must transmute as they please. I am perfectly willing to take that role over from her mother. But you must not try to heal her any further.”

“Certainly not, sir,” I said, without batting an eye. “If you don’t wish it, I—I have been poor, sir. If we have a house to live in, my gran and me, and protection, well... Miss Aneta can’t very well heal herself, sir, and we’ll take care of her.”

He relaxed. “Sensible girl, you’re a credit to your mistress. We’ll get you some better things.”

Are they stupid, the rich? Does the money stuff itself in their ears and tie a blindfold over their eyes? Two days in the workhouse, two days, and you learn to say, “No, master, you didn’t give me the crust for my gran yet,” as smooth as the butter you never see any more. If he’d had more magic, perhaps he could have bound my word. If I’d had more money, he’d have known he had to try. But I stood there, a servant girl with the biggest wealth of the city about to drop in his lap, and he decided to let me hand it to him.

We would reward him for that. But not nearly so richly as we would have if he had agreed to let us work freely to heal Miss Aneta. We would remember.

It was late into the evening when they had us settled into the little cottage on their estate, sending down a bit of the servants’ dinner for the three of us and provisions for us to cook up for ourselves for the next day.

“I suppose I’d best make Miss Aneta’s gruel,” said Dabrowski. “I’ve instructed new cooks in it enough.”

No no no no no no.

“She doesn’t want it,” I said.

“Lovey, you must eat something,” said Dabrowski, and I noticed that the longer we were together, the more we sounded like grandmother and mother and two daughters.

“I think she just doesn’t want the gruel,” I said. “I think she doesn’t like it.”

“I can do up an egg broth,” said Gran, inspecting the provisions. “It’ll work a treat. Always did my littles.”

“She’d like that.” I thought of the hot apple I’d sliced, that first day of work, and how good it was to be able to say for yourself what you would or would not do, where you would or would not go. The Mistress and the Lord and all of them, oh, we would make things change, Miss Aneta and me. We would transmute the world for them all, but I did not think they would like what we would change it into.


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Marissa Lingen lives in the Minneapolis area with two large men and one small dog. Her work has appeared in Tor.com, Lightspeed, Apex, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others.

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