Steady on Her Feet

Issue #168

The day before her sister Molly’s birthday, Holliday noticed the new shop in Watchmaker Alley.

Its display windows held no watches—nor tiny ballerinas that danced at the twist of a key, nor birds that sang when you pumped their tails, nor instruments that played themselves. Indeed, the windows were bare entirely, save for two large placards that read as follows:

Fond of Drink? Weak for Sweets? Lusty for Ladies?

 

OR PERHAPS you are

Slothful? Gullible? Deceitful? Mewling? Dull?

 

WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE

Energized! Committed! Upright! A Moral Champion!

In Full Possession of Your SELF and Your FACULTIES!

 

THEN

RECEIVE DR. SVARTLEBARRT’S SURGICAL AUGMENTATION

OF THE CHARACTER

Dr. Svartlebarrt, a Most Distinguished Gentleman from Lands Afar, has teamed with Dr. Mortleaus, a Brilliant Local Surgeon of Impeccable Family History, to provide Character Prostheses for Those In Need. Much as a Man who is missing a Leg can gain ambulatory Benefit from the application of a False Appendage, a Person who is missing Key Components of His or Her Character can make up the Difference and radically Improve, even Overcome Entirely (!) a Host of Moral Deficiencies with SVARTLEBARRT’S SURGICAL AUGMENTATION.

—Only the Finest and Most Advanced Micro-Clockwork, DESIGNED and PERFECTED by Dr. Svartlebarrt himself, is used to create our Prostheses

—Our Happy Customers include Statesmen, Businessmen, Dignitaries, Tradesmen, &c.

—Come inside for a Consultation and ASK how YOU CAN BENEFIT

SVARTLEBARRT’S SURGICAL AUGMENTATION OF THE CHARACTER:

SUITABLE FOR EVERYONE!

Holliday struggled through the display’s difficult words, her lips moving soundlessly. The public schoolhouses of the great city of Runsdown were free, but that didn’t mean the marms took kindly to a girl like Holliday turning up. Many a time had she demanded a reading lesson at a schoolroom threshold, a salvaged and waterlogged book in her hands, while the sour-mouthed marm planted herself between Holliday’s bare feet and the giggling froth of pink, beribboned school children beyond.

“Well?”

Holliday started. A boy, perhaps 10 years old, had opened the door from within and stuck his head outside. “Well, what?”

“Aren’t you coming in?”

Holliday tightened her grip on a small clock she held in her hands—not because she thought the boy would take it, even though it was prime salvage, but to remind herself that she hadn’t time to waste gaping at marvels today. The Arto Road Market was only two blocks down. “I’m sorry. I haven’t any money.”

“Today’s consultations are free,” said the boy.

Holliday hesitated. According to the grown-ups in her family, there was an awful lot wrong with Holliday’s character. And being examined by a doctor was supposed to be good for you. “Well... all right. If it won’t take long.”

The boy led her inside. The interior was as barren as the display windows. Plain wooden chairs and a plain wooden bench sat arranged around a low, plain wooden table with a pan of sawdust beneath. The floor had no carpets. There was a glass vase upon the table, but instead of flowers, it held cat’s eye marbles.

“What lovely marbles,” said Holliday, trying to be polite.

The boy grinned. “Those aren’t marbles.”

Holliday saw more of them in identical vases in the cubbies across the back wall of the shop, up behind a wooden counter. “Then what are they?”

A linen curtain behind the counter flapped aside. A handsome man, his face made cold by the severe cut of his clothing, strode into the room. “What is that thing doing in my shop, Nevinn?”

Holliday clutched the clock to her chest and braced herself for a fight.

“I—sir?” said the boy. “She’s here for a free consultation...?”

“She’s tracking in the filth of the Marmouth River, is what she’s doing,” said the fellow. His hair and eyes were dark, and when he peered at Holliday, he reminded her of a hawk. “Don’t you have eyes? We don’t serve the likes of her.”

Holliday squeezed her salvage, the casing of the clock digging into her palms. “With your pardon,” she said carefully, “not all of us mudlarkers are like you think.”

His eyebrows leapt in disbelief. “So you have proper society in your sewer pipes, then? Or perhaps you have schemes to live in real houses someday, and eat your river rats with little pewter forks and little pewter knives?”

Holliday’s face grew hot. “I go to the schoolhouse, same as anyone here in the up-there, and the marms give us history lessons. I know all about revolutions and what like. And guess what? We all will live in real houses someday. One of Runsdown’s mudlarkers will get too angry, and they’ll start everything, and you and everyone else in the up-there will be sorry.”

The man laughed. “A river-dog who attends lessons! Well, I never. Fancy yourself the great philosopher of this someday-revolution, do you? Hasn’t anyone ever told you that a bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing?”

“What’s all this, Mortleaus?” The linen curtain pulled aside again and a second gentleman waddled into the room. He was old, and very fat, with an untamed beard the color of the Marmouth’s ice in winter. His right eye rolled in milky blindness.

“A mudlarker,” said the handsome fellow, who must’ve been Dr. Mortleaus, “supposedly here for a consultation.”

“Mmm,” said the other, who must’ve been Dr. Svartlebarrt. He squinted at Holliday through his good eye. “Well, it gives us something to do, then, doesn’t it?”

Dr. Mortleaus grumbled.

The boy, Nevinn, darted into the back. Dr. Mortleaus pushed the vase of not-marbles to the edge of the table and smacked the surface. “Have a seat, then, Miss Revolutionary,” he said to Holliday. “What’ve you got there?”

“A clock,” said Holliday, pulling it to her chest again. “It’s river salvage. I was on my way to Arto Road to trade it. My sister Molly turns six tomorrow, and she should have some licorice as a present.”

Their faces cracked in surprise. Holliday fell silent. Nobody, not even learned doctors, deserved to know more about poor Molly. She was a fragile, obedient little girl, and it broke Holliday’s heart to never see her smile. Molly’s favorite game was to draw pictures in the river mud with sticks—very good pictures, too, of strange monsters and funny people, and fish the size of boats. The pipes and tides of the Marmouth ate such gentle dreamers alive, and if this was the nature of Molly’s soul, she would not survive long without kindness and a fierce protector. The rest of their family could provide neither. The duty fell to Holliday, and it was a solemn task she would not have parted for, not for all the world.

Nevinn returned with a doctor’s bag that he handed to Dr. Svartlebarrt. The old man opened it and removed a case, which in turn contained twenty thimble-like things with fine, stiff wires attached to their bottoms. Dr. Svartlebarrt slid half of them onto his fingers while Dr. Mortleaus did the same with the rest. “Dr. Mortleaus and I are going to ask you a series of questions while we examine you.” He wiggled his capped fingers. “Ready?”

The examination was not what Holliday expected. Instead of touching her, they floated their hands in space about her person, as a puss uses its whiskers to suss out shapes, and they asked the queerest questions. Could she please relate her happiest memory? Her saddest? What had she dreamed about last night? What was her favorite food? Had she ever kissed a boy? How did she react to stray dogs? What was she most afraid of?

“Hum,” Dr. Mortleaus finally said. He frowned, lowered his hands, and removed his devices. “Well.”

“Indeed!” said Dr. Svartlebarrt.

“Am I sick?” Holliday asked.

Dr. Svartlebarrt removed his own objects. “No no, child. Dear me—young woman. How old are you?”

“13.”

“Well.” Dr. Svartlebarrt put away the case. “I am delighted—shocked, really—to report that your character is in thoroughly excellent condition. Of course, there is always room for improvement, but isn’t that true of us all? In your case, had you the financial means, I would suggest a minor prosthesis for your temper. You have a great deal of anger, and your character is not quite strong enough to harness it completely. But other than that—”

“I’m sorry,” cut in Dr. Mortleaus, “but these results don’t make any sense. She’s too kind, conscientious, and intelligent. She can’t possibly be a born mudlark.”

“But I am,” said Holliday. “My uncles were all there when Mamma had me. They can say so.”

“Is your mamma a born mudlark, too?” asked Dr. Mortleaus. “Did she belong to a good family before running off to the sewers?”

“I don’t know.”

“What about your papa?”

“Mudlarks don’t have those. We just have uncles.”

Dr. Mortleaus gave her a funny look.

“Now is not the time to fuss about her pedigree or degenerate family life,” said Dr. Svartlebarrt. “We barely know her, don’t we?” He turned to her. “Listen, my dear... what did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t. It’s Holliday.”

“Well, Holliday,” said Dr. Svartlebarrt. “How would you like to help out in our shop?”

Dr. Mortleaus’ eyes bulged. “Bart—”

“You may come in whenever you have a little time, so that you may take care of whatever small tasks are on hand,” said Dr. Svartlebarrt. “Changing the sawdust after surgery, sweeping the floor, things like that. This will free up Nevinn to better focus on his apprenticeship.”

“You mean...” Holliday could barely speak. “You mean, do I want... a job? That pays money?”

“No,” said Dr. Mortleaus. “Absolutely not.”

“Yes,” said Dr. Svartlebarrt. “That is exactly what I mean.”

“But Bart, look at her, for Smoke’s sake! She stinks, she’s wearing rags, her hair is a pigeon’s nest, her feet are black—”

“So what?” said Dr. Svartlebarrt. “We’ll give her some nicer rags. And a membership to the bath house up the street, where she may bathe and keep her work clothes.”

“This is ridiculous!”

Dr. Svartlebarrt’s voice turned soft, but it was a dangerous softness—the softness of Marmouth mud, covering a sinkhole that goes down and down. “To what exactly are you objecting, Mortleaus?”

Dr. Mortleaus fell silent.

“We’ve examined her character. We have seen that it’s excellent.” Dr. Svartlebarrt’s good eye glared. “Unusually, compellingly, valuably excellent.”

Dr. Mortleaus’ face changed in some subtle way.

“Should I go now...?” Holliday asked.

“Nevinn,” said Dr. Mortleaus. “Take her to Arto Road. Let her attend to her clock business and buy her some better rags.” To Holliday, he said, “Welcome to our staff.”

Holliday had never had an occupation that paid wages. All she had known was mudlarking alongside the dangerous rhythms of the Marmouth—its fickle tides, so close to the estuary; its disease-carrying refuse; its few surprises half-buried in gravel sandbars. To have tasks to do that did not involve digging in mud or carrying a sack was quite glamorous, and for many days, Holliday was hard put to hide her excitement.

The rules were so different, working in a shop. Instead of clawing through filth, Holliday ran rags over the furniture and floor to keep the shop clear of it, and instead of keeping a sharp eye out for things in the muck that didn’t belong, all Holliday had to watch for was the marble-like things. If she found a stray one outside of a vase, she was to give it to Dr. Svartlebarrt personally—and never, ever, ever put it back into a vessel. If she did this, they would beat her and throw her out. Did she understand?

“Yes,” Holliday said. “But what are they? The marbles?”

Dr. Svartlebarrt raised a bushy eyebrow. “Those are my micro-clockwork augmentations, suspended in air-resistant, haemo-reactive, aqueous solids. And I am the only one qualified to distinguish them from each other, and Dr. Mortleaus and I are the only ones who know which vessel contains what type. So I will thank you not to disturb them. Can you imagine what would happen were Dr. Mortleaus to accidentally augment a violent man not with self-control, but with an overabundance of courage?” Dr. Svartlebarrt shook his head with a stentorian wheeze. “Such unbalanced personalities are the forces that disrupt the world, child. And we are here to keep our beloved world steady on her feet.”

The most exciting task was assisting with surgery. While Nevinn tied the patient to the table, Dr. Svartlebarrt prepared the ether, and Dr. Mortleaus inspected his instruments and said encouraging things to whatever nervous soul lay sweating on the wood, Holliday was tasked with fetching them anything they might need as they worked—a glass of water, a certain tool, a handkerchief. If they needed nothing, which was usually, she was permitted to stand and watch. All Runsdown mudlarkers, whether by birth or choice, have strong stomachs, and Holliday was not perturbed in the least by the calmness with which Dr. Mortleaus sliced and stitched flesh.

And what fascinating lessons he gave Nevinn as he worked. “The incision need not be deep—the augmentation, recognizing where it is most needed, will burrow home gradually over time, repairing the tissue in its wake. So to conquer timidity, you must merely place the augmentation below the skin but somewhere above the spleen, like so... to bolster energy, you must find a place with much phlegm, such as the sinus cavity... for strength, what you want is proximity to the stomach. The process begins upon contact with blood and body temperature, at which point the aqueous solid encasing the augment begins to dissolve, at a rate dependant upon the patient’s age. The lump will disappear within one to three weeks, indicating that the aqueous solid has fully dissolved.”

Willing but thick-headed Nevinn required much repetition. Holliday required but a glance at the back wall, to note which glass vase was missing from the cubbies when Dr. Mortleaus delivered each lecture during each procedure. For a mind accustomed to noting the placement of dozens of different piles of wreckage with each turn of the tide, creating a mental map of the vases was easy. And for a pair of eyes trained to scan millions of stones for bits of shipwrecked gold, discerning the subtle differences between the augmentations was even easier.

But there was one group of augments whose purpose Holliday couldn’t deduce: the group in the vase that was left on the table as decoration, outside of surgical hours. She daren’t ask, for fear of revealing what she shouldn’t know about the micro-clockwork already, and nobody offered. Nevinn caught her looking at it and began to make up silly stories. “Those aren’t augmentations that get put in—those are things they’ve secretly taken out. They kidnap poor people, like you, and they cut out all the good parts, and they sell them to the very rich. Didn’t you know?”

The thought frightened her—that someday, without warning, kind Dr. Svartlebarrt might tie her down and cut her open, and rip all her courage and compassion away, leaving Molly with no one to protect her.

So Holliday said, “I think they knocked you out one night and used those burrowing machines to take out your brain, piece by piece, and that’s why you say such stupid things.”

That finally shut him up.

Holliday was careful with her secret employment. Mostly.

She kept her hours at the shop irregular, and she always changed back into her Marmouth clothes at the bath house, and she let her furious mamma and jeering uncles assume that she was sneaking away to frolic with boys. “If’n you’re old enough now to let some pimpled sot shoot a baby into your belly, why not let one of us?” this or that uncle would joke, and Mamma would screech and hit them, and they’d laugh.

Holliday was even careful with the coin she earned. Some of it she stuffed into Fairy, Molly’s ragdoll and favorite toy, through a burst seam in Fairy’s bottom. A little, Holliday sprinkled throughout the family’s sewer pipe—a slipcrown here, a halfmark there; enough to be the plausible result of a trip to the market that someone had forgotten about, but not so much as to raise suspicion.

But in the end, it was Molly that undid her. The rest of Holliday’s coin went to her, secretly and in roundabout ways—in the form of apples, pork buns, peppermint candy, toffee, a less-worn dress, a sturdier sack for carrying salvage, a tiny hat for Fairy. Gentle Molly never questioned these gifts. She only stared at them with round, startled eyes, and then smiled—so sweetly and brightly, Holliday’s throat ached ever harder each time.

Their drunken uncles didn’t notice the gifts either, but sharp-eyed Mamma did.

“And what’s this, then?” Mamma demanded one night.

The tide was high, and the Marmouth’s oily waters lapped at the lip of their great pipe. A smoky fire sputtered in the back, where a pot of stray dog stew bubbled unattended. Mid-way through the pipe, Holliday’s uncles passed a bottle and sang, in between declarations that Holliday should take a swig and invent a verse or two, because she was old enough now. Holliday felt strangely proud, but Mamma didn’t like that at all. It made her angry. Then again, Mamma was always angry when Holliday’s uncles drank and laughed, as if a good time were the one thing in this hard world that Mamma couldn’t abide.

“It’s just a little sip n’ song, Benevolence love,” said Uncle Tails.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Mamma spat. She pointed at Molly. “I was talking to her.”

Holliday’s good feeling vanished. She pushed away from her uncles. Molly crouched at Mamma’s feet, obviously interrupted mid-game. One of her little hands held Fairy; the other, a tiny wooden horse.

“She’s going for a ride,” said Molly.

“What is that?” Mamma demanded again. Her voice cracked. “Where did you get it?”

The singing trailed off. “What she got up there, a dead kitten?” asked Uncle Tails. “Just have ‘er add it to the stew.”

“That toy!” Mamma cried, her voice growing louder. “That horse.”

“I,” said Molly. She looked around, bewildered. “Holliday gave it.”

“My arse,” Mamma shouted. She grabbed Molly’s wrist and wrenched. Molly cried out, dropping the horse to the floor of the pipe. “It ain’t broke and it’s all clean. That’s no salvage, you poor little liar. It’s thieved.”

Every uncle fell silent now. Uncle Jagged sucked in a stern breath.

“No, it weren’t!” cried Molly. “Let me go! You’re hurting me, Mamma!”

“Mamma, stop,” begged Holliday. Terrible heat flooded her heart. “I got it for her, and I did it honest. I did.”

Mamma ignored her. “You’re big enough by now to know better,” she sobbed at Molly, “so you did it on purpose—don’t tell me you didn’t.” “Decided you’re good for what the Marmouth gives you freely, is that it? You poor little fool. Paying for thieves’ wares is the same as thieving direct!”

Holliday grabbed her mother’s other arm. “It weren’t bought from no thief! It was got fair. I traded salvage and got coin, and I bought it for Molly new.”

Mamma released Molly, whirled, and shoved Holliday. Holliday flew backward to the opposite wall, falling against her shoulder. Fireworks of pain arced over her back. “New?” Mamma screeched. “You didn’t never. I didn’t raise no powder-faced, fat-pursed princesses who chase whatever fancy, toity, dainty what-you-please they want, and think to have everything new!”

“It’s not like that,” Holliday gasped. Below the pain, a quaking, simmering anger rose. “I’m not a... I just had... she’s only...”

“And this,” cried Mamma, tearing the new hat off of Fairy’s head. “And this.” She ripped the hem of Molly’s new dress. “Think I don’t got eyes? Think I don’t know you’re turning into some criminal’s yap-dog, going after the little thievings what get sold off?”

“You know what they do to them that keep stolen things, in the up-there,” said Uncle Jagged darkly. “Same as what we honest people do down here, poppet. We cuts off their hands what they paid with.”

Holliday forced herself up. She staggered to Molly, but Mamma shoved her down again with a bony hip. Tears pulled muddy streaks down Mamma’s face, the Marmouth in twin miniature. “Find them bandages, Spade. And Crabrock—give us your knife.”

Uncle Crabrock pulled out his knife. Molly screamed.

Holliday launched herself at Mamma, catching her legs and making her fall. Mamma cursed, and Holliday shoved away, grabbed Molly, and rolled around her, tight tight tight. “No!” Holliday ordered.

“You little banshee!” Mamma howled back, and her lean, hard hands fell upon her, prying and pinching, pulling at clothes and tearing already-frayed cloth. “Get off!”

Mamma’s pinching hands found Fairy. Molly wailed and refused to let go. Like an infant torn apart by wild dogs, poor Fairy split into pieces.

From within the remains, a pile of glinting, ringing coins fell to the floor of the pipe.

Mamma froze in shock. The uncles froze in wonder and greed.

With Molly weeping in her arms, Holliday rolled off the edge of the pipe and splashed into the oily Marmouth.

“And don’t you come back!” shouted Uncle Jagged, but Holliday and Molly were already paddling back around to the Marmouth’s confining walls, where a rusting line of rungs embedded in the stone could lead them into the yawning world of the up-there.

There was only one place Holliday knew of to take her.

She banged upon the door with both fists. “Doctor Svartlebarrt! Doctor Svartlebarrt!”

On the floor above the shop, light scratched between the slats of a shuttered window. Molly kept weeping. Holliday pounded harder. “Doctor Svartle—”

“Grave take you, you flea-wit,” said Dr. Mortleaus as he shoved open the shutters and leaned out over the street. He squinted down, blinking sleep from his eyes, his night-dress trembling in the breeze. “Don’t you know what hour it is?”

“You’ve got to let us in!”

“Quiet!” hissed Dr. Mortleaus. One building over, a second light flared behind a pair of shutters as some other disturbed shopkeeper lost his patience and readied a harsh word. “Are you trying to wake the neighborhood?” He looked over one shoulder. “Ah, Nevinn, you’re up. Good. Let her in before she brings the constabulary on our heads.”

Nevinn opened the door and Molly pressed her sobbing face into Holliday’s shoulder. Holliday set her jaw and pulled Molly inside. “Who’s that?” asked Nevinn.

“Good Heavens,” said Dr. Svartlebarrt, emerging from the back. He pulled a waist-coast over his shirt, one tail of which he’d failed to tuck in. Dr. Mortleaus, looking similar, was right on his heels. “Whatever is the matter?”

Holliday blurted out the events of the evening in a disjointed rush. Dr. Svartlebarrt ordered Nevinn to fetch the girls a glass of cordial, to calm their nerves, and Dr. Mortleaus didn’t even grumble about the filth of the Marmouth when the sisters sat down upon the bench.

“There now,” said Dr. Mortleaus gruffly, as Holliday passed the half-drunk glass of cordial to Molly. “That should help.”

Molly sipped from the glass between hiccups. “Where are we? I want Fairy.”

Holliday pulled her close. “We’re in the up-there. We’re with good people, my friends. I earn wages here. That’s where I’ve been getting the coin for your presents. It’s all fine, Moll. It’s fine.” Holliday looked up at the men, her eyes hardening. “Examine her. Give her a job.”

Dr. Mortleaus raised an eyebrow.

“She’s got no other way to take care of herself now. My wages alone here won’t be enough.”

“That is not our responsibility.”

“Morty,” said Dr. Svartlebarrt. “She’s upset. You cannot expect politesse from the desperate.” To Holliday, he said, “Please calm yourself. We can examine your sister, certainly— she’s already here, so why not?—but we can’t make any promises. Nevinn? My bag?”

Holliday coaxed Molly to sit on the table. While Molly sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve, the doctors plucked the air about her with their enhanced fingertips, murmuring questions and nodding at Molly’s answers. Around them, Nevinn gathered and lit lamps until the room felt almost cheery.

At the conclusion of the examination, the doctors exchanged a long look. They removed their devices in silence. “Well?” asked Holliday, past a knot in her throat.

Dr. Svartlebarrt shook his head. “I’m sorry, Holliday.”

“You sister is obedient, trustworthy, and creative,” said Dr. Mortleaus, “but she is also too shy, fearful, and unconfident. Employment in a shop would not suit her.”

Holliday’s eyes prickled. She squeezed her sister’s hand. “Dr. Svartlebarrt, you’ve got to give her a job. You’ve got to. Or—” Holliday looked around, blinking away tears. “If not—if not a job—maybe you could make her so she, so she’ll be better—” Her eyes fell upon the cubbies of vases behind the counter.

Dr. Mortleaus followed her gaze. With surprising gentleness, he said, “No, child. Our wares are far too expensive. Dr. Svartlebarrt’s operation cannot afford that kind of charity.”

Molly began to cry again. “I want Fairy.”

“Hush, Molly.”

“I want Fairy. I want Mamma.”

“Hush, Moll, I’m trying to think!”

“I want Mamma and I want to go home.”

“We can’t go back home, Moll. Not ever. They’ll hurt you.”

“Fairy,” Molly cried, wringing her tiny hands. “Fairy.”

“Smoke me alive, but I can’t watch this,” said Dr. Mortleaus. “Bart, can’t we—”

Dr. Svartlebarrt held up a finger.

He turned to Holliday. “Young lady. There is... maybe... one thing we can do.”

Hush, Moll. What is it?”

As one, the doctors turned to the mysterious vase on the table and regarded it in silence.

A chill, icy as a river breeze, swept up Holliday’s back.

Dr. Svartlebarrt pulled out a marble and rolled it between his meaty fingers. “This,” he said.

Holliday pulled Molly close. “What is it?”

“It’s for the best, actually, that you arrived in the middle of the night,” said Dr. Svartlebarrt. “When it comes to application of this particular type of treatment, the importance of discretion cannot be overstated. And if we act before dawn, there’s no chance of anyone interrupting.”

“Act how? And interrupt what?”

Dr. Svartlebarrt replaced the marble. He didn’t answer.

Molly wiped her nose. “I’m thirsty,” she said. Nevinn disappeared into the back. He returned with a tray, upon which sat a glass of water.

And surgical tools.

No,” said Holliday. She pulled Molly off the table. “If you don’t tell me what it does, I won’t let you put it inside of her.”

Dr. Mortleaus looked down at his shoes.

“Child,” said Dr. Svartlebarrt, gently. “You have to trust us.”

“Why won’t you tell me?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Do you think I’m too stupid to understand it?”

“Hardly,” said Dr. Svartlebarrt. “But it’s a trade secret.”

“What’ll it do to her?”

“You wanted us to make her better, didn’t you? Well, this will serve that purpose.”

“How will it do that?”

Dr. Svartlebarrt’s voice dropped into that dangerous, Marmouth-mud softness. “Young lady. Do you want our assistance—or not?”

Holliday squeezed Molly’s hand. Molly, who was too shy and too fearful—who would get attacked by street dogs, assaulted by older children, spit upon by the wealthy, harassed by commoners, ignored by tradesman, and harmed by her own blood. As she was, no place on this earth was safe for her.

Holliday couldn’t say no.

Dr. Svartlebarrt read her eyes. “Well then,” he said. “Morty, let’s go wash up for surgery. You too, Nevinn.”

They left the sisters alone in the front of the shop.

Molly sniffed. “If we can’t go home, where will we go?”

“I dunno.” Holliday’s eyes darted around the room. “I’ll think of something.” Maybe Dr. Svartlebarrt would at least let them sleep behind the counter at night, so they wouldn’t have to fight for a doorway out in the street?

Molly sniffed again. She touched the vase on the table. “Can I play with the marbles?”

“Those aren’t marbles,” said Holliday. “They’re—”

She stopped.

Listened.

She heard no footsteps. She had time. Holliday jumped up and scurried back behind the counter, to the wall of cubbies and vessels. What might Molly need? Bravery. Confidence. Aggression. Resilience. Heroism. Scheming intelligence. Maybe even anger. Holliday swept up vase after vase, taking an augment from each. She couldn’t know what the vase on the table contained, but this way—this way—

Somewhere, a footstep creaked. Holliday darted back to the table. From that final vase, she removed and pocketed seven augments; into that final vase, she placed the seven augments she had just stolen, in an even layer over the top. Surely, Dr. Mortleaus would reach in and happen to select one of these useful seven. They’d wind up helping Molly in a way that Holliday trusted whether they had intended to or not.

The curtain to the back flapped aside. Nevinn and the pair of doctors entered, freshly scrubbed, shirts tucked in, sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

Their eyes gleamed like those of rats.

Holliday clung to Molly’s hand, murmuring over and over It’s all right, it’s all right, they’re going to make you feel better until she believed it herself. She relaxed a bare fraction when Nevinn pulled the cloth ties from a bag, but Dr. Mortleaus said, “No, we shan’t need to tie her down.”

Ever-obedient Molly lay back on the table when Holliday told her to. She inhaled ether from Dr. Svartlebarrt’s little cup, and her tiny hand relaxed within Holliday’s grip.

“It’s all right,” whispered Holliday one final time, as she stroked Molly’s slender wrist with a thumb.

Then brutish hands fell upon her.

Holliday squealed. Dr. Svartlebarrt pinned her back against the table as Nevinn grabbed her legs. “What are you doing? Stop it! Let me go!” She kicked Nevinn away, but Dr. Svartlebarrt heaved her up beside her unconscious sister, and ah, it was no wonder they hadn’t tied Molly down. They needed the strips of cloth to restrain her.

“What are you doing?” Holliday screamed.

Cloth jammed into her mouth. She roared and bit around the gag, but to no effect. The hoary face of Dr. Svartlebarrt, shadows digging deep into his wrinkles, loomed above her.

“Pity,” he said. “You were such a help in the shop. Ah well. We shall simply hold a free consultation day to lure someone else.”

Holliday’s fury soared. She kicked within her bonds, uselessly, while Molly lay beside her, as limp and as foolishly trusting as a kitten placed into a drowning sack. “It’s such a rare opportunity for us to have the chance to experiment upon siblings, you see,” said Dr. Svartlebarrt. “And when something good falls into your lap like this, you must take advantage of it.”

Nevinn shoved his hand into the final vase and pulled out a whole handful of augments. His grin crackled with glee. “We’re upping the dose this time, right?”

Holliday’s most vengeful roar was but a murmur within linen.

One of Dr. Svartlebarrt’s massive hands gripped her jaw, forcing her head to be still. Dr. Mortleaus stood over her, a scalpel cocked in his clever fingers, his handsome face near-melted with sadness.

The lamplight traced a fat, red scar along the underside of his bare wrist.

He nodded at the scar. “I’m sorry, child,” he said softly. “But I am Dr. Svartlebarrt’s right-hand man. And his previous surgeon, before his mysterious disappearance, inserted into me a double augment for obedience.”

Dr. Svartlebarrt’s other hand, the ether mask cupped within, came down upon Holliday’s face, and all sank into hazy darkness.

Floating.

Floating.

Heat.

Floating. Something strange. A rush, in fact—a great infusion of fire and brightness, some titanic frisson of feeling that did not make sense. Bravery. Confidence. Aggression. Resilience. Heroism. Scheming intelligence.

Anger.

So much anger.

When Holliday opened her eyes—

Her shirt was torn. A bandage lay over her heart. Only bravery was supposed to be inserted there. Holliday did not know, but oh, pray tell, great Dr. Svartlebarrt, what happens when many different augments are inserted together into the wrong place? Who knows? Do you?

Nevinn had undone her bonds. “Hey,” he said. “Holliday’s awake. You said they wouldn’t wake ’til—”

Holliday was a bird, a tide, a wind. She was off the table and moving, the final vase flying from her fingers, shattering over the floor and spilling augments, augments everywhere. People slid and crashed. Dr. Mortleaus lay on the hardwood, moaning and gripping one knee; Nevinn hid behind the counter like a coward, and Dr. Svartlebarrt—why, he lay under Holliday, wailing, as her suddenly clever hands bound him up.

“Mortleaus, you damnable buffoon! You’ve put the wrong—”

“But you saw me!” His words were sobs. “You saw me draw from the vase!”

“Then how do you explain—”

It was Dr. Svartlebarrt’s turn to wear the gag, now. And Nevinn’s turn to be dragged out from behind the counter, mewling. And his turn to be tied up, too.

Dr. Mortleaus, still crippled, pleaded where he lay. “I’m sorry. Oh child, forgive me. Forgive us all.”

No.

On the table, Molly still lolled. “Take them out.”

“I can’t,” cried Dr. Mortleaus. “She’s too young. They’ve already begun to dissolve.”

Below the bandage on Molly’s chest, a ghostly blue light arose.

All the vases, now, came smashing down below Holliday’s hands. The floor sparkled with lamplight, glass, rolling augments, drops of blood and crazed spittle—hers? Molly’s? mewling Nevinn’s?—while Dr. Mortleaus screamed out some apology or doomed bargain.

On the table, Molly moaned, a split, overlapping sound no human throat should be capable of making. Her eyes opened into radiant slits.

Holliday picked up a scalpel, still wet with Molly’s blood, and faced her captors. Simple incisions, simple stitches. Simple to tell all these scattered augments apart. Not so simple to tell whether there was much ether left in the canister, but you didn’t need ether, not really. You just needed one person who was angry enough to start cutting. And cutting. And cutting.

Every revolution started that way.


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KJ Kabza has sold over fifty stories to venues such as F&SF, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Buzzy Mag, and many more. He's been anthologized in The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 6 (Night Shade Books), The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2014 (Prime Books), and The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Year Two. For updates on forthcoming releases and links to free fiction, you can follow him on Twitter @KJKabza and peruse www.kjkabza.com.

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  1. […] protagonist of “Steady On Her Feet” by K.J. Kabza (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #168) – Holliday – is only 13 years old and has not […]

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