The Governess and the Lobster

Issue #95
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(Reprinted in Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2013, ed. Rich Horton)

Dear Matron Jenkins,

For the record, I want you to know that the mechanical lobster is not my fault. I had only the best intentions when I asked the Cromwell children to deliver my initial report to the mail depot, and I did not learn about their addition to my package until recently.

I am sending this note by express post in hopes that it reaches you in time—though at this point, I’m not sure what would qualify as “in time.” Before the regular post arrives? Before the lobster winds down? Before we had ever received M. Eutropius’ misleading request? I do not know, and I fear that I will go mad long before I can make a guess.

But for the record, the mechanical lobster is not my doing. I owe you much, but at the moment that is all I can give you.

Yours,

—Rosalie Syme

Rosalie:

Your note arrived well in advance of the regular post, and as a result I’m still in the dark. I’ve heard nothing of a lobster, nor is there any news of a disaster there in Harkuma. As a result I must conclude that you are overreacting. Pull your stockings up and remember that I chose you for a reason.

And frankly, the only thing you owe me is the starter money for the school. The current state of affairs between Imperial interests and the Hundred Cities is tenuous at best, and I will not have an opportunity to found a branch of the Jenkins School squandered. If you have come to the conclusion that such a school is impossible, then send the money under separate cover, registered mail. I shouldn’t have to tell you this.

—E. Jenkins (Matron)

Dear Matron Jenkins,

I apologize for my earlier note, as well as for the panicky tone of my initial report. I would assume that by now you have received it, save for the fact that the Cromwell children have taken some delight in demonstrating just how destructive their toys can be when fully wound.

I’m afraid my first impression of Harkuma lived up to the worst assertions of the yellow broadsheets back home. The Hundred Cities as a whole may be quite civilized, but Harkuma is not technically one of them, and its inferior status is made worse by the constant dust storms. (I am given to understand that Harkuma’s elder sister city, Akkuma, is similarly plagued, but the automata of that city have safeguards in place against damage from the storms.) The mark of Imperial commerce is quite present, though, as the architecture of Cromwell House proves, as does my presence, I suppose, since Cromwell and Eutropius

I’m sorry. I get ahead of myself, and my circumstances are not conducive to concentration.

What is markedly odd is that despite all this, Harkuma reminds me of my home in the warehouse district. (I do beg your pardon, Matron, for reminding you of this fact.) The constant chaos is not so far off from what the Staves dealt with, although there is a different flavor to it that I cannot yet put into words.

Of the human population, I cannot begin to find a commonality. In the five minutes I paused at the train station, I saw four Lower Kingdom officials in state dress, two Terranoctan soldiers (or so I assume from their scythes), a Svete-Kulap clanmerchant suffering a bad case of sunburn, and a Lucan noblewoman with her interpreter. To complicate matters, the automata of Akkuma travel freely within this satellite city, and their clattering speech rings out at all hours.

Unfortunately, the cavalier attitude of the Hundred Cities to the association of automaton and human borders on the reckless. After the officials had carefully evicted the human passengers and inspected the train so that it might pass on to Akkuma, I saw a young man of shifty appearance helping a woman who could not have been younger than ninety onto the last car. The Akkuma train runs at such infrequent intervals that human visitors must bring twice their own weight in water, Matron, and yet this young man packed her onto the train with nothing more than a bag. I cannot

I have taken a moment to collect myself and remove the canister of spiders that the eldest Cromwell child, Natalya, has placed on my bedside table.

As you recall—and as I wish to stress, given that my assignment has proven so radically different—I was to undertake the education of the Cromwell children. Mr. Cromwell was somewhat lax in hiring a governess after their mother’s passing several years ago, but his business partner M. Eutropius, currently the children’s legal guardian, contacted the Jenkins School immediately following Mr. Cromwell’s last illness. While all of this is technically true, the omissions are crippling enough to question whether our contract is even valid.

The problems began nearly as soon as I arrived at Cromwell House. The house was built in both the Harkuma style and that of a northern manor-house, keeping the worst features of each. The lower floors are open and high-ceilinged, but the upper reaches are quite dark and cramped, giving one a choice of agoraphobia or claustrophobia. It did not help that when I first arrived I had to search for a good fifteen minutes before finding anyone, and the housemaid who answered seemed to not know her way around at all, having been here only one week. As I write this, she has already left, hired off to a financier bound for Bis-Nocta. Her successor has also given notice.

The next problem to present itself was the matter of the children themselves. Though Eutropius’ letter seemed to indicate that they were already on a course of education, it seems that their father let them run amok. Natalya, at eleven years, has some authority over the other three but chooses to exercise it only to prevent interfamilial fights. Irra (nine) is as elusive as a swamplight and as omnipresent, at least until she is noticed, and her brother Serge (six) seems to delight in loudly pointing her out and causing her to flee. The youngest, Sulla (five), would much rather communicate in gestures and what I believe is a poor approximation of automaton-speech.

Matron, these are not students, even by the standards of the warehouse district scholarship initiative (and believe me, I am well aware of the irony in my saying this). They are a project.

I did not see my employer until that evening, having spent much of my time in an attempt to introduce myself to the children (and, as I’ve mentioned, sending out my initial report plus lobster). Natalya was the one who found me trying to coax Irra out of hiding. “Uncle wants to see you,” she told me, and handed me the first of the many canisters of spiders. I consider it a small victory that I did not scream and fling the lot away.

The lower halls of Cromwell House—the high arches, the red clay walls, the tracings in the floor meant for those automata guests who run on wheels—are particularly uncanny in shadow. (If you remember the Gymnasium Specter incident at the School, I believe you will understand why.) The lamps were unlit, and only the glow of fires outside illuminated the hall. I made my way to the foot of the stairs, clinging to the wall for guidance. “Mr. Eutropius?” I called, expecting at any moment Irra and Serge to jump out at me. “Sir?”

“I am here,” said a cultured bass voice from somewhere to my right. It was the sort of voice to rattle pebbles in dust, and I confess I shivered at the sound of it.

You have trained me well, though, and mindful of your constant admonitions, I pulled myself upright. “I am Rosalie Syme, of the Jenkins School. You engaged me to educate the Cromwell children.”

“So I did.” A clank and drag sounded from the darkness, followed by a brief flare: werglass, glowing as thaumic power moved through it. “Come to me if you have need of anything. I have been quite busy in the wake of poor Edgar’s death, but I can certainly spare time for the children.”

“That’s kind of you, sir,” I said. “Sir—how will I know you, if I need to find you?”

At this there was a creak and a dull thrum, as of an engine catching somewhere in the house. “My apologies. I forgot you do not see as I do. In Edgar’s absence, I forget myself.”

A dial spun close to my elbow. At the far end of the hall, the lamps flickered and caught, one by one, illuminating the great shape standing far too close, the inlay of gold on steel, the eight long segmented legs unfolding as he approached, the central spire of a body and the werglass ring of eyes.

Eutropius is an automaton.

You have hired me to an automaton.

Matron Jenkins, please call me home.

Yours,

—Rosalie Syme

Rosalie:

I will do no such thing. While I admit Eutropius’ nature is startling, that does not in any way change our contract. Remember: I would not have sent you if I did not believe you fully capable, and certainly more so than our non-scholarship students. Now wipe your nose and get back in the fray before I relegate you to that list of fainting nellies.

And why would I mind your comments regarding the warehouse district? Do you think me ignorant of my students’ backgrounds?

As a side note, the lobster has arrived, along with the remnants of the post. I currently have it caged on my desk. How long does it take to wind down?

—E. Jenkins (Matron)

Dear Matron Jenkins,

Yes, of course you’re right. My apologies.

I’ve since acclimated a little, although it is difficult to look out on the low flat roofs of the city and not be reminded of the warehouse district. I confess I did not expect my childhood to find me here of all places. (Though I would like to stress again that my days in the Staves are well behind me, and in any case the rooftops here are too unfamiliar for me to consider similar activities. I think I’ve lost the knack, anyway.)

Harkuma is a very strange place. Its entire business revolves around what is not present: Akkuma and the gems mined there, as well as the various homes of the trade delegations who make those gems their business. Few of the automata here even treat it as home; Eutropius is Transit-born and considers himself a native of the Glasswalk, and many of those I see during the day return to Akkuma regularly.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the Cromwell children are so distracted. I’ve abandoned the classroom setting and have adopted a peripatetic method of teaching, which has improved their attitude toward me somewhat. Natalya, in particular, has begun to warm to me so long as I assist her in the kitchen, the position of cook being another that has high turnover. She has even taught me several of the recipes for the dinners the children usually share when no cook is engaged. (Sweet pudding is, unfortunately, at the top of the list. Fresh greens will no doubt be difficult to introduce.)

Far be it from me to speak ill of the dead, but it seems that the late Edgar Cromwell was one of those people who, after amassing a family, don’t really seem to know what to do with it. Under his wife’s supervision, all was well, but judging by some remarks from Natalya and Eutropius, his attitude was always one of benign neglect. Neglect remains neglect, though.

Eutropius does deeply care about the children, and it is quite something to see them swarm over their “uncle.” Irra in particular reliably comes out of hiding only in his presence, and Serge cannot be quieted. Apparently he has also taught them some small practical skills; the mechanical lobster, as well as several of their other toys, is the children’s own work, built under his tutelage. (According to him, the lobster should wind down in a matter of weeks, depending on how much it has consumed. I’ve enclosed a key, should you care to deploy it in faculty meetings.) Eutropius, though, is aware that his skill in childrearing is limited, and so it seems that he engaged help well before Cromwell even fell ill, though I must confess I was startled at his other employees.

Specifically, the same shifty-looking young man who I saw sending the poor old woman off on the Akkuma train is in Eutropius’ employ. He arrived as I was in the midst of showing Natalya how to scrub out the cookpots. Sulla, who had been hanging onto my skirt for the last half hour, was the first to notice him. “Pietro,” she said, giving me an emphatic tug.

“Pietro?” I stood to see the young man lounging in the doorway as if he belonged there. “Who—”

Sulla, however, did not hesitate. “Pietro, this is Rosie,” she said, for the first time lacking the stutter that she carries from attempting to imitate automata.

“Rosie?” He tipped his cap to me—a gesture straight off the streets of the Capitol, and one extraordinarily strange coming from a man dressed in the heavily-embroidered jacket and bands of the Hundred Cities, not to mention his short beard and shaven head. “A pleasure, miss,” he went on, his Imperial only barely accented.

“Likewise,” I said, attempting to regain what dignity I could while up to my elbows in filthy suds.

Pietro smiled, exposing one canine tooth that had been replaced with steel. Before he could say more, Serge practically jumped onto him, demanding to know if “Grandma Lyle” was back. The most I could gather from the ensuing chaos was that Pietro was a frequent visitor to the house and often advised Eutropius on how best to take care of the children (including my hiring), and that this was part of his profession.

What that profession might be, I would hesitate to explain had you not explicitly stated that you are unconcerned with my history. Pietro is what the many travelers through Harkuma refer to as a facilis or, commonly, “greaser.” He makes his living by arranging contact between the various human merchants and the automata of Akkuma. If a person wishes to visit Akkuma, he must do so in the company of one of these faciles who will vouch for him, undertake the shipment of water, even make business connections, as well as monitor the entrepreneur’s movements within the city and make certain that he adheres to all standards of conduct.

To maintain their positions, these faciles must keep credibility with both sides. A human client who attempted to suborn an automaton or hide in the city would be as damaging to a facilis’ credibility as an attempt on that same human’s life by one of the more militant automata sects.

The practice of trading on such an ephemeral thing as reputation seemed at first incomprehensible, until I remembered how the Staves used to deal with the other “confraternities,” as you have always referred to them. We did not have the faciles, but we did have our own go-betweens, particularly in regards to selling goods of questionable ownership. In fact, I played a similar role between the Staves and the Redfingers (who ran on the Gestenwerke side of the district) up to the point where I was handed over to the Jenkins School.

Regarding the satellite school, I have made some minor inquiries, but the first officials I contacted had been reassigned by the time I made a follow-up visit. I will make another attempt, but at the moment I have enough on my hands with the Cromwell children. Sulla has taken to creeping into my room and falling asleep on my bed—in fact, she is there now, and once this letter is complete I will put another blanket over her. Sadly, the frequency of spider canisters has increased (and now diversified into centipedes) even as Natalya and I seem to have connected in our mutual scullionship.

Courteous as my employer is with the children, his nighttime pursuits are distressing to say the least. Every few nights, a din emerges from the lower reaches, a noise that I can only compare to the clatter of tram cars paired with the whine of a malfunctioning drill. It is a pity, as the city is not lacking in charms, even if I am still shaking the dust out of my skirts every five minutes and cleaning it from every crevice before I sleep. Even when I have a full night’s sleep, every day feels as if I am walking on an uneven surface. But you are right, Matron, and I have some experience walking unsteady paths.

Yours,

—Rosalie Syme

R:

That’s my girl.

I’ve attached a list of names of former Jenkins School contacts; if your first endeavors are withering, perhaps this will spur a second round. Don’t fuss so about a little noise; our new dormitory faces the forge district, and I can’t imagine it’s any worse than that.

—E. J. (M.)

Dear Matron Jenkins,

Sadly, not one of the people you name remains in Harkuma. It is as I said; this is a transient town, and few people stay for long. Even the automata do not linger.

I had some proof of that the other day, when I was taking Natalya and the children back from market again (Serge shows an aptitude for misdirection, which resulted in our first return trip to the market and a very grudging apology from him). I am not sure if I can adequately describe the scene we found on our return. The roads of Harkuma, though just as busy as Admiral Street or any other thoroughfare, are broad enough for automata to pass easily. One may pass by most altercations without even flicking one’s skirt aside, regardless of their violence.

However, this particular altercation had blocked the entirety of the street. Two automata and a Lower Kingdom official, possibly one of those I saw on my arrival, were in heated disagreement. Of the automata, one had a very Imperial look to its construction—possibly a tram-car before its awakening—and as such, it was roughly the size of two dormitory rooms. The other was, I believe, City-born, one of the automata created and awakened among its fellows, and thus both smaller and less practically designed, perching on three delicate legs and shaking a fourth at the official and the tram-car. My knowledge of the Lower Kingdom dialects is flawed (you remember I had trouble with the inflections), but I was able to gather that some temporary business agreement had soured.

My first impulse was to shoo the children away, but you can guess how successful that was. My second was to move the five of us into the shelter of a nearby fruit-seller’s stall and wait it out. I had no sooner done so than the shouting gave way to ominous silence, and Sulla caught her breath. “What is it?” I asked, picking her up.

“The big one called the little a—” and here she made a stuttering noise, an automata word that I am glad I do not know, judging by Natalya’s hiss. “And the little one called the big one a man-scraper.”

Just then the Lower Kingdom official declared that both automata were “unworthy of their metal.” The automata turned to face him, and I covered Sulla’s eyes. I saw plenty of tram accidents when I was in the Staves, and they are not healthy viewing for a five-year-old.

Before the man could be crushed, however, a tiny old woman made her way through the crowd. It took me a moment to recognize her as the same woman Pietro had put on the train to Akkuma, and by that point she had reached the side of the larger automaton. I could not hear what she said, but the tram-car settled back on its treads and the smaller automaton lowered its leg. Either one of them could easily have crushed her or even just set her aside, yet they remained still. The official attempted to interrupt her several times, but she raised one frail hand and he stopped as if confronted by a pikeman.

Around us, the commotion in the street returned to its usual state, and Sulla pushed away, wanting to be let down. Unfortunately, her buckles had become caught on my bodice, and by the time we’d untangled ourselves, the old woman had dismissed both the smaller automaton and the official and stayed to speak with the tram-car, one hand on its treads. (I should mention that many Transit-born automata do not like to be touched; it is, I believe, a reminder of their history as machines before awakening.) After a moment, they parted ways, and the little old woman turned back towards us.

“Grandma Lyle!” Serge shouted, echoed by Irra, and the two of them practically knocked her over. Natalya, Sulla, and I followed more slowly.

If I did not know better—and I am not yet certain that I do—I would say that Grandma Lyle has some Imperial ancestry, as despite her age and dress she does not resemble either the disparate humans of the Hundred Cities or the Terranoctans. She smiled at me as I reached Serge and Irra. “Rosie, I take it?”

“Yes,” I managed, around Sulla’s chatter. “Forgive me for asking, but are you a facilis?”

Her eyes crinkled up at the corners, and she nodded. “One of the first. As are most of my family.” She gestured after the tram-car, which had trundled most of the way to the alarm tower by now. “Poor #41 doesn’t like being left out of the loop, and she’s returning to Akkuma tomorrow, so she saw this as the last chance to clear matters up.”

Sulla asked her something that I could not catch, as the last few words were automaton-speech, and though Lyle responded in Imperial, I did not understand one word in five. Terms such as “sand-ogre,” “Rimarri banner,” and “fourpoint” must have meant something to the children, who listened avidly and nodded along. “So it was a business disagreement?” I tried.

“No,” Irra said, and immediately tried to hide behind her brother.

“Of a sort,” Lyle corrected. “Business covers a number of matters for City-born, and more for Transit-born. And of course the Lower Kingdoms like to think they know all about automata, so it’s hard to convince them otherwise.”

Do you remember when I gave my first presentation in class, on the political structure of the warehouse district, and got an entire classroom full of glazed looks? I now understand what it’s like from the other side. “This happens often?”

“This is Harkuma.” Ruffling Irra’s hair, she smiled at me. “Pietro tells me you are doing well.”

“I—yes.” I have seen quite a bit more of Pietro since our introduction, though I must question his business acumen, since he’s missed appointments more than once due to his habit of hanging around Cromwell House.

“Good. I’ll send some books along with him.” She bowed again, in the formal Lower Kingdom style. “I have work at the far end of the city, but I hope to see you again. And Serge, you should return those plums.”

True to her words, Serge had taken another handful from the fruit stall while we were watching the conflict, and this meant another unwilling apology and a long talk all the way back to Cromwell House.

Despite such setbacks, the children are starting to learn, although their knowledge of geography is absolutely terrible. I asked Irra to point to Svete-Kulap, and she ignored the map entirely and pointed east, which is nearly one hundred and twenty degrees off. Once they finally made the connection between map and directions, they took to it with alacrity, even if Sulla still cannot quite pronounce the names properly. Pietro brought us a copy of Atlas of the Clockwork Cities—the new edition, by C. and S. Vallom—and Serge can barely be parted from it for a moment.

Incidentally, Natalya has quite surprised me. She is as quick and intelligent as any of the Staves’ thiefmasters any Jenkins School valedictorian, and teaching her is an enjoyable challenge. It turns out the spiders were her way of welcome; the girl has a passion for studying arthropods, and I suspect the mechanical lobster was mainly her work. I would like to recommend her for the Royal Society when she’s of age, since if she’s not given enough of a challenge she is likely to make one of her own.

Yours,

—Rosalie

R:

I’d rather not lose more of our students to the Society, but as it’s unlikely we could bring Natalya here without causing more trouble for the Cromwell children, I’ll consider it.

I can’t help noticing that your letters still say nothing concrete about the potential for a Jenkins School. Is there a chance of founding one or not? This is not a difficult question.

—E.J. (M.)

Dear Matron Jenkins,

It might not be a difficult question in a place like the warehouse district, where despite the many “confraternities” we all knew where we’d go at the end of the day. But Harkuma is not an Imperial city, and its shifting population makes the question much more troubling.

I have, however, sought out more information on the subject. At my request, Pietro took us to visit his grandmother yesterday. The children pounced on her as soon as we reached the door, which she bore with better grace than many of my classmates would have demonstrated, and I was left to help Pietro with the dust shutters (the storm season has begun in earnest, leaving me wondering what life was like before grit accumulated in every part of my wardrobe).

Grandma Lyle’s house is unusual even for the mishmash of architecture that makes up Harkuma. It is old—so old the red brick has faded to rose. Few structures in Harkuma have been in place for more than a decade, but I found myself marveling at the tiles set into the clay that showed the tarnish of time. “So old,” I said as we entered, mostly to myself.

“Rosie!” Pietro said reprovingly, and I looked up, remembering a little too late that I really should inform him of my preferred address.

“She means the house, Pietro, not me.” Grandma Lyle closed another of the dust shutters. “It was built when Harkuma wasn’t much more than a well and a rail depot.” She turned to her grandson and nodded to the next room, where the children were arguing over some many-jointed toy. Obediently, he joined them, I assumed to keep them from tearing the toy apart. “Come,” she said to me. “Sit.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I hope we’re not imposing on your hospitality.”

“Not in the least.” She smiled and settled into a worn chair in front of what I belatedly recognized as a writing-desk. A long case of oversized books stood beside it, as well as tools I’d last seen in our advanced mathematics classes. “As it is, your timing is good; I’ve only just returned from Akkuma.”

“Akkuma? But—” Of course; as a facilis, she would travel between the two, which would explain why she had been the lone human passenger on that train. “It must be a difficult journey.”

“I have an old friend there,” she said, still smiling. “We share an interest in cartography. These days, I split my time between the two cities. Sit, please.”

I did so, pulling a stool to the high table. Through the door, Natalya had begun to inspect the little toy with, I suspected, an eye toward copying it, while Serge had dragged out the Atlas and was flipping through it to show Pietro something.

“Pietro tells me,” she went on, “that you wish to build a school here. Do you understand what that would mean?” She raised one hand to the wall behind her desk, where a metal disc had been set into the clay like a talisman.

I did have the whole speech prepared, Matron, I promise you that. But the words seemed to slide away from me. “I’m not sure,” I told her. “I know what it meant for me, when I lived in the warehouse district.” Lyle raised one white brow, but did not speak. “For me it was a step up, a hand helping me off an unsteady walkway—but there are so few children in Harkuma, and so many of them are only here for months at a time. What good would a school be for them?”

“You might be surprised. And the children are not the only ones here.” She touched the disc again, and in the slanting light I could make out the design that had once been stamped there: a rodent of some kind, turning back to regard its stump of a tail. “There have always been people who shuttled between worlds.”

I thought of the friends I had left in the Staves when I was given to the Jenkins School—and yet I have never regretted the change.

Lyle gestured to her desk. “I traveled for quite some time, as did my friend in Akkuma. As did my husband, before we met. Harkuma was very small in those days, but even then, we kept returning here.” She rose to her feet again. “Come. I’ll show you some of our work.”

I’m afraid all thoughts of the Jenkins School fled while we examined her work. Serge eventually joined us to examine the number of maps Lyle and her family had created over the years. It was quite possibly the most peaceful afternoon I’ve had since stepping off of the train.

So there is one opinion on the viability of a Jenkins School in Harkuma: open to the possibility, if not entirely wholehearted. Though I suspect her position as facilis gives Lyle a perspective that few share. I can’t help but think the faciles would be instrumental for the foundation of any school a Jenkins School.

—Rosalie

R:

Let me be perfectly clear about this: I am not asking for everyone else’s opinion of a Jenkins School in Harkuma, regardless of how old their houses are. I am asking for your opinion. I would hate to think that I had made the wrong choice in selecting you for this work.

—E.J. (M.)

dere Matron Jankins,

if YOU tak our ROSIE away we will send Fiftene LOBTSTERS to your mailbox and they willEAT ALL YOUR MAIL. Do NOT tak ROSIE back we liek her here and she lieks it here TO.

also send one  hundrud THOUSND gold Bulls to this Adress or maybee we will send the lobtsters ENNIWAY.

sinserely yours,

—YOULL NEVER CATCH US

To the Cromwell Children:

I have enclosed your “ransom note” with corrections made in red. You will make those corrections, copy out the result ten times apiece, and return the copies to Miss Syme. In future, if you intend to threaten anyone, you have no excuse for doing so ungrammatically.

Also, your lobster is currently on my desk. I rather like it. Miss Syme tells me this is your work; if so, well done.

—Emma Jenkins

R:

What in the world is going on out there? And why haven’t you gotten to basic spelling and grammar with these children?

—E. J (M.)

Dear Matron Jenkins,

I do apologize for the note, as well as for their spelling. Irra has apparently decided that poor spelling is intimidating, and I have yet to convince her otherwise. I believe Natalya allowed the letter to be written solely to comfort Serge and Sulla, for which I cannot really blame her.

Their concern springs from a failure on my part, and one I am ashamed to relate. Several nights ago, Eutropius held yet another social for his business contacts. I would have simply put the pillow over my head and endured the noise had it not been that we have entered the storm season, and for the past two nights the rattle of sand against my shutters had kept me awake. I left Sulla curled up on my bed and descended to the lower reaches of the house.

I am not certain what I expected to find—although my classmates would probably have whispered about some form of mechanical debauchery, I doubt they would know such if it were presented on a platter. The werglass fixtures of the house were lit, as were several of the lamps, and by their weak light I found my way to the same great chamber where I had first met Eutropius.

Five automata, ranging from a lacy creature very like a transplanted sea animal to a hulking thing created from barrels and treads, stood in a semicircle in the center of the room. Eutropius’ scorpionlike angularity perched in the middle, and he seemed to be the one in charge: though each continued in either screech or drone or arrhythmic clank, he was the one who gestured to each in time, much as a conductor does before an orchestra.

“Fascinating, yes?” I turned to see Pietro, who had been standing just at the edge of the lamplight. “I don’t quite have the ear for it, but it’s still amazing to hear them practice.”

“Practice?” I shivered, looking from him to Eutropius and back. “This is practice for something?”

“Of course.” He shed his jacket and draped it around my shoulders. “Automata music. Although it’s not so much practice as a friendly concert, say. Like singing with one’s family.”

As I watched, a pattern seemed to accrete around Eutropius’ movements: percussive, devoid of melody, and yet with a strangely harmonious result, like a mathematical formula drawn in calligraphy. I shook my head, too weary to either make sense of the sound or reject his loan of the jacket. “But this isn’t music. This is noise.”

Abruptly Eutropius’ gears clattered to a halt, and the noise stopped, leaving only a deafening echo. “Noise, is it?” he said without turning. His voice, so close to human, seemed all the more artificial now. “And what would you have to say about noise?”

Pietro started to shake his head, but I let my exhaustion speak for me. “I—had hoped to ask you to quiet it. The house is so loud, and following the storms—”

“You ask me to quiet my friends?” Eutropius’ central body rotated so that he faced me, and his legs unfolded from underneath. “In my house?”

Some time before I was given to the Jenkins School, I had the unfortunate experience of walking a roofline in winter and finding that several shingles retained a glaze of ice. I have never forgotten that sudden shock of my footing falling away. And yet then and now I had the same reaction: reach out for the first handhold and hope. “It was your partner’s house as well,” I said.

Eutropius went still, even the lights of his eyes going out, and I briefly thought he’d lost power, that his own life had stopped at the mention of his partner’s. Instead he made a horribly discordant noise, and the other automata began to move, gliding or thumping their way to the door. I started to speak, but Pietro put his hand on my shoulder and shook his head.

For a moment the hall was silent—I would have said blessedly so only a few minutes earlier, but now it carried a hollowness that shivered through me.

Eutropius turned away. “Edgar,” he said finally, “hated our music. He could not stand it, and so I only played on nights when he was in Akkuma, or trading in the Capitol. It—makes me miss him less, to play now. I can imagine he is only temporarily absent.”

I caught my breath, stung by the pain in his automaton voice even as I knew it for a mechanical response. And yet there are Society doctors who claim that human pain is a mechanical response as well. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“I should hope so,” Eutropius said with a grinding noise almost like a laugh. “And I should threaten you with termination, for interrupting our music. Or if not for that, then for your little side project.”

A chill ran down my spine, freezing me in place. “Project?” I said, as innocently as possible.

Not innocent enough. “Do you think I don’t know that your matron sent you to found one of her staid, straitlaced schools here? At the very least this constitutes a foolish endeavor; at the worst, I’d consider it a strike against the Hundred Cities and all free automata. We have no need of a foothold of Imperial culture here.”

“It’s certainly not meant as such,” I tried, but he would not hear me.

“In any other of the Hundred Cities, you would be scorned, but here you only look a fool. This is Harkuma, Miss Syme. No one is here because they want to be. No one belongs here. Edgar didn’t, I don’t, and the best we can do is continue.” He shivered, or maybe that was the automaton way of shrugging. “Or perhaps I will simply inform the Jenkins School that you have proved unsuitable.”

“I—” I would have defended myself, but the last few weeks have taken their toll. I have been a tolerable governess for the Cromwell children—but a governess is not a school, and Harkuma is larger than one house. I have failed in the task you set me, Matron, and taxed your patience in doing so.

“You are correct,” I said.

“Am I, now? You finally think so?” He turned to regard me, werglass eyes flaring. “Take your silence and go.”

Pietro shepherded me out of the hall, to the foot of the stairs. To my horror, the children were already there, even Sulla. Tears welled in my eyes as I saw them. “Thank you,” I managed, shrugging Pietro’s jacket away. “I am sorry.”

“He won’t write to her,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

“Write, don’t write, what does it matter?” I pressed both hands over my eyes. “Matron Jenkins—she has every right to call me home—” I caught myself before I could sound any more idiotic and hurried up the steps, Natalya and Irra parting before me.

It was an ill-chosen remark, and one I regretted once I had slept, but I believe it is what triggered the children’s assumption that you were planning to take me away.

Yours,

—Rosalie

R:

No letter as yet from Eutropius.

—E.J. (M.)

Dear Matron Jenkins,

I have begun this letter twice over, and failed each time. It is perhaps emblematic of my greater failure: I cannot found a Jenkins School here.

Since you asked me outright for my opinion, I have been trying to decide what that opinion is. Finally, some nights ago, I’m afraid I reverted to old habit and crept out on my own. It turns out I have not lost the knack, and the rooftops of Harkuma are just as navigable as the warehouse district. You’ll remember that I was given to doing this in my early days at the School; I believe it is how I first made your direct acquaintance. And it was what convinced me that I should remain at the Jenkins School, which is why I believed it would clarify my thoughts on this matter.

On the stormless nights—those without automata concerts, that is—Harkuma is quiet, and one can see almost as far as Akkuma’s gleam across the desert. Each building is different, in the style of each owner’s homeland, and yet I was able to keep my footing. Finally I found a spot on the roof of one of the shelters by the market, looking not toward the desert but back toward the city itself. It is a large city, for all that it pretends to be small and scattered.

For a long while I sat there, arms locked around my knees like Irra hearing a new story and hoping no one will notice her presence before the story ends, until a man’s voice spoke. “Grandma told me I might find you here.”

I turned to see Pietro carefully climbing across the next roof over. He smiled, a little nervously, and slid down beside me, nearly dislodging a tile as he did so. “Did she truly?” I asked.

“You’d be surprised at what Grandma Lyle can guess. Ask her sometime about her childhood.” He joined me in silence for a moment, watching the slow gold line of the late-night train departing. “Did you believe him?” he asked finally. “About Harkuma?”

“Eutropius?” Pietro nodded. “I don’t know. Nobody does seem to belong here, to be honest.”

“And yet he stays,” he said thoughtfully, “with his music and his business.”

And his grief, I thought.

After a moment, Pietro sighed and draped his jacket over my shoulders in much the same way as before. “Well, it’s not as though I can argue. I wasn’t born here, but my mother was, and my aunt—they’re both faciles in the other cities, maybe you’ll meet them on their circuits—but I came back here. We do keep coming back.”

“So Lyle said.”

“She was the first, you know. She and her friend in Akkuma. The first faciles.” He glanced at me, then away. “There aren’t nearly enough of us. It’s in the family, but there are only so many of us, and we’re needed all over—” He shrugged. “Could always use more in the family.”

I think my silence may have dampened whatever point he was trying to make. But his words had sparked a new line of thought for me and I was too busy following that to discern his motives. “You’re right,” I said at last, rising to my feet. “You’re quite right.”

“Am I?” He attempted to get up, slid, and settled for sitting upright.

“Oh, yes. But this will be complicated.” I smiled at him, and he smiled back—despite the steel tooth, he has a perfectly nice smile when he’s not trying to be charming. “I must return to Cromwell House at once.”

I believe he would have walked me home, save that he is much less adept at the roofwalk than I, even given my years away from it. I still have his jacket, though, and have yet to return it with proper thanks.

Since then, I have come to an inescapable and unfortunate conclusion. Because of this, I am returning your investment. I have enclosed your initial startup funds for the Jenkins School under separate, registered cover. You may strike my name from the rolls of graduates if you like, or place me on the list of “nellies” you so often scorned.

My reason is thus: if I am to start a school here, then it cannot simply be a Jenkins School. It must be a Harkuma school, for all of those who shuttle between worlds or might hope to do so; a facilis for the faciles, and it must be more than I alone can create.

This is a risky endeavor, to say the least, and I know the Jenkins School’s reputation would suffer from a satellite’s failure, but whether this school succeeds cannot be dependent on the Jenkins name or even the Imperial tongue. I hope that this makes up in some way for what must be an unexpected betrayal.

I’ve contacted a number of potential teachers—linguists among the translation corps of automata, the Lucan noblewomen and their attendants, some of the Kulap exercise masters. (I have also asked Eutropius if he would consider teaching the specifics of automata music. I believe he was so startled by the question that he did not immediately consider the ramifications of his assent.)

So thank you, Matron, for sending me, and please know that I am more than grateful for all the Jenkins School has done for me. I hope I have not disappointed you.

—Rosalie Syme, of Harkuma

My dear Rosalie:

I regret to inform you that the children’s mechanical lobster has devoured the registered cover for the funds you sent. As a result, there is no way I can officially return them to our books, and so I’ve written them off completely. I have no choice but to send the funds back to you, with my blessing.

Incidentally, I assume you can withstand a visit or two. I’ll be along in the spring.

—Emma Jenkins (Matron)


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Margaret Ronald's short fiction has appeared in such venues as Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, and Clarkesworld Magazine. She is the author of “Dragon's-Eyes” in BCS #9 and BCS Audio Fiction Podcast 007, and the series of stand-alone stories set in the same steampunk world that began with “A Serpent in the Gears” in BCS #34 and includes “Salvage” (BCS #77), “The Governess and the Lobster” (BCS #95), and four other stories. Soul Hunt, the third novel in her urban fantasy series and the sequel to Spiral Hunt and Wild Hunt, was released by Eos Books in 2011. Originally from rural Indiana, she now lives outside Boston.  Visit her website at mronald.wordpress.com.

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1 Comment on “The Governess and the Lobster”

One Response to “The Governess and the Lobster”

  1. thomascantor says:

    06-12-2012, 11:39 AM
    thomascantor

    Bravo! for richness of world-building detail and for the main character’s arc of increasing self-awareness.

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