Isadora Four played Chopin in the heart of the old kettle. The music, born of rusted strings and reflected in a sounding board of time-warped wood, reverberated from the dented tin walls that rose high above her, as it did within her. Endless, gentle, furious.
“Isadora,” called Keeper. “It’s time for your dance.”
Four’s fingers stumbled, and her arpeggio collapsed into a dozen violent shards. Must he rush her? A shudder took her, and she wanted to bang her fists down on the keyboard in violent release, yet she dared not. The piano was of Master’s making—she didn’t know if he held it dear.
She rose and turned toward Keeper. He stood on the landing of the spiral staircase that sloped up into the kettle’s spout like some corrugated corkscrew. White hair tumbled down his shoulders, a waterfall of frost, and an intricate pattern of wrinkles laced his face, the same now as the day Master created him.
He beckoned her with one gnarled hand. “You’ve prepared for this,” he said. “Show him you’re perfect.”
Four knew he meant the words kindly, yet she couldn’t suppress a surge of bitterness. Easy for him to speak of perfection—he’d never be tested, never risk failing in Master’s eyes.
“I go,” she said and strode forward, dancing-slippers soft on the scuffed metal floor. Past the alcove where Number Three slept in a robe of silk, a layer of fine dust gathering on her face. Past Two, her mottled skin dull-sheened under the pale lights from above. Past One, whose stunted arms lay placid at her sides. Four didn’t look at them long, though not for fear of their deformities—she might not exist, if not for those. To look at them was to think of Number Five.
She quickened her step. “Good luck,” Keeper said to her as she passed, but she didn’t even glance at him. She ascended the stairs into the spout, round and round, ever higher. Up and out onto her stage, a wooden platform drenched in light from a dozen glowing orbs flickering in a gray-domed sky.
Noise hit Four hard, like a slap across her body. She stood alone on her stage, unprotected. On all sides of her they towered, figures a hundred times her height, garbed in black and white—here a splash of red, there of gold. A booming came in the distance: laughter. Then a shrill keening like a steel beam crumpling: most likely a giggle.
Isadora forced herself to stand tall and show no fear. She was ready for this—she was better and stronger than her predecessors. Master must see that. She must make him acknowledge it.
The towering shapes bent closer, and the warm, foul wind of their breath buffeted her. She could make out their faces now, like tawny clouds with eyes, floating above satin evening ties and pearl necklaces that shimmered so bright she had to squint.
“Ladies and gentlemen, behold Isadora Four,” boomed Master’s voice.
Something inside Four trilled. With fascination. With resentment. With longing. She searched the faces for his, but it was out of sight. The only familiar figure she could see was her own size—Keeper, who stood now on the lip of the kettle’s spout and watched her, his frame taut.
“My genie in a lamp,” Master boomed again in the distance. “Three years in development, she’s my masterpiece.”
That was Four’s cue. With a flight of goose bumps across her flesh, she tore her gaze from Keeper and began her dance.
Step forward. Lean sideways. Pirouette. Pretend that no eye followed her.
A groaning came in her ears, and a high-pitched ringing of bells—Master’s music. Though it made her bones rattle, she adjusted her rhythm to suit.
Jump. Twist. Slide sideways. Arch back.
“Look at her go, ladies and gentlemen. Gone is the sluggishness of Isadora One. Gone the defects of Two and Three. Surpassing my earlier models by leaps and bounds, she’s excellence itself!”
He’d called her excellent! Four’s heart soared, and she sped up to keep pace with the music’s racing beat. Oh, let them watch. Let them ooh and aah, them with their foul stinking breath. Even when sweat rolled down their noses and fell to her platform in large blobs, splashing so she had to jump out of the way, she never flinched. Let Master see how strong she was.
Step sideways, sink down, leap up. Turn, turn, turn, arms outstretched. Toss her head, golden hair flying wide.
She no longer heard Master’s music. It was Chopin she heard. It was Chopin to which she danced.
Then, painful, a noise like a hail of rocks on metal. She collapsed to her knees and clasped her hands across her ears. Applause, she realized. Not for her, though. Applause for Master, for his skill in artifice, the making of false things.
All false, except for her. Surely she was true.
“Isadora Four, ladies and gentlemen,” said Master. “Isadora Four. I’m almost there, as you can see. A few models more and you can bring her home, complete with kettle and guardian. Sign up at the office after the ball.”
The shapes looming over her drew back and became blobs of black and white, and red, and gold again. Four crouched alone on her platform, unwatched. Splattered in their sweat and saliva, abandoned.
Footsteps approached from behind, slow, cautious. Then came Keeper’s voice. “Isadora, come. We’ll go home.”
Four didn’t stir from her crouch or raise her head to meet his gaze. She didn’t even mean to speak, but words forced their way past her lips. “He’ll never take me with him, will he?”
Keeper shifted on his feet. “We can’t guess Master’s mind, Isadora.”
“And when he next attends to us...” she said, but her throat froze up and she had to cough to clear it. “You know what he will bring, when he next attends to us.”
A silence between them. Unspoken, the name of she who must come, sooner or later.
“What would you have of him, if he did take you with him?” Keeper asked.
A fire kindled in Four. In one violent motion, she uncoiled herself from her crouch, sprang to her feet, and launched herself into a furious pirouette. “I’d dance on his hand,” she called out, spinning. And I’d gouge his skin. “And I’d caress him.” And spit in his eye. “And I’d kiss him,” she finished as she halted into poised stillness, arms outstretched, right foot forward, facing the near edge of the platform.
“I’m sorry,” Keeper said, but a fevered heat rose within Four and she spoke right over him. “What would I have of him?” She took one light step toward the platform’s edge, then another. “I’d climb to the crown of his head, higher and higher, with all the world below me. Then I’d jump, and fall. Fall, down to the stone floor far below—or else to his palm, should he save me.”
“Isadora—” Keeper began again—too late. Already she’d launched into a run. Forward, only forward, no looking back. If not with Master, then alone.
Keeper’s footsteps came behind her, but he was heavy and slow, too slow to catch her. Her heart hammered. Her eyes stung. What would it feel like, to fall? Would it be like her dance? Like a moment’s freedom, fleeting but true?
A few more steps, and then she was at the edge. For the briefest instant she balanced on the precipice, staring into the gaping emptiness at her feet—and, far below, the solace of hard stone. Waiting, calling, promising an end to humiliation.
She leaned forward. Tensed.
“Wait!” Keeper called, close, too close.
Release! Up into the air, she was free.
Keeper’s arms closed around her waist, and he pulled her roughly. They stumbled back across the platform together. Two steps, three, an awkward dance.
Keeper kept his arms around her when they stopped. Both of them were gasping—Keeper from exertion, Four in dizzy, numb relief. Yes, she felt relief. She couldn’t repress it, for all that her cheeks burned with shame at the weakness it betrayed. Yet relief wasn’t all she felt. With each gasped breath she grew more aware of Keeper. Her skin tingled where he touched her. His breath moistened her cheek.
Was this how it would have felt, had Master chosen her for himself? More wondrous yet, surely. He would have held her close to his cheek and stroked her hair, and whispered his love to her. A father’s love, or perhaps more....
“Isadora,” Keeper whispered. “Did you really mean to leave me?”
Four started at his voice, and tore free of him in one violent motion—not for him to hold her so! Not for him, whose sole purpose was to restrain her and maintain her, and keep her a prisoner for Master’s pleasure. She whirled on him, meaning to shout at him, perhaps even to strike him for his presumption.
Then she saw the weariness in his shoulders and the dull pain in his eyes—pain that hid a longing she dared not think about. Keeper was taller than her, but he seemed a small creature as he stood there, outlined against the figures of Master’s guests gliding cloud-like in the distance.
So different, yet so like her. A creature of another’s purpose, never his own.
“I’d jump,” she said to him, but there was no anger left in her. “I’d jump, before he brings another, and puts me to sleep by Three’s side. You can’t catch me every time.”
There were spots of red in Keeper’s cheeks. Four had never seen red in his cheeks. “Then I’ll jump with you,” he said.
For a moment, Four thought her heart had ceased its beat. For a moment, it seemed that she didn’t know this creature who stood before her. For that brief moment, she knew a twisted kind of hope—that she needn’t fall alone after all. “You would?”
“I would,” he said, and took a step toward her. “Grant me but one request, and I will.”
Four stepped back reflexively and drew her arms about her. A request? “You won’t put me off with words and tricks, Keeper.”
“I swear by my duty to you and your sisters, I mean no tricks.”
Sisters. Four repressed a shudder at the thought of their fate—a fate she might yet share. Best she considered Keeper’s words carefully. He was slow, yes, and not strong, yet he’d been fast enough to catch her, strong enough to haul her back from the edge. If she refused him now and tried to jump, he might catch her again and restrain her until Master came.
Better to play his game for a while, if a game it was. “Very well,” she said. “I’d hear your request.”
“Then come with me.”
Keeper took her by the hand. Together, they crossed the platform back to the spout and descended into the kettle. As they entered the dim stairwell, Four glanced back at the shimmering lights outside, fearing she might never seen them again. Then they rounded the first curve in the stair and descended into darkness. For all that she mistrusted Keeper, she held his arm tight against her side.
“I danced well today,” she said halfway down the stairs, the words breaking out of her unbidden. “Didn’t I?”
“You danced beautifully,” he said, and his voice caught. “My heart sang.”
Four laughed, an upwelling of spite that burst forth from her before she knew what it was. “Your heart, Keeper? What rusty wonder is that?”
Keeper said nothing, only stiffened a little, and they passed the rest of the way down in silence. Once they emerged into light at the landing, where the dome of the kettle opened up before them, Keeper pulled loose from her and turned away. “Close your eyes,” he called over his shoulder.
Four considered running. Perhaps she could be up the stairs and to the edge of the platform before he could catch up with her. Yet she felt curiosity stirring in her—there’d been an edge to Keeper’s voice, as if he feared what he meant to do. She closed her eyes.
Keeper’s footsteps, retreating. Silence. Then, a rustling of fabric. A low hum she’d never heard before. A high, keen-edged beeping. At last silence once again.
Then, in the perfect stillness of the air, a faint voice. “Thank you.”
It couldn’t be.
Four’s eyes flew open. It was Three, rising from her alcove! Three, who’d lain still and unmoving in that alcove for all of Four’s days, now stirred to life.
The lights from above had dimmed and now flickered, but Four could see well enough. Four watched as Three pushed herself up from her bed with graceful care, each movement exaggerated. Four marveled as Three turned her head from side to side and shook the dust from her skin with short, brisk movements. Four gasped as Three took her first stumbling step out of the alcove, toward the piano.
Three’s eyes flew to Four’s at the gasp, and she changed direction, staggering toward Four. At first she moved like a marionette on a string, yet she gained confidence with each stride, until she laughed and ran forward. Jumped into the air. Spun on one leg, around and around, and around. Did a cartwheel across the floor, and came to a halt right in front of Four.
“So you’re Master’s ‘Dora now,” Three said, her voice a perfect echo of Four’s own.
Four raised her fingers to Three’s face, reverent. The golden hair, like hers. The smooth skin, also.
Not the deep blue eyes, though, each a different size. Not the crooked nose, nor the twisted chin or dented forehead. Those were sacrifices to Master’s pursuit. Waystones on the road to perfection.
Will you ever find her, Master? Your perfect one?
“Would you play for us, Three?” Keeper asked.
Four and Three both started. He’d come up behind Three and now stood to one side, watching them. His cheeks were still flushed, and his nostrils flared when he breathed.
“Is this your game?” Four asked him, bemused. “Do you mean to shame me before her?”
Keeper’s brow furrowed. “To shame you? No. I’d only see you dance the waltz before we fly.” He glanced up at the flickering lights. “But we must hurry—Master will notice Three’s draw on his power.”
Four jerked back. She had to fight for breath, and tears stung her eyes. He wanted to see her dance, and he’d risk Master’s wrath to see it. That was all he wanted! He didn’t mean to scold her or to judge her, or to restrain her—she’d heard the truth of it in the tremor of his voice, and she saw it now in his eyes.
She’d always seen it there, though she’d never allowed herself to know it for what it was. A longing, in those eyes. A vastness of need.
Three looked at Keeper, then at Four, then back to Keeper. Her lips parted as if for speech, but then understanding seemed to dawn on her face. She nodded, an abrupt gesture, and turned toward the piano.
Four barely noticed. Hope she’d thought lost clawed its way up from the black depths within her. She felt once again as if standing on the edge of a precipice, about to take a step—yet this time she didn’t stand alone. This time, she might fly.
She extended her hand toward Keeper. “Dance with me,” she said.
He started. “I?”
Keeper’s jaw worked. “I’m your Keeper,” he said. “Master created me so I’d keep you safe, and your sisters too. Not so I’d, so I’d....”
Four stepped toward him and took his head between her hands. She leaned forward and planted a kiss on his rough, scabbed lips. “Dance with me,” she whispered.
Keeper’s cheeks blossomed scarlet. He put his arms around her.
Three played for them. Chopin, born of rusted strings and reflected in a sounding board of time-warped wood, reverberated from the dented tin walls, as it reverberated in Four’s soul. Endless, gentle, furious. Louder and louder, till Four was sure those outside must hear. That Master must hear and come investigate, and find his creatures rebelling. Defective. To be improved upon, and soon.
Four glanced at Three by the piano, then at Two and One still asleep in their alcove. Perhaps they’d fight Master, all together, no matter the odds. Or perhaps they’d walk to the roof, all of them, and jump. Would Master even miss them?
Four didn’t care. She had a lover in her arms. He shuffled when he waltzed and favored one knee, and his beard scratched at her skin, but he was right there, no dream, and he held her close. She kissed his cheek and turned in dance.
Turn, turn, turn. Step forward. Step sideways. Arch back.
For the first time since she’d stirred to life, she no longer waited for Master. Nor did she wait for Number Five.