The tiers rolled by and I watched them through the carriage’s small window, unable to unlock the muscles in my back and neck. Any second I expected to see a swirl of arcane power and have Distelrath appear in the street and snatch me back for whatever interrogation he’d been planning.
My heart and stomach still hadn’t managed to calm. Every few seconds I remembered just how close I’d come to being taken away and very possibly never coming back. I didn’t have the faintest idea of what the queen’s foremost arcane adviser's preferred method of interrogation might be, so my mind decided to be creative, showing me a string increasingly horrific possibilities. As much as I tried to think about something else, anything else, the thoughts kept their claws hooked into my brain and my throat and my heart. I’d think the worst was over and focus on the trees passing by, then the thoughts would tug again and I’d see myself hanging from the branches by my tongue or squirming underneath the powder-white bark, trying to scratch my way out with bloody fingernails.
Throughout the ride I kept reaching for Retort, only to have my fingers find emptiness where my holster was usually fastened. I wanted the gun’s weight in my hands. I wanted to trace it’s familiar shape and wipe down every tiny nook and seam with an oiled cloth. Just as I'd been taught.
The Spire’s facade finally came into view, and I was the first out and into the protective wards. I walked past Waverly and Nisena, both eager to add our experience to the informational arsenal the Spire was assembling. I ignored their questioning looks and their questioning mouths. In as few steps as I could physically manage I was in my workshop.
The room was small but that meant every inch was blessedly familiar. Along the longer side of the workshop sat the metal bench with various containers of chemical reagents and glass apparatuses pushed up against the wall. Above them, numerous wooden pegs held up tools and other miscellany. In the back, the second bench was set in the middle of the wall. Tongs, molds and scrap had piled up on it, a reminder that I’d been in here just a few days ago and nothing had changed since then. In one back corner, placed in the gap between the two benches, a faucet came down from above, draining into a large barrel that I could scoop water out of. In the other corner stood the faithful furnace, whose heat was the one force that could truly banish the chill from my bones.
When the bar fell into place across the door, the knot of my insides loosened. Loosened too quickly. The sudden lack of tension left too much space in me and everything sloshed around and I came close to losing what little breakfast I’d forced down that morning.
I stumbled over to the water barrel and somehow managed to get the ladle to my mouth without spilling it all over myself. A triumph. I’d take my victories where I could get them.
The water was cold and rich with minerals, and it got my mind to a state where I could get to work. There wasn’t a lot of time, and without my gun, I was easy picking for any half competent wizard and they could--
No. I yanked the thread of thought back and ordered my mind to stop. It took a moment, but after another drink of water I managed to push it down where other thoughts could cover it and the unhelpful thing could drown.
I needed a first step. That was easy: get the furnace stoked. It was chilly in here. And only think one step ahead. That was safest.
Once the fire was burning, obedient and contained, I considered my options. Retort was gone and a pitiful little short bow was a poor replacement. So I had to either try to replace my stolen revolver with a new one, or hastily get my prototype blunderbuss to a place I could take it out with me. The blunderbuss’s design should be sound, and my tests so far had been promising. But that didn’t mean I’d worked out all the kinks.
I rubbed at my eyes and sunk down onto a stool. In all practicality, there wasn’t a choice. Retort had taken me several years to engineer and build. And I didn’t even want another revolver--I just wanted my old one back. I’d finish the blunderbuss.
Decision made, I took a look around the room to figure out where to begin. And then groaned. Both benches were littered with odds, ends, discarded tools, and metal scraps. They would need to be tidied before I started working in earnest. Hauling myself back to my feet, I grumbled about how inconsiderate Darling-of-the-past was, leaving me to clean up her mess.
As I was puttering about, someone knocked on my workshop door. I froze. There was no question to anyone where I was, but maybe if I just stayed quiet whoever it was would go away.
“Darling?” It was Inamora. “Will you let me in?”
I stood in the middle of the floor and said nothing.
He sighed. “You don’t need to talk if you ain’t up to it.”
Damn it. I’d given Inamora my word he could use my workshop. I honored my word.
The bar was heavy and reluctant as I lifted it and cracked open the door. Inamora stood patient in the hallway. Maybe he had some piece of his own machinery he needed to work on.
“Come on,” I said and hurried him into the little room. Once he’d squeezed past, I shut the door and dropped the bar back into place. He was watching me when I turned back.
“You look terrible,” he said conversationally.
“I thought you said we didn’t need to talk,” I said.
Half a smile slid onto his face.
“I said you don’t have to talk,” he said. “I never said nothing about me being quiet.”
“That still gives me leave to ignore you,” I said.
He shrugged. “If you want to.”
I didn’t want to. But rather than say that, I sighed, going for long-suffering, but my very real exhaustion just making it sound resigned.
“I find you rather difficult to ignore.”
His smile faltered. He opened his mouth, probably to apologize or offer to leave, but I cut him off.
“No, I don’t want you to go,” I said, preemptively dismissing the notion. I walked over to the tool bench, knelt down, and pulled out the skeleton of the blunderbuss. My fingers ran over the metal mechanisms, feeling every joint and elbow through my thin gloves. Even like this, unfinished as it was, the gun was lovely. Retort had been my first finished firearm and looked scrappy and haphazard compared to this one. Everything from the blunderbuss’ flared barrel to it’s flintlock lever to its trigger and stock radiated a sort of elegance. When complete, its silhouette would be smooth, with graceful lines and very few hard, straight edges.
I stared at it the polished, beautiful metal and missed Retort with an ache that started a few inches above my navel and rippled out until I felt it in my toes and my fingers and my scalp.
“Sorry,” I said, trying to shake myself back to something that could at least mimic human interaction. “I meant to tease you and it didn’t come out quite right.”
Inamora stepped up beside me and joined me in staring down at the bits of the prototype.
“No harm done,” he said. He watched me for several moments as if waiting to see if I’d actually start doing anything with the pieces on my bench. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to, he cleared his throat.
“That’s turned into quite the feat of engineering,” he said.
“I hate it,” I said. It was both true and untrue.
His head snapped to the side and his strangely expressive face furrowed.
“You’re being too hard on yourself. It’ll be a good new gun,” said Inamora.
“I don’t want a new gun,” I shouted, my temper igniting in a brief flare of fire and I slammed my fist into the metal table. “I want my gun.” I leaned forward, arms braced against the table and tried to get a hold of myself. When I managed to speak again my voice came out high and brittle.
“It’s all I have left of her. And what if it’s gone, Inamora? What if it’s gone forever and now she’s gone forever?” One gloved hand clapped over my mouth, as if letting the thought escape might make it true.
“There it is,” he said to himself. He turned and leaned his back against the bench. There was some expression on his face I couldn’t quite interpret.
I let my hand fall away from my face. I didn’t need to understand his exact expression to understand the air he held. Patient but unyielding, like a quiet river that slowly carves a canyon. An air that made it clear that while there was no rush, I was going to explain what was going on inside me.
A distant part of me roiled with a surge of contrariness, suggesting that I double down on my silence against his implied command. A closer, louder part of me said that sounded like too much effort. The thoughts I’d already voiced were like tiny rivulets, setting the course for more words to follow in their wake. It would be easier to let them flow than to try and stop them now.
I put my hand out on the blunderbuss’s barrel, smooth and solid beneath my hand.
“I know I’m rather clever,” I said, “but I’m certainly not clever enough to have learned all this on my own.”
I moved over to the flintlock mechanism, picked it up and triggered it. A small line of sparks fell harmlessly to the metal bench.
“I had a teacher when I was younger. A woman named Afzalun Nisa. My parents commissioned her to properly repair and replace our estate’s old artillery defenses. I was maybe fourteen? Fifteen? When she arrived.”
The words caught inside me. Already I could feel my heart in my throat. I didn’t want to go back there.
“Your home had artillery defenses?” Inamora asked. Of course that was what he latched onto. “That seems...excessive.”
I shrugged and had to work to get my shoulders to go back down. “It’s not uncommon for the area.”
He thought about that for a moment, leaving me to drag my heart out of my windpipe so I could breathe again.
“So this teacher,” he continued. He spoke soft and slow, his voice pitched deeper than usual. “What was she like?”
I laughed despite myself.
“She was a real hard-ass,” I said. As I spoke I started organizing the pieces on the bench, figuring out in what order to put them all together. “She was never meant to be a teacher, but she spent the first five months of her time in Auxerre chasing me out of her workshop. I think eventually she just gave up and the next time she found me, she caught me by the collar, tossed me into a chair, and made me take notes on safety procedures.”
“I’m sure your parents were thrilled about you playing with explosives,” said Inamora with a grin.
I tried to remember if it had ever come up. I drew a blank.
“Dunno. Thinking about it, I don’t think they ever knew. Doyen Nisa met her deadlines, and clearly I’d found something to keep myself busy and out from under their feet.”
“Oh,” said Inamora. After a moment of discomfort, he continued, changing the subject.
“She clearly taught you well,” he said. “You’re one hell of an engineer.”
“She did,” I said. My voice cracked. Everything was in order. I should begin my work proper, but I couldn’t get my fingers to move.
“I’m sorry, Darling,” Inamora said, turning fully towards me. Mother and Father had said the same thing when they found me standing, staring at the room that had been her workshop less than an hour before. Did it happen fast or did she burn slow, eventually snuffed out as she ran out of air? A wizard in a green surcoat had shoved passed me to perform some magic to kill the flames and to clear the smoke and fumes. My parents had followed him to assess the damage without another word. My right hand drifted to cradle my left against my chest.
But something felt different when Inamora said he was sorry. Like he wasn’t just saying it because that’s what you say when bad things happen. Then I slipped out of the mists of memory long enough to remember that I was talking to someone who had lost every single person from his life.
“I don’t know exactly what happened. That’s worse in some ways, I think.” I looked up, and for the first time that night met Inamora’s eyes straight on. “But you know that, don’t you?”
He stared at me like a startled deer. In the time we’d known each other, he’d never spoken of anyone from his old life, at least not in specifics. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t existed.
“So many loose ends,” I continued. I couldn’t even begin to imagine it. A single ambiguous fate had me tied in so many knots I could barely breathe. Without thinking about what I was doing, I reached out and laid my hand on top of his.
He twitched away at my touch. I snapped my hand back, turning and staring back down at the line of gun parts. My face glowed red at my presumption. Gods above--what was wrong with me?
Inamora leaned back against the bench. He’d crossed his arms, hands tucked away, and his posture had become stiff and uncomfortable. Magic from his core roared through him loud enough for me to hear and lit his face up with a pale glow. He stared at the workshop floor, saying nothing.
After many long, excruciating minutes, he stood up straight. He’d come to some decision. I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my hands on the bench. Fantastic job, Darling, you managed to drive off one of the small handful of people who can stand you. Well done. Any second now I’d hear the door open and shut.
And I would be alone again.
Inamora turned around, took a deep breath--or at least something to that effect since he don’t really need to breathe--and reached for me. His fingers eased my fist open and then his palm settled against my palm.
I stared down blankly at our clasped hands.
“You keep surprising me,” he said. I was surprising him? That seemed backwards, cause I had absolutely no idea what was happening right now.
“Do I?” I said, as I found nothing more intelligent to go with.
He hummed an affirmation. “You’re right though, nothing worse than the not knowing. I tell myself a thousand times that it don’t matter. Dead is dead.”
“And how’s that going?” I asked. “Cause as much as I say it, it still don’t feel true.”
“I’ll let you know if I figure it out,” said Inamora, giving my hand a squeeze.
Part of me wanted to think up a way I could do the work I needed one-handed, cause his hand was warm and the thought of letting go of something so solid was almost unbearable. But there was really nothing to do about it, so I gave him a final squeeze and hoped he wouldn’t flee once I wasn’t holding on. He didn’t, so I contented myself with his company since I couldn’t have his touch.
After I nearly scorched off my eyebrows for the third time, Inamora intervened.
“You’re taking a break,” he declared. “You’re getting awful sloppy, and it’s gonna get you hurt if you keep at it.
“I’m fine,” I protested, then ruined it by giving a fearsome yawn. Inamora glared at me, then yawned in turn. Apparently being made of clockwork gave him no protection from infectious yawning.
“Now I know you’re tired,” he said. “You’re usually much better at lying than that.”
I scowled at him, then turned back to my work. I hadn’t been able to take all the time I’d have liked to finish the blunderbuss, but even if it was a bit slapped together, it should be usable for our next outing. The last things it needed was to attach and adjust the stock and finish the water tight sealing in the chamber. I was so close to being done.
And the longer I worked, the longer I could put off thinking about anything that had happened in the past twenty four hours.
“I don’t want to rest,” I said. “I want to finish.”
“At least let your eyes look at something else for a while,” said Inamora. “And a bite to eat wouldn’t hurt.”
“And here I thought I’d outgrown having a nurse follow me around telling me what to do,” I muttered.
Inamora gave an irritated sigh and led me out of the workshop by the arm. Despite my grumbling, I didn’t put up any resistance besides dragging my feet. When he’d mentioned food, my body had remembered it was food-powered and not steam-powered and it turned out I was rather hungry. And if we were getting food from the kitchen, it would probably be whatever Emily had made for supper and that was worth putting up with a bossy busy-body for.
The kitchen, lit only by the dull glow of the cooling hearth and the brighter orange flickers from the wood-stove, was cozy and inviting. Inamora sat quiet on the long bench while I warmed some soup and bread on top of the stove. I sat down across from him when it was heated through. Once the first bite hit my tongue, I realized just how long it had been since I'd had a real meal and practically inhaled the rest. When I looked up, my companion was watching me with a smug smirk stretched across his stupid face. I don’t know exactly what it was--maybe the good food put me in a better humor than I’d expected, or maybe I was just so tired all my usual responses were scrambled and the wrong one came out--but instead of snarling at him like I expected myself to, I looked down at my empty bowl and laughed. Not hysterically, not uproariously, just tired.
“Alright,” I conceded. “So food was a good idea.”
“Of course it was,” he said. “Any chance you’ll listen to me this time when I say you should get some actual rest? Close your eyes for a while?”
“No,” I said, scooping up the remaining dregs of soup from the bowl. “Don’t want to.”
Inamora sighed, then stopped halfway through as if something had just occurred to him.
“Why?” he asked. “Do you just want to finish your project?”
I stayed silent and stared into the empty soup bowl. It should have been easy to just agree and say that was it, but I couldn’t get a simple ‘yes’ out of me.
He stood and circled around the table and sat down next to me.
“There’s something else,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
I wet my lips and took a steadying breath. “You were at the debrief. Most everything was stated then.”
“Most?” He’d caught the implication I’d put in the sentence. “What was left out?”
I shrugged. “Nothing important. It’s just--the opening Jimmy took to get us free? He had it because they were going to take one of us away for interrogation. They were about to take me.”
Suddenly the food in my belly wasn’t sitting so good. I wrapped my arms around my stomach and clenched my jaw. My mind skipped around in my head, touching on some possibility of what could have happened or how I was only still here because of what might have been divine intervention. All those thoughts were bad, so my mind leapt away before any one could finish. But the next was always just as bad, and I cast around, desperate for something safe. Something I could think a full thought about.
“They didn’t take you,” Inamora said.
“I don’t know,” I whispered. “They used an enchantment to keep us subdued, like some blanket of despair that filled you with hopelessness so heavy you couldn’t move. And we disabled it and then everyone felt better. Except I didn’t. I don’t. I can keep moving if I’m busy but if I stop…I can’t shake the feeling I’m still there and this is all some delirium my mind is caught in. And sleeping means lying in the dark and with nothing else to preoccupy myself.”
“I know those kinds of nights,” he said, and his voice pierced straight through my chest.
I found myself once again reaching for his hand, but I paused. What if he didn’t want my sympathy? What if I was just making more of a bore of myself by assuming I could understand his pain? I’d already touched him before and he’d pulled away.
And then he’d reached out for me.
For a few seconds my arm stayed locked like a rust-covered gear. Then I pushed forward, every motion requiring the full force of my will behind it. After what felt like ages, I managed to get all the way there and let my fingers bump his. He didn’t jerk away this time, just pulled my hand in against his. It was as nice as it had been an hour ago.
“You don’t sleep at all, do you?” I asked, desperate to think about something new.
“Not really,” he said, wistfully. “This body don’t need it.”
“You miss it?” I asked. “What I wouldn’t give to not need sleep.”
“You’d think you’d be more productive, but I can only get myself to focus for so long. Still need about the same amount of downtime as you do.” Then he looked at me and smiled. “Actually, not true. I need as much downtime as a normal person who ain’t intent on working herself to death.”
I glared at him but my heart wasn’t in it. The food was settling proper now and it was making me sleepy. I should stand and move around. Wake up so I could finish tonight. But Inamora’s voice was as warm as the rest of him and it kept me in place.
“Sometimes I like to lay back and close my eyes for a few hours and just drift. It’s sort of like sleeping,” he continued, then some quiet sadness permeated him. “Not as nice without someone to wake up next to you.”
“Did you have someone?” I asked.
“My wife, Jenna. Together more than fifteen years when I left the memories at the temple.”
It was the first name from his past I’d heard him speak.
“What was she like?” I said, using the same words and the same low voice he’d used with me earlier. The sadness in him somehow deepened and lightened at the same time.
“She was my best friend,” he said. “Smart. Funny. Kind.” He chuckled and squeezed my hand. “She would have liked you.”
“Would she?” I said and smiled at him. “She’d join a very exclusive club.”
“What can I say? She always had a soft spot for stubborn asses with good hearts. She did agree to marry me after all.”
“And you, Inamora? What are your feelings about stubborn asses?” The words came out of me without my consent.
“With good hearts,” he insisted. I was about to say how that disqualified me, but he scooted over and pulled my head to rest against his shoulder. “I should say I got a terrible weakness for them.”
A self-deprecating comment vanished from my tongue. For once my exhaustion worked for me. By the time I knew what was going on enough to be awkward and stiff about the prospect of physical contact, I was already nestled against him.
“Relax,” he said.
“I’m…” Words were hard, but because every noun, verb, and adjective had disappeared from my head. But it wasn’t heartache choking me this time. I didn’t know what this was. Maybe I was just real tired. “I’m awful bad at relaxing. You might’ve noticed.”
“Take a deep breath,” he said. “It’s just me.”
He said it as if that was supposed to help. Still, I complied, trying to breathe deeply. I think the best thing I could say was I didn’t somehow end up more tense.
“Like I said. I’m bad at this.”
He shrugged underneath me. “Well you ain’t pulling away,” he said. “That’s something.”
I didn’t know what to say to that so I blurted out the first thing that jumped to mind.
“I didn’t realize just how much heat your magic throws off,” I said, leaning against him harder.
“Ah, I see,” he said, a smile in his voice. “You’re just here for my body.”
It took me a full two seconds to fully process what he'd said, and another three to move through the shock. Then I started giggling uncontrollably against him. Giggles turned to full on hysterics as my exhausted mind imploded.
From the outside, it probably looked like I was crying; I was shuddering against him, my silence only broken by the occasional desperate gasp as I tried to not asphyxiate.
“That’s...not exactly...what I was going for,” I said once I’d gotten enough breath back. “Wasn’t trying to justify myself. Just making an observation. I’m always so cold here.”
“Well, I can imagine worse things than being someone’s personal heater,” he said, and squished me tighter.
We sat like that for a long stretch in companionate quiet. Settled against his shoulder, I stared across the room at the almost cold hearth. The shadows were as thick there as in other dark corners of the room save for the thin veins of embers. They pulsed between orange and red as if part of something alive.
“What’s the climate like where you’re from?” Inamora asked, pulling me from the trance I’d fallen into. “I never been very far from Vigil.”
“The Southern Downs ain’t too different from the valley floor,” I said. “It’s warmer in the summer, and don’t get near so cold in the winter, but mostly there’s a lot of rolling hills and deep woods and little streams. And rain. Rain like you never seen.”
“Dunno. We can get a pounding here in the mountains,” he said.
I shook my head and closed my eyes. There weren’t a whole lot of memories from home that didn’t lacerate my heart to think about, but I found one. “I remember being...I dunno...nine? ten? or so. Late summer storms would blow up from the sea, their clouds so towering you could hide whole mountains in them. I’d sneak into mother’s study with its big bay windows and watch them sweep up from the south. A shadow creeping closer over miles and miles of rolling fields. Then when the rain finally hit, it was like standing under the Athamer’s falls but if the waterfall had an area of hundreds and hundreds of miles. Sometimes the wind blew so fierce the whole house moaned and those bay windows rattled so hard they sounding like shaking marbles in a jar. You’d lose sight of the town just down the hill, ‘cept when the lightning flashed close by.”
“That sounds like something I’d like to see,” Inamora mused. “I’ve always liked the rain.”
“Most of the other kids and even some of the older folk were frightened when the big storms hit. I’m not sure why.”
“The rattling windows, booming thunder, and pounding precipitation probably had nothing to do with it.”
I chuckled and continued to describe the memory until I realized what was going on.
“You’re trying to trick me into falling asleep,” I whispered into his shoulder.
“And it’s working,” said Inamora.
“I...I gotta finish,” I insisted, though while I hadn’t been looking, someone had filled my body with lead and I couldn’t move.
“I know,” he said kindly. “Just a short nap. I promise I’ll wake you with plenty of time to finish your project.”
“I just said so.”
“And if anyone comes down--”
“I also promise to protect your secret that you do, if fact, sleep. Now keep telling me about these storms of yours.”
I think I only made it through another dozen words before I succumbed.
Inamora was good on his word. The clock across the kitchen showed that I’d only been out for about an hour when he shook me back awake.
It must have helped. My eyebrows didn’t have anymore close calls as I wrapped up my work. I may not have regained my precious Retort, but Requital would now hang heavy across my back, ready to blast holes in monsters with even more enthusiasm than its older sibling.
Doyen Nisa would approve.