An Excerpt From Clockwork Heart
By Dru Pagliassotti
[ Information on Clockwork Heart
Taya cupped her wings and fanned them, slowing
as the iron struts of a wireferry tower loomed before her. The massive
construction blocked the gusting winds, and she sighed with relief as her thick
boot soles hit the girder. Bending her knees to absorb the impact, she crouched
and folded her arms, ducking into the safe harbor.
The wind in the wires sent vibrations thrumming through the metal under her
feet, and the tower swayed. She took a moment to lock her armature into
tight-rest, tailfeathers snapped up and wings tucked in. With a wriggle, she
pulled her arms out of their leather straps and ran a safety line from her
harness to one of the narrow girder struts. She made a short loop around the
iron bar and locked the line back to her belt.
“Oh, that’s better,” she groaned, rubbing her shoulders.
After a moment, she pulled off her flight goggles and wiped them against her
sleeve. The glass was smeared with dead bugs and the inevitable greasy soot that
collected whenever she flew past the city’s refineries.
Usually, the trip up from Tertius was easy. Thermals from the smelting
factories provided plenty of lift, but today the late autumn gusts of the
diispira—the winds that blew over the Yeovil Range every year right
before winter—made soaring risky. For a few minutes, when one of the winds
had stolen her thermal away and sent her into a stall, Taya had been forced to
flap like a foundering duck. Her shoulder muscles were still twitching, and the
sweat from her efforts was drying beneath her flight leathers.
How much longer until she was off-duty, anyway?
She slipped her goggles back on to keep protect her eyes from the wind and
surveyed the mountainside spread beneath her. Terrace upon terrace of closely
placed buildings descended into the dark haze of factory soot that perpetually
mantled the lowest sector of the mountain. That was Tertius, the sector where
the famulate caste labored in the mines and manufactories, providing the metals
and goods that maintained Ondinium, the capital of Yeovil. Tertius—where
she’d been born and where her sister was about to get married.
Thick stone walls ringed the mountain, dividing the major sectors from each
other: Primus, for the exalteds; Secundus, for the cardinals; and Tertius, for
the plebeians. Gates pierced the walls at regular intervals, but each portal was
guarded by stern-faced lictors whose job was to prevent the indiscriminate
mixing of castes.
Only icarii like Taya and the occasional authorities who rode the suspended
wireferries could pass freely from sector to
sector. And even wireferry passengers were checked at waystations whenever they
changed cars, especially at Primus.
Taya searched the soot-blackened towers that rose at regular intervals along
the sector walls, looking for a clock.
Seeing one, she smiled. Another hour before she could go home and prepare for
the wedding. With a little luck she could deliver the report from the College of
Mathematics and linger long enough at Oporphyr Tower to avoid picking up another
job. As long as the decatur didn’t give her another message to carry,
she’d get to the party in plenty of time.
The metal beneath her feet jolted and shuddered. Taya grabbed the strut next to
her with one heavily gloved hand. Usually she loved flying, but today’s
winds were the worst she’d—
The girder jolted again, and the high-pitched shriek of straining metal cut
across the whistling wind and humming cables. Chilled, Taya jerked her head up,
looking for the source of the noise.
There. One of the wireferry girders, suspended in midair several yards away
from her, was starting to bend under the weight of an approaching car. Gears
ground and began to spin as the heavy wire cables slipped, loosening as the
girder started to buckle.
Taya leaped to her feet, banging her head against a low strut. She winced,
looking around. Didn’t anyone else see the danger?
Yes—wireferry workers were racing up the tower ladders from a nearby
station, alerted by the sound of straining metal. But they were far away; too
far away to do the people in the car any good.
The people in the car!
“Oh, Lady,” she groaned, unsnapping her safety hook and tucking the
strap back into her harness. Even though the rational part of her mind was
screaming warnings about the danger of flying next to a collapsing girder, of
maneuvering around wires that could snap at any moment, she was already dredging
up memories of old aerial rescue drills, calculating wind direction and target
height, her best angle of attack and the loadbearing capacity of her ondium
Heart pounding, Taya slid her arms back into her wingstraps and crouched.
It had to be done. Her armature tugged her upward, its buoyant ondium straining
against the weight of her compact body. Shifting to put her head into the wind,
Taya threw herself into the air, her boots smacking the girder for extra thrust.
Metal girders shot past as she plunged through their deadly network. As soon as
she was clear of the support structure, she threw her arms wide, snapping her
metal wings to full extension.
Broad ondium feathers closed as she swept her arms downward, propelling herself
up toward the endangered ferry car. She kicked her tailset down and slid her
ankles behind its bar. A gust of air tugged her and she rode it aloft, then
swept her wings again as the gust veered off, broken by an obstruction current
from the girders around her.
Metal shrieked again. Wires snapped and twanged.
Time was running out. Taya strained forward, flying up and over the ferry car
to get a clearer grasp of the situation.
Two passengers clutched the car’s leather-covered seats—an adult
and a child. The adult was wearing robes and a mask. An exalted.
“Scrap!” Taya swore and wheeled around, searching for assistance.
Engineers were scrambling over the breaking girder, but she could tell from
their hand signals to each other that they weren’t in any position to
help. A small group was trying to string another support wire through the struts
to keep the straining girder from crashing hundreds of feet to the streets
below, but that wouldn’t help the passengers if the car cable snapped.
One person at a time, she counseled herself. The wind was suddenly icy
on her face as sweat trickled down from her hairline. Just concentrate on
rescuing one person at a time.
She circled back to the ferry and began to brake, her tailset down and her
wings cupped. She kicked her feet free.
Momentum and uneven winds sent her crashing into the side of the car.
Taya’s knees buckled against her chest and she gasped, twisting one hand
out of its wingstraps to grab a service handle on the side of the car.
An arm reached through the window and caught the harness straps along her
shoulder. Taya looked up and saw a woman staring at her, her dark eyes wide but
her ring-covered hand gripping the leather harness like iron.
Taya breathlessly nodded her thanks, then took a tighter grip on the door
handles. The woman released her and Taya yanked the ferry door open, grabbing
the sides of the door frame. Her ondium wings scraped against the sides of the
ferry car and she flinched.
“Take Ariq,” the lady said, her voice shaking. She swept up the
little boy at her side. “Save him.”
Ariq screamed, staring at Taya’s goggle-masked face, and tried to kick
away. He couldn’t have been any older than four, his round face still free
“I’ve got him,” Taya said. She braced the edges of her feet
against the door frame to steady herself as she took the boy from his mother.
Ignoring the child’s shrieks, she pressed him against her stomach and
snapped safety cords between his legs and under his arms, just like the practice
drills had taught her. It wasn’t as easy with a squirming child as it had
been with a stuffed dummy. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The mother nodded. Her castemarks, sweeping blue waves tattooed across each
cheek, stood out sharply against her pallor. She’d let her ivory mask fall
to the floor, and she’d stripped off her jeweled public robe to free her
Taya finished securing the terrified boy to her harness and slid her arm back
into its wing.
The car jolted again, dropping a few more feet as the girder bent and the
cables slipped. The woman gasped and Taya threw herself backward, free of the
For one nauseating moment she was in free fall, and then she twisted around,
spreading her wings. They checked her descent with a violent jolt, ondium and
air currents fighting gravity. The boy screamed, one long howl of terror.
The engineers at Cardinal Station Six were the closest. Taya flapped without
any regard for her dignity, concerned only with maximizing speed and lift as she
compensated for the unfamiliar and frantically shifting weight against her
midsection. The stubby metal work dock several yards beneath the breaking girder
was her target.
Several of the workers saw her coming and stretched out their hands. She
swooped down, braked, and let them grab her by her legs and harness to haul her
in. Holding her wings over her head, she panted, staying as motionless as
possible as the workers steadied her with brusque efficiency. Ariq howled again
as they stripped away the straps and buckles that held him, roughly tucking them
back into her harness.
“There’s another one up there!” a man shouted, as the tower
shuddered. Everyone looked up fearfully, but the gears and girder were still
“I know.” Taya waited just long enough to make sure Ariq was in
safe hands, then turned and kicked off from the work dock as engineers and
repairmen ducked her sweeping wings.
Another icarus had spotted the danger and was circling the threatened car,
seeking a safe approach. Taya swept up, foundered a moment under an unexpected
crosswind, then caught herself. The other flier saw her and rocked his wings
left and right.
Relieved to have backup, Taya angled toward the ferry again.
The exalted was standing in the door frame, staring up at the bending girder
with her hands clamped over her mouth. Taya swept her wings backward and slammed
into the car.
“Grab me!” she shouted, as the car lurched. The woman reached
out—and then, with a horrifying screech, the tower buckled and the ferry
Taya’s foot slipped from the car’s door frame and she tumbled
backward, feeling the exalted’s arms tighten around her neck as they
dropped. Both of them screamed. Taya instinctively spread her wings to catch as
much air as possible, but the edge of the falling car clipped her flight
primaries and sent her into a spin.
Wires! Taya thought with alarm, beating both wings in a desperate
attempt to get lift. If a loose wire hit them, it would slice them in half. If a
girder hit them, it would smash them to a pulp.
Her sister would never forgive her if she died just hours before the
But the plummet continued. Her armature hadn’t been built to carry
another adult. Taya had hoped to have enough time to go into a controlled glide,
Her wings caught an updraft and their descent slowed, almost imperceptibly. The
woman clutching her shoulders moaned, the only sound she’d made since that
Taya wanted to tilt, but the woman’s excess weight was dragging her down
vertically, and all she could do was try to control their fall by flapping as
hard as she could. The exalted’s fingers dug between her shoulder straps
and her flight suit. Her legs were wrapped around Taya’s waist, and her
face was pressed against Taya’s neck.
Somewhere metal crashed against metal, and people shouted, but Taya
couldn’t look up to see what had happened. She felt a strange drag on her
wing—clipping the side of the car must have damaged one of her
“Taya!” The shout was barely audible over the wind in her ears. The
other icarus swept past, wings locked. A locked glide was a dangerous maneuver
at the best of times, especially so close to the wireferry girders, but it was
the only way he could free an arm to yank loose one of his safety lines.
“Exalted! Listen!” Taya shouted into the woman’s ear.
“There’s a safety line dropping toward us. You have to hook it to my
For a moment the woman’s arms tightened around her, and Taya could feel
the exalted’s heart hammering. But then, with the same desperate courage
she’d shown in the ferry car, the woman looked up.
Taya swept her arms down again, straining to keep them from entering complete
“Grab the line or we’re both dead!”
The line swung past. The woman took a halfhearted pass at it, but the line
slipped through her fingers. Taya shuddered as she nearly missed a beat.
The icarus above them made a tight circle. The line swung past again. This time
the exalted caught it, then clutched Taya’s shoulders. Taya felt the
safety line’s clasp slide through the rings in her back harness.
“It’s done,” the woman gasped.
Their fall slowed as the icarus above them shared their weight. They were safe.
A crowd had gathered on the street to watch the drama
unfolding hundreds of feet above their heads. Arms reached up to grab her and
her passenger, and Taya had to shout at them to back off so she’d have
enough space to land. For a second she hovered, backbeating. The exalted slid
off and collapsed to the ground, shaking.
Then Taya’s boots hit the street and she staggered, taking a few steps
forward. She barely remembered to yank her arms free and unfasten the safety
line before she, too, sank into a crouch, wrapping her arms around her shoulders
and trembling with relief. Strangers surrounded her, touching her floating wings
for luck and saying things to her that sounded like an incoherent rumble.
Lictors appeared, barking orders, keeping people back. After a moment, Taya
drew in a deep breath and pulled her goggles down around her neck. She turned
and knelt next to the exalted.
“Are you all right, exalted?”
The woman rolled over, her gold hair ornaments clinking against the
cobblestones, and opened her eyes.
“Is my son safe?”
“I left him at the tower station.” Taya jerked her head upward.
“He’s all right. Just a little scared.”
“Thank you.” The woman closed her eyes again.
“Excuse me. Exalted.” A lictor stepped forward, his eyes averted,
and held out a rough scarf. Taya took it from him.
“Your face, exalted,” she said, draping the scarf over the
woman’s head. “It’s bare.”
“Oh, Lady save us,” the woman snapped with disgust, then sat up,
holding the scarf in place. The exalted’s hands were unsteady, but she
wrapped the scarf around her face, leaving only her eyes visible. Taya gave her
a crooked smile. Sometimes caste restrictions weren’t very practical.
“Tell me your name, icarus.”
“Taya, exalted.” Taya pressed a leather-gloved palm against her
forehead and ducked her head, sketching as much of a bow as she could while
squatting in the cobblestone street. Her loose wings tugged at her armature as
“I am Viera Octavus, Taya, and I am in your debt.”
“Are either of you hurt?” The lictor sounded more confident now
that the noblewoman’s face was hidden again.
“No, by the Lady’s grace, neither of us has been injured. Give me
something to cover myself,” Viera demanded. “And bring me my
“They’re carrying him down now, exalted.” The lictor
obediently unbuttoned his greatcoat and shrugged it off. He handed it to the
woman as she pulled herself to her feet.
“Taya! Taya, are you all right?” A familiar voice. Taya looked up.
The icarus who’d slowed their descent pulled off his goggles and cap,
revealing a shock of curly black hair. His wings were locked high and his straps
The crowd let him through, and even the lictors reluctantly stepped aside.
“Hi, Pyke.” Taya let him grab her hand and haul her to her feet.
For a moment she leaned her forehead on his broad chest, gathering her strength.
“Anytime.” He patted her shoulder. “Wings up, babe.”
Her metal wings were drifting horizontally, knocking into bystanders who tried
to crowd too close. With a groan, Taya slid her arms back into them long enough
to lock them in a vertical line up her back and over her head.
She winced as she pulled her arms back down. Her shoulders were going to be
killing her tomorrow. She pulled off her flight cap and ran her hands through
her short, sweat-dampened hair. The cool breeze felt good against her scalp.
“Taya Icarus.” Exalted Viera Octavus turned. Barefoot, wearing a
borrowed greatcoat and a makeshift mask, she looked more like a child playing
exalted than a full-blooded member of the ruling caste. However, the steady,
dark eyes over the veil revealed that she was already recovering her dignity.
“Will you please introduce me to your friend?”
“This is Pyke, ma’am. He’s the one who threw us the safety
“At your service.” Pyke tapped his palm against his forehead and
gave a perfunctory bow. Taya glared at him, and he lamely added,
“I am grateful for your assistance, as well, Pyke Icarus.” Viera
looked up. Taya followed her gaze.
The girder had collapsed, and twisted metal struts were trapped in the
wireferry lines that held them suspended overhead as if in a metal net. The
ferry car had slammed into the side of one of the station towers and was nothing
more than a tangle of wreckage. Several of its dislodged ondium keel plates had
floated up and tangled in the cables.
“Scrap,” Pyke breathed, shaking his head. “You owe the Lady a
couple of candles next holyday, Taya.”
“I sure do,” Taya murmured, staring.
“Exalted, if you’ll please follow me, I’ll escort you
inside,” a lictor was saying, beside them. “We’ll bring your
son to you and semaphore up to the tower to notify your husband.”
“Very well. We shall speak again, Taya Icarus. House Octavus shall not
forget what you have done for it today.” Viera touched one of Taya’s
wings before allowing herself to be led away. Taya looked after her a moment,
admiring the exalted woman’s elan. After a few thousand rebirths, maybe
she’d be that self-possessed after a near-death experience.
“Excuse me,” another lictor said, politely but less deferentially,
to Taya and Pyke. “I must now hear your account of this occurrence.”
He was tall, pale, and fair-haired—Taya didn’t even need to analyze
his accent to guess he was of Demican descent. However, the black lictor’s
stripe tattooed down one side of his face proved that he was a full citizen of
“I don’t have much to say.” Taya stripped off her gloves and
loosened the top buttons of her flight suit. “I didn’t see anything
until I heard the girder giving way.”
“Interviewing witnesses is a mandatory procedure,” the lictor
insisted. “You must follow me, icarii.”
“All right,” Taya acquiesced. Arguing with a lictor, especially a
Demican lictor, was worse than useless. One of the selection criteria for the
caste was stubbornness.
“You don’t have to interrogate us,“ Pyke protested, balking.
“We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Pyke, come on,” Taya urged him. “The sooner we give our
statements, the sooner we can get out of here.”
“This is harrassment! We’re innocent—why do we have to
She rolled her eyes.
“He’s just doing his job. And I’m almost certain that people
are never beaten and brainwashed for rescuing exalteds.”
“You never know,” Pyke said darkly. “Octavus is a
“I know.” Octavus was among the many names she’d memorized
while cramming for the diplomatic corps examination. “So?”
“So, you know what that means.” Pyke gave her a meaningful look.
“Council. Do you think it’s coincidence that a wireferry
broke while his wife was riding it?”
“Oh, Lady, not a new conspiracy theory.” Taya grabbed his arm and
started walking, pulling him along after her. “Come on. Let’s
“But what if the stripes are in on it?” Pyke objected, digging in
his heels. “It could be a military plot. They might decide to get rid of
“Pyke. I’m tired, and I have to attend a wedding tonight.
Let’s just answer the man’s questions and go, all right?”
“You’re too trusting,” Pyke growled.
“Uh-huh.” Several months ago she’d gone out a few times with
Pyke. At first his gloomy mistrust of authority had been amusing, but after a
few weeks, his conspiracy theories and complaints about the government had
gotten on her nerves. “The thing is, I don’t feel particularly
threatened by the lictors, all right?”
“Well, they’re probably not as much of a threat as collapsing
wireferries,” Pyke admitted, looking up again. Taya laughed, despite
herself, and his eyes warmed.
She looked away.
It was too easy to like him. Pyke was a skilled flier and a thoughtful friend,
and he had all the good intentions a girl could want. Not to mention broad
shoulders, a strong chest, and hard muscles in his arms and legs from years of
flying. Add to that his Ondinium-copper skin and dark hair and eyes, and he was
a difficult man to resist.
Her best friend, Cassilta, said she was crazy to cut Pyke loose, but Taya
hadn’t been able to take any more lectures about corruption and cover-ups.
She’d ended the relationship with the reliable “just friends”
excuse. To his credit, Pyke had taken the rejection well. In some ways, Taya
would have preferred a more contentious breakup; at least then their
relationship would be clearer.
Fortunately, Cassi now considered Pyke fair game, which gave Taya some
breathing room whenever the three of them were together.
“If you will please follow,” the Demican lictor insisted.
“You were great up there, Taya,” Pyke said as they trailed after
the official. “Just wait until the eyrie hears about it.”
“Not great enough. I think the car clipped one of my feathers.” She
craned her neck, but she couldn’t see the tips of her wings without
stumbling over her own feet.
“It’s just a little bent. The smiths will fix it in no
The lictor led them up a short flight of steps into the nearest guard station,
and Pyke waved a dramatic good-bye as they were parted.
“If you wish to remove your wings, you may,” the Demican lictor
said, leading her into a small office. Taya hesitated, but her body ached, and
she wanted to sit down. Deciding she deserved a break, she unbuckled the harness
straps and swung open the metal keel. Her back prickled as the leather flight
suit pulled away from her sweat-covered skin. She turned and looked at the
It swayed in the air, its metal wingtips touching the ceiling. Taya frowned as
she inspected the feathers. Two primaries were bent out of shape, but Pyke was
right. They wouldn’t be hard to repair.
She’d been lucky.
“You were very brave,” the lictor said, pulling two chairs away
from desks and swinging them around. “I will not make you stay long. Sit
down. Do you wish to have something to drink? I can bring you water.”
“That’s all right. I’m fine.” She sank into a chair and
rubbed her neck. Her muscles twinged like plucked strings. “What’s
“I am Lieutenant Janos Amcathra.” The soldier dropped into the
other chair and pulled out a sheet of paper.
A Demican name. From his accent, he had to be a first- or second-generation
citizen. Taya switched to Demican and held out a hand.
“Well met in peacetime, Lieutenant Janos Amcathra.”
“Well met in peacetime, Taya Icarus,” he replied in the same
language. He took her hand and clasped it, then switched back to Ondinan as he
picked up a pen. “This will not take long. Please describe everything that
Taya recounted the event. It took her longer to tell it than it had to live it.
Amcathra took detailed notes, then nodded when she was finished.
“Then it was a coincidence that you were close to the accident
scene,” he summarized. “If you had not stopped to rest
“We all got lucky.”
“Yes.” Amcathra handed her a printed form and a pencil. “The
last thing I must have is your signature and eyrie number. We will send you a
message if we need to talk to you again.”
Taya blinked, surprised.
“That’s it? I thought we came in here because it was going to take
a long time.”
“We came in here because you needed to be away from the crowd.”
“Oh. Well, thank you.”
“We do not often beat and brainwash Ondinium’s citizens,” he
Taya grinned. “Don’t mind Pyke. He’s harmless.” She
picked up the form and skimmed through it.
Amcathra watched as she signed it, and then he added his own signature.
“Your friend may be correct about one matter. The collapse may not have
been an accident.”
“What do you mean?” Taya remembered Pyke telling her about stacked
contract bids and substandard building materials in one of his anti-government
“Incidents of political violence have been on the rise.”
“Is Octavus . . . political?” She knew from her studies that
Octavus was a technological conservative. That made him popular among the
laboring plebeians but alienated many of the cardinal castes who depended on
technology for their living. His enemies labeled him an Organicist, a
reactionary who wanted to get rid of all technology.
“I am only speculating. An icarus flies high and sees much. If you spot
anything suspicious among the wires, I hope you will report it to me.”
Typical. It was just like a lictor to drop enough hints of criminal activity to
make a person uneasy, and then try to use that uneasiness to his own ends.
Suspicion was a way of life for the military. And icarii were always asked to
help out their investigations.
Best just to agree and get out.
“Of course. Is that all?”
Amcathra glanced up at her floating armature. “Do you require any
assistance with your equipment?”
“No.” She rose to her feet, suppressing a flinch. Her back and arms
“Fly safely, icarus,” he said, nodding and leaving.
Taya set about strapping herself back in, moving more slowly than usual. The
metal exoskeleton and leather straps had left bruises all over her body. A hot
bath would be nice. With luck, she’d have enough time to take one before
Once the armature was strapped on, its buoyant ondium helped support her aching
muscles. Taya’s legs had stiffened up after sitting, and now they twinged
as she walked.
Back out on the street, lictors were keeping the crowd of rubberneckers out of
the way as engineers scrambled over the wireferry towers, running more cables
back and forth like a giant safety net to keep the wreckage from hitting the
Taya stood on the wide station steps a moment, wondering how long it would take
to lower the broken girder safely to the ground. She was glad she didn’t
have to rely on the wireferry to move from sector to sector. The cars would have
to be rerouted around the accident site, and a lot of important people were
going to find themselves delayed on their way home.
A few members of the crowd began to cheer. She looked around and realized they
were waving at her. She lifted a hand, embarrassed. Scattered applause greeted
Uncomfortable at being the focus of attention, Taya limped across the street to
the base of the wireferry tower. She considered waiting for Pyke, but she had no
idea how long it would take him to give his statement. She smiled. With his
attitude toward authority, they might decide to hold him for the night.
The lictors allowed her to climb up to the lowest launch dock on the tower,
only fifty feet off the ground. It was high enough. She rolled her shoulders one
last time and pulled on her cap, goggles, and gloves. Muscles protesting, she
slid her arms into the wings, unlocked them with a backward shrug, and ran to
the edge of the dock.
The citizens below clapped as if they’d never seen an icarus take off
before. Taya made a face and swept her wings out, searching for a thermal to
lift her away from the broken girders and the unwanted attention.
According to the clock she passed as she soared
up the mountainside, she was officially off shift. She could land at the eyrie
and ask someone else to carry her message from the College of Mathematics to the
Oporphyr Council. No one would blame her, after the day’s excitement. And
she really had to wash and change before Katerin’s wedding.
But flying was working the aches out of her muscles, so she decided to push
onward and deliver the message. Until she heard back from the examination board
about her scores, she didn’t want to do anything that might reduce her
chances of being accepted into the diplomatic corps. Not all of the examination
was pen-and-paper. The board would be looking at her personnel records, and some
icarii whispered it had even been known to set up secret tests for prospective
envoys, to see how they behaved when they didn’t know they were being
Rescuing a decatur’s family has got to help my chances, she
thought with a sudden burst of good humor, swooping past the landing docks and
heading up the cliffs. Other icarii tilted their wings as they flew past her,
running their own messages across Primus and back and forth from Oporphyr
The “tower” was really a small but ornate palace built on the very
peak of Oporphyr Mountain, overlooking the city of Ondinium. A number of slender
stone towers pierced the sky, topped by slate roofs that shed the annual rain
and snow and ringed by narrow balconies that provided safe docks for the icarii
who were constantly coming and going at the Council’s orders. The
tower’s grounds were covered with arched walkways and fountains to make up
for their lack of greenery—few plants grew well this high above the
mountain’s long-since-vanished timberline.
Oporphyr Tower had once housed the king of Ondinium, centuries ago when the
realm had still been a monarchy. At that time, the tower’s location had
been a matter of security. Foreigners often wondered why the Council still met
in such an inaccessible location, now that Ondinium was no longer torn apart by
war, but the tower was more than just a building. It was also the doorway into
the hollow shell of the mountain, where Ondinium’s clockwork heart
floated—the colossal Great Engine, each giant gear, pin, and lever cast
out of pure ondium and suspended in the center of the mountain, ticking away in
constant motion as it calculated Ondinium’s future.
Taya soared up on an air current, rising above the unruly gusts of the
diispira, and circled the tower. She loved being this high, where her
ondium wings swept her effortlessly through the clear air, their metal feathers
gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight. The Yeovil Range stretched out around
her. The three mountains immediately surrounding Ondinium were dotted with
townships and mining camps, lumber yards and herders’ crofts. None of them
were as crowded as Ondinium Mountain, where every square inch was covered by
buildings, streets, or walls, but they formed a secure barrier between the
capital city and the wilderness that enveloped the rest of the range.
Then she wobbled and remembered the damage to her flight feathers. I
don’t need any more excitement today, she scolded herself. She tilted
and landed on one of the docking balconies.
The balcony doors were closed against the late autumn chill. Taya let herself
in and pulled off her goggles, cap, and gloves. The room was dim and not much
warmer than outside. Ondinium’s engineers had tried running gas lines to
the tower, but the pipes had kept breaking during the winter storms. As a
result, the Council still conducted its business by the archaic light of
fireplaces and oil lamps.
One of those lamps lit the single lictor who sat at a desk, feet up, nose
buried in a cheaply printed magazine.
“I’ve got a message to deliver,” Taya announced.
“Destination?” The guard moved her boots and set aside the
magazine. Taya read the upside-down title. The Broken
Lens—political commentary and satire. Pyke’s kind of
“Do they really let you read stuff like that in here?” Taya pulled
the package from her back pouch.
“Are you kidding? The decaturs buy it wet off the press. The Lens’
reporters know more about what’s going on in Council than they
“That’s not very reassuring.” Taya tilted the package toward
the light, looking for the address. “Decatur Forlore. Delivered by
The lictor dipped her pen into an inkwell and wrote as Taya stole another
glance at the magazine’s cover. Maybe she should pick up a copy tonight
and see if it said anything about Decatur Octavus. Of course, Pyke might already
have one . . . but borrowing it would mean listening to his latest political
rant. No thanks.
Maybe Cassi would have a copy. Her best friend didn’t give a tin feather
for politics, but she lived for gossip and scandal.
“Okay, you’re all set.” The guard told her how to find
Forlore’s office and waved her through.
Taya strode through the high halls, taking the opportunity to stretch the kinks
out of her arms, legs, and back. Most of the strangers who passed traded
respectful nods with her—dedicate clerks, librarians, and programmers, and
the occasional lictor. Once a masked and robed decatur paced past, and Taya
joined everyone else in the hall in stepping aside, bowing with her palm pressed
against her forehead. The lower-castes who worked in the tower had developed a
fast and perfunctory bow around their decatur employers—a necessary
compromise between intercaste formality and day-to-day work life—but Taya
carefully followed protocol. If she became a diplomatic envoy, precise decorum
would become her life.
Decatur Forlore’s office was in one of the highest towers, and by the
time Taya had finished walking up several flights of curving stairs, she was
grateful for her wings. Their lighter-than-air metal made the climb a lot
easier. Even so, she was breathing heavily in the thin air by the time she
reached the doorway.
“Decatur Forlore? Icarus. I have a package for you.”
She swung the door open and ducked through. Most of the city’s buildings
had been constructed with wings in mind, but doorways could still pose a
The decatur’s office was crammed with shelves of books, stacks of paper,
and odd knickknacks strewn here and there on top of chairs and small tables. Two
men stood at a table in the center of the room, examining a clock.
Neither was covered, although Taya spotted a set of public robes thrown over a
chair in one corner, its ivory mask laid on top. Despite the lack of ritual
garments, and even though they had their backs toward her, it was easy to pick
out which one was the decatur. His clothes were made of beautifully dyed silks,
and his long black hair was bound back in an ornate style held together with
glittering gold clasps, just like Viera Octavus’s. Taya saw the flash of
rings on his fingers as he set the clock down.
Then the decatur glanced over his shoulder and smiled. He was a handsome man,
with a generous mouth and green eyes that twinkled amiably.
“Wait for me a moment, icarus. I’ll be right with you.”
He looked back to his guest, who wore the short hair and somber black suit of a
“Thank you, Cris. I’m impressed. But in truth, I’m always
impressed by your work.”
“I’d be impressed if I knew how your guests managed to knock
it off the mantel,” said the repairman, one hand resting possessively on
the clock case for a moment before rising to adjust his wire-rimmed spectacles.
“This clock isn’t light. What in the Lady’s name were they
“It was an accident,” the exalted said, lifting a dismissive
shoulder. “High spirits and too many of them, I’m afraid. I
appreciate your bringing this all the way up to the Tower. You could have simply
taken it around to the mansion.”
“I didn’t want to visit the mansion. And I wish you’d send a
servant to pick up your packages, instead of expecting me to bring them to you.
I have other work to do, you know.”
Taya shifted uncomfortably at the repairman’s sharp tone. He sounded
better-educated than most famulates and used the formal speech patterns of the
ruling caste, but that didn’t excuse his taking such a familiar manner
with an exalted. He and the decatur must know each other well. Maybe the decatur
broke his clocks on a regular basis. From the looks of his office, Exalted
Forlore wasn’t very careful with his possessions.
“Yes, well, at least this way I have the opportunity to see you once in a
while.” The decatur held out a hand. The repairman shook his head, but
“You could always come down to visit me, for a change.” The man
turned and Taya drew in a startled breath.
The repairman was exalted, too.
The contrast between the wave-shaped castemarks on his cheeks and his somber
black famulate suit was so shocking that it took her a moment to collect her
thoughts. She’d heard of exalts who’d rejected their caste, but
she’d never actually seen one before. She’d always considered them
as unreal as dragons and unicorns.
Instead of an exalted’s traditional long, ornamented hairstyle, the
repairman had cut his black hair carelessly short, as if he didn’t care at
all what impression he made. His face was narrow and sharp, with cold grey eyes
behind silver-rimmed glasses and a thin mouth set in a skeptical twist.
Taya dragged her gaze away, afraid she was staring, but he seemed to be looking
just as intently at her. His chilly examination made her wonder if she’d
somehow offended him. Should she have bowed? Then he took another step forward
and she realized it was her armature that had attracted his attention.
“Your straps are loose,” he said critically, then lifted his gaze.
For a moment the lenses of his glasses flashed white in the lamplight.
“And two of your feathers are damaged.”
“Yes, exalted. I was in an accident. I’ll get them repaired as soon
as I return to the eyrie.” She looked down at her harness and wished
she’d taken the time to re-coil all her lines and re-fasten all her
buckles. She’d been in too much of a hurry to finish up for the day.
“Don’t be so unpleasant, Cristof. The young lady appears to have
been working hard today.”
Taya glanced up and saw Decatur Forlore smiling at her. He was young, for a
member of the Council—he couldn’t be much into his thirties, and
most council members were in their sixties. She remembered seeing his name on
her list of important people. Forlore. He was a programmer, but he hadn’t
voted often enough to be politically categorized yet.
“It’s a matter of safety.” Cristof’s voice was stern.
“An armature is a sensitive piece of machinery. It shouldn’t be
mistreated like this.”
“I didn’t mistreat it!” Taya protested. The exalted’s
eyebrows rose, and she bit her bottom lip.
“Then what happened to you?” Forlore asked, before Cristof could
respond to her outburst. Taya bowed, eager to explain before she was criticized
“One of the wireferry girders broke, exalted, and—”
“Viera!” The decatur pushed away from the table. “You were
the icarus who rescued Viera? We were told what had happened when Caster was
called away from the Council. Is she well? How is Ariq?”
“They’re both safe, exalted. Neither was injured.”
“Thank the Lady.”
“What caused the accident?” Cristof asked, his grey eyes narrowing
behind his glasses.
“I don’t know.”
“Who cares? What’s important is that no one was hurt,”
Forlore said impatiently. “That is—no one was hurt? None of
the rescuers were injured, were they?”
“No, exalted. I don’t think so.”
“That’s good. By the Forge, Cris,” the exalted said with a
touch of irritation, “you need to get your priorities straight.”
“The icarus had already told us Viera was safe. I asked the next logical
question.” Cristof gave the decatur a sidelong look, pushing his glasses
higher on his nose. “You should wonder why it happened, too, Alister. It
could have been you in that car.”
“Oh, would you stop worrying over hypotheticals? I’ve told you
before—statistically speaking, you’re less likely to get into an
accident on a wireferry than you are walking through the city streets,”
Forlore said. “It was probably metal wear. I should adjust the weather
variables on the Engine’s repair program; the last few winters have been
more severe than most.”
“We would all be safer if you did,” Cristof said, stiffly.
“Good evening, Alister. Icarus.”
Taya stepped aside as he brushed past her, wondering again whether she should
bow. At last she did, but he was already through the doorway.
She turned back to Decatur Forlore, who shrugged.
“Cristof is brilliant with machines but terrible with people. Come in,
icarus. Tell me everything that happened.”
She took a cautious step deeper into the room, afraid her wings would knock
“You had better take those off. There’s no point trying to walk
through this mess with twelve feet of metal strapped to your back. Here, let me
find you a chair. Were you part of the rescue team? You must be
“I can’t stay long, exalted—”
“I insist you stay for a few minutes. I intend to hear the entire story
before you leave.” The decatur turned, working his way to a desk.
“Would you care for a glass of wine?”
“No, thank you. I have to fly back,” she said with regret. Wine was
a luxury she could seldom afford, and it was unheard-of for an exalted to offer
a glass to a mere icarus. But flying required precision work, especially with
damaged feathers. She glanced at the clock on his table, thinking of
Katerin’s wedding. Time was slipping by. At this rate, she was going to
have to choose between a bath and dinner, if she wanted to get to the ceremony
Well, there’d be food at the reception.
“I hardly imagine half a glass will impair your judgment.” Forlore
pulled out an open bottle and rummaged until he found two glasses.
“Consider it a command, if you wish.”
“Well, exalted, if you put it that way . . . .” She set the package
aside and unbuckled her harness. When she looked up, she saw him smiling at her.
She instinctively smiled back, then blushed. Exalted, she reminded
herself, pulling off her flight cap. Mind your caste!
“What’s your name, icarus?”
“Taya, exalted.” She left the armature bobbing behind her and gave
him a proper bow, trying to restore a safe formality between them. He was still
gazing at her, looking bemused. Her short hair was probably standing on end. It
always did, after a long day of flying.
“I don’t believe I have ever seen you here before. I’m sure I
would have remembered you.”
“I’m here every couple of days, exalted, flying one errand or
“Is that so?” He poured a half-glass and handed it to her, then
filled a glass for himself. He tilted the glass in a brief toast. “I
should get out of my office more often.”
Was he flirting? Did she want him to be flirting? Flustered, Taya looked around
the crowded room, seeking a noncommittal response.
“I can see where getting out of here might pose a problem.”
“I know this must appear chaotic, but I assure you that I have a very
scientific filing system.”
“And the floor is part of it?”
“The system is deeply encrypted.”
Taya smothered her smile. Lady, what was she doing? She had to get back to the
“I brought you something to add to it, then.” She handed him the
package from the College of Mathematics, then sipped her wine as he opened
Definitely a new Council member, she thought, watching him as he read. No
exalted had ever poured her a drink before, or engaged her in small talk. They
seemed peculiarly thoughtful gestures for a member of the ruling caste. The
exalteds, forged by the Lady with the superior insight and intellect they needed
to protect Ondinium, seldom wasted much time on the lower castes.
Superior insight and intellect. Her lips quirked as she let her gaze
roam across the clutter that surrounded them. You’d think the product
of a thousand fortunate rebirths would be a little more organized.
“Well, I can’t say I’m delighted by these statistics, but I
appreciate your delivering them.” Forlore set the papers down and looked
up. “You’re still standing. Sit down. You can remove that bust from
the chair behind you. Set it on the floor.”
“Are you sure I won’t disrupt your filing system?” she asked,
moving the head away and taking a seat.
“Not at all. It belongs there with the other P’s.” Forlore
leaned against the table, watching her.
“I see.” She returned his look, keeping her face impassive.
“Would that be ‘P’ for Abatha Cardium or ‘P’ for
“‘P’ for plaster.”
She laughed and he beamed, his green eyes warm with pleasure.
“May I ask you a question, exalted?”
“How long have you been a decatur?”
“I’ve been a decatur for a little over a year. I was elected to the
Council after Decatur Neuillan was . . . released from duty.”
Of course. She should have guessed the newest member would be Neuillan’s
replacement. The older decatur had been caught selling programs to the Alzanan
government. Most of the city had demanded his execution, but Ondinium law
reserved the death sentence for murder. Instead, the decatur had been stripped
of his caste, blinded, and flogged out the city gates as a traitor.
“Is there a reason you ask?” Forlore gave her a curious look.
“Do I seem different from the other decaturs, somehow?”
He did, but she wasn’t about to tell him that.
“I was just wondering why I’ve never delivered a message to you
“Oh. I’m afraid that’s because I spend a great deal of time
down at the University with my programming team.” He grimaced.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the Council keeps its new members
in line by assigning them so much work that they’re unable to find the
time for any potentially disruptive pursuits, such as framing legislation. But
my team has just finished a major project, so I’m free now to attend
“Is attending meetings better than programming?”
“It is different, at least. I’m afraid my job must seem quite dull,
compared to yours. Now, tell me about the accident. What happened?”
Taya recounted the story a second time, gratified by his rapt attention. When
she was through, Forlore gave a long, low, and very un-exalted-like whistle.
“Astounding. I’m relieved you were there. My cousin Viera is as
close as a sister to me. I’d be devastated were I to lose her.”
“She was very brave,” Taya ventured.
“Viera has always been brave. She’s also honorable; she won’t
forget she owes you her life, and neither will her husband. Caster Octavus is a
very traditional man in matters of caste and honor.”
“What are his politics?” she asked, eager to learn more about the
man. Forlore blinked, looking surprised by the question.
“Well . . . that’s rather difficult to say. Caster’s enemies
call him an Organicist, but it’s a misnomer. He depends on the Great
Engine as much as the rest of us, at least in matters of industry and
agriculture. But he doesn’t care for programs that simulate human
behavior, so he’s objected to a few of the trade and policy calculators
that the Council has adopted.”
Taya studied the decatur’s face, trying to see if he were joking.
“You have programs that act like humans?”
“Not precisely.” Forlore smiled. “I imagine you saw that play
down in Secundus last year, didn’t you? The one about the analytical
engine that goes insane and orders the city’s lictors to kill anyone that
challenges its calculations?”
Embarrassed, she nodded.
“You needn’t turn so red! I was among the exalteds who went to see
it, myself. I found it very imaginative, but its playwright didn’t have
any idea how analytical engines really work. What we call a human-behavior
simulation program doesn’t give an engine any capacity for independent
thought. What happens is that programmers like my team collect a great deal of
data about how one person behaves, or about how many people behave, under
certain circumstances. They boil the data down and develop a behavioral model,
code it onto cards, create a program, run it, and the Great Engine uses the
program’s parameters to calculate the most statistically likely behaviors
a hypothetical person sharing the same traits might adopt in a given situation
or over a finite period of time.”
Taya gave him a dubious look. He smiled.
“You’ve taken loyalty tests, of course.”
She nodded. Icarii took a loyalty test each year, on the anniversary of their
“Your answers to each test are fed into the Engine, and it compares your
new responses to your old responses, notes any changes that have occurred over
the years, compares them to established risk factors, and predicts whether or
not you’re a threat to the city or the Council. If there’s a
reasonably high probability that you’re becoming a security risk,
you’ll be summoned before a Board of Inquiry that determines the truth of
“Isn’t the Engine always right?”
“Many people make that assumption, but it isn’t true. If the Engine
has a well-tested, reliable program and enough data, its predictions can be have
a high level of validity. But it’s impossible to collect enough data to
cover all the potential variables. That’s why humans make the final
analyses.” He smiled. “If the Great Engine were infallible, Ondinium
wouldn’t need a Council.”
Taya thought of Pyke. “I know someone who always criticizes the Council,
but he’s never been called up to a Board of Inquiry.”
“Criticizing the Council doesn’t automatically make a person a
security risk.” Forlore paused, taking a sip of his wine. “In fact,
Council members criticize each other all the time. A group that doesn’t
question itself usually makes bad decisions. Your friend may not be happy with
Ondinium’s government, but apparently he hasn’t shown any
inclination to sabotage it.”
“He wouldn’t do that,” Taya hastened to assure the decatur.
She didn’t want to get Pyke into any trouble. Forlore looked amused, as if
reading her mind. “Do decaturs take loyalty tests, too?”
“Yes, but . . . .” the exalted paused, glancing at her. “As I
said, the Engine isn’t infallible. If it were, it would have caught
His moment of hesitation was enough to remind Taya that she wasn’t
chatting with a friend; she was talking to an exalted. Why was she dawdling
here, anyway, when her sister was getting married tonight? She stood.
“I’m sorry, exalted. I’ve been taking up too much of your
“Not at all.” He reached out for her glass. She faltered, then
handed it to him. Exalteds weren’t supposed to take dirty dishes.
“I’ve enjoyed talking to you, Taya.”
“Thank you. And thank you for the wine.”
“My pleasure. I look forward to seeing you again.”
“I’m sure you will, exalted.” She began strapping on her
“Yes. I’m sure I will, too.”
She glanced up. He was watching her with a thoughtful look, the lamplight
glittering off the gold clasps in his dark hair and burnishing the smooth copper
of his skin. But even without the ornaments, it would be obvious that he had
been born exalted—his Ondinium coloration and features were flawless.
Taya smoothed her short auburn hair, the all-too-apparent sign of her mixed
heritage. To her chagrin, she took after her Mareaux-descended father more than
she did her Ondinium mother. Then she blushed and looked down to check her
harness once more.
Lady, there’s a reason exalteds wear concealing masks and
robes! She had no right to notice Decatur Forlore’s face. The only
features that mattered between them were her wings and his castemarks.
Think of this as a diplomatic test, she advised herself. Act like you
would if you were already in the corps.
“Is that everything, exalted?” She took a deep breath and looked
up, smoothing her expression into one of calm professional interest.
“For the moment.” He held her gaze. “Fly safely,
“I will. Thank you.” She bowed once more, her palm against her
forehead, and made her way out as quickly as she could. She felt his eyes on her
and had to struggle to resist the urge to glance back.
As soon as she reached the hall, she rubbed her hands against her cheeks,
trying to convince herself they weren’t burning and he hadn’t seen
Lady and spirits. I’m going to have to rush to get to the
wedding on time.
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