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Episode 38 is part of the Spring 2017 issue!

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Lessons From a Clockwork Queen

by Megan Arkenberg

I.

It was Bethany’s job to wind the queen. Every morning she woke in the blue-pink dawn before the birds sang, slipped out from under her quilt and took down the great silver winding key that hung over her bed. Then she wrapped herself in her dressing gown and padded up the long, cold tower stair to the room where the queen was kept. She pulled back the sheets and found the little hole in the queen’s throat where the winding key fit like a kiss, and she turned and turned the key until her shoulders ached and she couldn’t turn it anymore. Then the queen sat up in bed and asked for a pot of tea.

The queen (whose name happened to be Violet) was very well cared for. She had girls to polish her brass skin until it shone, and girls to oil the delicate labyrinth of her gears until she could move as silently as a moth, and girls to curl her shining wire hair tightly around tubes of glass. She had a lady to sew her dresses and a lady to shine her shoes and a whole department of ladies to design her hats and make sure she never wore the same one twice. But Violet only had one girl whose job it was to wind her every morning, and only Bethany had the winding key.

[Full transcript after the cut]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 38. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you.

This week, we have a reprint by Megan Arkenberg, “Lessons From a Clockwork Queen” with guest reader Sunny Moraine.

Megan Arkenberg’s work has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies, including LightspeedAsimov’sShimmer, and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. She has edited the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance since 2008 and was recently the nonfiction editor for Queers Destroy Horror!, a special issue of Nightmare Magazine. She currently lives in Northern California, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature. Visit her online at http://www.meganarkenberg.com.

Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, among other places. Their debut short fiction collection Singing With All My Skin and Bone is available from Undertow Publications. They unfortunately live just outside Washington, DC, in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband.


Lessons From A Clockwork Queen

by Megan Arkenberg

 

I.

It was Bethany’s job to wind the queen. Every morning she woke in the blue-pink dawn before the birds sang, slipped out from under her quilt and took down the great silver winding key that hung over her bed. Then she wrapped herself in her dressing gown and padded up the long, cold tower stair to the room where the queen was kept. She pulled back the sheets and found the little hole in the queen’s throat where the winding key fit like a kiss, and she turned and turned the key until her shoulders ached and she couldn’t turn it anymore. Then the queen sat up in bed and asked for a pot of tea.

The queen (whose name happened to be Violet) was very well cared for. She had girls to polish her brass skin until it shone, and girls to oil the delicate labyrinth of her gears until she could move as silently as a moth, and girls to curl her shining wire hair tightly around tubes of glass. She had a lady to sew her dresses and a lady to shine her shoes and a whole department of ladies to design her hats and make sure she never wore the same one twice. But Violet only had one girl whose job it was to wind her every morning, and only Bethany had the winding key.

Having a clockwork queen was very convenient for Her Majesty’s councilors. Once a month, they would meet over tea and shortbread cookies and decide what needed to be done; and then they sent for a clockmaker to arrange Violet’s brass-and-ivory gears. If she needed to sign a treaty or a death warrant or a new law regulating the fines for overdue library books, the clockmaker would tighten the gears in her fingers so that she could hold a pen. If her councilors thought it was time to host a ball, the clockwork queen had a special set of gears for dancing.

The king of a neighboring kingdom, who was not clockwork and understood very little of the theory involved, decided one day that he should like very much to marry the clockwork queen. Violet’s councilors thought this was a thoroughly awful idea and rejected his advances in no uncertain terms. The politics of courtship being what they are, the king took the rejection very much—perhaps too much, if we may say that a king does anything too much—to heart, and he hired an assassin to murder the queen.

The assassin (whose name happened to be Brutus) tried everything. He poisoned Violet’s tea, but she—being clockwork and lacking a digestive tract—didn’t notice at all. He released a noxious vapor into her chambers while she was bathing in a vat of oil, but she—being clockwork and lacking a respiratory system—didn’t care in the slightest. He slipped a poisonous spider into her bed, but she—being made of brass and lacking the sagacity of an arachnophobe—made a nest for it in one of her old hats, and named it Mephistopheles.

Being a clever sort, and no longer quite ignorant of the properties of clockworks, Brutus lay in wait one night on the cold tower stair, and he thrust a knife into Bethany’s heart when she came to wind the queen. He took the great silver key and flung in into a very, very deep well.

And that is why a wise clockwork queen owns more than one winding key.

II.

When Bethany died, and the winding key disappeared, and poor Violet ground to a halt like a dead man’s watch, her councilors declared a frantic meeting, without even the officious comfort of tea and shortbread cookies. “We must build a new winding key!” declared the eldest councilor, who liked things just so and was not afraid to leave Opportunity out in the cold. “We must declare ourselves regents in the queen’s absence and wield the full power of the monarchy!” declared the richest councilor, who had never understood the point of a clockwork queen in the first place. “We must abolish the monarchy and declare a government of liberty, equality and brotherhood!” shouted the youngest councilor, but at just that moment a servant arrived with a tray of cookies, and he was ignored.

“We must,” said the quietest councilor when everyone had settled down again, “declare a contest among all the clockmakers in the land to see who is worthy to build our new queen.” And since no one had any better ideas, that is what they did.

Over the next months, thousands of designs appeared in crisp white envelopes on the castle’s doorstep. Some of the proposed queens had no eyes; the eldest councilor preferred these, so that he could pinch coins from the palace treasury unobserved. Some queens had no tongue; the richest councilor preferred these, so that he could ignore the queen’s commands. And one queen had no hands, which all the councilors agreed was quite disturbing and could not, absolutely could not be permitted.

On the last day of the contest, only one envelope appeared at the castle door. It was small and shriveled and yellow, with brown stains at the corners that could have been coffee or blood, and it smelled like bruised violets. When it was opened in the council chamber, everyone fell silent in amazement, and one councilor even dropped his tea. They agreed that this was the queen that must be built, for it was made of iron, and had no heart.

And that is why you should put off making difficult decisions for as long as possible.

III.

When the strange clockmaker, whose name was Isaac, had completed the heartless iron queen—whom, as they did not wish to go against established precedent, the councilors named Iris—the citizens were overjoyed. Not that they cared much for queens, clockwork or otherwise, but they were an optimistic, philosophical people, and Iris was very beautiful. The city became a riot of banners and colorful ribbons and candy vendors on every street, and the stationer’s guild declared a holiday, and children bought pastel paper to fold into boats, which they launched on the river.

But as for the clockwork queen herself, she was very beautiful, and there is only one thing to be done with a beautiful queen; she must be married off.

Once again, the councilors gathered over tea and shortbread and, because it was a holiday, a slice or two of rum-cake. There are several proven, efficient ways to marry off a queen, but experts agree that the best way is for her councilors to throw open the palace for a ball and invite every eligible young man in the kingdom to attend. The council spent days drawing up a guest list, excluding only those who were known to be ugly or vulgar or habitually dressed in a particular shade of orange, and when at last everyone was satisfied, they sent out the invitations on scraps of pink lace.

It snowed the night of the ball, great white drifts like cream poured over coffee, with gusts of wind that shook the tower where old Violet had been packed for safekeeping. Very few of the eligible young men were able to make an appearance, and of those, only one in three had a mother who was not completely objectionable and thus unsuitable to be the royal mother-in-law. One of the young men, a very handsome one who smelled faintly of ash and glassblowing, would have been perfect if not for his obnoxious stepmother, but, as it happened, he had never really been interested in queens, clockwork or otherwise, and he settled down quite happily with the head of stationer’s guild.

There was one boy who, though his mother was dead and thus not at all objectionable, had nevertheless managed to trouble Iris’s councilors. Perhaps it was his hair, in desperate need of cutting, or his threadbare velvet coat, dangerously approaching a certain shade of orange. Perhaps it was the fact that he had come in from the snow and, instead of clustering devotedly around Iris with all the other young men, had sat down by the fire in the great hearth and rubbed color back into his fingertips. Whatever it was, the councilors were quite keen that he should not be permitted, not even be considered, to marry their clockwork queen.

No sooner had they agreed this than Iris began elbowing her iron way through the crowd, pursuing the threadbare coat like a cat bounding after a mouse. The boy poured himself wine at the table in the western alcove, and the queen hurtled after him, upsetting the drinks of those too slow to move out of her path. He stood for a moment on the balcony overlooking the snow-mounded garden, and Iris glided after him into the cold. As he turned to go back into the flame-brightened ballroom, he found his way blocked by the iron queen. Since, unlike the eldest councilor, he was a wonderfully opportunistic man, he dropped to his knees right there in the snow and asked her to marry him. Iris clicked her iron eyelids at him and assented, and that is how Henry Milton, a bookbinder’s son, became a king.

And that is why, if you are ever invited to a ball for a heartless iron queen, you should always carry a lodestone in your pocket.

IV.

Henry Milton learned very quickly that it is hard to love a heartless clockwork queen, no matter how beautiful she is. She creaks and whirls in odd ways when you are trying to sleep; she has very few topics of conversation; she knows exactly how long it takes you to do everything. She only follows you when you draw her with a lodestone, and lodestones can feel very heavy after a while, not to mention how they wreak havoc with the lines of a coat.

However, clockwork queens are very good at learning from one another’s mistakes, and Iris—instead of having only one winding key and one girl to wind her—had three keys and a set of triplets.

Sadly, even clockwork queens are not immune from the woeful ignorance that assumes that siblings who share birthdates must also share skill sets. Abigail, the youngest triplet, was very good at winding the queen; her hands were soft and gentle, and she wasn’t afraid to give the key and extra turn now and then. Monica, the middle triplet, was very bad at winding the queen; she was slow and clumsy and much preferred dictating monographs on economic history and philosophy of education. Elsa, the eldest triplet, was an excellent winder when she remembered—which at first was not often, and became less and less frequent as she fell in love with the king.

All three girls were in love with the king, of course. He was a bookbinder’s son with long hair and a lodestone in his pocket and a heartless clockwork wife, and he occasionally wrote poetry, and he harbored a secret and terrible passion for postage stamps—what girl could resist? But Elsa, tall and dark and fluent in three languages, with a good head for maps and a gift for calculus, was the one Henry Milton loved back.

Unless you are afflicted with the woeful ignorance that assumes that sisters who share birthdates must also be immune to romantic jealousy, you can see where this is going.

It was Abigail’s idea to put the poison in the queen’s oil. Iris would, of course, be immune; only her husband, who kissed her dutifully every morning, and the girl who turned her winding key would feel the poison burning on their skin. And die, of course, but it was not Elsa’s death that Abigail and Monica wanted; it was the burning. Siblings, even those who share birthdates, can be very cruel to each other.

But the morning Elsa was to wind the queen, she slept past the cock-crow, and she slept past the dove-song, and she slept past the soft rays of sunlight creeping across her pillow. Henry awoke, saw that his wife had not been wound, and raced down to the sister’s rooms. Monica was only half-awake, and if a handsome man with a terrible passion for postage stamps asks you to do something when you are only half-awake, you will probably say yes. Monica stumbled up the stairs and wound the clockwork queen, and by the time she felt the burning in her fingers, it was too late. She died before nightfall.

Henry, as it happened, was saved by his intimate and longstanding friendship with old Mephistopheles, who still lived in Violet’s hat, and happened to secrete antidotes to most animal poisons. He and Elsa ran away together and opened a little bookbinding shop in a city no one had ever heard of, though it soon became famous for the quality of its books. Abigail, consumed with guilt, locked herself away in the bowels of the castle, where she grew old and eccentric and developed a keen interest in arachnids. Mephistopheles visited her sometimes, and she is rumored to have stood godmother for all his twelve thousand children.

And that is why you ought to befriend spiders, and anyone else who lives in old hats.

V.

Clearly, if the girls responsible for winding the clockwork queen were so keen on being assassinated or running off to become bookbinders, a more reliable method would have to be devised. The youngest councilor, no longer naive enough to propose abolition of the monarchy before his fellow councilors finished their tea, struck upon the elegant notion of building clockwork girls to wind the clockwork queen. The same clockmaker who had done such excellent work on Violet’s treaty-hands and parade-smiles could set the winding girls to perform their function automatically, not a moment too soon or a moment too late. Clockworks cannot be murdered, cannot fall in love, cannot feel jealousy, cannot captivate kings with a talent for tongues and maps and calculus.

“But who,” said the eldest councilor, “will wind the clockwork winding girls?”

“Why, more clockworks,” said the youngest councilor—who, though no longer naive, was not a superb critical thinker.

“And who will wind those?”

“Still more clockworks.”

“And how will those be wound?”

“By still more clockworks.”

“All right, you’ve had your fun,” grumbled a councilor who never spoke much, except to complain. “Clockworks wind clockworks who wind clockworks, and so on for as many iterations as you care. But who winds the first clockworks? Answer me that,” he said, and sat back in his chair.

“Why, that’s simple,” said the youngest councilor. “They don’t all wind each other at the same time. We stagger them, like so”—he made a hand gesture that demonstrated his woeful ignorance of the accepted methods of staggered scheduling—”and the last shall wind the first. It can be managed, I’m sure.”

He looked so earnest, his eyes wide and blue behind his thick glasses, that all the councilors agreed to give his proposal a trial run. Despite his ignorance of staggered scheduling, he managed to form a functioning timetable, and the winding of the winders went off as smoothly as buttermilk.

And that is how the clockwork queen came to rule a clockwork court, and why clockmakers became the richest men in the kingdom.

VI.

You, being a very rational and astute kind of reader, might be forgiven for thinking that Iris could tolerate her clockwork court, perhaps even love it. However, she could do neither. Clockworks queens are no more liberal over strange whirlings and creakings than their bookbinder husbands are, and they are no more pleased with limited conversation, and they no more wish to be told how long precisely it takes them to do anything. Though they will never admit it, every once in a while, a clockwork queen likes to be late for her appointments.

So one day, Iris opened the great wardrobe in Violet’s old rooms and pulled out a beautiful robe of ruby silk and sable, and a pair of sleek leather boots, and a three-cornered hat with a net veil and a spring of dried amaranth blossoms hanging from the front. She powdered her shining skin until it was pale and dull and oiled her gears until they were silent as a mouse’s whispers. So disguised, she went out into the city in search of someone to love.

There were many people she did not like. There were merchants who tried to sell her strong-smelling spices, and artists who offered to paint her portrait in completely inappropriate colors, and poets who rhymed “love” and “dove” with no apparent shame. There were carriage drivers who cursed too much, and primly-aproned shopgirls who didn’t curse enough. And as always, there were overly friendly people who insisted on wearing a certain shade of orange.

By noon the streets were hot and dusty and crowded, and the amaranth blossoms on Iris’s hat were scratching her high forehead, and she was no closer to loving anyone than she had been that morning. With a sigh like the groan of a ship being put out to sea, she sat on a cool marble bench in the center of a park, where the rose petals drooped and the fountain had been dry for decades. While she sat there, lamenting the short-sightedness of her council and the inadequacy of humanity, she smelled a bit of cinnamon on the breeze and saw a girl race past, red and small and sweet.

If Iris had possessed a heart, we would say she lost it in that instant. Since she lacked that imperative piece of anatomy, whose loss would have been cliché and technically inaccurate in any case, we will say instead that a gear she had never known was loose slipped suddenly into joint as she watched Cassia, the perfumer’s daughter, race through the park with a delivery for her mother’s richest client.

Iris followed Cassia as steadily as if the girl were carrying a lodestone—which, we hasten to assure you, was not the case. On the doorstep of the client’s house, after setting the precious package in the mailbox screwed into the bricks, Cassia finally turned and met the gaze of the clockwork queen, who was, in case you have forgotten, most phenomenally beautiful.

Please, said Iris, come to my palace, and I will give you my silver winding key.

And that is why you should never hesitate to run your mother’s errands.

VII.

Cassia was a very curious girl. Of course, anyone who accepts the winding key of a complete stranger in a public market is bound to have some small streak of curiosity, but Cassia’s curiosity was broad as a boulevard, shaded with flowering trees. She was always very faithful about winding Iris, but when she was done she would sneak off into the cellars and the attics and the secret places in the castle. She found albums of postage stamps Henry Milton had long ago hidden away, and some old diagrams for building a queen with no eyes, and a box of twelve thousand baptismal certificates written in the smallest script imaginable. One day, she found a cold stone staircase winding up into the towers, and in the room at the top of the stairs, she found Violet.

Of course the council hadn’t just disposed of her when she ceased to run. Do you throw out your mother when she stops reading bedtime stories to you? Do you throw out your lover when he stops bringing you cherries dipped in chocolate? We should hope not; at the very least, you keep them for parts. And so Violet remained in her tower room standing precisely as she had been the moment her spring wound down.

Violet was not as beautiful as Iris. But she had sharp cheekbones and a strong nose and a rather intelligent expression, considering that she had no control over how she looked when she finally stopped short. In some angles of light, she appeared positively charming. Of course, this was all irrelevant, because her winding key was still at the bottom of a very deep well, and she could not move or speak or love anyone until she was wound again.

Every day for a year, Cassia climbed the long cold stairs to Violet’s room and stared at the lifeless queen. She memorized the way the sunlight looked at noon, kissing the bronze forehead and the wire-fine eyelashes. She came to love the smell of dust and cold metal, the creak of the wooden floors beneath her feet. Finally, after a year of staring and wondering and hoping, quietly and desperately, Cassia raised herself on tiptoe and kissed Violet’s clockwork lips.

She felt the bronze mouth warming strangely beneath her own. She heard the ringing click of wire eyelashes against sharp metal cheekbones, and the click of gears in clockwork fingers as a gentle pair of hands folded around her waist. And Violet took a deep, shuddering breath.

“You,” she said, “are far too good to belong to a heartless queen.”

“You,” Cassia said, “are far too charming to gather dust at the top of a tower.”

That night, they slipped from the castle while all the clockwork court was sleeping. Poor Iris, having dismissed her clockwork winding girls, was left alone and untended in her rooms. The court continued to wind each other on an ingenious schedule, never noting their queen’s absence, and so the aristocracy slid ever closer to the precipice of decadence and anarchy, all because of one girl’s curiosity.

And that is why it is important to clean out your attic once or twice in a century.

VIII.

But even to love that begins in an attic, surrounded by sun-gilded dust motes and the creak of wooden floors, world enough and time are not promised. Cassia and Violet had barely crossed the kingdom’s forest-shrouded eastern border when they came upon a stone bridge, and beneath it a rushing white-crested river, and beneath that—a troll.

Trolls were not very common in the kingdom ruled by clockwork queens; as a rule, they dislike metal and shiny things and anything that requires winding keys, their fingers being terribly thick and clumsy. This left Cassia and Violet somewhat ignorant of the customs of trolls. In this particular case, the custom was a full bushel of apples and a yard of purple silk, and a brick or two for the house that the troll was resolutely building somewhere in the forest. Appleless, silkless, brickless, Cassia and Violet began to pick their way across the slippery bridge when there was a crash like the felling of a hundred trees, and a great cold wave swallowed the bridge before them. When the water receded, there was the troll, bumpy and green and heavy-handed, and standing right in their path.

“Where is my toll?” she grumbled, her voice like wet gravel.

Violet and Cassia, woefully ignorant of trolls and their curious pronunciation of voiceless alveolar plosives, stared in amazement.

“My toll,” the troll repeated. Confronted by the same blank stares, she tried the same phrase in the languages of the kingdom to the south, and the kingdom to the north, and the kingdoms of dragonflies and leopard-princes and Archaea. (She was an exceptionally well-educated troll.) It was not until she attempted the language of timepieces, all clicks and whirls and enjoinders to hasten, that Violet understood.

“Your toll?” she repeated. “But we haven’t got anything of the kind!”

“Then you’ll have to swim,” the troll said, and seeing that there was no chance of enriching her stores of apples or silk or bricks, she plopped herself down in the middle of the bridge and would say nothing further.

Violet and Cassia climbed down from the bridge and stood on the shingle of smooth and shining stones at the river’s edge. Cassia shivered, and even Violet felt the water’s chill in the spaces between her gears. But there was no crossing the bridge, not with the troll crouching on it like a tree growing out of a path, and there was certainly no returning to the kingdom and the court of the heartless queen. Cassia rolled the cuffs of her trousers to her knees and stepped into the frigid flow.

The current tugged fiercely at her ankles, icy and quick. She felt the river’s pebbly floor shifting beneath her bootheels and lost her balance with a tiny shriek. Violet splashed after her, brass arms spread for balance, and that was the last Cassia saw of her beloved before the river swallowed the clockwork queen.

And that is why you should always, always pay the troll’s custom, no matter how many apples she demands.

IX.

With Violet gone, there was nothing for Cassia to do but continue her journey east. The days were brief and quiet and the nights were cold and hollow, and the road dwindled until it was nothing but a few grains of gravel amid the twisted roots. As is the way of things in geography and enchanted forests, Cassia had soon walked so far east that she was going westward. And at the westernmost edge of the world, she found herself in the garden of a low-roofed cottage that smelled of coffee and bruised violets.

Despite her terrible grief, Cassia could not help but be delighted by the tiny garden. There were daisies made of little ivory gears, and bluebells of jingling copper, and chrysanthemums so intricate that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could disrupt their mechanism and require them to be reset. There were roses that hummed like hives of bees, and lilies that wept tears of pale golden oil. And above all there were violets, branches and branches of violets, whose pounded petals could be added to any food, and convey upon it healing properties.

“I am glad to see that my garden makes you smile,” the clockmaker said from his window. It was Isaac, of course, that same clockmaker who had built heartless Iris—even within so strange a profession, there are few people whose houses smell of coffee and bruised violets.

Cassia jumped at the sound of his voice and turned to him, the color high in her brown cheeks. The clockmaker, poor man, who had lived so lonely at the western edge of the world and had never seen a human being blush, fell instantly in love.

Most people react very irrationally to their first taste of love. They form silly ideas about keeping the object of their affection near to them forever, and think of names for their children, and even dream of the days when they are both ancient and sitting on wicker chairs overlooking the sea. Or they chafe at the thought of being under their beloved’s spell, and immediately think of a thousand ways to be rid of them—by accident, by cruelty, by hiding from them for years, all of which can become terribly impractical. Still others try to pretend that it never happened, and behave indifferently to the object of their affections, but of course something always gives them away—an accidental touch that becomes a caress, a too-gentle look, an extra teaspoon of sugar in the beloved’s cup of tea.

But clockmakers are by nature quite rational, and this particular clockmaker was even more rational than most. Isaac weighed the dangers of each possible response and in the same instant plucked three clockwork flowers from his garden: a rose, a lily, and a sprig of violets. Cassia gnawed her lip in curiosity as he held the flowers out to her, his hands shaking minutely like a wire too tightly wound, and bid her choose one.

She took a long time to choose. The flowers were all so beautiful, and each one seemed to sing to her of the weight of her choice. But of course she could not know—the flowers could not know—only Isaac himself knew the true price of each stem.

If Cassia had chosen the rose, singing and sweet-scented, Isaac would have knelt and asked her to marry him. If she had chosen the lily, weeping and pale, he would have strangled her with a purple silk scarf and buried her beneath the amaranth bush at his bedroom window. But since she choose the violets, quiet and dark, he swallowed his passion and his fear, and served her a cup of salty chicken soup, and sent her on her way.

And that is why you must always remember the names of lost lovers.

X.

So Cassia found herself again on the borders of Iris’s kingdom. This land was ruled, not by a clockwork queen, but by a mortal man, and everything was cold and covered in gray ash. The land lay under a curse, an apple-peddler warned Cassia when they sheltered for the night beneath the same lightning-wracked tree. The king was dying of consumption, and his daughter, who happened to be a very powerful witch, plunged the kingdom into drought and ice until someone came forth to cure her father. It was, the peddler said, a beautiful show of filial devotion, if ultimately quite useless.

Cassia listened to the story and said nothing, chewing it over like a dusty bite of apple, and fingering the spring of violets in the pocket of her coat.

Another day of walking brought her within the shadow of the dying king’s castle. Cassia shuddered to see the coat of arms blazoned on the door, for this king was the same one who, many years before, had sent Brutus to assassinate Violet. Again, Cassia fingered the clockwork petals in her pocket. Then she went to the door and knocked.

A tall woman answered, her face pale as a disk of bone. “What do you want?” she snarled.

“I am here to cure the king,” said Cassia. “But first, you must promise to give me whatever I ask for when he is returned to health.”

“If you can cure my father,” said the princess, “I will give you this kingdom and everything in it.” And she led Cassia through the winding hallways to the king’s deathbed in the palace’s heart.

Cassia rolled up her sleeves and stoked the fire in the room’s great hearth until it blazed like sunlight on apple skins. She sent the servants for a black iron kettle and a wooden spoon, and some chicken bones and a gallon of clean water. When she had boiled the bones to a clear golden broth, she added salt and carrots and soft white potatoes, and slivers of celery and sweet-smelling thyme. She used a silver ladle to dish the soup into a peasant’s wooden bowl, which held in its splintered bottom one single petal from a clockwork violet.

When the king had eaten the soup, color returned to his bone-pale cheeks and his lungs became clean and whole again. He leapt up from his bed and embraced his daughter, whose black eyes sparkled in the firelight.

“The king is saved,” the princess said. “What is it you wish from me?”

“Bring me Brutus,” said Cassia.

The assassin was found and brought before her. He knelt at her feet and trembled, certain she had come to kill him for the loss of Violet’s winding key—he was not ignorant, after all, of the properties of clockworks, though he knew precious little of lovers’ first kisses. And so he was astounded to learn that Violet was no longer gathering dust in Iris’s attic, but trapped beneath a river’s icy foam.

“I want you to bring me my clockwork queen,” said Cassia, “and I want her alive.”

“You will have her,” swore Brutus, who had never failed on a mission.

And that is why you should learn the reason behind every pestilence, and never be afraid to call in favors.

XI.

Brutus, as you will surely recall, was both very clever and rather well-informed about the subtle machinations of clockwork. He also had an abnormally high tolerance for frigid water and the alveolar plosives of trolls. And so he fished poor Violet from the river with no more trouble than a child pulling sweet-fleshed shellfish from a tide pool. But water, particularly cold and muddy river-water, is vicious to clockwork, and no matter how he shook her or called to her or kissed her metal lips, Brutus could not bring Violet back to life.

But he had never failed on a mission, and he was not about to begin failing when his mission was the reunion of true lovers. He wrapped Violet in his own cloak and sat her on the back of his own horse, and for nearly a year he wandered the land, looking for the woman or man or beast who could fix the clockwork queen.

And, as is the way of things in geography and hopeless quests, Brutus soon found himself in a clockwork garden that smelled of coffee and bruised violets.

Isaac was there—where would he have gone?—sitting now on his front porch, composing sonnets to Cassia’s brown skin and sweet voice. He caught sight of sunlight glinting off of Violet’s bronze forehead long before he could make out the shape of Brutus stumbling along beside her. He folded his legs up beneath him and leaned against the brick wall of his garden, sucking the ink-bitter tip of his pen, until his visitors were close enough to call to.

“I suppose you want me to fix her,” Isaac said. “Oh, not to worry, it can be done. In fact, there are three ways to wake a dead clockwork.” And he plucked three clockwork flowers from the sweet-smelling soil and held them out to Brutus—a rose, a lily, and a sprig of violets.

Brutus was desperately tired, and in no mood for making such a choice. Assassins, unlike perfumer’s daughters, are well-versed in the more obscure avenues of flower symbolism, and he knew that a rose meant a trap, a lily meant strangling, and violets were a wildcard—they meant whatever the gardener wished them to mean. He did not know the three ways to wake a dead clockwork—in fact, no one but Isaac knew those, so you can hardly expect us to tell them to you—but his instinct told him quite accurately that all three required blood and sacrifice of some kind. In short, he knew he faced a very dire decision, and had no good way to make the choice.

Then, quite suddenly, he remembered the sprig of violets he had seen peeking out of Cassia’s coat pocket. Sighing in relief, he took the violets from Isaac’s hand. The clockmaker smiled in the enigmatic way of men who were expecting as much, and set about repairing the queen with oil and wrenches and a fine steel screwdriver.

And that is why you should always begin by trying what has worked before, especially with clockmakers, who as a rule are so terribly conventional.

XII.

The reunion between Cassia and Violet was perhaps too happy to be described here, for the only way to even approximate it is through an unlikely and wholly disagreeable string of paradoxes. Let it suffice to say that they were happy as few people have ever been, with or without the benefits of exotic wine or beautiful lovers or victory in impossible battles, or cold-skinned apples or soup recipes or an encyclopedic knowledge of flower symbolism. Isaac wrought a new winding key for Violet, and Violet gave it into Cassia’s keeping, and Cassia lovingly wound her lover every morning until the day, many years later, she died in her clockwork arms.

Very slowly—but not with too unseemly a sadness—Violet dug a grave in a forest beneath the dappled shadows of oak leaves. She lay Cassia on a bed of flower petals and cinnamon and climbed in beside her, and she pulled the earth down over both of them. Since there was no one left to wind her, Violet soon ran down in the cinnamon-scented darkness, and she and Cassia sleep peacefully in the same deep grave, as lovers always wish to.

And that is why a wise clockwork queen has only one winding key.

XIII.

Of course, with or without a winding key, no clockwork is immortal. Iris and her court eventually ran down, and Isaac’s garden withered, and the price of clockwork plummeted, ruining the kingdom’s economy.

And that is why you should invest in dependable things, like lodestones and assassins and bridges guarded by trolls, and steel screwdrivers and enchanted violets, and when you learn a good recipe for chicken soup you should write it down in detail, in case some day you fall in love.

 

END


“Lessons From a Clockwork Queen” was originally published in Fantasy Magazine and is copyright Megan Arkenberg, 2011.

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Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a poem by Joyce Chng, and an original story by Susan Jane Bigelow.