Authors: Elizabeth Bear
Tags: #Science Fiction
Bone and Jewel Creatures
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Wishnevsky.
All rights reserved.
Dust jacket Copyright © 2010 by Maurizio Manzieri.
All rights reserved.
Interior design Copyright © 2010 by Desert Isle Design, LLC.
All rights reserved.
ELECTRONIC EDITION ISBN
PO Box 190106
Burton, MI 48519
This book is for Jay.
Bijou’s fingers angled from her palms as if someone had bent them aside under great heat and pressure. She shuffled about her cavernous, shadowed workshop in parody of a bride’s hesitation step. Eighty years a Wizard of Messaline—the city of jackals, the empire of markets—had left their wear.
It was not that she grew frail. She had no opportunity for frailty when her work with forge and hammer, with wire and pliers kept her strong.
But of late all her strength must be bent to shouldering the burden of years before she could take up any other work, and each year was weightier than the last. Still, Bijou did what she did, and not one other alive could do it.
For a decade, Brazen the Enchanter had been pestering her to take another apprentice, someone youthful and broad-backed who could pump the bellows and heave the ingots, who might tend the maggots and the corpse-beetles, who would haul the ashes and stir the porridge. And each time Brazen pushed her, Bijou the Artificer would gesture round the arched spans of her loft. The sweep of her arthritic hand encompassed rustling rafters, the shifting and clattering upon the floor, the bone-tapestried walls between the tall multipaned windows, the serried ranks of dried articulated skeletons laid along her slate-topped benches awaiting the jeweler’s art.
“I have all the assistance I need,” she would say.
“Even so,” Brazen would answer. “Even so.”
He was her only frequent visitor. Sometimes Ordinaries came for repairs on their automatons or to purchase a new one, and the mews-man, the newsman, the greengrocer and the butcher and baker and dairyman all made their deliveries, but Bijou was without companionship except for the Enchanter.
Thus, when the string of silver bells over the great double portal jangled without appointment, she suspected who the caller would be. She had been engaged with a hair-fine drill, bringing a thread of platinum between the upper and lower beaks of a raven, so rather than setting her tools down, she turned to Ambrosias, which was directing the lamp.
She told it, “If that is Brazen, see him in. If it is anyone else, please take a card.”
Carnelian eyes unblinking in an ivory ferret-skull, Ambrosias humped up its rear end, set the lamp down with such great care Bijou barely heard a click, and scuttled down the leg of the bench to race to the door. Her other creatures made way: Ambrosias was her oldest surviving creation, and though it was but crudely fashioned it held pride of place and seniority. None of the others, even those fifty times its size, dared to challenge the eldest.
Many of the later Artifices modeled upon real creatures, crafted from skeletons. But Bijou had made Ambrosias in mock of a centipede larger than any centipede the waking world had seen. It was three canes in length from pincers to hind-end. Its core was the articulated vertebrae of a horse, its legs the rib bones of cats. The rough-tumbled stones set along its length were agates and jaspers, cheap jewels in crude sand-cast copper settings. The legs on the left side rippled slower than those on the right—a fault Bijou had never quite been able to tune out of it—so if it were not wary, it tended to run in circles.
But for seventy years it had served her loyally, and Bijou trusted it.
The rattle of bony limbs across the marble floor was a ceaseless accompaniment to her work. Now, as Ambrosias reared up by the door, several of its brethren moved curiously from their places. The door-answerers including her newest, giant Hawti with its chased tusks and the enormous belled bangles clashing on each ankle. In Hawti, Bijou’s mature prosperity was apparent. Though she had created the elephant Artifice simply because a corpse had become available, and not under commission from any particular client, the surface of the skull was filigreed with gold inlay and emeralds. In each eye socket lay a jewel knobby as Bijou’s fist—if Bijou still could make a fist—soaking in the available light. For the right side, she had selected a spinel, darker red than any ruby, and on the left a yellow sapphire, pale as straw.
Hawti paused behind Ambrosias, rocking from foot to foot in anticipation so the bells and bones rang and rattled and the jewels and precious metals trembled with reflections. Ambrosias, more familiar with the infrequent phenomenon of company, simply grasped the view-portal in its bony limbs and drew the metal aside. Well-oiled, the slide did not rasp.
Bijou knew the pattern of the clicks of ferret teeth, the silvery tremolo of the cymbal-coin that depended from a gold band encircling one of Ambrosias’ vertebrae. “Brazen?” she asked.
Hawti rattled in the affirmative.
Bijou permitted herself a gusty sigh and set down her drill. “Open the door.”
Even half of the giant double portal was too heavy for Ambrosias, but Hawti dragged the left one wide. There are no bones in an elephant’s trunk; Hawti’s was crafted of a portion of a boa constrictor spine.
It had not always been hard work crossing a level floor, Bijou thought, shaking out her filigree cane. She moved slower now than Lazybones, which crept through the shadows of the rafters on curved claws, sunlight sometimes glinting from the mosaic of glass chips and mirrors
mortared to its skull, and never came down at all.
At least she had not succumbed to palsies—there was a little resting tremor, perhaps, but far less than one would have expected for her age—and her mind was sharp. Her work remained.
Palm-sized crab-shell Artifices scurried aside as she shuffled forward on gouty feet. In the rafters, the condor Catherine fanned bony wings stretched across with watered silk and ragged feathers, batting in startlement, shaking its spring until its gears rattled
tic tic tic
. Bijou hushed it, but not before Brazen had walked boldly in between Ambrosias and Hawti, dragging a tall veiled box on a little red wagon behind.
Cold wind blew past him from the gray autumn day outside. Argan and olive leaves scraped across the floor, only distinguishable from the bejeweled crab carapaces by virtue of drabness. But even Bijou’s Artifices were drab in comparison to Brazen the Enchanter. He wore velvet trousers, a silk turban, and a smoking jacket resplendent in oranges and greens. A tall, hairy barrel of a man, half Bijou’s age, he was already gray-goateed and streaked with gray through the temples and along the part of straight blond hair that swung below his shoulders.
“Brazen,” she said with her rusty voice, and teasing, added, “the Shows-Up-Just-In-Time-For-Lunch.”
“Bijou,” he cried, throwing his arms wide, the handle of the cart still in the left one, “I have brought you an equinox gift!”
Something within the draped box gave forth a rattle.
“Bones,” Bijou guessed, which was mostly a safe guess in such cases.
“It’s possible,” Brazen said, with a wave of dismissal. He turned to drag the pall to the floor, emitting as he did a terrible stench of rot. It didn’t trouble Bijou; the work of the corpse-beetles in the back garden smelled far worse.
She limped forward to peer into the box.
Or cage, rather: five feet tall, but no more than three feet by four feet in its footprint, just exactly filling the floor of the little red wagon. And inside the cage, huddled in blankets, a stiff wide collar about its throat of the sort one used to prevent an injured animal from tearing at its wounds, lay a naked child.
“I don’t want that,” Bijou said. “Who did you buy it from?”
He released his breath slowly, through his nose. “If you can save it, I thought it will be an extra pair of hands. Or hand, anyway.”
Bijou stared at him, mutely. He took her arm, though, and led her around the side of the cage, where she could see the injured limb it clutched to its chest. Bijou, with her eye for skeletal structures, could see that the hand had been deformed to begin with, twisted back on itself even worse than her own. It looked as if the child’s fingernails had gone untrimmed for a long while and had grown into the flesh of the palm.
The jewel-translucence of fat gleaming maggots ornamented its suppurating wound. “Those are keeping it alive. Or the poison in the wound should have killed it.”
“Nature’s surgeons,” Brazen said.
Bijou snorted. “What’s your name, child?”
It huddled deeper in the blankets, eyes shut tight, and made no more speech than an Artifice.
“It doesn’t talk,” Brazen said. “It is a feral child. If you cannot save it, I thought you could use the bones.”
There was no saving the hand.
Brazen returned to the great spider-legged steam-
carriage he had left crouched in the street on creaking pistons, leaving Bijou alone with the child. While Hawti barred the door, Lazybones dangled Bijou’s smock from its enormous hook-hands so Bijou could shrug it on over her robes. She retied her leather apron and obtained Ambrosias’ assistance to unbutton thirty-two buttons. Sleeves rolled up, she scrubbed her arms and hands. Bijou was still spry enough to manage this, and she could rely on the strength of her Artifices to restrain the patient.
That the child did not speak came as a relief. Bijou engaged in a certain amount of daily conversation with her Artifices, but they did not answer except in actions. Human voices grated. The child looked about six or seven years of age—though malnutrition could make them seem younger. If it were feral, it had grown beyond the age where it could have learned to speak.
Which meant that Bijou stood no chance of explaining that what she was about to do was for its own good. She would have to minister to it as she would an animal, while defending herself from attack.
Perhaps she should consider ether, but ether was dangerous, and she only knew how to use it to suffocate. She had all the skills necessary to perform the amputation, however, and Ambrosias’ deft pinchers would serve to clamp pulsing arteries until Bijou could stitch or cauterize them. She would do it fast.
Beside the slate-topped bench she meant to use as a makeshift surgery, Bijou arranged her tools—the delicate scalpels and the sharp, sharp knives. Ambrosias and some of the others fashioned leather straps with heavy buckles and fastened one to each leg of the table. There was a belt for the child’s waist and another for its neck.
They filled the brazier and set it to heat, and so was all laid in readiness.
Hawti, Ambrosias, and Lucy—an Artifice that had started off as the skeleton of a gorilla whose dissected corpse Bijou had purchased from the Zoo of Messaline—approached the feral child’s cage. Hawti and Lucy lifted the cage—“Gently, gently!”—down from the wagon and set it on the stone floor of the loft. Within, the child huddled on its blanket, the uninjured hand pressed to the underside of its awkward fanlike collar as if it would have liked to put the fist against its mouth. It made no sound at all, like a tiny woodland kit huddled in shelter, waiting for the danger to pass.
“Shh, shh,” Bijou said, soothingly. She hunkered as much as her inflexible spine would allow and peered between the bars. “I’m going to have to hurt you, Poppet. But it will be better after, and what I break I’ll mend.”
Lucy, bone-and-brazen armature clattering, came forward to block the cage door as Hawti reached to slide the bolts. Catherine spread enormous wings, settling to the roof of the cage with all its jewels casting sparks of amplified light around the room. The child heaved itself to feet and one hand, cramped into the far corner of the cage, plate-matted hair hanging about its face in foul vines. Still, it made no sound, but it dragged the infected hand close up to its breastbone and hunkered, showing bared teeth, wrinkled nose, and slitted eyes.
“Bring it out,” Bijou said, and limped away from the cage with her cane rattling on the floor.