[Author's note: I wrote this many years ago; some names and settings have since been recycled into other things. I mention this in case someone ends up wondering what's the deal with guys named Jedrah. :D]
[Aaaand another note -- I finally gave this a proper reread, and discovered that some text had randomly vanished out of the middle of sentences. I don't have a clue how that could've happened. Ghoooooosts! Anyway, I fixed that, as well as adding back some spaces that had gone missing, and putting in italics where I had, in the original file, used underlines, which then got eaten by HTML. Sheesh. I wonder how many of my other stories' data got corrupted like that. If you spot that kind of thing, please let me know, kthx. _']
The Boy Who Stole Midnight
Jedrah lived in the clock, and the clock was his friend and his comfort, his lover and his pet. As long as the darkness clattered and whirred around him, as long as every hour the dust jumped to the shivering of the bells, he needed no one else. He could remember a time before he came to the clock, but the memory was pale and chaotic, thin as winter air. Not important.
Jedrah felt a kinship with the clock; he comforted himself at times by believing that he was made of clockwork himself. He was long-limbed and sharp-jointed, with long sharp metallic eyes and a long still mouth, and all the bones and muscles of his white body were plain beneath his thin skin like the framework and cables of a machine cased in stretched silk.
One autumn day, he went out to obtain the few luxuries to which he was accustomed. He stole tobacco and candles and soap, and he stole a sweet pastry, because the food left for him was monotonous. As he moved about the city, he began to see something wrong with the pattern. Something was subtly awry in the machinery of the city, some irregularity in its heartbeat.
Patterns fascinated Jedrah, and the disturbance in the pattern disturbed him. He didn't ordinarily listen to human speech; being brushed by other people's lives alarmed him, and moreover he was a little deaf from sleeping beneath the bell that rang the hours. But as it became clear that there was no other way to discover what was wrong with the city, he listened.
The city's voice said: There is an army camped outside the city walls. The city is under siege. The people are afraid. Though there is enough food, they are afraid of hunger; though there are wells and fountains, they are afraid of thirst; most of all they are afraid the army will burst the gates and take the city.
He had read of cities being taken, of so many killed and so much plunder taken, and such and such buildings destroyed. He had seen the destruction in his inner eye, but cleanly, distantly, a method of rating the performance of an army or explaining the ascendance of a king. Other people's voices, however, had spoken today about what had befallen other cities in this army's path, of the soldiers' disgusting amusements and of the stench of the dead, and Jedrah found that he could not think of this siege as a shifting on a map.
If the gates held, he gathered, some other army would arrive to rescue them. If the gates broke, there would be screaming and filth, there would be smoke in the air, and no one would notice the passage of the hours. Considering this, he felt an unpleasant helplessness that he remembered from the time before he came to the clock, a tense,waiting feeling he was almost certain was fear.
It was later than he liked when he returned to the cathedral that held up the clock, and the great arched doors were standing open, a mass of people moving into them like ants around a rotten strawberry. He hugged his acquisitions to his narrow chest, pulling himself away from the careless touch of those who swarmed around him to pass through those doors. They were gilded wood, those doors, carved with blank-eyed, hooded women, with fat-fingered flying men meant to be angels.
The carvings offended him. He preferred to imagine angels as harsh, electric beings, translucent, turbulent, brutally beautiful, with wings of storm, too swift to see. Whoever carved those clumsy wooden angels had only heard about angels third-hand. They looked like aldermen on wires.
The mass of people filled the doors and spilled out onto the steps. More than he'd seen come even on holy days. They were afraid. They were going to entreat their God to save them from the indignity of violence. Jedrah felt no desire to join them; he imagined that, from the perspective of One older than the universe, even twenty years of hideous torture would be mere punctuation. Or perhaps they knew that, and wanted to put a polish on their souls in case of an inspection, as it were. He smiled at the thought, and passersby who saw the smile pulled their children closer to them.
He went around to the small side door that looked out on the boneyard, trailing his fingers over the smooth carvings of the tombs, liking the coolness of the stone. The carvings were beautiful, and there were always flowers. He bent to gather a nearly fresh bunch of white roses and went inside.
To reach the tower stair from the side door he had to go through the place where the acolytes dressed, and there he met the man who left him food. This was a plump man, tall and shiny-bald and swarthy, whose bulk lent him dignity; Jedrah had always found the man's face pleasing, and had often been lulled to sleep by the man's voice when he'd been younger and more afraid. Now the man put out a large hand to Jedrah to stop him, but didn't touch him. Jedrah stopped; open defiance invited involvement.
"Would you like me to find you a place inside?"
Jedrah watched the man's face.
"I know you sometimes listen from the loft, but this once, considering, I thought you'd like to participate."
Jedrah said nothing, but waited for him to be finished.
"Are you afraid, son?"
Jedrah considered. Yes, he thought he was afraid. But, no, he didn't want to watch the ceremony from inside the shuffling gut of a crowd. He shrugged.
The man sighed, a sigh of fond exasperation. "I wish you wouldn't take the flowers from the tombs, son. Yes, I know the dead don't care, but they're there for the comfort of the living."
Jedrah looked at the roses, imagined them lying on the grass, flattening to a handful of pale brown tissue, which they would do whether washed with the screams of the dying or the hymns of the delivered. He took a moment to remember how to speak, and he spoke. "The living are comforted by putting them there. I am comforted by having them." Since the man said nothing else, he went past and climbed the stair.
Jedrah pushed the trapdoor open with his head, climbing into his dim, clattering home. First, he examined the clock, assuring himself that its cold body was free of the sores of rust, that none of its smooth bones showed signs of wear. He pushed his palms flat against a gear as tall as himself, feeling the power of its mass as it was released and turned one tooth's worth, rubbed his fingers together and smelled the oil. The clock was healthy.
Then he performed the same inspection for the machines he had built out of things he'd found or stolen, using the principles he'd observed in the clock itself. None of them were working perfectly, but none of them had stopped. He cleared away the remains of his dinner and an empty wine bottle, leaving them on the steps below the door. He tidied the blankets of his pallet and swept the floor, careful not to disturb the web of a spider he was observing.
Beside the front of the clock mechanism a door led out to a tiny balcony, just large enough to stand on, from which to see the clock's great face. Jedrah could tell the time to the second from looking at the machinery; he used the balcony for other purposes. To hang out wet clothes when the weather was warm, to set pigeon-traps when his experiments required a live subject. But most of all to look down at the city, and to look up at the sky. He stooped to go through, leaving it open behind him while he knelt and crossed his arms on the railing, making himself comfortable to watch the whole of the sunset.
It was already well underway, the swollen yellow sun squashed against the horizon. There were few clouds, and those few had only gone a prosaic orange, but there was a nicely subtle shading of green between the lemon horizon and the cobalt zenith. He'd seen better. As the sun melted and disappeared, the orange clouds went scarlet, and lights showed warm in the streets, flickering behind a fluttering black lace of leaves. Watch fires glowed at regular intervals along the city wall, and beyond them...red stars carpeted the fields. The watchfires of the besiegers.
Jedrah went inside and lit a candle. He usually watched until the last color had gone from the sky, but he didn't want to look at that field of red spots, like a pox, that threat to which he had no power to respond.
His newest book was a treatise on engineering principles, with an emphasis on weaponry. He had eagerly imagined all the improvements he might conceive for his machines after reading it, but now it held no comfort. He examined each diagram, each siege engine, and envisioned it venting its force on his tower. Shattering brick, knocking mortar loose, splintering beams, crushing Jedrah. He put the book down, disgusted with his imagination, and opened a well-worn volume of poetry instead, but its measured rhythms failed to soothe him. When the brass hammer beat the first stroke of eight, he actually jumped.
This would never do; he was far too agitated to get anything done. He would go out, properly this time, not down among the stinks and garbage, but up where the autumn wind could clear out this fear that infected him.
In his boiled wool jacket with the torn collar, the castoff of a much larger man, he slipped out the cemetery door without meeting any people. The ceremony was still in progress; he could hear the choir chirping their limp praises, but he left the sound behind, felt his knotted shoulders loosen as human voices were eclipsed by the clean surf of wind in dry leaves. There was a smell of urgency in the air that might be a storm coming. Good. He could use a bath.
Not far from the tower, the tangle of the city thickened so that, once he had gained the rooftops by climbing a tree or a crumbling garden wall, he could travel close to two miles in a straight line without ever descending to the street. Though he'd been climbing atop the city this way as long as he could remember, he still sometimes found something he'd never seen before.
He scrambled up a ladder of ornamental brickwork at the corner of a tenement in the artists' quarter and stood easily on the gently sloping tiles of its roof, feeling the air, smelling it. Though autumn's chill was only tentatively stirring the hairs at the back of his neck, some had lit wood fires tonight; he smelled the smoke of summer's pyre. The moon was a pale eyelash low on the horizon, and at the opposite end of the sky a silver-black roll of cloud loomed like mountains in a dream. He spent a delicious moment seeing the clouds as mountains, shivering at their monstrous hugeness. How high was the sky? How correspondingly vast were clouds, to cover it? He stretched out his arms and shook out his hair, throwing out his fear for the wind to take. This ritual finished, he began the night's explorations.
He checked on the progress of a painting he'd become fond of. The artist was a foul, selfish man, and Jedrah had watched him drive away his lovers with childish rages over and over, but as the summer had waned outside the window it had deepened on the canvas. The scene was a summer evening, just at the moment when all the colors glow like jewels, when leaves seem lit from within and ordinary people take on the aspect of ghosts or godlings. The painted garden seemed so deep and alive that sometimes Jedrah imagined he saw movement in its hidden paths. The artist was sprawled asleep in a shabby armchair, a bottle capsized at his feet. A young man Jedrah had never seen before leaned over the artist, planted a kiss on his paint-stained brow, collected the empty bottle. Another incipient broken heart. It was considerate of these people to act out their slow tragedies for Jedrah's entertainment.
The new lover happened to look out the window as he straightened, and he must have seen Jedrah there, a white face hanging in the darkness, for a start of animal terror distorted his mild features. He dropped the bottle. Jedrah was on the roof before the sound of breaking glass had subsided.
A dressmaker's shop had closed since he'd last come this way, and a second-story window had been left ajar by the movers. He slipped inside, filling his pockets with odds and ends of thread and silk, needles and tape, anything that might be useful. He found a length of moss-green velvet ribbon and tied back his hair. He found a chest of tiny drawers which would've been perfect to hold small parts, but he didn't think he could get it home over the roofs. He left it for later. Then he found something even better. A steep wooden stair pulled down from the ceiling to let him into the attic, and the empty dressmaker's shop shared its attic with the whole street of row houses.
He crawled along the beams, listening, but heard nothing interesting below. A few snores, a creaking bed. At the end of the row he emerged onto a nearly flat shelf of roof, and here he heard a voice below, speaking with a strange timbre. He tested the beam that supported the eaves, and, finding that it would hold his weight, swung out to hang from it by his knees.
What he saw was a shock and a wonder: a spell in process, a man doing magic. He was tempted to drop to the balcony below to get a better look; he'd never seen this before. Wizardry was the one illegal activity that had so far remained hidden from him.
Inside a dark-paneled room, a bent man with fierce grey eyebrows stood beside a pattern painted on the boards of the floor in something that looked like blood. There was a dead bird of some kind in a brass bowl off to one side of the pattern. The man was wearing a sort of ornate dressing-gown, and a cloth on his head. A younger man in a blue suit watched from a chair by the door, and a boy...girl?...a girl in a less ornate robe stood at attention opposite the wizard. From his perch, Jedrah could hear quite clearly the wizard's sonorous voice as he chanted gibberish to the four quarters of the compass. The language he used was so guttural it bordered at times on a choking sound. An ugly language.
Shortly the wizard lowered his arms, and a weight of formality seemed to fall from him at the same moment. He swept the cloth from his head and turned to the man in the brown suit. "You may relax now, young man. I've banished it to its task. It's quite gone."
Jedrah wanted to watch all of them at once, especially the girl who now stooped to scrub the blood from the floor. There was something spare and reserved in her movements that pleased him. But when the man in the blue suit spoke with a sneer in his voice, his words claimed all Jedrah's attention.
"I hope you know your business well enough that I needn't have been nervous. But of course we wouldn't have come to you if you didn't. When will the gates fall, and how?"
"If the demon chooses to honor our agreement -- for these spirits are notoriously changeable -- then it will destroy all four of the city gates by rotting their metal. It will be as if centuries have passed in moments. They will literally rust away. I advise you to inform your fellows to stand back some distance, as anyone in the vicinity may similarly fall to dust."
"I'll tell them. When?"
"This very night, at the last stroke of midnight by the cathedral clock in the center of the city. With these demons, it is necessary to set very specific limits."
"At midnight, then."
"At the last stroke. If the gates do not crumble at that moment exactly, then the spell has failed and I will have to recast it."
"You'll get the rest when the city is secured." The man in blue tossed a chinking purse to the floor with a contemptuous gesture and stalked out.
Jedrah's stomach clenched with anger. He let the power of it propel him up and over the eaves, back toward home. He didn't know how long he had until midnight. He just knew he could do something, and wouldn't be able to think until he did.
* * *
Glass wrung the bloody rag into the bucket, fixing all her thoughts on it, on the small stink of a small death and the greater stench of the malevolent spirit her master had bargained with. She couldn't allow herself to think about...those other things. She had reason to believe her master had ways of hearing certain thoughts.
"Girl," he barked, and she straightened, remembering not to press her hands to her back like a charwoman; the master didn't like that.
"Master," she said expressionlessly.
"We were observed. Find the spy and kill him."
She let just a flicker of surprise cross her face. "How do you know, Master?"
He rounded on her, struck her backhand across the jaw. "You useless idiot! What good are you if you can't even watch the wards while I'm in ritual? That's what an apprentice is for!" He twisted his voice into a whining parody of hers: "I should be a journeyman by now, I'm old enough, let me out of my apprenticeship -- you sniveling shambles!" he thundered. "Do as you're told! Hurry!"
She picked herself up calmly; he was too old to hit very hard. He had made a gesture toward the window, so she began her search there, opening her senses until they were sore with straining.
There; the faint trail of a human mind, just above her. She passed her hand through it and shivered at the touch...for a moment it seemed her fingers had stroked a smooth, cold brow, and as if a chill, jagged soul had caressed hers. On the weatherworn boards of the balcony she found a moss-green velvet ribbon, knotted. A few fine black hairs were caught in the knot. She pressed it to her lips and smelled snow and wormwood.
"I've got his trail, Master," she said.
"Then get on with it," he snapped.
Glass threw off her ritual robe, knotted up the tails of the too-large shirt she wore under it, rolled up the cuffs of her secondhand trousers, and jumped to catch the edge of the roof.
As her bare feet gripped the cold slate, the cathedral clock began to strike eleven.
Now she had a reason to put up personal wards: the spy might be a mage himself, right? She centered and grounded with a mental gesture as reflexive as a blink, pulled the cthonic energy her master had taught her to use up from the core of the earth and wrapped its damp folds around her. When that shield was in place, she reached upward, as her master had taught her never to do, stretching in supplication to a power whose attention her master had warned her never to attract. Celestial energy flowed into her like syrup, settling close to her skin in a barrier she prayed her master couldn't see through. The two barriers pulsed in opposite directions, the inner clockwise and the outer counterclockwise, and between them a charge was generated from which she could draw far more energy than she needed for her own purposes. Now she drew off only a thread of it, only enough to sustain her senses so that the spy's trail shone clearly to her inner eye, scarlet-streaked silver, with a smell of dust and wine. As she followed it she felt it brush her skin like damp silk.
She took her time. She could justify her lack of haste to her master easily enough: the trail was faint, the way was difficult, and even if the spy went straight to the authorities nothing could be done in an hour.
Dear God, she hoped she was wrong. Because if she was right, even if the whole city knew what was about to happen and who had done it, the gates would crumble, the soldiers would swarm in, and the demon would take its fee.
Glass had learned better than she let on. She had understood the words of the bargain, had forced her face to be still when her master had offered the demon its payment. One virgin, lightly damned. Herself. And by the terms of her apprenticeship, she was his to offer.
But even if the spy were the Heirophant himself, how could he do anything to stop the spell now? A spell, once cast, could never be undone. It had to run its course. No counterspell, no prayer, not even her master's death would stop it. Even if Glass took sanctuary on holy ground, she'd be forfeit the moment she left it. She belonged to her master, and he could dispose of her as he wished.
The trail seemed to be leading toward the cathedral. Hope sparked in her, but she forced it down. This was not the time for rejoicing. Faint purple flickers began to crawl through the clouds, and there was a sustained mumble of thunder. She dropped to the pavement, twisting her ankle slightly on a loose cobble, and limped out into the plaza before the cathedral. The fountain clucked gently to itself, serene nymphs pouring out their overflowing chalices as if Glass's soul wasn't in hock, as if the city of her birth wasn't about to be offered up to be gobbled by slobbering strangers. The spire scratched at the sky; muted lightning cast its carvings into sharpness. The great round face of the clock seemed only to have one hand, and that hand reached for heaven. Midnight. Too late.
The clock began to strike. The bright brassy bell sang out once. Twice. A third time.
Was it her imagination, or was it a little off rhythm?
It was definitely limping a little. Something was wrong with the clock. Glass felt hope burst in her chest until she couldn't breathe.
Nine. Ten. Eleven...
Then there was only the wind and the thunder. The last stroke of midnight had never come. Glass let out a whoop that echoed across the plaza, and the clouds burst.
Of course, she realized as her elation abated, her master would have been listening as well. And when she reported, as she had to, that she had trailed the spy to the cathedral, it would become obvious that the spy had done the only thing he had time to do: he'd sabotaged the clock. If she killed the fellow as she'd been instructed, the clock would be fixed and spell would come to fruition tomorrow night.
Wait a minute, she thought. How am I supposed to kill anyone on holy ground? The only spells the master knows I know wouldn't work there. I'm unarmed. He'll have to hire an assassin, and that takes time.
Still, she supposed she'd better make sure the trail went into the cathedral. Rain was falling as if poured out of a basin, and she had to lean against the wind to make any headway. The running water was erasing the trail, but she followed the last threads of it around to a side gate that led into the graveyard. The gate was locked. She pulled herself up by the bars and perched atop the broad stone wall. It was hard to see down among the tombs, and the trail was utterly erased. Well, she'd done what she could...
A dark rectangle she hadn't at first recognized as a door opened, and a thing like a scarecrow slipped out. Glass froze, and a fizzing began in her blood, as the skeletal shape in its flapping black rags moved toward her. It didn't seem to see her yet, but it might any minute, and it looked alarmingly like a corpse. A corpse that walked, a corpse that turned its hands and face up to the rain and...laughed?
It flung out its arms and spun around, and Glass's terror began to subside toward wariness. Then it stripped off its shirt and flung the rag over a stone, and she saw it for what it was. Just a vagrant, taking a rain bath. It -- he -- had come out of the cathedral, and that implied a good probability that this vagrant was her spy. She watched him as he undressed and rubbed himself with a sliver of soap. He was very thin, sick-thin, as thin as her master, but since his hair was black, not grey, he couldn't be that old. Still, even a young man as thin as that would be no match for her if she were to let herself into the graveyard and attack him by mundane means.
When he came close enough that she could see him clearly through the rain, she wished she'd gone while she still thought him old and ill, before she saw he was no older than she, sweet as a thread of incense smoke. He was pale as silver, and though he was bony his limbs were graceful. Sable strands of his hair stuck to his back in a pattern like cracks in glaze, and his long hands flickered like windblown paper.
By chance, his scalpel eyes raked over her, returned to cut her to ribbons. There was recognition in them, and sudden anger. He bent swiftly, reaching for a tarnished vase.
Glass twisted and dropped outside the wall. As her bare feet slapped cold cobbles, the vase flew over her head and clanged against the fountain. She found she was trembling, and told herself it was because the vase could've staved in her head if it had struck her. Something landed in her hair: a wilted, half-rotten white chrysanthemum. She tucked it in her pocket as she turned reluctantly to limp back to her master.
* * *
Jedrah was awakened from a sleep thick with clotted dreams by a sound out of place. At first he thought the clock was falling to pieces, and threw off his thin blanket in a terror of remorse. He'd broken it, his little adjustment had destroyed its delicate balance, he'd killed it! But as he came fully awake he realized that it was only a knocking at the door in his floor. The clock clattered to itself as evenly as usual. He rolled from his pallet and knelt to tug on the iron ring of the trapdoor, revealing the face of the man in the brown robe. The man's brown eyes widened, and his brown face contracted.
"By heaven, son! Put some clothes on!"
Jedrah was feeling benevolent, so he explained. "I took a bath."
"Took a bath? You mean you went out in the rain last night? You'll catch your death! Why don't you come to me, you silly creature? I'll draw you a nice hot bath by the fire, the same as I have. Where are your wet clothes, I'll take them to dry."
Jedrah shook his head emphatically. No, he didn't want to sit in a cramped wooden tub in the cavernous kitchen where any of the acolytes could see him. No, he didn't want his rags laid out to dry where anyone could touch them. No. But if his nakedness made the brown man uncomfortable he would dress. He motioned for the brown man to come in, and he put his damp trousers on.
The brown man was holding a wooden bowl of sweet porridge and a leather mug of water, the first of the two meals he brought Jedrah every day. They were brought up because Jedrah wouldn't come down and eat in the kitchen. He didn't like the way people kept trying to talk to him, saying inane things like, eat hearty or you're like to disappear, didn't Father Shrike give a lovely sermon last night, I wonder if it'll rain. And no one wanted to listen to anyone else, they only wanted to talk. It ruined his appetite. Since the brown man seemed to intend to stay and talk at him, Jedrah ignored the food. He packed a pipe and lit it, courteously ignoring the way the man peered into the corners of the room, examining the clock as if he could tell anything by looking at it, prodding Jedrah's experiments.
"Don't touch that," Jedrah said mildly when the man reached for one of the more delicately balanced devices.
"What is it?"
"Very interesting! I see it's not quite keeping the correct time. Did you build it?"
Jedrah nodded, wishing the fellow would come to the point and get out. He blew a smoke ring and stabbed it with the stem of his pipe. Finally the brown man left off his putterings and arranged himself to speak, clearing his throat.
"How's the clock running, then?"
Jedrah indicated with a tilt of his shoulder that the clock was running beautifully.
"I see. You've fixed the problem then? I mean, the one that caused it to strike eleven twice last night. It won't happen again?"
"You see, it's just that, well, it's a little thing, but people are already alarmed as things stand, and some are reading it as a sign."
"It may have to happen again," Jedrah explained. "It may not."
The brown man rearranged himself into a scolding posture. "Have to happen again? I think you'd better explain yourself, son."
Jedrah spread his hands. "The gates of the city were to fall at midnight. I made there be no midnight. I don't know when it will be safe to have midnight again."
Now the brown man frowned, looking worried. As well he should. It was a serious situation. "Are you...feeling all right, son?"
Jedrah nodded. He was feeling quite useful, actually. Even a little heroic. But to be on the safe side..."If any harm comes to me," he instructed, "you must shut off the clock until the siege is lifted. Promise."
Instead of promising, the man in brown gave him a look equal parts worry and fear and retreated to the stair. Jedrah scrambled to the trap door and called after him.
But the man had fled. Maybe he didn't understand. But at least he'd heard.
* * *
Brother Dall knocked on the doorframe of Father Shrike's study, a little out of breath. The priest looked up from a page half-filled with his small, precise handwriting, offering a gentle smile.
"What in the world can it be, son? You look quite blown. Do sit down."
Dall declined the offered seat, calming his breathing by an act of will. "I think the Clock Boy's gone mad, Father," he blurted.
The priest raised an eyebrow. "Gone mad?"
"Yes, Father. He as much as said he made the clock skip a beat on purpose."
Father Shrike waved a knobby hand in dismissal. "Of course he feels responsible. He'll put it right. You said yourself he values that machine more than human company, so why would he harm it? In any case, my dear child, at a time like this there are many things more important than the time of day. We'll be holding two extra services today, and I will require your assistance. You'd best prepare yourself."
Not entirely reassured, Dall obeyed.
* * *
Glass sprawled atop the flat roof of a mausoleum, listening to the conversation of the last worshipers leaving the evening service. Her hand kept straying to the wicked ceremonial dagger thrust through her sash, to the bruises darkening on her cheek and arm. The master knew he was too old to hit hard, so this time he'd used a rod. Not that any of that would matter, soon.
He'd deduced a great deal, even before she'd related her observations. But still, somehow, he seemed to think she could've caught the spy and killed him before he'd sabotaged the clock, or at least before he could've told anyone. Now they had to assume the police would arrive at their apartments any moment. Even now tame spirits were moving their belongings to a safer place. And, rather than hire a professional killer, the master had sent her to do it as a punishment. She'd made inquiries of her former friends and unearthed a rumor of a madman shut up in the clock tower, and a few who had claimed to have seen him up on the ledge by the clock face described a skeletal, dark-haired figure like the one she'd seen in the graveyard. She'd also been told that he was, variously, cursed, a ghost, a hermaphrodite, or a vampire, but criminals are superstitious. So here she was. If only she'd left herself less time to stew about it.
She could think of only one way to save her soul, and if she thought about it she wouldn't be able to go through with it.
Finally she heard the rattle of the cemetery gate being locked, and all was still. She climbed down, slipped through the little door, and found herself in a vast kitchen. Kettles were bubbling on the stove, and an odor of fish broth and rice made her stomach turn over; she'd been sent out without her dinner. There were three ways out of this room, but one was a stair. She hurried up it as voices approached from a different way.
"...to bring the clock boy his dinner this time?"
"No, he seems unsettled, it's better not to change..."
At the top of this narrow stair was a room where choir robes and more mysterious garments hung from hooks along the walls. A further stair led upward opposite, but footsteps were coming up the narrow stair from below. She hid herself behind the door. Footsteps passed her, trailing a food smell, clomping upward. Eventually they came down again and went out another way.
So she'd been right. There was a clock boy; someone had just fed him. Unfortunately, that might make him content, and everything would be so much easier if he were enraged...she touched the knife and started climbing.
The stair wound up and up, three stories, five, and ended suddenly in a trapdoor. There was no bolt to it. Perhaps there was another room within where they had him locked up? But he'd been out last night. Maybe they didn't bother locking him up. What if he wasn't really mad? He'd certainly seemed mad enough when he --
Enough! she chastised herself. Nothing is going to make this any easier. She pushed up against the boards, and the trapdoor gave easily on well-oiled hinges. After the dimness of the stair, candlelight speared her eyes, and she had to blink several times before she could see. When she could, she wasted a moment swallowing down her heart, which was crowding her throat.
The youth who'd thrown a brass vase at her was sitting at his ease between her and the clockwork, calmly watching her entrance. He reposed with crossed legs like a meditating saint, his hands on his knees, dressed only in tattered trousers. A cheap pipe of the sort favored by students was clenched between his teeth; between its smoke and the wild tangle of his hair, he gave the impression of being wreathed in storm like some elemental spirit of air. As she hesitated, he took the pipe from his lips and with it gestured languidly for her to enter. She did, careful not to bang the trapdoor behind her.
She tried to look around, but her eyes kept pulling back to the youth before her. What little she did see of the room's contents informed her that, mad though he may be, if anything here was his he was no idiot. Stacks of books filled the length of one wall to waist-height, and a scarred table along another wall held a dozen tiny machines in various states of construction. The clock boy said nothing, only watched her. He draped an arm lovingly between the teeth of a gear taller than she, the grinding hugeness of which, illogically, frightened her more than her grim purpose. His eyes were iron-dark beneath their inky lashes. He didn't seem to blink.
She shook herself. She was here for a reason.
"My name is Glass," she said, more tentatively than she'd intended. "Inanda Glass."
"Jedrah," he introduced himself. His voice was higher than she'd expected, a light tenor with an undertone of roughness, like a violin that had been drinking whiskey. He moved his arm. At first she thought he meant to take her hand in greeting, but he only waited until, with a thunk, the great gear turned one notch, and then he put his arm back.
"I've been sent to kill you," she blurted.
One of his gull-winged black brows twitched upward. That was all.
"Look, you're making this harder than it has to be!"
That got a reaction: he threw back his head and laughed. Not a derisive laugh, but one genuinely amused. "How," he demanded, "could it be any easier?"
Glass shook her head. "No, I mean, I'm not going to, it's what I've been sent to do but I won't."
He stood, came toward her...went past her. He scooped up a cushion from a pallet in the corner and tossed it to her, then resumed his place. He tapped out his pipe onto the floor and repacked it, lit it with a sulfur match, and leaned forward attentively. "From the beginning," he suggested.
Feeling faintly ridiculous, Glass shoved the cushion under herself and arranged herself as a nervous mirror to Jedrah's serene pose. She met Jedrah's eyes and looked hastily away. His bitter beauty made her feel stupid, destroyed her words before she could speak. Was he even human? Was he even real? She slid the dagger from her sash, dug the point anxiously into the wooden floor.
"Don't," said Jedrah.
"Sorry," she muttered. "Um. The beginning." But she made the mistake of looking up, and the words dissolved again. "Damn it," she snarled at her feeblemindedness, and shoved the point of the dagger into the pad of her thumb.
The sudden pain unstuck her mind, and the words welled up now so quickly that she stumbled over her own tongue as she told him everything. She hadn't had anyone but her master to talk to in so long, her words seemed to jet forth under pressure from being held inside so long. She told him about her childish arrogance in assuming she could apprentice herself to a demonologist without losing her soul, about the demon's fee, everything. He listened with polite interest, never interrupting. She told about following his trail back to the cathedral, about realizing with relief that she had an excuse not to kill him, about watching him dancing in the rain. "And I wish you'd brained me with that vase," she concluded.
"Kill your master," Jedrah suggested.
"I can't. It's part of the terms of apprenticeship. Should either of us murder the other, a spell would go into effect to make the life of the survivor much worse than death."
"The demon was offered a virgin. Would it invalidate the agreement if--"
"Are you offering?" She gave a sour laugh at his grimace of disgust. "Believe me, I thought of that. But my master would know, he'd call back the demon, and though it wouldn't want me it wouldn't take him long to find one that did."
"Become a nun."
"Oh, I'd be safe in the convent if I did that, but I could never step outside. I'd be a prisoner. I don't think I could stand living the rest of my life indoors. It's no use," she continued roughly, "I've thought the whole thing through and there's only one way out." Her bones felt hot, her skin felt too tight, nausea gripped her and she began to shiver, but she gave the orders and her body obeyed. She knelt before him and took his pipe away, laying it aside. He made no move to stop her. She pressed the handle of the knife into his hands, folding his smooth, cold fingers around it. He glanced down at it and raised an eyebrow at her. "I went to the service this evening and was absolved," she explained. "I must die here, in the cathedral. Please see that I'm buried on holy ground."
Jedrah just sat there, holding the knife and staring at her.
"Please, before I lose my nerve. Please. If you don't, my soul is forfeit."
He was still as an idol. His hard, sweet face was impassive, and her shivering was growing worse. She couldn't not think any more. I'm going to die, she thought. It's going to hurt. But it's better than Hell. At least it's by my choice, at least there's a reason, at least it will be by a beautiful hand... since it didn't matter much at this point, she seized his narrow shoulders and kissed his mouth.
Still he didn't move.
She took his hands and placed the point of the blade in the hollow of her throat. "Now. Please. I don't have the guts to do it myself. I'd stop halfway, and that would be worse. Just push hard."
The corners of Jedrah's mouth twitched. In one smooth movement, he tossed the dagger aside and shoved her away, rising and stretching. "Well, that's enough of that," he said lightly.
Shaking with rage and relief, Glass lurched to her feet and seized his thin wrist. "Don't you have any mercy?" she shouted.
He tugged at his wrist with an expression of distaste. "My appreciation for drama does not extend to involvement," said Jedrah.
"You're already involved! Don't you see, my soul is forfeit, I --"
"You haven't thought this through," he observed. "What will your master do if you fail tonight and return alive?"
"He'll come here tomorrow night and kill you," she said promptly.
Jedrah cocked his head, listening, and with a final tug freed himself. There was a thunk, gears turned, and the first stroke of midnight sounded above her, so loudly that she felt it like a blow to the chest.
As the bell tolled, Jedrah reached into the mechanism. Glass winced, expecting to see his arm torn off. But he lifted a lever from a row of knobs, forced it ahead one notch, and withdrew unscathed. Glass had lost count, but when the last gong receded into the ringing in her ears, Jedrah was laughing.
"It's earlier than you thought," he said, and laughed as if this were terribly funny.
"I'm doomed," Glass murmured.
Jedrah thoughtfully caressed a worm gear the size of a tree trunk. "Confirm this for me," he commanded. "Your master can give you to a demon because you're his apprentice."
"Exactly," she said bitterly.
"Why would he do that?"
"So he can get a smarter apprentice, probably."
"He can only have one apprentice at a time?"
"It's in the agreement."
Jedrah's lips curled in a damaged parody of a smile. "Hold still." Before she could even flinch, he lashed out, and pain blossomed in the center of her face. She cried out, more startled than angry, and cocked her fist to reply, but stayed the blow as he offered her an oil-stained rag. She pressed it to her nose; it came away scarlet. "Broken?" he asked, without a trace of apology.
Glass shook her head, bewildered.
Jedrah nodded. "Your magic didn't work here. I took your knife away. I beat you in a fair fight. Your master will have to deal with me himself. Don't commit suicide before tomorrow's second eleven."
Glass gaped. "Do you have a plan, or are you utterly insane?"
Jedrah's smile widened. "Yes."
* * *
When Glass had gone, Jedrah stood in the middle of the floor, turning around and around, unable to stand still or look at anything. When he closed his eyes he saw a stubborn acorn-shaped face surmounted by a short shock of yellow hair, he saw freckles and an overlarge mouth, hazel eyes like thin broken ice. Small strong hands with bitten nails. Woman-shaped. Melodramatic. He'd been so paralyzed. He'd talked too much. He'd involved himself.
She'd kissed him. For no reason. He could still feel it. He didn't know whether he liked it. The blade with which she'd wanted him to kill her was tarnished silver, the edge nicked and pitted. It would've been extremely messy and painful, but she'd acted so sure that death was her only way out...was she stupid, or just distraught? The solution was so obvious. Of course, she couldn't have known that he was angry enough at her master to chance it. She couldn't know how queasy it made him when he forced that delicate lever forward, fooling the clock into thinking it had struck once more often than it had. It was like dislocating his own joints. He could see a slight bend where he'd stressed the metal. He couldn't do that indefinitely, or something would break.
On the tip of the blade, there was a still-sticky smear of Glass's blood. Jedrah contemplatively licked it off, but it didn't taste like anything.
* * *
This time the brown man didn't bother knocking; he came stomping up the stairs without Jedrah's breakfast and started in.
"This is becoming ridiculous," he said in that voice he used when he was trying not to yell. "There is some kind of tomfoolery going on up here, and I think you owe it to me to tell me what it is."
Jedrah rubbed his eyes to make them focus, and realized he'd dug a hole in the floor with the dagger. He hadn't slept at all, and he was feeling unreal. It was an interesting sensation. The brown man's question really did require an answer, but he couldn't think of one. "I'm not good at explaining," was all he could say.
"Oh yes, I think I know that by now, thank you, but I think you'd better try. What's that? A knife? Did you take that from the kitchen? Maybe you'd better give it to me."
"No. Glass brought it to kill me with. It's silver."
The brown man's face underwent a startling series of changes, but Jedrah couldn't read any of them. The man went down on one knee before the place where Jedrah sprawled, reaching out a tentative hand. "Give me the knife, son."
"It isn't yours," Jedrah clarified, putting it under his mattress to make it harder to take away. "It isn't mine either, but it's better for her not to have it just now. She's not rational."
"I see," said the brown man, in a tone that made it clear he didn't. "And who is...'she'?"
"Glass. The evil wizard's apprentice. He sent her to kill me, but she wanted me to kill her, because he'd promised her to a demon, but I had an idea. The evil wizard will probably come tonight to kill me, but you mustn't have him arrested until I've talked to him. I think he would know if there were police here." That was the longest speech he'd made in years; maybe ever. These events were turning him into a veritable chatterbox. Well, it would all be over before this time tomorrow.
"An evil wizard. I see. And where did you meet this evil wizard?"
Jedrah shook his head. He couldn't even begin to describe the place or how to get there.
"And this evil wizard is trying to kill you."
Jedrah nodded. The brown man nodded back, strangely blank-faced. It wasn't like him to remain so calm... Suddenly Jedrah understood. "You're humoring me," he accused. "You think I'm delusional. There's no way I can convince you. Go away."
"No, son," the brown man tried to soothe him, "I just want to understand."
"Like hell you do,"Jedrah spat. "Get out. This is my home. Go downstairs. Knock next time." When the man started to say something else in that insulting soothing voice, Jedrah cut him off. "Out! Go stir your porridge! Leave me alone!" He turned away, pressing his hot cheek to the cool stone of the wall.
After far too many moments, the trapdoor gently bumped closed. Jedrah was alone; he could stop biting his lip to keep silent. At least he hadn't gone into operatic convulsions in front of the brown man. Who had absolutely no business assuming he was imagining things. Oh, he knew he was peculiar in a number of ways, he was perfectly aware that he was unusually reclusive, that his relationship with the clockwork was excessive, that he neglected himself, and that he was a singularly bad conversationalist. But he didn't hallucinate, and he wasn't a liar.
The brown man wouldn't be any use anyway. What he planned to do he had to do alone, and he had to do it right the first time, there would be no tinkering to get it to work. There were too many variables, too many unpredictable elements. He would be going out on a limb; he, Jedrah, who didn't even like to go out on a walk.
Once again the thought recurred that he could just have the wizard arrested, stop the clock until he and Glass were executed. Deprived of its prey, the demon would refuse its task, and the city gates would stand.
And he would have, essentially, murdered Glass.
Besides, that would mean stopping the clock.
The main problem, as he saw it, was not lack of resolve, but his simple inability to complete a coherent sentence in the presence of a hostile stranger, let alone spin a convincing enough lie to fool someone who would inevitably be suspicious to begin with. He didn't understand how the heroes in books managed it...
He shivered with the lovely sensation of an idea dawning; he took a moment to savor it before reaching for his jacket.
* * *
Glass could barely see for the watering of her eyes, but she could think. She'd always thought herself intelligent, but her previous state of mind seemed vegetable from her current vantage point. Undoubtedly she owed some of her clarity of mind to the immanence of her peril, and some to the pain of a dislocated shoulder. Perhaps it was just that nothing mattered anymore. She had thought she was ready to die. She'd been wrong.
"Why so quiet, girl?" Her master's voice was syrup-thick with kindness. He was looking for a reason to punish her further. She had better show some pain.
She put on a pitiful expression and raised it to him, blinking to encourage tears to spill. "Let me make it up to you, Master. I won't fail you again. Please fix my arm, Master. Let me kill him for you."
He laughed. She could see it, the pink blur of his face with a red hole opening in it. "You're pathetic. But since you're so eager to serve me, do my bidding in this: wash yourself, and make yourself as pretty as an ugly little bag like you can be. After I've dealt with this clock-monkey, perhaps I'll return in time to see that demon claim his promised reward."
She shook her head, feigning disbelief. "I don't understand, Master. You can't mean me?"
"Yes I can mean you, and I do." He laughed some more, enjoying what he imagined was her crushing sense of betrayal. "You may run if you like. Pray, kill yourself, it will make no difference. I suggest you try to enjoy your last hour. Of course, since I seem to have pulled that arm out of its socket, you may have trouble finding any sort of pleasure. Perhaps you could play a game of Patience." At that parting advice, which he seemed to find immensely funny, he spoke the word to key a spell he had prepared earlier, and with a rushing of wings he was gone.
As soon as the sound had died away, Glass lurched to her feet. She propped her elbow on the windowsill, wedging her useless arm against the sash, and shoved. With an audible, sickening pop, the joint snapped back into place. The pain drew a small grunt from her, but that was all.
When her master had sent her to kill Jedrah, he had chosen the weapon. An ancient weapon of power, for all its worn appearance, but a little unwieldy. Besides, she'd left it there. But the old bastard seemed to have forgotten that a mere three years ago she'd been a wharf rat of the first water, running with a pack of the most vicious mongrel children ever to cut a sailor's throat. Sure, she'd been a lesser menace. Certainly she'd taken the chance to learn a more lucrative, if equally illegal, trade. But she'd retained her virginity; where she'd been, that required paranoia and skill.
The few possessions she'd brought with her were locked in his writing desk. She didn't bother picking the lock; with one sharp blow of her callused heel she splintered the drawer. The rest of its contents meant nothing to her now; trinkets, bright tattered skirts, love-tokens from boys whose faces she'd forgotten. She picked from the debris the one thing that mattered: a knife, a beautiful little knife, a brass-handled lockback with a four-inch single-edged blade. Let the old bastard play with his enchanted daggers. Four inches was plenty if you knew what you were doing.
She touched the spring and the blade clicked open. Glass remembered.
The door rattled: three knocks, then one. Glass opened it.
"Where is your master?" growled the man in the blue suit. "I have a bone to pick with him."
Glass motioned him graciously inside, shut the door, and slit his throat. "Deal's off," she told him as he tried to catch the blood with his hands, to hold it in. "Sorry for the inconvenience."
Before the body hit the floor Glass was gone in a whirring of wings.
* * *
Jedrah found he was not nearly as frightened as he thought he ought to be. That was good; he couldn't spare the attention to be afraid. There were too many details to keep in mind. What little fear he had was merely a nervousness he suspected to be stage fright. Appearances were the only important thing, because all he really had was a bluff. But he'd prepared. He'd spent every moment left to him getting into character, costuming himself. He'd even brushed his hair. He'd calculated that the wizard's arrogance would bring him to the tower with only time enough to dispatch the obstacle and watch the spell succeed. It appeared he was right. Though he'd kept his room dark, he could see enough by reflected moonlight to know that it was eleven-fifteen when some kind of bird of prey landed on the ledge and hopped inside. Birds of prey are diurnal, he thought, so this is my enemy.
Sure enough, there was an ugly tearing sound and a man grew where the bird had been. A white-haired man with clothes that glinted in the dim light.
The wizard spoke, a wheedling voice with amusement behind it, like a tone one used to call a dog one intended to beat. "Come out, Clock Boy. You struck my apprentice, and I consider that solely my prerogative."
Jedrah remained hidden. Was Glass not with him? That might be for the better. Then he saw the crow that darted in to land at the wizard's feet. With a soft sighing sound, the crow became Glass. The wizard started around, but it was impossible to tell his expression.
"How did you learn to do that? I never taught you that spell."
"I forgot to tell you, Master, but your library has needed a new lock for some time."
In the shadows, Jedrah found he was smiling a little. She no longer sounded like the confused, defeated child who had asked him to kill her. Maybe she'd reasoned out his course of action. The wizard made a grasping motion and Glass grunted and reeled to her knees. "I haven't time to punish your connivance, but you may rest assured that your fate will be sufficiently unpleasant to surpass anything I might wish to inflict." He kicked feebly at her as she strained to free herself from some invisible restraint. "Brat. Now. Where is that madman of yours?"
It was as perfect a cue as Jedrah could hope for. He struck a match.
* * *
Glass lost her concentration at the sharp noise, and forgot entirely to renew her spellbreaking efforts; this was not the Jedrah she'd seen last night. Her newly sharp mind applied itself against her will to cataloging every detail.
While the match flared, he put it to a cigarette rolled in green paper, an expensive affectation of dandies and actors. Then he touched the small flame to a brazier at his side, which lit as if filled with oil. Its light struck his sharp face, adding cruelty to his already hard features. He gave a fluid, ironic bow.
A long velvet coat lined with purple silk swirled around his ankles; the heels of a cavalier's high boots drummed dust from the rough floorboards when he stepped forward. A silk cravat flowed at his white throat, and though the light was too dim make out the rest of his clothing it appeared perfectly tailored. The only concession to his usual efforts at invisibility was the somber color of his new finery; nothing but black, though any courtier would deem it a waste of money to have fashionable clothes made in such an unfashionable color. His inky hair, which had seemed so badly snarled that it could never be smoothed, flowed in glossy waves around his shoulders, punctuated by the glitter of ruby earrings. His beauty was physically painful to look at. Unearthly. Demonic.
Illusion? Or had his earlier raggedness been the disguise?
A puzzle for later. She felt inside herself for a blade of will. The threads of her invisible bonds began to part.
"I beg your pardon," said Jedrah in a courtier's murmur. "I did what I deemed necessary to gain an introduction. It was extremely kind of you to come."
The wizard's sarcastic eloquence seemed to fail him. "Who the hell are you?"
Jedrah waved a slender hand in exaggerated self-directed annoyance. "Ah! How rude of me. My name is Keroan VanSiddis; you may call me Kery if you like. All my friends do. And you and I, I hope, will be very good friends."
Another puzzle. Had he fooled her before, or was he fooling her master now? A thread of sweet scent reached her and the magical bands began to part like cobweb.
"And the so-called Clock Boy?" the wizard demanded. "What of him?"
"He was..." Jedrah blew a smoke ring and stabbed it with his cigarette. "No longer useful. I learned from him what I needed to know, then removed him. It seemed the kindest thing. However, enough small talk. Time is short."
The wizard found his composure. "I can't imagine what business you presume to have with me, you overdressed pimple. But as curiosity is a prerequisite of my profession, I'll hear you out before I send you screaming to oblivion."
"Please." Jedrah held up his hands. "Let us comport ourselves like gentlemen. And I might point out that you may find it difficult to send me anywhere, screaming or otherwise, due to the dispelling effects of the holy oil burning in this brazier. Cigarette?"
"I am not a patient man, boy. And I dislike overconfidence. Out with it."
Jedrah bowed again. "As you say. I have broken the clock. And I know how to fix it. Have I your attention?" He smiled a smile of utter confidence. "I have a wish to learn the arts of which you are a master. So far I have found only dabblers. By chance I discovered the particulars of your current spell, which gave me the opportunity to arrange this meeting. "
"If you're so clever, why--"
"Why not simply visit you in the ordinary way? Because, my learned friend, what I wish is something no one of your profession will give lightly. An apprenticeship."
"Impossible. I have an apprentice already. Though I admit she is stupid, and you frustrated me very cleverly..."
"Can your current apprentice repair this clock by midnight? I don't believe either of you could. You see we have only a few minutes. Of course, you could try to kill me, and hope to muddle through it yourself, but you would more than likely make it worse, and I imagine your... business partners... are growing impatient. You see that my position is very good."
Glass felt the last shreds of her master's spell fall away, but remained crouched on the floor. She was beginning to see Jedrah's plan, but there remained one flaw. He must have thought of a way around it, because he had no reason to sacrifice himself for her, but she couldn't imagine how he'd pull it off.
The wizard made a thin show of considering. He shrugged. "I dislike your insolence, but I admit the trade of a dull apprentice for a clever one is attractive. However, there are conditions."
Jedrah inclined his head graciously. "I am prepared to meet them."
"I doubt it. For instance, I require that an apprentice be a virgin. Some spells require it. You have the look of one who relishes his childish conquests."
"Not at all. My pleasures lie... elsewhere. "
"You daren't lie to me, boy. I'll know."
"Then you know I speak the truth. The touch of other flesh is quite distasteful to me."
The wizard grunted. "Very well. You must swear the oath I give you. Which will release you..." he turned to Glass and kicked her, apparently not noticing that she was free. "But, lest you think you've escaped my anger, reflect that my new apprentice's first test will be to prolong your life in agony until I am satisfied."
"A task at which I am sure I will excel," said Jedrah, with a twist of his mouth so vicious that she began to doubt again which was the ruse. "Administer the oath, if you please. Master."
As Jedrah repeated the hideously binding oath, Glass slipped her hand inside her shirt, where the weight of her knife rested warm against her side. Whether Jedrah was sacrificing himself or thought he had found a loophole she had no way of knowing, so she wouldn't waste time speculating. The wizard's death wouldn't halt the spell, but it would get him out of her way long enough for her to buy some time.
"Now, you upstart flaw," smiled the wizard when the oath was concluded, "You are bound to obey me. Fix the clock. Quickly."
"No need. It was never broken."
"What!" shouted the wizard, echoing Glass's mental exclamation.
"I lied." Jedrah shrugged and, in a gesture calculated to convey insolent ease, tossed the dogend of his cigarette into the brazier.
"Then I'm very glad," crooned the wizard, "that you chose to contaminate the holy oil. Did you realize that it would lose its effectiveness upon being defiled? Or that you will serve my purpose just as nicely dead as alive?"
Jedrah's face froze, then fell into the impassivity Glass remembered. "Shit," he said quietly.
The wizard made a throwing gesture and barked a word Glass recognized; though his demonic powers were useless inside a church, he could still use elemental magic. Jedrah ducked and threw up his arms as razor shards of ice flew at him. Glass heard a series of tiny sickening pops as the ephemeral blades pushed through the velvet of his coat. Frost glittered on its blackness, and his hands twitched before his face as he began to make a broken keening like an imperfectly stifled scream. The wizard drew breath to push the splinters deeper.
Instead of the spell, however, he spoke only a howl of surprised pain, and rounded on his former apprentice, whose blade still protruded from his back. "Traitor!" he screamed. "Bitch!"
She replied by clasping her fists together and hammering her erstwhile master across the face. The blow spun him around, and she yanked her blade free, meaning to plunge it in again. She had missed the spine once; she would not this time. His pain couldn't erase hers or Jedrah's, so she felt no wish to prolong it. But her anger demanded his death. His deeds demanded it. He reeled aside and her strike skidded along his ribs as he fell. He screeched the opening words to a spell that would turn her bones to molten lead, but she drew down her celestial shield and he stopped abruptly before it could rebound on him.
The clock began to strike. One.
She glanced at Jedrah. He was shuddering heap of blackness on the floor. She'd have to do it herself.
She left her teacher scuttling crabwise toward the balcony--
--and approached the machinery.
The noise was deafening.
There was the lever.
She reached for it--
--and her arm seemed to jerk back of its own accord.
She imagined vividly being pulled into the gears--
--she couldn't, she couldn't make herself, she--
With a palsied jerk, she grabbed the lever and shoved. It broke off in her hand.
She drew back with a cry of dismay she couldn't hear over the clangor of the bell, only feel grating in her throat.
She was yelling something now, poking desperately at the twisted stub of the lever, trying to undo what she'd done, frantic with fear of the grinding machinery. Finally the stump of brass turned, and in the sudden silence she heard what she was yelling. "Jedrah! Oh, God, Jedrah!"
She whirled. He was right behind her. He was hunched, showing teeth like a beast, blood mixed with sweat painting pink streaks on his face. She reached for him with a sob of remorse. "I'm so sorry!"
He snatched the piece of clockwork from her outstretched hands. "You should be. Now it won't strike at all. I might even have to shut it down to reset it." He turned away and limped toward his pallet, one hand pressed to his side. The wizard was nowhere to be seen. "What did you think you were doing?"
"My God, you didn't realize? It didn't have to be me. Now you're the demon's prize. You're... and the city... and..."
Jedrah snorted. "Do you hear the gates crumbling?"
"How could I? I'm deafened! The demon would... but you have no reason to sacrifice yourself for me, do you? Or even risk yourself. You knew what you were getting into. What am I missing? Is it that you intend never to leave the cathedral again?"
He threw the piece of brass at the floor and spat. He turned on her, his steel-colored eyes flaring with such anger that she almost stepped back into the machinery, even though she sensed his rage was directed at some target far away or long past. "I'm not a virgin," he snapped. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm bleeding profusely." Grimacing, he peeled off the velvet coat, tossing it aside as if it were worthless. The purple silk of its lining was mottled with dark stains. He began untying the cravat, but the knot frustrated him; he began tearing at it like a claustrophobic in a shroud.
Glass glanced from Jedrah to her hand, the steel that felt like a lethal extension of her fingers. It hadn't finished its night's work. The master was at large, free to heal himself and exact revenge. But she was also free, and she had resources he dare not call on, and she imagined she'd have no trouble interesting the police in the matter. Right now she had a debt of gratitude to discharge.
"Stop that," she commanded. "Calm down, you're making it worse. Let me help."
"Get it off me," he begged. "I'm having trouble remembering who I am."
"Hold still." She cut the scarf from his throat, pushed his hands away from the blood-slippery jet buttons of his shirt and began undoing them as quickly as she could. "Who will you be when I'm done, then?"
He shivered, tore off the ruby earrings and threw them. They skittered across the rough boards, and one disappeared through a knothole.
"Hold still, I said," Glass snapped, and he held still. "I want to know; are you the clock boy, or a dandy who smokes green cigarettes?"
"I'm in disguise," he said. "Don't you read?"
"Read what?" She had reached his trousers, which were much too large and had been hastily taken in at the back with yellow thread and inexpert stitches. While she hesitated, he tore at them, popping the stitches loose and jumping out of them as if they were full of scorpions. Tiny wounds spotted his prison-white flesh, the melted ice knives mingling with his blood to wash him with watered gore. Along his right side they were clustered like insect bites. There was no way to bandage them all without swaddling him from head to toe. At least they were clean. She offered an arm for support, but he ignored it. He stumbled to his pallet, sprawled on it, reaching under it. He heaved a yellow-covered book at her feet. "Baron VanSiddis, by Dulaine. Romantic garbage. I recommend it. Take the clothes away. Burn them."
"You're joking! They must have cost--"
"I stole them. They're worthless now. Full of holes."
"I'd think you'd like them better that way," she said. "Did you think my master wouldn't listen to an urchin? He listened to me."
"No, no. You don't understand. I couldn't do it. Talk to him. Bluff. So I made myself someone who could. Now I don't know if I can get myself back completely. I'm talking too much."
"Oh, sure, you're just about ready to run for parliament," she smiled, covering him with his thin blanket, resisting the temptation to let her hands linger on his brow as she smoothed his hair. He slapped her hands away. Footsteps sounded on the stair; she could just pick their irregularity out of the clock's measured noise.
"That'll be the brown man," Jedrah grimaced, "coming to see why the clock struck fifteen. He'll want to know what bit me all over." He touched his punctured side with a snort that might have been meant as laughter. "And I'm so bad at explaining."
"I'd better go," she told him, pulling reluctantly from his cold grey gaze. "But I want you to tell me something. The important thing. Why did you go to so much trouble to take my place? You don't owe me anything. You have no reason to give a damn."
"Yes," he contradicted her fiercely. "Because you're me."
For an instant she dismissed this as further evidence of his insanity, but the phrase echoed in her head, forcing her to look at it. "Close enough," she admitted.
He turned his face away with a shiver. "Now get out of here. One of me in this room is too many."
The footsteps stopped beneath the trapdoor. She stumbled to the balcony, poised for an instant on the railing, and stepped into air. A moment later an exhausted crow trembled on an updraft and sailed on sore wings over the besieged city.