0. Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice

Harper only realized that he had fallen asleep at some point during the night when his eyes flickered open. There was the usual upset feeling washing about in his stomach when he got too little rest, the usual pain in his eye sockets begging him to roll over and close them. He didn’t. It wasn’t that the antique bed was uncomfortable, nor his accommodations Spartan when compared to living on a ship. Everything was even quiet, the air in Castle Scarborough comfortable. As soon as the civilian seaman was awake his mind cycled back to his dead sister, Kitty, whom he had just seen up and about last evening. It dwelled on the fact she had no inkling of who he was then shifted on what he’d seen inside her body. Kitty didn’t have blood and guts anymore but cogs and cables.

She didn’t even go by Kitty any longer but was one of the famed Thistle Sisters, in particular Ms. Thyme. In the end Harper came back to the essential question. Was Kitty actually dead and this gynoid just happened to look a lot like her? If so? Then why?

Covers shifted as he sat up and rubbed at his thick neck. There was a whole slew of questions he didn’t have the answers too. Harper wasn’t sure he wanted to figure them out. Eyes looked to the dark stained glass window that kept out most of the outside light, then over the spacious room’s décor. There was a desk and fancy mirror that had to be older than his grandmother, two wardrobes he suspected were empty and this old brass bed that even made him feel small to lie in. Sliding out of it and to his feet he noted the fine oriental rugs he’d walked across numbly last night and a few small tapestries hung from the walls. A nobleman might call it sparse in decoration.

The seaman was a bit surprised to find fresh, if simple, clothing laid out for him on the desk. Slate gray slacks, a white shirt, socks, underpants and loafers were all neatly stacked beside an unsullied basin of water, a razor with accessories and a comb. He hadn’t even heard anyone come in. Harper closed his deep green eye and listened for any sign of life, even the ticking of a clock. The stone walls absorbed everything that must be going on past his door.

“Hell.” Strong neck cracked to the left and right the blonde man got dressed and was pleased that everything for the most part fit. Once loafers were on Harper rocked on his feet and took a moment to check square features in the mirror. He could go for a day or two without a shave still. Likewise the gash in his head must have been cleaned why he was out stone cold but it still hurt as he gingerly touched it. It was then he realized the wounds on his back and side from exploding shrapnel had been cleaned too. How the hell had someone come in and handled him so without him waking up? The straight razor was tucked away into a pocket, just in case.

“Right.” Harper looked to the window, which wasn’t built to open, then to the heavy wooden door. Should he just sit here and wait? Some of the special guard had scooped him up after the trouble at the Piers and demanded he come back with them to the castle. Basil had tried to intervene on his behalf but his army friend had been told that this was an Order of Thistle matter. Harper didn’t want to just sit here and wait. The door was tested and found to be locked and wouldn’t budge even after he gave it a few tugs. What he wanted was apparently irrelevant. “Damnit.”

As timing would have it as soon as Harper turned away from the door the lock clicked and handle turned. He rather quickly stepped away and tried to feign studying a tapestry of what he thought was a unicorn and a maiden surrounded by thorny briars. Once he felt his ruse was a failure the large man looked over.

The butler standing in the door way looked less than convinced if one took into account a dubious brow. The rest of his elder features were schooled to the perfect mask of civility to match the classic tailcoat and other wear of his profession. His white gloved hands were settled before him, hair just going gray and shaped into a rather short and severe widow’s peek. Besides immaculately trimmed lamb chops the man had no other distinguishing features. “Ah, Seaman Carson, it seems that you are already roused and dressed. This is good; Master Thistle would like to speak with you. However I realize that you more than likely have not been awake for long. It would be remiss of any gentleman not to offer another breakfast. What shall I have the cook prepare despite the late hour?”

“Uh.” One thing Harper definitely wasn’t used to was being waited on. Even on his father’s ship he had to get most things himself. He just blinked at the butler for several ticks. “Eggs Benedict?”

“Excellent choice, sir.” The man dipped his chin with a tone that didn’t really approve, nor did it hold disapproval either. “I will see about scavenging up some chips for you as well and a hearty breakfast drink. I am afraid it shall have to wait until Master Thistle is done speaking with you but it will be something to look forward to. Our cook is quite excellent.”

“Oh well, thank you.” Hand over his lips the broad shouldered brother cleared his throat. “Might I get your name?”

“Of course, sir.” The butler bowed at the waist now with proper pomp and circumstance. “Nigel Hawthorn at your service.”

“A pleasure Mister Hawthorn, so, this Master Thistle? Am I supposed to wait here for him?” With a wide gesture Harper looked around the room. “Or?”

“Or, sir.” Said as the butler straightened then tugged at one cuff. “If you are ready I shall escort you to him. I dare say he is quite interested in meeting you.”

“Why?” Taken aback Harper rubbed at his taunt stomach trying to quell a fresh round of unease.

“I think it is best to let Master Thistle answer such questions.” Sliding one foot back Nigel gestured down the hall. “Whenever you are ready, Seaman Carson.”

“No time like now.” Harper tried to cleanse his nervousness with a few deep breaths but eventually gave up and followed after the man. Truth be told he didn’t think the pilfered straight razor was going to do much if things went sour. Then again if they were going to off him or toss him in a cell they would have done so by now.

The hallway likewise was tastefully decorated with a side table here or there along the way, old paintings, small figurines from India, even the occasional bust. Harper did find it odd that they didn’t pass a single vase full of flowers. Circling down a story via the stairs Nigel stopped before wide double doors of oak and gestured to them.

“If you would tell Master Thistle I shall be available if either of you need something to drink?” After another bow the manservant slipped back a step. “Good luck.”

“I will, and thank you.” Harper watched Nigel head off in what he assumed was the direction of the kitchen then just waited for a few moments watching the grand foyer and people coming and going. Down here the windows were clear letting fresh sunlight stream in. Several long tables were covered with rich crimson throws to match the rug. There was even a hanging portrait of the King between the main stairways and twin statues of Athena at the base of them. Eventually he worked up the courage necessary to pull open the door and had the good sense to rap lightly as he did. “Mister Thistle?”

“Yes, please do come in.” The voice was as cultured as Harper expected but definitely not as aged.

The room beyond the door was stuffed to the gills with books of all shaped and sizes. The study’s walls were all bookshelves, as were the bases of every table, even the back of a pair of couches. Rising from a wing-backed chair before inert fireplace Mister Thistle wasn’t much older than himself. Nor did the man dress like the usual aristocrat. Clad in a crisp white shirt with a dark brown vest and trousers the master of the castle held more the air of a watch maker than anything else. Perhaps it was the tie that was only a shade lighter than his vest, or the hanging chain of a watch, perhaps it was Mister Thistle’s clockwork hand which was promptly offered after the room was crossed that gave such an impression.

“Roland Thistle.” The gilded metal of the prosthetic was cool to the touch, delicate in its mechanics, strong in its frame. The pale man broke into a mild smile when Harper did. “A distinct pleasure, Seaman Carson. I dare say I never expected to meet anyone like you.”

“Like me, Mr. Thistle?” Harper’s brows popped up as he followed the man over to a gestured seat. “What do you mean?”

Roland remained standing and folded hands, real and steel, before him with a whir of cogs. His expression was schooled to the friendly side of polite. “Pardon, sometimes I get ahead of myself. I hope that you were able to get some rest? You, my friend, had a rather adventurous evening.”

“I’ve never been fond of adventure.” Hand rubbed over his own short haircut and Harper shifted in his chair. He was put off-kilter by his better remaining standing, which was probably the intended effect no matter the expression Mr. Thistle wore. “Nor did I sleep very well.”

“That is a shame. “ Roland moved over to stroke real fingers over the dust on the mantle.

“Oh.” Harper followed him with his gaze. “Mr. Hawthorne said if we needed anything to let him know.”

“I see, well are you in the need of a drink? I suspect that you will need one at some point.” From the mantle and replica skyship atop it the director turned and reached out to tug a chord. It took a moment before one of the stones in the wall folded open to reveal a speaker framed by mahogany.

“Yes, Master Thistle?” Nigel’s static distorted voice echoed.

“I do think we shall be needing drinks if you would not mind.” Taking a moment to adjust his precise cut Roland motioned with a click of steel digits for Harper to order his pleasure.

The fact he was going to need a stiff drink this soon after walking didn’t sit well with the strong man at all. He shifted in his chair and focused on the shelf of books before speaking. “Brandy, on the rocks.”

The speaker crackled once more. “And for you, Master Thistle?”

“Just the usual tea if you would be so kind, Nigel, my thanks.” After pushing the speaker back into its hidden slot Mr. Thistle returned to the mantle. He quietly adjusted one of the model’s alabaster sails before checking replicated reverse prop engines. Silence was broken only by the steady rhythm of a clock Harper could not see and the joints of Roland’s hand. It took some time before Roland spoke up. “Now as to my first comment, we have never run across a surviving relative of one of the girls.”

Harper’s heart leapt before lurching. “So she really is Kitty?”

“After a fashion.” While straightening his tie the clockmaker turned to the other man and offered a worried look in his soft brown eyes. The door opened and Nigel puttered in, depositing drinks, and after both men thanked him left. Roland didn’t touch his tea yet but made a slow unfurling of his mechanical hand to the glass of brandy. “The only part of your sister that remains is her brain encased in Ms. Thyme’s tempered steel skull.”

The brandy, Harper had a feeling, wasn’t going to be enough. He took a strong sip from it anyway only to have his stomach break into a full riot. After giving the cubes inside a tumble he took in a small breath but didn’t let it out properly. “Why?”

“Here I thought the first question was going to be how.” The nobleman actually smirked before retreating back and folding his legs at the knee once he was sat. Hands settled atop knees and faux fingers rapped in timed motion. “First off I cannot stress how much this is both a national secret and a matter that is paramount to the survival of our species.”

“Uh-huh.” The rest of the brandy was quickly swallowed leaving only ice behind. “You are still going to tell me?”

“If I do, Seaman Carson.” Roland leaned forward and met the man’s gaze, claimed it for his own. Those classic British features sharpened to a serious point. “You are going to have to swear to the Order an oath of secrecy and leave the Civilian Naval Corps to work here. If not, well, I do not really wish to go into the sordid details as to what will be done to assure your silence. Before you say a word I advise that you just agree.” The man’s stern lips lifted with small encouragement. “We cannot have you disrupting Ms. Thyme or our public image.”

“Then I guess I say yes, Mr. Thistle.” Harper couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Nor did the director blame him for it. Nodding in acceptance Roland pulled the tea tray closer and went about preparing it as he fancied in a fine petal shaped cup. Two dollops of honey were added before he stirred. “Yes it is then. Simply put your departed sister’s brain is susceptible to a rare aetheric resonance that allows it to control the mechanized form it is attached to. Only a handful of such people exist.”

“… I really don’t follow but, so you’re saying Kitty is special?” It was Harper’s turn to tilt forward. He slipped one ice cube unto his mouth to wallow on it while watching the other fellow.

Roland sipped at his tea. “Was special, was. Make no mistake that your sister died in the same attack we thought claimed the rest of your family. I must apologize we do rather extensive checks to make sure those that we harvest for the Thistle Sisters have no relatives to cause heartache. I am not sure how we missed you.”

Harper’s burnt hand twitched and the ice cube was ground down with a harsh motion of jaw. “I spent several weeks on a fomorian ship before escaping. I didn’t bother with any of my father’s barristers when I returned but joined the corps.”

“That does explain some of it but it hardly excuses our less than stellar job, Mr. Carson.” Mr. Thistle watched him through the steam of tea and his eyes narrowed in a bit of worry. Licking his lips he set the cup aside. As he stood he gestured for Harper to do the same, even offered a hand up. “I am sure this must be very difficult. While the brain is intact along with some of the spinal tissue nothing remains of the woman’s memories save perhaps a vague sense of personality.”

“Ghastly.” After snorting Harper took the hand anyway and helped himself to his feet. The inhumane subject made his moral compass spin.

“Quite but in case you have not noticed, Mr. Carson, we live in rather ghastly times.” The clockmaker moved with blue blooded poise for the door out, he had something to show his new employee. “We retrain them how to interact with society, the principles of etiquette and the best methods of warfare depending on the frame that they are attached to.”

“How do they have skin?” Harper followed him out the door. “It even seems that they bled when I watched them fight but on the inside they were all cogs, gears, cables, steel skeletons.”

“Their construction really is marvelous no?” It took some effort for Roland not to have any pride in his voice. Pocket watch fetched out he checked the time as they moved through all the people heading this way and that in the lobby to their duties. All of them got out of Mr. Thistle’s way no matter the rank on military uniforms. “Ms. Sage’s repairs should be finishing up by now; I think it is best that I show the answers as I explain them.”

“As you wish, sir.” Harper’s step fell into step with the shorter gentleman’s as they turned into an open doorway underneath the main landing of both stairways. A guard at the door didn’t blink an eye or even as much as nod as they passed. Down a slow slope they started.

“Mr. Thistle, please, Mr. Carson. I have no formal rank.” The tie was adjusted once more as they moved deeper into the electric torch lit bowels of Scarborough Castle. “When a sensitive brain is attached to conductive conduits hooked into a power matrix. Whose nature I am afraid I cannot discuss, the android can control every aspect of the clockwork body as if it was a human form. We keep the gray matter suspended in for lack of a better term liquid metal beneath steel skull to keep it protected. Of course as they are machines they are more than a hundred times more powerful than any human.”

With a sigh the former seaman slid hands deeper into his trousers. The feeling of the straight razor was comforting. “So I witnessed. They were all capable of rather astounding feats.”

“They are at the baseline yes and each Sister is customized to emphasize one trait.” Roland shook hands with the man down at the bottom of the stairs before the gent kindly unscrewed a very heavy sealing door for them – the sort they had on submersibles. It took the man quite a bit of straining until Harper elected to help to pull the door open. Immediately the constant rattle of machines washed out and over them along with the thick smell of various chemicals and the wet stickiness of pent up steam.

“Welcome to the Workshop, Mister Carson.” The keeper of the castle made a wide gesture as he continued on. Dozens of long brass pipes glinted with moisture. Llarge pistons drove so far in their rotations that part of them was hidden by the floor. Galvanic forces surged through clear glass tubes that ran in between pipes creating an eerie glow in the low lit room. There were several halls running off the side and the cacophony reminded Harper of the belly of a warship. He barely caught a haughty clicking of lady boots before a tall woman was upon them.

She was lovely in a matured fashion, her spindly form nearly reaching Harper’s height before the boots were added in and thus she could look him in the eye with the prudish lift of her brows behind widow’s veil. Wisps of auburn hair peaked from the lady’s top hat and the rest of her Gibson Girl frame was covered throat to floor in grieving tones. Even her long fingered hands were hidden behind rubber gloves meant to handle elemental lightning.

“Roland, dear, who is this?” The matron who was clearly not in her forties yet despite attire tilted to look at the young director with displeasure. Up close when she moved Harper swore he could hear more than just rubber gloves creaking.

“Widow Scabious if I might, this is Harper Carson very recently of the Civilian Naval Corps, Mr. Carson this is Widow Elsbeth Scabious.” Roland’s mechanical hand swept between the two. “Widow Scabious is responsible for keeping the girls maintained as well as lady-like in their behavior.”

“Good morning, Mr. Carson was it…” The woman offered out a slim hand. It recoiled before Harper could quite take it and covered her unadorned lips. Her veiled eyes studied the man’s face. “You are related to Thyme.”

“I’m her brother.” Harper gave the woman a short smile and nod. “So… you put them back together?”

“I do and I must say.” Her gaze went from shocked back to frosty in a heartbeat as it slid back to Roland. Arms folded under muted bust line. She defiantly had to be wearing more rubber under there. “Roland, dear, they came back in such a mess this time.”

“You should see the Piers, good widow.” Even though he was skewered with such a look the director was nonplussed. “The major is still tallying the dead and missing at this very hour. I am afraid it was a bit of a disaster that would have been a complete catastrophe if the girls were not there.”

She dipped her rather sharp chin in agreement before glancing at Harper and back to Roland. Whatever question she had involving him was not asked, yet. “Is that not always the way of things, young Thistle? Incidentally the spear that Ms. Thyme recovered is fascinating. Jones is looking at it right now; he has yet to even sleep.”

“I hope it does bear some fruit in our fight.” Dipping his chin with a kind expression the Thistle turned back to his thick companion. He patted one of Harper’s wide shoulders. “I wanted to show Mr. Carson here what we do. I do not suppose Ms. Sage is available?”

“She is having her face repaired at the moment.” The widow ‘s tone was blunt.

“Delightful.” Roland’s smile rose. “I wished to show Mr. Carson here how that is done while explaining the process to him.”

In truth Harper was feeling rather unsure if he wanted to see how living tissue was attached to a metal frame, much less have it explained to him in detail. Somethings man was just not meant to know. Was the whole basement of the castle full of mad scientists he had to wonder? Pondering what he’d walked into Harper took a moment to notice the silent tension between his two betters.

“I suspect she will not wish to see you until her features are whole, Roland.” Rubber moaned as the widow’s hands set to her hips. Despite her status and attire the woman clearly had a long strong life ahead of her.

“… Oh. Well if you would let her know I am here waiting for her?” Roland smoothed down his vest and blew out a wavering breath. His hands folded behind his back. After giving a nod off Widow Scabious drifted off down the closest hall.

“I suppose you’re just going to explain things to me then?” Harper was glad he wasn’t going to get to see the procedure first hand.

It was an apologetic expression that Mr. Thistle put on while fetching out his pocket watch embossed with thorny roses. He flicked it open once more to check the time and watch elegant second hand. “You are correct. Once the mechanical parts are assembled together and we know that the body is in good working order and that the woman can control herself then we use a special electrolysis technique to bind vat grown flesh to the metal. The skin itself is cultured from a top secret formula and is not quite human. It mineral content is far higher allowing it to attach to the steel. We found it best each chassis as close to the woman’s original body to cut down on disorientation. Thus they have the same faces and physical characteristics. It took one of my cousins nearly a year just to figure out how to correctly change pigmentation.”

“A fact for which I am always thankful, Mr. Thistle.” Ms. Sage exited out of the corridor rubbing at her face with a red tinged cloth with Widow Scabious following. She was not in her combat corset and skirts but just an oversized white shirt stained here and there with oil and blood along with lady trousers and dark slippers. The constructed woman quietly slipped spiced brown hair away from her dusky features with a hint of womanly pride. “Please do pardon my appearance as well gentleman, but the good widow instructed me that you wished to speak to me post haste, Mr. Thistle.”

“Yes.” Roland snapped his watched closed before tucking it away. Amber eyes slid over her features as if looking for any flaw. Harper swore for a moment the two locked gazes before looking away. “If I might introduce Mr. Carson, he is now part of the order and shall be assisting you four.”

“Ah.” When she let go of her hair Ms. Sage let her soft lips quirked in irritation as it fell back into place to frame her exotic face. She offered out her had as any lady should the Spaniard let her gaze roam and judge the man before her. “A pleasure Mr. Carson. I do believe I spotted you on the Pier during last night’s conflict yes? Ms. Parsley mentioned that you were bothering Ms. Thyme.”

Harper pecked at the back of the woman’s hand, noting that her flesh felt as smooth and alive as any lady’s should before he let go of it, and then responded. “I… well yes, Ms. Sage. Mr. Thistle and I were discussing such matters. He is at the moment giving me a tour and letting me in on some of the secrets behind you four.”

“Not all of our secrets I hope.” She batted her lashes at Roland and offered him an almost coy smile before remembering herself. “Every woman does need a few. What sort of capacity shall you be serving the order in then?”

“Uh.” Not knowing how to answer the large man looked down at the well-dressed one. In the background Widow Scabious quirked her lips.

“Mr. Carson has a great deal of skills, Ms. Sage.” Roland interjected without meeting Harper’s curious gaze first. “He comes from a long line of professional seaman and served for a great deal of time in the Civilian Naval Corps. I also have it on good authority that he is a fine coachman.”

“I can hold my own.” Harper’s dirty blonde brows rose.

“Delightful.” The clockwork woman bent at the waist. Ms. Sage wanted to be back into her skirts soon so she could curtsey instead of imitating a man’s gesture. “If you gentlemen would excuse me then there is quite a bit of work to be done.”

“Of course.” The bow was echoed by the Mr. Thistle while Harper made a sound of agreement.

“We shall speak later over the incident over tea and go over the tactics gleaned I pray, Mr. Thistle?” Ms. Sage turned in a manner to show the clockmaker her profile even though her eyes did their best to remain on him.

“I think that would be both delightful and prudent.” When Roland smiled it was enough to show his dimples.

After clearing her throat Widow Scabious spoke up. “If you both would like to do so now while everything is still fresh I suspect I can continue Mr. Harper’s tour, if he does not mind.”

“Please.” Harper rumbled in amusement. “You two go ahead. I am sure the good lady will be able to keep me in line.”

“I shall.” Mirthless the veiled woman nodded.

“Well then.” Clearly the cogsmith wasn’t sure if he should thank the pair or roll his eyes at them. In impasse he simply offered Ms. Sage his arm. “I am sure you would like to freshen up first.”

Demure and a bit shy Ms. Sage dipped her head. Striking curls hid her face. “I would.”

“I shall see you to the stairs and then meet you in the courtyard garden?” Roland led her to the door and paused there to offer a silent good by the two that remained before escorting the Spanish flower away.

“Those two are going to precipitate a large amount of trouble in the future.” Widow Scabious pursed her lips in discontent and refolded arms under bosom as she watched the now empty door.

“I don’t know, they are cute together. It’s almost like watching two school children.” The deep seated chuckle rolled about in Harper’s barrel chest. He didn’t wilt under the widow’s obscured glare.

“Save one of them is a machine, Mr. Carson.” She turned with a swirl of skirts. “You would do well to remember that. Women they may seem but they are in the end weapons of war.”

“Do you really believe that?” The question was asked as Harper followed after her. The quiet woman chose not to answer.

“What other questions do you have then regarding the girls, Mr. Carson?” Reaching up she adjusted her hat and came to a stop in the middle of all the corridors. Down one a few Tesla coils sparked, along others more pipes ran and in others thick tubes coursed with strange fluids. Beneath them was a well worn mosaic of rose briars.

“Well, from what I saw of Ki- Ms. Thyme the Thistle Sisters can take quite a bit of damage and still perform.” He rubbed at one wide shoulder while looking over at her then back along the halls with curious air. It was odd not to be looking down as he spoke to a woman. “I can imagine it takes quite a bit of time and resources to repair that damage.”

“Not necessarily.” First gesturing down the only corridor that had blank stone walls Widow Scabious ghosted off in that direction. Her long skirts washed around every step but there was no sway in her hips, no real womanly air. She truly was in the state of morning. “All of the parameters for each girl were set forth before their construction and refined during testing. We keep a stock pile of spare parts down here.”

At the end of the short hall they stepped into a rather ghoulish room full of arms, legs, chests and all sorts of bones cast in the strongest alloy available to man. There were glass faced boxes full of them, each labeled by what bone it was along with which Thistle Sister It belonged to. Harper blanched and Widow Scabious grinned, just a little. In between each collection of spare parts were jars of eyes floating in some sort of preserving solution, along with likewise stored conduits that looked a bit too much like sinew, arteries or spinal tissue. Along the bottom of each section shelf were drawers that contained different sized cogs for use as needed.

“You just put them back together like repairing an engine?” Strangled Harper had a bit of a time getting the question out.

“Most of the time that metaphor is accurate, Mr. Harper. It will take you some time to get used to this idea.” She fidgeted with her hat again before stepping along to the rack for Ms. Thyme. In silent gesture she drew his attention to a jar full of green eyes. She was clearly trying to point out that this construct was not his sister but a thing. “If an eye is damaged we remove and replace it, the same for an arm or a leg.”

“And if they take too much damage?” Harper’s attention fell the floor. He refused to accept the facts before him. Massive hands twisted together.

Widow Scabious walked over to him and grazed fingertips against his bicep. Her breath held just a hint of a sympathetic sigh. “As long as their brain is still intact we simply remove it and place it into a brand new chassis. The old one is then recycled for what parts still work. Mr. Carson, Harper, I understand-“

“Do you?” He turned from her first expression of comfort. “I… this is quite a bit to absorb.”

“It is.” Tongue clucked as the widow drifted along to the hall once more. Her hands curled behind her back with a renew creak. The smell of rubber and vanilla lingered in Harper’s nose. “Come along, please. I am sure you wish to see her.”

“I… I’m not sure anymore.” He followed her anyway, hands stuck deep into trouser pockets. Harper brooded and wetted his lips.

Prompted by the downturn in the lug’s mood Widow Scabious slowed until she matched his lumbering pace. Her face tilted to watch Harper’s strong facial lines. “I think it would do you some good to put some doubts to rest. I am sorry; as I am sure Mr. Thistle is, for the shock to your system. I can only imagine how dizzying it must be.”

“I… thank you.” He scratched the back of his thick neck. First snorting he then cracked it trying to bleed off some tension. “Fine, I’ll see her. I take it she’s in the middle of being repaired?”

“Yes.” Widow Scabious nodded. “She is at the moment in the final stages of having her new arm fastened into place. While your first response would be to want to wait, please if you would follow me.”

There wasn’t really any sort of please in there as much as the widow leading and the former seaman given little choice but to trail after. They ghosted through the main room just in time to see Ms. Parsley dash through on her new legs and blow a kiss and wink toward the man’s way before she was off to get her pistols back. The pair just watched her go before they took a hard turn to head down the hall filled with lively coils. Harper felt his muscles spasm from all the ambient electric energy and realized now why the auburn headed woman wore a rubber skin underneath her clothing. Widow Scabious showed now agitation at all. At the terminus they stepped into what was clearly a cross between a surgeon’s theater and inventor’s lab. Operating tables supported by central grounding columns infested with conduits, coils and gauges were set in a circle of four. Rolling open wardrobes were filled with all sorts of hanging instruments from scalpels to wrenches along with many a device Harper could not give any sort of name to. The ceiling was dominated by clusters of powerful lights complete with gaffs so the angle of their concentrated light could be changed. The entire floor was covered with rubber mats and thus Harper’s discomfort faded, only on the physical level.

One of the tables was occupied now, by his sister. That wasn’t correct; it was occupied by the machine that wore his sister’s face. Her side had yet to be closed up even after the cogs were replaced and hoses resealed. A great deal of red tinged oil had seeped into the white sheet beneath Ms. Thyme. Another bit of linen covered her flesh so that only the machine and her face could be seen. Long black hair was splayed out around soft and delicate features. Her eyes were closed at the moment; no expression was present even as a technician was using a rather heavy ratchet to bolt what was for now a steel skeletal arm into place.

“Ms. Thyme.” Widow Scabious kept her voice soft, wanting to rouse the woman but not disturb the man in a double breasted black rubber coat. It did not quite work as the fellow paused in what he was doing and glanced up through ruby tinged goggles. After the two shared a nod he turned back to the task. Ratchet set down the technician took up miniature forceps to connect some wires. By then Ms. Thyme’s grown eyes had flicked open and she tipped her head to focus on the two of them. Her lack of expression did not change.

“Yes, Widow Scabious?” Her voice was even eerily similar to the dead woman’s. Her gaze shifted to Harper and then constricted lightly. “Sir. I hope you are not here to tarry my patience further?”

“That is not the intention… Ms. Thyme.” Harper swallowed stiffly and nodded to her. “The good lady here has been so gracious to give me a tour of the facilities. I shall be serving as a coachman.”

Ms. Thyme tilted her head just enough to look at the other woman, who nodded in conformation. Her face relaxed before she looked back to Harper. “I see. Welcome aboard…” The gynoid’s voice trailed off. She wanted to say Harp, not Harper, but Harp. “I am afraid I do not know your proper name.”

“Harper Carson, ma’am.” Once answering he turned away to look over one of the instruments. He couldn’t bear to look at her like this. She is just a machine, not your sister, he tried to tell himself.

Likewise Ms. Thyme turned away to observe how the work on her hand was going. The uncovered fingers flexed under her control. It was delightful to have complete mobility again, even more so once her blades were recovered. Her coiled copper and crystal heart experienced some sort of phantom ache. It was something the machine was unused to. “Widow Scabious?”
“Yes, Ms. Thyme?” The matron’s voice was as steady as the clockwork’s woman. She had lost her heart a long time ago as well, no matter if muscle still beat at its core. Forward she flowed. “What is it?”

“I was hoping that you have made some headway with the fomorian’s spear but it is still somewhat intact.” The construct was sure that focusing on work would chase away this unfamiliar discomfort. She was also trying to resign herself that this Harper Carson’s presence would be constant from now on.

“We have not as of yet but you did make such a wish clear before, Ms, Thyme.” The widow quietly patted the girl’s new arm in reassurance. “I am sure that Mr. Thistle will let you keep it in your armory. I cannot see how it would be anything but an asset.”

“Ah.” Harper interjected while backing to the corridor’s mouth. “If you’d both excuse me I should get to the barracks and pack my things.”

“Of course, Mr. Carson.” The answer came from over Widow Scabious’ shoulder, but she didn’t turn to look at him. “Godspeed.”

“And to you. I hope you recover quickly, Ms. Thyme.” Harper lingered.

Silence reigned for far too long but just as Harper was ready to leave Ms. Thyme finally answered. “Thank you, Mr. Carson. Do have a pleasant day. I look forward to working together.”

“As do I.” With that the block of a man retreated as quickly as he could and tried to sew back together the emotional wound this had reopened. Damnit he’d have to track down Basil for a beer or four. His burned hand twitched in recalled pain.

“Well then unless you need anything else?” After giving the clockwork maid a few minutes to recover Widow Scabious gave her hand a light pat in preparation for leaving. She was surprised when Ms. Thyme gripped tight.

“I…” Ms. Thyme wasn’t exactly sure how to express herself so after a breath let go. “No, there is nothing. I shall see you this afternoon, Widow Scabious.”

Without a word the matron just nodded and showed herself out. For the life of her Elsbeth could not fathom why Mr. Thistle was willing to take such a risk as to add Harper Carson to their team. Perhaps he just wanted to test how effectively the girl’s memory had been wiped? That seemed too cruel for her superior to ever consider; there had to be another reason.

Ms. Thyme slipped her eyes closed and let the technician continued working without interruption. A quiver of relief that Harper hadn’t died slithered at the back of her consciousness before her lips drew tight and the swordswoman tried to crush such alien thoughts. The worst part was it had nothing to do with last night but over an incident she didn’t even recollect.

There was nothing worse than a tragedy never remembered save those yet to come.

Fin

Verse Two

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