[*Author's Note: This is the sequel to a book I wrote last year entitled "The Whispering Gallery." If anyone is desperate enough to read the first book, email me at thetravelingmagpie @ gmail. com and I'll send you a PDF copy of The Whispering Gallery, with the stipulation that you have to give me a bit of a critique. :D Enjoy, and as always, any questions, suggestions, or comments are welcome!*]
Matty held the strange vial – barely as long as her little finger – close to her eyes and peered into it with wonder. Inside the thin glass chamber, something like glowing golden smoke swirled in a silent dance.
“Henry,” she whispered, her breath fogging the glass. The golden smoke swirled a little faster, and she fingered the rubber cap that stoppered the glass tube, wondering what would happen if she opened it. She imagined the smoke whisping out of the tube, and dissolving into the darkness.
From behind her, Lord Fauntleroy squeaked – probably wondering if whatever she’d found was edible. Matty reached for her fallen lantern and was relieved to find it unbroken. A match from her pocket, and soon the wick was burning brightly. She dumped the rest of the matches into her pocket, slipped the tiny vial into the matchbox for safekeeping and stood.
Something crunched under her feet, and she looked down to see dozens of other glass tubes littered across the floor – all shattered. All dark. Some sprouted broken and twisted wires, and Matty frowned. Just what exactly was the Machine? How had it worked?
There was probably no way to ever know – the Mayor certainly wasn’t going to tell her, and the mechanical beast before her was far too mangled to deduce its workings from the wreckage. But could the Mayor have built the monstrosity himself?
Matty swung her lantern closer to the metal plates that had once made up the walls of the Machine. Surely somewhere there would be a – there.
An embossed brass plaque was welded to the side of the Machine. It had been slightly damaged by the explosion, but Matty could make out the words.
Kearny Valentine, they read. Mechanician: Automatons, Clocks, Inventions and Repairs. And there was an address.
One of the best things, in Matty’s reckoning, of the Downturn’s passing was how much more freedom she had. Not that she had been forbidden to leave the house when the Mayor’s fog had covered the City – her parents simply hadn’t thought of it – but it always felt as though she were swimming through mud. Cold, thick mud that turned everything bleary and made one’s bones ache. Even when the sun shone, people trudged about with hunched shoulders and their hands shoved deep into their pockets.
Now, though it was gray and rainy, the air felt no colder than an ordinary day, and people stopped under the eves of buildings and in little huddles of bobbing umbrellas to chat and do business.
Matty hurried along the shining wet sidewalk, holding her skirt up out of the mud with one hand and trying to keep her umbrella under control with the other. She hadn’t changed out of her Down boots – much more practical for the rain than the sleek buttoned-boots her mother had bought – but she wore one of her new dresses. She wasn’t sure what to expect of the Mechanician, but she didn’t want to meet him in her grubby, too-small, exploring clothes.
The Mechanician’s shop was a narrow affair squeezed between a hat shop and a bakery. Matty caught a whiff of something chocolate baking, and her stomach rumbled. The Mechanician’s shop window was filled with shining bits of clockwork and brass – an automaton with a tea-trolley, a grandfather clock with six hands, a collection of glass jars filled with something blue that fizzled and occasionally sparked – and the brass sign above the door was polished to a high sheen.
She pushed open the door – a tiny, mechanical bird above her head chirped to announce her arrival – and stepped into the shop, closing her umbrella as she entered. It smelled of oil and hot metal, and the air was warm and slightly moist. Shelves overflowing with brass, copper, and glass jars rose all the way to the high ceiling. There was a line of glass globes hanging above the shop’s center aisle, each of them the size of a teapot, and each one holding dozens of tiny, bouncing lights. Matty squinted up into the yellow glow – were they like Henry’s lights?
“Glowbits,” a voice said.
Matty jumped, and whirled to see a boy pop up behind the shop counter. “You startled me,” she exclaimed.
The boy grinned – a grin as full of teeth as the shop was of bristling brass things. “Sorry,” he apologized. “They’re glowbits – like fireflies, but not really alive. My uncle makes them.”
Matty propped her umbrella against the counter. “Is your uncle the Mechanician?”
The boy nodded. He was tall and gangly – nearer to a man, than a boy, really – and his rust-colored hair stuck up in odd places. “Best in the City, but he’s out right now,” he said. “I’m Amos – his apprentice. I can help you find what you need, or place an order.”
Matty regarded him for a moment. She didn’t have much experience with anyone outside Butler and her parents – certainly not much experience with apprentice Mechanician boys – but he looked nice enough.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out the matchbox. “I found this in a broken machine,” she said, pushing the box open and holding it out for him to see the tiny vial inside. “There was a plate with your uncle’s name on it.”
The boy – Amos – reached for the box. “May I?”
Matty let him take it. He withdrew the vial and squinted at it, holding the glass up to the light. “Hmm…” he hummed.
“Hmm? Is that a good hmm or a bad hmm?”
Amos looked back at her, his eyes the bright brown of old brass. “It’s a confused hmm,” he admitted. “I’ve never seen anything like this – well, not quite like this, anyway – in Uncle Kearny’s shop.”
Matty sagged a little, and Amos looked down at her anxiously. “Is it important?” he asked. “I can look around and see if there’s anything written down in the back, but Uncle Kearny’s gone and I don’t know when he’ll be back—”
Matty took the now-empty matchbox back and slipped it shut. With dismay, she felt tears pricking at her eyes. “Sorry—” she sniffed, looking down and blinking quickly. “Sorry, sorry—”
Amos hurried out from behind the counter and took her elbow. “Here now,” he said, his voice cracking. “Here – don’t cry, please don’t cry. Come, um – come sit in the back. It’s, uh – it’s warm? And I’ll – I’ll make tea. Just please don’t cry—”
“I’m not crying,” Matty objected, but she let him lead her to a wooden chair at a workbench in the back of the shop. Amos pressed the glass vial into her hand and scurried off into the shadows to make tea, babbling as he went.
“Uncle Kearny’s due back any day now, I’m sure and – do you like sugar in your tea? We haven’t got any – oh wait, here’s some. I think this is sugar. You’re the first person to come in this week. I keep the shop open but – whoops! …I really hope you like sugar in your tea...”
Matty scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand, furious with herself for losing her composure in front of a stranger. There was a feeling like an iron brick in her stomach – a feeling that had been there since Henry destroyed the Machine, and which she didn’t notice fading when she found the vial. A feeling which was now back.
Stupid, stupid, stupid…she thought to herself. What had she expected? That the Mechanician could somehow bring Henry back with the dab of golden smoke in the glass tube? Stupid…
Amos reappeared with a mug of steaming tea. He plonked it down on the table in front of her – wincing when it over-sloshed the top a bit. “Sorry,” he muttered. He cocked his head and examined Matty with a cautiousness usually reserved for wild beasts that might attack at any moment. “Are you… are you alright?”
Matty pushed her mouth into a smile. “I’m… I’m ok. Sorry – it was a surprise, is all, and it’s been a long day.”
Looking relieved that she wasn’t going to burst into floods of tears, Amos pulled out another chair and sat backwards in it, resting his arms on the chairback and his chin on his arms. “You say you found that thing–” he gestured with his chin at the glass vial now resting on the table “—in a machine with Uncle Kearny’s name on it?”
Matty nodded, and pulled the tea mug toward her.
“Mind telling me what sort of machine it was?”
She took a sip of the tea, and glanced at Amos through the steam. “You’ll think I’m crazy,” she said. “Sometimes I think I’m crazy.”
Amos squinted. “Last month, my uncle made a mechanical puppy that could eat, make puddles, and grew into a full-sized dog in two days. Crazy doesn’t mean the same thing in this shop.”
Matty set the tea down on the table, and let her eyes wander around the shadowed collection of half-finished projects and bins and shelves of materials. “Have you noticed anything…different recently?” she asked with caution, not quite looking at Amos. “That everything is a little brighter – clearer? Almost like—”
“Almost like a fog clearing?”
Matty’s eyes snapped to Amos’ face, and he shrugged. “Sure. Everyone’s noticed – but no one talks about it because it sounds crazy.” He grinned. “And what did I say about crazy?”
Taking a deep breath, Matty sat forward in her chair. “Well, it started when I was exploring the Under-City…”
She told Amos everything – in a way, it was a huge relief to be able to tell someone. The words poured out as she told him about Henry, and the Whispering Gallery, and the Mayor’s control over the City, and what Henry had done to stop it. She kept her voice from shaking at all when she described the explosion.
“This was the first time I’d gone back,” she finished. “And I found this in the rubble.” She tapped the glass vial with her finger, and they both stared at it for a long moment in silence.
Amos finally cleared his throat. “So…hmm. That is, you think that – um, hmm. This Henry, he might be…in that thing?”
Matty shrugged. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “It’s so tiny – but it’s the same light that I always saw in the Gallery. I just…I don’t know. I hoped your uncle might.”
“And he might, at that.” Amos ran a hand through his hair. “It’s just… I don’t know where he is.”
Matty’s eyes snapped up. “What?”
Amos grimaced. “He’s been gone three weeks now,” he said. “No note – nothing. He’s never done that before. I just woke up one morning, and he was gone.”
Images of the warped and mangled Machine flashed in Matty’s mind. “You don’t think—” she stopped, hesitating.
“Well,” she said carefully, “you said your uncle was the best mechanician in the City.”
“Yeah – he is. No one else has even figured out how he makes the glowbits yet, let alone things like the dog.” Amos’ eyes widened. “Wait – you think—”
“The Mayor may be trying to rebuild the Machine,” Matty finished. “If he thought he needed it to control the City—”
“And he does, with all the talk of Anarchists and things—”
Amos blinked at her. “You really don’t get out much, do you.”
Matty shrugged. “It’s not the sort of thing people talk about at tea parties.”
“It will be soon.” Amos stood, walked over to a desk in the corner, and started rummaging through the stacks of paper piled onto it. “There’s some kind of rebellion brewing. Pamphlets keep turning up in mailboxes talking about how bad the Mayor is and how corrupt the Government is, but no one ever sees who delivers them. And there’s other stuff – mostly just rumors, but there’s been a lot of activity around the Courthouse and the Mayor’s House the last few weeks. Here:” he drew something out of the stack and tossed it onto the table. “That’s one of the pamphlets.”
Matty picked up the cheaply-printed booklet and flipped through it.
“It’s a sort of manifesto,” Amos explained, sitting down again. “It lists all the things the Mayor’s done in the past five years that the anarchists take issue with – only they don’t call themselves anarchists, they call themselves the Watchmen. It’s a pun – they use a watch face as their symbol, but they also mean they’re watching.”
“If they Mayor could rebuild the Machine, he wouldn’t have to worry about any of this,” Matty said. She dropped the pamphlet back on the table and looked up at Amos. “We need to find your uncle.”
He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair again. “I’d love to,” he said. “But, hmm – where do we start?”
Matty picked up the glass vial and rolled it between her fingers. “The Mayor’s House?”
Amos snorted. “And just how are we supposed to get in there, hmm? Just knock at the door and say, ‘Hmm, ’scuse me, Mr. Mayor, we just want to have a quick look around for your world-control machine and my uncle, thanks – won’t be but a minute.’”
Matty fingered the fine material of her new dress, an idea forming in her mind. “Well, I wasn’t actually planning on knocking,” she said slowly. “In fact, I think they’re supposed to announce me. Or at least my parents.”
“What in the world are you going on about?”
“The Mayor’s Ball, next week. My parents are invited, and I’m supposed to go too.” She’d completely forgotten about it, actually – she’d tried so hard not to think about anything concerning the Mayor.
Amos’ mouth was open to argue, but nothing came out. “Well,” he said at last. “Hmm. Well. I guess that would work.”
Matty pulled the empty matchbox out of her pocket and replaced the glass vial. “It’s on Wednesday,” she said. “I’ll come back here on Thursday?”
“Yeah. Yeah – that would work.” Amos stood, and carried her mug – still half full of tea – to a sink in the back of the workroom. “And I’ll send you a message if I hear anything before then. Where do you live?”
Matty scribbled down her address for him at the front counter and left the shop feeling – if not hopeful, at least less helpless than she had in weeks. Which was ridiculous if she really thought about it – after all, Henry was still gone, and it looked like the Mayor was trying to rebuild his horrible Machine. But now she had something to do. And that was the best thing that had happened to her since the first Machine was destroyed.