مرکزی صفحہ Crier's War

Crier's War

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Impossible love between two girls —one human, one Made.
A love that could birth a revolution.


After
the War of Kinds ravaged the kingdom of Rabu, the Automae, Designed to
be the playthings of royals, took over the estates of their owners and
bent the human race to their will.

Now, Ayla, a human servant
rising the ranks at the House of the Sovereign, dreams of avenging the
death of her family… by killing the Sovereign’s daughter, Lady Crier.
Crier, who was Made to be beautiful, to be flawless. And to take over
the work of her father.

Crier had been preparing to do just
that—to inherit her father’s rule over the land. But that was before she
was betrothed to Scyre Kinok, who seems to have a thousand secrets.
That was before she discovered her father isn’t as benevolent as she
thought. That was before she met Ayla.

Set in a richly-imagined
fantasy world, Nina Varela’s debut novel is a sweepingly romantic tale
of love, loss and revenge, that challenges what it really means to be
human.
سال:
2019
ناشر کتب:
HarperCollins
زبان:
english
صفحات:
464
ISBN 13:
9780062823960
سیریز:
Crier's War #1
فائل:
EPUB, 801 KB
ڈاؤن لوڈ کریں (epub, 801 KB)

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اہم جملے

 
2 comments
 
Aqsa
Probably one of the best sapphic books i've ever read.
15 April 2021 (19:59) 
Nash
Can't open the file ://
18 May 2021 (07:59) 

آپ کتاب کا معائنہ کر سکتے ہیں اور اپنے تجربات شیئر کرسکتے ہیں۔ دوسرے قارئین کتابوں کے بارے میں آپ کی رائے میں ہمیشہ دلچسپی رکھیں گے۔ چاہے آپ کو کتاب پسند ہے یا نہیں ، اگر آپ اپنے دیانتدار اور تفصیلی خیالات دیںگے تو لوگوں کو نئی کتابیں ملیںگی جو ان کے لئے صحیح ہیں۔
1

Verify

Year:
2019
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 874 KB
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2

The Library of the Unwritten

Year:
2019
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 889 KB
0 / 0
Dedication




For the queer readers. You deserve every adventure.





Map





Contents


Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Map

Timeline

Prologue

Fall, Year 47 AE

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Late Fall, Year 47 AE

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Winter, Year 47 AE

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Books by Nina Varela

Back Ad

Copyright

About the Publisher





Timeline


BEFORE AUTOMA ERA

ERA 900, YEAR 7—RULE OF THEA BEGINS

Queen Thea, the Barren Queen, ruler of all Zulla, desires a child

Founds the Royal Academy of Makers at the palace

YEAR 911

Maker Thomas Wren creates Kiera, the first Automa

YEAR 915

Having a pet Automa has become all the rage among the human elite

Kiera becomes unstable, violent

YEAR 917

Thomas Wren arrested for attempting to kill Kiera

YEAR 920

While in prison, Wren perfects heartstone, the alchemical gem that powers the Automae, and he begins to produce large quantities

Wren is pardoned by the queen

Wren establishes the Iron Heart, a heartstone mine

YEAR 921

Automae begin to rebel against their human commissioners

YEAR 924

An Automa called Neo kills her human commissioner and escapes, calling all Automae to arms

First organized Automa revolt

War between humans and Automae is declared

YEARS 924–929—THE WAR OF KINDS

Neo and a group of Automa rebels kill Thomas Wren and take control of the Iron Heart

Kiera turns on Queen Thea; Queen Thea kills her

An Automa called Tayol assassinates Queen Thea

The tides have turned; the Automae are victorious

AUTOMA ERA BEGINS

YEAR 1–2

Tayol attempts to distribute land and resources to the Automa ruling class

Zulla is in chaos; there are many Automa raids on human villages

YEAR 3

Tayol becomes Sovereign of Zulla

Neo establishes the Watchers of the Heart: Automae who dedicate their lives t; o protecting the Iron Heart

YEAR 5

A human named Siena creates an Automa girl who does not require blood or heartstone

Siena names the girl “Yora” . . . and keeps her a secret

YEAR 6

The Automae of the mining nation Varn declare independence from the rest of Zulla

YEAR 7

Sovereign Tayol establishes Traditionalism

Tayol commissions an heir, Hesod

YEAR 10

Automa King Fierven rises to power in Varn

YEAR 31

Siena’s daughter, Clara, bears children of her own: twins Ayla and Storme

Hesod becomes Sovereign of Zulla and forms the Red Council

Hesod commissions an heir, Crier

YEAR 40

The Sovereign orders a raid on the village of Delan

YEAR 43

Scyre Kinok publishes the first pamphlets on a new movement he calls “Anti-Reliance,” the antithesis of Traditionalism

YEAR 44

Scyre Kinok begins to gain favor amongst the Automae in Rabu

Automa King Fierven of Varn is assassinated; his daughter, Junn, ascends to the throne

YEAR 46

The Anti-Reliance Movement continues to grow

Scyre Kinok seeks alliance with Sovereign Hesod

Scyre Kinok and Lady Crier are betrothed

YEAR 47—PRESENT DAY





Prologue




There was once a queen called Thea, and in her twenty-first year it was decided that she should bear a child. As was tradition in Old Zulla, the queen was sequestered in preparation for the bearing. Her body was purified with daily baths of milk and salt lavender, with regular ingestions of blue dara root, and her handmaidens wove symbolic ribbons and white dayblossoms into her hair. Humans in era nine hundred believed that near-total rest, particularly from the duties of the throne, was necessary for a human to conceive a child. This belief had no roots in the study of Organics, as it is known now that humans can create more of their kind in almost any setting, sprouting new life whether it is invited or not, much like weeds.

However, Queen Thea was an exception. According to all accounts of that time—including the records of the queen’s personal birth-witch, Bryn—the queen was, after a time, deemed barren. Despite this, accompanied only by Bryn and a single handmaiden, Queen Thea locked herself in her chambers and insisted upon an additional seven weeks of ceremonial preparation, followed by another three months of attempted mating with King Aedel. She would repeat this cycle twice more before formally accepting that she could not bear a child.

In era nine hundred, year seven, after the conspicuous death of King Aedel, Queen Thea declared that any Maker capable of building her a child—one that could perfectly imitate all the workings of a human—would be rewarded with a lifetime’s worth of gold and a seat at the right hand of the throne.

In the way of humans, who are ruled by the flawed pillars of Intuition and Passion, the Makers thought this request impossible. They were wrong.

—FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE AUTOMA ERA,

BY EOK OF FAMILY MEADOR, 2234610907, YEAR 4 AE





Fall,


Year 47 AE





1


When she was newbuilt and still fragile, and her fresh-woven skin was soft and shiny from creation, Crier’s father told her, “Always check their eyes. That’s how you can tell if a creature is human. It’s in the eyes.”

Crier thought her father, Sovereign Hesod, was speaking in metaphor, that he meant humans possessed a special sort of power. Love, a glowing lantern in their hearts; hunger, a liquid heat in their bellies; souls, dark wells in their eyes.

Of course, she’d learned later that it was not a metaphor.

When light hit an Automa’s eyes head-on, the irises flashed gold. A split second of reflection, refraction, like a cat’s eyes at night. A flicker of gold, and you knew those eyes did not belong to a human.

Human eyes swallowed light whole.

Crier counted four heartbeats: a doe and three kits.

The woods seemed to bend around her, trees converging overhead, while near her feet there was a rabbit’s den, a warm little burrow hidden underground from wolves and foxes . . . but not from her.

She stood impossibly still, listening to four tiny pulses radiating up through the dirt, beating so rapidly that they sounded like a hive of buzzing honeybees. Crier cocked her head, fascinated with the muffled hum of living organs. If she concentrated, she could hear the air moving through four sets of thumb-sized lungs. Like all Automae, she was Designed to pick up even the faintest, most faraway sounds.

This deep into the woods, dawn had barely touched the forest floor—the perfect time for a hunt. Not that Crier enjoyed hunting.

The Hunt was an old human ritual, so old that most humans did not use it anymore. But Hesod was a Traditionalist and historian at heart, and he fostered a unique appreciation for human traditions and mythology. When Crier was Made, he had anointed her forehead with wine and honey for good fortune. When she came of age at thirteen, he had gifted her a silver dress embroidered with the phases of the moon. When he decided that she would marry Kinok, a Scyre from the Western Mountains, he did not make arrangements for Crier to take part in the Automa tradition of traveling to a Maker’s workshop, designing and creating a symbolic gift for her future husband. He had planned for a Hunt.

So Crier was not actually alone in these woods. Somewhere out there, hidden by the cover of shadows and trees, her fiancé, Kinok, was hunting as well.

Kinok was considered a war hero of sorts. He’d been Made long after the War of Kinds, but there had been numerous rebellions, large and small, in the five decades since the War itself. One of the biggest, a series of coups called the Southern Uprisings, had been quelled almost single-handedly by Kinok and his ingenuity.

On top of that, he was the founder and head of the Anti-Reliance Movement—a very new political group that sought to distance Automakind and humankind even further. Literally. Most of their agenda centered on building a new Automa capital to the Far North, in a territory that was uninhabitable to humans, instead of continuing to use the current capital, Yanna, which had once been a human city. It was, frankly, ridiculous. You didn’t have to be the sovereign’s daughter to know that building an entirely new city would require ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million kings’ coffers of gold, and why would such a vain effort ever be worth the time and cost? It was a fantasy.

Before Kinok had begun the Anti-Reliance Movement, about three years ago now, he’d been a Watcher of the Iron Heart. It was a sacred task, protecting the mine that made heartstone, and he was the first Watcher to ever leave his post. Which, of course, had caused much speculation among Automakind. That he’d been discharged, banished for some serious offense. But Kinok claimed it had been a simple difference of philosophy regarding the fate of their Kind, and no one had uncovered any reason more sinister than that.

The one time Crier had asked him about his past, he had been elusive. “Those were dark times,” he had said. “So few of us ever saw light.” She had no idea what that meant. Maybe she was overcomplicating it: he’d been living in a mine, after all.

Still, the secrets he held—about the Iron Heart, how it ran, its exact coordinates within the western mountains—made him inherently powerful, and different. Many of her father’s councilmembers—the sovereign’s “Red Hands,” as they were called—seemed drawn to Kinok. Like Hesod, Kinok had a certain gravity to him, a certain pull, though where he was serious, Hesod was jovial. Where Kinok was controlled and quiet, Hesod was loud, quick-tempered, often brash. And determined to marry off his daughter to Kinok, despite all the whispers, the speculations. Or perhaps because of them.

Months before Kinok’s arrival, Crier and her father had taken a walk along the sea cliffs. “Kinok’s followers are few and scattered, but he is gaining influence at a rate I hadn’t thought possible,” he’d explained.

She had listened carefully, trying to understand his point. She had heard of Kinok’s rallies, if “rallies” was even the right word—they were essentially just intellectual gatherings, where small groups of Automae could share their ideals, talk politics and advancement. “Scyre Kinok is a philosopher, Father, not a politician,” Crier had said. “He poses no threat to your rule.”

It had been late summer, the sky clear and delphinium blue. Crier used to treasure those long, slow walks with her father, hoarding moments like pieces of jewelry, pretty things to turn over and admire in the light. She looked forward to them every day. It was their time—away from the Red Council, away from her studies—when she could learn from him and him alone.

“Yes, but his philosophy is gaining traction among the Made, the protection and rule of which are my—and your—responsibility. We must convince him to join a family structure. To bridge the divide.”

Crier stopped short of the seaflowers that had just begun to bloom by the cliff’s edge. “But surely if he does not agree with the tenets of Traditionalism, he will not agree to the kind of union you propose.” She couldn’t bring herself to say marriage yet.

“One might think so, but I have reason to believe he will accept the opportunity. To him, it will provide power and status. To us, it will provide stability and access. We will be able to track what the Anti-Reliance Movement is attempting to accomplish, and better rein it in.”

“So you disagree with ARM,” Crier said.

Hesod hedged. “Their views on humankind are too extreme for my taste. It is one thing to subjugate those who are inferior and another thing entirely to behave as if they don’t exist. We must build policy around the reality of where we came from. We were not created in a void, history-less. It is ignorant to think we cannot learn from humanity’s existing structures.”

“You find ARM too extreme. . . . Would you consider its leader dangerous, then?” Crier asked.

“No,” Hesod said coolly. Then he had added: “Not yet.”

And so she had understood. Crier was the bandage to a wound—one that was minor, for now, but had the potential to fester over time. A hairline fracture in Hesod’s otherwise ironclad rule, his control over all of Zulla, everything from the eastern sea to the western mountains—except the separate territory of Varn. Varn was part of Zulla but still ruled by a separate Automa monarchy. Queen Junn, the Child Queen. The Mad Queen. The Bone Eater.

Hesod didn’t need any more splintering. He wanted union.

He wanted to keep the same thing Crier knew Kinok wanted:

Power.

Now: the branches above Crier’s head were half naked with approaching winter, but the trees were so densely packed that they blocked out almost all the weak gray sunlight, shrouding the forest floor in shadow. Overhead, the leaves were like copper etchings, a thousand waving hands in shades of red and orange and burnished gold; underfoot, they were the pale brown of dead things. Crier could smell wet earth and woodsmoke, the musk of animals, the sharp scent of pine and wood sap. It was so different from what she usually experienced, living on the icy shores of the Steorran Sea: the tang of sea air. The taste of salt on her tongue. The heavy smells of fish and rotting seaweed.

It took half a day’s ride to reach these woods, and so Crier had been here only once before, nearly five years ago. Her father enjoyed hunting deer like the humans did. She remembered eating a few bites of hot, spiced venison that night, filling her belly with food she did not require. More ritual than meal. The core of her father’s Traditionalism: adopting human habits and customs into daily life. He said it created meaning, structure. Under most circumstances, Crier understood the merits of Hesod’s beliefs. It was why she called him “father” even though she’d never had a mother and had never been birthed. She had been commissioned, Made.

Unlike humans, all Automae really needed was heartstone. Where human bodies depended on meat and grain, Automa bodies depended on heartstone: a special red mineral imbued with alchemical energy; raw stone mined from deep within the western mountains and then transmuted by alchemists into a powerful magickal substance. It was how Thomas Wren, the greatest of the human alchemists, had created them almost one hundred years ago when he’d Designed Kiera—the first. Automae were modeled this way still.

Crier crept through the underbrush, keeping to the darkest shadows. Her feet were silent even as she walked across twigs and dry leaves, a red carpet of pine needles. Nothing would be able to hear her coming. Not deer, not elk. Not even other Automae. She paused every few moments, listening to her surroundings: the sounds of small animals skittering through the brush, the whispers of wind, the back-and-forth calls of the noonbirds and the old crows. She was careful to keep her heart rate down. If it spiked too suddenly, the distress chime in the back of her neck would go off at a pitch only Automae could hear, and all her guards would come running.

The ceremonial bow was heavy in her hand. It was carved from a single piece of dark mahogany, polished to a perfect sheen and inlaid with veins of gold, precious stones, animal bone. The three arrows sheathed at her back were equally beautiful. One tipped with iron, one with silver, and one with bone. Iron for strength and power. Silver for prosperity. Bone for two bodies bound as one.

Snap. Crier whipped around, already nocking an arrow and ready to shoot—but instead coming face-to-face with Kinok himself. He was frozen midstep, partly hidden behind a massive oak, half his face obscured and the other half in watery sunlight. Every time she saw him, which was now about ten times per day since he had taken up residence in her father’s guest chambers, Crier was reminded of how handsome he was. Like all Automae, he was tall and strong, broad-shouldered, Designed to be more beautiful than the most beautiful human man. His face was a study in shadow and light: high cheekbones, knife-blade jawline, a thin, sharp nose. His skin was swarthy, a shade lighter than her own, his dark hair cropped close to his skull. His brown eyes were sharp and scrutinizing. The eyes of a scientist, a political leader. Her fiancé.

Her fiancé, who was aiming his iron-tipped arrow straight at Crier’s forehead.

There was a moment—so brief that when she thought about it later she was not sure it had actually happened—in which Crier lowered her bow and Kinok did not. A single moment in which they stared at each other and Crier felt the faintest edge of nerves.

Then Kinok lowered his bow, smiling, and she scolded herself for being so silly.

“Lady Crier,” he said, still smiling. “I do not think we’re supposed to interact with each other until the Hunt is over . . . but you’re a better conversationalist than the birds. Have you caught anything yet?”

“No, not yet,” she said. “I am hoping for a deer.”

His teeth flashed. “I’m hoping for a fox.”

“Why is that?”

“They’re quicker than deer, smaller than wolves, and cleverer than crows. I like the challenge.”

“I see.” She shifted, catching the faraway scuffle of a rabbit in the underbrush. The shadows dappled Kinok’s face and shoulders like a horse’s coloring. He was still looking at her, the last remnants of that smile still playing at the corners of his flawless mouth. “I wish you luck with your fox, Scyre,” she said, preparing to track down the rabbit. “Aim well.”

“Actually, I wanted to congratulate you, my lady,” he said suddenly. “While we are out here, away from—from the palace. I heard you convinced Sovereign Hesod to let you attend a meeting of the Red Council next week.”

Crier bit her tongue, trying to hide her excitement. After years of near-begging, her father had agreed to let her attend a council meeting. After years of studying history, philosophy, political theory, reading and rereading a dozen libraries’ worth of books, writing essays and letters and sometimes feverish little manifestos, she would finally, finally be allowed to take a seat among the Red Hands. Maybe even to share her proposals for council reform. As daughter of the sovereign, the Red Council was her birthright; it was as much a part of her as her Pillars. She was Made for this.

“I think you’re right, you know,” Kinok continued. “I read the open letter you sent to Councilmember Reyka. About your proposed redistribution of representation on the Red Council. You are correct that while there is a voice for every district in Zulla outside of Varn, there is not a voice for every system of value.”

“You read that?” Crier said, eyes snapping up to his face. “Nobody read that. I doubt even Councilmember Reyka did.”

She couldn’t help the note of bitterness in her voice. It was foolish, but she had thought Councilmember Reyka, of all people, would listen to her. Her argument had been that in places with higher-density human populations, the interests of those humans should be somehow accounted for in the Hands who sat on her father’s council. Though she had to wonder if when Kinok mentioned her phrase, “systems of value,” he was more interested in his own values—those he was attempting to spread through the land, via ARM—than those of the human citizens.

Still, it flattered her that he’d read it. It meant her words had more power, greater reach, than she’d realized.

She hoped Reyka had read it too, but with no reply, she’d been left to believe the worst. That Reyka thought her naive and foolish. Sometimes, Crier wondered if maybe her father thought that, too. He’d refused her for so long.

But Reyka had always shown something of a soft spot for Crier. As the longest-serving member of the Red Council, Reyka had always been a fixture in Crier’s life. She’d visited the palace quite frequently. When Crier was younger, Reyka would bring her little gifts from her travels: vials of sweet-smelling hair oil, a music box the size of a thumbnail, the strange dark delicacy that was candied heartstone.

Crier had come to think of her the way human children in storybooks thought of their godmothers. She couldn’t say that to Reyka, or to anyone. It was such a weak, soft-bellied idea. So she just thought it to herself, and it made her feel warm.

“Well . . .” Kinok stepped forward a little, light sliding across his face. His footsteps were silent amid the blanket of dried leaves. “I read it twice. And I agree with it. The Red Hands shouldn’t be based on district alone; it leads to imbalance and bias. Have you mentioned this issue to your father?”

“Yes,” Crier said quietly. “He was not incredibly receptive.”

“We can work on that.” At her look of surprise, Kinok shrugged one shoulder. “We are bound to be married, are we not? I am on your side, Lady Crier, as you are on mine. Right?”

“Right,” she found herself saying, staring at him in wonder. What new opportunities might come to her in this marriage? For months now she had thought of it as nothing more than a prolonged political maneuver, unpleasant but ultimately bearable, like the stench of rotting fish in the sea air.

It had not occurred to her that she might be gaining an advocate, as well as a husband.

“And if we are on the same side, there is something you should know,” said Kinok, lowering his voice even though they were entirely alone, no living things around but the rabbits and the birds. “There was a scandal in the capital recently. I know only because I was with Councilmember Reyka when she learned of it.”

Crier almost questioned that—it was no secret that Councilmember Reyka hated everything about the Anti-Reliance Movement, including Kinok himself. But another word caught her attention. “A scandal?” she asked. “What kind of scandal?”

“Midwife sabotage.”

Crier’s eyes widened. “What do you mean, sabotage?” she asked. Midwives were an integral part of the Making process. They were created to be assistants to the Makers themselves, a bridge between Maker and Designer. They helped newly Made Automae adjust to the world. “What did the Midwife do?”

“Faked a set of Design blueprints for a nobleman’s child. It was a disaster. The child was Made wrong. More animal than Automa or even human. Their mind was wild, violent. They had to be disposed of for the safety of the nobleman’s family.”

“That’s horrible,” Crier breathed. “Why would the Midwife do such a thing? Was it madness?” She knew the condition plagued some humans.

“Nobody knows,” said Kinok. “But, Lady, there is something you should know.”

There was something strange in his voice. Warning? Trepidation?

“This was not her first Make,” Kinok continued, meeting Crier’s eyes. “She had been working with the nobles of Rabu for decades.”

A pit seemed to open in Crier’s belly, but she was not sure why.

“Who was she, Scyre?” she asked slowly. “The Midwife. What was her name?”

“Torras. Her name was Torras.”

Crier gripped her bow so tightly that the wood creaked in protest. Because she knew Midwife Torras.

She knew it, because that was the Midwife who had helped Make her.

As soon as the Hunt was complete—two rabbits and a quail ensnared—and their party had returned to the palace, Crier retired to her chambers, poring again over the Midwife’s Handbook, a thin, leather-bound booklet she’d come across in a bookseller’s stall in the market last year and bought with so much enthusiasm that the stall owner seemed a little alarmed. She reassured herself that an infraction of the kind Kinok had mentioned was nearly impossible.

There was no way her own Design had been tampered with, of course. She was far too important.

And besides, if there were something off, something Flawed, something different about her, she’d know it already . . . wouldn’t she?





It is the duty of the Human Midwife to care for the new-Made Commission as they would for their own Human offspring.

It is the duty of the Midwife to provide the new-Made Commission with heartstone as Human child bearers provide Human offspring with milk.

It is the duty of the Midwife to ensure that the inner workings of the new-Made Commission have been Made correctly and without Flaw. The new-Made Commission must contain within its breast the Four Pillars: Reason, Calculation, Organics, and Intellect. Much like the Human Temperaments, these Four Pillars are the basis of the Automa individual and the Society as a whole.

It is the duty of the Midwife to ensure that the new-Made Commission was Made according to the Commissioner’s Design; if discrepancies are discovered, the Midwife must report the discrepancies in detail to the Head Commissioner and the Head Midwife and continue to care for the new-Made Commission until a decision is made.

It is the duty of the Midwife to place the continued existence of the new-Made Commission above their own.

It is the duty of the Midwife to place the continued existence of the new-Made Commission above all.

In the rare case of an Order of Termination ordained by the Sovereign, with the unanimous support of the Red Council, only then shall the Midwife bend to the Law and allow the Flawed Commission to be terminated.

—FROM THE MIDWIFE’S HANDBOOK,

BY MIDWIFE HALLA OF MIDWIFERY RM437 OF THE SOVEREIGN STATE OF RABU





2


Luna was killed in a white dress.

A week had passed since her death, and the dress that had been stripped off her body and dangled from the tallest post was still fluttering in the faint breeze. It was some kind of symbol, or warning. By now the dress was soaked through with rot and rainwater, but there were still some parts white enough to catch the sunlight. Catch the eye.

Ayla could not stop glancing over, and every time she did, she felt the gut-punch of what had happened to Luna all over again. And now, days later, the reminder rippled through the other humans like the dress itself rippled in the summer wind. No one even knew what Luna had done. Why the sovereign’s guards had killed her.

Ayla continued on her way through the marketplace. She usually worked in the orchards at Sovereign Hesod’s palace, sowing seeds and collecting bushels of ripe apples, but one of the other servants was practically delirious with fever and Ayla had been ordered to fill in. For the past week she’d joined the group of exhausted servants who left their beds halfway through the night, just so they could make it to the closest village, Kalla-den—a good four leagues of treacherous, rocky shoreline from the palace—and set up their wares by dawn. It would’ve been miserable no matter what, but being greeted in the marketplace by Luna’s empty dress made it all the worse. It was like a ghost. Like a pale fish in dark water, flickering at the edges of Ayla’s vision.

Ayla had worked in some capacity at the sovereign’s palace for the past four years. And it had been months since she’d finally made it out of the stables and into the orchard-tending rotation. Some days she was so close to the white stone walls of the palace that she could smell the burning hearth fires within, taste the smoke on her tongue. And yet . . . she still hadn’t managed to get inside.

Nothing mattered until she got inside. And she’d vowed to do so to exact her revenge—even if it killed her.

But now Ayla stared out at the marketplace, at the crowd of sleek, beautiful Automae—leeches—and tried to keep the hatred and disgust off her face. Nobody bought flowers from a girl who looked like she’d rather be selling poison.

“Flowers!” she called out, trying to keep her voice light. It was almost sunset, almost time to give up for the day, but there were still far too many unsold garlands in her basket. “We’ve got seaflowers, apple blossoms, the prettiest salt lavender up and down the coast!”

Not a single leech glanced in her direction. The Kalla-den Market was a kingdom’s worth of chaos stuffed into an area the size of a barn, and it was so noisy you could hear it from half a league away. The marketplace was vendors’ stalls shoved up against each other three deep, their carts and baskets overflowing with candied fruits, pastries, fresh-caught fish, oysters that smelled like death even under the weak autumn sun. It was leeches huddled around baskets of heartstone dust, dipping the tips of their fingers into the powdery red grains, bringing them to their lips to test the quality. It was whole chickens or goat legs rotating on spits, roasting slowly, smoke filling the air till Ayla’s eyes watered; it was wine and apple cider and piles of colorful spices; it was a crush of grimy, skeletal, desperate humans hawking their wares to an endless stream of Automae.

And of course, the rows and rows of Hesod’s prized sun apples, gleaming like so many red jewels—nearly as crimson and bright as heartstone itself.

But the majority of the Automae seemed to treat the market like one of those traveling menageries—Step right up, folks. Gawk for free. Look at the humans. Look at the flesh-and-bone animals. Point and stare, why don’t you. Watch ’em sweat and squeal like pigs.

The only good thing about the market was Benjy. She looked over at him as she called out Flowers! again. He was the closest thing to a friend that Ayla would allow herself. She’d known him since she was twelve years old and haunted, hollowed by grief. In the thick of it, still.

Unlike Ayla, Benjy was used to the madness of Kalla-den. He even seemed to thrive in it, his brown eyes bright and sparkling, the sun bringing out the freckles on his brown cheeks. The first day Ayla had joined him here in the market, he’d nearly taken some eyes out while pointing at all the exciting things he wanted Ayla to see—colorful glass baubles, mechanical insects with windup wings, twists of sugared bread shaped like animals. On the second day, Benjy showed Ayla the secret underbelly of the market: Made objects. These were forbidden items created by alchemists—Makers—and passed from hand to hand in the shadows, hidden by the dust and the crowd. Objects smaller than Ayla’s little finger but worth double her weight in gold. For humans, possessing a Made object was forbidden, as Made objects were the work of alchemy and considered dangerous, powerful. After all, Automae themselves were Made. Perhaps they didn’t like any reminder that they, too, were once treated like trinkets and playthings. Made objects were completely illegal, and therefore incredibly tempting.

Ayla had no use for temptation—except in one single case. The locket she wore around her neck. The only remnant she had of her family—a reminder of the violence they’d suffered, and the revenge she planned to take. She didn’t even know how it worked, if it even did work, but she knew it was Made, and that it was forbidden, and that it was the one thing she could call hers.

“Are you going to help me or not?” Ayla said now, prodding Benjy in the ribs. He yelped. “I’ve been yelling my head off for an hour; it’s your turn.”

He looked down at her, squinting in the dying sun. “Take it from someone who’s done this a hundred times. The day is over. All anyone’s willing to buy right now is heartstone.”

Ayla huffed. “You of all people know if we don’t sell every single one of these flowers, we won’t get dinner.”

“Trust me, I’m aware. My belly’s been growling since midmorning.”

“You got any food squirreled away back in the quarters?”

“No,” he said mournfully. “I had some dried plums stowed away in the old gardener’s lean-to, but last time I checked they were gone. Guess someone else found them.” He tugged at his messy dark curls, wiped the sweat off his forehead, fiddled with one of the garlands they had yet to sell. That was Benjy—always in motion. It would make Ayla anxious if she weren’t so used to it.

“The world is just full of thieves, ain’t it,” Ayla said with a hint of amusement.

Benjy picked a petal off one of the seaflowers. “Like you’re not a thief yourself.”

She grinned.

When Ayla first met Benjy, he had looked more like a deer than a boy. Long-legged and awkward and perpetually wide-eyed, sweet and young and angry, but a soft kind of angry. A harmless, deathless kind of angry. His family hadn’t been killed by the sovereign’s men. He’d never known them at all—his mother had left him on the doorstep of an old temple, still wet from birth. If it were Ayla, she knew she’d be consumed by the need to track them down, to find her birth mother, to ask her a thousand questions that all began with why. But Benjy wasn’t like that. He’d survived under the care of the temple priests for nine years, then ran away. Three months later, Rowan took him in.

Benjy’s anger was different now—he’d grown, learned more about this broken world, learned about the Revolution. Some bitterness had seeped into him; some passion. But he was still soft. Would always be. For years, that softness had annoyed the hell out of Ayla. Made her want to grab his shoulders and shake him till some fury came out.

After all, it was fury that had kept Ayla alive all these years; fury that had lit a flame inside her chest and made her keep going out of sheer anger.

When she had no hearth fire to keep her warm, she’d picture the look on Hesod’s face when his precious daughter lay in Ayla’s hands, broken beyond repair. On the days her belly seemed to crumple in on itself from lack of bread, she’d picture some older, stronger version of herself looking Hesod right in his soulless eyes and saying: This is for my family, you murderous leech.

Ayla scanned the crowd, feeling horribly small and soft, a mouse surrounded by cats. Automae looked human the way statues looked human—you might be tricked from far away, but once you got up close you could see all the differences. Most leeches were around six feet tall, some even taller, and their bodies, no matter the shape or size, were graceful and corded with muscle. Their faces were angular, their features sharp. They were Designed in Automa Midwiferies, each one sculpted to be beautiful, but it was a chilling kind of beautiful. Some sick practice in vanity: How big can we make her eyes? How cutting her cheekbones? How perfectly symmetrical her features?

There was also something odd about the look of a leech’s skin. It was flawless, sure—no pores, no peach fuzz, no freckles or sunburns or scars, just smooth, supple skin. But more than that, it was the way they looked carved from stone, indestructible. It was the way their skin stretched over their hand-designed muscles and bones. Like it could barely keep all the monster inside.

The leeches had let themselves forget that they’d been created by the same humans they now treated worse than dogs. In the forty-eight years since their rise to power, they’d conveniently let themselves forget their past. Forget that they were once merely the pets and playthings of human nobility.

Ayla did not let herself think about her own past, either—the fire, the fear, the way loss lived in the cavity of the chest, the way it chewed her up from the inside out. Thinking like that wasn’t how you survived.

She and Benjy packed up the stall before sundown, aiming to be long gone by the time darkness fell over Kalla-den. As they took a shortcut through a damp alley, baskets of unsold seaflowers strapped to their backs, someone fell into step behind them. Ayla glanced back and, despite herself, she almost smiled when she saw Rowan.

Rowan was a seamstress who lived and worked in Kalla-den. At least, that’s what she was on the outside.

To people like Ayla, she was something else entirely. A mentor. A trainer. A protector. A mother to the lost and the beaten and the hungry. She gave them refuge. And taught them to fight back.

You wouldn’t know it from the looks of her. She had one of those faces where you couldn’t quite tell how old she was—the only signs of age were her silver hair and the slight crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes—and she was short, even shorter than Ayla. She looked rather like a plump little sparrow hopping around, ruffling her feathers. Sweet and harmless.

Like so much else, it was a carefully constructed lie. Rowan was no sparrow. She was a bird of prey.

Seven years ago, she’d saved Ayla’s life.

She was so cold that it didn’t feel like cold anymore. It didn’t even burn. She barely noticed the winter air, the snow soaking through her threadbare boots, the ice crystals that whipped across her face and left her skin red and raw. She was cold from the inside out, the coldness pulsing through her with every weak flutter of her heart. Dimly, she knew this was how it felt right before you died.

It was comforting.

She was so cold, and so tired of being alone. So tired of hurting. The last thing she’d eaten was a scrap of half-rotted meat three days ago. Maybe four. Time kept blurring, rolling over itself, going belly-up like a dead animal. Ayla wasn’t hungry anymore. Her stomach had stopped making noises. Quietly, it was eating what little muscle she had left.

There was a patch of darkness up ahead. Darkness, which meant something not covered in snow. Ayla stumbled forward, the ground tilting in strange ways beneath her feet. Her eyes kept falling shut against her will. She forced them open again, head pounding, vision reduced to a pinprick of light at the end of a long, long tunnel. The darkness—there. So close. Gray, a stone wall. The dark brown of cobblestones.

It was a tiny gap between two buildings. A sloping roof caught the snow, protecting the ground beneath. Ayla dragged herself into the dark snowless space and her knees gave out. She hit the wall sideways and fell hard, skull cracking against the cobblestones. And there she lay.

“Hey.”

Her eyes were closed.

“Hey! Wake up!”

No. She was finally warm.

“Wake up, you idiot!”

A sound like striking an oyster shell against rock; a sharp, stinging pressure on Ayla’s cheek. Heat, for a moment. Someone was talking, maybe, but they were very far away, and Ayla couldn’t make out the words. The exhaustion closed over her head like water, and she let go.

It was only later that she learned just how far Rowan had dragged her body to warmth and safety, before nursing her back to health.

Back then, Rowan’s hair had still been brown, streaked silver only at the temples. But her eyes were the same. Deep and steady. “You were ready to die,” she had said.

Ayla didn’t answer.

“I don’t know what happened to you, exactly,” said Rowan. “But I know you’re alone. I know you’ve been cast aside, left to die in the snow like an animal.” She reached out and took Ayla’s hands, held them between her own. It felt like being cradled: like being held all over. “You’re not alone anymore. I can give you something to fight for, child. I can give you a purpose.”

“A purpose?” Ayla had said. Her voice was weak, scraped out.

“Justice,” said Rowan. And she squeezed Ayla’s hands.

“The moon is full,” said Rowan now, looking straight ahead, in the hushed, coded tone Ayla had come to know so well.

The three of them moved easily through the crowd of humans, used to dodging people and carts and stray dogs. The chaos of the Kalla-den streets was a strange kind of blessing: a thousand human voices all shouting at once meant it was the perfect place for conversations you didn’t want anyone to overhear.

“Clear skies lately,” Ayla and Benjy said in unison. Nothing to report.

It was Rowan, of course, who had taught them the language of rebellion. A sprig of rosemary passed between hands on a crowded street, garlands woven from flowers with symbolic meanings, coded messages hidden inside loaves of bread, faerie stories or old folk songs used like passwords to determine who you could trust. Rowan had taught them everything. She’d saved Ayla first, Benjy a few months later. Took them in. Clothed them. Taught them how to beg, and then how to find work. Fed them. But also gave them a new hunger: justice.

Because they should never have needed to beg in the first place.

“What news?” Benjy asked.

“A comet is crossing to the southern skies,” Rowan said with a smile. “A week from now. It will be a beautiful night.”

Benjy took Ayla’s hand and squeezed. She didn’t return it. She knew what the code meant: an uprising in the South. Another one. It filled her gut with suspicion and dread.

They turned onto a wider street, the crowd thinning out a little. They spoke more softly now.

“Crossing south,” Ayla repeated. Her heart sank. “And how many stars will be out in the southern skies?”

Rowan didn’t pick up on her skepticism. “Oh, I’ve heard around two hundred.”

“Two hundred,” Benjy repeated, eyes gleaming.

Two hundred human rebels gathering in the South.

“High time, loves.”

Rowan was gone as swiftly as she had appeared, leaving only a crumpled flyer in Benjy’s hands—a religious pamphlet, something about the gods and believers. Ayla knew it would be riddled with code—code that only those in the Resistance could decipher.

Part of Ayla worried that Rowan was still harboring hope for these uprisings, for what she called “justice,” because of her grief for Luna and Luna’s sister, Faye. After all, they’d been two of Rowan’s lost children, just like Ayla and Benjy. It was known within the village that any orphan kid could find food and comfort with Rowan. Ayla remembered when Faye and Luna had come to Rowan’s after their mother had died. Ayla had taken to Luna immediately, a girl with shy smiles and sweet questions. Faye had been pricklier, distrusting, far too much like Ayla for the two of them to get along. But still, they’d grown up around each other. And Ayla knew that Rowan’s soft heart grieved for the two sisters. Those two girls she’d tried to save.

Two girls who, in her mind, she had failed.

And in that grief, Rowan was willing to send more innocents off to find more of her “justice.”

Over the years, they’d received word of a few uprisings here in Rabu, but each one had been bloody—and quelled quickly. The Sovereign State of Rabu was controlled by Sovereign Hesod. His rule had come to extend to all of Zulla except for the queendom of Varn. Though he claimed he did not hold all the power, as the Red Council—a group of Automa aristocrats—was supposed to share governance of Rabu, Ayla hardly believed that to be true. Hesod was enormously wealthy and influential. He was also power-hungry. It had been his father who led the Automa troops in the War of Kinds. It was he who first declared humans should be separated from their families. And it was on his personal land, the vast grounds of his seaside palace, that Ayla, Benjy, and four hundred other human servants lived and worked.

The Red Council was cruel, merciless, and worst of all, creative. That was part of the reason the Revolution was so slow-going—people were just so damn terrified of the Council and its ever-tightening laws. Even Ayla had to admit their fears were well founded. Luna—and her disembodied dress—was proof of that.

Benjy looked at Ayla as they hiked up the steeply sloping path toward the palace, his eyes full of hope and excitement. The message was clear: he wanted to join. Even after the disastrous uprisings of last year.

She shook her head. No. He knew better. He knew she couldn’t leave now, tonight. Not when she was this close to the inside of the palace. And Crier.

Benjy’s smile vanished. “Ayla.”

“No,” she said. “I’m not going.” Did she want what he wanted? Did she want the leeches dead? Of course, but not like this. Not when it only meant a trail of human blood, not when it was doomed to futility. She was not ready to lose anyone else. The last time there had been an uprising in the South, it was quashed almost immediately—and that uprising had been massive, with nearly two thousand humans marching through the streets of the city Bram, armed with torches and saltpeter, aiming to take the heart of the city where the most powerful Automae lived. They had been defeated in a single night. The Automa who had led the counterattack—who had destroyed them—became a decorated war hero. A household name, a household monster. Kinok.

Benjy fell silent, but Ayla could finally feel his anger—could tell that it was now directed at her. His strides grew long, determined, as they reached the narrow path that curved up toward the palace. She could see the peaked roofs of the palace towers now in the distance.

She hurried to catch up with him, panting in the heat. By now they were farther from the crowd. She grabbed his shoulder, and he stopped walking so suddenly she nearly crashed into him.

“I know what you’re going to say,” he said through gritted teeth.

Ayla struggled to catch her breath. “You could always . . . watch the comet without me.” The words grated in her throat like she’d swallowed a mouthful of salt.

His dark-brown eyes locked onto hers. The breeze danced in his messy hair. He’d grown taller than her, and broader too. She held his gaze.

For a full minute, he said nothing. They just stood there, breathing hard, looking at each other. Thinking the same thing: it was too soon.

Ayla wanted to say: Don’t leave me.

Ayla should have said: Leave me. Because maybe it would be better that way.

Benjy’s anger seemed to transmute into sadness, his lips parting. Finally, he said, “I won’t do that. I won’t go without you, and you know it.”

She did. And that scared her more than anything. He wouldn’t leave her. It made her heart rage. Leave, she wanted to scream. Don’t stay for me.

But then another part of her, buried so deep it had almost, almost, gone silent, knew she couldn’t do this—do any of it—without him.

His lips were still slightly parted, as though there was more he wanted to say. She knew how badly he needed this. Revolution. Blood. Change. She waited for him to keep going, to try again to convince her. But he also knew how much she wanted what she wanted: Lady Crier’s blood on her hands.

So in the end, Benjy just sighed. More and more servants began to pass them on their way up the narrow path, and Ayla put a few paces between herself and Benjy, kept her eyes on the rutted path as they marched the rest of the way back to their quarters in silence, the past piling into her thoughts like shovelfuls of dirt.

After what Ayla had come to think of as that day, the day that changed everything, the splitting point in her mind, the thing that cracked her life into a before and after, the waking nightmare, the bloodstain, the splintered bone that would not heal, that day, Ayla had allowed herself one week to mourn.

Even at nine years old, she’d known that it was all too easy to drown in grief—get pulled under and never come back up. One week, she told herself. One week.

One week to mourn the deaths of her entire family.

Mama. Papa. Her twin brother, Storme, who had loved Ayla more than anything else in the whole world. Who had been wrenched away from her, trying to protect her from Them. Storme, who, from the sounds of his screaming cut short, had met his end then and there, just beyond the walls of what had been their home.

You couldn’t depend on much in this world, but you could depend on this: love brought nothing but death. Where love existed, death would follow, a wolf trailing after a wounded deer. Scenting blood in the air. Ayla had learned that the hard way.

Now she was sixteen, and everything she wanted was just inches from her fingertips.

When Rowan had first rescued her, Ayla only had her pain and her anger.

But one day, about a month after being with Rowan, a group of nomadic humans had come into town. Rowan had given Ayla a choice. Leave with these traveling humans, leave all of her pain and her memories behind and start anew. Or stay under Rowan’s wing. Rowan would care for her until she could find work. And Ayla would learn to fight, learn to live, and plan for justice.

Ayla had chosen the latter. And Rowan, keeping her promise, had found Ayla work as a servant of the palace.

Hesod. The leech who’d ordered the raid of Ayla’s village.

It was Hesod’s men who had broken into Ayla’s childhood home, who had murdered her family just because they could.

Hesod prided himself on spreading Traditionalism throughout Rabu—the Automa belief in modeling their society after human behavior, as though humans were a long-lost civilization from which they could cherry-pick the best attributes to mimic. Family was important to Sovereign Hesod, or so he and his council preached. The irony was not lost on Ayla.

And now she worked for him. It disgusted her, every second of it, but it was the only way she could get close to Hesod. She’d come so far. She was not going to throw it all away for some doomed dream of revolution.

Rowan had always told her that justice was the answer. And for a long time, Ayla had believed her. She’d believed that revolution was possible, that if humans just kept rising up, refusing to submit, they could really change things. But Ayla knew better now. Over the years, she’d seen how hopeless Rowan’s dreams were. Every uprising had failed; every brilliant plan had been crushed; every new maneuver just resulted in more human death.

Justice was a god, and Ayla didn’t believe in such childish things.

She believed in blood.





3


Crier’s father and Kinok were already seated in the great hall for breakfast when she arrived, dressed in a new gown this morning. Her father’s and fiancé’s heads were bent toward each other in a discussion that broke off as soon as Crier entered.

For a moment, she stared at her father—the man who’d commissioned her. Hesod was a masterpiece of Design. He was Made to be powerful, influential, brilliant even for an Automa, respected by everyone in Zulla. When he spoke, people listened.

What would he say about Midwife Torras’s betrayal?

She hadn’t told him yet.

Was afraid to, really.

Kinok had mentioned the scandal a week ago, during their Hunt, and yet she’d kept it to herself.

She sat down at the table across from Kinok. The great hall, in the east wing of the palace, could easily seat fifty—it was huge, airy, with a high, arched ceiling and a massive banquet table made of well-sheened pine. But despite its vastness, most days it saw only Crier, Hesod, and a handful of servants. And, over the past months of his courtship, Kinok.

“Good morning, my lady,” said Kinok. Crier nodded in greeting, gaze averted.

“Daughter,” said Hesod, and Crier managed to look him in the eyes.

“Father,” she murmured.

A serving boy came in carrying a golden platter, and with it, liquid heartstone.

The subterranean jewel, carefully mined, was the source of the Automae’s strength. It ran through their veins, their inner workings, not like human blood but like ichor, the blood of the old gods in all the human storybooks. Something closer to magick, alchemy, than anything natural.

Crier sat up straighter in her chair.

The liquid heartstone was served in a teapot shaped like a bird skull, with a long handle carved from heartstone itself. Steam leaked from the bird’s eye sockets. Crier tried not to look eager when she pushed her teacup forward.

She needed this. Especially after what Kinok had told her last week. About the Midwife’s scandal, the Design that had been tampered with. It made her stomach harden and twist inside to think there’d been even the slightest risk to her own Design. She hadn’t slept since.

Automae did not require nightly rest like humans did, but it was recommended that they sleep for at least six hours every three days. Sleeping let their organs slow and reset, let their bodies repair any internal or external damage. Crier was usually very diligent about getting the proper amount of sleep—she found it almost pleasing, curling up in the soft blankets and watching the moon rise outside her window, letting her thoughts drain away like bathwater.

It felt like playing human.

But ever since Kinok had returned to the palace, Crier had found it more and more difficult to empty her mind enough to sleep.

The serving boy filled Crier’s cup last. The liquid he poured was a deep, dark red, the color of heartstone dust steeped in water. It was less concentrated in this form but easier to consume, and besides, Hesod took pleasure in mimicking human customs such as drinking tea in the morning. Unlike some other members of the Red Council, he thought Automae could stand to learn from humans. Human culture had been, after all, the basis of stabilization across Rabu: Organization, System, Family. Hesod’s core values. We must never forget, he said, that for thousands of years the kings of this land were all human. And the human kings began their days with tea.

Crier reached for the cup, but in her haste, her hand shook. A splash of the liquid spilled.

“Apologies,” she murmured, picking up her napkin to wipe it away.

Hesod’s hand came over hers, stopping her. “Don’t. This is what they’re here for.” He snapped his fingers at the serving boy.

Crier lowered her eyes.

When he was done, she picked up her cup again, careful to balance it. One sip of liquid heartstone, and Crier felt power spread through her. It was like stepping into a patch of sunlight, slipping into a hot bath—a slow, pleasing sensation that warmed her from head to foot. Any negative side effects from the lack of sleep were gone now. Crier felt stronger all over, like she could run straight out of the great hall and not stop until she hit the Aderos Mountains five hundred leagues away. Even her brain felt stronger, clearer. She hid a satisfied smile behind her teacup.

“Is there something you find amusing, Lady Crier?” Kinok said, staring at her curiously.

Of course Kinok had noticed. He noticed everything. He was looking at her now over the rim of his own teacup, his lips stained slightly red.

“It is not important,” Crier said, a little flustered by Kinok’s unwavering gaze. “I merely thought of a book I was reading last night.”

“Ah. Which book?”

“A collection of essays on economic structure,” she said. “Specifically, the intersection of market structure with physical or geographical environment.”

Kinok’s eyebrows lifted. “I see.” To Hesod, he said, “Such inherent curiosity. Perhaps it is best that she has not yet attended a meeting of the council. I think, given an hour, she would take over as head.”

Crier preened, until she saw Hesod’s jaw tighten.

“On the contrary,” he said. “I believe attending next week’s meeting will be an invaluable experience for her. Perhaps it will give her pause the next time she is tempted to voice her own opinions on how to run a nation.”

Crier glanced at Kinok. He gave her a small, crooked smile. “It will be an honor to have her there.”

Which meant he would be in attendance as well.

She remembered what her father had told her: that Kinok was not a threat to Hesod’s hold on Rabu and the other territories. Not if he joined a family. Not if he submitted to Traditionalism.

It seemed Hesod trusted him enough to include him in the affairs of the Red Council now.

In the nearly fifty years since the War of Kinds, Crier’s father had made great efforts to coexist peacefully with the humans of Zulla. With the formation of the Red Council, he had successfully gained control of all the human settlements not just in Rabu, the main territory of Zulla, where they lived, but even in the tiniest fishing villages dotting the coast of Tarreen.

Zulla was like an Automa’s heart, he’d once explained to her—it had four layers, the same way Automae had the four pillars of Reason, Calculation, Organics, and Intellect. In Zulla, the layers were, from the north down: the Far North, Rabu, Varn, and Tarreen. Along the western coast of Rabu and winding up into the north stood the Aderos Mountains, which hid the Iron Heart somewhere in their jagged peaks. A few leagues off the eastern coast: the Golden Isles, neutral territory, populated mainly by seabirds and wild pigs.

The queendom of Varn blocked access between Rabu, to its north, and Tarreen, to its south. As a result, Tarreen was known for being a lawless wilderness, not structured and civilized like Rabu. Hesod’s efforts to control it, to govern its people and make use of its few resources, had been one of his greatest challenges during the course of Crier’s lifetime.

Even in wild Tarreen, Hesod had attempted to preserve the humans’ way of life wherever possible. He fostered a genuine appreciation for their food, their music, their strange ceremonies; he found all of it very entertaining, and Hesod loved to be entertained. His dedication was admirable—especially because many other Automae, Kinok included, did not regard human culture with such an open mind. Though perhaps Kinok was more intensely anticohabitation than most because, in addition to being a former Watcher of the Iron Heart, he was a Scyre: part of an elite guild that studied the Four Pillars in order to further advance Automakind.

Crier tried to keep her eyes on her hands, her lap, her empty, red-rimmed teacup, but she could not help stealing another glance at the man who was to become her husband.

Kinok was her future, and her future was dressed in fine black brocade. The crest of the Iron Heart flashed at his throat, a reminder of his former Watcher status. A reminder that he was a mystery.

After the meal ended, Kinok caught up to Crier on her way to the libraries for her first lesson of the day. His feet were so silent on the flagstones that she did not hear him approach until he was already touching her shoulder.

“Scyre,” she said. It was the term he preferred.

“Leave us,” he said to the guards stationed at the end of the hallway. They looked at Crier for approval and, nonplussed, she nodded. Kinok waited until their footsteps had faded before speaking, leaning in close to her. “My lady,” he said, and from his black brocaded coat he withdrew a roll of yellowed parchment tied with twine. “You must be eager for more information on Midwife Torras, so I hope you do not find my actions offensive. But through a personal connection I was able to obtain several of the Midwife’s private correspondences and Designs.”

Crier waited, hyperaware of how little space there was between their bodies, the way he bent his head to speak softly in her ear.

“One of them was yours,” he went on. “Your Design, my lady, as commissioned by the sovereign.”

“My—?” She stared at the roll of parchment in his hand. “That is my Design?”

He’d made these inquiries, had acquired her Design, in a week’s time. It led her to wonder just how extensive his connections throughout the territory were. The Midwifery where she’d been Made was nearly a full day’s ride from here. And for proprietary reasons they were generally on strict advisement to keep all Designs confidential.

“Yes. I thought—with the scandal—you might be interested.”

“Scyre Kinok,” she breathed. “May I . . . ?”

But instead of handing the roll to her, he took her hand. “Crier,” he said, low and steady. “I give this to you for another reason. I know—I know you have been . . . reluctant about receiving my courtship over this past year. I know you still have reservations, though I have endeavored to show myself as a favorable asset to your cause and—ambitions. I hope that this will serve as a gesture of my faithfulness to you, should you choose to accept it.”

She looked at him. His chiseled face. His eyes, dark and unreadable. She didn’t know what to think, or to say.

“Thank you.”

“Of course,” he said, pressing the papers into her hand. His eyes were fixed on her face, almost concerned. “Remember, you can trust me. We are on the same side.”

And then he was gone.

Crier couldn’t get outside fast enough, the rolled-up Design light in her fist as she pushed through the northeast doors to the gardens.

Her father’s gardens were huge and sprawling, starting at the east wing of the palace and stretching out to the edge of the bluffs, where the Steorran Sea crusted everything with salt. Nearly every evening after finishing her studies—Crier’s days were occupied by a series of tutors in history, the sciences, economics, complex mathematics—she escaped to the gardens and the cool air and the smell of growing things. Rarely did she stray this close to the cliffs. But she wanted to look through the documents in private. Whatever she would find there, she wanted to find it alone.

The gardens were arranged carefully by type and color: fruit and flowering trees near the east wing, so one could look out the window at sweet sun apples and fat ripe plums. Dayblossoms beyond that, white and pale yellow, and beyond that, salt lavender and walnut. Beyond that, wild seaflowers, which were plucked and sold in nearby villages. Beyond that, the sea.

Then, if you followed the rise and crash of waves down to the south, if you sailed along miles of cragged and rocky shoreline, there was Varn. The queendom ruled by Queen Junn. The only place Crier’s father could not touch. There were more rumors about the queen than about Kinok and the Watchers of the Heart put together. Whispers at every gathering: that Queen Junn was mad. That Varn was rife with infighting due to her progressive policies. That she was arming Varn against the rest of Zulla. That she was ruthless.

But Crier had always thought that the stories of Junn spoke of power and strength, of a girl ascending to the throne at just sixteen after her father, the king, was killed.

She readjusted the strip of red cloth tied around her upper arm, the mark of one betrothed, and continued to move through the gardens.

Everywhere the gardeners did their work—feeding and watering and trimming and arranging, cutting off the dead flowers when they curled into themselves and went brown. Unlike most other humans, the gardeners did not shy away when Crier came near. They had grown accustomed to her presence.

Crier had always been fascinated by humans: by their hot dark eyes and the strange songs they sang at night, in the gardens and the fields and the black shores where they dived for oysters; how sometimes they moved like there was something else inside them, something too big and tooth-gnashing for the soft human skin to hold inside. Once, and only once, she had mentioned this fascination to her father. She told him all about the songs, and how they sounded either like whale songs or like wobbly speaking, and how the humans sang frequently of love and hate and loss.

Her father said he did not completely understand all the different forms of human love, but that he had thought carefully about it and that perhaps, beyond his fascination with their history, their little cultures, he did love humans. In his own way.

Like how they loved dogs, he said, enough to feed them scraps of meat.

Crier continued to walk until she found a deserted corner of the gardens, a tangle of tall rosebushes with thorns the size of her fingernails. Here, hidden from sight, she finally untied the string and unfurled the thick bundle of pages. Her hands were not shaking, but it felt like her heart was, or her teeth, or her inner workings. She could not remember ever experiencing this much dread. It will be fine, she told herself, eyes adjusting to the tiny, cramped writing on the first page. Everything will be normal. Who would dare to sabotage a Design from the sovereign?

Makerwork Design by Commission, Ideation Final, Year 30 AE:

Crier of Family Hesod, Model 9648880130

She read the pages quickly, her nerves subsiding. Nothing out of the ordinary. There was a letter from her father, faded and yellowed after seventeen years, in which he formally stated his desire to create a child, as his forebear, Sovereign Tayol, the first sovereign, had done before him.

There were a series of blueprints he and Midwife Torras had Designed together—the first, third, eighth drafts of Crier’s form. They balanced her four pillars based on Hesod’s requirements for a potential heir. They Designed her inner workings and her outer appearance, the color of her skin and hair and eyes, the measurements of her body, putting meticulous consideration into everything from the shape of her nose to the exact length of her fingers. As she read, hardly noticing the night falling down around her, Crier could not help but compare the documents to her actual physical body. She touched her nose, her throat; she wiggled her long fingers and studied the faint lines on her palms.

The last page was the final draft of her Design, the one that the Makers would have used to actually create her. Unlike the previous drafts, this one had only Torras’s neat, blocky handwriting—none of her father’s scrawl. But that made sense. Torras was the Midwife, not her father. Crier gave a quick once-over to the ink drawings of her body, the cross section of her inner workings. She was more than ready to return these documents to Kinok and forget all about her ridiculous paranoia.

But there was something off about this page.

Crier held it up to the moonlight, frowning. The proportions of her body were all the same. None of the numbers had changed. What was—?

There. The cross section of her brain. A small portion of it was redrawn to the side in greater detail: the portion that represented her pillars. They were not physical elements of her body, but metaphysical elements of her mind, her intelligence, her personality. Each blueprint had shown four pillars in her mind, balancing out like scales.

Intellect. Organics. The two human pillars.

Calculation. Reason. The two Automa pillars.

In this blueprint—only this one—there were five. Inside the Design of Crier’s mind was another little column drawn in deep-blue ink. A fifth pillar.

Passion, it was labeled.

Passion.

Crier, the daughter of the sovereign, had five pillars instead of four. It was unheard of. Everyone knew Automae were created with two human pillars and two Automa pillars. Crier had never imagined there could be one with three human pillars. And that was what Passion was, without a doubt: human.

The papers were shaking in her hands. No. Her hands were shaking. Suddenly paranoid, Crier glanced around to make sure she was truly alone in this corner of the gardens. What if someone sees?

What would happen if the wrong person—if any person—discovered that the heir to the sovereign of Rabu had been sabotaged by her own Midwife? What would happen to her? She shuddered, thinking of Kinok’s words back in the forest during the Hunt. They were disposed of. Would she be disposed of? Or, no, no no no, what if someone tried to use her against her father? This was perfect blackmail.

The heir, the sovereign’s daughter, a mistake. It would bring shame to her family. Worse, it could cause the political scandal of the century. People could call for Hesod to step down as sovereign. They could use Crier to threaten her father. Through him, they could gain power over the entire Red Council. Over all of Rabu—and more.

Crier was Flawed. She was broken.

The thought shook her deeply. All this time she’d been treated like the jewel of the sovereign’s estate, a glorious creation, but no. She was an abomination.

This was too much—this evil, sickening truth about herself, was too great to take in.

With nowhere to go, nowhere else to be alone to process this, she sank right down where she was, in the middle of the gardens, as the sun bled out behind the brush, and closed her eyes.





[the Barren Queen] desires what—a homunculus!—an alchemist’s creation!—a Devil!—she knows not what she asks of us, and she dares to offer such a ludicrous prize, dangling it before us like meat before a pack of starving wolves—she might as well offer the damn’d throne to the first man who brings her the ocean in a thimble.

I could be hanged for writing such things, but the Barren Queen knows not what she asks.

—FROM THE RECORDS OF GRAY ÖLING, HEAD MAKER, E. 900, Y. 7





4


It was late evening and Ayla had a break from the fields. She hadn’t been called back to the market in Kalla-den, thankfully, since last week. Instead of taking supper, like the other servants, she was using her fleeting moments of rest to practice. To hone. To train. She had to be ready, for when her time came.

Ready to take what she’d come for, what she’d waited years for.

Her muscles ached but her body craved release. She had to find somewhere private, somewhere hidden. And besides, she couldn’t sit next to Benjy for another night in a row. Though nearly a week had passed since they’d spoken to Rowan in Kalla-den, Benjy was still angry with Ayla. Truthfully, she didn’t blame him. She knew how badly he wanted to join Rowan in the South, to fight, to aid the revolution, and she’d convinced him to stay here and be useless.

Right now, Ayla suspected Rowan was preparing to pack her bags. Benjy could still go with her. But Ayla knew he wouldn’t.

Ayla was caught between relief that Benjy wasn’t in danger and self-loathing because of the relief. He was a liability; he was a weak spot in her armor.

She hated to think of him like that. But the last time Ayla had a weak spot, it had destroyed her. Her family’s death had left her not a person but a ghost, a ruined shell, a carcass. The parts that had survived would be tainted forever.

She didn’t want to see him hurt. And yet she knew: better to do what was right than to be kind.

It was a lesson she’d learned herself, when she was thirteen. She’d taken in a starving puppy—surprised that Rowan let her keep it, under the condition that she never let it out of her sight. But one night, the puppy had whined and clawed at the door so piteously, she finally let it out. She never saw the puppy again. She cried to Rowan, saying she’d only wanted to be kind. It had seemed so desperate, so determined to go outside and breathe the fresh air. But Rowan had reminded her: the world outside was dangerous. It was always better to do what you knew was right than what was kind.

She thought of Rowan’s words now, as she picked her way through the sovereign’s endless flower gardens. The heat of the day had faded; the sea breeze was blessedly cool against her face. Across the gardens, she could just barely make out leech guards stationed around the palace, tall shadows against the white stone walls. Metal sheaths glinted at their hips, catching the moonlight.

The guards were, what, three hundred paces away? Which meant that if Ayla so much as blinked wrong, they could reach her in . . . She brushed a finger over a stalk of salt lavender, doing the math. Six seconds, maybe.

And some other human would have to wipe her blood off the flowers.

To the east, the ocean swelled and burst open against the cliffs like thunder. Every so often a black cloud would drift across the moon, and the whole palace would be plunged into darkness.

Darkness.

Ayla had been spared only because her brother, Storme, had heard them coming. Her brother, who was dead.

Storme grabbed her hand and pulled her out the back door as They came through the front.

It was their father who screamed first.

Storme led her to the outhouse even as Ayla begged for him to stop, no no no please no, let go of me, that was Papa, let me go help Papa. He forced the plank of wood up and pushed Ayla down into the dank, shallow hole. She fell on her knees, her arms and legs covered in mud and shit and piss. The smell was unbearable. She looked up at Storme and pushed back against the wall to make room. It was then that she realized the space was only big enough for one person.

She watched, mute with shock, as her twin brother replaced the wood and disappeared.

Darkness.

His screams came next. Then her mother’s.

For hours, Ayla hadn’t moved. She’d barely even breathed, even though after a while she couldn’t smell the stench. Couldn’t smell anything at all.

The raids had begun at dawn. By what must have been late afternoon, she finally deemed it safe enough to climb out.

Inside the house, the knife wound in her mother’s chest had clotted, darkened, and congealed. Ayla stared at her mother, and her mother stared back. She’d died with her eyes on Ayla’s father, whose head had rolled a mere inch away from her mother’s body. The rest of him was gone.

At the front of the house was another body. It was burned beyond all recognition, but Ayla could tell its head was turned in the direction of the outhouse.

Storme.

Now, Ayla picked her way along the rows of seaflowers, heading in the direction of the rocky bluffs that overlooked the Steorran Sea. Her boots left wet imprints in the soft, dark soil.

The palace was laid out like a giant compass rose with spokes pointing north, south, east, and west. The center of the compass was the palace itself, all white marble and glowing windows, and the spokes were the groupings of outbuildings that served to separate the sun apple orchards from the seaflower gardens, the pastures, and finally, the grain fields. At the outer edge of the northernmost spoke sat the servant quarters, and to the end of the eastern spoke, just past the storage house, lay the sea, frothing and angry and always cold.

Ayla walked right up to the edge of the bluffs. It was slippery here, the black rocks wet with sea spray. Treacherous, especially at night. She reached into her pocket and grasped the knife she’d stolen from a leech in the market at Kalla-den nearly a month ago, the first time she’d ever gone to sell flowers.

Her first opportunity. To get a weapon.

She had been so overwhelmed with the adrenaline of getting away from the sovereign’s palace that she’d just—slipped her hand into the folds of a leech girl’s skirt and taken it, hidden by the swarming crowd.

Stealing it had been easy enough, but using it would take patience.

And practice. She was familiar with sparring, the specific movements of the body, the weight of a knife in her hand—though the one she’d used to practice with had been significantly heavier than this one, and balanced differently. As she settled into a fighting stance—feet shoulder-width apart, front foot pointed forward and back foot slightly angled—she smiled a little, remembering the endless afternoons she’d spent sparring with Benjy after Rowan took him in. Self-defense was something Rowan had insisted on teaching them, whether it was with a knife or just their fists. Rowan was a strict but fair teacher. She’d make Ayla and Benjy practice a single move over and over again until their arms were aching, their muscles trembling, the calluses on their palms split open and bleeding, but she always praised them afterward and rewarded them with a hot, hearty dinner. She rubbed ointment on their sore muscles, tended to the broken skin on their knuckles and palms.

One afternoon, she’d pulled Ayla aside after a particularly brutal round of training left Benjy sulking by the hearth fire, nursing a sprained wrist.

You’re stronger than him, Ayla, Rowan had said. You have to protect him.

At the time, Ayla hadn’t understood. Sure, she was quick and wily, but Benjy was physically much stronger. He won their fights eight out of ten times. What are you talking about? she’d asked. Just yesterday he practically tossed me across the room. My tailbone’s still hurting.

But you got up, said Rowan. You fought three more rounds. And here you are again today, even though you’re in pain. Whereas Benjy . . . She trailed off. I wasn’t talking about physical strength, Ayla. I was talking about resilience. I was talking about how you never, ever stop fighting, no matter how much it hurts.

The knife was finally starting to feel natural in her hands. Just a few days of sparring in the dark was already beginning to pay off. She came here whenever she could, past the edge of the gardens, out of sight, slipping into shadow and becoming lethal with the blade.

Jab. Swipe. Duck.

The most effective way to kill an Automa was to deprive them of heartstone. The second most effective way was beheading. But to do so required force, more force than a human could produce with their bare hands.

Swipe. Change hands. Jab.

You could also kill a leech with a stab to the heart.

Slash. Recoil.

At the right angle, it could be done in a matter of seconds.

Lunge. Ayla thrust the knife forward, twisted it into an invisible body—imagining it being Crier’s—and then, sweating, she let her arm drop. Slipped the knife back into her pocket. Catching her breath, she looked up at the wide and open night sky. She pulled her locket out from beneath her shirt, a talisman.

This was another secret she kept from Benjy. Her necklace wasn’t a weapon, and yet it was so much more dangerous than a stolen knife. She held it up to the moonlight, admiring it as she’d done countless times before: the eight-point star engraved into the gold. The red gemstone at the center of the star. This, too, she could only do in the cloak of night. Alone.

There were no exceptions to the law. If you got caught with a forbidden object, you could be killed. Even if the object, like Ayla’s necklace, was completely harmless and honestly sort of unimpressive. Probably the Maker had created it with some sort of purpose—maybe it was supposed to be a little music box, or maybe the locket could transform into a golden beetle and flit around people’s heads—but whatever that purpose was, Ayla had never figured it out. She’d never even been able to open the locket, no matter how hard she picked and pried at the tiny clasp. The only interesting thing about the necklace was the fluttering noise that came from within—like the ticking of a clock but softer, more rhythmic. Tmp-tmp, tmp-tmp. Almost like a heartbeat.

It wasn’t a weapon, it wasn’t a tool, and it could easily get her killed. Ayla should have tossed the necklace into the ocean years ago. But she hadn’t. Because her mother had given it to her—pressed it into Ayla’s palm when she was no more than four or five, keep it safe, child, remember us, remember our story—and because, stars and skies, she couldn’t, the necklace was all she had left of them, the only proof that her family had ever existed at all. Like Ayla herself, this necklace used to have a twin; it was one half of a matching set. The second necklace had been lost years and years ago, before Ayla and her brother were even born. Ayla wouldn’t let this one share the same fate.

She slipped it back beneath her shirt.

The wind was freezing against her cheeks. Her mouth tasted like salt. The sea was lit up with moonlight, sparkling. A hundred feet below, the waves burst into white foam. She didn’t have long until curfew, until she’d have to retreat back into the servants’ quarters for the night, but for now she could stand here on the cliff’s edge and hold the knife in her pocket. A promise of what was to come. Revenge. Killing Hesod’s daughter. Even if it took years.

There was a noise to her left. The sound of footsteps on wet rock.

Ayla turned.

Someone else was standing on the bluffs maybe thirty paces away, looking out over the ocean. Had they seen her? Her heart quickened, then settled. No. They were facing away from Ayla. They hadn’t yet noticed she was here. Another servant?

Then, a voice: “—and is that the only reason you’ve agreed to this marriage?”

“You already knew that,” said a second voice, and Ayla shrank farther behind a seaflower bush. The first voice Ayla didn’t recognize. The second was undeniable. It was the sovereign himself, Hesod. She had only ever seen him from a distance, as he was always in the palace and surrounded by guards, but she’d heard his voice. He’d given a speech, once, after a stableboy had tried to attack one of the guards. The stableboy was killed on the spot, of course. Throat pierced with the same awl he’d been using as a weapon. And the next day, all the servants were gathered in the main courtyard and forced to their knees, bent over, foreheads pressed to the packed dirt. And Hesod had stood above them and said: I would rather kill you all than replace a single guard. I suggest you do not let it come to that.

But there was nobody protecting him right now.

“Your marriage to Crier would be of enormous benefit to Rabu,” Hesod continued, and Ayla’s ears pricked.

“I see you’ve noticed my growing popularity,” the first voice drawled.

“I have—” And Hesod’s voice dropped low enough that even an Automa wouldn’t have been able to pick out the words over the waves and the sea wind. Ayla strained to hear more, but still could catch only pieces.

“—it is always political, Scyre Kinok,” Hesod was saying.

Kinok. The war hero. Lady Crier’s betrothed.

He’d quelled human rebellions and was responsible for the deaths of many. Still, when dealing with monsters, Ayla almost preferred that kind of frontal attack over Hesod’s insidious tyranny, the way he professed his appreciation for humankind with one breath and ordered massacres with the next. The way he made laws pretending they were for the “good” of humans. Like the one that banned any use of large storage spaces: places where grains or dry goods could be kept for the drought and cold seasons were explicitly banned under the guise of caring for human welfare. Hesod—and the Red Council—said it was because humans might hoard. They might let their food rot and spread disease. But the rebellion knew better. Rowan had told Ayla and Benjy that the Automae were worried that any large storage spaces could be used to meet in secret or hide weapons. And in their fear, they sentenced many families to almost starve to death during the winter seasons.

“It is no secret,” Kinok said, “that the union of our two political visions would only benefit Rabu. With Varn growing stronger, with Queen Junn gaining more support, whether she bought it or not . . . her people are still divided, but they will fight for her.”

“Rumors,” said Hesod dismissively. “Junn is delusional. Her people are weak, and her system, if it can even be called that, lacks structure. Varn will fall easily, if it comes to that.”

“Of course, Sovereign.”

The wind changed again and their voices fell away. Ayla found herself leaning forward, nearly sticking her nose into the seaflowers, straining her ears to catch anything—

“Politics aside, I have heard there may be developments in your experiments. Would you care to elaborate on the results?”

Kinok was quiet for a moment before she heard him respond, “All of it is still very nascent, Sovereign.”

“Well, I’m sure that given your knowledge, given your history, you will triumph in your endeavors,” Hesod responded.

What were they talking about? What endeavors?

Hesod was still speaking, and now his tone had turned somewhat warning. “To have been a Watcher of the Heart is a great honor, and we must ensure that honor is not tarnished,” he was saying.

Ayla blinked. Kinok was a Watcher? She thought they weren’t allowed to ever leave the Heart. That was the whole point, the sacrifice. They guarded the location of the Heart for their entire lives.

“It was an honor, yes,” said Kinok. “And a position I did not take lightly. Nor do I take my current work lightly.”

“I’ve always considered myself a guardian of the Heart,” said Hesod, sounding far away, as if he wasn’t really listening to Kinok. “At least from afar. As head of the council, it is my duty to ensure that the trading routes are clear and well guarded to make way for the shipments of heartstone. One could say I protect the veins of this land.”

“And the Watchers are ever thankful, Sovereign. We know the Heart requires so much of so many to keep its secrets safe.” Kinok paused. “Though it might help if you allowed Varn to trade across your borders, instead of forcing them to take to the sea.”

Keep its secrets safe. Kinok had to mean the location of the Iron Heart. Ayla’s breath caught in her throat; as a Watcher, Kinok knew where the Iron Heart was . . . its exact location. How it worked. He knew everything.

And he was standing only a few paces away from Ayla.

Of course, everyone knew the Heart was somewhere to the west, somewhere deep within the Aderos Mountains. The vast mountain range hid a massive mine, which produced heartstone: the mysterious red jewel that, when crushed into a fine dust, fed all Automae. According to Rowan, human rebels had tried many times to attack the caravans that carried shipments of heartstone dust all over Zulla, and every single time they’d failed; they’d lost dozens, sometimes hundreds, of human lives for every stolen gem, making it both a risky and ultimately futile effort. The supplies of heartstone seemed limitless.

Here was the crux of it: if leeches didn’t ingest the dust every day, they’d stop functioning. It was their lifeblood. Depriving them of heartstone dust was the easiest way to kill them—faster, even, than depriving a human of food or water. So of course they guarded the dust, and the Aderos Mountains, more heavily than anything else.

That was why finding the Iron Heart had become the obsession of the Revolution.

The key to the rebellion, the one piece of information that Rowan had been searching for tirelessly for as long as Ayla had known her.

And now, it was only a few paces away.

This was bigger than any uprising. Bigger than any of Rowan’s full moons.

Ayla’s heart fluttered like a bird’s wings in her chest. Hesod’s next words, Automa-quiet, were lost to her, but then there was another sound. A footstep on wet rock.

Then rustling.

Ayla was not spying alone.





5


It had been so long since Crier had properly slept that she was shocked to awaken and find herself in the gardens hours later, her Design scrolls still tucked into her sleeve. Night had fallen, crickets chirped. She had heard voices—that’s why she’d woken up. Now she steadied herself against a branch, trying not to rustle the flowers and leaves as she inched closer to the sound.

It was her father.

And Kinok.

Having, apparently, some sort of private conversation.

Crier frowned. For all her political aspirations, she had always disliked the way her father would take private meetings, or would shut himself away in the north wing and shuffle around lives and livelihoods like pieces on a chessboard, arranging them like he had the gardens, and his estate, and Crier’s engagement: logically, masterfully, neatly sidestepping every possible obstacle months or years before it even began to form. And now, this—a secluded conversation with Kinok, out here, in the darkness of the gardens. Her special place, where she came to think and be alone.

She had not meant to listen in, and it was not like she could hear much of anything above the wind and the crashing sea—but now that she was here, she was curious.

“—and far be it from me to spill such secrets, Sovereign,” Kinok said.

Secrets. It was bad enough being excluded from her father’s work—Crier could not stand the idea of him having secrets with Kinok. Part of her thought it better that she could not hear what they were saying, but the other part, a larger part, worried that this was about her Flaw. What if Kinok did know and was now revealing it to her father?

How would he react?

Would she be terminated?

It had happened before—young Automae with Flawed Designs, assigned early termination. That was back before Hesod’s rule, but it didn’t mean it couldn’t happen again.

She slipped out from behind the seaflower bush and moved to the next one, and the next, careful to remain hidden.

Her father and Kinok, their backs turned, were maybe fifty or sixty paces away.

If she just darted from this row to the next, maybe she could get closer. She would be visible for less than a second. She set her shoulders and continued, reaching the end of the row. The moonlight was pale on her skin.

“—this will be more fruitful than I had ever hoped,” Hesod said, but his next words were lost as the sea wind howled. Crier leaned forward, straining to hear.

She was right on the edge of the bluffs.

And then the ground beneath her feet fell away.

There was a split second in which Crier simply pitched forward, frozen, mind whirring—why am I off-balance—why am I slipping—and then she realized the bluff was crumbling. Her weight had been a catalyst, the rocks were breaking and sliding off the cliff face and she was sliding with them—down down down. She twisted wildly, fingers scrabbling for anything solid, and found nothing but broken rock and slippery yellowish grass and—

A jut of rock. Solid. She grabbed it with both hands right as the Crier-sized chunk of cliff fell. She heard it crack and shatter against one of the jagged black rocks that stuck up out of the water and tried not to think about her own body hitting that rock. How she would have cracked and shattered.

How she still might. She was dangling off the edge of the bluff with nothing but air beneath her feet.

The Design papers slipped from her sleeve, like an afterthought, and fluttered down into the darkness, flapping, birdlike, until she could no longer see them.

She was going to fall, she knew it. The jut of rock that had saved her was smooth and slick. There was a twinge of sensation in her wrist, and she realized her flesh had torn open. A deep three-inch gash, skin peeling away to reveal strips of finely Made muscle and bone. Dark purplish fluid dripping from the wound, running down her arm.

“Help,” she said, but it came out hoarse, weak, pathetic; Kinok and her father would never hear her over the crashing waves. “Help—please—I, I need—please.” Her fingers slipped another half inch. Another. She was going to fall. Crier was ten times stronger than any human and she was created to be perfect and she was going to fall and crack and shatter against the wet black rocks and spill her perfect insides into the sea. And be swallowed.

No. No no no please no—

A hand grabbed her wrist, holding her up as she dangled off the cliff’s edge.

“Oh—”

Crier looked up and into a pair of dark eyes.

It was not Kinok who had saved her. Not her father.

It was a human.

For a moment Crier was frozen. She forgot the ocean and the rocks below.

She had never really seen a pair of eyes like this. It was like standing in the doorway to a dark room, like balancing on the threshold, holding a lantern up and watching how it kissed some things gold and left other things in shadow. It was the kind of dark that hid and held a lot of things. A hot fluid dark, a summer tide pool dark, a wild breathless dark.

A hand on Crier’s wrist, holding her up. A thumb digging into the tear in her flesh.

A face, moon-shaped, with thick, arched eyebrows and a mass of tangled dark hair. Red uniform, dark like dried blood.

This human girl’s eyes were wide. Her grip shifted on Crier’s wounded wrist.

Crier realized that she had not yet been saved.

The girl’s breaths were coming fast. Her mouth twisted, her grip loosened—

A necklace fell out of her shirt and dangled between them. Crier’s gaze flicked from the girl’s face to her necklace, a split second of winking gold in the moonlight, a pendant carved with an eight-point star—the all-too-familiar symbol of the Makers—and then the girl gave a low wrenching noise and pulled Crier up up up, back over the edge of the bluff, and then they were both scrambling away from the edge, collapsing beneath a seaflower bush. Gasping. Shaking. Crier squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her face into the dirt, which was illogical but felt like the only thing she would ever want to do for the rest of her life. The dirt smelled like rain and soft green things and not dying.

Four seconds. Five. She shoved herself upright. Her face was wet, dirt sticking to her cheeks, and she did not understand why. She tasted salt. Sea spray, but different.

The girl was already looking at her. Crier saw her own shock mirrored in those dark eyes. But why were they both shocked? Of course the girl had saved her. Crier had needed help. This girl was in Hesod’s command, and therefore also in Crier’s command. Why would she do anything else? Why was Crier’s vision blurring?

The girl reached forward and pressed her thumb to the soft skin below Crier’s left eye. Again they stared at each other. The girl’s eyes flicked between her hand and Crier’s face, as if she was confused by her own actions. Crier held very still, and when the girl’s thumb came away from her skin, she saw the way it glistened with something wet.

Tears.

Crier’s hands flew up to her cheeks. Her skin was grimy, almost sticky, damp with dirt and—tears. Water from her eyes, salt on her lips. Tears, like the strange wet that streaked down human faces, but these were her own. They were hot like blood. It felt like she was bleeding, like she was wounded. But Automae did not cry like humans did. Why would they.

The girl wiped her thumb on her shirt. My tears, Crier thought, staring at the damp spot. My salt.

Her eyes stung.

“Lady Crier!”

Six guards were heading toward them, dark figures in the gloom. Even when running, their strides were identical; they did not fall out of line; their uniforms were pristine. Six guards—Crier’s distress chime must have gone off. She scrubbed at her face, wiping away all evidence of the tears. Nobody could see. (Somebody already had.) It was bad enough that she had nearly died, doubly bad that she had been saved by a servant. A human.

What would her father think?

What would Kinok think?

Crier got to her feet and did her best to brush the dirt off her clothes, to fix her messy, wind-whipped hair. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the human girl doing the same. She watched the girl hide the gold necklace back beneath her shirt, avoiding Crier’s eyes.

So she had not imagined the Maker symbol carved into the small, coin-like pendant. Crier stared at the girl again, this time with a new shock.

A symbol written in a language that had been dead for a hundred years, the old language of the alchemists.

How did you get that? Crier thought, unable to tear her eyes away from the girl’s face. Who are you?

But already the guards had reached them and immediately fell upon the girl, wrestling her arms behind her back and shoving her head down, trapping her between them. Three on the girl, the other three pointing their swords at her throat, her stomach, the base of her neck. The girl did not struggle. There would be no point. It took six hundred and seventy pounds of force to snap a human’s neck. The guards could apply that pressure in half a second.

She stared at the guards. “What are you doing?”

“Was it the human?” one guard asked. “What was it doing here? Did it attack you?” He was the one holding the girl’s head down. Crier could not see her face.

The way her grip had shifted on Crier’s wrist. The fierce look in her eyes. The press of her thumb into Crier’s wound. How, for a moment, Crier had been absolutely sure the girl was going to let her drop. The shock on both their faces when the girl had pulled her up up up and over, back to solid ground.

Of course the girl had saved her.

But for a moment—for a moment—

“No,” Crier heard herself say. “No, it did not push me. I fell. The human saved my life.”

The girl’s head jerked beneath the guard’s hand. Like she had just tried to look up. At Crier.

“The human saved me,” Crier repeated. She glanced toward the spot where she had heard her father and Kinok speaking, but they were long gone. They must have been heading back toward the palace when she fell. “I sustained a minor injury. I require medical assistance. Escort me to the physician immediately. And please keep this between us—my father is quite busy with our guest and he does not need any added stress.”

“Yes, Lady Crier.” They let go of the girl and she stumbled forward a little, straightened up. She glanced at Crier just long enough for Crier to see that her face was blank, her emotions tamped down, but her eyes: they were anything but blank. They were shocked and confused and furious (at the guards? at Crier?) and dark, and when the moonlight hit them at just the right angle they stayed dark and heated and terribly, impossibly human.

What was she doing out here, all alone in the dark?

Crier supposed she could be asked the same question.

“Now, please.”

Crier was escorted back to the palace.

The girl stayed behind, her silhouette melting into the night. Crier looked back at her once and then did not look again.

When the guards delivered her to the physician, Crier paused in the doorway and said, “Wait.”

Crier really should report her.

“The human from the bluffs,” she said. “Get me her name.”

Ayla.

Ayla.

Crier let the name turn over inside her mind, studying every angle and curve of it, as she sat on the window seat of her bedchamber early the next morning, a book in her lap, watching the sun break from the horizon with a flash of gold.

Her hands ached. There were nasty scrapes on her fingertips, the skin peeled raw. Marks from where she had scrabbled desperately at the rocks yesterday, searching for a handhold as she fell. After Crier had been released from the physician, her handmaiden Malwin had drawn her a long, soothing bath; together they had watched the dirt and blood stream off Crier’s body and disappear, hidden by the swirls of soap and steam. The physician had given her a salve that would have fixed the imperfections on her skin just as easily as it closed up the gash on her wrist. Within hours, Crier would be left with unblemished fingertips and one less physical reminder that she had, in fact, fallen. That she had been saved.

She had not yet applied the salve.

Instead, she picked at the wounds, keeping the scrapes open. Tiny beads of blood welled up on her skin like jewels. Automa blood was not so dissimilar to human blood, except that the color was different. Where human blood was red, Automa blood was darker, bluer, almost violet. Crier stared at her own blood now, shining in the light, and let out a breath. Violet. Inhuman. Flawless.

And yet.

The first blush pinks of dawn filtered through the window, coloring the stacks of books and maps upon Crier’s writing desk and canopied bed. There was a silk tapestry on the far wall of her bedchamber. Tiny, interwoven threads of silver and gold shone brightly in the sunlight, standing out against the deep, colorful background.

Unlike most tapestries in the palace, this one was very simple. There were no Automa hunters chasing a wild boar on foot, their human servants trailing behind with the dogs. No depiction of the Iron Heart, no jewel-studded castle, no ships tossed on a blue-silk ocean. There was only a woman. Dark-haired, brown-skinned, beautiful, she stared out at Crier’s bedchamber from her place on the wall. Her dress was saffron yellow, her mouth madder-root red. Her eyes were stitched with gold.

Kiera.

The first of their Kind.

In the sunlight, her eyes almost glowed.

When the knock came at the door, Crier sat up straighter, her book shifting against her thighs. She shoved it aside.

“Enter,” she said, and Ayla (Ayla) stumbled into her bedchamber.

She looked the same as last night—red uniform, messy dark braid, big brown eyes. She carried the same intensity about her, like heat waves rising from her skin, even though she was just standing in the doorway and not currently in the middle of saving Crier’s life.

Like she was more than a human girl.

Like she was a summer storm made flesh.

Ayla’s arms hung at her sides, her fingers twisted in the hidden folds of her uniform. Crier felt like she had managed to capture a butterfly in her cupped hands, and now it was frantically beating its wings.

“You summoned me?” said Ayla.

Her voice was low, a little raspy.

Perhaps the butterfly was actually a wasp.

Crier had been stung by one, once. She grasped at the memory, suddenly longing to remember how it felt.

“Ayla,” said Crier, the name slipping between her lips. “I summoned you here because I must ask you something.”

Ayla’s chin jutted out. “Whatever my punishment is, I’ll take it with my head up.”

“Punishment?” Crier peered at her. “Come. Walk with me.”

“Walk with you?”

“Yes. Did you misunderstand?”

“No, I understood you,” Ayla said, and then added, “my lady,” like she had only just then remembered that she was supposed to use Crier’s title at all times. And she stood there, holding very still as Crier unfolded herself from the window seat and joined Ayla in the doorway, the space seeming to constrict with a shudder as Crier passed her.

She led her through the winding corridors of the palace, walking in silence a few steps ahead, as was proper, though with every single step she wanted to turn around and look back at Ayla’s face, to try and read her expression, to puzzle out what she was thinking. Ayla’s face was fascinating. Crier had seen her barely twice and she already knew this like she knew the constellations.

It was like the tapestry of Kiera: with the first glance, you saw the deepest colors, her skin and eyebrows and the pink of her mouth. With the second glance, you saw the threads of gold, the spark in her eyes and the tiny scar on her left cheekbone, her perpetual frown—and you were captivated.

Crier’s skin felt too tight.

She led Ayla out of the palace, into the gardens, wet with the last of morning’s dew, and then onto the bluffs. The cool sea air was a relief.

They only stopped walking once they reached the very edge of the bluffs. The exact spot where, last night, Crier had fallen and Ayla had pulled her back up. Crier rubbed at her wrist. There were marks of her fall on the cliff itself: dark spots where Crier had clutched at handfuls of seagrass, jagged broken rock. Eight sets of footprints pressed into the soft mud. Crier, Ayla, and the guards.

“This,” said Crier, “is where I fell.”

A pause. “Yes, my lady.”

“Why did you save me?” Crier asked.

For the first time, Ayla’s eyes flicked up to meet Crier’s, sending a sensation of shock through her. “It’s my job,” she said slowly. “It’s my job to—to serve the house of Sovereign Hesod. That includes you.”

It was exactly the answer she should have given.

It was not at all what Crier had wanted to hear.

“Is there no other reason?” she asked, resisting the urge to lean closer, fearing she might. “No other reason to preserve my life?”

Have you ever observed me before? Have you seen me in the gardens? Did you see something in me?

Can you tell that I am different? Flawed?

Look at me again.

Ayla’s mouth twisted, but she did not look—and this, too, was a relief.

Still: Was there a redness in h