The bar was quiet and empty but Amy preferred it that way. Her friends insisted on going to the bars near the college. They frequented the bars that rang with the electricity of the mechanics, welders and engineers that just got out of class or off a shift. Amy sat at the bar during those dizzying hours and pretended to drink. She did not come to the bar to drink or to meet men like her friends did. Amy came with her friends to make sure that each of them came back home. No one had looked out for her all those years ago but Amy would make sure that nothing like that happened again.
Men would come up to her but they would leave if she ignored them, didn’t even look at them. Silence pushed them away... At least, it did until Nichalai Rolinski came to the bar.
“I know you! You go to the woman’s college on Petrov Square. I go to the men’s college next door.”
Amy ignored him. She figured that he would leave after fifteen minutes or so... He did not.
Nick got out his charcoal and paper. He made a series of quick, vigorous strokes. Seconds later, his hand moved with slow, steady, precise grace. Finally, after what seemed like years, Nick handed Amy the picture he had made.
It was not the typical, scrolled portrait or lude image a lover would usually send. Amy would quickly learn that Nick was not a common suitor. He had given her a picture of an elegant woman with flowing hair. Amy saw nothing of her frizzy hair or gangly limbs in the woman’s confidant smile but this woman was in a bar, like Amy. The woman was not surrounded by drunks though. Mere-men and centaurs stood at the bar while a fawn served drinks. The picture was whimsical and beautiful and it made her smile.
“I knew you’d like it!” Nick almost sang. “I’ll come here tomorrow night and draw for you again.”
Nick did come the next night and the night after that for many months. He drew her a new picture each time. Each picture showed an elegant woman with a far away look in her eyes. Amy admired those women and each glimpse of them sent a smile to her face. After months of pictures and smiles, Nick grew something different. He drew a tower.
Like all of Nick’s drawings, the tower was nothing simple. Vines grew up it in intricate knots so tall that the birds in the sky touched the leaves. The vines had thorns but they looked no less menacing than the birds’ piercing eyes. Each piece of the drawing had so much detail that Amy knew that there was more to the story than what she was seeing.
Amy couldn’t help but ask, “What’s the story?”
Nick smiled. “I wasn’t sure you could talk after that first night!”
“Then why were you giving me pictures?”
“I liked your smile,” Nick said shyly. “I wanted to make you smile again.”
Amy felt her lips pull into a smile involuntarily. “Tell me the story and I’ll smile again.”
“I was hoping that you could help me with that.”
Amy looked at him in surprise. “You want me to make the story? Out of a tower?”
“Well, I’ll start it for you but you have to finish it for me.”
Amy nodded. “Give me a good beginning to work with.”
“I’ll do my best,” he paused for a moment in thought. “This story starts with two kingdoms and three brothers. The kingdom of Rashma ran on steam and relied on technology while the kingdom of Gwendolin used magic, or they used to. Rashma came to attack and Gwendolin made ready to return fire. The knights learned that they couldn’t too late. Gwendolin had lost the battle and their fighting spirit along with the magic. The magic left their kingdom but the three brothers, the king’s three young sons, made it their quest to get the magic back.”
“But the soldiers of Rashma returned before they had the chance,” Amy broke into the story. “Light shone off the gears on their arms and brought fear into the princes’ hearts. The oldest son fought off the soldiers while the younger two ran. The fight was nothing more than a boy jumping at armed men. Still, the younger two could run. They would search for magic while the eldest prince went to Rashma to keep his land safe.”
“The oldest prince, Kallen, was not idol in Rashma. He learned all about machinery and technology,” Nick added when Amy went quiet. “He learned to use their machinery more effectively than even the most skilled mechanic in Rashma and Kallen planned to take his skills back to his home and teach his brothers. The soldiers of Rashma had no intention of letting him go.”
Nick would have gone on with the story but men dressed in all black came to the bar and stood next to Amy. The all wore dark glasses with their long, black coats.
“Your sister sent for you,” was all the dark man said.
“I have to go but I’ll be back soon. She does this all the time! Ella thinks she dying every few weeks and sends for me. The doctor will come and tell her that she’s fine and everything will go back to normal.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Nick asked her.
“No,” the dark man answered for Amy. “Senator Ella was very specific in her orders.”
“Ella usually is. Don’t worry,” Amy tried to reassure him. “I’ve done all of this before.”
“Give her time,” Ella pleaded with a shadow. “At least let her finish school!”
“The poor girl won’t be able to finish college if the country falls to ruin around her! I’m not taking her away from her life to be cruel! I’m trying to help her and every other citizen. War will help no one. Your sister is our only chance to stop a coming doom.”
“I know that but I wish that I could tell her more, prepare her.”
“She is stronger than you think. Amilenda will do the right thing. She’ll sacrifice for the good of all.”
“She shouldn’t have to! Surely there is some extra put aside over the years? Surely you’ve planned for an emergency?”
“The extra went into creating a synthetic. We’ve found that the synthetic proteins do not provide the same results. There is no substitute!”
“Why can’t I warn her? If you really think she’ll make the right choice on her own, why can’t I tell her what is coming?”
“The girl has enough worries and so go you. Rest and let your last moments with your sister be happy ones. Take this time for yourself and for your family.”
“She is all I have left but she no longer knows me.”
“I’ve never forgotten the people who made me what I am today no matter how many miles seaparete us,” the shadow swore.
“Will you watch over my sister, as you watched over me?”
“I will do the best I can for her.”
“She has no had an easy life.”
“None of us have chosen the easy road.”
“Will you make her road smoother?”
“Do not waste the last of your strength on worry,” the shadow pleaded. “Let me get your sister.”
He moved into the next room without making a sound. “Miss Amilenda?” The unfamiliar sound of her full name made Amy jump. “I am Mr. Moore. I will take you to your sister now.”
“Please, call me Amy.”
“Only if you will call me Demitry,” the shadow said, taking her hands in his.
“How is my sister?”
“She’s holding up well but she’s in a lot of pain.”
“When do the doctors think she’ll recover?” Amy asked.
“They don’t. The doctors don’t think that she’ll recover. I’m so sorry.”
Amy felt her mouth drop in disbelief. “Ella feels poorly and overreacts. She can’t really be dying. This is just part of her political games. She can’t --” Amy’s voice broke. She could fight back the tears no longer. “I’ll call all the best physicians, surgeons and alchemists! One of them has to know something that will help her!”
“I assure you that the government has given her the best of everything.”
“Ella’s given your government her life!”
“Isabella Stovica is a true patriot. She called you here to ask you to continue her mission.”
Amy wanted to listen, wanted to be polite but she could hold back her own words no longer, “Let my sister speak for herself. I want to see her!”
“I will take you to her, of course,” Mr. Moore assured her. “I am merely trying to prepare you.”
Amy tried to calm her breathing while Mr. Moore lead her through the twist and turn of rooms. The confusion of rooms matched the confusion that numbed her mind. Amy did not even try to keep track of where she was going. Her mind could only see one thing: Ella. Everything else in her life seemed fuzzy. Nothing else seemed real, even the image of Ella in her bed.
“There’s so many things I need to tell you but so little time,” Ella said in a bird’s weak chirp. “I wanted to tell you for so long but there are rules...”
“I’m not part of your political games! I’m not worried about rules.”
“The rules are there for a reason.”
Amy couldn’t stop the tears from falling down her cheeks or the wanting in her voice, “Can they save you?”
“It’s too late for me. I’m worried about you now.”
“You don’t need to be. I already told Mr. Moore, I’m not getting envolved in politics. I’ll help you find someone more appropriate; someone suited to the work, and then I’ll go back to school.”
“Our family has an obligation,” Ella insisted.
Amy just shook her head. “The family is gone. It’s just you and me now.”
“Have you ever wondered about Father? What made him so special?”
Ella ignored Amy’s answer. “It was in his blood. It’s our blood now.” Ella’s voice was getting weaker. “The army is weak and it needs out blood to be strong.”
“What are you talking about? You’re not making any since!”
“Balderdash,” Ella answered with a sad smile.
Amy could think of no reply for that, so she looked out the window and away from her sister, who still wasn’t making any since! The scene outside had beauty and reason both. The window looked out on a silver lake. Lake Titica reflected the mountains that surrounded it and at night it showed the dream of stars. It was the answer to the echo of wind and the beauty of light. Amy could remember her dreams when she looked at the place. The noise of the city was a song and the clank of engines had a haunting melody but Amy needed the quiet of the lake to appreciate the noise of the city.
Ella’s soul floated away in the peaceful quiet of the lake. She took comfort in the fact that Amy was with her.
Days pasted but Amy still only wanted to sit and stare and hold Ella’s cold hand but Mr. Moore would have none of that.
“Your father had a rare blood disease,” the shadow man explained. “His blood had extra protein in it and that protein gave the clockwork army the strength it needed. We would have surely fallen to our enemies if his blood were not strengthening us. The army could not function without his blood. The enemies’ clockwork soldiers fell in the middle of the battle because they did not have enough protein but our army held. Your sister has been donating her blood to make sure that our army is the strongest. The country would have fallen if not for her sacrifice.”
Amy tried to take all of this in. “Are you telling me that you need me to donate blood or three nations will invade at once?”
“I’m saying that your sister sacrificed her blood so that the whole country could be safe. I’m asking you to make the same sacrifice.”
“I’ll come to this office everyday at four and donate blood,” Amy quickly agreed.
“That’s too dangerous. Our enemies will know that you’re important if you come into the councilette everyday. They’ll kill you for sure and then where will Pachaut be? The country will fall as soon as the other armies realize that our army has been weakened.”
Amy blinked up at Mr. Moore. “Are you telling me that I need to stay here? In my sister’s house? You don’t think that will be suspicious?”
“Not as suspicious as coming to an empty house each day. It will be much easier to protect you if you stay here.”
“I don’t need protection,” Amy insisted. “Just send a car to the school and we can meet anywhere. There’s no reason to change every aspect of my life.”
“I’m afraid that your life will change. You have a serious medical condition. Have you ever wondered why Ella felt so poorly so often? Why she died so young?”
“How do you even know I have this disease?” Amy felt her heart race in fear but she could not yield to it. The shaking of her hands made her want to fight Moore and deny every word he said.
“The disease is called Sopheara Vera and it follows family lines. I’m afraid that the odds are high. Let me test it on the mechanical men.”
“Is there any other way to test it?” Amy could not keep her voice from shaking.
“It is the only way we know.”
“Test me then. I don’t want to sit worrying about a decision I might not have to make.”
Mr. Moore filled a vial with her blood and quickly went to work. Amy felt like she was standing at the precipitous of a great drop, like something big and lurking was ahead of her. Excitement pulsed beneath the shock and sadness. It felt like she was about to walk into the light from the shadows.
“You test positive. The clockwork men responded to your blood the same way they do to your sister’s,” Mr. Moore sounded legitimately sad for her.
“There’s no one else with this protein? No one already in government?”
“The blood condition is very rare. This information could be dangerous if it gets to our nation’s enemies. They will surely send someone to keep our armies from functioning.”
“You honestly think that Cortez, Azteal, or Petolma will send assassins after me?”
“Mercenaries and assassins are not as expensive as an army and they’re easier to find. Pachaut’s enemies are numerous and they will find you.”
Amy was quiet for a moment, thinking. She didn’t want it to be true but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t... In fact, that probably meant that it was more likely to be true! She thought a moment more before saying,
“My friends at the school... If I agree to be a politician and a blood donor, will they be safe?”
Mr. Moore looked even more pittying than before. “You’ll have to distance yourself from them. It’s the only way to keep everyone safe. Make the other nations think that you’re a politician and make your friends think that you’re leaving them.”
“Is that what Ella had to do? Is that why she only called when she thought she was dying.”
“Don’t judge her too harshly. She only did what she had to do,” Moore pleaded.
“It’s really the only way to save them. Ella won’t have broke off with her friends like that if there was any other way and she would have looked at every possibility.”
“Ella was more than a patriot, she was a true friend as well. She did everything to protect them, even when pushing them away. Guard your words around them.”
“Why? Do we have anything to keep secret? Can’t I just tell them the truth? Explain everything?”
“Knowing even a part of it puts them all at risk. It puts them and you both in danger! The only way to protect them and Pachaut is to keep your blood a secret.”
Amy nodded, seeing her sister in a new light, but not liking what that meant had to happen next. Amy steeled herself and went to her friends.
“What happened?” Chanelle asked.
“We thought you’d be back at the college today,” Nora said on top of one another.
“I told them about your sister. They were all worried when you left out of nowhere!”
“Is your sister okay?”
“When are you coming back?”
The questions came one after the other without any time to answer. Amy waited for one of them to take a breath, waited for a chance to break in and explain. She was surprised how long it took for her to find that opening. Finally, she just had to say, “I’m going into politics.”
All eyes turned to her, wide with shock.
“What about mechanics? You have a gift and a passion!” Amy tried not to feel a stab of regret at that. The wind echoed her doubts but she ignored that as well. Her friends needed her to be strong.
“My family has held a position in government for generations. I have a responsibility to the people of Pachaut. My sister is gone now but there’s still a need.”
“You’ve never been interested in politics,” Nick pointed out. “Come back to the college and sleep on things. Don’t make a decision just yet.”
“I’ve made my decision. It won’t change.”
“You’ve had goals and dreams at the college for years! What made you change them so quickly?”
Amy looked down, trying to hide her sadness. “This is what my sister wanted. Keeping our family in politics was the one thing Ella asked of me. I can’t deny her that.”
Nick wasn’t giving up just yet. “Would she deny you a future? Freedom to choose your own path? Ella may have wanted you in politics but leaving the college is not something she would have wanted to see.”
“Don’t pretend that you knew her!” Amy could not help the heat in her voice or in her face. Anger seemed to radiate through her even though she wasn’t upset with Nick.
“I’m sorry. I’m worried about you. Politics hasn’t meant anything to you until today. The sudden change makes me nervous.”
“Don’t be afraid. It’s not as sudden as you think.”
“We’ll come back and check on you tomorrow,” Nick promised.
“I need some space and some time alone. Let me sort through things on my own time.”
“You just lost one loved one. Don’t push the rest of us away,” Nick pleaded.
“I’m starting a new life and there isn’t room for you in it.” Amy knew that the words were cruel but she had to say them; had to chase him away.
“You’re under a spell. There’s something that the rest of us can’t see.”
“The only way to break a spell is to see them through the end. Isn’t that what the books say?” Amy didn’t wait for an answer before continuing, “Let me have this time and then I’ll be back.”
“You’ll come back to the school once you meet your family’s obligations here?”
“I don’t know what I plan to do. I just need time to figure it out.”
Nick nodded. “We’ll give you time but we’re not leaving you. Just send a message and we’ll be there.”
“Thank you,” Amy whispered through tears.
Nick handed her a picture. “I still need your help finishing the story.”
Amy crumbled it before she could look. These people were all in danger because of her. She needed them to be safe but to do that, they needed to leave her. She needed to push them away and breaking their hearts, bringing them pain, may be the only way to send them away.
“I don’t have time for stories any more. Those nights at the bar were fun but I can’t play games like that any more. I need you to leave.”
The guards escorted them out but Amy never looked at them. Her heart screamed for a look or a glance but she ignored it.
“Did some bitter bird eat your heart?” Nora asked in a voice choked with anger and tears.
This call was harder to ignore but ignore it Amy did. She pretended that she was something else. Not being human, she never wondered at what humans did. She had seen them slit each other’s throats, break each other’s hearts. She had seen newborns tossed away with yesterday’s rubbish. She had stepped over men snoring drunk on the cobbles. Since she was not one of them, none of this concerned her; they might have been dreams or ghosts she moved through, until they tried to pull her into their night-terrors. Then she melted as if flame had touched her, flowed away into a safer dream. She let Mr. Moore lead her away to begin her career in politics.
“Lay here and try to relax,” Mr. Moore advised, leading Amy to a lush bed. “You’ll feel a little pinch and then the procedure will begin.”
Amy felt the pinch of a needle going into her arm. It did not hurt badly but the strange, ghostly feeling of her blood moving up a tube connected to it made the experience like something out of a dream or a night-terror.
“Don’t tense up,” Mr. Moore’s voice cut in. “Just try to relax. The blood moves easier then.”
Amy was not sure if a minute or an hour passed but the whole thing seemed so surreal that time itself had little meaning. She felt her life and her strength ebb away until waking seemed little different than sleeping. Amy did sleep then but she did not remember letting go of consciousness.
She woke sometime later with a splitting headache and dizzy vision, more tired upon waking than she was when she laid down.
“What happened?” She asked through the cotton in her mouth.
“You blacked out. It was a common occurance when your sister donated,” Mr. Moore explained.
“Will that happen each time?”
“It will get easier. I’ll get you an aspiraine and let you rest. Drink this. It’s fruit juice.”
“The younger Stovica girl agreed to donate?” Lord Seale asked incredulously.
“We told her there was no other option,” Moore explained.
“You threatened to kill the friends?”
“I told her that Pachaut’s enemies would go after them.”
“Why would they do that?”
“She thinks that she’s the only possible donor. I told her that Sopheara Vera is rare.”
“It is rare but not as rare as you made her think. We could find another donor if we followed the right lines.”
“How long would that take? How many lives would we loose?”
“I’m not suggesting that we look for a new donor. I’m saying that a contingency plan just in case the girl bolts. Political life does not suite her and her patriotism will not last,” Lord Seale warned.
“There are other options. The synthetic drug is coming along nicely.”
“Not here,” the Lord of Seale said abruptly, “not in a wood full of enemies. It’ll wait. Just keep working. Be ready when I need you.”
He mounted. Moore watched him ride away, but not far. The trees and brush closed around him quickly; even his horse’s steps faded soon in the underbrush.
Something felt off to Nick. Amy was not acting like herself. She was a shy, quiet but sturdy presence in the bar and in the college. She had a talent with mechanics but she never did anything show-y with her gifts. She made things with a purpose and expected others to see the purpose for what it was. She was not a politician!
Amy could be blunt but she never said things only to be hurtful. The things she said after her sister’s death were not the type of things she would normally say. Grief could account for some of it but all hurtful words usually have the same root: fear.
Something had scared Amy so badly that she felt she needed to chase them all away. Nick silently promised himself he would not leave her to that fear. As soon as the guards left, he turned and made his way back towards the councilette. He could not go in the same way; the guards were watching. Still, there was more than one way into that building and the servants quarters were around here somewhere!
The wind itself seemed to pick up at his doubt. Fear made the bite of the cold wind much harsher. Nick wanted to tell himself that it was nothing more than imagination but coincidences were things for children. The truth of the world was more like a puzzle.
Nick saw figures in the distance and worked to follow them. The men seemed to know where they were going. They stepped to the center of the patterned ﬂoor; he followed them. A circle of aged ivory lay there like an ancient moon, with many intricate paths raying out from it. A blond man stood at the rim of it, facing the wood’s moon, so that the light illumined the ivory; his shadow fell behind him. He gestured. A tall man moved to stand opposite him, so that the moonlight fell on his back; his shadow lay across the face of the moon at their feet.
“The wood’s moon suggested this to me,” the blond explained. “Perhaps the wood is speaking to us. Or perhaps I am making an entirely random connection between two white circles.” The man faced Nick. “You can come out now.”
Nick came slowly into the light. “I am only a servant at the councilette.”
Both men laughed. “We’ll see. You must show it what you fear.”
“I only fear dreams.”
Nick knew that he had been a fool. These men were not servants. They weren’t even from Pachaut. They had odd accents like men from Azteal! He had to get out of here and warn the guards! Nick moved, getting ready to call out when a hand clamped over his mouth and another tangled around his shoulders.
“None of that now! You wouldn’t want to start our friendship off like this. We’re after the same thing, after all. A young woman called Amilenda Stovica is in danger. We have come to rescue her. My man, Xu, here, says that you care for the girl. You will help us? Help her?”
Nick could do nothing but nod.
Amy had strange dreams at night after the donations. Mr. Moore usually gave her about five days to recover between donations but the metal army’s needs were demanding. She did not know when Moore would ask for a donation but she knew it was soon.
“Do not ignore the first and last rule of machinery!” The teacher in front of the classroom screeched. “You will become nothing more than an obscure name in the history of the college if you fall pray to their tricks.”
“The machines aren’t alive!” One of two of the students argued.
“They could be if no one follows simple rules!”
“Who will remember us if all the rules are followed?” Amy argued. “We need to go up the stairs.”
The professor screamed in a voice that sounded more like a moaning machine than a human. The students would scream too but in voiced that sounded like voices.
Amy would wake up from the dream or the memory then, knowing that the dream was trying to tell her something, but not knowing what.
Amy would lay in her bed and ponder the dream’s meaning until Mr. Moore came to the door.
“It’s time to begin another treatment.”
“I didn’t think that your army needed so much. Did Ella have to donate so often?”
“We’ve learned more about your condition after your sister’s death. The physician believes that taking more of your blood will thin it and prolong your life.”
Amy tried to swallow the lump of fear in her throat. She held out her arm and let Mr. Moore do his job. She could already feel the pressure of a headache building even before the blood left her veins.