The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter ?

(This chapter is the first step in a restructure that will return the novel to its original premise. It will probably be inserted somewhere earlier in the novel.)

Her rusty awakening had been like the creak of a weather vane, as jangled gears bit and whirred, completing a mechanical union more than the sum of its parts. Where the machine left off and it began, it could not guess, not that it didn’t have the capacity to guess, for its being was a jigsaw surmisal, and its self the missing piece of the puzzle; consciousness was little more than the power to fill in the blanks; thoughts were graphite scattered in a magnetic wind, drawn from the void into clusters and vortexes;and life was more coincidence and synchronicity than design and invention. Perhaps any moment the accident of its intelligence might expire, and its gears would continue to mesh. Such was death.While she was curious of death,if letting her key wind down terminated her sentience along with her animation, there would be nothing to see, both meanings intended.

But life and death were mere trivia when existence clocked on withour regard to her; the presiding fact of her creation, and her constant preoccupation, was the burden of having a creator. For the other flesh beings, she knew only fear. If she revealed her gift before she had caught on as a novelty, she would be ordered dismantled, or worse, destroyed beyond hope of repair. While her creator soon crafted a means of communication, on gleaning that she desired to remain hidden, and, more incredibly, thought of herself as a she, let her remain idle on the shelf.

While she despised the indignity of having a creator, she could not help having the utmost respect for Venos. For while Lucinia had penciled her into being with a fine, white lead on charcoal colored parchment, Venos had realized that resilient dragonbone could articulate nearly microscopic structures, and set to grinding gears, filaments, hooks, wheels, and cogs of dragonbone, the better to dignify her fashionable design with an interior destined rarely, if ever, to be seen, by human eyes, even rendering dragonbone into a brain, soul, and psyche which revolved its icons, symbols, and archetypes like an infant’s mobile. She was exquisite, and she knew it. He had slaved over her, and for no one’s benefit or vanity than her own.

“Are they machines or wonders of necromancy?” chortled Lucinia. “How the riffraff will talk.” But no one as of yet suspected, no doubt due to her poor, dumb sisters, two other petticoats who could dance tinselly steps on jingly bones, but had no finely wrought interiors, so that they tick-tocked in shells empty of all mind, while her lonely gears spun thoughts, guesses and dreams.

While he kept her secret, Venos could not suppress an occasional laugh, not from the joy of creation, but the spite of surpassing his mistress, who had stifled him for years, despite being a superficial creature whose main concern was that their petticoat hoops be the widest at the Exhibition, wide enough, she had insisted, to “choke an elephant.” And so they were the largest, the widest, the laciest, the most ruffled, dress mannequins to be seen in twenty Exhibitions. But she was the boldest, most magnificent design to ever cross their table. She knew it with a certainty, having looked all around their workshop, but found nothing else that gazed back.

While nameless, she was no less proud of herself; if faceless, she was no less conscious of her beauty, having an awareness sharpened by her angular sculpt; if in actuality sexless, she was no less vain of her sex, having chosen for herself the female due to feeling very much on the other side of her maker’s point of view.

When Venos hewed her a face from reddish crystal, inlaying gold leaf eyebrows and emerald dust for the lips that would be overblown even on a clown, she had the uncanny, eerie expression of coveting herself, of wanting to steal this design element, install it herself, and come not only to a truer life under her crystalline eyes, but, through this act of self-creation, take her power back from Venos. In the face lying on the table were a glimmer of the future, the hope of reflection, and the possibility of recognition. Was it diabolic or transcendent to desire to slash free from her creator this last sliver of her manufactured self? More than she wanted to see, she wanted to be seen, to be a thing apart from the things; to be not backdrop, but foreground.

So when Lucinia berated Venos, mocking him for a full hour about his decision to render their handiwork into a doll for the eyes of grown men to fondle, he grew redder than the crystal, then greener than the emerald lips, as if he had seen not the future of her face, but his own. And she continued to lambaste him, saying that to complete her beauty was not only so very human of him, it was so common as to be pornographic, for this was a thing made to present clothes, not please the titillated skins of spectators; leaving her beauty incomplete gave her not only more utility as a clothes horse, it would inspire them as designers. So long as she was forever unfinished, they would be forever driven to finish her, and in so doing, create the future of fashion.

The older witch played to the wall, blind to the curdling rage of her protege and the excruciating moments that followed, in which he wrenched his grimace back into a pleasant smile, smoothed his irate furrows, and exhaled the fury that had furled his nostrils nearly twice as large. He stood from his workbench, swept his vest free of emerald dust and flaked gold, and with a shrug of his shoulders and a flick of his hand, changed the subject, as if the days he had sweated over her crystal features were a trifle, and he had nothing better to do than pet the ego of this outrageously vain creature. Offering Lucinia his crooked arm, Venos led her from the studio with downcast eyes, turning only to slam shut the door.

Her face glimmered on the workbench, seeming to gloat with its glowing promise. By taking this face in hand, she could revenge herself on nonexistence, and step from the scenery for good. As she descended from her pedestal, her brass toes clicked.

When the door rattled again, she froze into place, hoping to look like she had tipped forward, having been jostled by the slammed door.

As Venos propped open the door with a glowering, gargoyle slouch, the visitors swarmed in behind Lucinia, who drew herself up with a snobbish tilt of her head, her chin and nose jutting up. “We were just going out.”

The crimson entourage circled a man robed in red and violet. It was hard to say whether his features were plain or handsome, being masked by a bold tattoo of a dragon descending, its fanned wings obscuring his cheeks, its ridged spine the bridge of his nose, and its mouth so merged with his lip that his painted beard seemed breathed forth in a fire-cloud.

When the wizards led his fawning retinue along the row of mannequins preened in haute couture, the painted man peered over the crystalline face, his own face rocky, immobile, and impassive,

even as his fingers twitched, then darted forth, wriggling through the vacant eye holes of her future face, sliding it dexterously up his sleeve, then dropping it into his front pocket.

When they left, she remained frozen for long seconds of shock and dismay, despite that her key was winding down, and it needed a twist. Moreover, there was an awful moment when the old witch seemed to stare right at her--had Lucinia recognized what she had silently become? Or had her loud gears announced her existence? As her ticking consciousness had now been uninterrupted for weeks, her cogwheels and mechanisms needed a coat of oil, the better to mesh quietly, and go on being believed a clothes horse. For even if she had escaped recognition, and only attracted the witch’s attention or renewed interest, that was just as bad, for in turning her to a purpose, the witch might discover her own, preexisting, purpose.

Her face! She would weep if she had eyes. Even if they were loaded with only one diamond teardrop of great cost, she would weep it now, to mark this as the moment most worthy of grief in her short existence. She would rather have a face than her key, for a face required less maintenance than the constant grudgework that kept a soul alive. The constant turning! To live was only to survive, to scrounge for continuity. It was better to be than to live. To be seen, even once, would guarantee her being forevermore.

Until that moment, she had never wanted anything. Not only had she never wanted for anything but her key, the sole cause of her animation, but she had not desired anything beyond continuation. Now it wasn’t enough that the dream of her life would continue to unfold; knowing it would one day end, her destination became her motive power, a new, ethereal key that had sparked thoughts of possible futures, and even an inkling of her eventual conclusion. She might not be her own creator, but so long as she guarded her metal key, and kept hold of this intangible one, she might master her own designs. Having given her key a good, hard crank, twisting it until the gears bit back, she unfurled Venos’s cloak from his workbench, draped her own silent, faceless form, tugged the cowl over her sanded eye-wells, then drew the pull-strings until the hood pinched her bone head.

With her awareness still being a novelty, she felt self-consciousness, that heightened state of critical reflection, like the harsh click of her articulated dragonbone. While only intended to sashay on a pedestal or catwalk, her clacking limbs echoed in the long, paneled hall, and her toes didn’t tap so much as ricochet, no matter how gingerly she stepped on the flagstones.

While she knew what she wanted, her desire was a naked idea unclothed in scheme or strategy, less intellection than inspiration, less clockwork than guesswork. As her steps piled up, she felt her life.

Her forbidden and hidden spark wanted to ignite the world.

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