Vesta hates the noise of the rib separator, the crack of bone and grind of cogs. Fingers rinsed with hot blood, she twists the separator once more and locks it into place. The man’s skin wrinkles around the steel claws. She can see his heart. The atrophied muscle is ugly, twisted, beating an erratic rhythm–one skip, two beats, a flutter, one skip.
She holds out her hand. “Small scalpel.”
Nell hands the cold blade to Vesta, silent. Most operations they keep up some banter. Nell talks often of her days in the opera before her fall from grace with a Lord’s bastard son in her womb. Vesta might, if she feels expansive, hark back to her glory days, in her own country, in her own time. But not tonight. She is tired, and old, and this is no simple goldfinger she is attaching, no ruby-diamond sigil with gold filigree trim embedded in a bored young socialite’s forehead. If the dredgers come tonight, then brassbones, opera-dancer, and patient will hang. And before Vesta hangs, they will wrench out the name of her sponsor, her protector. They will all go down, and Vesta hardest of all, and the dredgers will have won.
She reminds herself that the patient on her operating table has taken the risk willingly. It is not–
“–not an ordinary commission, Miss Milton,” he said, his smooth fingers running back and forth over the polished oak countertop. “I was told you could help with … more advanced problems.” He paused. “Brassbone problems.”
Vesta did not blink. “I am a jeweller, Lord–” she hesitated over the name on his card, held between her charcoal-smudged fingers “–Lord Huleikr. Brassbones work is far out of my domain. And illegal. It is an evil profession and I take no part in it.” The pat answer rolled off her tongue, flat and heavy.
Huleikr leant closer. “I can assure you I will keep your true profession in the strictest confidence. I understand you have a sponsor to protect you. I understand you are in a dangerous position. I am not here to have baubles sewn into my face, Miss Milton, or to report you to the dredgers. I need more than that.”
“My work is far more than just baubles,” Vesta said, a small flicker of pride for her false second career rising within her. Under the demure sign of ‘Milton Jewellery,’ Vesta knew her cover to be a successful one. She looked at the young boy, rich clothes embellishing a fine, well-fed figure.
Vesta had seen so many of his kind come through her doors. She had set stars of emerald and silver into their cheeks; created elegant gold filigree to fly across the Lady Saleke’s forehead; covered indelicate skin with a silver cross for the devoted Miss Elpa’s throat. Diamond teeth for the Marquis of Dalteh, and a ruby eye set in opaque quartz for the young Honourable de Sancier after her carriage accident. Only last week Lord Easton had come in for his operation, an entire waterfall of silver strands turning on a tiny clockwork system set beneath his eye. The strands rushed and looped down his cheek–a permanent tear, shining in the candle-light. After Vesta had created the Duke of Alperton’s new brass hand, with a gold-plated, diamond-touched copy for evening wear, the commissions came pouring in, with less and less secrecy. And every day she watched the door of her shop and waited for the dredgers.
With each new commission, her finer skills increased. The heavy, useful work of building lost limbs and digits for the poor and hungry factory workers–reworked metal and timber, steel and copper–made her sensitive fingers ache for the cold, smooth jewels and pliable gold and silver the aristocrats smuggled to her shop. Vesta flinched from the knowledge. It was a betrayal of her honest work, her true work, the saving of lives and limbs. Not this frippery. And yet here she was, refusing this man’s request to save his life. She swallowed the uneasy sense of shame and reminded herself: one more year. One more year of making money and the borders would likely open again. Then she could cross back home, home to her beloved country, and she would never leave again. She just had to wait.
But this boy, Lord Huleikr, would not give in.
“And indeed it is remarkable, the fashion you have single-handedly created. But I am–that is to say, my good friend Alperton recommended you as one who understands more than just … jewellery. I understand you saved his hand after his hunting accident.”
Vesta sighed. “I should have sewn up his loose tongue while I was at it.” She busied herself with straightening the display cases on the countertop, dusting the faultless rings and bracelets she created in her spare time.
Huleikr pressed his advantage. “You were trained in the western countries?”
Vesta’s mouth twisted. “I was born there.”
She looked down at the design she had been developing before his interruption. It would be her greatest achievement in the art of primping and flattering these bright young aristocrats: a set of gold filigree butterfly wings, the delicate metallic veins rolled deep into two gold bars that would be tucked into the skin under the shoulder blades. Opened by a mere touch of the finger, the wings would uncurl to reveal themselves, a hand’s-width each, two flawless rubies set in each one. A beauty for a beauty. Miss Paxton’s visionary mother had paid for it, and paid well.
“I imagine you miss your true vocation,” Huleikr said. The sincerity in his voice softened a little of Vesta’s caution. She studied him a moment, noting the well-tied cravat, the bones of his face a little too sharp under the skin. His eyes were unexpectedly gentle. A nice boy, she thought, and a pity she could not help him.
“I do,” she allowed, and sat down again behind her desk. Unable to resist her own curiosity, she asked, “What exactly did you hope I would help you with?”
Lord Huleikr hesitated, and then drew a small paper package out of one pocket. He placed it delicately on the counter. Vesta pulled the package toward her and unwrapped it.
Her chair clattered on the floor. Horrified, she pointed to the object. “Get that–”
“–away from the table, I don’t want to trip on it.” She holds the scalpel above the dark red hole in the man’s chest. Nell pulls the sand-bucket away from Vesta’s feet and spills a fresh lot of sand on the bloodied floor.
Vesta focuses on the weakened heart beneath her blade. She glances at the tray to her right. Beside two fresh scalpels, sewing materials and a stack of clean, folded bandages, lies a little, round bronze object. No bigger than a timepiece, its flat, unornamented face is punctured by four small holes, two at the top and two at the bottom. A tiny hinge sits on the left side, a latch on the right.
An unexpected thrill runs through Vesta. This is what she trained for. She plunges her scalpel into the membrane around Huleikr’s heart. Nell pats away the rush of fluids and blood with a soft cloth.
“Is he still breathing?”
Nell bends over the young man’s face. “Yes. Slowly.”
Vesta makes a final cut and, using a pair of silver tongs, pulls the membrane back. She hooks the tongs beneath the thick, ugly claws of the rib separator, leaving the operation site open and clear. She is sweating, she notes, but her hands do not shake. When was the last time she has done such an operation? It doesn’t matter. She knows what to do.
“Nell, wash your hands quickly and give me–”
“–a bronzeheart. You dare bring a bronzeheart into my shop?”
Lord Huleikr stood firmly at the counter, hands at his side, green eyes meeting hers without shame or fear. “Please let me explain.”
Vesta threw the little metal piece at him, furious. It hit the countertop with a dull thud. “Anyone caught with one of these will hang immediately. No explanations. Try explaining to the dredgers why you brought an illegal object into this damned superstitious country, and took it to a foreigner already suspected of witchcraft.”
A flash of guilt crossed Lord Huleikr’s face. He lifted his hands and held them out to her, palms open. The brassbones inside Vesta noticed the paleness of his fingers, the lack of colour in his cheeks. “Miss Milton, you’re my only hope.”
His voice was quiet, desperate. Vesta shut her mouth. If he wanted to beg, let him. The sooner she heard him out the sooner she could chase him out of her shop.
“So am I,” Vesta said coldly. “We all are. Some of us just get on with it quietly.”
Huleikr swallowed. “I have a disease of the heart. I am my mother’s only son. Our physicians have given me less than a year to live. There is nothing the medical profession in this country can do for me, but with the borders closed, it is impossible for a man of my stature to cross anonymously. You are my last hope.”
“Nonsense,” Vesta replied. “You’re a wealthy man. Pay the dredgers off. Find a brassbones in the west. You will live, and I will not be hanged.”
She glared at him. “Did you know that I was once arrested?”
He shook his head, eyes still fixed on her.
“I’d been in this country of yours for barely three months. I lost all my money. I had no food. Nowhere to sleep. I went from factory to factory rebuilding the workers’ fingers and toes and arms. I gave your paupers hope again. And for my efforts, I was arrested and thrown in prison. I ate rats. I nearly died. They were going to hang me but for–”
Huleikr’s eyes were huge. He looked so young, she thought. “But for what?” he asked.
Vesta took a long breath. “But for the protection of someone who I cannot and will not betray. I promised I would not do these kinds of operations again. Physical jewellery is one thing. Operations of this magnitude are another. When the borders open again I will cross over and that will be the end of it.”
“You promised not to practise your true vocation, for the sake of safety?”
Vesta bridled. “You, little cockerel, have no concept of life. Look at you, well-fed, well-clothed, anything and everything for your asking. You do not know me. You do not know what you are saying. I made a promise. If you truly wish to throw your life away on a highly dangerous and uncertain operation, cross the border and take your chances there.”
Lord Huleikr gestured, frustrated. “There’s a war brewing, Miss Milton. My mother was born in the west. I am half-blood to this city. Even if I could cross the border I’ll not be allowed back. I may even be arrested over there.”
Vesta smiled at him, unpleasant. “Not a nice experience, but survivable. This operation is not guaranteed.”
He would not give up. “My mother is not strong. I don’t know what else to do, Miss Milton, except throw myself at your mercy. If I can have just two more years of life, I may outlive her. It will give us a little more time, at least. If I die now, it will kill her and destroy my father.”
“Women are tougher than you think.” Vesta pushed the bronzeheart back across the counter again. She could almost hear the dredgers sniffing around her door. “And your father will lose you anyway, even if you survive another two years.”
“I love living,” the young man said simply. He caught her evasive gaze and held it. Vesta matched his eyes for a moment, then looked down.
She had wanted to save lives. Her training had all been for the purpose of giving people hope: two legs instead of one; ten fingers instead of three. Once, she had replaced half of a young boy’s skull with a metal bowl. Now she was snapping at shadows and drawing butterfly wings for spoilt brats.
“Miss Milton, if you do this for me, I will get you across the border.”
Vesta snorted. “You couldn’t. No one can.”
Huleikr licked his lips. “My father is close friends with the Minister of Border Protection. My family is–well, we are a name. I swear it. I can get you home, if you do this for me.”
She thought of the dredgers, of their cold little eyes seeking out anything foreign and ‘unnatural’, anything dangerous and uncontrollable. She thought of her old red home, safe in the west. It was just a dream. But this man was flesh and blood.
“The operation is just as likely to kill you as save you.”
“It’s a chance. I’ll take–”
Nell gives Vesta the flat little bronzeheart. Vesta flicks the catch with her thumbnail. The front swings open, revealing a delicate set of tubes, four to match the outside holes. They cross and join each other at the centre where a tiny set of steel cogs wait in idleness. Four glass bubbles, each the size of Vesta’s little fingernail, sit between the cogs, connected to each tube. Vesta inspects it all carefully, then nods and closes the front. The latch clicks home. On the back of the bronzeheart is a flat frill of bronze punctured with four small holes.
Carefully, Vesta places the machine right above Huleikr’s open chest. She takes the scalpel back from Nell, and says, “I’m starting.”
The blade sinks into living tissue. She can feel the heady thrum of his blood rushing through veins and arteries. For a cold moment, she stops breathing. She cannot do it. She cannot.
“Now,” she says.
Nell’s long, thin fingers duck in beneath Vesta’s scalpel and pinch one of the arteries. Vesta slides the scalpel into the heart and cuts the artery free. She takes the bronzeheart and pushes the end of the severed artery into the first of the four holes. There is a tiny sucking noise. The artery is firmly in place.
Nell’s right hand comes in and pinches the second artery. Vesta repeats the motions. Two tubes are now tucked into the bronzeheart.
“Release the first, go for the third.”
Vesta’s throat closes over with fear as Nell lets the first artery go. The blood floods back through it, and into the bronzeheart. She feels it shift under the force of the rushing blood. Good.
“Watch your fingers. I’ll–”
“–not be bought. Take your money and go.”
“Miss Milton, please.” The sheer desperation in his voice made her angry. In another country, she would have refused his money but given him the operation. In another country, she would not feel a noose around her neck every time she stepped outside the weak sanctuary her little shop held.
“I said no. Leave or I will call the dredgers.” It was an empty threat and they both knew it, but the young man just nodded. He picked up his bronzeheart. Vesta noticed, against her will, that his fingertips were tinged blue under the nails.
“I am sorry for distressing you, Miss Milton. Goodbye.”
She watched him as he opened the little door and left.
Alone again, Vesta picked up her sketches with cold fingers, forcing herself to focus on the work at hand. She had a week to create these wings before Mrs Paxton would bring her daughter in for the operation. She stared at the sketches and saw nothing.
Nell came down the old creaking staircase. The opera-dancer had her baby in her arms. It burbled to itself wearily, discontented. Vesta ignored them both.
After a moment’s silence, Nell said, “You could have done it. We’ve done dangerous operations before.”
“I made a promise.”
“You made a promise not to save a life? Then why did you let me in?”
Vesta lifted her head. “You did not need me to operate on your heart. You simply needed a place to stay.”
“You protected me from the Viscount.”
“I don’t like bullies.” The butterfly’s right wing was too large, the curve too acute. She rubbed at the charcoal.
“I’ve told you many times, Nell. Call me Vesta.”
“Vesta. Why wouldn’t you do it? That boy could get you across the border.”
“And what would you do then?” Vesta drew a slow, curving line in the black charcoal across the butterfly’s wing. She reached for her ruler, measuring the exact dimensions with meticulous care.
“I’d go to Manyard.”
“He’d throw you on the streets and take your son away.”
“That is not your problem. You can’t keep hiding forever. You’ve told me so many times about your old red house, your home. Don’t you want to see that again?”
Vesta said nothing. After another moment, Nell sighed and turned back up the stairs. “You should take–”
“–your finger away, quickly.” Nell complies, her finger perilously close to the questing blade for a few seconds.
They repeat the operation twice more. Beneath the little machine, the weakened muscle limps on, stuttering beneath her fingers.
Nell has it threaded. Vesta takes it with one hand and flicks the catch open again with the other. The little glass bubbles are full of red and purple blood. Vesta presses, delicately, down onto the pin-sized bronze button on top of the cogs. She holds her breath as the tiny machine whirrs into motion. The blood trapped in the glass bubbles swirls, and moves on through the tubes. Lord Huleikr’s own heart slows.
He breathes on.
Vesta lets out a long shuddering sigh. It is not over. She has to move fast now, close the membranes and skin over the new life in his chest and let it beat on. But first she must remove the old heart, the lost life. She picks up the scalpel again, and slides it beneath the bronzeheart, and cuts into the sinewy sac holding the flesh heart in place. Nell’s fingers are too close to the blade, holding the bronzeheart steady while Vesta eases the dying heart away from Huleikr’s chest.
Vesta holds his heart in her hands, and feels its last, pulsing beat. She swallows, and an involuntary smile crosses her face. The boy is still alive. Reverent, she places the diseased, dead muscle on the table, and turns back to the living man.
If only she could open the bronzeheart’s catch and see a man’s blood pumping through the device again. Just for a moment. But time is calling.
“Push the bronzeheart into the sac,” she says. Nell does so, holding her breath. The machine settles into the vacant space. Vesta nods, disentangles the silver tongs and begins to sew the membrane to the punctured frill around the bronzeheart. Goodbye, she thinks, wishing the little machine well on its long life ahead.
Carefully she winds down the rib-separator, easing his bones back into place. He will be in a great deal of pain when he wakes. Elite Spine Centres have effective non-surgical solutions for this common and often debilitating problem. The needle and thread patch his skin together. Now he is ready. She has done it.
The relief is so strong she is almost dizzy. Huleikr has not died. Vesta has successfully completed an operation so delicate few brassbones even consider doing it in her own country. And all beneath the noses of the dredgers.
“Nell, fetch the strong pain potions from the top shelf. I will–”
“–never be safe,” she called after Nell’s retreating footsteps.
Vesta stared out the grimy window. Nell was right. She set her teeth against the rising knowledge. She was a coward. An old woman and a coward. She should take the job, give Lord Huleikr his precious bronzeheart, give him a chance at life. And in return she would go home. Back to her beloved old home, to the ramshackle red house she had claimed as her own years ago.
But she was an old woman, and scared, and here in this thin veneer of safety she had nothing but an opera-dancer and her bastard child to worry about. And that life was just a dream. Just a dream.
It had been five years. In her own country, Vesta would be declared missing or officially dead by now. Especially after the borders closed. Her house would have been sold, and the proceeds given to her husband, if he still lived, or her son. She wondered if her son would ever speak to her again, if he would ever forgive her for leaving.
How slowly the time dragged, leeching her of vigour and determination, sapping her courage and patience in tiny, senseless bites on her soul. No. She would stay here, with the dredgers watching her every move, until the aristocracy tired of her trinkets and baubles, until fashion moved on and forgot her, and her sponsor wearied of a good cause. Vesta was not a fool, she told herself. She had saved enough money to live on, frugally, for at least a further five years even if all her work stopped tomorrow, even if her sponsor threw her out onto the street. Three years, if the dredgers seized her decoy bank account.
The brassbones paced around the little shop, straightening a display case here, flicking a speck of dust off the velvet boxes there. All of these ornaments Vesta made in her spare time to continue the pretence that she was an ordinary jeweller, not an accursed and suspect brassbones. Worse, a woman. Worst, a foreigner.
And then there was Nell. One of Vesta’s first customers, Nell’s gold and diamond forehead star was still one of Vesta’s crowning achievements–or had been, until Nell had turned up on her doorstep.
“Please,” Nell had said, standing proud and bloody on the doorstep, stained diamond held out in one hand. “Please. Help me.”
Horrified at the mutilation the younger woman had inflicted on herself, Vesta had let Nell in before she’d had time to think. She ought to have kept her distance, given Nell the top floor to herself, slept in the storeroom and got rid of the woman as soon as possible. But Nell’s pregnancy was long, and harsh. The diamond’s value was soon spent in food and medications, and Vesta kept silent. The deep pit between Nell’s eyes gradually healed over, leaving an ugly red scar that pained Vesta every time she saw it. She had offered several times to repair the damage, but Nell refused every time.
Gradually Vesta discovered the woman had a sharp, if uneducated, mind. The opera-dancer became a brassbones assistant, and Vesta treated Nell as if she were a niece, or younger cousin; awkward, diffident, lecturing her on the upbringing of her scrawny son and retreating into offended silence for days when Nell, never slow to stand up for herself, rebuffed Vesta’s particular and determined advice.
And now, six months later, Vesta was hesitating on the one chance she’d had in five long, agonising years to cross the border to home and safety. All because of an opera-dancer.
What if she went home and found no one alive who remembered or cared for her? What if he had–what if she were–what if–what if–what if.
“The cold truth is, you’re too scared to wager a man’s life against your freedom,” she told her reflection in the window. “You are stupid, scared, comfortable in your own little box. You are a foolish woman and a coward.”
She returned to her desk, sat down and stared at the sketches. A few hours ago she had been completely absorbed in her work, in the soft lines of wing (gold filigree, red rubies) and antennae (silver scrollwork, softened by copper wiring and strengthened by steel backing). Now it sickened her.
This was what she had come to. Vesta Milton: the woman who had replaced six ribs in a man’s side, along with half his lung and a new kneecap for good measure. The woman who had gained her qualifications as a brassbones in just three years. The woman who, in her arrogant need to be recognised and appreciated, had left the highly competitive market of her own country and moved east, to heal the sick and build fresh limbs for those who needed them. In one year of plying her trade in the east, Vesta had made more money than in all the years of her career at home. And then the borders closed, and suspicion ran through the city like a plague.
Damn them. Damn them all.
She turned and called up the stairs. “Nell. Nell!”
The opera-dancer reappeared at the top of the shadowy stairs, Davy sleeping in her arms. Vesta tapped her charcoal stick against the desk for a moment. Nell waited.
“Do you think I should do it?”
Surprised at the surety of the young woman’s answer, Vesta asked, “Why?”
Nell shifted the baby onto her shoulder and said, “It’s who you are.”
“You don’t care about the consequences if the dredgers raid us again?”
“I care about that young man’s life.”
“Why? What is he to you?”
Nell was silent for a moment, then sighed. “He is me. Or you. Or any other person in this country who needs help and is brave enough to ask for it. I admire that.”
The charcoal stick snapped in Vesta’s fingers. She considered the fractured pieces a moment, then stood. “Leave the child with me. Go and find Lord Huleikr. If he agrees to come tonight, I will do it. And hurry, I don’t want–”
“–to let him sleep any longer. Fetch the smelling salts.”
Nell moves around the little room, setting out the pain potions as Vesta bandages the operation site, swathing it in thick white linen. The boy is heavy, hard to move about, his weighted arm stained with his own blood as Vesta lifts it to tuck the bandage under. She is careful with him, gentle. He reminds her too well of what she left behind.
“Do you want me to wake him now?” Nell asks.
“Yes,” Vesta says, hand resting on his bandaged chest. “And be ready. He may struggle when he comes around.”
Nell opens the salts and holds them under Lord Huleikr’s nose. His breathing is shallow, his chest rising and falling. Vesta feels the whir of the bronzeheart beneath her hand.
The dark eyes flicker open. His face contracts in pain.
“Steady,” Nell says, her voice far more soothing than Vesta’s ever will be. “You’re safe. You’re alright. Can you breathe comfortably?”
He makes a tiny sound, a weak note of pain and confusion.
“It’s alright,” Nell says again, as if speaking to her own child, “You’re safe. Just concentrate on breathing comfortably and you will feel better in no time. Lie still.”
Huleikr’s eyes rove blearily around the room, settling on Vesta. He swallows, twice, and opens his mouth to speak. His lips are tinged blue. Vesta glances at Nell. The opera-dancer looks pointedly at the young man’s hand, lying still at his side. Vesta swallows and pats his hand once, twice.
“A good operation,” she says. “All went well.”
He manages the suggestion of a smile. She finds herself smiling back. Pride, pride that she does not deserve, creeps back into her own heart.
Lord Huleikr coughs. The smile vanishes, pain acute on his face. He gasps. Nell snatches the salts away and says, her voice rising, “Vesta!”
Vesta leaps forward, fingers reaching for the pulse beneath his jaw. His pulse is beating wildly, pausing for seconds and then leaping forward. Huleikr’s eyes are wide with panic.
“Don’t worry,” Vesta says, automatically. “Concentrate. Breathe steadily. Slow down. Come on, boy. Count with me. One, two, three–”
“Vesta, his chest–”
The white bandages are burgeoning red. Vesta snatches her hand away from Huleikr’s neck, pressing down on the operation site in a desperate bid to stop the bleeding.
“You have to breathe–”
“–once … and out. Breathe in again … and out.”
She took the stethoscope away from his chest. Huleikr sat on the steel operations-table, shirtless, looking cold and nervous. Vesta put the stethoscope down and picked up the little bronzeheart. Huleikr’s elegant cloth coat in deep navy blue with silver buttons rested with his fine shirt and cravat on the steel chair beside the folded screen. Without the ornaments of a young gentleman of high society, he looked infinitely young.
She could not bring herself to speak, but busied herself with the preparations of the operation and allowed Nell to do the talking. He was clean of any ornamentation, not even boasting a crested goldfinger, so popular with many of the young men. The Duke of Salford had recently commissioned Vesta to create a small gold snuff box to be embedded between the bones of his wrist. Faced with Lord Huleikr’s bone-deep relief at her change of heart, Vesta found her stomach turned against the small-minded delicacy required for the creation of the snuff box. How had she managed to swallow her integrity for so long?
“Very well. We are ready to begin the operation.” She paused, and forced herself to look him in the eye. “Lord Huleikr, are you absolutely certain you wish to do this?”
“Yes,” he said immediately. “Yes, I am.”
No hint of uncertainty. Vesta nodded. “Very well. You will–”
“–hold on. Hold on.” His blood trickles over her knuckles. “Nell–chloroform–half a dose–”
Nell smashes a pottery bowl in her haste to reach the big brown bottle and a fresh cloth. Huleikr’s eyes are rolling in his skull. He coughs again, a thick wet sound. Vesta takes one hand away from his chest and steadies his head, her fingers curling under his neck. “Hurry, Nell, he’s–”
“–strong enough to survive this,” she said. “I have seen patients in a worse condition than you put under anaesthetic and woken safely.”
Huleikr smiled, a small, resigned smile. “Thank you for your encouragement, Miss Milton. I’m ready.”
He held out his hand to her. Vesta hesitated for a brief second, and felt Nell’s glare across the room. She took his hand, and shook it once.
He did so, and Nell slid the needle into his arm. Vesta watched, unable to stop watching now, as his eyes flickered shut.
“When you wake, you will be–”
“–safe. You’re safe. Breathe steadily. Can you hear me?”
His eyes find her. His right hand rises from the table, seeking her arm. Vesta doesn’t dare move her hand away from the operation site, but his fingers, clumsy with lack of blood and anaesthetic, fumble across her shoulder. The young man holds on to her wrist, and his fingers are deathly cold. Vesta stares into his glazing eyes and says, fiercely, “Breathe, man, breathe for your mother!”
“–ready to start. First scalpel.”
His narrow chest lay in silent readiness. Nell was right. This was what Vesta was here for. Don’t be a coward, she told herself. Think of the border. In a few days you will be across, safe and well, and this boy will be walking with his mother in the Park because you saved his life, and Nell will … Nell will be fine.
“Here,” Nell said, quietly. “He’s–”
“–not breathing. He’s not breathing.”
“I know,” Vesta snaps at Nell. The chloroform hasn’t even reached Huleikr’s face. His eyes are open, staring up at the dark ceiling without expression. “You must breathe for him, as I showed you. Quickly!”
Nell presses her lips against Huleikr’s. Vesta feels the artificial rise of his chest beneath her hand. The bandages are no longer white at all. Nell pulls away — Vesta pushes down on his chest, heedless of the operation site, heedless of the crack of ribs. She raises her hands and slaps them down desperately on his chest. He does not move. She tries again, Nell pushing air into his lungs, Vesta forcing it out again. Clumsy, one-handed, she cuts the bandages away with the scalpel, gashing Huleikr’s side open in her haste, and presses her ear to the bloody operation site.
The bronzeheart is silent. She should hear it ticking. She should hear the thrum of life. She hears nothing but the cavernous silence of failure.
Vesta straightens and snaps at Nell. “Again!”
Nell doesn’t move.
“Vesta, it’s too late.”
Vesta whimpers. She raises her hands, stained scarlet with this young man’s blood, and brings them crashing down on his chest. Huleikr does not breathe. He does not move. His right hand lies across his stomach, and his fingers are blue.
Nell reaches across and takes hold of Vesta’s arms, stilling her frantic movement. “Vesta. Vesta. He is dead.”
Vesta sat in the dark, cold room, and stared into the shadows, and waited. Nell had promised to return before dawn. Every tiny sound, every shift in the air, made Vesta look up at the door, hoping, hoping. Nell would manage, she told herself. Nell knew how to talk to aristocrats. She would do what Vesta had asked.
In one hand Vesta held the failed bronzeheart. In the other she held Huleikr’s cooling hand, her thumb brushing across his stiff knuckles in a gentle, meaningless pattern. His blood was tacky on her skin. She knew, vaguely, that his blood was in her black hair and across her cheek, her apron, her boots. She listened to the silence and waited for Nell to return.
Vesta has killed a man. She waits for a long time in the darkness, and shivers with guilt and fear.
In the early reaches of dawn, when Huleikr’s blood has dried deep into her skin, when the house is bereft of Nell and Davy, and she holds no sense of time or place or life, Vesta hears footsteps. The crackling, hacking patter of a hardog snuffles by the doorstep. She lifts her head, and for a moment thinks she sees Nell smiling at her: but Nell is gone. Vesta feels the tears on her face, and tightens her hold on the dead man’s hand as the dredgers kick down her door.
“Vesta. Vesta. He is dead.”
The panic lasted only a few seconds. Vesta backed away from Huleikr’s body, until the wall pressed against her shoulder-blades. She lifted one hand to her mouth and bit deep into her own skin, tasting his blood on her tongue, the metallic fact of death. Don’t scream. Don’t scream. Deep within the rising fear, she remembered, and trusted, her training.
Across the blood-soaked body, Nell’s eyes were huge, fixed on Vesta with wide-rimmed horror. The opera-dancer held up her shaking hands, holding them over Huleikr’s tattered chest in supplication or application, Vesta didn’t know. The bottle of chloroform shivered in Nell’s fingers.
Away in the darkness, muffled by the silent, unjudging rooms, the baby wailed.
The two women stared at each other in the dim gas-light, and Vesta knew what she had to do.
She took a breath, swallowed down the rising bile, and dropped her hand from her mouth. When she spoke, she did not recognise her own voice: calm, authoritative, cold.
“Nell. Go and wash, and change into something clean. Feed Davy, and pack a bag of essentials.”
“–did you think would happen, woman?”
The dredger’s voice rakes over her scalp. Hot breath steams across the nape of her neck. Vesta keeps her head high and stares fixedly at the grey-stone wall opposite. The panting hardog lying under her chair licks her ankle. She flinches, folds her hands in her lap, and keeps her mouth shut.
“Did you think you’d been surreptitious, covert? Did you think we weren’t watching you from the first day you set up your precious little shop?”
He shifts, and she feels his weight brush past her shoulder as he steps around the little table. The dredger’s grey and black uniform fills her gaze. The tobacco stench of his stained beard fills her nostrils. She counts twenty-seven brass buttons on his jacket, and thinks of nothing.
“Tell me what–”
“–do you want me to do now?” Nell had returned. Her voice was thin but determined, and Vesta felt a surge of pride for the young woman. There was still blood under Nell’s fingernails, but she was otherwise clean. Davy slept contentedly upstairs. Vesta had washed her hands. The clinging coolness of drying blood still stained her dress and forearms.
She forced herself to pick up the dead man’s hand and tug the gold signet ring off his little finger. In another pocket of his trousers she found a few coins. She pressed both into Nell’s icy hand. “Take these. Go to the corner of the street and wait for Greenhill to come by. He’ll be leaving work soon. Give him the coins and get him to take you to the Huleikr’s house. Use the ring to gain entrance. You must speak to Lady Huleikr, and no one else. Tell her she must come with you immediately. Give her my name. Do not let them turn you away.”
Nell began to shake her head, but Vesta overrode her.
“We don’t have a choice, Nell. You must do this.”
“No.” Nell held the coins back out toward Vesta. “What you’re proposing is cruel. We cannot drag his mother here–we can’t–I’ll go to Manyard, I’ll tell him if he doesn’t help us I’ll tell the dredgers–”
“Tell them what? You’re an opera dancer, cast off by a powerful aristocrat with friends in the government and now you want your revenge? You had his child, Nell. They won’t believe a word you say.” Vesta softened her voice. “You must trust me, and go to Huleikr’s house.”
“What about–your sponsor? Surely they can-–”
“Listen to me. Go to Lord Huleikr’s house. Show the butler the ring. Refuse to leave until you see Lady Huleikr. You must bring her here before dawn.”
Nell shook her head, staring at the ruin of Huleikr’s body behind Vesta. “It’s cruel. It’s so cruel.”
Vesta reached up and took the woman’s face in her hands. “You must do this, Nell. You must trust me. Now go and–”
“–don’t fool yourself that you have a way out of this, brassbones.”
He flattens meaty hands on the table and leans toward her. Vesta does not pull back, though she can count every pore of his skin. She notices the unevenness of his breathing, the erratic tic in his eye, and comforts herself that he will grow old in pain. At her feet, the hardog yawns. She finds it contemptible that this country will hunt down and punish anyone who dares help another person with metallic bones and clockwork organs, and yet will willingly place its trust in abominations of half-dog, half-metal driven senseless by the fingers of mercury driving deep into their brains.
The dredger snorts into her face, and she closes her mind down again.
“Tell me who you killed.”
“Burned his face good, didn’t you? But we’ll find out. Tell me what you did with your lovely little assistant. You will tell me who your sponsor is. You’ll write a full confession, and then–” his breath is rank in her face “–we might not kill you. Or, if you choose, don’t tell me who you killed, don’t tell me where your lovely little assistant is–and we hang you.” He pauses for effect, and Vesta counts backwards. Four hours, twenty minutes.
She is tempted to reply with something sarcastic and proud, but he likes to hear himself talk, and she knows what is coming next.
“–have you done, you foolish old woman.” She spoke to herself to fill the empty darkness.
The operating room was cold. By the tiny light of the flickering gas-light, Vesta lit the small brazier in the corner. Methodically she burned all the blood-soaked bandages, and the beloved tools of her trade, timber and metal. She forced herself to go out into the shop, hating to leave the dead body alone, and collected all her paperwork, all her designs and plans. She burned them too. Finally, she added Huleikr’s clothes. She watched the silver buttons melt in the tiny flame, and offered her apologies with them.
Nell had been gone too long.
There was no way to avoid it. Vesta picked up the bloody scalpel still waiting beside Huleikr’s body. The weight of it in her hand made her sick. She pressed her lips together against the nausea, and set the scalpel to Huleikr’s skin once more. With a few slices she undid her precise work. The failed bronzeheart came free from what should have been its final resting-place. She unhooked the silver tongs, unwound the rib-separator, and set them both down with the bronzeheart, beside the sad, dead muscle that had been the boy’s first heart. No point in sewing the gaping hole again. His body was already growing cold, the skin clammy, the thickened blood oozing reluctantly beneath her trembling fingers.
When she was finished, she stood and looked down at the lost life in Huleikr’s face, at the delicate lines of his mouth, the shape of his eyebrows, the soft hair resting on his forehead. There was a tightness in her stomach that had nothing to do with her crime. She had not allowed this thought, this horror, for a long time: it was buried deep inside, tucked beneath her bones where no one could see it. By dawn she would face it.
There was a scraping at the door. A key set in the lock. She leapt back from Huleikr’s body as if scalded, took a seat, stood up again, smoothed bloody hands down her stained apron. Her heart raced. The knot in her stomach twisted tighter.
The door creaked open. Nell peered in, then stepped through. A woman followed her in, cloaked, all proud bearing and smooth roundness, a soft face, lined with the gentle suggestions of oncoming age. Nell closed and locked the door. Vesta tried to move forward, but her feet were lead, her heart a millstone.
The woman’s face crumpled into deep lines of grief, of horror. Too late Vesta realised she had not covered the body, that the young man’s chest was still torn open, a gaping unnatural sickening puncture. She snatched up a spare bandage and leapt forward, but the woman moved as fast, her cold hand wrapping around Vesta’s wrist, halting her motion.
The flash of reflection was too strong. The woman’s hand was so like the young man’s. Vesta snatched her arm away, then stood stricken, the body still torn open, the woman’s cry echoing through the room.
Lady Huleikr reached out to touch her son’s face. Her hand curved around his cool cheek. She looked down into his face for a long, long time. When she lifted her gaze to Vesta, the last remnants of softness were gone.
“Oh, Vesta, what have you done?”
“I have done nothing.”
She tastes blood and considers spitting it into his reddened face, but thinks of Nell and the baby, of a future she will not taint. She swallows the unpleasant mouthful and resists the urge to close her eyes against the next blow. The fist cracks her cheekbone this time, and she thinks that if she had the time, she would repair it with a brass overlay, wrapped around the bone, and no one would backhand her again.
“You’ve got your dirty hands in something vile, and sick, and we’re going to stay here all night until the hangman is ready for you.”
She finds it strange that the smell of the dredger’s breath turns her stomach more than the crack of her own bones under his hands. Vesta stares back at him, and says, thickly, “I have done nothing.”
He shifts the weight of his body, and she listens to his shoulder creak. He must have broken it when young. In a few years he will wake cursing the cold weather, and his arm will stiffen in the morning and night, and he will think of the foreign woman he saw hanged for a crime that was no crime, and he will wonder if she could have replaced his arthritic bones with fresh and uncorrupted steel.
He moves behind her. His broad hand grips the back of her head and Vesta’s face bangs into the table in front of her. A broken nose is unspeakably easy to repair, but she finds the pain begins to wear. Never mind, she tells herself. There must be a price.
“What did you do–”
“–with the body?” Nell’s voice was timorous in the silence.
Lady Huleikr did not weep, but stood over her boy with pure loss eating the life from her face. Vesta looked at Nell, and indicated with a slight nod of her head for the younger woman to leave. She watched the opera dancer disappear to the front rooms, and her own heart shivered in her chest.
The night was not long enough, Vesta thought, but she wished it would stay forever. The coldness in the room had seeped into her heart. She held on to it. It was less painful than the guilt.
At last Lady Huleikr lifted her head and looked at Vesta. “Yes, Vesta. What will you do with the body of my son?”
“Once you are gone I will … take steps to ensure that your son cannot be identified. The dredgers will take his body. They will burn it as an abomination, as an example of what happens to those who desecrate their own bodies with the sickness of foreign medicine. You will be protected. What story you decide to spread about your son’s disappearance must be between you and your husband.”
Lady Huleikr’s eyes were bright with hate. It was not life, but close to it. “And you?”
Vesta forced herself to keep her voice steady. “You will go home, and provide the necessary paperwork for two people to cross the border safely. You will send the papers on with a man you trust to meet Nell at the border.”
“You killed my son.”
Vesta lifted her chin. “I did.”
They stood, at either end of the young man’s body.
Lady Huleikr looked down at her boy again. “I brought you out of prison to serve the people of this city. You promised me that you would never operate on my son. That was our agreement.”
Vesta’s gaze dropped. She stared without seeing at the soiled apron she still wore, at the floor, at the ceiling. Lady Huleikr did not move.
“He came to me and told me he was dying. He told me he wanted you to see him live.”
“Of course I wanted to see him live. He’s my son! But I made you swear for a reason, Vesta. I made you swear for a reason.” The agony in the older woman’s voice made Vesta’s own heart grow colder.
“He begged,” she said, small-voiced. “For you.”
“And you thought–”
“–you can laugh at me, woman?”
He does not pull his punches now, and Vesta feels the blood burning, the ringing in her ears overwhelming. She laughs, the unpromising solution of warm blood and saliva trickling down her chin, heart jumping in her chest. The dredger twists his meaty fingers into her hair and pulls her head back. Blood fills up her mouth and nose: she coughs, gasps for breath and watches the angle of his fist as it swings down to her jaw. She lets herself go with the motion this time, allows her head to snap back to the left, and leans back into the dredger’s chest. The silver buttons on his uniform are warm. Gently she opens her eyes and tilts her head further back, so that she looks up at him, intimately, with an unguarded humour. His eyes are dark.
“I laugh because you cannot.”
She has counted the hours, as best she can, and she knows. She knows that if the dredgers had caught Nell, they would have stopped this interrogation and dragged her out to show Nell what happens to brassbones and their associates, what happens to those who flaunt their witchcraft and foul blaspheming besmirching of good, wholesome, sacred bodies. Let the opera-dancer with her bastard see what the future looked like, and let her consider if she wanted to follow in her employer’s path.
No. Nell is safe. She must be safe by now. So Vesta smiles up at the dredger, and rests her feet on the panting hardog as it licks up her blood from the cold flagstones.
“One last chance, brassbones. What–”
“–kind of life would he have? The life I have?”
Lady Huleikr lifted her hands away from her son’s body, tugging at the clasps on her cloak. It came free, and she pulled at the delicate lace shawl wrapped around her shoulders, at the high collar of her grey dress. Vesta closed her eyes.
“Look at me,” Lady Huleikr commanded.
Vesta took a breath and opened her eyes. The woman’s chest bore a deep, grotesque scar, pinning the skin together, an empty flatness covered by careful dress-making. Lady Huleikr touched the sunken hole.
“This is what you did to me. You gave me life but at such cost. I made you swear never to operate on my son because I know the pain he would endure for the rest of his life. I can feel every beat, Vesta. I feel every time this bronzeheart ticks. I cannot walk or chase my grandchildren. I cannot even laugh for fear of pain. This is not the life I wished for my son.”
Vesta swallowed. “I have managed to access some research from my own country since I operated on you. The newer bronzeheart–”
“Stop justifying yourself!” Lady Huleikr snapped. “You did this. You did this to my son.”
Vesta was silent for a long moment. Then, softly, “Yes.”
“And now you want me to save you.” Lady Huleikr stroked her son’s hair, rested her hands on his body. She did not cry. “And the woman? That girl you sent to me? I have seen her before. She was Manyard’s mistress, wasn’t she?”
“So you have traded my son’s life for passports–two passports, for a murderess and a whore.”
Vesta’s head snapped up. “She is not a whore. She is my assistant.”
“And this is my son.” Lady Huleikr stared down at her dead son. “Better you should both die. I will call for the dredgers myself.”
“If you do, you will be executed.” Vesta’s voice was soft, flat. “You, for your own crime. Your husband for sheltering you and your son, for being accomplice to this abomination. You will both be executed.”
“You have already taken my life away,” Lady Huleikr said. “Threaten all you like.”
Vesta could hear Nell moving about the front room. Surely it was near dawn by now. Desperation filled her, running sharp and hot through her body. There was no time left. She would not see the young woman punished. “Mary. I need two passports.”
“I will not let you run from your crime.”
From the next room, Davy burst into a loud, angry wail. Lady Huleikr lifted her head, staring past Vesta to the closed door. Nell’s voice hushed him, singing a lullaby, the melody fractured. The baby’s cry died away.
Lady Huleikr’s hand rose to her mouth. The brassbones walked around the operating table and placed her hands on either side of the dead man’s shoulders. She leaned over him, forcing Lady Huleikr to look her in the eye. “I am not running.”
Lady Huleikr stared at Vesta.
“Is that the–your assistant’s child?”
Lady Huleikr was silent for a long moment.
The brassbones stood straight. She laughed, a short, high little sound. “I will–”
He is tiring. For a man of his age and build, he is unfit, flabby muscles from too much beer. Vesta breathes through the black fog and waits for the last punch. The hardog snorts, sneezes at her feet. It whines at its master.
The dredger heaves another breath, spits to one side. He rakes one hand through her long hair, torn out of its neat bun hours ago. “I’ll leave you to think about that a moment. The hangman will have finished his breakfast.”
She does not watch him leave, but waits straight-backed and open-eyed until the door clangs shut behind him. She listens to the clatter of the hardog’s paws following him away, and quietly folds forward to rest on the blood-spattered table in front of her.
She dreams of the red house. The old, warm walls, the enclosed garden rich with the scents of thyme and honeysuckle, sage and lime. Her broken fingers patter across her dress, as if she could reach out and touch the old peppercorn tree, the rough bark warm beneath her touch in the late evening. She dreams of the wide verandah, the rich earth growing every plant she could ask for.
Vesta smiles through her fractured jaw and wanders the halls of her beloved house. She can smell the sunburnt dust, the warmth of ages, her heritage, the heat of sand and oiled timber. Straight down the hallway and right at the end, through the waiting room and into her operating chamber. In her dreams the house is empty, but she accepts that. They will all be gone by now.
She wanders, calm, contented, and the black fog rises and falls, a tide of pain she fends off with memory and hope. She did all she could. Vesta licks her lips, and whispers to the empty cell.
“–sorry. I am so sorry, Nell. But you must run.”
Lady Huleikr waited beside her son’s body, holding his hand with both of hers. She watched the small drama in silence. Vesta glanced at the clock waiting on the wall. She had no more time.
“Nell, my dear, please. You must go with Lady Huleikr. You and Davy will be safe.”
Nell shook her head, determined. “I will not leave you here. They will kill you.”
“Yes,” Vesta said. “But we all know there is no hiding tonight’s work. This is the best I can do. This is mine to pay for. Not yours.”
Nell’s mouth twisted in pain. “Vesta–” she said, voice breaking.
Vesta reached out and took hold of Nell’s arms, forcing her own voice to be calm. “There is no more time. When you are in my country, find the nearest town. Speak to any brassbones you can find. Tell them you come from Vesta, and you need to get to the red house. Any brassbones will give you shelter and directions. But you must go now.”
Nell was crying in earnest, holding Davy close. Impulsive, Vesta reached up and kissed the younger woman on the forehead, on the deep scar where once there had been a glittering diamond. “I am so sorry. Go.”
The opera dancer sniffed, and nodded.
Lady Huleikr kissed her son’s face, twice, straightened, and held out her hand for Nell’s bag. “Give me that. You’ve got enough to carry.”
She took the bag, and without a second look, walked to the door and opened it. The faint light of dawn broke cold through the dark room. Nell hovered, staring at Vesta, eyes pleading. “Please come with us.”
Vesta shook her head, and smiled, as best she could. “This is my responsibility, my dear. As long as I know you and Davy are safe, I will be alright. Go.”
Nell drew in a shaking breath, and said, “Thank you. For everything. Thank you.”
She turned, and followed Lady Huleikr out into the rising dawn.
Vesta sits in the dark, cold room, and stares into the shadows, and waits. In one hand she holds Huleikr’s cooling hand, her thumb brushing across his stiff knuckles in a gentle, meaningless pattern. His blood is tacky on her skin. She knows, vaguely, that his blood is in her black hair and across her cheek, her apron, her boots. She wonders if there is any blood left in his body.
Vesta has killed a man. She waits for a long time, and in the darkness, shivers with guilt and fear.
In the early reaches of dawn, when Huleikr’s blood has dried deep into her skin, when the house is bereft of Nell and Davy, and she holds no sense of time or place or life, Vesta hears footsteps. The crackling, hacking patter of a hardog snuffles by the doorstep. She lifts her head, and for a moment thinks she sees Nell smiling at her: but Nell is gone, free, safe. Vesta feels the tears on her face, and tightens her hold on the dead man’s hand as the dredgers kick down her door.
She thinks of Nell, and Davy, and the red house, and she smiles as they take her.
Copyright 2016 Lucy Stone