Empress Vaas rushed into her bedroom, wiping a saber with her head scarf. A streak of blood soaked through. Her chest heaved and sweat trickled down her back. At least she’d cut down some of the English before retreating.
Cannon fire grew louder, like a throbbing heartbeat closing in on them. She kicked a footstool. It crashed against the wall, cracking in two.
Jai, the automan who’d served her family for centuries, prepared tea in the corner. Her motions were smooth and familiar—lifting lids, straining tea leaves, stirring in sugar. Jai always served tea at three o’clock.
She held out a cup. Her inner gears and fans pulsed in a rhythm, whir (hip) whir (elbow) whir (chest) click click (head) then started again, the most comforting sound in the world.
“You need a cup of tea, little daughter.” Her voice was warbled and curt.
Vaas stared at the steady hand.
What if she used the aether, just this once? Just a thimble full of it could save what was left of Nesia, it could—her heart sunk. No. It was not worth it, even at the cost of her nation. The thirteen elders had given their lives to protecting the location of the aether mine. She had to ensure their sacrifice was honored, though it would cost her more than what the elders gave.
“Will you make the tea again, Jai? Your rhythm helps me think.”
Jai complied. She gracefully tipped and poured and stirred, the room filled with the smell of cinnamon and cardamum and honey. The regularity of the motions soothed Vaas, centered her.
Another explosion made the floor tremble. A fleet of steam-driven dirigibles overpowered the horizon, blocking the setting sun like heavy clouds. They protected a flying ship so large her castle could fit in it, its clean white masts rippled in the rushing wind. On the top deck was a coil, cackling with electricity.
The engines coughed smoke and belched fumes.
A sound like that of thunder seared the sky. Vaas felt the bass vibrations in her gut. The ground tilted, turning. Vaas jerked her arms out to keep her balance. She stumbled to the porch window.
The north end of Waxhold village was gone, a perfect circle vaporized. Each time the weapon fired, the gravity of Nesia, their floating island changed. The aether was unbalanced. One of these shots might flip them upside down. Oh gods, did the English know nothing about science?
Flocks of green-heeled cranes circled the city, their cries of distress pierced the air.
A line of English soldiers, their uniforms red as blood, swarmed over the riverbed where the fowl farmers lived and the butterflies mated in the clover fields and the people had long concerts in the spring.
The Nesians had no chance—they’d perfected bird farming and wind energy, not war and weapons.
Vaas did not indulge herself with tears. As her city burned she drank her tea and she closed her eyes and imagined the road before her. She chose a plan, and orchestrated it until it was tuned just right.
“There.” She jumped up. “I have it.”
“Shall I help you dress?” Jai asked.
“No. I’m going to have to get used to doing things without you.”
Vaas stripped off her battle armor and washed off the blood that dotted her skin. With a featherlight brush she dusted ruby powder on her cheekbones. Dipping her trembling fingers in blue paint, she pressed three dots on her forehead and rubbed it on her lips and down her chin—she stepped back to survey herself in the mirror.
An elder looked back at her. The only one left.
She ate a lemon quarter and then dipped a spoon in the honey jar and licked it clean, a Nesian tradition.
Vaas unsheathed her weapons, then she threw them under her bed. They wouldn’t be needed for the kind of war she waged.
Thomas Simone entered. He’d come from England, flown up to the city in a one-engine glider. He’d wanted to spread the religion of the three Gods, as if it were some kind of virus everyone needed to catch. They welcomed him as a kind, if strange, long-lost cousin. Eight years later, he was attached, heart and soul, to their island.
After Thom had arrived, Empress Vaas knew he was not the last English person they’d see. She made him teach her the language and explain their politics.
He kneeled before her and Jai, red faced, his tunic wet with sweat. “The school is gone, all those children—” Thom’s voice cracked. “Please, Empress Vaas. You have to release the aether. Queen Juliet and the countesses won’t stop.”
Vaas looked out at the battle, she felt the quiet magnitude of souls departing bodies and the vibrations of the crumbling land. “Shall I stop a catastrophe by causing another? Our city is gone, wiped away in one wave—” Her throat grew so tight she couldn’t speak. She swallowed. “We’ve lost.”
“Jai?” she said. Jai put a hand on her shoulder. “You’re going to hibernate for one year and then I will have new instructions for you. No matter what happens to you, or what happens to me, you must stay asleep.”
Jai responded by sitting cross-legged and resting her chin on her chest. The sound of grinding gears faded, the silver of her eyes dimmed.
Thom moaned, in pain. “What can be done to save us?”
“Then what is your plan?”
She lifted her chin. “Revenge. I’m going to take Queen Juliet’s country from her.”
Queen Juliet’s feet hurt. Wearing her heels all day cut her skin to ribbons. Blood and pus from blisters soaked her stocking. She could change boots—but today, of all days, she wished to feel tall. The silver crown on her head added to her height. Royalty was all about image, after all, and she’d perfected hers.
She wished to take the crown from the Nesian Empress’s head. A symbolic representation of what happened today. She’d decimated the floating city. Later, she’d have the court painter memorialize the moment and put it up in the cathedral. For the Lord’s glory, and for England’s.
God, she lived for this.
Countess Louise was clearing the Empress’s room before she entered. Countess Tamora and Mary waited behind her, dressed in all black except for their red masks.
Louise called, and Queen Juliet stepped into the room.
She scoffed. This was no throne room. It was a sparsely furnished bedroom, more befitting a maid than royalty. Had this country no pride?
Louise pressed her javelin between a dirty brown woman’s shoulder blades. There was something unhinged in the woman’s eyes.
With a start, Juliet realized the woman must be the empress. Fierce blue paint was smeared on her face, her hair swung in an uncouth mass around her shoulders, and all she wore for clothing was a scarf around her hips. Juliet eyed her breasts—even twenty years ago, she did not possess such perky caramel-tipped bosoms. These savages had no decency.
An English man sat on the bed, tears streaming down his cheeks. An automan was in the corner, legs crossed. It had a human form, though its skin was made of scales like a snake and its eyes glowed silver. Aether silver.
If that automan was run on aether, there must be more. This trip would not be wasted.
“Where’s your crown?” Queen Juliet asked. A tendril of gray hair escaped her bun, she slipped it behind her ear.
The woman shook her locks, then spoke in a soft, hazy voice. “Everyone has crowns. All are different colors. You’ve got two silver crowns on your head, which one do you need?” She hugged herself and twirled around, “Crowns, crowns, silver and black. Crowns, crowns, I’ll take them back.”
“The girl is mad,” Countess Louise said.
“Is she?” Queen Juliet said. Her eyes locked on the sobbing missionary. “Is she?” she said louder, sharper.
The man met her eyes, then fell on his knees. “Yes, Your Grace. Empress Vaas was born a simpleton.”
“I’m Vaas,” the woman shouted. “And I have two a’s in my name. How do you spell your name?”
Juliet winced in annoyance. There was no glory in taking the crown from an idiot.
This was not how this scene was supposed to play out—a traitor, an imbecile, and a hunk of metal could not worship her as she deserved. “Who rules the city, then?”
An explosion echoed through the room and a cloud of ash trailed up the sky. Her soldiers were finishing their work. She was a thousand times thankful that Prince Benjamin was not with her—it had turned out to be a more tenuous island than she’d expected. With every explosion it felt like it’d fall out of the sky, and she’d give anything to keep her son safe.
Vaas gasped, eyes wide. “I think there’s a storm outside!”
The man grit his teeth and took a deep breath. His voice was bright with anger. “The elders rule the city in her stead.”
“Where are they?”
“Dead,” he shouted. “You’ve destroyed everything.” Then he covered his face with his hands.
Juliet smirked. “Not everything.” She drew a throwing knife and sent it flying through his neck. It lodged up to the hilt.
He struggled, coughing, then went limp, a red puddle spread across the varnished wood.
Empress Vaas glanced at Juliet, hurt in her eyes. “Red means dead?”
Juliet sauntered to the automan. Its gears were outdated, the metal work looked ancient. Yeesh. She had better automans working in her kitchen. “Where is the aether mine?”
Vaas skipped to Juliet—stopping so close to her face she smelled lemon and honey on her breath. “The mine’s mine!”
Juliet’s voice trembled in barely controlled anger. “What’s yours is mine. I own you.”
“Like I’m a cat . . .” She purred. “Or a field.” Her eyes went unfocused, and she studied the horizon with great wonder. The sun set in a muted array of colors, shimmering like a dream across the devastated landscape.
“We know you will attack us, why else would you have aether?” Countess Tamora said.
Vaas shaded her eyes, the light reflected off her face. “Why have fires if you can’t dance in them?”
The Queen clenched her fist. “You can’t be that dull. Where is the mine? You can’t withhold it from me. I’ve come all this way, spent all my treasure on ships to get here. You’re hiding it from me! Where is it?” Juliet’s rage was a black abyss—she hit the idiot, over and over again, as Mary held her still.
Vaas started wailing and thrashing. “You are mean! You need a rest. Go to bed! I want you to go to bed!”
Tamora smiled at that. “Our soldiers will find the mine, Your Grace.”
Panting, Juliet stopped the beating. Tamora rested a hand on Juliet’s shoulder and brushed her disheveled hair out of her eyes. “It’s a small island, how could they not? This dunce has air in her head. Imagine her in court, she’d have amusing reactions to everything. Prince Benjamin would love her, especially on cold winter nights. We don’t have to finish everything today.”
Queen Juliet massaged her sore knuckles. “I could give the automan to Benjamin, for him to toy with, and the girl . . . we’ve been needing a court monkey.”
“I don’t eat bugs,” Vaas cut in, wiping her bleeding lip. “Only some, if they’re crunchy. Do you have chocolate at court?”
Tamora smiled. “We’ve got piles of chocolate.”
Vaas pointed at the dead man. “Can I have his chocolate?”
A wave of heat whirled through the open balcony, Juliet broke into a sweat. Lord in heaven, she wanted to be off this island. It was too close to the sun. “Countess Louisa? What do you think?” Her third in command always waited to be asked before offering an opinion. Which made it seem more valuable.
“It doesn’t sit well with me.” Louisa stared at Vaas, who was writing scribbles on the floor in the missionary’s blood. “She could be faking madness to save herself.”
Queen Juliet’s voice hardened. “Then make sure she’s not.”
As the soldiers combed the island for the aether mine, the countesses tortured Vaas. The pain was fire, spreading down her back and legs, licking her skin with tongues of agony. After they were done they were convinced she was an idiot, but they weren’t sure if she knew where the mine was. Every time they asked her about aether she’d scream, “Who’s Aether? I don’t know him.”
They locked Jai in the steam ship brig with Vaas, her eyes glowed silver in the dark hold. Her chains were rusty, the place smelled of rat carcasses and tar.
At dawn, the bugle called and the pounding of sailor’s feet hit the deck.
The moment they crossed Nesian’s border line, the island plummeted.
Vaas clenched her eyes shut and covered her ears so she couldn’t hear the tremendous crash of her world falling into the ocean.
The sound like that of a mother mourning her dead baby filled the cabin halls—full of agony, hopelessness, and anger. She couldn’t help it, she sobbed as if her heart would break.
Mary gagged Vaas, then left her alone until they docked in London. Vaas wrapped her arms and legs around the cool, still metal of Jai, clinging to her last comfort.
It was the last time they saw Vaas without a smile on her face.
In the Spring, she planted.
She sang with the court musicians and danced in the colored light of the throne room and gave all the courtiers nicknames, such as Cheese Breath, Thick Ankles, Donkey Laugh, Jiggly Arms, and Wine Well. It brought the court a great deal of mirth when she played the part of sniveling slave yet asked for great things: “I don’t ask much, Juliet Queen, Ma’am, all I want is for you to buy me a castle in France.” Or when she’d get their lives mixed up, “Jiggly Arms married Perfect Shoes because she really loves his coal. And his mustache.”
She had to find the balance of being clever enough to be remembered, yet silly enough to be innocent.
In the immense library which smelled of pipe smoke and inkwells she scattered books about independence and the affects of war. In the gardens, under peach blossoms that fell like snow, she sang Nesian ballads, her sweet voice rising and falling like branches in the wind.
During the perfectly orchestrated garden parties she sowed stories—quick, funny tales of mice who rebelled against foxes and mothers who forgot how to mother. In the banquet room, after a long week of flattering the queen, she would challenge one of her remarks—it didn’t matter whether it was about custard or a hunt or where she wanted to travel in the summer—Vaas would say, “No, that isn’t right!” And the courtiers would sip their soup and look at the queen from the corner of their eye. Then Vaas would break the tension by crossing her eyes or standing on her head or tickling Countess Tamora’s neck with a feather.
One blustery spring night soon after they arrived, Juliet gave her to Prince Benjamin. The Queen so obviously adored her only son, it was almost painful to watch her fawn over him.
His hair was copper bright and his face was covered with a constellation of freckles, he couldn’t be more than fifteen. She stroked his cheek and pressed against him. “Hi, Brince Penjamin. I have two a’s in my name—you know I see the minutiae in a piece of grass?” He laughed and touched her hair, rubbing it in between his fingers as if it were fine silk. “Did you know I can see to heaven?” he said.
She nodded. “I knew that the moment I saw you.”
Then Juliet gave him Jai. “Do whatever you want with the toy,” the queen said. “Maybe the aether will work for you, you’re so brilliant, my love. There’s nothing you can’t do.”
Vaas saw in the queen’s eyes that she believed it. So she followed him like a shadow when he took the automan in his lab.
Vaas’ stomach clenched when he came at Jai with a dirty scalpel, ready to dissect her. Vaas grabbed his wrists. “Clean with soap! Buckets of soap! Even the smallest mote of dust can destroy the silver.”
She froze, sick at heart, knowing she’d gone too far. “If you cut into a living automan, you’re not the noble prince they say you are.” Then she placed a hand over Jai’s heart.
Prince Benjamin twirled the scalpel between his fingers. “Automan’s aren’t alive. I’m going to dissect it. Are you going to help me or no?”
She smiled, even as her heart sunk. “Yes. As long as you use soap.”
“I’ll fill this room with soap if you want me to.” His hand covered hers, on Jai’s heart. “You know, Sir Thomas Newton believed aether is the space between us and gravity—it always flows towards earth. It holds everything in place.”
“Best not bother it, then.”
Each day she’d wander around the pristine gardens until she discovered the perfect gift for Prince Benjamin—a honeysuckle or a budding peony or a not-quite ripe strawberry that he’d chide her for stealing before its time. She lured him in like a flower to a bee, opening her petals, giving him a flash of her soul here; a flash of her flesh there—pretty soon she was all he could think about.
“You’re not the fool my mother thinks you are,” he whispered one night when they snuck out to the garden to make mudpies.
She pressed her finger against his lips. “Shhh.”
Sometimes on warm spring nights when rain pattered on the roof, she’d dream of blood flooding the castle. She’d wake, and tell Benjamin of her dreams.
Queen Juliet grew jealous of Benjamin’s attention to the ever-smiling Vaas. Every Sunday after Mass, she had the countesses torture Vaas, but leave no marks. Things happened in the darkness that made Vaas want to let go of life, to plunge into a vast ocean and be no more.
Instead, she thought of her seeds, germinating around the castle.
In the Summer, she waited.
Books were taken from the library and burned—which meant someone had read and discussed them. Slaves were kept on a tighter chain than ever, overworked and cruelly punished, which meant someone was frightened of them.
A crowd gathered in the cool dewy mornings to listen to her ballads, and a select few kept coming back to hear her parables.
She overheard private conversations about how greedy Queen Juliet and the Countesses were getting— preparing for their next war. Taxes were raised even on the courtiers, which cut every man and woman to the quick.
Prince Benjamin’s love for her grew like ivy, tendrils spread to every part of her being, slipping through chinks in her carefully constructed walls. They dissected Jai, layer after layer, gears opened to reveal smaller gears, opening to reveal tinier gears—until he put Jai’s eyeball under a microscope and saw the flickering ember of aether that lit her whole body.
That was when he stopped, and gently put her back together.
Benjamin was overcome with wonder at her being, and Vaas hadn’t even shared a word with him about all Jai could do.
He bemoaned the loss of the engineers who created Jai. He began to dream about what the world would look like if they stopped wiping out countries with such tools, and started working with them.
Queen Juliet began to see sprouts of unknown origin all over her court, and she had the countesses poison a few people for voicing divergent thoughts.
It gave Vaas more souls to avenge.
In the Fall, she harvested.
Under the crisp red and orange leaves of the peach trees, her ballads were about freedom and life. In the chilly gust of the north wind, which smelled of fresh cut hay and apples, she whispered parables of melting steam ships into sickles and plows and lowering taxes. Those she told, in turn told others.
She read doctors’ research on public health and slipped them notes saying it was impossible with such a leader as they had.
She heard courtier merchants complain of the state of the roads and slipped notes about what the Queen’s treasures were being spent on: another war.
Then one night, settled in a comforter on the balcony, in the light of a full harvest moon, Vaas told Prince Benjamin about the day the English army came to Nesia. How the Tesla coil vaporized their ancient libraries and art, how the soldiers slaughtered unarmed men and women and abandoned screaming babies, and the missionary’s neck was sliced open in front of her. By the end of her tale, tears flowed down his cheeks and she saw in his eyes a vast discontent with the state of his nation.
Benjamin was convicted of peace, and couldn’t stop speaking to courtiers about a life without war: how things could change if they stopped invading other countries and tried to make their own nation a better place for their people.
Queen Juliet recognized that things she had sown were being cut down.
Vaas recognized that she was out of time.
In the Winter, she killed.
Queen Juliet jolted awake, pulling her blanket to her chest reflexively, shielding herself. A distant cry, then the thudding of boots made her tense up. Something was not right.
Every window was frosted over—delicate designs clouded the view. An orange sunrise melted the edges of the iced window.
The door burst open, the countesses came in, wiping blood off their blades. They bowed before the bed, not meeting the queen’s eyes.
“Your Grace, Prince Benjamin has been kidnapped,” Louise said.
“His guards say he never left the room, so we beheaded them for their failure,” Tamora said. “The Nesian automan is also gone.”
She set her jaw. “Bring me the idiot.”
Moments later, they threw the girl at her feet. She was smiling, as she always was, but something was different about her.
“Why are you smiling?”
Vaas’ voice was bright. “I’m smiling because I know where he is.”
Juliet fell to her knees and gripped Vaas’ face in her hands, squeezing. “Tell me.”
“The only way Prince Benjamin will survive is if you and the countesses climb into your steam ship right now, or I will kill him.”
Juliet trembled, overcome by panic at the thought of living without her son.
“Then . . . Then what?” she asked.
There was no doubt about what she’d decide. A mother’s love was sacrificial, above all. Perhaps a court painter would commemorate her noble choice and Benjamin would hang it in the cathedral.
“He has a court hanging on his every word. When you are gone, he shall be crowned King.” Vaas smiled.
Queen Juliet slumped, pressing her forehead against Vaas’. “And you shall have your revenge,” she whispered.
The moment Queen Juliet and the countesses stepped on the steam ship, Vaas ordered Jai to release the aether around the ship yard. The armada shot into the sky, faster than the eye could track, and disappeared in the atmosphere. A bright orange trail followed its journey up.
King Benjamin destroyed his weapons of war and put his court’s energy into creating a better nation from within. He was never told that he’d dissected an aether mine, and looked it straight in the eye.
Her job complete, Empress Vaas travelled with Jai back to the floating islands, and established a village with the few surviving Nesians.
Her ballads are still sung in King Benjamin’s courts.