1. The automaton.
“Can you hand me that ratchet?” Xta’s voice was muffled, coming as it did from inside the hood of some strange contraption she was trying to repair and reinvent. Sometimes he thought he knew her voice better this way, screened from him by rusty metal. Did she prefer it that way?
“Here.” He handed it to her and then she took it smoothly, in one swift motion, as if she’d been confident that he would be there, ready to give her what she needed.
That was the idea, if this went well; he would provide anything, everything she needed. But she had turned him down once before, had asked him to wait, and now, he honestly had no idea what she would say. He might love her the most for that, her unpredictability. Although at this moment, it was damnably annoying. Lord Auros fingered the ring in his pocket one more time and then opened his mouth to ask —
— an explosion rocked the building. The old mechanic’s shop shuddered under the impact, and they were pelted with a hail of gears and springs from the storage bins lining the upper walls. “Into the machine!” Xta shouted, and grabbing his hand, dragged him inside and slamming the door behind him. Despite her dusty overalls and the smudge of grease on her cheek, her long chestnut hair prisoned in a tight braid, she still looked beautiful to him. He longed to see her with her hair flowing down, dressed in a proper corset and gown… “We have to get out of here!”
“Don’t you think we should try to figure out what’s going on? Who would want to attack your shop?” Lord Auros asked mildly, keeping his top hat steady with one hand, while he strapped himself in with the other.
Another explosion sounded through the building, and now a large piece of the roof came crashing down, narrowly missing their machine. Xta shook her head. “Right now, all we have to do is get out of here! And I think I have just the critter to do it!” She was frantically pulling levers and pushing buttons; with a loud screech, the automaton came to life, rocking back and forth and then suddenly extending upwards on two oddly-shaped legs — large, articulated, with knees, and ending in three-pronged metal claws.
“You turned it into a chicken?” he asked, incredulous. “A CHICKEN???”
“No time!” she shouted. And then, in a whirr of sounds and a great gasping of white steam, they were off.
2. Corsets and cummerbunds.
“I do like corsets,” he whispered, “but this was not exactly what I had in mind.” Lord Auros found it difficult to breathe in the damned thing, although he did have to admit that it quite flattered his hips.
“If he recognizes me, we’re doomed,” Xta whispered back. They danced cheek to cheek, and while Lord Auros was unaccustomed to dancing with someone dressed in frock coat, ascot, and cummerbund, he found her appearance strangely exciting. She certainly managed the outfit with more grace than he was managing with the full skirts of his gown. How did women dance in these things?
“You never told me that you had such high-placed enemies, my dear. The Duke of the Western Fells? Really? In fact, I wasn’t aware that you had any enemies at all.” He thought he had known her, and yet again and again, she managed to surprise him.
She smiled, twirled, and dipped him, as if she had done this a thousand times before. “We all have secrets, my darling. Mechanic has never been my sole trade — merely my sole legitimate one.” A flash of grief slipped across her face, and she said, “And there was a reason why I refused your most gallant offer. The Duke and I were once…”
She trailed off, and Lord Auros was too much the gentleman to press her further. They had crossed the ballroom over the course of the dance. Lord Auros was grateful for the new-fashioned waltz that made it possible for them to dance together, and so closely too. He would swear that he could feel her heart beating against his. They were almost at the far doors — the music picked up, and with that, Xta’s body tensed against his. She hissed, “Now! Run!” They broke from the dance, and dashed through the doors, to freedom.
3. Harem nights.
Lord Auros lounged on a sea of embroidered pillows, dressed in the caftan so kindly provided by their host. It was a bit drafty, admittedly — he was not used to wearing less than a dozen items of clothing any given time. But the robe was also oddly freeing, and as they said, in the desert, do as the desert lords do, or you might get your head chopped off by their very sharp blades. Lord Auros did like sayings that were suitably instructional.
Besides, how could he care about his own garments, when he was so entranced by hers? “My dear. I had no idea that you could dance like that.”
Xta shimmied before him, barely dressed in a a few strategic gold chains and a flutter of diaphanous green veils. She made no answer, but simply smiled coyly through the veil that shaded her lovely face. She couldn’t speak of course — if she did, the sultan would know that she was not the deaf-mute that Lord Auros had claimed, and then they would be, once again, doomed. For now there was nothing for them to do but play out this scene and hope to survive it. At least if they perished, this would be a most pleasurable way to go.
Lord Auros opened his mouth, and one of the slaves assigned to him (this one, a fetching young man clad only in a scandalously brief loincloth) dutifully dropped in another peeled grape, which was followed not long after by the most delectable spiced chicken in cream sauce that he had ever tasted.
Ah yes — he could get used to this.
“Why are we always running?” Lord Auros asked plaintively. It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable. His fencing master had made sure that Lord Auros kept fit, a match for any man, as befit his position. Why, they had been running across this barren desert for days now, and he felt fit as a fiddle, fresh as a daisy — or so he would protest with his dying breath. His boots, admittedly, were a shambles, and if his man Godfrey could see him now, the poor bastard would die of shame.
“Because we don’t have sufficient weaponry yet to fight back,” his lady replied, cheerful enthusiasm evident in her sunny, glowing face. Xta, damn her, strode beside him on another of her mechanical contrivances, a complex assemblage that spared her feet from the brutal sand and enabled her to easily match his pace. She had offered to share with him, turn and turn again, but Lord Auros, of course, could not accept such aid from a lady.
Not that Xta was, technically, a lady, but if he meant to make her his wife, then he must treat her as the lady she would become. And he wanted to treat her that way, he did, but gods-be-damned if he could last more than a few more minutes on this blasted plain.
5. The necklace.
Gems coruscated in the light, a blinding cerulean brilliance that paled only when set against the shining of her eyes. “My lord!” she exclaimed, “You shouldn’t have!”
Lord Auros bent down to lay the necklace where it so longed to be, gracing that fair curve of collarbone, settling between two lush half-globes of flesh. He had seen Xta eyeing it months ago, when they walked past the jeweller’s shop, and had nipped back to pick it up for her. He had been waiting for the right moment to give it to her. “It is nothing, my dear. A mere trifle, and I am only grateful that I had time to retrieve it before proceeding onward.” His fingers slipped, and he muttered an indelicate word; the clasp was tricky, and in the shadowed light of their temporary refuge, it was difficult to see.
She turned her head to meet his eyes and frowned. “But is this not frivolous, my darling? I thought you meant to use your fortune for the good of the common man?”
Lord Auros said solemnly, while his fingers continued with their work, “Trust me, my dear. On the day that we sell these gems to purchase the supplies to build the weapons that will enable us to free this land from its vile oppressors, then the common man will be duly rewarded.” Finally, the clasp clicked into place, and he straightened, triumphant. “Though I doubt he will be grateful — they so rarely are.”
Xta smiled. “Well, in that case — I accept.”
Ah. Lord Auros wondered whether she would accept in truth, when he finally made his formal offer? He had almost asked her again, a dozen times over, but in all this mad frenzy, it never felt the right time. And as he had learned in the Duke’s hall, she — she was not quite the woman he had thought. Was Xta truly the right kind of woman to be his wife? The gem in his pocket was far smaller than the ones on this necklace — but it held his heart. Soon, he must offer it to her, or risk losing his nerve completely.
6. The woman in black.
“My lord — it has been too long.” The woman in skintight black leather dropped from the ancient monastery’s rafters to land, cat-like at his feet. In the next moment, she was up against his body, pressing her long, hot length against his, her arms reaching around so that her hands could cup his firm buttocks, her lips reaching up —
— and then Xta slid a very firm hand between their lips, and delicately yet firmly pushed the woman backwards, so she staggered on her rather ridiculously high bootheels.
“Ah, ah, ah,” Xta said. “I admit, sometimes we share, but you didn’t ask nicely first.” She flashed Lord Auros a wicked grin. It matched the equally wicked paired daggers that now graced Xta’s soft hands, causing the woman in black to take another step backwards. “Unless I overstep, my lord? You have secrets of your own, it seems.”
Lord Auros permitted himself a brief memory of fleshy thighs entwined with his — and then shook his head with regret. He couldn’t afford such indulgences now, not with a woman so dangerous. Especially not with his own true love at risk, though Xta didn’t know the danger she faced. Lord Auros had never learned the woman in black’s name — but he’d learned enough to know that they were in mortal peril. He braced for attack, one hand to his sword, and the other to his pistol. He addressed the woman he hoped would soon consent to be his wife: “No, my lady — it is your right.”
Triumph flashed in Xta’s eyes. And then the woman in black let out an inhuman screech, followed by a shouted command, “RELEASE THE CATS!” Lord Auros felt his heart suddenly pounding in his chest.
7. Cats and more cats.
They were drowning in a sea of rotting zombie-kitties, a tide of crimson-eyed beasts with claws that shredded their clothes and flesh. They were losing, and losing badly.
“I’m so sorry, dearest,” Xta shouted above the frenzied howling of cats driven mad. “I just can’t bring myself to hurt them. I love cats far too much.” She fended off their attacks with hands that grew weaker by the moment, her paired daggers ignored in their brown leather sheaths. She had pulled down her goggles to defend her eyes, but the lenses were now almost totally obscured by zombie-kitten slime.
“I know, my darling,” Lord Auros replied, one hand pressed to the bloody gash in his side. “I feel the same. They’re just so damnably cute!”
“At least if we go, we go together!” she replied.
His heart thumped and skipped a beat. “Is that what you want?” Lord Auros finally found the courage to ask. She was the woman for him — of course she was. Why had he ever doubted? If they were to die here, they might at least die as a betrothed pair. With his ring on her finger, Xta would not be shamed in the eyes of society when their bodies were found — or their bones, at least. These cats, he feared, would make short work of the rest of them.
Xta opened her mouth to reply — and then a series of loud explosions rocked the air, and the cats, as one, fled in terror from the noise. They looked up, to see a massive dirigible bearing down on them. Xta cried out, “Saved!”
Lord Auros muttered, “Yay.”
8. Poetry by the numbers.
Xta quirked a well-regulated eyebrow. “My lord, I am surprised that you are not familiar with that poetic form, given your excellent education.”
“I was not born under a rhyming star, dearest.” Lord Auros fought to keep his voice calm, which any gentleman would agree was difficult in this particular situation.
She tilted her head, a brave motion. “My poet father made sure that I know all the classical and impertinent forms, before he succumbed to consumption and left me to my mechanic mother’s tender care. An aubade, my lord, is a song of lovers expressing their regret that they are soon to be parted by the dawn. It is a plea for night to never end, for the clocks to freeze in time. I will write an aubade for you, my darling, before the night ends.”
Lord Auros smiled sardonically. “Are you saying that because you love me, my dear? Or because the giant hands of this clock to which are are clinging are clicking towards half-past six, inexorable as time itself?”
She smiled in return. “Can it not be both, my darling? Allow me a little subtlety, please.”
“Of course,” he conceded, wondering just how much longer his left hand could hold firm to the minute hand. His right hand, of course, being fully occupied in clasping both of hers, as Xta dangled beneath him, with a twenty-story drop below.
9. Clash of the mechanicals.
On the distant horizon, against the silhouette of an impossible glowing moon, giant metal creatures clashed against each other, limbs swinging wildly, guns blasting into the night.
Lord Auros pulled Xta close to him, and whispered softly in her perfect ear, “One day, my darling, I swear to you — those will be our machines, battling to their deaths.”
10. The end and the beginning.
The massive octopoid loomed over them, gleaming black metal that seemed to glow in the light of the rising sun. Lord Auros caught his breath, exhausted, but relieved that they had finally made it. He had feared they would be too late. The wind whipped his long hair about, and he wished, for one brief moment, that Godfrey were there to see to it. And then he sighed and gave in to fate and his new destiny — when they climbed inside the beast, he would ask Xta if she might be so kind as to loan him her comb. He simply could not stand to be so unkempt any longer.
Xta smiled up at him. “Dearest, you certainly know how to show a girl a good time.”
He felt a pang as he looked down at her scratched cheek, and gently traced the latest mark with one leather-gloved finger. “My darling, I am sorry that I haven’t been able to keep you safe.”
Her eyes flashed. “When did I ever ask you for safety? That wasn’t what I wanted from you. And not your money either, while we’re at it.”
“I would give it to you, you know.” And somehow, here at the edge of the world, about to embark on what might be a horrible mistake, the words finally came, so easy, to his throat. Xta might still reject him, but he had to speak. Lord Auors slid one hand into his pocket, and brought the ring out in its folds of silk. He unwrapped it carefully as if he said, “If you would agree to be my wife, I would give you everything I have.”
She laughed, and for a moment, his heart froze. “You know, I had meant to make you wait another year.” Then Xta reached out and took the ring from his hand, sliding it decisively onto her finger. “But I find that our time together has been far too delightful for me to risk losing you simply because of my own fears.”
Lord Auros put one fingertip on her chin, and tilted it up to him. “And what are you afraid of, my dear?” He wanted to celebrate, to rejoice, but first, he had to be sure of her. Sure that she knew what she wanted, at last.
“I was afraid that my life would be dull.”
“Hah!” Lord Auros laughed, and then took her hand firmly in his. “Well, if automatons, corsets and cummerbunds, harem nights, gemstones and old lovers, zombie kittens, poetry and clockworks and battles galore aren’t enough for you, then perhaps I can find something with which I may keep you amused at the bottom of the sea.” And with that, he began leading her to the great submersible creature she had built for them.
“Oh, I think there will be adventure enough, my lord. For one thing, I am not entirely sure that this particular automaton will continue water-tight, once we descend to the depths.”
“I am not afraid,” he boldly declared, opening the door for his beloved and gesturing for her to proceed him.
Xta smiled, “I also have no fear. I know not where we shall end up, my dearest lord, my beloved, my husband-to-be, but I do know this. I am very glad to be on this adventure with you.” And with that, she closed the door behind them.
Within a few short moments, the giant creature somehow lumbered to its — not feet, but rather, the tips of its tentacles — and propelled itself forward into the water. It dove, deep beneath the waves, and before long, even the ripples of its passing had disappeared among the churning waves, and the sun rose brightly on a glorious new day.