“Good morning, mother. I just had the most wonderful dream. The air smelled like roses and the breeze shimmered and sparkled in the sunlight. You were there too and we had the most wonderful time.”
“Come, child, let’s get you inside. You allowed yourself wind down again.” The dreamer looked down at her chest. A small key sat in a heart-shaped plate about the size of her fist. Shining gold it was. At its edges twined delicate rose branches etched in filigree, the blossoms picked out in a subtly contrasting rose-gold.
“You’ll need to finish for me. My old hands can’t seem to manage it in this cold,” her mother said. Long-fingers trembled, their skin: dry, powdery-soft, and slightly translucent. She looked down at her own youthful hand, remembering when her mother’s had been as strong and straight as her own.
“I know you don’t feel the cold, my child. But you must try to remember to not stay out for too long. Someday, I won’t be here to come find you. And then what would you do?” continued her mother as the dreamer took her arm.
“When you are no longer here I have decided that I will dream sweet memories of you,” she sighed. The old woman let out a grunt of disapproval.
“Don’t be cross mama. The sunset was just so beautiful last night. I must have forgotten. I’m sorry,” she said demurely. The mother looked at the dreamer: dark eyes, a tumble of ebony curls falling loosely to her waist, skin like milk, and berry-kissed cheeks. It is, the old woman mused, the face of my birth-daughter, if she had lived to that age. It was a face she could never stay mad at.
And so, the young woman with the clockwork heart helped her mother walk the long path across the estates, past the gardens, and back into the warmth of the household. Once inside she obediently finished winding her heart, then, slipped the golden key back on its chain and placed it around her neck.
She looked at the man opposite her, scowling.
“I’m sorry, Your Grace,” he continued, “but you must know that what you have written in your will simply isn’t possible. As you have no living heirs, your title and lands will revert back to the crown after you are gone. As to your, ah, child,” the minister said with great distaste. “His Majesty has been patient with you, in light of all you’ve done for the empire. That said you should know that it is his will to finally discover why she is different from the rest of her kind. He has selected the best engineers and scientist to-”
“Pull my daughter apart so they can all look at her insides,” the Grand Duchess interrupted. “His Majesty is an idiot and a fool. I’ve told him before and I will tell him again, there is nothing different about Mira. She has simply never been told that she is less than. I raised her as my daughter and so that is what she is.”
And if I truly believed that they were the soulless chattel that His Majesty believes them to be, I would undo what I created, every last one of them, she thought to herself.
The king’s lackey turned and left the room. They were never meant to live like this, she though sourly. Years ago, her creations had been presented to the king, along with the means of their construction. It had been her hope that his scientists would find a way to improve upon the process of awakening them. Though “born” into fully formed bodies that were almost indistinguishable to humans, their consciousness took longer than a human child’s to form.
It had taken years of love and patience for Mira’s mind to truly awaken; decades passed before she could to think for herself, before she could love – before she became human. On the other hand, teaching them to follow instructions, even to mimic complex tasks was simple.
The king’s master engineer, proclaiming an inability to reproduce Mira’s miraculous autonomy, instead focused on creating a new servant-class. One that was obedient and almost tireless in its efforts. One that they believed would never offer resistance or complaint. The Duchess’ clockwork daughter was declared an anomaly. As to the rest, they were mindless cattle to be driven to hard labor until their last breath.
Mira would be the proof of the purposeful mistreatment of an entire race of people, she realized with startling clarity. He knew I would never let someone study her; there could neither proof nor disproof so long as I lived. Behind his professed naiveté, the King was nothing if not shrewd; Mira would not be allowed to live much past her own dying breath.
And how will I keep her safe once I’m gone?
That night, she began the work on the creation of a new heart-piece for her daughter. It would be subtle and almost undetectable. It would have to be.
It would take a while to finish her daughter’s new heart. In the meantime, the Duchess decided it was past time for Mira to get acquainted with the outside world.
Having lived her entire life on her mother’s estates, Mira found her earliest outings to be full of wonder and excitement. Soon enough, she became aware of the injustice and mistreatment of the serving class of her clockwork brothers and sisters. “And that is why you must never let anyone know who you truly are,” her mother said.
The next day, Mira pulled at the lace at her neckline as the carriage bumped over a small rut in the road. The dress was high-cut; her mother had insisted she cover her chest until the new heart-piece had been fashioned.
Suddenly, the carriage came to a halt. “Please, I can’t go back. Please,” pleaded a voice from outside. Mira pulled back the carriage curtains and saw two clockwork guards and their overseer. The guards struggled to drag a clockwork man out of the road in front of her.
“Sorry for the delay ma’am,” the overseer said as he approached the carriage. He wore an officer’s uniform of the city guard. “We’ll have this one out of your way in a moment.”
“But can’t you help him? He’s upset,” she said without thinking.
The officer gave her a quizzical look. “I am sure he will be decommissioned with the utmost compassion, ma’am.”
“I’m sorry,” she began to stammer an apology and stopped when she saw that he bore a tell-tale metal plate on his chest. Her eyes wandered to his face, searching for the vacant, numbed look of servitude she had seen in so many of her brethren, “A mechanical? You are not like the others.”
“No. I am a new class. Designed to act as liaison between humans and mechanicals,” his face shone with intelligence and a hint of pride.
“So you are self-aware, like… like me” she said with excitement, absentmindedly tugging at the itchy lace of her collar.
His animated face settled into grim lines. “I have been told that I am not, ma’am,” he said in a clipped tone.
All joy in her excursion gone, she sat back sullenly. “When will we ever learn that we’re not all so different from one another.” Her hand dropped from her throat to her lap trailing a worried piece of ribbon that, until recently, held her collar shut.
“All clear now,” said the overseer. He turned away, but not before catching a glint of gold surrounded by lace - a twin to his own except for the filigree that etched its borders. It couldn’t be, he thought stepping back and out of the way as the carriage sped off.
From that day on, it was difficult to find any beauty in the world outside her mother’s estate. What kind of life could she have out there, pretending to be something she was not? She looked at her new heart-piece; its keyhole set very low on her chest, far below the neckline of any garment she could choose to wear. The skin on her breast was now smooth and unmarked by any hint of metal. She ran her fingers over it, saddened at the loss of her beautiful rose blossoms.
Later that fall, the Grand Duchess passed peacefully in her sleep. Faithful servants spirited her daughter away as the first rays of watery sunlight broke out on the horizon. For a time, she dutifully followed her mother’s instructions and stayed far away from the city and the King’s eye. Finally, late one spring evening, she crept into her mother’s estates. She took her heart’s key from around her neck and buried it under her their beloved rose bushes; then she crept to the great mausoleum that housed her mother’s remains.
“Halt,” said a voice. Mira turned and saw the same strange officer she had met many months ago in town.
“I know you,” she said.
“Yes,” he replied. “It wasn’t very smart of you to come back. I know who you are now. The King has been looking for you.”
“It isn’t as if I’m causing any trouble. You don’t have to tell him, you know. You do have a choice. We’re not so different, you and I,” she said as she reached out and touched the officer’s chest piece. He had been expecting guile but the earnestness in her expression caught him off guard.
“Our mother made us all to be like the humans. We just take longer to find it. I can see you’re almost there.” He had grabbed her wrist, and though she could see the conflicting emotions running across his face, his grip did not waver. “Fine, then let me see her one last time. You can guard the door if you like and the morning you can take me to the King.”
He nodded curtly and escorted her inside the mausoleum. The air inside was cool and dry. Mira approached her mother’s sarcophagus and touched the life-like engraving at its head. “Why did you come,” he said. “If you truly can think for yourself, you had to know we would be looking for you here.”
“I only came to be with my mother. There’s no place for me in this world; it wasn’t ready for our kind,” she said, looking at him clearly. Turning away, she trailed her finger lovingly over the carved likeness of the Grand Duchess. He saw a tear roll down the young woman’s cheek.
We don’t cry, he thought to himself as he walked back outside. ‘Our mother’, her voice echoed in his mind. He felt dazed.
Mira waited until she felt the discomfort of exhaustion. She had not rewound her heart that day in preparation. Now, as she sat down at the foot of her mother’s coffer, she closed her eyes for the last time. “May we meet in dreams again, my beloved mother.”
In the morning the officer found Mira still kneeling at her mother’s feet. She had wound down but - her heart's key absent - she could not be revived. For a moment, he considered his duty to take her to the King. A cool breeze carried the scent of roses from the garden outside and his feet carried him back across the threshold. He bolted the door to the mausoleum shut and stood, guarding its entrance. Why am I doing this, he wondered. Over the years, his mind finally realized what his heart knew all along.
One autumn day many years later, he stood in the garden brushing fragrant, black soil from his knees and hands. In his palm lay the clockwork woman's heart-key; the sun's early rays setting it aflame in the light. May you rest, and dream sweet dreams until the world is ready for you, he though. Then, he returned to watch over the dreamer and their mother, waiting for the day he could finally awaken her again.