Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Excerpt: The Clockwork Nightingale


Singer Genny Teil was a prisoner of her heart. Literally. She owed her clockwork heart to the owner of the Empire Saloon. Then one evening, he walked in, and the caged bird decided to soar.

Of all the saloons in all the boom towns in all the New Dominion Territories, Shiro Shimotsuga walked into hers. Only Genny Teil didn’t own Lodeville’s Empire Saloon. She was just the canary on its gilded stage.

Her heart didn’t care. The traitorous muscle leapt, the beat long enough to measure, then raced, drumming against the spelled diamond regulator implanted in her chest. The vibrations jarred flesh and bone, but after seven years, she’d learned to ignore the oddness and the ache, especially in the middle of a performance. Her yellow kid gloves with their fringe of yellow feathers never faltered as she conducted her audience through the refrain of “The Miner’s Lament”. The slight quaver in her voice as she launched into the final verse seemed nothing more than a fitting sorrow for the young miner who knew he must die.

She even managed to smile as she introduced the final number in her set—a galop to set their feet tapping and their mouths calling for another round. But he was always in her field of view, weaving through the rambunctious crowd under the balcony, exchanging a word with the bartender at the saloon’s imported mahogany bar, then heading for the room’s only empty table, one row back from the stage.

She wasn’t sure how her heart could be so certain it was him when so much about him had changed. Gone was the softness of the round-faced Shimotsuga boy who declared himself her personal saburau knight when they were six. You could carve stone with those sharp cheekbones, and cut your hand on his jaw. The brown eyes under his stovepipe hat, once so warm and merry, were as hard as the frozen mud of the streets outside.

Those eyes had wept the last time she saw him, standing beside her bed.

“I’ll save you,” he said.

“It’s not a matter of saving. I’m broken, Shiro. My heart is broken.”

“I’ll mend it.”

“You can’t. Nobody around here can.”

“When will you return?”

She didn’t answer. She couldn’t meet his eyes.

“I’ll come for you. I’ll bring you home.”

But he hadn’t. He’d come for Big Roy Lee. He tossed his hat on the table her boss reserved for his special guests, and dropped his fur-lined overcoat on a chair. So Genny did what she always did when her heart gave her pain. She poured it into her song. She wouldn’t stop until her audience shouted and stomped their feet, and their applause rattled the bottles on the bar’s long, mirror-backed shelves.

Was it her imagination that the cheers were louder tonight? Or was it what she wanted to hear as she took her bows? Her heart might owe its beat to a magic-powered metronome, but she still owned the sin of pride.

Like a goddess she descended from the stage to the main floor of the saloon, trading the smell of painted canvas and dusty curtains for the earthy funk of unwashed bodies and musky, sweat-stiff clothes. Her worshippers—gamblers, weathered prospectors, hard-faced miners from the Vale, men who would knife their brother for a poker stake—stepped aside to give her room. She favored them with smiles and nods, but neither stopped nor spoke until she reached the boss’s table.

“Hello, Shiro.”

He paused in the act of stripping the gloves from his long-fingered hands. For the briefest instant, shock knocked the frost off his manner, though she couldn’t tell what startled him more, her voice or his name. His gaze flicked sideways, as if afraid of being discovered in one of their childhood scrapes. It was the first hint of her old friend in this well-dressed stranger.

And the last. The fine bow of his mouth thinned into something that wasn’t quite a sneer. Not quite. But thanks to the upstanding matrons she encountered on her daily constitutionals, she knew the signs.

She lifted her chin higher. “It’s me, Genny Teil. Though around here they call me Canary Diamond on account of my voice, and this.”

She fanned her fingers next to the small, gold-framed socket holding the diamond in place. He could see where it cut into her breast, because the yellow taffeta of her sleeveless bodice barely crested the top of her corset.

Their audience murmured in agreement. She suspected that made it worse. His lashes flickered as he tried to look someplace less damning, and failed. Her feather-trimmed, canary-colored gown stopped well above her knees, exposing a greater span of silk-stockinged leg than decent girls showed on their wedding nights. Her powdered face, with its rouged lips, kohl-rimmed eyes and penciled brows, offered no respite. Her hair, which he would have remembered as a thick mane of golden brown tresses reaching to her hips, was dyed butter yellow and cropped like a feathered cap close to her scalp. There was barely enough left to secure the yellow fascinator angled over her forehead.

“I’ll save you,” he said.

Not that she ever expected he could. But his current contempt stung, made her cruel.

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten,” she drawled.

He snapped his gloves into his upturned hat like another man might crack a whip. If he thought that would stop her, he truly had forgotten.

She shrugged. “Sorry. I mistook you for…”

She never finished the thought. The door to the right of the stage banged against the hall behind it. Genny and Shiro flinched as one.

“Shimotsuga,” Big Roy boomed, “welcome to the Empire!”

The crowd didn’t so much part for Big Roy as get out of his way. Six and a half feet tall, he filled his claret-colored velvet coat near to bursting. It took a yard of heavy gold links to draw the steeple across his plaid silk vest. The jewel-studded gold watch tucked in his left pocket had been custom made as wide as a teacup so as not to get lost in his paw. The yellow diamond fob at the other end of the chain was as big as her thumb.

But the most desperate, most light-fingered among the Empire’s patrons no more than licked their lips as he bulled past. Roy was rumored to have been a bare-knuckle champion in his youth. He was known to have a nasty way with a knife, and like most sporting men, he carried a pair of double-barreled Canova derringers in the pockets of his fawn trousers. But his true power lay in his wealth. The golden treasure splayed across his chest was no more than a symbol of the whole, a single chip standing in for a table stacked with golden crowns. He owned a part of everything worth owning in the silver-rich hills surrounding Lodeville—mines, railroads, water, judges, marshals, and all of the Empire Saloon.

He smiled the way he had the first time she saw him, standing beside her bed.

“How much will the operation cost?” she asked.

Her parents didn’t answer. They couldn’t meet her eyes.

“Three thousand gold crowns,” the big man said. “A hundred pounds of gold. Metal on the barrelhead. They won’t take notes or loans.”

Her head rested on a bank of pillows, and still it reeled. Her life against her weight in gold. More gold than she’d ever heard of in a single place. More gold than her father’s mercantile, the Shimotsuga forge, maybe their whole town saw in a year.

“No one has that kind of money.”

“I do, and it’s yours for a song, little lady. All you have to do is sing in my concert saloon.”

“Exclusively. For twelve whole years.”

“You have other plans?”

Seven years ago, she had. They hadn’t included a man twice her age branding her shoulder with his hot, meaty hand.

She kept her expression bland, pretending her flesh was as hard as the rock for which Big Roy named her. Under the terms of her indenture, he couldn’t force her do anything but sing so long as she remained his headliner and continued to pay off her debt. But he could still make her life hell if she failed to maintain certain appearances.

Shiro remained seated while she spoke, but rose to take Big Roy’s hand. The crowd bridled at the snub. Men who spent months living rough muttered about the stranger’s manners. Their gallantry soothed her ruffled dignity, and for the moment, she felt a little less forlorn.

“I see you’ve already met the jewel of this establishment,” Big Roy said.

He kept her pinned in place while he pumped Shiro’s hand. She couldn’t tell from his face whether he knew of their acquaintance or merely assumed her presence would make it easier to empty Shiro’s pockets.

He didn’t know the things Shiro kept in his pockets.

Used to keep in his pockets, she amended. Her memories didn’t seem to apply to this tall, broad-shouldered swell dressed in black broadcloth and starched white linen better suited a formal soiree than a frontier concert saloon. Frock coats didn’t have any outside pockets. It would’ve ruined the line. But there was no telling what hid inside.

With a gracious gesture, Shiro invited Big Roy to sit at his own table. Amused, Genny turned to signal the bartender for her usual hot honey lemonade and found the Empire’s prettiest bar girls already in motion, delivering champagne in a sweating silver bucket and a tray full of gold-rimmed crystal glasses. More intrigued than ever, Genny accepted a drink. She had another set to sing, but it was very good champagne.

Big Roy tossed back his champagne and held out his glass for another. “What’s this marvel you couldn’t wait ’til spring to show me?”

“Satchel,” Shiro said, extending his hand to the black-cloaked figure at his shoulder.

Genny choked. Champagne bubbles burned up her nose. She’d been so focused on him, she never noticed his companion. Waving her would-be rescuers away, she studied the newcomer over the rim of her glass. The individual was so thoroughly swathed in fabric, she couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, much less guess the reason behind his (her?) singular appearance.

Shiro drew a thick, clothbound ledger from the satchel. The label pasted on the cover read “Operating Instructions”.

“It’s hard to obtain first-rate entertainers for a concert saloon this close to the frontier.” His smoke-seasoned baritone was so much richer than she recalled—husky and toe-curling like fine Logress whiskey, which irritated her no end.

“You trying to sell me a new act?” Big Roy interrupted, sounding like a jackdaw in comparison.

“Not an act, a solution to all the challenges you face on the concert side of your enterprise: singer of unparalleled range and musicality, whose every performance goes exactly according to plan. Nothing is left to chance. Every single show is as perfect as the last.”

Was that supposed to be an insult?

Roy snorted. “So long as you wind it up every night. I swear, you magicanists are worse than snake-oil salesmen. You think nobody in the Territories ever saw a performing automaton before? Well, we have. Lots of times.”

By now, most of the crowd had dispersed to the bar. Those who’d lingered to see what the champagne was about grumbled their agreement.

“Jes’ an oversize music box,” said one.

“Ya’ think we spent our whole lives in a hole in the ground,” said another.

“Three songs. I never heard one what had more.”

“Give me a real canary any day,” added Myrl, the staunchest of her devotees. The old prospector shot her an exaggerated wink from under eyebrows almost as bushy as his beard.

She flashed him her brightest smile. But instead of warming her, his praise raised goosebumps along her arms and lifted the fine hairs at the nape of her neck.

Every day brought some new magicanical marvel; she was living proof. It wouldn’t be long before some bright spark found a way to preserve a live performance so it could be played like a music box. If you could have the best performance of the best singer forever at your command, why would you pay for anything else, especially when that anything else needed to be fed, housed and clothed, and nurtured ambitions that didn’t necessarily encompass the person who paid the bills?

When it came to gears, pistons, and selling the same, Shiro was as bright as polished brass. Whatever else had changed about him, she’d wager that remained true. He was too smart to waste an important man’s time. Much too smart for unfounded confidence in a room full of less-than-friendly strangers. Yet there he sat, as cool and steady as the light from the mage bulb chandeliers glowing overhead.

She stared at his cloaked companion. His attendant stood perfectly still, not even seeming to breathe. All logic to the contrary, her presentment grew shivers. She set down her glass, because she was sloshing champagne over the rim.

“See what I mean?” Big Roy said. “Now you may have built the best automaton since the Painter of Cremeny. But it’s still a one-trick pony tied to a box, and I’m not interested.”

“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t be interested, either. Boxes bore me,” Shiro confided. Something sly glinted in his eyes. He commanded his companion, “Remove your cloak.”

Miners, dealers, even Big Roy gasped. Genny was on her feet before the heavy black mantle hit the ground. An instant later she had to hop on her chair to avoid being crushed in the stampede to their table.

Shiro’s companion was female, but no woman. She was a life-sized, fully articulated doll. Silky hair paler than Big Roy’s champagne crowned a white china face. A heart-shaped patch of black enamel surrounded her right eye. Glossy red enamel painted her bee-stung lips, parted to show a hint of tiny, pearl-like teeth.

A smooth porcelain throat and the ball-like joints of the doll’s shoulders rose over a skimpy, corset-like garment of white enameled panels embellished with black metal flowers and vines dotted with shiny jet studs. Black, fingerless mesh gloves hinted at the construction of her elbows while revealing the complex joints in her hands. An ostentatious black butterfly key too large for any gears the doll might contain crowned a bustle ruffled with thin, iridescent silk. The skirt itself was no more than a cage of vulcanized tubing. The knee-length costume—structure? assemblage?—bared the doll’s white-stockinged legs from her black ankle boots to the briefest of black unmentionables.

The near nakedness of her artificial form should’ve been obscene. In one sense, perhaps it was. But in another, the brazen display was necessary. How else could Shiro demonstrate the perfection of his art? It was the magicanical equivalent of showing his cards, and what cards they were! People would travel for miles to see his creation, regardless of how she performed.

“Gentlemen…and ladies,” he added belatedly to the dancing girls seeping from the door to the back, “behold the Clockwork Nightingale.”

As soon as he said her name, the Nightingale’s bottom lip and chin shifted downward. From her throat poured the note of A.

The tone struck Genny’s senses like a hammer on glass. If it weren’t for the men crowded around her, she would’ve fallen off the chair.

“See,” Myrl said as propped her upright, “she only got one song, and it don’t have words.”

“No. You don’t understand,” she gasped, the note chiming inside her head like death’s own bell. “It’s perfect.”

Miraculously perfect. Inhumanly perfect. Mechanically perfect. She bit her lip and tried to will the sound away, but the perfect pitch she was born with mocked her almost as much as the cocky lift of Shiro’s mouth. She clutched her stomach and waited for the next disastrous knell…

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Read the rest in Gaslight and Grimm, from E-Spec Books.
Read the story behind the story at E-Spec Books, learn about the music that inspired it at Mel’s World, and what I really think about Hans Christian Anderson at We Geek Girls.
See some of the images that inspired the story at my Clockwork Nightingale board on Pinterest.