-Newton’s Third Law of Motion.
“Don’t tell anyone.” Dorothy hissed.
Her voice drifted up the stairwell to where Lillian stood. Lillian paused instinctively, her hands clutching the banister, one foot dangling in midair. Far above her head, a startled pigeon fluttered up and escaped through a broken window. The clatter of wings made Summerson’s reply inaudible.
She heard Dorothy gasp, far below. “What was that?”
Lillian shrank back against the wall. Scraps of wallpaper clung to her skirts, yellowing like autumn leaves. She brushed them away and sighed.
The house was collapsing around them, decaying a little more each day. Her father had designed it for a large family that never arrived. After her mother died he had lost interest; first in his house, then in his daughter. Lillian, her father, Dorothy and Summerson trickled reluctantly through the house’s damp corridors like air through the lungs of a terminal consumptive.
“It was nothing,” said Summerson. His voice scared another pigeon from its nest. Lillian heard it beating its wings against the glass. She bent down and lowered the books in her arms to the landing, recoiling as her fingers brushed against damp carpet.
The voices resumed below her. Lillian’s stomach lurched.
“My God,” Dorothy shuddered. “This place is all but falling down. Somebody needs to do something.” Paper crumpled. “You’ll take it?”
“As you wish, Miss Stroud,” Summerson said.
“Many thanks, Summerson,” said Dorothy. “Good man.”
“As you wish,” Summerson repeated. There was a pause, followed by the sound of Dorothy’s boots retreating, beating a rhythm in time with the monotonous tick-tock sound of her mechanical augmentations. A door creaked open and closed again. The noise of clockwork, such an essential part of Dorothy, diminished.
Lillian stood motionless against the wall for a moment, trying to shake the sick feeling in her gut. Then she took a step forwards and leaned over the banister. She could just make out the shoulder of Summerson’s threadbare jacket.
Joshua Summerson started and looked up at Lillian. His hand held a scrap of parchment.
Lillian held out her hand. “Bring it here,” she said firmly.
Lillian bent further forward, gasping as the bones of her corset dug into her belly. “Bring it here!” she repeated, more forcefully, advancing down the stairs. “I am mistress here, not Miss Stroud. I don’t think I need remind you that your loyalty is to my family.”
She felt a brief pang of guilt at reducing Summerson to the level of a mere servant. The butler had worked for her family for thirty years, accepting vastly reduced rates of pay without a murmur as the family’s fortune dwindled. But she had to have the letter.
“What do I tell Miss Stroud?” Summerson asked.
Lillian reached out and took the envelope from his hand. “Say nothing about this to anyone,” she told him. “I will deal with it.” She tucked the letter into her chemise and left Summerson in the hall. She had already reached the landing and retrieved her books by the time she heard his heavy footsteps pad away in the direction of the servants’ quarters.
Lillian found her father in the Court of Monuments, crouched over the upturned Egyptian sarcophagus that he used as his desk. She cleared away a space on the plinth of a statue to make space for the books. When he failed to respond to the sound of the books dropping to the stone, she tapped him on the shoulder.
He didn’t even glance up from his work. “Are those the texts?”
“Yes,” Lillian told him. She peered over her father’s shoulder as he probed the organs of a dead squirrel with a scalpel blade. Squirrel blood spotted his father’s hands and she drew back in revulsion, brushing her hand over a dusty pigeon automaton.
He’s getting worse, she thought with dismay.
On a whim, she righted the pigeon, gave its key a few twists and set it on the floor. The pigeon strutted and preened for a few seconds before it collided with a stack of books and fell over. Lillian watched its mechanical struggles dispassionately.
“I brought the translation of Musa’s Book of Ingenious Devices,” she said.
Her father grunted and blew into a tube that he had inserted down the squirrel’s throat. The animal’s exposed lungs inflated with a gasp. Lillian looked away, feeling sick, and hoped that this latest phase of her father’s would not last long. Since tiring of his automata, he had embraced a number of obsessions: antiques, architecture, Egyptology, and the experiments of Leonardo da Vinci. The da Vinci phase had culminated in the spectacular explosion of a model helicopter and the partial destruction of the picture gallery. Anatomy, although unpleasant, seemed harmless enough in comparison.
She picked up a tray from the floor and walked around the room, collecting empty dishes. Dorothy’s letter prickled between her breasts.
“I’ll bring you tea later,” she said.
The squirrel squawked in mocking reply. Her father said nothing.
Lillian closed the door behind her and walked away, tears burning in the corner of her eyes. She deposited the dishes in the sink for Summerson to wash and climbed the stairs to the second floor. The higher stories of the building had long since been abandoned to rot and ruin, but the drawing room was habitable for the present. How long it would stay so was anybody’s guess.
Lillian navigated the holes in the floorboards with the ease of long practice and made her way to her favorite seat, an elephant-hide armchair that had so far proved mould-resistant. She stared at her reflection in the glass, deformed by the mould that traced its way across the silvering of the mirror. The windows of the loggia let in the grey London light. Lillian sat down. She withdrew Dorothy’s letter from its hiding place and unfolded it slowly, noting the untidy cursive handwriting and the faint scent of oil that clung to the paper. A second sheet was folded behind the first.
Lillian began to read.
Dear Mr. Stevenson,
I expect that you will be most surprised to receive this letter. I have only recently become aware of your existence, else I should have surely written before. My name is Miss Dorothy Stroud, and I reside in the house of Mr. John Loveless. I expect you will recognize the name of this worthy Gentleman, for, until recently, he was an undoubted Pioneer in the field of automata. Since the death of his wife he has sunk slowly into Poverty, Obscurity and Madness: a situation of which I am sure you are aware.
But let me explain myself.
As I mentioned, my name is Miss Dorothy Stroud, a woman of good family, engaged as Companion to Mr. Loveless’ daughter. Two years ago I met with a terrible Accident which left me wavering on the very border of Death. I would have indeed crossed over, were it not for the ministrations of Mr. Loveless. Gaining my willing consent, he replaced certain valuable Organs (namely, my right Hand and parts of my right Side) with intricate Machinery. This operation saved my Life. So you can see, Sir, that I have many reasons to thank my Employer. Although misguided in many respects, he is an undoubted Genius.
I know perfectly well that he would not approve of this Correspondence. And I also know that we cannot go on like this. The house Crumbles, and there is no money for food or for repairs. Mr. Loveless has confined us to the house for fear of displaying his Poverty to all. He has frightened away his few Acquaintances with his Madness, and lives alone as a Recluse.
Therefore, Sir, I must propose a business Venture. I offer myself as a Test subject, in order that you may observe and record the working of my clockwork Augmentations. In return, I ask that Mr. Loveless and his Daughter will be well supplied and cared for.
I will expect your Reply by return of post. I enclose these partial Blueprints as proof that my intentions are honorable.
Yours most sincerely,
Miss Dorothy Stroud.
Lillian folded up the letter with shaking hands. She replaced it in her chemise and sat back in the chair, rapt in her own thoughts.
“What’s wrong, love?” Dorothy asked from the doorway.
Lillian half-turned. Her hand moved instinctively to the neck of her dress to ensure that the letter was concealed. She hoped that the movement would be mistaken for maidenly modesty, although Dorothy knew well that she was no maiden.
“Love?” Dorothy folded her arms. The left arm was plump and white, the right gleaming bronze. “Lillian?”
The kindness of her voice broke Lillian completely. She blinked rapidly, fighting back tears.
“Lillian?” Dorothy asked again. She crossed the room quickly and reached out to Lillian, who embraced her. Puffy flesh skated under her fingers as she traced the seam of skin and metal, still half healed after two years. She knew it still ached sometimes, although Dorothy tried not to show it.
“What’s the matter?”
Lillian shook her head, sniffing.
Dorothy drew back. She used her fingers to mop away Lillian’s tears, dabbing her hands on her dress to clean them. “Don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying.”
“Is it your father?”
“Yes.” Lillian said, then “No.” The last word was suddenly muffled as Dorothy kissed her lips, her tongue gently flickering between Lillian’s teeth, into her mouth. She tasted slightly bitter, like lemon-juice. Their hands intertwined. Lillian traced the raised blue veins on the underside of Dorothy’s wrists, and they both glanced down as the floorboards creaked.
“Are you sure the floor in here is safe?” Dorothy’s face was flushed, her lips swollen.
Lillian scuffed the toe of her slipper across the boards. “No,” she said. She slid one hand up Dorothy’s spine, touching metal under the smooth silk of her gown where her father had replaced Dorothy’s right kidney. Her fingers moved quickly over the fabric as she searched for warm skin and found it at the nape of Dorothy’s neck. One of Dorothy’s plaits brushed the back of her hand. Lillian stretched up to loosen the ribbons. The thought that it could be the last time she caressed her companion’s body made her heart beat faster.
“We could be killed.” Dorothy said. She tilted her head as one plait fell free in a tangle of curls.
“We won’t be.” Lillian said firmly. She started on the second plait, admiring the way the light gleamed slickly from Dorothy’s dark hair. As if it has been dipped in lamp oil, she thought.
“I never thought that you were the adventurous sort.”
“Sometimes people surprise you.” Lillian said, as she twisted one of Dorothy’s curls around her finger.
“Indeed.” Dorothy agreed. She sprang up from the chair and held out both her hands for Lillian, laughing. Lillian placed her narrow hand in Dorothy’s mechanical one, feeling the complex interplay of gears and metal tendons beneath her fingers, and Dorothy pulled her upright. She hugged Lillian around her middle, giggling at the smallness of her waist. With one strong movement, she grasped both of Lillian’s shoulders and yanked down the sleeves of her jacket.
Lillian shrugged the jacket off and let it drop to the floor. She could feel the outline of the letter crumpled uncomfortably between the boning of her corset and her skin. Dorothy burrowed under her skirt, flipping up the hem.
Dorothy backed her way out from under Lillian’s petticoats. Her cheeks were as red as apples. A mischievous light danced in her eyes as she began to unfasten her own dress, sliding each button free carefully. Humming a tune, she twisted and dropped one shoulder so that her dress pooled around her feet. Dorothy stepped out of the silk carefully and spun across the carpet, petticoats flaring out around her as she moved. The toes of her boots appeared and vanished under the foamy lace.
Despite herself, Lillian giggled. She laughed as Dorothy’s greedy fingers swept under the hem of her sash, and she laughed again as Dorothy took hold of the free end of the sash and pulled, spinning in slow circles as the sash loosened. She looked up at the peeling ceiling through the fingers of her out-stretched hands, guessing which hand her lover was using by the pressure on the fabric. The mechanical hand was stronger but heavier and slow to react. Dorothy’s flesh-and-blood hand was quick and nimble. It undid the buttons at Lillian’s throat and pulled her dress up over her head. The silk smelt of mothballs as Lillian shrugged it over her head, shivering at the touch of the cool air on her arms. She hugged herself tightly. When Dorothy came closer, she hugged her too, wrapping her arms around them both and chafing her friend’s mechanical hand.
“Lil?” Dorothy muttered into her hair. “Leave it. Please. It won’t warm up.”
Chastened, Lillian slid her hand across Dorothy’s body to her breast. She traced the heavy outline of her bosom. Dorothy’s nipple brushed against her wrist as she raised her hand to explore the hollow above her collarbone. She continued the exploration with her tongue, greedy for more, and tasted salt.
“Much better,” Dorothy gasped. Her eyes were heavy-lidded. She curled one hand around Lillian’s hips and moved even closer, crushing their crinoline frames against each other and rumpling the linen around their legs. Lillian could feel the small, sharp ridge of Dorothy’s garter against her own thigh. She turned her attention to Dorothy’s left breast for a while, then alternated between the two, pulling Dorothy’s chemise down for better access and leaving her bosom deliciously silhouetted against her black corset.
“Mmm,” Dorothy stretched and licked her lips. “Miss Loveless, I think it only just that I -ah! – return the favor.” She gasped as Lillian bit gently at the notch above her collarbone. “Kindly, step back…”
Lillian moved away, watching as Dorothy unfastened her own crinoline. She climbed deftly from the frame, smoothing her petticoat over her hips, and dropped to her knees. Smiling, she crawled under the hem of Lillian’s crinoline as Lillian stood paralyzed. She felt a breeze of cold air gust through her bloomers as Dorothy undid her garters, and gasped. Unseen hands pushed down her stockings and parted the open gusset of her drawers.
Lillian rocked forwards on the balls of her feet as Dorothy used her tongue to trace delicious patterns on Lillian’s thighs. She waited in luxurious expectation, cheeks flushing as Dorothy’s tongue slid higher.
“You mm-might get on with it.” she said at last.
Dorothy laughed from beneath Lillian’s petticoat. She used her mechanical hand to raise Lillian’s petticoats, affording the smaller girl a view of her back and head through the cage of her crinoline.
Lillian reached down to steady herself on Dorothy’s shoulders. As she did so, Dorothy pushed Lillian’s drawers down and ran her tongue in a quick movement from the side of Lillian’s knee to her crotch. Without giving her partner a chance to compose herself, Dorothy used her fingers to part Lillian’s labia and applied her tongue.
“Oh.” Lillian said, then “I – Dorothy!” She arched her back, her legs parting. Her hands clutched at Lillian’s bare shoulders as she looked dizzily down, the muscles of Dorothy’s back working as she moved her head up and down, and up and up and up. Dorothy’s hands curled around her buttocks; one flesh and blood, one bronze. Her tongue lapped busily. Lillian rocked and moaned, her eyes staring blindly at the peeling wallpaper and the grey, gloomy sky.
“Oh.” she gasped. “Oh.”
She pushed her hips forwards and staggered forwards a step. The rotten floorboards lurched under the heel of her slipper and the unexpected movement threw her off balance. She sat down hard, legs splayed.
Dorothy crawled out from under Lillian’s skirts. She smiled, and licked her lips. “Mmm,” she said, stretching.
Lillian ran a hand down the struts of her crinoline. She unfastened the waistband and crawled from the apparatus, her skin moist and hot. On hands and knees, she made her way over to Dorothy, whose smile widened and then faded.
She reached with two fingers down the front of Lillian’s corset and withdrew the crumpled, sweat-dampened letter. Frowning, she unfolded it, her lips still sticky with Lillian’s wetness. “My letter!” she exclaimed.
Lillian felt small and very crumpled. She yanked up her drawers in the silence, fumbling with the cord that fastened them around her waist, and nodded briefly.
“Well, now you know.” Dorothy said briskly. She crawled over to Lillian and sat down on the floorboards with a thump. “Somebody’s got to do something around here.”
“But to leave…” Lillian hesitated. Sweaty strands of hair clung to her cheeks and she angrily pushed them away.
“I don’t want to go. But you can’t go on like this. We can’t sell the furniture until you reach twenty-one, and Summerson won’t do it for us.” Dorothy said. She gestured at the dilapidated grandeur surrounding them. “You’re a lady. You should be treated like one.”
“But the tests,” Lillian said. “You hate that sort of thing.”
“Does it matter?”
Dorothy flexed her metal hand. “Your father’s a genius. He saved my life.” She looked delicately up at Lillian through her eyelashes. “You both did. It’s just a shame that he’s…lost interest.”
“Lost his mind,” Lillian said bluntly.
“I didn’t mean that.”
“Why not?” Tears stung Lillian’s lids. “We both know what he’s like.”
Dorothy stretched her hand out to her friend. It was the right hand, the clockwork one. She gently walked her fingers up and down Lillian’s bare arm, watching the extension and flexion of her metal tendons as if hypnotized. “We need an investor. An inventor. Somebody who can refine your father’s work. Someone who’s honest enough to pay for the opportunity. Someone who knew your father. Stevenson’s the best.”
Lillian shook her head, blinking back the tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. Dorothy leant forwards and kissed her gently. The cogs in her arm ticked and whirred.
“When was the last time you left the house?”
“Three years ago.” Lillian admitted.
“We could at least ask Stevenson.” Dorothy said as she fastened her own crinoline. “It wouldn’t do any harm. He might just say no.”
“I can’t sell my father’s secrets.”
“Do you think he’d even notice?” Dorothy asked. When Lillian said nothing she demanded, “Would he?”
Lillian thought of the squirrel blood on her father’s shirt. “No.”
“We could use the money.” Dorothy pressed. “Start a new life. Care for your father, together. In this house, if you’d like to keep it, or somewhere else if you’d rather. I don’t care.”
“Not as long as I’m with you.”
Lillian felt a trickle of excitement. “D’ you think it’d really work?” She retrieved her sash from the floorboards.
“Why not?” Dorothy said, her voice muffled by layers of silk as she yanked her dress over her head. Her head popped out of the neckline like a tortoise’s. “We can but try.”
“Do you even know where this man lives?”
“I have his address.”
“It’s not close?”
“Just down the road.” Dorothy took the sash from Lillian’s hands. “Turn around,” she instructed. As Lillian whirled she tied the sash in a bow and stepped back to admire the effect. She raised one finger to her lips. “You know, you look rather lovely,” she said.
Lillian blushed. She settled the sash more comfortably on her hips, peering through the windows over Dorothy’s shoulder as her companion struggled to plait her hair in the mirror.
Should she leave? Could she leave?
Dorothy hissed a curse as she undid a crooked plait, combing her thick hair with her fingers. Lillian tore her gaze away from the window and stepped up to her friend’s shoulder. “Let me,” she said.
Dorothy bent her head to bring her hair within Lillian’s grasp, and Lillian began to braid her hair. Her hands were shaking slightly, which ruined the effect, but Dorothy seemed pleased enough with the process.
Dorothy straightened up and shook her head, setting her ribbons flying. “Perfect,” she said, and paused. “What do you think?”
Lillian knew that she wasn’t talking about the ribbons. “I think…yes.” She smiled. “Let’s go.”
They ran downstairs to the dressing rooms in a flurry of excitement. Attiring themselves appropriately took far less time than Lillian had expected. It was barely ten minutes later that she found herself waiting with bated breath at the front door as Dorothy pushed it open. Her companion slipped through, Lillian smelt smoke, tinged with something rich and organic, and hesitated.
“Come on,” Dorothy said impatiently. She held out her hand, her mechanical augmentations decently clothed in one of Lillian’s jackets and a pair of moth-eaten gloves. Lillian took it, and stepped over the threshold. Her hand closed tightly on Dorothy’s, and the door of her father’s house closed behind her.
Dorothy smiled. “That wasn’t so hard.”
Lillian risked a glance around at the alien street. It was quiet and damp. A wind gusted around her ankles. Off to the left, a cab-horse dozed in its traces. She let out a breath that she hadn’t realized she had been holding and turned back to lock the door, holding the key rigidly in front of her like a weapon. Her hand shook as she turned it in the lock, half-expecting that the house would collapse in protest at her audacity as soon as she removed it, crashing down in a cloud of porticoes and pillars, loggias and lanterns.
The lock clicked shut. Lillian withdrew the key. Nothing happened. The house remained, leaning against the houses on either side for support like the invalid it was.
Dorothy squeezed Lillian’s hand tightly, reassuringly. “Everything’s going to be fine,” she said.
Lillian tightened her lips and set her shoulders. She placed the key into her reticule and buttoned it up. She took Dorothy’s arm and walked away from the house, her boots clicking on the flagstones, and she did not look back.