Hettie was near tears.
Shortly after Carl came in, the "Chime Chime", a bell warning about patrols, went off. She was banished to her room. In lockdown and still exhausted, she decided to undress and go to sleep.
Except there was a problem.
She'd never undone a corset in her life.
Not that it's the kind of thing you could do with hers, where it ties in the back, even if you understood how. She'd attempted finding the knot and succeeded, but undoing it was a different matter. She'd even attempted to cut the cords with broken glass, but to no avail.
What kind of place has broken glass in the corner anyways? She thought irritably.
The little room was shabby. Pale wallpaper and dusty photographs on the walls made for sparse decorations. The little bed was lumpy and the sheets so scratchy Hettie contemplated sleeping on the bare mattress. Dismally, she looked at a photograph on the opposite wall. It was an ugly puppy. Or was it a horse?
There was a rap at the door.
"Mina sent clothes." Said the muffled voice.
Hottie opened the door. "Hello, Geneve." She took the clothes, biting her lip. She hated what she was about to say, but she had no other options. "Geneve... ah, could you maybe..." She drifted off.
Geneve studied Hettie. Cheeks flaming, the former lady spat it out.
"I've been raised to be a helpless lady who can't even untie my corset or snap a clasp without help. I don't want to be that any longer. But I don't know how." She could feel her eyes watering, either with shame or... no. Most definitely shame.
Geneve was silent for a moment, then stepped into the room. A slight smile played on her dour face, which still looked strange to Hettie. "If only all Cases were as smart." Geneve loosened the corset with expert fingers. "First rule. No crying."
Hettie blinked. "Just... never?"
"Never. We all have our tricks. But crying means weakness, and weakness is preyed upon. Second, be useful."
"At what?" Hettie had never felt more helpless.
"What else?" Geneve gave her a strange look as she took the clothes from Hettie so she could wriggle out of the leather constraint.
Hettie had been afraid of that. "But... breaking the law is why I left my- old home."
"No." Geneve said simply. She handed the clothes back to the surprised Hettie. "You left because he was evil."
To Hettie, up until this point,t he two had been one. Never had it entered her mind that someone could follow all laws and be evil. Or break laws and... not be.
Am I naive? Or are these people insane?
"But," Hettie said carefully, removing her silky skirts. "If you break one law, about illegal Tempering, then why not break all laws? Such as murder, or thievery?"
"We do break that last one." Geneve half-smiled again. "But murder? No."
"Then where do you draw the line?" Hettie said. She'd once had this discussion, or one very like it, with Great Aunt Cythna.
Geneve paused. "I think this is a conversation best had with Drake."
"So you don't have an answer?" Hettie asked, hotly.
Geneve tilted her head. "My job isn't to answer that. Drake has gifts best suited for it, just as I am a better spy than Temperer, and he a better Temperer than spy. Why would I try to assume the role of another? Rather arrogant of me." Her face was the same mask as it had been this whole time, so it was seemed more like a robot's programming than something she truly believed. But... there was a ring of sincerity to her voice. Hettie had learned to pick up such things when 'mingling with the High Brass'. You had to, to survive the ocean of manipulation and hidden meanings.
Hettie was silent a moment.
"Until you're less opposed, we could always set you up as shopkeeper." Geneve said.
"What's number three?" She asked.
"Easy. Talk like us. No 'Patrols' or 'Nobles'. Chimes, High Brass and Cases. Mints and Smelts. Same as us. You stand out too much and people will catch on, and rumors go pretty high up. Wickes will catch on and hunt you down."
The idea was shocking. That after what she'd said her husband would search for her. Or perhaps that's why... out of fury. Hettie touched her throat, fingers grazing the necklace.
Or for the key.
"That's... to be avoided."
"Yup." Geneve put a hand on the door handle. "I'll leave you be m- Hettie."
"Wait... can you not tell Hugo about this?" Hettie asked hesitantly, in part because it seemed childish, and in part because the sentence was so... un-lady-like.
Hettie sat down.
In the confusion of... everything, she'd forgotten Nocks and his dire warning. Why was she supposed to keep Benedict from having the Key? And what did it open in the first place? It was all too much for her.
Now as mentally stretched as she was emotionally and physically, she pulled the woolen gown over her head and yanked the sheets off the mattress.
Or tried to. As she tried to remove the fitted sheet, she realized there was no mattress. The scratchy material WAS the mattress, simply made of the same material as the sheet above. She gave a shiver thinking of what nasty critters could be living inside.
Then she thought of Geneve. Mina, Carl and Drake, and how they all slept like this. How tough they were. How much she wanted to be like them. If this was the first step, so be it.
Then she thought of Hugo, and what he would have to say.
"Aww, does the poor lady not want to sleep there? Let me retrieve some fine silks and linens for you!"
She hopped in the bed faster than Mina would help a starving orphan.
* * * * *
Geneve sat down in the Yellow Room, where meetings were held. Drake raised his eyebrows.
"She's not coming out this time." Geneve said.
Silence from all five. Geneve sighed inwardly. In High Brass society, or when dealing with crooks and black market vendors, this would have a meaning other than what she'd said. Not so in with these five.
"We can have our meeting." She amended.
"Good." Carl nodded.
"I don't know why we need a meeting." Mina huffed. "She's staying."
"That is one option." Carl said.
"We can't toss her out!" Mina cried, eyes fiery. "She can't live with Wickes, and she'd be dead in minutes out there!" She gestured wildly to the front door of the shop.
"One less noble." Hugo commented.
"You just don't like someone competing with your sarcasm." Drake said. Hugo opened his mouth, but Geneve cut in sharply.
"She won't go back. She wants to stay. She could be useful."
"She could be a liability." Carl looked at Geneve evenly. The red-head nodded.
"True. She's very ethical. Refuses to be a Temperer. But we could use a shopkeeper. After some... training, perhaps errand runner. Once she's not in danger. With her position, and what she learned of Wickes, she has information I was never able to gather. This is her true value to us."
"Her true value is that she's human!" Mina said, face red. "She's stayin' whether you muck-snipes like it or not."
Drake chuckled. "Relax, Mina. I don't think tossing her out was ever an option."
Carl nodded. "Good. Very good. Shopkeeper it is. Perhaps her pretty face will attract more customers."
"If she weren't so badly bruised." Mina frowned.
"Stubborn old Ca-"
"Hush it, Hugo."
Hugo rubbed his arm, looking offended.
* * * * *
Hugo threw the device on the table. It skidded on the wood and into Carl's hand. He lifted it to his face, inspecting it carefully with an expert eye.
"Your magic is too strong."
"That should make it more powerful!" Hugo practically yelled.
His sleeves were pushed past his elbows, and his hair was mussed every which way. His grease-covered fingers clamped on the edge of the table. Hugo's scowl would have sent anyone burst out laughing, it was so infuriated.
"No matter how skilled the musician, the instrument must be carefully crafted, finely tuned."
"So you're saying my mechanics suck?" Hugo glared.
"Yes." Carl set it down. "Cheap materials thrown together in a careless fashion."
"Mechanics. So drudging." Hugo snorted, temper easing in the presence of sharp words that rang true.
"They are equally important to Tempering." Carl said evenly, as though he'd had this conversation before.
"The magic is-"
"A touch. A sprinkle. A dash. It is the mechanics, the skill and genius behind them, that makes-"
"I know!" Hugo yelled, temper back. "I can never live up to my father!"
"You are impatient."
"And you're incorrigible!" Hugo stamped out of the room.
Carl sighed. "Come in, Hettie."
Face flushed, she stepped out of the shop room into the crowded room beyond. There were dark circles under her eyes from lack of sleep.
What a lovely way to start the day...
"I know." He said mildly.
She was silent for a moment, watching Carl turn the device over and over in his hand.
"It's a unique idea." He said. "One we needed sorely."
"What does it do?" She asked after a moment's pause.
"A mechanical eye. Hugo mistakenly assumed it was impossible for mechanics to replace the 'magnificence of the human body'."
"A mechanical eye..." Hettie echoed.
"Oh, yes. For Nemo."
"Nemo?" She asked. A mental image of a short, doddery man with a missing eye came to mind.
"Nemo!" Carl said, as though calling a dog.
The silence stretched for several seconds, growing more awkward by the moment. Then Hettie heard a clunk and a hiss.
And into the room walked an automaton.
He looked like a metal ball with legs, arms and a head. A bowtie and mustache had been humorously added to his rusty ensemble. His head revolved to look at Carl.
"Long time no see." He said in a halting voice.
"Hettie, please don't be alarmed if Nemo begins shouting obscenities or has some... sarcastic remarks. It was Hugo who Tempered the magic to give him artificial intelligence."
As if there was need of another Hugo.
"Hello, Nemo." Hettie said cautiously.
The automaton took a step forward... and fell on his 'face'.