Read a sample from THE LIBERATION by Ian Tregillis
Following The Mechanical and The Rising comes the third and final novel in this thrilling series of one individual's struggle for freedom – from the author dubbed "a major new talent" by George R. R. Martin. Perfect for fans of Paolo Bacigalupi, Ann Leckie and Neal Stephenson
She’d been home in her beloved Central Provinces barely a week when the plague ships arrived from the New World.
But this particular morning, the morning the world ended, didn’t find Anastasia Bell preoccupied with thoughts of Nieuw Nederland, or New France, or Free Will, or even the Sacred Guild of Horologists and Alchemists. Instead, she anticipated the removal of her casts and finally strolling—well, hobbling—through the winter gardens with her nurse. The winter gardens weren’t Anastasia’s favorite of all the green spaces in The Hague, but at least they wouldn’t smell like hospital antiseptic and bedpans. Plus, Rebecca would be there, prettier than any flower.
Roused by the anticipation before dawn, Anastasia spent the wolf hours watching the moon sink from the sky like a damaged airship. It dipped behind the towering spire of the Sint-Jacobskerk, the ancient St. James Church, as the rising sun pinked the bone-white cupola atop the old Town Hall. Both buildings predated Het Wonderjaar, Christiaan Huygens’s miracle year: They’d been built in the earliest decades of the seventeenth century, at the birth of a Dutch Golden Age that continued unbroken centuries later to this very day. A mile or so to the northwest, the Scheveningen Lighthouse winked at her with metronomic regularity.
The city was calm at night, she found, but never truly quiet and never truly still. Like every great city in the Central Provinces, the dark hours of The Hague echoed with the ticktock rattle-clatter of Clakkers’ metal bodies as they loaded and unloaded wagons, swept the streets, delivered packages, prepared their masters’ breakfasts and mended their clothes, carried drunks to their homes, monitored the citywide network of flood control dikes and pumps, hauled freight along the tow canals, and did everything else their geasa demanded. The city never slept, because mechanicals never slept. At some point in the lonely hours after midnight Anastasia realized everything moving in the city was clad in steel and alchemical brass: It was as though the humans had disappeared, and their creations had taken over.
A pair of metal feet clicked across the parquet floor. The machine navigated the dark room with catlike surety. It had probably detected the glimmer of moonlight upon her open eyes while making the rounds. The ticktocking of its internal mechanisms echoed in the shadows. Compared to her silent fretting it was loud as a brass band. A peculiar timbre in its body noise suggested outdated alchemical alloys, marking it as an older model, perhaps one forged in the mid-eighteenth century. Those lots had used a rare black Corinthian bronze, she knew. But Anastasia couldn’t turn her head to see if moonglow revealed a liverish patina; the boredom was too heavy.
In the reedy wheeze that passed for a Clakker’s whisper, it said, “I humbly beg your pardon for the interruption, mistress, but I notice you are not sleeping. Are you in pain? Shall I summon a physician for you?”
A throb of pain shot through her bandaged hand. She flexed her fingers. They tingled as if mildly burned. If she could have moved her arm, she would have stuck her fingertips in her mouth.
“No. Leave me.”
There followed a momentary syncopation in the clockwork rattle as the machine integrated this new command amongst all the other geasa controlling its behavior. Its primary function at the hospital was patient care, which gave it some latitude for overriding obstinate patients when health issues required it. But Anastasia wasn’t just any patient.
“Immediately, mistress.” It departed without offering to fluff her pillows.
When not watching the moon, or the city, she was checking the clock, waiting for Doctor Riordan to begin his morning rounds. Or worrying that the lack of sleep would dull her mind and hang dark bags under her eyes. Which heightened her anxiety, thus making it all the more difficult to sleep. She’d so anticipated her private visit with Rebecca—how cruel that when it finally came, she’d be an ugly dullard. She yearned to emerge from her plaster cocoon at her prettiest wittiest.
Her stomach rumbled. But she knew she’d have no food today until the casts were off, just in case they had to shoot her full of painkillers again. She resolved not to groan or flinch.
Maybe on their walk they could visit a bakery. Anastasia hadn’t enjoyed good hot banketstaaf since before her errand to the New World.
Finally, after it seemed the moon might rise and set again while Anastasia waited, Rebecca entered with her cart. The whites of her uniform blazed in the morning sun, every pleat and seam perfectly pressed, every strand of her golden curls corralled beneath her starched cap. She paused just inside the door. Face impassive, she locked eyes with Anastasia and tugged a single lock out of place. It dangled at the corner of her left eye like a party streamer.
Trapped within their plaster prisons, Anastasia’s knees oozed like overheated candle wax.
“Foul coquette,” she mouthed.
Doctor Riordan entered. “Good morning, Anastasia.”
Per her own request, he addressed her informally, although at first he’d omitted reference to her title only with visible unease. As if he expected the slight to conjure a herd of Stemwinders.
“Good morning, Doctor.”
Rebecca quickly tucked the errant lock in place while the doctor took Anastasia’s chart from the hook at the foot of her bed. He shook his head. “I continue to marvel at your survival, much less your recovery.” Injuries requiring alchemical bandages were quite rare in the Central Provinces; Anastasia was probably his first opportunity to observe firsthand this cutting edge of the medical arts. “Nurse, raise those casts a bit, won’t you?”
Behind him, Rebecca reached for a pair of hooks on the wall. Anastasia gritted her teeth. To the hooks were tied lines that ran over a system of pulleys to the slings cradling the plaster on her arms and legs. (Legs that, she’d later learned from the ship’s physician, had crackled like shattered porcelain when the hunters found her.) But it wasn’t her limbs that hurt; raising the casts jostled her aching ribs. The sigils embedded in the casts and bandages had fueled her recuperation, but they’d done nothing for the pain.
Alchemy was useful but never compassionate. Every Clockmaker knew that.
Riordan would be more impressed if he knew the truth behind her injuries. But she’d be the last to admit she’d been trampled by a Stemwinder. Bad enough she’d had to liquidate the hunters who’d found her in the Guild’s demolished safe house. She would have died of exposure if not for their compassionate and quick-thinking intervention. (Nieuw Nederland’s North River Valley in midwinter was far, far colder than the temperate Central Provinces.) But between her injuries and the barely functional Stemwinder attempting to keep her alive, they’d seen too much, perhaps enough to piece the story together. Poor bastards. The ship’s physician had met with his own unfortunate accident as well, falling overboard and plunging into the frigid North Atlantic not long after innocently remarking how one particular bruise on Anastasia’s chest resembled a perfect hoofprint. She was particularly bitter about that killing. The crossing had been sheer misery (every sway and shudder of the ship agony to her shattered bones) on top of which it had taken extra effort to subvert the human-safety metageas on the ship’s Clakker porter. A wily French spy had stolen the pendant that established Anastasia’s affiliation with the Verderer’s Office before leaving her for dead.
She tossed a smile over the doctor’s shoulder. Rebecca caught and returned it: an honest grin that touched her entire face, from eyes to dimples. Anastasia’s job required a certain amount of skill when it came to reading people for signs of honesty and deceit. Tiring work, and not always pleasant: sometimes loud, sometimes smelly, and often a bit messy. What a pleasant change, that the truth of a woman’s heart could be given so freely.
The doctor inspected her casts, and even gave them a sniff. He ignored the special bandages swaddling her hand. That injury was a Guild matter more than a medical matter and strictly enforced as such. Doctor Huysman had been on duty the morning an honor guard of servitor mechanicals skidded into the emergency clinic with Anastasia’s stretcher held aloft. A competent physician she was, too, but overly dedicated to her craft. She’d tried to tweeze the pulverized alchemical glass from Anastasia’s shredded palm and so ran afoul of the Verderers. Huysman had taken an early retirement the very next day. Or so they said.
Alchemical glass could do terrible things to a person, if implanted carefully. Anastasia had overseen one such procedure from the observation gallery of an operating theatre. But that had been the culmination of extensive and delicate effort; this glass had been crushed into her hand during a moment of deadly chaos.
Perhaps it was only a few minutes, but it seemed the clock ticked away half a century while Riordan assessed her general health and the efficacy of the sigils. He took extra care with Anastasia because of her position, she knew.
Get on with it already, she thought. I have a date. And she wants to spend time with me because of me, not because of who I am.
Another decade passed. Riordan said, in his peculiar shamrock-accented Dutch, “Well. I think these casts have done all they can. How would you feel if we removed them?”
“I’d feel you’d spared ourself a great deal of trouble. One more day in this prison and I’ll order a machine to break your legs.”
“That won’t do,” he said, paling. Rebecca, who thought Anastasia was kidding, stifled a chuckle. The effort shook loose the errant lock. Anastasia wondered how it would feel between her teeth. Riordan nodded at the nurse—sparing a moment to frown at her dishevelment—and took a pen from her tray.
“Machine. Come here,” he said. Sure enough, its carapace had the bruise-purple sheen of hepatizon: black bronze. A bead of sweat took root at the hollow of Riordan’s temple. She could read his concerns as easily as a newspaper: What would come of him if this went awry? Would his retirement be as abrupt as Doctor Huysman’s? After Rebecca affixed a cutting tool to a socket in the servitor’s palm, the doctor ordered it: “Remove those casts.”
A low whine enveloped the blade. The medical servitor worked with the inhuman speed and precision of its kind, bisecting the cast on her left leg before the first puffs of ground plaster dusted the floor. Riordan and Rebecca gripped the cast with a pair of spreaders, separated the plaster shells, and gently laid her unsuspended leg upon the bed. For the first time in weeks, Anastasia saw her own skin. It had never been so hairy. Her pedicured and brightly painted toenails—Rebecca’s work, again—were a question mark punctuating the ineloquent sentence of her leg.
And then the smell hit her. The odor of unwashed skin billowed from her body. It watered Anastasia’s eyes. So did the humiliation. Why must Rebecca be here? Why must she smell my shame?
She flicked a sidelong glance at the nurse and doctor. Both wore a stony expression. They’d smelled worse, no doubt, and had known what to expect. Knowing this didn’t soften the indignity.
Anastasia closed her eyes. The machine leaned over her again, the blade whined, a creak and crack, and then fresh cool air touched her other leg, her naked arms. The stench worsened with every limb. No amount of charm, no flirtation, could overcome the mental image surely burned into the nurse’s mind now.
Doctor Riordan turned his back to preserve Anastasia’s modesty while Rebecca and the medical Clakker unwrapped the bandages around her torso. He asked, “How do you feel?”
“I want a bath,” she said, in a voice that couldn’t have been her own. Her voice hadn’t been so small since she was a girl poling punts along the rustic canals of Giethoorn.
“Don’t take too long,” said the nurse. “I have plans for a walk in the gardens this afternoon.”
Somehow this smile, too, was genuine.
The Clakker returned bearing a pair of canes. Riordan said,
“You’re weaker than you think. Let’s make certain you won’t re‑break your arms and legs, eh?”
* * *
Physical therapy, Anastasia decided, was a mild form of torture. And she knew a thing or two about torture.
But after pain came the luxury of a steamy bath. She dashed off a few sketches in colored pencil and dispatched a servitor on a shopping mission; it carried a long list of her current measurements (all the best shops in the city had her on file, but weeks of forced indolence had done her body no favors) and detailed descriptions of her new apparel. Next she shaved and scrubbed her skin until it tingled and the gray pallor became a pink glow. Then, after another Clakker replaced her bath water, she shampooed her hair twice. When she wiped condensation from the mirror, she didn’t recognize herself. Her face was somehow both rounder and yet more gaunt than it had been before she’d sailed to the New World to question the French spy. But she brushed her hair and teeth, and perfumed herself with lavender oil, and soon her first new clothes in months arrived.
She emerged from the steamy bath like a newborn, without shame or self-consciousness, and let the machines dress her. The haberdasher, milliner, cordwainer, and dressmaker (or, rather, their Clakkers, which had crafted the clothing in less than an hour) had met Anastasia’s every specification. The fit wasn’t ideal, as she hadn’t been present for final adjustments, but it was suitable. The boots squeezed her feet and would need a cobbler, but not today. She’d devoted days of thought to what she’d wear and how she’d wear it. Every fold.
To the blank canvas of her body they applied crimson silk undergarments; black stockings; a dark-gray woolen blouse with burgundy piping; a velvet skirt of matching burgundy that reached just below her knees; low-heeled boots of supple gray leather that reached just below the skirt hem; elbow-length gloves and a belt of the same leather; a black choker ribbon at her throat threaded with silver and adorned with a polished garnet; and matching garnet earrings. Silver buckles on the boot cuffs glinted to match the buckle on her belt and what she hoped would be an impish sparkle in her eyes. She put her hair up, and used an extra handful of pins to keep the milliner’s work in place. A cartwheel hat girded with a burgundy ribbon, it rested on her head at an angle just on the flirty side of careless. For fending off the late-winter damp she donned a cashmere cape lined with crown sable fur. The hood slouched between her shoulders with just the right air of insouciance.
In the old days she would have slimmed herself with a corset, but the belt was painful enough. The slightest tug caused her ribs to groan like rusty hinges.
Rebecca met her in the south vestibule, a humble tweed cloak slung over her uniform. Her eyes widened.
“Goodness,” she said. “I barely recognize you. You’ve cast off your plaster chrysalis and become a butterfly. And what wings you have!”
“What, these rags?” Grinning made Anastasia’s cheeks ache. “I couldn’t resist treating myself just a bit.”
“I hadn’t realized a walk in the gardens could be . . .” The nurse examined herself. “I’m underdressed, I fear.”
“Nonsense. You’re exquisite.”
Rebecca blushed. With a quick glance over her shoulder to ensure the doctors and head nurse wouldn’t see, she reached under the brim of her cap to again tug loose a single curl. It bobbed beside her temple. Anastasia’s heart hurried to match its rhythm.
A medical servitor shadowed the pair, ready to leap forward should Anastasia stumble, but per her command it lagged several paces behind. Frailty gave her an excuse to take the nurse’s arm, to lean close and catch her scent.
The south vestibule opened on the hospital’s own garden, which was small but abutted the Paviljoensgracht, the old Pavilion Canal, directly across from the winter gardens. A strong sea breeze sent clouds scudding through a sky unusually bright for late winter. Patchwork shadows mottled the gardens. Gravel crunched underfoot. The humid smell of the nearby canal enveloped them, as did the usual city sounds: the rumble of traffic, the tolling of church bells, the lapping of water in the canals, the creak of oarlocks, the cumulative hum of ten thousand clockwork men dedicated to their owners’ every whim. It must have been a race day; the din of raised voices from Scheveningen was audible even here, over a mile away.
The women strolled arm‑in‑arm past low hawthorn hedges and winter-bare rosebushes. Each kept to herself as if waiting for the other to begin. The awkward moment stretched like cheap wool. Anastasia ransacked her conversational cupboard but found it bare as the rosebushes. She chewed her lip to stave off a twinge of panic. Such anticipation, only to find herself bashful as a schoolgirl? The injuries had changed her.
Rebecca proved the more courageous. “Did we neglect to remove the cast from your tongue?”
Caught off guard, but also relieved, Anastasia laughed like an uncouth fishwife. “I’m filing a malpractice suit this afternoon.”
Ice broken, conversation came easier after that. They turned east, toward the canal.
Rebecca pointed to a hansom weaving through traffic on the Torenstraat. The steel rims on its wheels struck sparks from the paving stones. The servitor pulling it moved so quickly its legs were almost invisible.
She said, “Heavens. He’s in quite a hurry.”
The taxi fishtailed onto the hospital’s horseshoe drive. It sent a fine spray of gravel pattering like hail against the windows when the servitor brought the carriage sliding to a halt. A man leapt from the cab and disappeared inside the hospital. He passed too quickly for Anastasia to be certain, but he looked familiar. She tensed. But Rebecca shrugged, and her smile dispelled the unease. They resumed their walk. The din of the city swelled; the races out at Scheveningen Pier must have been quite exciting.
Worried a medical emergency might cut short their visit, Anastasia asked, “Have you younger siblings, Rebecca? Taking care of others is second nature to you, I think.”
“Now, who told you that?”
“Nobody. But I’m quite good at reading people.”
“I do have—”
Behind them, the door to the south vestibule banged open.
“Tuinier! Tuinier Bell!”
Anastasia froze. Oh, no. Please, don’t do this to me.
“Goodness!” Rebecca turned for the source of the commotion. Anastasia did likewise, one eye on the man running toward them and the other on the nurse, hoping beyond all reason that he’d shut up.
“Anastasia Bell!” he called across the gardens. “Wait, please! I must speak with you at once!”
The medical servitor sprang forward. It landed lightly beside them and said, “Mistress, I believe that gentleman wishes a word with you. It appears to be a matter of some urgency. Shall I convey you to him?”
No. No, no, no, not now.
The man from the taxi jogged closer. She recognized Malcolm, a fellow Verderer. She craned her neck to look at the hansom again, but couldn’t see the door. “Tuinier Bell!” he cried. “Tuinier Bell, wait!”
Anastasia groaned. Shut up, you fool.
Muscles twitched in Rebecca’s arm. “That man. He’s calling you, ‘Tuinier.’ ”
Anastasia closed her eyes. Damn it. “Yes. He is.”
“Oh. I . . .” Rebecca’s gaze flicked back and forth, never meeting her eyes, as though she were a cornered rabbit and Anastasia a fox. “I knew you’re a Guildwoman, of course. Because of your injuries. I mean the glass—I mean, I haven’t seen it, but your hand, I haven’t pried, honestly, but after Doctor Huysman went away . . . But you didn’t seem—Oh! I mean, I didn’t realize . . . the Verderers . . .”
The Verderer’s Office: that special arm of the Sacred Guild of Horologists and Alchemists charged with protecting the Clockmakers’ secrets, and thus by extension the de facto secret police for the Dutch Empire. True or not, everybody had heard dread tales of the Verderers’ clockwork centaurs, the Stemwinders, and their human masters. The tales never emphasized the Verderers’ vital role in perpetuating the Dutch Golden Age; only dark rumors of what that entailed. The Verderers patrolled the walled garden of Guild secrets, ensuring nothing entered—not the tiniest aphid—as well as eradicating any shoots that might poke past the walls. The Tuinier was the chief gardener.
Anastasia sighed. “Yes. I command the Stemwinders.”
And . . . there it went. Like a feat of emotional alchemy, that four-word incantation transmuted flirtatious attraction to quiet fear. It extinguished the coquettish sparkle in the nurse’s eyes. In its stead came the flat, fragile glassiness that always materialized when somebody took a tight rein on her thoughts and words. Anastasia had seen it a hundred times.
“I’m still your patient. I’m still the Anastasia Bell you’ve come to know. And, I hope, like,” she said, loathing the desperation in her voice.
“Of course. And I’m still dedicated to your full recovery,” said the nurse. She didn’t shrug off Anastasia’s hand, but the shift in her posture turned their contact from something intimate to something professional. “I’m sure you have extremely important duties. You’ll be able to resume them soon.”
Malcolm slipped in the gravel, but the medical servitor streaked forward and caught him before he went sprawling. Anastasia shook her head.
“I’ll be resuming them imminently, I fear.”
Rebecca stiffened. She tried to suppress it, but Anastasia could feel the tremble in her arm. She stroked the nurse’s hand as though trying to calm a frightened horse. “Don’t fret. This has nothing to do with you.”
She smiled, too, but the other woman wouldn’t look at her. Anastasia crouched—ignoring the twinge from her ribs—to intercept the gaze Rebecca now cast at her own feet. No help there; she reacted as though Anastasia had bared her teeth. Sighing again, she released the nurse’s arm and turned to the approaching Clockmaker.
Well, I’m sleeping alone tonight no matter what. The calf has already drowned; no point filling the well. No longer any point trying to convince her I’m a nice person.
Such was the price a woman paid for the privilege of defending the Empire. It was a crucial post, but lonely.
Oh well. Once this blew over, whatever it was, she could have Rebecca taken by the Verderer’s Office for questioning. And then, after the poor innocent woman spent a night shivering in a cell and listening to the real prisoners, Anastasia could swoop in to “save” her from a terrible bureaucratic mix‑up. She’d be the nurse’s savior . . . and what she couldn’t win by honest wooing, she’d receive by virtue of desperate gratitude.
Malcolm joined them, panting. He propped his hands on his knees to catch his breath. His Guild insignia, an onyx pendant inlaid with a cross of rose quartz flanked by a small golden v, swung from his neck like a pendulum. Rebecca wrestled with the urge to flee the impromptu gathering of secret police. Fidgety feet etched furrows in the path.
The newcomer said, “Tun—”
“I don’t care how urgent you think your business is. You’ve already destroyed what promised to be a very special day for me. So I assure you that if the next words out of your mouth are anything other than, ‘Tuinier, it’s the end of the world,’ I’ll have the Stemwinders twist your fucking head off and toss it in a canal for fish food.”
Rebecca gave a mousy squeak. She’d excavated all the gravel underfoot; the muddy furrow smelled faintly of shit.
Anastasia said to her, “I’m so sorry you had to hear that. I apologize for my language. I’m usually not so coarse. Truly, I’m not. Please don’t think less of me.”
Why do I still plead for her affection? She thinks I’m the Devil incarnate.
Malcolm blinked. His lips moved, like a goldfish blowing bubbles. The dash across the gardens had left him flushed, his fading-pink cheeks at odds with the rest of him, which had gone pale. His pupils were dilated.
Malcolm found his voice. “But, Tuinier . . . it is the end of the world.”
The din from Scheveningen Pier swelled again. But the crowd wasn’t cheering, she realized.
It was screaming.