The same image danced about in the minds of Mr. and Mrs. Buford: oversized scissors slicing through a red ribbon before the newly christened Buford Automaton. They sat by the fireplace celebrating with bubbly wine imported from Monte-Diamont.
“Congratulations, darling. We’ve done it,” Cordelia said with a radiant grin to her husband.
“Now we begin our great work,” Lucas said, cheeks hurting from smiling too much, “Have you seen what they’re printing?”
“Doll makers scaling up? I’ve seen the Gazette. Shortsighted fools.”
They sipped their glasses and lost themselves in the fire.
Delia looked over, paused a moment, and reached out her hand, “I’m so sorry we haven't been able to get pregnant.”
“It’s okay,” he held her hand. “Dr. Bittersworth thinks it might be my fault, anyway.”
“Well, we’re still going to have children, one way or another.”
“They just have to be mechanical. All of course, dear.”
“Precisely,” Delia affirmed.
“I love you.”
Lucas was recalling buried memories from an old journal whilst waiting for an acquaintance.
It was a bitter Moghs day, but a roasting chocolate concoction at the Black Leaf and Earl made his insides steam like the boiler of a locomotive. Each breath was a battle between the cold air and the warmth inside his belly.
Adele sat with him today, in his table by the corner of the restaurant. She quietly sipped a cup of tea; searing liquid flowed into her boiler. It was part of the experiments to make a sociable automaton, her raison d’être. The best part was how, all day long, her boiler released small amounts of tea-scented steam.
He was reminded of dear Delia every time he looked at his third-instinct machines. There weren't any traces of her mannerisms, nor of her image to suggest they were inspired by his late wife, no.
Jacques and Adele were far more lifelike, more doll-like in appearance than the crude or homely designs of previous generations. Lucas had finally become successful enough to afford to build the automatons like those in Cordelia’s early sketchbook.
He returned to the images conjured by the journal. Back to the days of drawings and dreams.
“That’s lovely dear, but where does the boiler fit into that?” Lucas said to his wife, sketching in their company’s design room.
Cordelia turned to Lucas, “Fit it where you will, it’s far more important that people see a beautiful creature to interact with. I love Bob, but as a feral thing, not something I could honestly see serving a guest or such.”
“Serving guests?” Lucas rolled his eyes, “I think we should focus on how to program the things before working out how they might have the dexterity with which to hold trays, dear.”
“You may be right,” she sighed and chuckled, “I’ll just finish up a few more of my pie-in-the-sky doodles.”
“And after that I’d rather like us to reach out to the Minister... of...”
Cordelia was coughing violently now, black dust flew about.
Lucas rushed over to her, “Are you alright? Honey?”
She continued to cough and, slipping out of his reach, collapsed to the ground.
He whistled so that, moments later, the mechanical assistant known as Bob came lumbering in. He hoisted her upon his back and they carefully took her onto the streets of East Astam Junction.
Lucas kept constant eyes on Mrs. Buford as they walked, “This is the third or fourth time. We’re heading straight to the doctor’s, my friend.”
Doctor Bittersworth’s office and the hospital were on either side of the tracks separating Old town from the East of town, a small hike from where they were.
Cordelia gave out small coughs the whole way over to the office. The good doctor was outside the office when Lucas waved to him.
“Mr. Buford! I’m just on my way out.”
“Doc, I need you to help me right now, it’s Delia,” Lucas said with a quivering voice.
“Oh my, yes, let’s bring her in. Mind if we leave the machine outside?”
“He’ll fend for himself.”
They gently carried her into the office and onto the table.
“So what ails her?”
“Well, She was in the drawing room with me, having a perfectly normal conversation. The next thing I know she’s broken out into a coughing fit and collapsed to the floor!”
“And without warning? Has this happened before?”
“Yes, about a week ago and a month prior. We were at home both times.”
“Rules out environment, unless you have a fairly dusty home,” the doctor mumbled to himself in thought, “Let’s try and wake her up, shall we?”
Lucas put the book down. A shiver ran through his spine. Icey air swirled about whenever patrons came and went through the door. He scooched closer to Adele for warmth.
A gentleman came to serve Lucas a sandwich, “Your butterbrot sampler, sir.”
“Thank you, Mr. Allenthrope. Business is well, I hope?”
“Steady as ever. Anything else I can get you?” He leaned in closer, “Expecting any business ‘round back this evening?”
“No, no. Just personal business, my friend. Expect us next week, though. I know the commodore’s been rather busy, but we’re overdue.”
He walked away and Lucas checked his pocket watch. He was early. He was always quite early for things that made him nervous.
He required an escort for some business in the rather dangerous lands of the former Prussian empire. His automatons were useful as bodyguards, but sometimes a sentient attaché is necessary. To travel with someone who knows the land and people of an area is a safety that Lucas realized he needed more and more.
He’d only hired someone as guide and travelling partner once before, which is what really led him to dig out the old notebook.
“You would have loved her,” he said to Adele, “She’d fight with her hair for hours to fit that perfect image of herself she tried to maintain, silly thing, and she absolutely loved, loved, loved beautiful things.”
He paused for a moment, “She’d have loved you.”
Lucas nibbled on his open-faced sandwich and read on.
Doctor Bittersworth explained how similar her symptoms were to that which took her mother. There were no known treatments to cure what ailed her. They’d already tried a host of experimental things until her mother finally passed away.
Lucas tried desperately to find anything that would make his wife’s affliction easier. If he couldn’t save her, he could at least make the pain stop.
Relief finally came in the form of an herbal tea he’d purchased from a travelling merchant. It was a particularly unique desert sage and none of the other teas of that kind had quite the same effect of her health.
One lucky day, he happened upon the travelling tea girl once more.
“Excuse me! miss?” he said after having rushed over.
“I’ve got plenty stocked,” the masked tea seller said, voice youthful but coy and raspy, “no need to hurry.”
“I saw you here last month.”
“Oh yes, you bought all sorts from me. Time to restock?”
“Only one. Do you have the desert sage blend you sold me last time?”
“The very expensive one? I’m afraid not, it sold like rain on cacti.”
“I... It’s hard to explain, but I desperately require it.”
“Sorry, I’ve got plenty other blends you can try.”
“Spare a moment of your time? I need you to meet someone.”
“I’m not going anywhere with a strange man, no matter how generous.”
“My wife,” he clarified, “You’ll understand why I’m asking if you simply meet my wife. Please?”
“You’ll at least buy some tea, after, won’t you?”
“I will make it worth your time.”
The girl looked him over, seeing pain and weakness in his eyes. He didn’t show signs of silver-tongued danger, although he was strange to her.
“Alright, sir, let’s... meet this wife of yours...”
Lucas knocked on the door to their bedroom and slowly opened it, “Delia? I’ve brought a visitor to meet you.”
“Oh? Who is it?”
When the door fully opened, Cordelia squinted and wore a serious face. A masked stranger in her bedroom was definitely not something she was going to be warm to, at least initially.
“Who are you?” Delia demanded.
“This is the lady who sold me the tea,” Lucas explained.
Delia’s eyes grew wide and hopeful, “Do you have any?”
“Not currently, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry,” her demeanor instantly one of disappointment, “where are my manners; I am Cordelia Buford, and you are...?”
“Bird Von Wal. You and your husband are very interested in that tea,” she looked Delia straight in the eyes “Why?”
“You don’t know?” Cordelia asked.
“You’re not...” Lucas bit his lip, “She’s got an incurable affliction.”
Cordelia finished the explanation, “and the only thing to help the pain in any way was that tea.”
Bird considered the situation for a moment, “Are you sure it was the tea?”
“Very,” Lucas affirmed, “I will do anything, pay anything for more.”
“Look, that particular desert sage was from the uncharted parts of the Istoki. I only travelled there in the first place due to accident.”
“Then, I will personally fly there and pick them!” Lucas proclaimed.
“No, it’s more complicated than that, there are ruins, an ancient city of some sort.”
Cordelia sat up. “That’s impossible, no one’s settled that far west.”
Bird turned to her, “I’m telling you what I saw, not what I imagine.”
“Then we’re hiring you to take us there,” Delia proclaimed.
Lucas looked at his wife in confusion, “Us?”
“Yes, us. I’m not getting any better, dear. I want an adventure before I go, and if I come with you I won't have to wait for your journey back for the pain relief.”
Bird backed up a couple steps, “This is highly irregular. I’m a bloody tea merchant, not an adventure guide!”
Lucas and Cordelia looked at her with pleading eyes.
“Gorrn, be damned.” she cleared her throat, “Bird Von Wal, adventurer, at your service!”
Bird insisted that they travel out to the Istoki in her tea caravan. Although a balloon might be faster, a land vehicle would be more reliable, in theory. More to the point, it was a non-negotiable condition of Bird’s.
The caravan was an oversized paddock’s carriage, modified to fit the large amounts of tea-related items. Lucas wasn’t completely comfortable inside, finding the air a little stifling, but Delia was delighted.
Lucas yelled towards the front, “So what’s the plan?”
“We’ll stop at White Haven for supplies and a meal, on you of course.”
“All of course.”
Lucas reached for another sandwich and realized he’d finished them all.
His guide was running a little late.
“I wonder what could be taking her so long,” he mused.
A gigantic explosion of gas erupted a few blocks down the road. So, Lucas and many of the other patrons stepped outside to see what the commotion was.
Amidst the fog, his masked friend stumbled backwards, shooting as she fled from the bank. Men in shield bat masks followed out the bank after her, and in the distance some bobbies could also be seen firing.
“What in Skret’s name!” Lucas exclaimed. “Adele, that’s our friend, in the hat, on the left.”
Lucas rummaged about his bag until he found a scroll to load Adele up with, “I hoped I wouldn’t have to use this scroll for real.”
The large instruction ream clicked into Adele’s back and Lucas began humming a turbulent tune. With that, Adele shot off into the crowd.
The desert was searing hot, sunlight seeped into the caravan through every crack and gap in the woodwork. It had been many days since they’d left White Haven.
“Honey, I’m growing weak. Fetch me the water jug,” Cordelia said.
“We’re halfway through the provisions,” Lucas noted, giving his wife some water.
Bird yelled from up front, “Alright, weary travellers. We’re nearly at the ruins. Just need to see what all the commotion is about here.”
“Trouble?” Lucas asked.
“Perhaps. There’s a lot of red tribe gathering in front of us.”
“Demon scum,” Lucas angrily fumed.
There was a quiet over the caravan for a few minutes, when it came to a stop. Cordelia and Lucas dressed appropriately and stepped outside.
Von Wal was talking to the tallest female, supposedly their leader.
“What’s up?” Lucas said as he walked up to Bird.
“There seems to be some trepidation with... well, allowing us to step inside the ruins,” she explained.
“What? But you were here before.”
“Yes, they, however, weren’t,” Von Wal defended, “Let me try something.”
Bird turned to their leader and spoke in Vibranni tongue. Lucas couldn’t pick up any of what was being said. The tribe deliberated a bit and it looked good to Lucas, but Bird came back looking defeated.
“Even with my... credentials, I couldn’t sway them.”
Cordelia adjusted her hat and outfit and walked determinedly towards the Vibranni.
“Now see here! I am a dead woman. There is nothing you need fear from me. There is an herb found within that structure that eases my pain. Would you be so villainous as to force me to suffer through to my death!?”
The Vibranni deliberated again. Cordelia, weak and hot, stood unfailingly.
She was a force of nature and Lucas began to weep. He turned to clean himself up so that none would notice, but it likely drew more attention. His heart was breaking at the thought that this defiant woman was not to be for much longer.
“We will allow you passage to the holy grounds.” the Vibranni yelled, “Varvara will escort you all, to protect our heritage, but you are allowed to help the woman through her suffering. Take what you came for, leave, and forget this place.”
The crowd made way for the intimidating lady to make her way out. She walked towards Bird, and they shook a rather violent hand.
Cordelia nearly fainted on her way back, so Lucas put her arm on his shoulder and led her back to the shade of the caravan.
They traveled onward.
Adele ran headfirst into the gunfire, and the metallic clanging filled the air.
The bank robbers with the bat masks shouted to each other in panic.
“What’s with the metal dame?”
Adele snapped one of their necks.
Bird ducked behind a building yelling into the sky, “Buford - is that one of yours!?”
Lucas put his metal arm in front of him as shield and ran towards Bird, coat blowing in the icey winds, “What in Skret’s name is happening?”
“I bloody asked you first!” Bird yelled, holding her mask in place.
“Fine, yes. That’s Adele. Now, you!”
“I was taking some money out when these nuts bursted in! And the bloody coppers can’t see the difference between these lunatics’ themed masks and my life support system!”
Her face was bleeding from a near miss that grazed across her cheek.
Lucas led the next course of action, “Let’s get to the Black Leaf and Earl! Adele’s taking care of things.”
And it was true. The gunfire stopped, and Adele left the trail of bodies that she and the police laid waste to, following after them.
The expedition party consisted of Von Wal, the Bufords, Bob, and Varvara. They unloaded and admired what lay in front of them.
Above ground, stood a few pillars and one large spire. However, once their party ventured into a hole in the ground, they beheld an entryway of stone ruin and vegetation. They prepared torches and climbed downwards.
“What wonders have been buried! Who built this sunken city?” Lucas marvelled.
“Come,” Bird ordered, uncomfortable with their new guest tagging along, “We’ve got to climb quite a few levels into the belly of this place.”
The group’s spelunking began to wear Cordelia out, and so she rode upon Bob whenever it was possible. Many of the tunnels between ancient buildings and caverns were so small that they had to crawl on hands and knees.
Varvara spoke, “This way to the herbs.”
Bird was hesitant, “Are you sure? I don’t believe I’ve been down that way.”
So the Vibranni led them deeper into the claustrophobic maze.
Lucas emerged from a dark tunnel, crawling on his hands and knees, to find himself alone with Varvara.
“Where are the others? Did we get split up?” Lucas asked.
“Yes, they will find their way soon, though, to the herbs below,” Varvara explained, as she moved a rock in front of where they came.
“Demon, what is the meaning of this?”
“You are not allowed to leave here.”
“Skret and fire, you stop right there.”
The Vibranni pulled out a dagger from her side and pointed it at Lucas, “The others are allowed to be here, but you are not.”
As she inched towards Lucas, the young entrepreneur put up his fists like he'd seen pugilists do, trembling.
“What the hell is going on in there?” a raspy voice came from behind the rock blocked tunnel.
“Honey!?” Delia called.
The rock burst free and Bird pointed her pistols at Lucas’s assailant.
“Hurt a hair on Mr. Buford and... you know what? Screw it.”
Varvara no longer had what could be called a head, and collapsed to the floor.
“I never liked her, anyway, She smells like something my cart ran over three days ago,” Bird said.
The three walked briskly into the restaurant.
Lucas turned to Mr. Allenthrope, behind the counter, “We need to leave so things don’t get loud around here.”
“Right away, sir. Come, come.”
“And Murdock,” Buford turned as Adele and Bird walked into the back room, “This is nothing to do with us, but let’s leave this story out of the commodore’s ears.”
They ran down the spiral stairs to the cellar, which was a large garden connected to the sewers.
“It’s just like old times, always bloody caverns with you,” Bird teased.
“Yes, well I was going to say the same to you, old friend.”
At the bottom, they stopped to share a turnip.
“What a fine mess you’ve got caught up in,” Lucas chuckled, “and you’re supposed to be keeping me out of trouble.”
“Not in the Prush Confederacy. There are quiet places to be sure, but the man you’re meeting never shies away from trouble. I’m here for when it gets crazy, especially if it gets crazy crazy, like blow your hat off with a very big gun crazy. Though it seems like you’ve brought a more capable automaton this time,” Von Wal noted.
“Let’s take this tunnel, it’ll drop us by the train station so we can get back to Astam,” Lucas suggested, “And yes, Adele isn’t built for fighting, but she’s a little more skillful than Bob.”
Bird found their way back through to the caverns she recognized, “This way. How are you holding up?”
Lucas looked back at his mechanical manservant and wife atop, “She’s passed out for a while. Not well at all. There aren’t any tiny tunnels left are there?”
“No, we’re almost there.”
She waved the torch to signal that she’d found it. Lucas rushed to catch up.
They stood on the edge of a gigantic coliseum. A dim light shone from above.
“Wish we’d have taken that way in,” Lucas complained.
“And repelled down with what ropes and for how far? We’re pretty far below the surface.”
They made their way down to a small bed of desert sage and other small plants. Lucas and Bird helped Cordelia off Bob and onto the ground.
“Darling?” Lucas gently woke her, “We’re here. We’ve finally arrived.”
She yawned and grimaced, “It hurts.”
She simply mouthed, “everything.”
Bird was crushing up some of the sage, “Here, just chew on it, don’t swallow. It’ll ease the pain much faster.”
Cordelia sat up against Lucas’s arms and chewed on the sage, “Thank you.”
There was a quiet moment for all, in anticipation of Delia recovering some strength. Bird gathered as many herbs as she could.
“I love...” she took a deep breath, “you.”
She closed her eyes and began to choke, Lucas held her so that she would face downwards and spit out the sage and the black mucus coming from within.
“Please, darling, you can make it.” Lucas pleaded.
One last cough, caught her wind and she was no longer breathing.
Lucas placed her on her back and began pushing on her chest repeatedly.
“No, no, no, no,” he repeated ad infinitum.
Bird watched as the young man refused to come to terms with reality.
“Please... I love you. You just can’t...” He said, sobbing, and slowly giving up, he crumpled onto the ground, his face in her bosom.
Bird stood there, unsure of what to do. Another long, awkward silence.
Back in Astam, Lucas patched up Bird’s face mask.
“Any more holes is this blasted thing…” Bird began to mumble, “Buford, you know how to make specialty masks right?”
“I’ve done some similar work for a friend of mine, sure,” Lucas replied.
“This thing has lasted me a long while but it really need it to be as good as new. It’s a bloody health hazard! The stuff I breath cannot, I repeat, CANNOT be inhaled by anyone! It’s too dangerous and I will not allow anyone to suffer as I do.”
“Okay, I’ll have to take a much closer look, if that’s possible?”
Bird inhaled deeply and quickly took off her mask. She unplugged it from the cannisters on her back and quickly stuck the hoses into her mouth. She began breathing normally again.
Lucas cringed upon seeing her scarred, burnt face.
He’d known for a long time his friend was once burn badly, but he never imagined just how little was left of her natural visage. There was no way to tell how she might have once looked.
“Okay, I see what you’ve done,” he said, handing the mask back to watch Bird repeat the dangerous process of re-attaching, “You’ve done all this yourself, all this time?”
“Yes. It’s a finicky thing, but It’s what I’ve had to work with to keep alive.”
“Well, perhaps before we ship off, I can work out something using more appropriate materials,” Lucas laughed to himself, “I have truly strange friends, indeed.”
Bird had waited longer than anyone would be expected to before speaking to the paralyzed Lucas.
“Look, I... I know this isn’t an easy thing to do...”
Lucas looked up.
She continued, “but we have to leave her here.”
“What!?” he shouted with furious lamentation, “How can you dare...”
“Please, Mr. Buford. I don’t mean to say I’m happy with it, just that we won’t be able to return to the surface without rather disrespectfully dragging her through the crawl spaces and tunnels.”
Lucas stood up, strained his eyes, and grasped his living arm with his mechanical hand to steady himself.
“Yes, all... of course. You’re right.”
They arranged the herbs around her body and Lucas folded her arms and closed her eyes.
They made their way up to the surface. Lucas wasn’t sure if it took less time to return, or if his empty emotional state made the world a less memorable one.
The sun was setting, though the air was still hot like a warm blanket wrapping itself around Lucas’s cold, walking corpse.
They both sat in the front of the caravan and began the long trip back to White Haven.
“This is much better. You work wonders with metal.”
“It’s almost completely opposite to the masks I’ve helped repair before, but much of the concepts were the same.”
They marched outside to Von Wal’s caravan outside the Buford Automaton offices.
“Wow,” Lucas exclaimed, “It looks as ragged as I remember.”
“It’s holmey. I don’t go around criticizing your habits, now do I?”
“I’m sure you will,” Lucas smirked, “Do you remember the last time we rode in this?”
“Oh yes. I recall the bloody silence of that awful night.”
“Yes. I really appreciate your silence on that adventure.”
“Of course,” Bird went on to explain “I swore to keep the story silent to both you and the red tribe.”
“Was that what you were saying to them?”
“Of course,” Bird trailed off. “in part at least,”
Lucas thought a moment. “You’re a Vibranni aren’t you? Why didn’t you say?”
“To be honest, It was because you were cursing 'demons' before the subject was pertinent. I am too badly disfigured for it too really matter but it helps at times.”
“Yellow tribe, not like it matters. I never bloody got to know my own people, and... I haven’t feasted in a very very long time.”
“Well, my friend, shall we?”
“Yes, to the Prush Confederacy! I have always liked their hats!”
And so, yet again, Lucas found himself in the caravan of Bird Von Wal.