For all her visits to the city she had never once been inside the palace. On many occasions she had gone as close as she could, but no further than the grand steps that led up to the main entrance. The prospect of finally doing so blossomed in her mind. She tried to imagine how it would look inside, she pictured vast rooms of stained glass and vanilla marble populated by the finely dressed and hugely important. Long crushed velvet carpets coloured in bottle and leaf green stretched away in her imagination under spectacular arches and giant statues.
She led Victor and Sigmund through a marketplace, which she knew to be the fastest route to the palace. They snaked amongst the crowded stalls weaving past shoppers, ignoring the calls from bellowing traders. The individual stands were laid out haphazardly in aisles and columns littered with dead ends on sudden corners to form a labyrinthine market. Table after table of old books, clothes, vegetables, all priced up and closely guarded. More than once Dot had to backtrack, apologising as she went, to try and find a better route.
The glass of the palace, blackened in the near-dusk light, loomed closer and closer. The gem-pocked walls sunk into mere silhouettes.
Dot, followed closely by Sigmund and Victor, turned corner after corner, and were finally met with the sight of the marble steps leading up to the ornate gate, lit by gas lamps on white poles. There were not many people about, far more leaving than there were entering. Dot looked up the steps, peering inside. She could see a grand chandelier, turquoise in colour, suspending a number of lamps, the frosted glass diffusing the light from inside them into a smoky haze. Sigmund’s grey skin, shining silver on his cheekbones and nose where the light from the street lamps caught it, hovered into the corner of her eye. He was standing a little too close, his breath rattling in his throat gently. She edged slightly away, turning her head away from his, when his hand grabbed suddenly at her arm. Quicker than she could think Sigmund had drawn his knife out from a pocket in his overcoat and had it pressed into the small of her back. An airy gasp escaped her mouth.
Victor stepped up to her. “That which you can feel in your back is a knife. No need to panic however, stay calm and do as you’re told and everything will be just fine. Okay, dear? Scream or run or try anything and Sigmund will open you up and see what spills out.”
Sigmund stepped forward, his grip like metal on her arm, forcing her to step with him. The knife stayed close, she wondered if she had been cut, it felt like she had. Victor and Sigmund flanked her on either side, and walked close to her as they ascended the steps, beige marble littered with green veins. Every muscle in her body was tensed, her face frozen into a blank expression that hid a mind fevered and confused.
The main gate had a guard, stood to attention in the doorway. As they approached he looked down at them. Victor, in a voice as calm as a summer Sunday said simply “We have an appointment with the Artificer.”
“Edgar.” Victor replied convincingly.
The guard stepped to one side and looked closely at a list, most of the names had been crossed off.
“You’re early” He said.
Dot tensed; Sigmund’s breath was warm on the nape of her neck. The guard looked at her and tipped his head. “Ma’am,” he said.
Sigmund twisted the knife slightly, reminding her of its presence. She nodded at the guard gingerly and then looked down at the ground.
“Will we have to wait long? We are in a bit of a hurry,” Victor said.
The guard turned to the list again. “No, the appointment before you didn’t show up. You can go through now.” He turned back to the gate, facing inside. He pointed away down the corridor. “Down there, as far as you can go, last door on the left. Once you have finished come straight back out. Don’t wander around the palace. If you get lost, there are lots of guards around. Ask one of them.”
Victor thanked him and stepped inside. Sigmund pushed on Dot’s arm and they followed behind him, Sigmund moving awkwardly to disguise the knife.
The corridor was long, with glass pillars lining the edges; they caught the light like a prism and decorated the walls with pale rainbows. It was practically deserted, a bureaucrat in rich clothes hurried by with his head down. Dot imagined, in a moment, that he would see the knife, challenge Sigmund, and save her. It didn’t happen. She listened as the clap of his shoes on the polished floor grew quiet, faded and disappeared altogether.
They approached the end of the corridor; outside the last door on the left was a man at a desk, riffling through papers urgently. He looked up at them. Dot’s eyes were glazed with panic now. A drip of sweat ran past her eye, down her cheek. Sigmund’s grip remained tight.
“Binney?” The man said.
He riffled some more and looked at a pocket watch. “Right, Edgar, yes, go right in.” He looked at Dot. “Miss,” he said, “Is everything okay?”
Victor interjected immediately. “She’s here for an abortion.” then he added in hushed privacy “Though she does not want one, you see.”
“Ah,” The man’s tone indicated he saw that sort of thing every day.
Victor opened the door and Sigmund ushered her inside.
The room was enormous. Bookshelves reached all the way up to the ceiling, so full that more books were piled up in front of them. Tables with glass tubes filled with liquids in various shades of crimson sat in two rows. Vials and pots of powders and potions were everywhere. Machines and utensils were scattered all around, piled up, leant against walls. On one side of the room was a chair raised up on long legs with a back that reclined and two rusty red stirrups that stuck out at extreme angles. Cracked leather straps hung limply from the chair’s arms.
At the far end of the room, at a desk piled high with papers and folded open books sat a man. His shoulders hunched over in a broad arc, thin grey hair hung in wisps. He coughed occasionally: a hacking, moist cough.
Victor and Sigmund, still holding Dot close to him, knife still at her back, walked down the centre of the room, their feet clapping on the bare marble.
“One moment,” the man said.” One moment, and I’ll be with you.” He was scribbling something down, the scratching sound of his pen matching his frail, cracked voice. His hands, thinner than the skin that covered them pushed one book aside and pulled another close to him.
“You wouldn’t believe...” he said.
The three of them stopped, stood behind him.
“The alchemists waste their time, trying to turn lead into gold, when all you can really do is turn gold into jewellery. You wouldn’t believe...”
Dot noticed one of the jars on the desk, an eye in a bilious green liquid.
“I have come so far, got so much better. But no one wants to hear, no one has time for my science anymore. But the advances, you wouldn’t believe...”
“We may,” Victor said.
“Ah, but you didn’t come here for this.” He pushed around papers, moving books; his elbow knocked the jar with the eye in, causing it to spin in the liquid. When it came to a rest it seemed to be looking right at Dot. She looked away. He pulled a sheet of paper out from under a pile triumphantly and squinted at it. “You came here for... an abortion. Ah well, pays the rent.”
He began to hoist himself up out of the chair, painfully slowly, his arms shaking as they took the weight of his body.
“Won’t take me a second to get my things together.”
Dot saw Victor reach into his pocket and slowly withdraw his knife.
She couldn’t control herself; without thinking she uttered, “No.” and Sigmund immediately pressed the knife harder into her back. She winced.
“Don’t you worry.” The old artificer muttered, who was now standing and taking a moment to steady his legs. “I’m pretty good, it won’t hurt much and it’ll be over quickly.”
“Quicker than you think.” And in a flash Victor had his arm around the old man’s throat, the knife held up so he could see it. He spun him around so he could see Dot and Sigmund.
“Sigmund?” He said. “I thought you were...”
“Dead?” Sigmund said.
“Not destroyed.” Victor said, his puffy face reaching around the old man so he could see it, red lips cracking by his straw coloured skin. “Very much alive.”
Dot looked at the Artificer, his face matched her feelings, stunned, alone. Victor’s arm was so tight around his throat he was gasping at air, changing colour to fleshy purple. His eyes, the only part of his old face that still had any youth left, darted back and forth, from Victor to Sigmund, Sigmund to Dot, Dot to Victor.
“Victor,” His voice was strained and rasping, “What’s going on here?”
“You have no idea, do you?” Victor said, a voice laced with malice.
“I’ll do the abortion for free.” He stuttered which earned a laugh from Victor.
“We don’t need an abortion.” Sigmund said. “The girl is a ruse.”
Dot felt relief at merely being a ruse; her mind had been mortified at the idea of an abortion on her childless body, and while she wasn’t sure exactly what an abortion entailed exactly sure was sure it was messy and more than likely painful.
“Then what do you want of me?” The Artificer spluttered.
“We want you to finish what you started, to make us whole.”
The Artificer’s eyes flicked too and fro from Victor to Sigmund and back again. Their faces, covered with hard expressions, reminded him of why he left them unfinished in the first place. Their selfishness frequently crossed over into cruelty as and when it suited them. Necessity, he was sure, was the only reason they even stayed loyal to each other. He had in fact completed them at one point, a whole body with every limb and organ necessary to be fully alive. And that had bought with it shocking consequences.
Before Sigmund and Victor, the Artificer had made a cat: a tiny thing, covered with ginger hair -- horse hair as he recalled -- bleached to obtain the colour he desired. The cat was always around him, circling his legs, stroking its body against his shins, purring gently. But it never left the house; the small cat flap he had installed had never once been used. It cowered from the sounds from the streets, ran to the safety of dark corners between desks and bookshelves at the sound of thunder, hid behind the Artificer in the presence of everybody, peering out cautiously from behind its creator. Once he had completed Sigmund and Victor it rarely left its basket, watching them intently. It came out only when they were not around.
He had returned home one day to find it dead, lying in its basket, skinned. He found Sigmund and Victor holding the cats pelt, taking it in turns to rub it on their faces.
“Why don’t we have skin like this?” Victor had asked.
“It didn’t even try to fight back,” Sigmund had said with cold innocence.
That had been twenty years ago, at least.
Shortly after that he had operated again on them, removing parts in an effort to humanize them. He doubted they could remember. But how he had failed -- to humanize something by removing something fundamentally human -- was, he now realized, a naïve error.
“I don’t have the parts,” he said, aware that while true his constant stammering made it sound like a lie.
Sigmund pushed forward on Dot’s arm, forcing her to step forward awkwardly but still gripped tightly to her.
“We have the parts.”
Grim, awful reality rained down on Dot’s mind like hail on a window. Her heartbeat, that now crashed against her chest as though it were trying to escape, quickened and quickened. She knew she had no one but herself to blame, that she had walked willingly into this. And while she suspected that had she refused Sigmund and Victor anything that had requested of her she would have been forced to this very position regardless, she was very much aware of every step she had taken to get here, uncoerced, rented. In charge of her own destiny, Victor had said and now she saw that as what it was: manipulation and nothing more.
Sigmund marched Dot towards the chair with the stirrups and pushed her down into it. Victor walked towards it, dragging the Artificer along by the throat almost absent-mindedly. Dot sat still, Sigmund towering over her, his sickly grey skin slick with oily sweat. She wanted to move, struggle, fight, make a run for the door, scream. Fear kept her seated, still but for her shaking hands and eyes that flicked jaggedly. Sigmund grabbed her arm and fastened the strap around it tightly, the decaying, aged leather digging into her skin.
“We tried to do it ourselves you know,” Victor said, his hot breath steaming the Artificer’s glasses as he lurched his head around into his face. Sigmund fastened the other strap.
“We tried all kinds of ways, we tried eating them, we tried smoking them. Course that was after we tried to implant them, obviously,” Victor said.
Sigmund turned to face him and lifted his shirt, tracing a finger along a scar that encircled where his heart should be.
“But our surgical skills are not as good as yours. We got good at removing the organs eventually, but the first couple of times we butchered them. Not the people; they got butchered every time, of course, but it takes a lot of delicacy to remove a heart, even more to remove a brain. The skull, it’s so tough to get through that it’s easy to accidentally slice the brain.”
Sigmund walked to a table, one covered with saws and clips and blades and bowls.
“Tell me,” Victor said, “how did you remove the brain?” He eased his grip on the Artificer, who stood looking at Dot. Her wide eyes, moist with emerging tears looked back at him.
In the back of her mind, behind the fear and the anxiety and the certainty of the close proximity of death or, more frightening, pain, a tiny thought formed. So this is the city. This is what she had daydreamed her days away about. This was the culmination of everything she had wanted, and while she knew that under different circumstances it would not be quite so terrifying, not quite so brutal, this was it, this was the city. And now, as moments passed painfully slow, she daydreamed herself back to the little village, the simple pleasure she used to take in cleaning the inn, the harmless, safe little life she had grown to resent. This was in between moments where the sting of the leather straps flared, and Victor’s puffy face gazed at her with frightening curiosity.
When the Artificer spoke his words came out slow and gentle: “I used to pry the skull open, let it snap off from around the brain.” He looked at Dot the whole time, noting with great angst the way her expression changed as her spoke.
“Tell me then, should we kill her now? Or do we need her alive?” Victor inquired.
“Alive.” And the Artificer broke down into pathetic sobs.
Sigmund walked briskly to the Artificer and handed him a scalpel and another device, it looked like a rusted pair of scissors with hooked claws at the end.
“Is this what you use to open the skull?”
The Artificer nodded and Sigmund handed them to him, pressing them against his trembling hands. “Get on with it then.”
“What do you want?” The Artificer said.
“To be whole, to be finished, to be just like you. Now stop stalling.”
Dot arced her head away as the Artificer held the scalpel blade close, but he froze.
“Oh come on,” Victor sighed. “How many times have you done this before anyway? Why so bothered now? Is it because she is pretty? There are other pretty ones, so no great loss.” Victor shoved the Artificer in the back. “How many cats did you have to kill?”
“Five! To make one cat. I’m sure it’s wonderful science and all but it seems a little wasteful. But I swear if you don’t finish what you started with us I will remove all of your organs one by one, starting with the ones that do the least and working up to the vitals.”
The Artificer pressed the scalpel against Dot’s forehead, she winced and pulled away from it. He looked her in the eyes, bloodshot and narrowed with anger. Dot pulled on the straps that bound her wrists to the rusted arms of the chair. The leather was years old, decayed and cracked, it stretched with every pull. The Artificer moved slowly, stalling but always continuing forward, Dot could tell his own fear had grown larger than his concern for her.
The leather dug deeper and deeper into her skin as she pulled, The Artificer made a tiny incision in her forehead and a tiny trickle of blood started down her face. The cracks of the leather widened and widened as she felt the leather stretching. One of the straps broke, sending her arm flailing upwards, knocking the Artificer’s hand away from her face, and then she shoved him hard in the chest, sending him reeling backwards, crashing into Sigmund.
The whole world seemed to collapse into slow motion. Every thought that entered Dot’s mind seemed to appear slowly and gestate into articulate clear words. I’ll show you who’s in charge of her own destiny.
She pulled on the other strap, causing the already tight leather to dig into her arm but allowing the hasp on the buckle to loosen and she pulled her arm free. Sigmund lashed out again at the Artificer, causing the man’s old body to crumple and curl as it collapsed to the ground. Dot stood, Victor’s head turning dramatically to look at her, but the Artificer slashed and waved the scalpel wildly. It caught Victor across the face as he fell; a thick flow of sand began to fall out from behind his broken skin. Victor turned back to the Artificer, now helpless on his back and began kicking viciously at him.
Dot ran, crashing against a table, knocking into the jars and vials, some fell from the table, shattering on the floor. Reality was awoken by the sound of the glass exploding on the marble floor; time seemed to accelerate suddenly, the sounds of the Artificer’s cries appearing from nothing: weak, wounded cries. Dot looked back and saw Sigmund starting towards her. Victor crouched by the Artificer, raining down vicious punches, his leg twitched rapidly, and his cries ceased abruptly.
She started clattering around the table as Sigmund loomed close, she grasped at a glass jar of clear liquid, the word “Warning” printed on its label in large red type. She hurled it at him. The jar exploded against his face, shattering into thousands of tiny shards and tinkling as they landed on the floor. The liquid on his face started to smoke, his skin reacting violently, large deep burns that dissolved away his slate grey skin. He clutched his face in obvious, though silent, agony.
She ran for the door, moving as quickly and quietly as she could, her knees were weak, her whole legs shaking. Something caught her eye as she went; by the door was a table, standing upright. Across the front of it were leather straps, fastened over something under a grey cloth. Her head turned as she walked; there was something familiar about the shape. It was the shape of a man, broad and muscular, only this one was not whole. It was minus the shape of a head and an arm. Nausea rushed around inside her, she paused momentarily to vomit.
“You idiot,” Sigmund cried, still clawing at his face with his metallic fingernails, “we needed him alive.”
And with those words, Dot broke into a run. She shoved the door aside and ran out into the corridor, past the man at the desk who said nothing as she went, past the guard at the door, who smirked as she ran.
She ran through the nearly deserted market place and down the streets, past the prostitutes, still with their skirts hitched. Her pace slowed, but she continued to run, exhausted and desperate, away from the Artificer, away from Victor and Sigmund. Away from the City of Glass and Gems, glowing emerald in the moonlight, and she didn’t stop until her feet were once again walking back down the road, paved from end to end with yellow bricks.
Copyright © 2003 by Toby Wallis