* * *
“Sire, may I see it?”
“The automaton?” The king sighs. “You’ve seen it before, Jarvis.”
“Yes Mi’Lord, I ask only to allow a young artisan to sketch it. We may learn to augment the infirm.”
The king rises from his desk, turning his attention to Jarvis. “Do you think that wise?”
“Mi’Lord, she destroyed the automaton.”
“Where is Snow?”
“Mi’Lady is supervising construction of an orphanage in the northern reach of the kingdom.”
“She is not to know about it. Ensure your artisan knows the penalty for defying me.”
Jarvis nods first to the king, and then to a royal guard. The guard opens one of the ornate doors, and a young woman enters. The trio walk to a stone wall off of the the throne room. The king withdraws an apple made of solid gold and places it in an ornamental set of scales on a pedestal prominently displayed against the wall. Its purpose is to be a symbol of the king’s fairness when resolving conflicts among his people.
The artisan’s eyes grow as the apple weighted one side and as the tray sank, an audible click echoed off the tall ceiling. A section of wall slides aside, brass wheels squeaking as they reveal earthen steps leading down into the mountain the castle was built from.
After Jarvis and the artisan disappear down the steps, the king removes the apple, and watches as the wall restore itself. He returns to his desk, and removes a fragment of glass from a hidden drawer. He holds the broken glass fragment up, staring at his reflection, the edges rough as if it had been smashed from a larger piece.
“Magic mirror in my hand…”
The fragment’s reflection begins to cloud, and a blurry face materializes. “Master?” it responds.
“Let me know when Snow returns to the castle.”
“It is done.”
“Show me the automaton’s chamber.”
The face fades and the king’s reflection morphs into a view of an earthen chamber. The chamber is blocked from view by the artisan’s pale features. Her lips move, but no sound comes from the glass fragment. The king leans the fragment against a leather-bound book and his eyes repeatedly dart to it as he tries to complete paperwork.
* * *
“It is,” Jarvis replies. “The mirror was cracked into seven fragments, when the evil queen hurled a goblet at it. His majesty is undoubtedly watching us from another fragment.”
The artisan glances furtively at the glass fragment as Jarvis inserts a key into a simple wooden door, and throws it open. Past the door frame is a brass clockwork automaton. It stands six feet, the brass components reflecting light from a surface so perfect, it couldn’t have been forged in this or any other kingdom that the artisan knew of. It perfectly mimicked the human body with bones and muscle. The only thing missing is the head and right arm. Where they would’ve been ending in mangled metal.
The artisan reaches toward the automaton, and jerks her hand away when she hears grinding metal.
Jarvis let out a belly laugh and drops a piece of brass to the floor as the artisan whirls toward him. He steps away from the wall where he had scratched it with the brass.
“Forgive me, young artisan, it’s sort of a tradition when someone sees it for the first time.”
The artisan let out a breath. “I thought it was alive.”
Jarvis let out his own breath, the mischievous smile fading from his lips. His features became a shadow, and a morose frown replaced the fading smile. “It was,” he whispered.
The artisan raises her eyebrows and tilts her head.
“What you see here is a killing machine.”
“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until its target is dead.”
The artisan steps away from the automaton. “Who was its target?”
Jarvis leans against the wall. “His majesty was the target.”
The artisan steps back again, nearly tripping over the door jamb.
Jarvis sighs. “I’ll tell you a story, but you will never repeat it. Especially not to the queen.”
The artisan nods conspiratorially.
“What’s your name, girl?”
The artisan swallows a lump in her throat. “Sarah.”
“Well, Sarah, this story happened when his majesty was still a young boy, a huntsman to be precise. It’s the story of a clockwork machine from the future, with a mission to terminate his majesty to prevent his from meeting his queen.”
Sarah sat on the earthen floor mute, waiting for Jarvis to continue.
* * *
“John!” The voice echoed off nearby trees. “John!”
John looks up and skitters away from his tutor. He moves continuously, to keep the pigs and their mud between them.
“You’re late for your studies.”
John kept moving as the tutor circled the pig pen. “I’ve decided I’m not studying today,” he announced.
The tutor examines the distance between them. “I shall inform your father of your decision.”
John stops circling the pen, and a smile creeps across his lips as the tutor turns to leave. The tutor spins and leaps over the pigs, landing in mud covering John in pig filth. She jumps again and crashes into a sputtering John. She kneels with one knee on John’s chest.
Leaning forward, she whispers into John’s ear. “I’ve been watching you for many years, and the time is near.”
“Time…” John squirmed under her knee. “Time for what?”
“The beginning,” the tutor whispers. “The end.”
“What are you blathering about?”
“The evil queen.”
“What evil queen?”
“The evil queen who will cast a spell on your wife.”
“I’m not married, Reese.”
“You will be.” Reese stares at the surrounding forest. Birds scatter from the canopy as a crashing noise is heard. Lightning flashes repeatedly, starting small fires in the underbrush. Something is coming toward them.
John stares as wildlife thunder from the bush. “They’re terrified,” he screams to Reese.
With steam escaping from articulating joints, a gleaming brass man emerges from shadows along the tree line. Its clockwork parts partially visible behind a brass chest plate. The automaton tears a tree trunk from the ground, roots littering clumps of soil, and launches the tree like a javelin. Reese pushes John out of the way, and she barely avoids the projectile.
John scrambles and stares up at Reese’s outstretched hand.
“Come with me if you want to live.”
Next: Floating Smile