Clockwork Princess - Chapter 1
He sneered as the princess left the room. Scheming wenches the lot of them: only out to marry him for money or political power. Sebastian looked over his shoulder at his advisor, who was nervously re-alphabetizing a small stack of treaties or whatever it was he spent his time shuffling in his oily little fingers. “W-well, milord,” the man stammered, “What did you think of Princess…” he squinted at his papers. “Estelle?”
“I don’t trust her,” Sebastian answered, “and she smelled like overripe peaches.”
Head Chancellor and Royal Advisor Belloch sighed. “Well, you do have the right of choice, Prince Sebastian, but frankly there aren’t many princesses left, you know. You’re 25 already and the people, well – They’re getting anxious.” The advisor mopped his brow. Giving opinions to the prince could be dangerous, especially if he was in one of his moods.
Sebastian adjusted his frock coat after he stood. Belloch sweated some more; Sebastian let him. He liked seeing the little round man sweat. Fear begets loyalty, of a sort, and he could at least trust in that. “Why are the people anxious?” he asked, pretending to be very interested in how a button was setting against the gold trim.
Belloch could have laughed with relief. The prince wasn’t loquacious by any means but long silences, especially now, could mean Bad Things for him. “Well, your highness, it’s just that – that they want to see you happy, and most men at 25 are happily married.” Sebastian raised an eyebrow. “It’s just how things are done. They’re simple folk, sir, and they’ll start to wonder and you know how people can get when they wonder especially without an heir and you being at the age you are and - and what with the other nations looking for an alli-”
“Silence!” Dear God, that man can babble when he’s nervous. But awkward silences are useful when the other party is afraid of them. They’ll fill the air with words, and in their desperation they never think enough to lie. “You may go.” Sebastian dismissed his advisor with a wave of his hand, and the now very pale man scuttled to the door like a hyperactive turtle.
Belloch started as he opened the door out of the salon. “Oh, René!” He turned. “Your highness, René the Clockmaker is here.” René stepped to the side and let Belloch past. The poor man looked more scared out his wits than usual. His highness must be in a good mood today.
“Ah, René. Come on in,” Prince Sebastian smiled and gestured to a chair. Oh, yes. He was in a very good mood.
René walked in, and set the box he had been carrying on the table. “I’ve finished the gift for Princess…” His better eye cast about and found the chair next to the harp still cooling. “Oh.”
Sebastian sat down at the head chair of the table. “Yes, it didn’t go too well.”
“You didn’t trust her?” René asked, watching the heat fade from the chair out of his right eye. Watching things cool or warm up still amused him after all these years, just like how he never got tired of the sharp smell of brass or the taste of copper.
Sebastian looked at his Clockmaker’s eye. “You know, someday I might have you make me one of those. I’ll bet I could see a mouse hiding behind a tapestry; an assassin wouldn’t have a chance.”
René dared a small laugh, “Well, Sire, you’re right. I can see mice through tapestries, and if someone walks around barefoot and I can see their tracks on the marble for a few seconds.” At least Sebastian wasn’t in any denial about his paranoia, and René had to respect that kind of honesty. He had told René that he was still waiting for some of the unicorn horn to add into the poison-detecting device that currently sat unfinished on René’s workbench.
Sebastian mulled over the thought of a clockwork eye as René sat down and opened the case he had brought. A jeweled nightingale, with wings of gold feathers and ivory scales on its breast, sat upon a branch of carved horn and shone in the light from the tall windows. “Well, your highness, even though there is no princess present,” he turned a small key shaped like a flower at the base of the branch, “We can still enjoy a little music.”
The little bird opened his sapphire eyes and ruffled his feathers. They made a soft glass-like tinkle as it stretched its wings and began to sing. Sebastian gasped quietly. “René, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; you are a genius. It’s absolutely stunning.”
René beamed and bowed his head. “Thank you, your highness, but I’m just doing my job, as you asked.” Not like he had a choice, imprisoned as he was in his workroom, forced to make whatever clockwork servants or tools or toys the prince commanded of him. René’s jaw tightened. He loved his job and the fact he had a virtually unlimited budget for anything he could care to make or experiment upon was something most clockmakers would give their normal eye for, but not being able to leave the castle, even under heavy guard was just too depressing to think about.
Prince Sebastian was smiling and humming along with the joyful minuet the nightingale was singing. “I love this song!”
“I know,” René remarked, thankful the prince was too lost in his music to notice the bit of glare creeping over his brow.
The little bird finished his song, and began to preen a bit with its ebony bill. Sebastian watched the clockwork device, musing over the craftsmanship and picking out the little details that René was so good at. Imprisoning René as soon as he had graduated the Academy of Enchanted Clockwork was the smartest thing Sebastian had ever done.
René was the most gifted student they had ever had, so good he had been gifted with a brilliant heat reading and magnifying eye after one of his classmate’s devices had exploded from a bad chemagical reaction. Because of René, Sebastian had clockwork guard dogs, clockwork cleaning automatons and even horses modified with clockwork parts for his hunts and his carriage. Most of his staff had been replaced with mechanical substitutes, and he liked it that way. It was hard to believe they were the same age, given the premature gray streaks in René’s red-orange hair, but Sebastian had heard magic and clockwork could do that to you. Still, he liked clockwork. Clockwork is never late, never makes a mistake and most of all clockwork is loyal. It’s made to be loyal, and it can’t be any other way. “René,” Sebastian asked, as the little bird sat on its branch and looked about the room, “Will this little nightingale you’ve made ever wear out?”
“Oh no, Sir,” René answered, snapped out of his reverie. Something small was in the branches of the bush outside; he could see its heat, and he had been trying to figure out what it was. “This little thing has some of my blood in it, and with the magic and the special oils it shouldn’t even need re-wound. It winds itself back up, see?” Sebastian looked and realized that the little flower at the base of the branch had been slowly turning itself back the opposite way as the bird preened and rested its voice. “It winds itself up whenever it’s not singing. The key comes out, so you can give it to the princess – “ Sebastian gave him a Look, “Well, a princess, so that it only sings when they add the key. Kind of like a special toy or music box that won’t play for anyone else.”
“It’s loyal,” Sebastian remarked, “and it only sings for one person. That’s a nice touch, René.” Lovely, loyal little bird. Singing its heart out for one person and whomever they might decide to share it with.
“I thought you would like that, your highness,” René answered softly. Sebastian was making him a bit sad. He knew Sebastian wanted to find a princess he could trust; it’s not like the man hadn’t tried. The prince had spent piles of gold in traveling expenses for the ladies, and had the jewelers and seamstresses in town working nonstop for the past few years making gifts for them when they arrived and gifts to take back with them if things didn’t work out. Even with clockwork horses and good carriages travel was a bother, and René had lost count of how many noble women and their entourages he had seen come through the castle gates from his high balcony, only to leave in a week or sometimes sooner.
“Well, René,” the prince sighed, standing up and adjusting his lace collar, “I’m going to listen to this little thing for a while and look over some dispatches. Summon the wine cart when you leave.”
“Yes, Sir,” the clockmaker said, taking his cue to leave the man alone with his beloved music and wine. He pulled the appropriate bell cord and closed the door, giving the bronze clockwork hounds at the door a nod as he walked back to the room. If René didn’t know better, he’d think they were statues. He sidestepped the wine cart as it whirred past on its delicate wrought iron wheels, before he reached the main hall. Belloch was in his side office, and René could see a form through the frosted stained glass wall. From the heat it looked like a woman, and he could hear a slight whimpering.
Poor girl, but it was probably better this way. Belloch glanced at René as he walked by the open archway then went back to comforting the despairing Princess Estelle. René sighed as he walked past the doorway and into the south wing. Estelle was incredibly pretty, there was no question of that, and everyone had felt for sure her skills with the harp would at least make the prince give her some serious thought. Oh, well. Now she’s free to find someone who might really appreciate her.
A sudden peal of laughter made René stop in his tracks. He turned and saw Estelle in the hall, holding up a gown with her tears forgotten. “- So beautiful! Oh, Prince Sebastian shouldn’t have! You must give him my thanks!” René could hear rushing footsteps and the rustle of skirts from the gate of the main hall before a gaggle of serving maids and ladies-in-waiting ran up to the princess and gaped and chattered over the dress. He chuckled slightly and kept walking. The prince knew how to please them, at least.
Once in his workroom René slumped into his chair, which had wheeled up to meet him when he entered. He let it carry him to his bench, where Scraps the cat was dozing contentedly on some schematics, as all cats do when there’s unattended paper nearby. How cats could fall asleep when your back was turned René had never been able to figure out. Even with the clockwork bits Scraps needed as much sleep as any other cat; maybe more. “How’s my little scrap heap?” René smiled, and scratched at the cat’s mismatched ears. Scraps purred back, with that chugging, clunking sound only he had.
“Your parts sound good; you catch something while I was gone?” René couldn’t help but laugh as Scraps licked absently at a reddish paw. No wonder he was so happy! “You’re my greatest work, you know,” René said, as he gestured for a rolling bookcase to come over. “Even Sebastian’s dogs can’t hunt like you can.” Scraps gave a haughty look. “Oh, of course they can’t, they’re just dogs. I forgot.” René stood and picked out the book he’d been looking for. His bookstand skittered on pointed legs from its corner and set itself down nearby as the bookcase rolled back into its place in the row of tightly packed shelves. The clockmaker leafed to a page on chemagical compounds regarding poisons and set the book down. Scraps hadn’t budged.
Clockwork he may have, but Scraps was still mostly cat. Different cats, stuck together and bonded with magic and metal and really clever stitching, but he was still a cat. René had found him in a hallway, almost dead after being run over by one of the bronze cleaning machines. He had been a stray and just wandered in, having no idea that there were driverless carts zooming around all over the place. The clockwork René quickly knocked together kept Scraps alive until he could properly replace his back legs and his shredded ear and missing eye. Granted, the new calico ear looked a bit odd with Scraps’ original marmalade coloring, and the black and white magpie hindquarters and plume-like striped tail obviously didn’t match, but Scraps didn’t seem to mind. “You know, you’re lucky yellow is a common eye color for cats,” René remarked, as he tried to slide his papers out from under the animal. “You’d look really funny then.”
The papers weren’t moving. “I shouldn’t have replaced your bones with steel ones.” Scraps purred and clunked as he wiggled over onto his back, displaying his metal claws and daring René to rub his fluffy tummy. “Oh no, I’m not falling for that one. I’m going to sit in bed and read.” René picked the book off the stand and walked into his adjoining bedroom. The curtains opened to let in the light, and a tray with shoes on it slid out from under the bed. The clockmaker took off his shoes and put on his slippers before crawling on top of the covers, stretching out a moment to relax. He had been up all night finishing the nightingale, and even though it wasn’t even noon yet he was exhausted.
By the time Scraps jumped into bed to curl up next to his friend, René was fast asleep.