Short Story – “Clockwork Roses”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Sunday Steampunk Short Story. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

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“Clockwork Roses”

by Katie Lynn Daniels

To say my father was obsessed would be an understatement. It was more like a mania—a driving need to be surrounded by automated gadgets, toys, and clever creations no matter how costly and useless they were. My father was wealthy, but he drained the royal coffers to create mechanical servants, mechanical courtiers, and mechanical Royal Advisors. These last were the most useless and costly of all, for their recommendations led the kingdom to ruin and war. Yet so enamored was my father with their life-like capabilities that he never dreamed of ignoring their advice.

When I was seven my father sent away Leandra, my chambermaid and best friend. In her place he gave me a mechanical servitor. I didn’t want the robot. I wanted my friend, and in a childish rage I went to my father’s throne room to demand an explanation.

“The automaton is better than any human friend, child,” he consoled me. “Leandra would have grown up to abuse your friendship and manipulate your position of power. The automaton will be a truer friend for it will never hurt or betray you.”

“How can it be my friend?” I pouted. “It doesn’t even have a name.”

“You can name it whatever you want,” my father assured me, so for a time I was mollified. I missed Leandra terribly but the automaton, whom I called Sophia, was everything my father had promised and more. She obeyed my every whim, playing whatever games I wanted to play, letting me win, and never tiring. Sophia was an endless source of ideas and information, for her data banks were filled with all the knowledge of the kingdom.

Years passed by quickly, and I was seventeen when I awoke and realized that I had not had contact with a single human being outside of my father in ten years, and that I could scarcely feed myself, let alone do my sums or govern a kingdom. When Sophia came to dress me that day I sent her away. Instead of wasting my time on games and amusements I sat in the window for hours on end, watching the empty, sunlit courtyard, and trying to work the tangles out of my own hair.

The next day I did the same thing, and the next. I watched the sun’s shadows change across the sundial that stood near to my window. I watched the endless bubbling fountain in the middle of the courtyard. I watched the cloudless blue sky, and I waited.

I did not know what I was waiting for until it happened—another human being arrived at the castle. It was only a harried dusty messenger, riding in to the courtyard, but I clambered out of the window and summoned Sophia to dress me and do my hair. I swept through the palace, scattering robots in my wake, and I reached the throne room before the butterflies in my stomach could have a chance to convince me to go back.

Two sentries in shining brass armor stood on either side of the great doors. From a distance they resembled the human soldiers who once wore those suits, but up close they were deathly still, and their eyes glittered red behind the visors.

I drew a deep breath, stood as straight as I could and asked peremptorily: “Is the messenger within?”

“What messenger, my lady?” they replied together.

“The human messenger,” I said impatiently. “I saw him arrive not half an hour since.”

“The human messenger is not here, my lady,” the sentries told me. “He is speaking to one of the Royal Advisors in the receiving room.”

“One of the Royal Advisors?” I questioned. “Why? Shouldn’t my father hear his message for himself?”

“Your father considers the interaction with humans to be a messy and unpleasant affair,” I was told. “He prefers to hear the message in a more logical and concise form from the Royal Advisor.”

“I see,” I said coldly, and I did.

I turned and fled, my sandals slapping against the stones as I ran to escape from those cold, mechanical eyes. All at once the castle, my home, had become a prison to me. Everywhere, I was surrounded by clockwork men and mechanical wonders. As a child they had enchanted me—as an adult I saw them as they were—sinister imitations of life.

The murals of the palace wall, once depicting scenes of picnics and hunting parties, had been replaced sometime in the last ten years by schematics and diagrams and mechanical drawings. I had never noticed. I had been too caught up in myself to care.

I reached the receiving room and took a moment to compose myself. These creatures of my father’s were also my servants, I reminded myself. They would do as I said.

I raised my hand, and the doors opened of their own accord. I stepped inside and took in the situation. The messenger was seated on a low stool, eating from a plate of refreshments. One of my father’s mechanical Royal Advisors was seated across from him. His face was made of bronze plates, cleverly contrived to appear almost human. He wore clothes as a human would, and was leaning back in his seat with all the arrogance of royalty. At my entrance he stood and proffered a low bow, and I told myself that the condescension I felt from it was only imaginary.

“My lady,” said the royal advisor.

I raised my chin a trifle higher and indicated the messenger, who merely stared, his manners forgotten like the food he had just been eating. An olive remained suspended in his hand between table and mouth, eerily reminiscent of a painting of a surprised banquet diner I had seen as a child.

“Are you finished with him?” I asked.

“Yes, my lady,” said the Royal Advisor.

“Very good,” I said. “You may report to my father immediately.”

“Yes, my lady.”

He bowed again, and left. The door closed magically behind him. I assumed the seat he had just vacated and regarded the messenger: the first human being I had seen in ten years.

He was still sitting exactly as he was when I entered, the expression on his face betraying that he was more surprised to see me then I was to see him. While I relished the opportunity to stare myself, I was too impatient for answers to enjoy the moment.

“You may speak,” I informed him, and he started, dropping the olive, which rolled away under the table.

“Are you real?” he asked me. “Or simply another marvel, more wonderful than all that has gone before?”

“I am real,” I assured him. “I am flesh and blood such as yourself.”

He shook his head and glanced down, away from me.

“Surely not,” he said, his voiced strained. “Mortal flesh and blood could not contrive to make a vision as beautiful as you are.”

I did not have time for this.

“I am real,” I repeated. I stood and offered my hand. “Touch me and see.”

He stood as well, and it seemed he was shamed by his words.

“I would not dare,” he protested.

“Touch me,” I insisted.

Cautiously he took my hand and raised my fingers to his lips. I trembled at his touch as I had never trembled before, and snatched my hand back as if it had been burned.

I sat quickly to hide my discomfiture and he sat as well, regarding me differently than he had before. I wasted no more time.

“What message did you bring to my father the king?” I demanded.

The messenger shook his head. “I brought no message to your father,” he said. “The message I bring is for you.”

“Me?” I repeated stupidly.

“To you: Hestia, daughter of King Midas of Phrygia,” the messenger repeated.

“And—and what is this message?” I stammered.

“Save us,” the messenger said simply. “Save us all from the madness your father has wrought or we will perish.”

He stood again, adopting the attitude of a supplicant, and I found my mouth dry and devoid of clever words.

“And…and…you are…”

“I come on behalf of all of Phrygia, my lady,” the messenger said. “Your kingdom is dying and the land itself has cried out in its agony and begged me to come and make our troubles known to you.”

“But what can I do?” I gasped.

“Stop him,” the messenger said. He crossed the distance between us and dropped to his knees at my feet. He was so close to me that I could smell the dust of the road and horses’ sweat on him. “Stop him,” he repeated in a whisper.

“How?” I whispered back. “I am a prisoner here, and helpless.”

“You are his daughter, and precious to him.”

“He loves me, it is true, but his madness is beyond all reason.”

“Your birthday is approaching, is it not?”

I nodded mutely, remember birthdays past, all marked by gifts of gold, jewels, and cunningly contrived devices that could walk, or talk, or sing.

“When your birthday comes you will ask your father for one thing,” the messenger said, staring at me intently. “You will make him promise to grant it, no matter what the request may be.”

“And what will I ask for?” I breathed.

He moved closer to me and I felt his breath against my ear as he answered: “A kiss.”

 

 

 

The messenger took my hand and led me out of the castle and into the sunlight. I stepped out of my sandals and wriggled my toes against the heated flagstones. The messenger whistled and his horse trotted over, shaking fountain water out of his mane. I reached out a hand and he snuffled against it. As from a distance I heard myself laugh in delight, as I felt I had never laughed before.

“What is his name?” I asked.

“Tachys,” the messenger answered. “He is the fastest horse in Phrygia, perhaps in all of Greece.”

He did not wait for my hesitant request. I felt his strong hands circle my waist, lifting me into the air to settle on Tachys’ broad back. He vaulted onto the horse behind me and, before I knew what was happening, he snapped the reins and we were moving.

The mechanical eyes of the castle gates discerned our approach and opened of their own accord as we spend through. Then we were away, running free before the wind. I had never known what it was like to move so fast. I clutched Tachys’ mane tightly in both hands and shrieked aloud as the country sped by in a blur, and the wind caught my voice before it reached my ears and carried it away.

The messenger kept one hand firmly around my waist but I didn’t notice his presence until we slowed our terrifying flight and came to a stop atop a brown hill. I sat quietly, catching my breath, and surveying for the first time my kingdom from beyond the walls.

My sense of elation drained away to be replaced by dread foreboding. It settled in the pit of my stomach like lead and stayed there as I strained to hear any birdsong or see any movement in the hills and plains around us.

In the palace artificial birds sang to amuse me, and clocks and gears chattered and whirred in a never-ceasing conversation. I had never heard silence like this. The only sound was the muted rustle of wind as it swept over the barren landscape.

The sun shone brightly and the sky was cloudless. My eyesight was perfect but I could see nothing but bare earth. No trees, no grasses or flowers or fresh running water. Forests and meadows had been razed to the ground to provide fuel for my father’s forges, and nothing but rubble remained.

And there, nestled between two hills, was my father’s palace. The bronze and copper gleamed like gold in the afternoon sunlight. The helmets and spear-points of the sentries glittered as they paced the wall like clockwork. Twenty-four hour protection, my father had told me when he posted them, delighted with this new practical use of his automatons. No need to eat or sleep, incorruptible, ever-attentive. We would never fear attackers again.

What attacker, I wondered now, would bother with this wasteland of a kingdom?

I did not realize that I was crying until I tried to draw breath and it caught on a sob. I raised both hands to my mouth to keep it in, and the messenger settled his palms on my shoulders in comfort until it passed.

Into the unnatural silence he asked me: “What do you know of your father’s affliction?”

“Not as much,” I answered, “As I thought I did.”

“Ask him,” the messenger said, “And he will tell you. He is a broken man, Hestia, and unless you find a way to stop him, your country will perish.”

“And how,” I whispered, “Will I do that?”

“In his madness your father wishes to change the world that has been given him into one of his own making. On the evening of your birthday we will grant him that wish.”

Whether he dropped the “we” intentionally or by accident I never knew. I did not utter the question that suddenly flashed across my thoughts, and only sat up straighter, my heart suddenly hammering against my chest in excitement and fear. And if the messenger noticed that I suspected he was not as human as I had thought at first, he did not mention it.

“From that day forward everything he touches will be transformed according to his wishes,” he continued. “He wants to be surrounded by clockwork men, and so that is all that shall be given to him.”

“And so, when he kisses me…” I said, my mouth dry.

“He will lose the only thing he truly loves.”

The answer was painful in its simplicity.

“And will that heal him?” I dared to ask.

“Can I give away the ending to a story not yet written?” the messenger demanded. “I have told you only what you need to know to make a choice. To save your kingdom.”

I bowed my head in acquiescence and asked the question burning on my tongue.

“You’re not really a messenger, are you?”

“Oh, I’m a messenger,” he said, and I turned my head to see the enigmatic smile on his face. “Just not from the subjects of Phrygia.”

I left it at that, and we rode back to the castle at a more sedate pace then we had left it. I slid off of Tachys’ back before the messenger could dismount and help me—discomfited by his presence now that I knew what he was.

“Be brave,” he said, and I focused on Tachys’ mane to avoid looking at him. “Remember.”

“Wait,” I said, as he gathered up the reins. “Will you give me something?” I asked. “To remember by?”

I chanced a glance at him, afraid of what I would see, but he still looked dusty and travel-worn and—mortal.

“There is nothing here,” I explained. “Only my father’s endless creations. It is all dead, lifeless; desolate. Please, I know what you can do. Give me something living so that I might be reminded of what I am fighting for.”

For a moment I thought he was going to refuse me, but then the lines in his face relaxed and he smiled.

“Hold out your hands,” he told me.

I did, and he poured black soil into them. I stared at it in curiosity and wonder until he said:

“The earth is full of seeds. Plant it in sunlight and give it water and they will grow.”

“Grow into what?” I wondered.

His smiled held no answers as he told me: “That depends on you.”

 

 

 

I planted the soil in a box in the courtyard beneath my window. Every morning I went out and sprinkled water on it and worried about my future. My birthday was only a few weeks away and in desperation I tried to find a way to escape my fate. Perhaps the messenger was wrong. Surely my father would not ask for such a terrible gift. Surely the gods would not give it to him.

I contemplated breaking my promise; running away somewhere safe and making a new life for myself. But I imagined a world where every human being he met was transformed into a lifeless machine, and I knew that he had to be stopped, and that I had to do it.

Once I thought wickedly that if only my father were dead then I would be queen and the problem solved. The thought scared me so badly that for a week I had nightmares; of myself standing over my father with a bloody dagger, of coming down to breakfast to find his corpse slumped over the cheese and olives, of my servitor Sophia coming to inform me that I would be next.

It worsened to where I could not sleep, and I abandoned my bedchamber to spend the night on my knees in the cold, empty courtyard. In desperation I prayed to Hestia, my namesake and the goddess of home and family. I begged for forgiveness and the courage to face what lay ahead As my knees grew cold and my voice hoarse, and the first light of dawn filled the desolate hills, I found myself making a request of another god—Hermes, the winged messenger of the heavens.

“Give me roses,” I begged, “And I will do everything you asked of me.”

When at last the dawn was truly come, I abandoned my vigil and stood, my legs shaking from the ache of kneeling all night. I headed back indoors for my breakfast and then my bed but I stopped transfixed as I saw the plot of earth beneath my window.

The day before there had been nothing; not a speck of green or growing things. But now, now rose bushes stood nearly as tall as I did, and the flowers they bore were as golden as my hair. I saw them and burst into tears—for myself, for the gods, and for the fate of my miserable father. What would become of him, I wondered, when he saw what he had done to me? Insane he might be, but his love for me was true.

Perhaps, I thought, daring to hope, there was another way. My heart flooded with new purpose, and I gathered an armful of the fullest blooms to take with me to breakfast.

My father was waiting for me, as he always did, and his face lit up when he saw me, as it always did.

“Hestia, my dear child,” he said. “You look ill. Is anything the matter?”

“I spent the night in the courtyard,” I said. “Praying.”

“Ah.” His brow furrowed, as if he were trying to remember something long forgotten. “And did the gods hear your prayers?”

“They did,” I said, and I laid the roses on his plate.

His eyes filled with wonder. “Hestia!” He exclaimed. “These are—these are amazing! Wherever did you find them?”

“They were a gift,” I said simply.

“They are wonderful,” he said, examining them. “The intricacy of design. Just imagine if such a thing could be constructed of metal…bronze perhaps, plated in gold…and the way they know innately to open and close at sunrise, and sunset. The smallness of gears required, well, it’s almost impossible to imagine!”

I watched his delight as he picked my flowers to pieces, leaving petals and stems strewn across the breakfast table, and my heart sank from hope into despair once more.

“Father,” I said, struggling to keep my tone light. “My birthday is next week.”

“Is it, child?” He said, barely glancing up from his dissection.

“It is,” I said. “Father, will you promise to give me whatever I want as my birthday gift?”

“Of course, Hestia,” he said, chuckling. “And what might that be?”

I schooled my smile to secrecy and said: “I will tell you on the day, father. And whatever it is, you must grant it.”

“Of course,” he repeated. “Now come here, child, and eat your breakfast before it gets cold.”

 

 

 

And so the morning of my birthday dawned.

It was a beautiful, cloudless day, and I realized for the first time how long it had been since it had rained. Years, perhaps—since my father stripped away the trees and foliage that were necessary to producing thunderstorms. I wondered how Phrygia had managed to survive this long. I wondered how my people lived without rain to water their crops.

I let Sophia dress me and plait my hair, moving through the standard rituals of morning without letting myself think that today would be my last. Some irrational part of my brain tried to hold out hope that it was all an elaborate illusion and that today would be no different than any past birthday, but after the day of the roses I had stopped questioning my fate and given myself whole-heartedly to the will of the gods.

It was the will of the gods that I die to save my kingdom.

My father was expecting me for breakfast, so I sent Sophia away and went down to the courtyard alone to collect some of my roses for my hair.

The first thing I noticed as I stepped outside was the silence. I couldn’t place it at first, and then I realized that the ever-present sound of running water had ceased. I rushed over to the fountain and found it frozen—suspended in its ceaseless motion by virtue of having been turned to solid bronze.

Horror crept over me, weighing upon my limbs as I took slow, careful steps away from the fountain. My father could never have cast a fountain of solid bronze overnight. Its sudden appearance on today of all days could mean only one thing.

I turned to run and then I remembered—my garden, my roses; my promise from the gods. I dreaded to look and yet I had to know. I turned back towards my wing of the castle, and was relieved to see familiar gold shining in the sun. But as I came closer I realized the awful truth—they were gold, yes, but their petals were no longer soft, and instead of a sweet scent there was only the gentle whir of impossibly small clockwork. They were closed up like buds in the early morning. I reached out and touched one and it sprang to life, petals unfurling to reveal more petals beneath, utterly perfect in every way except their lack of life.

In any other world I would have marveled that such a thing could exist, but today the miraculous engineering was hateful to me. I wanted my flowers back. I had wanted to carry roses in my hands as I went to meet my fate, to remind me that life would persevere in my absence. Now even that simple treasure had been taken from me.

I wanted to rage in anger and pain, then. I wanted to rail against my fate and rescind my promise to my gods. I wanted to make my father suffer the way I had suffered all these years, but I did none of these things. Perhaps because I was a coward, perhaps because I am a queen, I gathered my ruined roses into my arms and went weeping to see my father.

He rose when he saw me coming, his welcoming smile turning to anguish when he saw my tears.

“Hestia, my dear!” he exclaimed. “Whatever is wrong?”

Unable to speak, I held out the metal flowers.

“But what is wrong?” he repeated, examining them. “They are amazing, are they not? They are perfect in every way!”

“They are dead,” I whispered through my tears. “Everything that made them special is gone.”

“But, Hestia–” my father said, and trailed off. I saw then what I had missed before, that the anguish in his eyes went much deeper than the concern of a father for his only child. I glanced at the table and saw a breakfast of copper, brass, and clockwork shimming in the morning light. I mustered a smile, however tremulous, and said:

“It is no matter. Father, today is my birthday!”

“So it is, Hestia,” he said, smiling in turn. “So it is. Happy birthday, dear. And what manner of gift is suitable for the beautiful woman you have become?”

“Only a kiss from my beloved father,” I said.

I cherished his smile, and the deep resonance of his laugh. “But of course, daughter,” he said.

I relished the warmth on my face for the last time, and the feel of linen against my skin. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply of the summer air as he pulled me close, and pressed his lips to my forehead.

And my world went dark, and I knew nothing.

 

 

 

I cannot tell what transpired next, for I was not there. I was blissfully absent while my father wept and beat his breast and begged me again and again to breathe once more; to live, to speak to him. I was not there to see the empty husk of my body answer him back and claim to be me, even while the click of the clockwork belied the automaton’s words.

I heard only later, much later, how for hours he begged with the gods to show him mercy, how he repented of his obsession and the evil he had done, and promised anything—anything if only they would give me back to him. I cannot do justice to the telling for I was not there when Hermes appeared in all his glory and splendor to bargain with my father and to take back the terrible gift he had been given.

I knew nothing from the moment my father kissed me until I felt someone shaking me, as if to wake me from slumber, and the messenger’s voice whisper in my mind: “Wake up, Hestia, and return to the living. You have done well, and you shall be richly rewarded.”

Then my father was clinging to me, weeping, and I was soaking wet. I stumbled, unused to the sensation of being alive, and we both knelt on the floor of the breakfast room clinging to each other and weeping for joy.

I could not understand what my father was saying to me, for his words were obscured by emotion. Neither could I ask what had taken place, for I was too amazed at being alive. His sobs finally turning to laughter, my father took me by the hand and pulled me to my feet and over to the breakfast table. There was a pitcher of water standing upon it, a solid, earthen pitcher without moving parts or strange ornamentation. My father chose one of the copper sausages and dipped it in the water, and it came out a regular, if very wet, breakfast sausage of pork and seasonings. He took a bite out of it and handed the rest to me. Still laughing too much for words, he seized the pitcher in one hand and led me out to the courtyard.

My roses stood desolate under my window, creaking as their bronze stems waved in the hot, dry wind. My father led me over to them and I touched one gently, watching as the gears whirred, opening up under my fingers. But my father pulled my hand away and dipped it into the pitcher. I flicked my wet fingers, scattering water everywhere, and the golden metal transformed, turning green and yellow before my wondering eyes as life bloomed once more where there had been only machinery.

Then I laughed too, and sprinkled the water again and again until all the flowers were alive and vibrant under the sun.

Then I looked down at the pitcher, and saw how little water was remaining. I shivered in my wet clothes, and remembered the puddle I had come back to life in. I looked up at my father and saw the troubled look in his eyes, and knew we had only once chance at redemption.

“Hestia,” my father said, and said no more.

“Water,” I said, “is the source of life.”

He turned and looked and saw what I saw—the bronze-cast fountain that lived no more.

“Together,” he said, and we raised the pitcher in both hands, and poured the last precious water into the fountain’s bowl.

For a breathless moment nothing happened. Then the bronze began to fade, melting away like dirt washed off of a long-buried plate. Slowly at first, and then in a rush, the fountain collapsed back into liquid water, and the gurgle of it filled the courtyard.

And then a miracle happened.

The water from the fountain rose up, but instead of halting at its apex as it was wont to do, it continued on, up into the sky, a swirling pillar of water being drawn into the heavens. My father and I stood hand in hand, necks craned back to watch it as it continued, more water then could be contained in our fountain, more water than must exist in all of Phyrgia.

The gentle gurgle became a roar that drowned out all conversation, and the thick smell of ozone filled the air. The sky grew dark, and the wind began to blow; not a light, dry wind like I had experienced all my life, but the strong, heavy wind of an approaching thunderstorm.

“Accept our sacrifice!” My father shouted above the gale. “Give us life!”

And then it began to rain.

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