Another Bit of Steampunk

Continued from The New Machine

The hat felt heavy on my head, like it weighed me down with memories of Wiillem. A new ribbon woven through a pearl button from the machine replaced the broken glass that had decorated the hat when Willem wore it. He dominated my thoughts while I surveyed the clacking and whirring machines in his lab.

I still waited for him to return. I knew he must have been waylaid somewhen. How long had I perched on the steps, motionless, until that first machine faltered? The levers stuck when I examined the workings, and a little oil had it humming smoothly.

Willem’s journal sat on the middle of the counter, open to the page on his time machine. I flipped back through the pages to study his notes on the other inventions.

The journal only contained his inventions and iterations; none of his plans for travel were in any way were included. His log detailed the raw materials and the finished ones, as well as basic maintenance. The drawings sparked ideas in my head, and soon I drew my own notations around his. By the end of the week, I had begun modifying levers and changing gears and generally finding the proper rhythm for efficiency.

I wore the hat always; it gave me purpose and motivation. Everything else remained mine, the fitted corset and jacket with lace collar and sleeves and striped skirts and heavy, gathered bustle. I would continue where Willem left off, so I packed my basket and headed to the faire.

The contents of the basket unpacked covered the vendor space.

A tiny girl, probably small for her age with a streak of mud across her dress, waved a rag. “Shoe shine? Two coppers.”

I considered, then nodded. I might not have money to spare, but she needed it more than I did.

The girl set to work. Customers passed; some looked and some inquired and some purchased an item or two, but no one struck up a conversation.

A knot of people clustered just within earshot, or perhaps they didn’t realize I could still hear them. “What is it about that hat? It’s unnatural.” I needed the connection with him. It was all I had. “She rises above her station. She only sets herself up to fall.” I could see truth to that, but I had no other options. “The prices are expected, but buying from a woman?” I held my face still as stone. I couldn’t change being a woman. “Of course the beggar girl aligns with the female vendor. Like calls to like.” They wanted a reaction. I must not give them one. How could they think I would not hear them?

Passersby had taken the child as a beggar rather than a shoe shine girl. Five copper coins on the ground attested to this idea, yet the girl hadn’t picked them up.

Of course a woman at a stall must only sell her lace or her garden’s fruits. My lace was better suited to cat toys and my garden produced little more than I needed to eat.

The girl finished shining my shoes and collected her coppers. She stared at the coins with the no-nonsense disdain only children can manage.

“And what is it you want, child?” We both knew it wasn’t so easy to ask and have it handed to you.

The girl’s chin set, and like the tiny thing might cry, but then she said, “No family. No ties. Hard work, aye, and earn my way.”

Her words circled in my head. Did she mean to apprentice to me? Willem was master of the lab, and I a pretender. That did not explain all my manipulations of the wonders he created. He must forgive me, but he disappeared. “I may have need of an apprentice.” The pearl button machine, so noisy and hiccuping, would be the first complete redesign. “How old are you?”    

“I’ll be nine,” the girl lied, I knew it without understanding how. But the apprentice age was ten, so she wasn’t lying as much as she might.

“Well, if you’ve nowhere to go, you should come see my shop and my flat when the faire ends. What’s your name, child?” I offered my hand to her. In my head, I amended that to Willem’s shop, but it felt like mine.  

The girl picked up the coppers on the ground and deposited all of them into my hand instead of shaking it. “Maggie.”

We ignored the continuing whispers of onlookers. I packed up the leftover goods in the basket, and Maggie trailed along behind me. How would I care for the girl as well as myself? I knew where the rest of my garden’s fruits would go.

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