Hello, Internet! Welcome today’s Flash Fiction Friday guest, Jana Denardo! She brings us a sweeping steampunk adventure of clockwork love!
Strange Bronze by Jana Denardo
Vernon fisted his hands in Strange’s shirt, lifting him off his feet. Strange flinched away from Vernon’s sweaty face, patterned with gin blossoms. The cheap alcohol sourness of Vernon’s breath rolled over Strange. Vernon growled, “We’re running late because of you. You have to set up the merchandise. Wait! Did you say you ate the master key?”
Strange squirmed free, stumbling as he touched ground. He nearly fell onto the automatons lined up along the auction house wall. “It was an accident,” he mumbled, keeping a wary eye on Vernon.
Vernon raised his hand but halted when the auctioneer called his name and told him to ready his first lot. Vernon glared at Strange. “I should cut the key out of you. The Bronze was supposed to be the centerpiece. How could you swallow a key?”
“I had it in my mouth so I could finish dressing Bronze.” Strange waved a hand at the bronze-skinned automaton sitting frozen on a chair. “Then I tripped. It hurt.”
“It’ll hurt worse coming out.” Vernon leaned close, grabbing Strange by the hair. “And I’m going to take the loss out of your hide. I should never have rescued you from that damn circus. You’re worthless.”
Rescued? He had won Strange from the ringleader in a faro game. Vernon called himself an inventor and caretaker of automatons. Truth was, he stole most of them, managing a few simple repairs. He had nothing to teach Strange but fear. Strange learned repair on his own and now, at sixteen, he needed out from under Vernon’s iron fist.
Vernon slapped Strange down, ravaging his pockets as if not believing the key’d been swallowed. Finally, he shoved Strange away. “Wheel the bronze out in a chair. Someone might still want him.”
Once Vernon had gone out to the auction floor, Strange put his hands on Bronze’s shoulders, resting his cheek against the raven silk strands of his hair. “Soon,” he whispered, and then started moving their automatons out toward the auctioneer’s stagehands.
Strange slipped out into the room, hunkering down in the back. Bronze’s fate was no longer in his hands. He prayed Captain Abbandonato could do her part. She was impossible to miss at the front of the room, over six feet tall and proudly wearing the Airship Sterling’s insignia. His hopes were riding on her.
With a jaded eye, Strange watched the bidding begin. His pulse didn’t quicken until Bronze was wheeled front and center, and Vernon conferred quickly with the auctioneer.
“This magnificently crafted automaton sadly has no master key so it must be sold as a mere art piece,” the auctioneer said, and he started the bidding.
Vernon glared Strange’s way, letting him know he hadn’t been as unobserved as he’d hoped. Strange knew that look, knew if he went home tonight the beating would be as bad as the time Vernon’s belt had hided him straight down to his hip bone and an unlicensed surgeon had been necessary to fix him up. He would always bear the thick pink worm of scar tissue there.
Strange forced himself to look away, pretending he wasn’t listening to anything, watching anything. His heart caught when the bidding started, low so very low for something as fine as Bronze. Vernon might beat him senseless before they even left the auction house. Abbandonato hadn’t entered the bidding yet. What if she betrayed him like so many had? His gut roiled, threatening to empty. Finally, she put up her paddle, announcing her bid in a voice as sharp and loud as thunder.
The bidding wasn’t fierce but before the auctioneer brought it to a close he asked, “You do understand, Captain, this automaton has no key?”
“I think he’s pretty. He’ll make for a good talking piece even if he never moves,” Abbandonato replied.
The auctioneer inclined his head and banged the gavel. “Sold to Captain Abbandonato. The next lot is a fine automaton….”
Strange stopped listening. He didn’t look at the airship captain as he slunk back toward the storeroom. Vernon caught him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he hissed.
Strange showed the appropriate amount of fear all the while dying to scream the truth. Instead, he lied. “I’m going to get the last few automatons ready.”
Vernon shoved him in the general direction of the storeroom then went back to watching the auction. Strange calmly walked into the room then raced out the back door. He paused at Vernon’s truck to grab the meager possessions he’d rammed into a tattered rucksack he’d hidden in a tool chest, then fled toward the airship docks. Winded, side stitching by the time he got there, Strange fished out the pass Abbandonato had given him and handed it to the Sterling’s guard, his fingers so sweaty he dropped it. Rolling his eyes, Abbandonato’s guard waited for Strange to pick it up then showed him to the ladder so he could board.
Strange sat on the deck in an out of the way place. Waiting nearly killed him. Finally he heard Abbandonato’s clear tones giving instructions. He flew to the side of the gondola and watched as Bronze was hoisted aboard and taken to a room. Abbandonato placed a hand in the small of his back steering him below to a small room where Bronze waited.
“I’ve done my part. It’s time to do yours,” she said.
Strange nodded, bracing himself. This wouldn’t be pleasant. It took several uncomfortable moments but he managed to bring the key back up slicked in mucous and bile. He cleaned it on his handkerchief.
“How did you do that?” Her hazel eyes opened wide.
“Spent the first half of my life in a circus. I learned tricks.” Strange studied her, his eyes going wet, feeling swollen. “I still don’t understand why you agreed to help me.”
Abbandonato ruffled his pale hair. “My name means forsaken or abandoned. I was an orphan clawing my way to the top once. I knew we shared that. I saw the sad state you were in the last time we needed scrounged parts. You’re quick witted and clever. I could use that in my crew, and an automaton as fine as this one won’t go amiss.”
“I can’t pay you back.”
“No but you can work it off.” Abbandonato ran a finger just under the bruise on his cheek. “And I’m a good bit better a master than your last.”
“You’d have to be a cannibal to be worse.” Strange shuddered, and she laughed.
“This can be your quarters. My second in command will be by later to get you acquainted with the rules. In the meantime, rest a bit. You look like you can use it. You’re no good to me if you stagger overboard in your sleepy state and we’d better cast off before Vernon realizes you’re gone.”
“Thank you. It means so much.”
“You’re welcome.” She patted his shoulder and left him alone with Bronze.
Strange gently lifted Bronze’s shirt and inserted the key where his belly button should be. With a twist, he turned Bronze on then slipped the key out. He’d need a safe place to keep it. Bronze came to life slowly, his hands jerking. His eyes, the color of deep honey, opened, blinking slowly at Strange. His soft leather lips smiled with the subtle click of gears.
There was nothing particularly mechanical about Bronze’s voice. The surprising thing was hearing Strange’s given name. Bronze was the only one who used it. “I saved us. The captain is taking us away,” he said in a rush, slumping down next to Bronze on the rush mat that would pass as their bed.
Bronze embraced him. “I never doubted you, my love.”
Strange kissed Bronze’s lips which were dry as always. Bronze might be a machine but Strange would argue he’d been so well and lovingly made he had a soul. He loved and Strange loved him fiercely in return. He’d risked being beaten to death to save them both, and he’d do it again if he had to. “Thank you. I think we’ll like it here.”
“I like it wherever you are.”
Strange hugged Bronze tighter, weeping now, a mix of fear and joy. Bronze rubbed Strange’s back, weathering the emotions. They faced a new life, different from anything Strange had ever known but he wasn’t afraid. With Bronze, Strange knew all obstacles could be hurtled. He couldn’t wait for their new life to begin.