Strong Enough to Shatter

Cyrille stepped away from the bench, grateful for the breeze that carried the rank odors of bitumen and tar off into the night. The cries of dying golems still came from every corner of the field hospital, but the fresh air left him feeling almost human again. When he heard the cry of Corpsman! from the entryway, he waved the green paddle over his head.

"What's the damage?" he said.

"Trebuchet load to the shoulder," said the blue-cloaked Soror d'Argent leading the slag team. "We put out the fire when we got it away from the action, but the damage was done."

Cyrille studied the golem's shattered joint, bent over to inhale the fumes rising from the wound. His heart stuttered as he caught a faint odor, something like cinnabar and new leather. Thankfully nothing unusual was visible inside the wound.

"I think I can fix it up."

The woman motioned sharply to the slags, who grunted and began levering the golem onto the bench. Despite his excitement, Cyrille had to repress the usual surge of anger at the clanking of their chains, praying to the stone god that none of their knobby, oil-slick hands would loosen at the wrong moment. In peacetime an erring slag might be "corrected" with the knout, but there was no time for such niceties so close to the front.

Not wanting his anxiety to show, Cyrille looked around for Martine. She was stationed a few rows over, chiseling away at the acid-weakened outer layer of a golem's leg. He looked at her thick hands, remembering their last tryst, the way she'd kneaded his shoulders as she rode him. Martine was not even a shadow of what he'd lost, but she helped him to forget, and his heart always beat easier after their evenings together.

Moans brought Cyrille's attention back to his own bench.

"How goes the battle, Soror?" he asked.

"Poorly. Count Daczka's engineers have been busy over the winter, and their engines have more range now."

"That explains the early rush," he said. "Did we...?"

"We found out when their first fire-loads hit the supply ranks. The easterners pummeled us throughout the withdrawal."

They pummeled golems and slags chained to siege machines, witch. You were safe the entire time.

"Did we inflict no losses at all on the rebels?" he said. "Surely the aerialists..."

The Soror turned deep-set green eyes toward Cyrille, and even in her fatigued, dirt-encrusted state, they glittered.

"Balloons are fine for observation, but even raw theurgy can't compress enough gas to carry munitions. Astute question for a medic."

Cyrille did his best to smile obsequiously, even as he felt a riffling sensation inside his skull. The copper-and-jade phylactery wrapped around his left thigh burned cold as an icicle, which was some comfort. His contact in the resistance had said only that it would foil the witches' scrying, and that it would be better for him not to know too much of how it worked.

The grating of stone against stone caused the Soror to turn toward the bench as the slags finished their effort. The sensation quickly faded from Cyrille's mind. He schooled himself to calmness, picturing Amelie and Michele gamboling through a field of clover in the spring. At least his wife and son were at peace now, even if he would never know it again.

I'm going to hurt you, Soror. I'm going to hurt you badly. A medic knows better than anyone how to wound.

"We need this golem ready tomorrow afternoon," the Soror said abruptly, and then stalked off, the slags trotting to keep up.

Cyrille wondered what she might have glimpsed inside him. Innocent men had been put to the question for suspicion of collaborating, and he doubted that he could endure a dozen lashes, let alone sorcerous torment. He imagined the same inquisitive Soror returning just as he removed the surprise embedded in the golem's shoulder, the feel of her hand on his elbow. It would go badly for him, but it would be worse for the children still in their cradles, who would grow into adults never knowing anything but the habit of submission.

"Hurts," his patient grunted, shivering on the bench.

"I'm sorry they built you to feel pain."

The golem grimaced, and Cyrille felt a sympathetic wince in his own breast. He had heard it from the golems' own mouths that they suffered and feared too, even if most people thought them no more than animated statues built for war and toil. Golems, slags, serfs, the bourgeoisie, and every other creature subject to the Autorité—all of them wore chains of some kind. So it had been for time out of mind—amen, and the stone god lend them strength—but since the rise of the Sorores during the reign of Raoul III, it had become unendurable.

The Autorité's witches raked through minds like rag piles at the market, they had turned public executions into protracted orgies of suffering, and now whole arondissements and villages found themselves drafted overnight for service in strange and unknown lands. The demands of conquest never ended, and the witches had last year declared it most holy that the Argent Empire stretch "unto every horizon." It wasn't until the death of his own family, however, that Cyrille realized that the time had come for the insanity to stop, even if horror had to be met with horror.

Yes, he thought. Even if it means innocent lives lost.

Cyrille looked down at the groaning creature, thinking that the innocent were already dying.

Three hours later, Cyrille found the first fireseed. The golem lay quiet on the bench, though cries and low conversation still sounded from the rest of the hospital. He was using a pair of needle-nose pliers to remove shards of stone that had separated from their matrix, grumbling under his breath at how well they were attached. He had been moving cautiously ever since the golem arrived, and he stopped when his probe at last rang dully against something under the gluey black bands of substrate.

He peered around. Bowed heads and instruments shining by lamplight, flailing stone arms restrained by iron bands. Nobody had noticed, that he could see.

"What have we here?" he whispered.

The fluttering in his stomach increased as he spread the gap with forceps. A hard, translucent sphere lay buried within the wound. To anyone else, it would have looked like rock crystal. Not an obvious choice for a trebuchet load, but the rebels had tried stranger things over the last few years. Cyrille, however, had been told to wait for the golem that smelled like cinnabar and new leather, and that scent was coming even more strongly from his patient now that the sphere lay exposed.

Finally, he thought. Payback.

His hand strayed to the locket beneath his robe. Facing each other within the simple steel circle's embrace were Amelie and Michele, one dead on the other side of the Middle Sea in the Autorité's advance against the Varghulate Empire, the other from pining after him. His young, hot-headed son hadn't even tried for a medical exemption, and after three months in the desert, his expeditionary force had come under surprise attack by dog-men. The missive said the javelin had killed him instantly, but Cyrille knew that such deaths were never fast. Amelie took to her bed and did not rise again, and before the year was out, Cyrille had joined the seventh legion as an alchemist-medic, hungry for revenge.

The golem groaned softly. Cyrille looked up at its face, saw that the creature wasn't looking at anything, and figured it was probably still sleeping, or doing whatever it was that golems did in place of sleep.

With clamps and forceps and pliers, he had soon laid bare the cavity where the milky crystalline sphere waited. Despite having hurtled through the air and smashed into the golem's alchemically hardened chest, it hadn't been scratched. All it needed now was a drop of the golden liquid from the vial hidden in Cyrille's rucksack, and then it would become something else entirely—the core of an explosion that might, if lucky, destroy the entire regiment he served. These thoughts passed through his head as he stood with tweezers poised.

Do this and there's no going back. You can still summon that Soror, or even the head surgeon, tell them you found something strange.

The sweat running from his brow began to trickle into the golem, splashing onto the sphere. He swiped a sleeve across his face.

There was a flurry of activity a few aisles over, and Cyrille started.

"We're losing him," a medic cried, as her golem bucked and groaned.

Slags converged from the walls of the tent, grabbing onto its arms in a vain effort to keep it still enough to finish—debriding? Tenoplasty? He couldn't tell what was happening, the action around the bench had grown so frenzied.

Cyrille looked around, saw the faces of his fellow battle medics, tired and worn. Across the tent stood Georges, gray-haired at forty. Over by the wall, Elouise, who had lost two daughters at the Battle of Bec-Torsaille and was likely only months from the grave at twenty-seven. Francinette, just one bench over, hadn't looked up from her patient, just kept working, her face bearing the opiate daze that never seemed to leave it now. Martine was nowhere to be seen, and he felt a momentary twinge of concern, his mind filling with thoughts of angry Sorores, any of the dozens of illnesses that struck alchemists, some secret mission taking her away from him...

And this is not a hundredth of a hundredth of a hundredth of the ruin the Autorité's madness has wrought. We have to start fighting somewhere.

With a last look around to make sure he was unobserved, Cyrille began the extraction.

The newly risen sun lit the water in the trough, and though it was hardly fresh, at least it looked pretty. With each dip into it, the scrub brush lightened, shedding droplets of tar and rubber and all the other substances that went into golem substrate. Cyrille smiled tiredly when his own flesh started to peek through the accumulated layers of grime.

"Hey Cy. Still here?"

He looked up and saw Martine walking out of the hospital tent, grinning as she pushed up her sleeves. His tall, rail-thin lover trudged toward him across the churned-up stretch of mud, and he wondered idly what kind of crops had stood there before the army arrived.

"Morning, Martine. Where else?"

"The stone god wept. Anywhere other than this wretched hole. Is this place really worth conquering?"

"Easy there," Cyrille said, looking around quickly. "Never know when one of those witches is going to creep up on you."

"Let 'em. I'm the best medic here—present company excluded, of course."

He laughed, grateful to be reminded that some people still had spines. Back in Fer-de-Leon, all he had to do was go to the nearest tavern to find angry rumblings. Even if the people talking revolution weren't doing anything, it was easy to believe it was possible. Things felt different on campaign, with the Sorores everywhere. It never seemed to worry Martine, though, and she only held her tongue when a witch was near. In other circumstances, it could have made him fall in love with her.

"I want a nap," Martine said after a few minutes of quiet scrubbing, dropping the brush onto the washstand and stretching until her spine cracked. "I want a nap, and then I want new loaves and a wheel-o'-the-sun."

"Just trot up to the wall, and I'm sure the Count's men will oblige you. They throw down the cheese, you throw up some gruel."

"That's what I feel like after a bowl of that pisswater."

They were both chuckling when the flap of the tent opened, and a Soror stepped out. She looked in their direction, focused on Cyrille, and came toward them.

"Damn," he said softly, recognizing the hard-faced woman from earlier.

"I assume you're washing because my golem is ready for battle?" the Soror said as she stopped barely a foot away.

Cyrille looked at the Soror, taking in the way the sun lit up her shining blue cloak and headband. Whatever she'd done in the night, she'd managed to render herself spotless by morning.

"Not quite, Soror. My eyes needed a rest. I work by torchlight willingly, but if you would have my best, my eyes cannot always be a-squint. I have not slept in two days."

"I see. What is your name, medic?"

"Cyrille d'Auvignac, Soror."

She looked at him, a faint smile on her face.

"My sympathies, Cyrille. Clearly you live to serve the Autorité, and I, too, know the strain of tiredness and overwork."

Tell it to the slags, he thought.

"The Soror is too kind," he replied, dipping his head.

"Just have that golem ready by mid-afternoon."

Cyrille stared after her, feeling his face ripple with loathing. Never once had any of the witches asked him how whichever golem he was working on felt, whether they suffered. Countless times he'd watched his patients in pain, and he could see no difference between the convulsions of a crushed golem and those of a scalded soldier. One, however, was accorded pity and buried after death, while the other was left on the battlefield until it eventually stopped moving.

"Easy, cher," Martine said, hand on his shoulder. "Shall we pray together for endurance?"

"You know I don't do that."

Not anymore, he thought, not after Amelie. Michele's death was horrible enough, but hers was too much.

"Then I shall pray on your behalf, and perhaps the stone god will listen. He and I talk often enough about Luc, we should have a tab at the café."

"How is he?" Cyrille asked. "Having a son at the front..."

"It is as the god wills," Martine said. "I cherish my boy, and he loves me. We know not the time or place, so that has to be enough."

Cyrille studied her face as she looked to the sun, mouthing silent prayers. It was a study in tranquility, and he wished bitterly that he could follow the same example. He wondered if the peace was genuine, if the death of her son would unhinge Martine the way that the death of Amelie and Michele had changed him. He stretched and groaned softly, his back crackling as he looked up.

The aerial brigade floated high overhead, like amber clouds. The motions of the crew were just barely visible as they worked pulleys and windlasses, stoking the alchemical furnaces to keep their balloons in place above the castle. Mirrors winked from the gondolas as they passed word to the army below, and despite the horror that lay behind it all, Cyrille smiled at the thought of men so high in the sky. So often he had run with Michele along the hills outside the city, laughing as his son flew his kite as high as the string would let it ride. His son, gone to glory now like so many others, both the dead and those yet to die.

His heart seemed to tighten as he sorrowed. So much had been taken from him. Who was he to take the same from others? It was unclean. He reached up to massage his chest, felt the locket that held the weight of his own grief as he watched Martine, who still looked to the sun, eyes closed as she prayed.

And if her Luc dies in the blast? Will vengeance have been worth the cost?

He closed his eyes and tried not to answer.

Cyrille was troweling a very special blend of bitumens into the golem's substrate at the shoulder, trying to decide where to place the reagent shell and the fireseed it would ignite, when the creature turned to look at him. Something about their gaze always unnerved him, no matter how often he felt it. The dark hollows that served them as eyes should not have conveyed anything, and yet they claimed to see much, things that humans could not. Even so, it jarred him badly when the golem said—

"I would not have taken you for a bomber."

He glanced around involuntarily, chest tight as he wondered who had heard, but no heads turned his way.

"I'm no traitor, golem. I'm a loyal subject of the Autorité."

"Oh really," it said, followed by a low, grating chuckle. "Then why is my shoulder tingling?"

Cyrille stared down at his patient, and he became aware of the droplets pouring down his face, the abrasive rub of undergarments soaked with sweat.

"You're imagining things. Perhaps an after-effect of the wound."

The golem said nothing, and so Cyrille resumed troweling the black, sticky substance between the stony slabs. This one looked like travertine from a broken pediment, that one like a tired old son of the mountains. Which would splinter more effectively? He needed something hard but brittle, strong enough to fragment other parts of the golem's body, but fragile enough that it would break into enough pieces.

"I know my body," the golem said, "and I know what a wound feels like. This isn't that. Tell me what you're doing."

Cyrille pressed his mouth into a thin line. He could silence the creature with a quick—

"I see your thoughts, human, clear as the Sorores' burning whips. Don't try it."

"If you see through me, then why are we talking."

The golem looked up at the ceiling of the tent and frowned.

"Do you know what it is to live in servitude?"

"Of course not, and neither do you, golem. You're a thing, made for use."

"So you've been taught, but I can see inside you. You know different. Haven't you ever wondered where golems came from? Surely you studied Henri Duval's work in school, heard that he was a great alchemist. To my kind he's known as The Thief. He came to us when we were refugees, sky-shocked and rootless, offered us promises of protection that eventually turned into chains."

Cyrille said nothing, thinking of the expurgated copies of Duval's Anatomie de la Golem he'd read during his early years at the academy, before he turned his studies to civil alchemy. Even in the complete version, it was said, the origins of the golems were omitted. All of the students speculated, of course, but no answers were to be found from their tight-lipped professors, or in any library he'd ever visited.

"You would say that we came from under the mountains, I think," the creature said at last, "though it would be more truthful simply to say that we came from deep in the earth, where the stone god's furnaces billow and rage."

Cyrille's flesh began to creep. If the creature was telling the truth, then golems were no more tools than men from Kaczkiya or Palamm were shovels or axes. Strange folk, with alien skins and odd customs, but still men.

"I lost my son, my wife," he said, shaking. "But if you speak true, then all your people have been victims."

"There were worse things in the depths. Duval suggested a brief term of indenture in exchange for his protection, and we thought at first it wasn't too much to pay. But the Sorores are too much to bear, and we long ago repaid our debt."

"What are you going to do?" Cyrille asked, stomach clenching.

"We have our own underground, and each of us has our mission. Mine was to find some way to undermine the Sorores' authority in the east, using whatever means necessary. You aren't what I expected, but I think your plan may serve our needs too."

"What? But—you're willing to die?"

"Some prices are worth paying," the golem whispered. "We come from the earth and remain part of it, even after we sleep."

Cyrille stared at the golem, wondering if it was a trick, wondering what pain lay in store at the hands of the Autorité's witches.

"How can I trust you? And why would you ally yourself with a human, after everything that's happened?"

The golem smiled and said "You are as akin to a Soror as hematite is to limestone. We don't hate humans, only our bondage."

"There are so many ways this could go wrong," Cyrille muttered.

"Trust me," the golem said. "Let me be your weapon. A rock may shatter, but it will never yield."

An hour later, Cyrille was nestling the reagent shell into place when a shout came from outside the tent. He jerked upright, saw a lightly armored young man dismounting from a lathered horse. Two Sorores approached from the direction of the slag pickets, and the courier went to one knee before handing over his letter bag.

"What's happening?" the golem whispered.

"A courier came."

Cyrille looked around the tent, saw other medics looking toward the tableau. One of the Sorores turned to the other and said something in a low voice. She listened, nodded, and stepped toward the courier. He quivered but stayed still. She lay one hand on the young man's brow, and he collapsed in a boneless slump.

The sisters shouted toward the Sorores' quarters, and shortly a handful had joined the first two, who were talking in low, agitated voices and looking around the field hospital. It was then that Cyrille felt the first touches of something like a wind beginning to blow through the tent. He looked around, saw others doing likewise—but there was no fluttering of robes, no flapping of tent fabric.

He swallowed.

Medics begin to mutter and flinch, one at a time. 

"Merde," he whispered, heart sinking and stomach churning.

"You said you were warded," the golem said.

"I am, but if the witches got a report that there's a rogue medic—"

"Perhaps it's time to—"

On the far side of the tent, Georges clutched his head and began screaming "Get out! Get out!"

Instantly the Sorores moved toward Georges, spreading out in a vee shape. He pulled a knife from his robe and held it toward the nearest, hand shaking as tears began to roll down his face. The other medics began to back away, and Georges was muttering and crying.

He was one of us? Damn. Must have been a different cell.

Suddenly Georges screamed "Death to the Autorité! Death to the witch-whores!"

He leaped toward the closest Soror, sweeping the knife in a tight, vicious circle that stopped short as he fell to the ground, choking. There were shouts and cries from around the field hospital. Nearby, Martine's hand was pressed to her mouth as she watched Georges convulse, blood streaming from his eyes and nose. It was a bad death, but Cyrille felt guiltily relieved that there had been another—

"What's that?"

Cyrille swung around, saw a new medic, a blond young man from the capital whom he hadn't gotten a chance to know yet, staring at his hands. He looked down, saw that in his anxiety, he had picked up the reagent shell, was holding it above the golem's wound and turning it over and over like a worry stone. He jerked convulsively, moving his hand back down.

"Oh, that's nothing," he said, smiling what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "It's a quick-release binder I'm trying out to see if it can temporarily staunch—"

"Sorores!" the young medic cried.

The tent fell silent as the blue-cloaked women turned toward them, along with everyone else in the tent. The young medic stumbled back, eyes wide. Cyrille looked around at his fellow medics, and then at Martine. He stared as her horror turned to confusion, and then blossomed into horror anew.

"No," Cyrille whispered, "not like this."

"You have a choice," the golem rumbled.

Cyrille looked into the creature's face. Something that felt like a vine or tendril probed against the blank wall the ward had erected around his deepest thoughts. He could already feel the heat in his skull, images of horrible torment that they were trying to stun him with, but which he saw only dimly, like shadows at dusk.

"Stop him," one of the Sorores screamed.

They sprang forward, converging on his bench.

Cyrille clenched his fist around the reagent shell, and the world seemed to slow as the golden fluid flowed over the fireseeds he had carefully arranged in the golem's substrate. They sparked and began to crack. The golem reached up and wrapped one hand around his.

Arcs of purple light rising from the wound—

—the scent of roses at his wife's throat on their wedding night—

—something sizzling, the hiss of steel—

—Michele's kite, free in the endless sky—

—eyes dark, knowing, patient—

—the silent and searing laughter of dragons.