Story no. 19.
“There you are, my lovely,” Zirach said, tugging the last strap tight. “How does that feel?”
Fia looked down at the brass limb. The sorcerer had added three sections to increase the length so it matched her other arm. The hand had been made entirely anew from steel cogs and copper plating. She wiggled the fingers. Wires wrapped her stump, one continuing up the back of her skull under her hair. The wires somehow carried her thoughts down into the metal arm so it moved almost – not quite – as easily under her direction as her own flesh did.
Zirach had improved and perfected his mechanisms and spells with each new arm he made for her. The first simply extended but could not grip anything. That had been a matter of the weight of the cogs and the joints, he had explained; it was too heavy for a four-year-old to support. Her six-year-old arm could grasp large things, like an apple or a tree branch (an adaptation made after she followed Irea up the old oak and broke her collarbone when she fell.) The eight-year-old arm could hold a pencil and draw a circle with it; the ten-year-old arm could write her name. (She had learned to use her right hand for her lessons anyway, but she was surprised at how natural it felt to write with the magical brass arm.)
And now, her twelve-year-old arm: what could it do?
Fia extended the arm, held it over her head, admired how the sunlight streaming through the many-paned window of Zirach’s workshop glinted off the brass. She kicked her feet and looked around for something small to pick up. Zirach had set her on the edge of his workbench, cluttered with objects both mundane and dangerous, worldly and peculiar. A bundle of goose-feathers caught her eye; surely those were only meant to be cut into quills. She took the bundle gingerly in her right hand and used only the thumb and fore-finger of the metal limb to pull a single feather free.
“Good,” Zirach said. “Touch your nose with your last finger.”
Fia looked at him nervously. She had given herself a black eye once when she tried to scratch her eyebrow with his invention. Slowly she brought the arm up to her face, the hand flat, and grazed the tip of her nose.
“Very good,” he said, sounding enormously pleased. “Maybe in the next arm we’ll see if I can put feeling in those fingers! That’d be something, wouldn’t it?”
Fia nodded so hard her spectacles slid down her nose and fell on the floor.
The Oranx picked them up and tapped one lens with a long claw. “It’s too bad I can’t do anything about your eyes,” he said absently, before holding them out to her. “I’ll be in this workshop for another few days, so if there’s anything wrong you nip down and I’ll fix it.” Fia let him help her down from the workbench.
“Thank you very much,” she said. She closed her eyes tightly and said very fast – it was so difficult to speak sometimes! – “Kafar is not at the homestead, so you could come up.”
She heard Zirach hiss and knew he was baring his teeth. “No. It still reeks like him when he’s not there.”
Fia shook her head very hard to banish any tears at his snarl.
“Off you go,” he said brusquely, patting her shoulder and pushing something into her right hand. “Don’t dally on the mountain. You should get home before dark.”
The walk up to the homestead from the village took nearly an hour and a half. The bag Zirach had given her held cinnamon candies, of which Fia knew she was supposed to eat two and share the rest with the other children. As soon as she was out of view of the workshop she slowed and dragged her hand over the seedheads of the grass growing by the road.
There were so many things she didn’t understand about Zirach and Kafar. Kafar was a kind of sorcerer as well, though he could not build things like Zirach. He walked through worlds, the women said. He had brought Fia from the Place Far Away to the homestead. Kafar and Zirach hated each other very much; but Kafar had found Zirach to make Fia’s arm for her, and to mend the damage he had done to her soul by carrying her across a ripped border from one world to another. Fia was not supposed to know about the second thing at all, and that was another thing she didn’t understand. She remembered the border as a great chasm of fire reaching far from her, and the great change from one side to the other burning in her whole body, even in the veins of the arm that she had lost. How could such a thing be a secret?
Zirach was also from a Place Far Away. He smelled like rye and cold air and cold seawater and great fish. Kafar smelled like the women in the homestead – sesame and pickled grape leaves and saffron. Sometimes when Fia was falling asleep at night in her bed in the kitchen (because of her arm and her burned soul, she had a reputation for being sickly, though she was not at all) she tried to remember what her Place had smelled like: Peppers, and being hot, and rain. She was not sure how true the eight-year-old memory was.
She finished one cinnamon candy and popped another in her mouth to roll it around her tongue. Sometimes Zirach looked in her mind when he didn’t think she would notice and tried to untangle the threads around the burned place. During his last visit, as he adjusted the circumference of the brass rings that fit around her stump, she had felt him poking about in her head, pulling here, pushing there. He had tugged free a memory from the Place Far Away, of the Baba, who had been as tall as a house, covering in a shining muscle. Baba had had a round nose like Fia’s and wiry hair like Fia’s and great pointy ears like Zirach, and gold streaks through his deep dark skin. When she had been small (very small!) the Baba had been charged by an arrogant bull, and he had picked it up and thrown it across the village, killing it instantly. But as Zirach pulled the memory out further, it unraveled, and Baba’s face became Kafar’s face, and his great square hands became Kafar’s clawed ones, and his great black shoulders became Kafar’s gold ones. Fia was left with a shadowy reflection of her own face and a sad knowledge that not all her memories could be trusted.
She did not think Zirach had walked in her mind this time, and for that she was glad.
The sun had just finished sinking behind the mountain when the lanterns of the homestead came in sight. The envy of the other children wrapped Fia like a warm, soft blanket as she marched into the hall. Not even Hafsa, who was thirteen and a half, was allowed to walk down to the village alone, or be out on the mountain after dark. (Fia was also not supposed to be out on the mountain after dark, but if neither Zirach nor Kafar were in the hall no one took her to task for it.) She dispensed her bag of cinnamon candies with the magnanimity of an empress.
Late, late, wrapped in her blanket in the bed next to the hearth, Fia unstrapped the arm from her stump in the darkness. Zirach had promised her that this arm was so comfortable she would never need to take it off. This was another not-secret she did not understand why he tried to keep. The comfort of the arm was not why she took it off, and the ease of having it was not why he never wanted her to do so. She could feel the words he had written on the inside of the brass, on the gears of every cog, and most particularly on the wires that snaked over her body: he wanted to keep the deep chasm of fire at bay. It had not just burned her but had left little tongues of flame that licked up the insides of her veins if something did not press them back down into the dark.
Once a fire had started in the kitchen in the dark like this, a fire that consumed the kitchen table and half of the rafters before it was put out. The homestead women thought it was a miracle that Fia was not hurt and inhaled no smoke, but she knew it was not. The fire had been when she was very small and had still regularly walked the edge of the chasm looking for a way back to the Baba and the Iya. Now she knew better than to get so close, but sometimes she could feel people behind those flames. Kafar had not been seen at the homestead in months, and Fia had no mother among the women sleeping in the lofts over the hall.
Where are you, she said into the darkness, pressing her fingers to the brass skin of the arm lying across her stomach. She would not get lost. There were many worlds to walk before the morning came.