Tan knelt in a narrow stairwell and reloaded his steam-bow. He grimaced as its familiar hiss filled the tiny space. The sword strapped to his back was both quieter and more elegant, but it was also ineffective against the terra cotta golems that were chasing him.
He was glad that his master hadn’t lived to see the way the world had changed. Steam-powered men policed the streets, and cowards hid behind weapons that killed from a distance. Even the people had changed. No one had moved to help or hinder him on his mad dash from Lord Chen’s palace. They had huddled in the shadows of their peaked roofs and turned their faces away.
The door exploded inward, its thin wood no match for a terra cotta boot. Tan fired on instinct. The bow recoiled into his shoulder, and a short metal rod burst from the end with another hiss. It blew a hole the size of Tam’s fist in the golem’s chest. Steam billowed out of the wound.
The golem used its last moment of animation to bellow an alarm and crumpled to the ground.
Tan vaulted over its cooling body and fled. He had to find someplace to hide–sooner or later, they’d wear him down, or he’d run out of bolts.
He almost wished he’d never heard of The Steam Lord’s Autumn Ruby.
Charity pinned a lock of her red hair back and tried to ignore her shaking hands. Tan could take care of himself. He’d be fine.
She imagined him held in terra cotta hands, dragged through the streets, and pushed to his knees in front of her lord, who would shoot him right between his dark, serious eyes.
She powdered her cheeks.
Tan would be fine. He’d escape, and then he’d come back for her. He’d promised.
Countless men had lost their lives trying to rescue her from her captivity, but they’d only come for her because of Lord Chen’s game. He’d promised his estate to any man who could rescue her. She’d stopped shedding tears over them years ago.
But Tan was different. He’d made her feel like a person, instead of a thing. He didn’t even want the estate.
She glanced up at her automaton maid. The mechanical woman had orders to strangle her if she tried to hurt Lord Chen. But it left for three days to recharge its steam reservoir once a month, and it would be leaving at sundown.
Her lord entered without knocking. Charity plastered a loving smile on her face. “Chen, darling.” She held her hands out to him.
He took her hands and returned her smile. “Did that intruder disturb you, my Ruby?”
Charity shook her head. “I hardly noticed him. You know that I only have eyes for you.”
If he hurt Tan, she would finally have to kill him. She could do it while he slept, while the maid was recharging. She squeezed his fingers and pulled him toward her bed.
Tan huddled in an abandoned basement, his bow aimed at the door. Cold and damp seeped through his thin robes, and exhaustion blurred the edges of his vision. Ruby’s–no, Charity’s, she’d told him that her name was Charity–beautiful face regarded him from the backs of his eyelids.
He’d failed her. But then, so had a hundred men before him. He wondered if she’d told them her real name.
He doubted it. Something told him that no one had called her Charity for a long, long time. Lord Chen had reduced Charity to an object when he boasted that he’d give his title to any man who could overcome his golem security and steal his greatest prize.
Tan knew that he should leave the city, should forget about her and be grateful that he’d escaped with his life. His bid for revenge against the man who destroyed his world had failed.
But he wasn’t going to leave. Over the years, he’d left too many things that mattered to him behind. He was going back for her. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t.
But first, he was going to sleep.
Charity looked down at her sleeping lord. Her fingers tightened on her pillow. It would be so easy to hold it over his face. He wouldn’t struggle long. He wasn’t a very strong man. He ruled through cleverness and fear.
She wished that his soulless guards could be bribed. Or that her tower wasn’t quite so tall. Or that she could find the mechanism to open the door to the secret passages that he spied on her from.
But there would be no escape for her. Killing Lord Chen wouldn’t win her freedom. Only swift, unforgiving justice at terra cotta hands.
She rolled away and stared out the window. Not yet. Tan couldn’t rescue her if she was dead.
She was getting tired of waiting for rescue.
Terra cotta golems prowled the streets, their red-glowing eyes scanning for Tan’s face. But he couldn’t hide in a basement forever.
He palmed a few dumplings from a food stall. There’d been a time when thievery was beneath him. When he’d wandered the countryside with his master, working to right wrongs and protect the innocent.
But that had been a long time ago.
A thin, dirty-faced boy darted out of the shadows and tugged at Tan’s robe. His dark eyes latched on the dumplings. Tan dropped the food into his palms, and the boy vanished back into the shadows.
Tan’s stomach grumbled, but for an instant, he felt like himself again.
A cluster of golems appeared at the corner. He turned up his collar and ducked his head, but it was too late. A golem pointed, and their faces turned toward him.
A small, greasy hand grabbed his and pulled him away. “This way, sir,” the boy whispered. “Come with me.”
The golems waded through the crowd, as deliberate as the tide. The boy could be leading him straight into an ambush. Tan let him pull him along.
“Are you here to save the Autumn Ruby and kill the Steam Lord?” the boy asked, pulling him down a narrow, winding staircase.
The boy looked up at him. “You’ll probably die.”
The boy waved him into a closet and pushed the door closed. “If you don’t, remember that I helped you. My name is Lee. I’ll tell you when it’s clear.”
Tan nodded again. “I’ll remember,” he whispered.
The day crawled by. Charity worked on her embroidery. She read a book of poetry. She painted a watercolor landscape. She only allowed herself to cry at dinner, when she knew that Lord Chen was occupied elsewhere.
While she cried, she got up and trailed her fingers along the cold stone walls, looking for hidden doors.
Two iron foo dogs guarded the main gate. Tan had no weapons that could even dent their thick metal hides.
He slipped into the servant’s entrance with a load of rice. If any of the automatons recognized him, he was a dead man. He hurried through the kitchen, dodging the hard-working mechanical men and women. Their eyes remained fastened on their tasks–they hadn’t been programmed to look for him. He allowed himself a small sigh of relief.
Lord Chen must not expect to see him back here, especially not before dark.
Still, it felt too easy.
He slipped into Charity’s room. She turned, a false smile plastered on her face. Then she saw him, and the mask cracked.
“Oh, Tan,” she whispered. “Thank God.” She threw herself into his arms. “I was so worried.”
Tan inhaled her scent and stroked her hair.
“Well, this is touching.”
Lord Chen stood in an open section of the wall, smirking at them. Tan drew his sword.
Lord Chen laughed. “Put that away, boy. You don’t want me to call the guards, do you?”
“He’ll call the guards anyway,” Charity murmured.
Lord Chen shook his head and the pistol belted to his side. “Dear Ruby, if I wanted him dead, he’d be dead.”
“I could kill you before you could draw that,” Tan snarled.
“Yes, but then my guards tear both of you apart,” Lord Chen said. “Their orders are very clear. They’ll start with her.”
Tan’s hand fell away from his sword. “What do you want?” he asked.
“I want her to love me,” Lord Chen said.
Charity barked a laugh. “What?”
“I tire of this hero-killing game, and I can see that you care about this one, Ruby. I will let him live, but only if you stay behind willingly, if you kill your dreams of freedom.” He held out a collar. “If you wear this.”
It was made of thin, delicate porcelain. Rubies sparkled on the front, but a bulky box stood out from the back. And there was a needle as long as Tan’s hand on the inside of the collar that would stab into the wearer’s spine.
Charity’s eyes flicked from Lord Chen to Tan. “What is that?”
“It’s my latest invention. It plugs into a human brain, and holds punch cards just like the ones that govern the automatons.”
Tan felt sick. What Lord Chen was asking from her was worse than death. “Don’t even think about it. I’ll call the guards myself,” Tan said.
“He’ll die, and I’ll collar you anyway,” Lord Chen said. “I’m trying to be kind, Ruby.”
“You don’t know how to be kind,” she said. She turned to Tan and gave him a tiny smile. She brushed cold fingers against his cheek. “I love you.” Then she turned and took a step toward Lord Chen.
Charity felt like a sleepwalker as she moved forward. Tan was shouting behind her, telling her to stop.
The guards would hear him, and come whether Lord Chen called them or not.
Lord Chen had offered her a chance to save someone else. She’d never thought about saving anyone before. Never seen herself as a savior.
She stepped into Lord Chen’s embrace. His arms closed around her like prison bars, and his chest shook with victorious laughter.
Charity pulled his pistol and shot him. The pistol hissed, and Lord Chen fell away from her, into the still-open passage. The collar tumbled from his hands and cracked against the stone floor.
She looked at Tan. “Go.” She pointed the pistol at the door. “I’ll hold them off.”
Tan gaped at Charity. “What are you doing?”
She didn’t look away from the door. “Saving you.”
“I’m not leaving you here.” Tam ran to the bed and started tying sheets together. He should have brought rope.
“They’re not long enough,” Charity said. “I’ve tried.”
Heavy boot falls echoed up the stairs. Tan pulled off his jacket and tied it to the last sheet. He pawed through Charity’s wardrobe, tossing robes on the ground. “Damn it, put the pistol down and help me!”
She turned toward him, blinked, seemed to finally return to herself. She stared at Lord Chen’s body. “Why don’t we try his secret passage?”
He grabbed her hand and started running.
Charity wasn’t used to running. She struggled to keep up, and her mind labored over what had just happened. She’d actually killed him. After years of thinking about it, it was done. He was gone. She was running toward freedom with a man she actually loved.
She desperately hoped that this wasn’t a dream.
They came to a fork in the passage, and Tan paused. “Which way?” he asked.
It was so strange to be asked. She looked down both branches. “This one probably leads to his rooms. We should try the other one.”
Tan nodded, and they ran.
The passageway ended in a solid wall. Tan swore.
“There must be some mechanism to open it,” Charity said. “I think they only open from the inside.”
Tam started pushing on random stones until one gave way under his touch. The wall rolled back with a faint pneumatic hiss.
Charity stared out at the sunlight. “I–I’m free,” she said.
Tan pulled her out of the passage. “We still need to get out of the city.”
“And once we’re outside the gates, you can come back as the new Lord,” Charity reminded him.
“I never cared about that,” Tan said. But he remembered the boy, Lee, his unexpected savior.
Maybe, as a lord, Tan could do some good in the world again.
Charity pulled him into the sunlight. “Come on!”
They ran through the streets. Her bright hair blazed in the sunlight–there could be no doubt of who she was. But there were no golems in sight, and no one moved to stop them. People averted their eyes and stepped out of their path.
Tan grinned back at Charity. Maybe this new world wasn’t that bad, after all.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Penumbra. She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.