I was plucking mint leaves from the herb garden, hoping tea would soothe my head, when a slim, well-dressed young man strolled up our lane. “Are you the alchemist’s daughter?”
“She’s an herbalist,” I snapped. The scent of crushed mint leaves filled my nose. I took a deep breath and loosened my grip. My head throbbed.
“Yes. Well. Are you the daughter?”
“I am here to inform you that your father has bequeathed unto you his entire estate.”
My mother had always refused to tell me my father’s identity. “My father’s dead?”
“Yes. And all that was his is now yours.”
“Is that a lot?”
The stranger scanned our modest cottage, with its herb garden and climbing roses. “Yes.”
“May I come inside?”
I scanned him up and down. Thin and pale, with short blond hair and dark green eyes. He didn’t look particularly dangerous. “I suppose.”
Inside, I poured hot water over crushed mint leaves. “Would you like some tea?” I asked.
He shook his head. “We should go. The moat will keep out any unwanted visitors, but I dislike leaving the estate empty.”
“Yes. Do you have many possessions to pack?”
I sat down and sipped my tea. Thoughts spun through my aching head. Curiosity and exhaustion warred. “May I ask you something?”
“Who was my father?”
Lord Ruthgar had never made my list of possible fathers. Rich and insane didn’t seem like my mother’s type. “Really?”
“Yes. And you are Lady Ruthgar, now.”
I blinked at him. “My name is June.”
He shrugged. “You are the Lady of Ruthgar.”
I thought of the castle, huge and dark and isolated, and shuddered. I’d been wanting to move out on my own, but that wasn’t the destination I’d had in mind.
“Who are you, anyway?” I asked.
“I am Angus. Your manservant.”
My mother opened the door and came inside, stomping mud off of her boots. “I do wish that these herbs grew somewhere other than the swamp.” She stopped and stared at me and Angus, sitting at the table. “We weren’t expecting company,” she said. “Can I help you?”
“Hello, ma’am. I am Angus–”
“I know who you are,” my mother said.
“He says that Lord Ruthgar has bequeathed me his estate.” I took a deep breath. “And that he’s my father.”
My mother sighed. “I didn’t expect that.” She moved to the sink and rinsed dirt from the herbs she’d collected. “I thought the castle would go to some cousin or something.”
“The estate was his lordship’s to do with as he pleased. And he wanted it to go to his daughter.”
“Well, she’s not taking it.”
“What?” I stood up, and pain spiked through my head. “What do you mean, I’m not taking it?”
“You don’t really want to move to that castle, do you?”
I glared at her. “Well, I can’t decide about that till I see it, can I?”
“Very good,” Angus said. “Let’s go.”
“I’ve seen it,” my mother said. “It’s rubbish.”
I downed the last bit of my tea and followed Angus out the door.
“Promise me you’ll be back for dinner!” my mother called.
The drawbridge was up, and slimy green water surged in the moat below. Angus pressed a tiny box into my hand. The wood was warm, and the box gave off a low hum. “Just press that button,” he said. “That will lower the drawbridge.”
I pressed it, and the box vibrated. A moment later, the drawbridge lowered. “Did it send some sort of signal to someone inside?” I asked. “Why not just wave at them?”
“There is no one inside,” Angus said.
“Then how did the door open?”
“The remote sends a signal to a machine. It then raises or lowers the drawbridge.”
We reached the other side, and I pushed the button again. The drawbridge obediently rattled up behind us. “How does it work?”
Angus shrugged. “I can show you the master’s notes.”
I followed him to my dead father’s study. His handwriting was jagged and slanted, but legible. As I read, my headache eased. “It says here that my father tried to use this technology to control people’s minds?”
Angus frowned. “I believe that he did try that, yes.”
He’d scrawled something about inconclusive results, and I shuddered. I didn’t like the thought of invisible waves getting inside my head.
“Do you–do you understand all that?” Angus asked.
The concepts felt natural–even the most difficult theorems made an elegant sense. “Well, it’s not that complicated.”
“If you say so, milady.”
I tore myself away from the notes. “I suppose I should see the rest of the place. Give me the full tour.”
“As you wish.”
The castle was a maze of narrow corridors, musty rooms, and dank dungeons. “Why are there so many dungeons?” I asked. “Were they ever necessary? Really?”
Angus didn’t answer.
Then, I found the girl. She stood under a heavy velvet curtain in the dining room, her beautiful, heart-shaped face blank and empty.
My heart stuttered. I imagined her face animating, her eyes meeting mine, her slow smile. The brush of soft lips against mine. “Who is this?” I asked.
“That is just one of the master’s projects.”
I touched her cheek. It was smooth and flesh-soft and room-temperature. “He made her?”
“Yes. Just like he made me.”
“He made you?”
“The notes should be in his study.”
His notes were not well organized, and my headache crept back as I searched. Angus appeared in the doorway. “Your mother is outside. She seems to have brought you dinner.”
“Oh. Well, let her in.”
“You have the remote.”
“Right.” I pulled it out of my pocket, pushed the button, and got back to my search.
My mother came in and gave me a disapproving look. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for notes.”
She began unpacking the basket she’d brought. The scent of roasted chicken filled the room. “I shouldn’t have taught you to read.”
“Why did you hate him so much?” I asked, still rifling through papers.
“I didn’t hate him. I just–I didn’t think he’d be a good influence. He was a bit mad.”
“Angus says that he created him.”
I dropped the notebook I was holding and rushed to her side. “Do you know how?”
My mother sighed. “Of course I do. I helped him.”
“Then you can tell me how to finish the girl!” I grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the dining room.
“Sweetie, helping your father was the biggest mistake I ever made. The only good thing to come of my time with him was you.”
But she let me pull her along, and looked at the girl, standing like a statue in the dark. She sighed. “She’s very pretty.”
I touched the girl’s cheek and nodded.
“Oh, sweetie,” my mother pulled my hand away. “Don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what?”
“She won’t–she can’t–even if you do give her life, she wouldn’t be what you want. I know that it’s been hard, and that it was difficult when Rebecca left, but you can’t build someone to love you.”
“That’s why your father made Angus. He wanted a son.”
A horrifying thought occurred to me. “You didn’t–didn’t build me, did you?”
My mother laughed. “No, you came about in the natural way.”
“If he made Angus to be a son, why is he–”
“Angus is smart and loyal and kind, but we could never teach him to feel–there was always something missing, and he just couldn’t be the son your father wanted. And he didn’t like failing. He blamed me, blamed Angus, blamed the world. He demoted Angus to servant and tossed me aside. He tried to win me back after I realized I was pregnant, but left when I told him you were a girl.”
“But then, why make her?”
“I don’t know. But it might be best to just let it be.”
“She wasn’t meant to be an empty statue.”
“I want you to help me give her life.”
“And I want you to come home with me and forget about this wretched place.”
“Neither of us are going to get what we want, are we?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
I rubbed my temples. “Angus, did he have any sort of organization to all of this?”
He shook his head. “None that I could observe.”
“Could you help me sort through it?”
He hesitated. “I was not allowed to touch his papers.”
“Well, he’s dead,” I said. “And I’m getting nowhere by myself. I’d welcome some help.”
After three solid days of searching, Angus found a yellowed scrap of paper folded under a table leg.
I found a layer of clay in the west corner of the dungeon that, when treated with the correct chemical wash, bears an eerie resemblance to human flesh. I have contacted a local woman, an alchemist, to help me stabilize the compound.
“It seems that he may have torn the book we’re looking for up.”
“Why would he have done that?”
Angus shrugged. “He wasn’t always–rational.”
“Did he tell you why he made her?”
“He didn’t really talk to me, milady.”
“Call me June. Please. Do you remember when he and my mother–gave you life?”
“I remember a few things from the early days. Your mother–she was very kind, and always smelled nice. Like green, growing things. I remember the day she left. And I remember the day he stopped calling me ‘son.'”
“Do you age? Or have you always been the way you are now?”
“I age. I started out much… shorter.”
Sharp pain spiked through my head, so sudden that I cried out.
“Read,” he said. “I’ll get you some of your mother’s tea.”
“In a way, she’s your mother, too.”
That was the first time I saw him smile.
My headaches only abated when I was reading or when I was with the girl. I’d taken to eating in the dining room, just because spending time with her helped.
I named her Penelope, because I liked the name.
My mother came for dinner three nights a week. “Did you feel guilty for abandoning Angus?” I asked her over dessert.
“I told myself I didn’t need to. That he wouldn’t miss me.”
“Did you anyway?”
On the other nights, I invited Angus to eat with me. “What did my father do to me?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“The headaches. They started right before he died. And reading his words or spending time with his unfinished creation are the only things that help. That’s not normal.”
He sighed. “I agree that it seems like a reasonable conclusion, but I don’t have any insight into his motives or methods.”
“Did he know he was dying?”
“Yes, I think he knew.”
“Can I ask you something?” I asked.
He laughed. “You’ve been asking me questions since you got here, June.”
“This one is personal.”
“And you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“How long did it take for you to start feeling?”
He blinked at me. “I don’t understand.”
“I think you do. You hide it well, and I doubt he ever suspected.”
“He wouldn’t have cared anyway.”
“You don’t know that. He might have–”
“Might have what? Accepted me as his son?”
“And why the hell would I want that?”
“I suppose that’s a good question.”
The headache kept sleep away, so I crept to the dining room and examined Penelope’s face in the moonlight.
“I’ve read every single note he wrote–at least the ones he didn’t destroy, and I’m not closer to knowing how to wake you up than I was when I started.”
I played with a lock of her dark hair. “What the hell.” I pressed my lips to hers.
I set a cot up in the dining room, but the effect of staying near Penelope was fading. My head ached constantly. Angus brought me tea and carted my father’s equipment in. “You don’t have to stay here,” I told him.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“Then I’ll stay.”
I stretched out on the cot. “I’m pretty sure that whatever he did to me, it was with radio waves.”
“A reasonable hypothesis,” Angus said.
“He was dying, and he wanted me to finish her. So, he decided to motivate me with pain.”
“That sounds like him.”
“Angus, it’s getting worse.”
“Have you told your mother?”
I sighed. “No.”
“I think it might be time.”
So, I told her.
“How bad are they, exactly?” she asked.
“It’s become difficult to function. I–I’m afraid that they’ll just keep getting worse till I finish her or they kill me.”
“If he wasn’t already dead, I’d murder him,” she hissed. “How dare he?”
“Will you help?” I asked.
She nodded. “I’ll go get my things. We’ll need a copper tub big enough to lie her down in–your father should have one in his workshop.”
My headache faded momentarily as I wrestled Penelope into her tub. It was strange to see her in another position. I wondered what it would be like to see her move on her own. My mother came in, laden with her tools and ingredients. She looked down at Penelope, stretched in her copper tub. “When we made Angus, we used clay from the dungeon as his flesh, a liquor distilled from a rare berry as his blood, and an alloy that your father created for his bones and joints.”
“What is my brain made out of?” Angus asked.
My mother jumped. “Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were there.”
“It’s okay. I’m–I’m just curious.”
“And he wouldn’t tell you?”
“I never asked him.”
“Your brain is an electrically charged super-dense fluid. Your father travelled all around the world, to every mineral spring he could find, and spent months getting the electrolyte balance perfect.”
“He’s not my father,” Angus said.
He shook his head. “You don’t need to be.”
I looked back and forth between them. They both looked a little lost. “He feels, now,” I said. “And she always regretted leaving you behind. You two have a lot to talk about, and I’d love to see you hug it out, but can we focus on the task at hand? My head hurts.”
My mother and Angus shared a smile, then she got to work. She pulled bundles of herbs out of her bag, and their sharp scent filled the air.
“You can help with this.” She handed me a pestle and a mortar filled with tiny black seeds. “Grind that as fine as you can. Angus, could you hold this over the fire until it just starts to bubble?”
After hours of mixing and heating and grinding, we finally had a green, bubbling liquid. “Pour this over her,” my mother said. “Make sure that she’s completely soaked.”
I poured carefully. Her hair was even darker wet, and the thin dress that she wore clung to the flesh beneath.
“Now, all that’s left is to pass a spark.”
“How do I do that?”
“There is a lightning rod balcony outside your father’s bedroom. There should be a pair of bronze spheres attached. Hold one in each hand, and be careful not to touch anything metallic.”
I hurried up the stairs, found the spheres, and hurried back. “Now what?”
“Touch her. But be careful not to make any contact with the tub.”
I looked down at her. After this, there would be no going back–she’d be a person with her own life. She’d be able to leave, if she wanted.
I bent down and pressed my lips to hers. A spark jumped between us, and she gasped. She stared up at me, her face still a blank slate. Her eyes were the color of cornflowers.
My headache vanished. “Hello, Penelope,” I said.
“Hello,” she replied. “Who are you?”
“I’m June,” I said. I remembered my mother’s warning–I knew not to expect her to be the perfect companion that I’d dreamed of.
But I also knew that I wanted to help her learn how to feel.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death… She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com, and her debut novel, Left Hand Gods, is forthcoming from Hadley Rille Books. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.