This one’s a complete short story. Enjoy!
“When did he die?” She asked.
Niz grunted. He was focused on getting the lock open, and it was never easy. The fact that the shop was locked at all made him uneasy. It wasn’t until he’d managed to practically pry open the padlock with his key that he answered her. “Last night.”
“So what are you doing here, again?”
Niz opened the door slowly, unsure if the shop was empty, even with the door having been padlocked. It was still and quiet and smelled of the metals and oils so familiar and yet… Tears prickled at his eyelids. “Look, I didn’t ask you to come. But I have very specific instructions and a strict timeline. So, I need to get this done.”
She shut up, which he appreciated. She did respect his space, which was why when she’d asked to come along, he’d just nodded and waited while she put on her boots. Now, she shadowed along behind him, giving him space to carry out his mentor’s last wishes. Space in which to grieve, as much as he could afford to allow.
The big shop was difficult to navigate in the pre-dawn darkness. Soon, there would be light enough through the transparent roof panels to work. Not yet, though. And he was running up against the time limit, since he had not been notified when the Don Diaz had passed, as he was supposed to have been. That had not been the first unsettling sign that not all would go according to the old man’s wishes.
Niz couldn’t allow that to happen. “Come on, then.” He jerked his thumb at the big open space where the pieces were assembled. They would be taken apart again for transport, but the finishing was done on the final, intact, sculptures.
They would assume Diaz had left it in his workshop, or office. Niz knew better. He paused, halfway to his goal, and she stopped with him. He listened for a long moment, breathless. He could hear her intake of breath, but that was all. He kept going. They were alone, he was confident.
It was quiet enough that he heard her gasp, behind him, when the object of his quest emerged from the darkness, gleaming softly. The tall female figure, the sword held out before her, with the tip angled down… Niz walked right up to the point. Then beyond it, until he was near enough to embrace the slender waist.
“What are you doing?” His companion asked, her voice still low and breathy. She had come around to stare up at the titanium princess, the jewels in her tiara seeming to collect all the light in the room. Dawn was coming. The sapphires were glowing.
“What are you doing?” She repeated it with emphasis and a squeak at the end.
“She’s not anatomically correct.” Niz knew every centimeter of the automaton. He’d built her, after all, according to Diaz’s instructions. “She’s supported by a spinal column, like us, but no organs, no muscles.” He pulled open the abdominal panel he’d been unfastening where it was hidden at the edge in her sweeping, seemingly gauzy drapery. There was no fabric. It was all metal, but it looked thin as a veil.
Inside, she wasn’t hollow, though. Here, all of the wires and circuit boards that would allow her to appear alive were routed to the limbs and head. The trunk was the best space for the control center. Niz never failed to wonder if they would ever be able to pack it all in a head, and simulate a human’s build. Not now. Not with her. He carefully threaded his hands past the wires, knowing what bundles had some slack, and where he shouldn’t let skin contact a board and potentially trigger a discharge.
He decided he’d explain to keep his mind off the near possibility of death, or worse, dismemberment. “It’s the spine I need to get into. And this is the only access. Wasn’t meant to be used like this. We thought there was more time, but there wasn’t.”
“Time for what?”
“I’ve been an apprentice, then journeyman, for ten years now.” Niz felt the click under his fingertips as the secret cavity yielded to his probing. “Now, I will be master. But I wasn’t ready for him to be gone. He wasn’t ready to go… Someone wanted him out of the way. We feared this, that this would be the last of his creations.”
“I’m confused.” She was standing where he could see her, with his cheek pressed to the cool metal of the princess’s flank while he was up to his shoulder inside her.
“So was I, at first.” He could feel the roll of papers coming out, slowly, but as hard as it had been to gain access, now he was forced to move even slower. This wasn’t how it had been planned. “The Don was reluctant to tell me he’d made a formidable enemy, but when he feared they would include me, then he admitted that he had been poisoned.”
“He’s been ill for months!” She exclaimed.
“Yes. The evil of it was, they used his work against him. He had been given heavy metals.” The paper and his hand came free, and he took his first deep breath in far too long. “He was doomed, and yet, he pushed both of us to our limits to finish her.”
“Then, he died.”
“It was too much, that last work.” He stepped back, looking up into the serene, blind face. Her lips were thinned with a hidden tension, an expression of great solemnity conveyed despite the smooth eyes which would not look alive until she was activated. “He was whispering it all to me, while he lay there,” Niz gestured, “On a bed which would be inclined so he could see me working with her.”
She turned to look, instinctively, and Niz closed up the belly panel gently. Secrets had to be preserved.
“What now?” She asked as the light began to bloom through the roof overhead.
“Now this must be delivered before the hour strikes again.” Niz stepped carefully out of the Princess’s reach. The sword was no dull plaything.
“What happens if you are late?” They were moving much more quickly now that the light told them where to step.
“I don’t know. I won’t be.” Niz opened the door for her, then locked it again. The papers rustled against his skin where he’d thrust them into his shirt for safekeeping and empty hands. “This was his last request.”
“The princess’s secret.” Her lips curved into a half-smile. She really did look like the titanium simulacrum. He could imagine that expression on the metal, the dull gleam of the cheekbones shifting. “Don’t let me stand in your way, then.”
Niz hurried back to the car, but he didn’t forget to open her door before he climbed into the driver’s seat. There was no movement, no other vehicles. The swirl of pigeons from roof to roof was the only sign of life. He peeled out with a shriek of rubber, and his passenger laughed aloud.
By the time they were back on the city roads, and other cars sedately heading towards work, or perhaps a coffeeshop, he was driving normally, if more focused than his usual habit of observing the world around him. She was leaning back in her seat, long fingers on the windowsill, her head turned to let her look out that window.
“Here we are.” He parked and looked up at the skyscraper. The lemony light of dawn painted it into a pastel confection. “I’ll be right back.”
He got out, and heard her door open and close, but he didn’t look behind himself as he headed through the big glass doors and toward the elevator bank. Stairs to the floor of his destination were simply impractical. She was right behind him, as silent as a shadow, and he decided not to argue with her. She was her own person, with her own will. Not his toy, and certainly never his slave.
The doors slid open to reveal a receptionist desk, empty at this hour, arranged artfully in a bank of trees and plants. It looked more like a garden than an office. He strode past it, and pushed on the rough wood panels of the door, expecting it to swing open, carried by his weight and momentum. The door surprised him, and he thudded into it heavily.
“There should be someone here!” He pounded on the surface with his fist. It was designed to look like an ancient iron-bound oak door, but it was another of his mentor’s creations. “Open!” Niz roared.
The woman at his side stepped forward and laid her hand, fingers splayed, over the black iron lock. “Try it now.”
He pushed again, and it gave. There was a small grinding noise he didn’t remember until later, and a tinkle of falling metal as he stepped over the threshold.
Two men looked up at him in surprise, mouths falling open in slack-jawed expressions. The elder, seated behind a modern desk, with the smoked glass of a window behind him, started to stand. The younger, although still older than Niz by decades, had been standing on the other side of the desk, and was caught stooped over as though they had both been looking at the papers on the desk.
“Niz!” The elder rushed to meet him, hands outstretched. “I was beginning to fear you would not come!”
“The door was locked to me.” Niz growled.
The look they both gave him was identical. “It was not.”
“It certainly was. I had to break it, I think.” He wasn’t sure what she had done.
“That shouldn’t be possible. Not the lock, nor the break.” The younger’s brow was furrowed. “How…”
“If someone has the Don’s override codes?” Niz suggested, and saw the other’s eyes widen.
“That would be…”
“Someone was poisoning him.” Niz interrupted. “Someone very close to him. Someone with that kind of access.”
“I see.” The elder settled back into his chair heavily, his face pale. “I see.”
“I come to you, his lawyers, with this.” Niz pulled the slim packet of papers, much creased, from their hiding place and dropped it onto the desk. The parchment yellow contrasted with the pure white of the computer paper they had been looking at. “The Don’s last will and testament.”
“You came alone?” The younger was looking around Niz’s bulk, through the door which hung open behind him.
“Yes.” Niz sighed. “I am completely alone now.”
The woman, his shadow, sighed into his ear. “You are never alone, as long as the Titanium Princess lives. Well done, my boy.”
Niz felt his throat tighten as he heard the last words of his friend, his teacher, his mentor.
Somewhere in a vast cluttered room, gilded by the golden light falling through dust motes, she lifted her head and smiled. Her eyes were alight with an inner fire. The sword in her hand completed it’s swing, and the thief didn’t have time to scream.
I was prompted this week by Fiona Grey with “The titanium princess held a secret in her spine.”
I prompted Leigh Kimmel with “It wasn’t really a love potion.”
You can read all of the prompts, responses, and even join in the creative challenge yourself over at More Odds Than Ends.