In a desert wasteland, one king rules with absolute power and unquenchable lust, until one woman risks everything for vengeance.
When Aya Cogsmith was a teenager, King Archon executed her father for treason. Orphaned and destitute, Aya turns to prostitution to survive and spends years dreaming of vengeance. So, when a mysterious nobleman asks Aya to join his coup against the king, she agrees—even though it means risking her life.
In this tyrannical kingdom, adultery is punishable by death. For years, King Archon has entrapped his wives in the crime, executing each boring bride to pursue his next infatuation. Aya must seduce the king and expose his criminal behavior, without getting herself executed in the process.
Will Aya avenge her father’s death? Or will she become King Archon’s next victim? Join her quest for revenge and download The Cogsmith’s Daughter today.
Packed with all the court intrigue of The Tudors, The Cogsmith’s Daughter marries steampunk styling with a ravaged dystopian world. It is the first novel in the Desertera series.
Desertera Series Order
The Cogsmith’s Daughter
The Courtesan’s Avenger
The Tyrant’s Heir
The Queen’s Revenge (forthcoming)
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Copyright © 2015 Kate M. Colby
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the author.
Published by Boxthorn Press
New Haven, CT
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015914399
Cover design by Damonza.com
Editing by Red Adept Editing
Created with Vellum
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About the Author
Aya Cogsmith awoke, as she did every morning, to the croaking of the mechanical frog next to her bed. Reaching across the pile of blankets and pillows, Aya grabbed the frog between her thumb and forefinger. If she didn’t pick him up first thing, he would hop all the way across her room in five leaps and run into the wall. Aya didn’t have the money to fix him again.
She rubbed the frog’s smooth metal belly with her free hand, keeping her fingers clear of his still-jerking legs. She peered through his side to examine his center cog, ensuring its nine golden teeth were connecting properly with the other gears. She listened carefully to his croaks, counting the seconds between them and trying to gauge the volume.
“You’re sounding older every morning, Charlie.”
Aya turned the winder on his back, and Charlie’s legs slowed their jerking. He let out one final croak before going still. Aya placed Charlie back on the floor next to her bedding and watched him as if he might move again. She remembered when she was a little girl—how she would jump out of bed and hop along the floor behind Charlie. When she caught up to him, she would grab him with both hands and frog-leap back into her bed. There, she’d either let Charlie hop along the blanket until he got caught in the pillows, or she’d place him under the covers, holding them high over him like a tent, and let him hop around in his froggy cave.
After a few minutes of this, Aya’s father would peek his head in through the door and tell her to let poor Charlie rest. She would sigh until her father mentioned whatever warm breakfast he had prepared. At which point, she would unwind Charlie and place him back on the floor next to her bed.
Aya yawned and patted Charlie’s head with her forefinger. “At least I’ve still got you, buddy.”
Charlie didn’t move, which she took as a sign that he wouldn’t leave.
Aya stretched her arms out wide, wincing slightly at a twinge in her lower back. Even after ten years, her body refused to adjust to sleeping on the floor with only pillows for cushioning. She got up and walked to her window, relishing the feel of the warm morning wind on her face. The window was about six inches wide, installed when the hovel’s previous owner put his fist through the wall during a fight. Aya had covered the hole with scraps of red fabric from her favorite skirt. A carpenter had ripped the skirt one night at work, and she couldn’t bear to let the silk go to waste. If the skirt hadn’t brought her any dignity in its life, maybe it could bring her misshapen window sophistication in its death.
The streets of Sternville were relatively empty, meaning that the men were still at work pumping the wells, and the women were either tending their children or sleeping off their nights’ works. Aya craned her neck to look over to the palace. The sun hovered just above the starboard railing, meaning that it was not yet lunchtime. She looked the other way toward Kalinda and Jasmine’s hovel. She couldn’t see anyone moving behind the windows, and there was no smoke from a fire.
Good. I won’t be the last one to the wells.
Aya crossed to the other side of her room and opened her old steamer trunk. The brass buckles and hinges were still cold from the night air, and they groaned as she lifted the lid. She pulled out a plain brown dress with matching corset, a green cloak, and her tough leather shoes. If she intended to walk all the way to Bowtown for water, her slippers wouldn’t do.
Once dressed, Aya went into the hovel’s small common room. Dellwyn was not there, but Aya heard faint snores coming from Dellwyn’s room. She crossed the common room quietly, lifting her cloak so it wouldn’t rustle on the dirt floor. The common room held a wooden table, two chairs, a storage trunk, a basket of dried cacti husk and tumbleweed for kindling, and an iron wood-burning stove. Aya knew they were lucky to have the stove, as most of the girls and families in Sternville only had fire pits—one of the many perks of Dellwyn gathering noble admirers at work.
Atop the table sat a five-gallon glass jug and a black urn. Aya opened the urn’s lid and reached inside, wiggling her fingers around in the ashes until they found their target: two gold coins. Aya pulled out the coins and dusted the ashes from her fingers back into the urn. While treating her father’s remains like a safe made Aya’s skin crawl, his urn was the only place Madam Huxley didn’t search when she accused Dellwyn and Aya of skimming from their earnings.
Aya tucked the coins between her corset and the side of her left breast. Carrying anything in her pockets was too dangerous. When she’d first come to Sternville, she had learned that lesson the hard way, losing over a dozen gold coins to grubby-handed children before she reached the Rudder. She grabbed the glass jug and placed the leather strap tied to its handle over her shoulder. It wasn’t much, but the strap helped distribute the weight across her body.
Aya opened the hovel’s door and was instantly greeted with a gust of hot air and dust. She pulled the hood of her cloak over her hair and face, tucking in her brown curls and trying to shade her already tanned skin from the sun’s unforgiving rays. She couldn’t afford to get dirty, as her next bathing allowance from Madam Huxley wasn’t for at least two more weeks. She knew the long walk to the other side of the palace would make her sweat, but she could wipe most of that off with her cloak, and Dellwyn still had some wildflower extract from Lord Derringher that she would let Aya borrow to freshen herself up.
Strictly speaking, Aya didn’t have to walk all the way to the other side of the palace for water. Each of Desertera’s four towns had their own wells. Sternville, her village at the rear of the palace, had one not five minutes’ walk from her hovel. The water was a bit muddy, but it wasn’t any worse than what she would find in Bowtown. However, the neighborhood children liked to stand over the Sternville well and spit in it, racing to see whose saliva could reach the water first. Instead of stopping them, the wellmen turned the children’s game into a gambling one, and when they were drunk enough, they imitated it with piss.
To the west of the palace, Portside also had wells. The village was home to the merchants and traders of Desertera, and they had a crude filtration system to clean the water for cooking and other crafts. However, they weren’t too polite to the wellmen’s wives and ladies of the Rudder from Sternville, and they made a point to charge Sternville residents an unfair price to use the well. Likewise, Starboardshire, the eastern village and home to the lesser nobles, had several wells. Aya would never have dreamed of seeking water in Starboardshire. Even if she could have afforded it, the guards would have never let her across the border—even when her father, the only cogsmith in Desertera, had been alive.
Therefore, Bowtown, all the way to the northern side of the palace, was her best option. Bowtown housed the agricultural district’s farmers and gardeners. Like Sternville, it was a poor neighborhood, but they at least respected their water and other people, no matter what village they came from. And of course, the Bowtown wells were the only other ones Aya could afford.
As Aya walked through Sternville’s crooked streets, a few children poked their heads out of their doors. Aya glared at each of them, hugging her jug tighter to her chest. Near the Sternville-Portside border, six children tumbled out of their tent. Aya recognized them instantly. They belonged to Mrs. Jack Wellman, and they were the most ill-behaved litter in Sternville. Aya picked up her pace, but the oldest rushed toward her, waving his arms to get her attention. He was about thirteen, just old enough to begin understanding what Aya was and that he would like to be a part of it in a few years.
“Miss Cogsmith! Won’t you stop and say hello?”
The boy motioned to his five younger siblings, and they all swarmed Aya’s legs. The three girls tugged at her skirts, while the two boys reached into her pockets.
“Where are you going?”
“Why are you walking so fast?”
“Miss Cogsmith, will you play with us?”
“Why is your jug so big?”
“Miss Cogsmith, why are your pockets empty?”
Aya did not answer—to answer was to encourage. Instead, she raised her eyes to the palace and trudged onward. When she reached the anchor line between Sternville and Portside, the children released her skirts and ran back to their tent.
As Aya approached the palace, she felt her mouth go dry with thirst, and she wondered if the structure shared her longing for water. It had been built as a ship, but it now sat buried up to its propellers in sand. Over the years, the metal itself stayed intact, while its color slowly oxidized from black to brown in the sun. The name of the ship, Queen Hildegard, had faded as well, leaving only the letters H-I-D-E on the palace’s port side. Beyond the letters, the side of the ship contained rows of windows, meant to let sunlight wash over the top floors and glimpses of sea life sneak in the bottom ones, and a large door and drawbridge, meant to release weary travelers into a safe port on land.
Aya let her eyes wander from the railing at the top of the palace, all the way down the chain to the anchor at the edge of the village. The borders were all marked by the chains of the anchors, one at each corner of the palace, cast down when the water level first began to drop, back when the people on the ship had hope for finding a fertile new home.
As a child, Aya used to start at the Portside-Bowtown anchor, placing her hand on the chain and running as far as she could before her fingertips could no longer reach the links. She’d imagine that she could climb up the anchor lines and swing herself nimbly onto the palace’s deck, ready to guide the ship on its next adventure, like Queen Hildegard in the stories her father used to tell her. His tales about the palace were far better than those espoused by any of the street preachers and, as Aya had learned, much more romantic than the palace itself.
“Our people didn’t always live in Desertera, Aya.” Papa pulled her onto his lap. “Once, hundreds of years ago, our ancestors lived in a beautiful, lush land—a land filled with grass and trees and lakes and rivers. There were rolling hills, open meadows, and flowers, all kinds of colorful flowers.”
“Was there still sand?” Aya brushed a few grains from the hem of her skirt.
“There was but only at the edge of the ocean and in places far away. Our land had fields and cities. Oh, the cities, Aya! They were built from metal and stone, with buildings as tall as the sky. All the machines ran by gears and cogs, like the gizmos in my shop, and there was enough water and steam to power every single one. More than that, there was enough water and steam to power entire cities, whole countries.” Papa swept his hand in the air, pointing at all the gadgets.
“What happened to it all?”
Papa sighed. “Do you remember what I told you about the Gods?”
Aya nodded. “There is a kingdom above our heads, a whole world of gods in the sky. The Almighty King and the Benevolent Queen were married, but then the Almighty King forsook their bed for another goddess’s. The Benevolent Queen was so sad that She cried. She cried so much that Her tears fell down to our world and flooded everything.”
“That’s right. It rained for decades, and our ancestors built a great steam ship to carry them through the Benevolent Queen’s tears.”
“The Queen Hildegard!” Aya clapped her hands.
Papa smiled and patted her head. “Yes, Aya. The Queen Hildegard, named after the mortal queen who ruled when the great flood happened.”
Aya scrunched up her face. “But Papa, if the world was all water, why is Desertera so dry?”
“After the Benevolent Queen cried all Her tears, She got mad—so mad that the heat of Her anger dried up the world and made it into a desert.”
“Without water, the ship got stuck on land and became the palace.”
“Exactly.” Papa leaned forward. “Then the Benevolent Queen took the Almighty King’s power and banished Him deep below the soil. When She did that, She saw the mortal world had become a desert, and She felt guilty for what She had done to us, Her children. So She appeared to our king and offered to help us.”
“But the world is still desert. Why didn’t She save us?”
“Well, She discovered that our king, just like the Almighty King, was sharing the bed of a woman who wasn’t his queen. This angered the Benevolent Queen, and She cursed the mortals, swearing that we will never again know our beautiful world of water and land until our royals learn honesty and fidelity.”
Aya’s brows furrowed. “But King Archon is good, isn’t he? No one speaks ill of King Archon. He must be good.”
Papa motioned for her to stand and looked her straight in the eyes. “That’s right, Aya. You must never speak ill of King Archon or Prince Lionel or the queen, no matter who holds the title.”
“I won’t, Papa.”
“Good.” Papa smiled and squeezed her shoulders.
Aya pursed her lips and tapped her chin. “Papa?”
“Why did the Almighty King want a different bed? Was his too stiff?”
Papa chuckled. “Something like that.”
“Miss? Are you lost?”
Aya jumped. A guard stood a few feet away from her, his face and body covered in dust. Aya blushed, realizing that she had wandered into the shade of the palace, where the guards were stationed. The guard stepped toward Aya, and a gust of wind blew down the side of the palace. Aya tugged her hood closer to her face to avoid the specks of dirt within the wind. The guard ignored it, taking bigger strides.
“No.” Aya curtsied. “Please, excuse me.”
The guard frowned, looking her up and down. “You know Sternville whores aren’t supposed to travel this close to the palace. You can walk around the edges of the city or through it, just like everyone else.”
Aya did know this. The only people allowed to walk in the shade of the palace were merchants and traders delivering goods and, of course, guards and nobles. When Aya was a child, the palace hadn’t had such tight security around its perimeter. However, as King Archon’s brides kept being seduced by mysterious men, and even some women, the king thought it best to increase security and keep out any wandering adulterers. Aya didn’t blame him. It must have shattered the king’s ego to know that nearly every woman he had ever married would rather bed a vagabond than him. Personally, she thought it served him right.
“I’m sorry, sir.” Aya lowered her eyes. “I’m trying to get to the Bowtown wells. My jar is very heavy, you see, and I wanted to walk the shortest route.”
“Why can’t you use the Sternville well like the rest of them?” The guard spat at the ground.
“And that bothers you?”
The guard stepped closer to Aya and smiled, revealing clods of dirt between his yellowed teeth. Aya turned her gaze away from his mouth and searched his uniform for some sign of his patronage. Each lord rotated out his personal guards to watch the palace perimeter. If this man was from the right house, Aya might be able to get through. Sure enough, he bore a welcome patch on his shoulder: a red square dissected by two crossing lines, a white vertical bar and a black horizontal bar. Lord Collingwood. Dellwyn’s most loyal customer.
“Yes, it does bother me. It also bothers my housemate, Dellwyn Rutt.”
“Dellwyn, you say?” The guard’s eyes shifted from side to side.
“Yes. Dellwyn Rutt, who I believe has done many a noble service for your Lord Collingwood and his men. Perhaps even you?”
“And this water you’re fetching, it’s for Dellwyn?”
“Of course.” Aya smiled.
The guard took a step back. “Forgive me, Miss…?”
“Miss will do.”
“Yes, forgive me, Miss.” The guard placed his hand over his heart and bowed. “Please, let me escort you to Bowtown.”
Aya shook her head. “That won’t be necessary. However, if you could signal down to your comrades to allow my passing, that would be quite helpful to Miss Dellwyn and me.”
The guard nodded. He waved his left hand and placed his right thumb and forefinger between his lips. Upon his sharp whistle, the other guards turned. The guard pointed at Aya, her jug, then down to the bow of the ship. The other guards clapped three times in unison to indicate they understood. Aya smiled at the guard, repositioned the jug higher on her hip, and continued around the side of the palace.
As she walked, Aya admired the smooth seams along the palace walls. The craftsmanship was solid on the outside, and she knew that the inside matched its functionality with luxury, rivet for rivet. She wished she lived back in those days of excess her father used to describe. She would have loved her own shop, where she could build more frogs like Charlie and tinker with the numbered circles. Clocks. Her father told her that they used to tell the time, that people numbered the hours by the hands of clocks instead of the angle of the sun or stars. He’d also told her how, on the inside, clocks were made entirely of cogs and gears, the movement of each one spurring movement in the next. If even one piece got out of place, the entire clock would stop working. He had said their family used to work on these clocks and other devices from the steam and machine era, and that was where their name originated: Cogsmith. Aya’s father had taught her a little craft, enough to fix Charlie and the few other machines in their household. Before he died, her father had been an expert cogsmith, the only one left practicing the ancient art in Desertera.
Aya did not know as much as her father, but she knew enough to admire the rivets that held together the walls and had, long ago, kept the palace from sinking. Maybe. It was a nice story, but she didn’t know how much of it she believed any more. A few people still held true to the sea myths, especially in Bowtown, but everyone Aya knew was too busy working—or enjoying her work—to care much about bringing back the ocean.
As she made her way to the bow of the ship, the guards watched Aya closely. The final guard held out his arm to stop her. “Will you require return passage?” He licked his lips.
Aya knew she wouldn’t be able to walk alongside the palace again. Not for free.
“No. Thank you.”
She’d have to wait for Lord Derringher’s guards to be on duty to take the shortcut again.
Aya walked straight out from the bow of the ship into Bowtown. The wells were directly in front of the palace, in the very center of the village. Unlike Sternville, which contained only shabby wooden hovels and fabric tents scattered across the dirt, Bowtown’s houses were arranged in curved rows, as if the ship were the world, and Bowtown’s rows of houses marked the arc of the sun around it. Each house had a fenced area behind it, where the farmers grew whatever crops they could, mostly cacti, grains, and wildflowers. The farmers on the edge of town raised livestock—goats, sheep, chickens, pigs—the descendants of the animals taken aboard the ship during the flood. The ancestors had brought horses, too, but they were all kept in Starboardshire by noble families and used for status over nourishment.
A few Mrs. Farmers bowed their heads to Aya as she passed. They sat in front of their houses, plucking the needles from cacti and tossing them into tin cans. The older women’s hands were tough and leathery, spotted with calluses earned from needle pricks. The younger women’s hands were soft and pink with little specks of red or scabs where the needles still punctured their flesh. Aya would have taken a million cacti needle pricks over her entire body in place of the ones she received every night. But it couldn’t be that way for her—farmers only married other farmers’ daughters—and unfortunately, when her father died, there had been no other cogsmiths to take her.
Aya smiled and returned the women’s nods. She weaved her way through the rows of houses, finally reaching the open square with the wells. It was late enough in the morning that she didn’t have to wait in line. She walked right up to the wellman and held out her jug. He took it and bounced it in his hands.
“Five gallons. Two gold coins.”
Aya held her cloak together with one hand and fished the coins from her corset with the other. The wellman raised his eyebrows, but he didn’t say anything. He uncorked the jug and fastened it to the well’s chain. Turning the crank in even circles, he lowered Aya’s jug down into the well. Every year—almost every week, it seemed—it took longer for her jug to reach the water. Eventually, she heard the distinct gurgling sound of water pushing air from her jug. When the sound stopped, the wellman spun the crank in the opposite direction until her jug reappeared. He put the cork back in, and Aya exchanged the coins for the jug. The water inside was murky—a consequence of coming late, after everyone else’s containers had stirred up the sediment at the well’s bottom.
The wellman nodded, and Aya turned to head back to Sternville. Instead of returning to the palace, she followed the line of houses extending from the wells back to the Bowtown-Portside border. Even if the anchor and its chain had not been there to mark the border, Aya would have seen it immediately. Portside’s streets were arranged in a rigid grid pattern with every building perfectly parallel to the palace’s western side. She followed the anchor chain to Baker Street and turned.
Not only was Baker Street the most direct way back to her and Dellwyn’s hovel in Sternville, it was also the location of several bread and pastry shops. Aya had been hungry when she awoke, and after lugging the full jug back home, she would be famished. As she strolled past the shops, the aroma of fresh baked goods wafted from the windows, and Aya’s mouth watered. She and Dellwyn didn’t get treats often, but she hoped that she could milk a bit more of Lord Collingwood’s influence. Aya searched for his crest on the shops’ doors, and about halfway down the street, she saw the familiar red square with the black and white cross. Before entering, she readjusted the jug on her hip and used her cloak to wipe the sweat from her face.
“Good morning.” Aya tried to sound cheerful. The baker had her broad back to Aya, and her hands were wrist-deep in the tub of dough she kneaded.
“Good morning, love. I’ll be right with you.”
Aya braced herself. The moment the baker saw her in her plain clothes, without a wedding band, she would know what Aya was.
The baker turned around. “Oh! I’m sorry. I really am, but I can’t sell to you.”
“I know.” Aya sighed. “But I saw the insignia on your door, and I’m hoping that you could donate to me on behalf of Lord Collingwood.”
The baker raised her eyebrows. “And to whom would I be making this donation?”
The baker put her hands on her hips, creating white marks on her dress. “You, cogsmith’s daughter, are not Dellwyn Rutt.”
Aya blushed. “No, but I live with her, and I am here to fetch her breakfast.”
“And I am meant to trust your word?”
Aya straightened. “Well, you can either take my word, or you can have a word or two with Lord Collingwood.”
The baker wrinkled her forehead, causing flour to sprinkle from her crown to her nose. “Very well, then. You may have those rolls on the windowsill. They’re yesterday’s, so I can’t sell them anyway.”
“Thank you.” Aya took the rolls and stuffed them in the pockets of her cloak. She hoped Mrs. Jack Wellman’s children would be inside when she returned. She didn’t want to hide the rolls down her dress.
The baker sighed and brushed the flour from her face. “I’m sorry for what happened to you, love. It really is a shame to see you like this.”
Aya shrugged and left the bakery without another word. If any of the merchants had truly felt bad for her, they would have offered to help after her father died.
As her consolation prize, Aya rode Dellwyn’s skirt-tails and bartered for favors with her name. Being a woman of the Rudder was shameful, but it did have nice benefits when one fell into favor with the right lord. Aya understood why men adored Dellwyn so much. She had beautiful dark skin and brilliant white teeth. Her figure was plump, but her waist looked slim in comparison to her ample bosom and wide hips. In contrast, Aya had tanned skin, the color of the Desertera dirt, and while her figure was also curved in proportion, her breasts and hips came in a much smaller size. As one lord had put it—pretty to look at, but not much to play with. While this did sting her ego a bit, Aya didn’t mind being considered boring. As the nobleman had said, she was pretty enough to attract sufficient clientele to pay her debts, but not enticing enough to be visited several times a night. She, at least, had never had trouble walking after work.
As Aya had hoped, Mrs. Jack Wellman’s children were nowhere in sight when she crossed the border from Portside to Sternville. Lord Collingwood’s guard, however, was still on duty, and she saw him watching her from the other side of the anchor line. Aya ignored his gaze and tried to walk home in a dignified fashion, which was becoming increasingly difficult under the weight of the jug. Luckily, her hovel was only a few minutes from the border, and when she pushed open their door, Dellwyn was waiting to grab the jug from her.
“What were you thinking?” Dellwyn cradled the glass jug in her arms so Aya could untangle herself from its leather strap. “You know it’s my day to fetch water.”
“Yes,” Aya groaned, rubbing her shoulder. “But I also know how busy you were last night, and I assumed you needed the rest.”
Dellwyn twisted her lips, but she didn’t say anything more. She set the jug on the table, which wobbled under the weight.
“Speaking of which,” Aya continued, pulling the rolls out of her pockets, “your name is worth more than a dozen gold coins.”
Dellwyn’s eyes widened. “Where did you get these?” She took one of the rolls from Aya, running her fingertips over the smooth top before taking a large bite.
“From a bakery in Portside. I saw Lord Collingwood’s badge on the door and thought I’d test his affections for you.” Aya pinched off a chunk of her own roll and popped it in her mouth. The bread was somewhat chewy, but it still tasted sweet and melted against her tongue.
“I wish you wouldn’t have.” Dellwyn took another bite of her roll. “Once word gets back to him about this, he’s going to feel I owe him.”
Aya swallowed her bite slowly. “Then you’ll probably be mad that I used your name to take the palace route to Bowtown, too.”
Dellwyn gasped and tossed a piece of her roll at Aya. It fell into the folds of her cloak, but Aya fished it out of her lap, tilted her head back, and dropped it into her mouth.
Dellwyn laughed. “You’re lucky I enjoy bedding him. If you’d used Lord Derringher’s name, I really would be cross with you. That poor man has no idea what to do with his hands.”
“I will never understand how you enjoy any of it.” Aya bit her lip. “Every single client makes me sick.”
“That’s because you never learned how to do it for fun. It’s different when you do it for yourself.”
Aya shrugged. Dellwyn was probably right. Before working at the Rudder, Aya had never even seen a man naked. She took another bite of her roll.
“You know what Duke Aster told me yesterday?”
Aya shook her head.
“The new queen was crowned last night. Finally. Apparently, the bishop wanted to wait at least a month to do it, given that Queen Isadona barely lasted three months from marriage to funeral pyre.”
Aya rolled her eyes. “Long live the queen.”
Dellwyn scoffed. “Fat chance of that. I wonder why they all run so quickly into other men’s beds. I mean, King Archon isn’t the most attractive man in the world, but he’s not an ogre or anything. Surely he’s not so repulsive that it’s worth losing your head for a better bedding.”
“Maybe his hands are as clumsy as Lord Derringher’s.”
“Or maybe his pecker is—”
Aya held up her hands. Dellwyn smiled and shut her mouth.
“Maybe it’s just a side effect of the curse,” Aya offered. “There hasn’t been a devoted royal couple since before the great flood. Maybe they can’t be faithful anymore.”
Dellwyn scoffed. “You don’t really believe that fundamentalist garbage, do you?”
“I’ll tell you what it is.” Dellwyn pointed toward the palace. “They know that people out here still believe all that religious nonsense. And they also know that it is all made up. The second there is a faithful royal couple, all the common people will start asking about rain. And when the rain doesn’t come, it will prove that their gods and goddesses don’t exist and that the world is just a burnt crust—the way it always has been and always will be.”
Dellwyn stuffed the last piece of her roll in her mouth. She retrieved two tin cups from the trunk next to the stove and poured them each a glass of water. “If you ask me, King Archon needs to suck up his pride and accept that his wives are going to sleep with other people. He can hold as many trials as he likes and sentence every one of his queens to death, but it will never scare the next one off adultery. There’s no point in keeping that law around, not in today’s world.”
“He’ll never do that,” Aya whispered. “He’s killed better people for less.”
Dellwyn slid Aya’s water cup across the table, careful not to disturb the urn. “So he has.” Dellwyn lifted up her cup. “To never becoming queen!”
Aya smiled, clinking her tin cup with Dellwyn’s. “To never becoming queen.”
At sunset, Aya and Dellwyn left for work. Aya wrapped her cloak tightly around her. While everyone in Sternville knew what she did for a living, she didn’t like to flaunt her corsets and high-slit skirts to every peeping wellman. Dellwyn, on the other hand, didn’t bother holding her cloak closed. She strutted through the dusty, winding streets of Sternville, letting her stocking-clad legs emerge from her cloak with each stride. Aya looked everywhere but at Dellwyn.
As they approached the propellers in front of the Rudder, a knot tightened in Aya’s gut. She imagined those propellers spinning, slicing through ice-cold water, and she couldn’t decide whether she would rather be aboard the Queen Hildegard as it sailed away or jump into the blades’ path. She remembered the first time she saw those blades, so tall and wide, looking as if they could cut through the sand and spin again at any moment. They made her sick then, too.
“Excuse me?” Aya asked one of the women leaning against a propeller blade. “I’m looking for the Rudder. Is this the way inside?”
The woman looked Aya up and down. She crossed her arms over her chest, pushing her breasts up in the process.“Honey, you’d best turn around. This is no place for little girls.”
“I’m not little. I’m thirteen.”
“Is that so?” The woman chuckled. She crinkled her nose and pointed in between the two bottom propeller blades. “Right through there.”
Aya hesitated and peered through the gap. Pitch black. As she walked, Aya placed her left hand on the propeller blade the woman leaned against, as if to keep it from moving and chopping them both to bits. The woman placed her hand over Aya’s. “If you walk in there, there’s no coming out.”
Aya stared up at the woman. She would have been beautiful with her bright, blond hair and blue eyes, if it weren’t for the purple bruises and red splotches dappling her face and neck.
Aya’s lower lip trembled. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
The woman sighed and looked out over Sternville. Aya followed her gaze. The village was dark, save for the orange glow of the fire pits. The woman removed her hand from Aya’s. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” Aya whispered.
Squaring her shoulders, Aya walked into the Rudder. She hadn’t known of the place until her father died. After his funeral, she’d overheard some of the merchants’ wives say that it was the only place in Desertera for orphaned girls. And Aya was an orphan now.
At first, the Rudder didn’t look so bad. The entire room was made of metal—walls, ceiling, and floors. A tall, wooden podium stood near the center of the room with a large book open on top of it. An even taller woman stood behind it counting coins. The woman was thick, but she had pulled in her girth with an emerald corset, worn over a black dress. Her hair was red, like the sun just before it slipped below the earth, and it was gathered in a curly, frizzy pile on the top of her head. Thick black makeup lined her green eyes, and Aya thought they looked like charred timbers burning under her fiery hair.
As Aya approached, the woman looked up. “Can I help you, child? Come to fetch your father?”
Aya took a deep breath. “My father is dead.”
“Ah.” The woman snorted. “Your mother, then? Older brother or sister?”
“My mother is dead, too. I don’t have any siblings.”
“So you’re an orphan?”
The woman cocked her head to one side. “No family at all?”
The woman stepped out from behind the podium. “And why are you here?”
Aya laced her fingers and looked down at her feet. “The landlord kicked me out of my father’s shop. I heard this is the only place for orphaned girls in Desertera. No one else will take me in.”
The woman huffed. “Well, I’m not sure that I want you either. How old are you?”
“Thirteen! I couldn’t let you touch a man. It’ll be three years before I can make any money from that little mouth of yours. Why should I feed it?”
Aya’s lips parted, but she couldn’t find any words. She didn’t know exactly what women did at the Rudder, only that the people who visited—mostly men—seemed to like it very much, and the people who didn’t visit—mostly their wives—didn’t like it at all.
After a moment of silence, the woman sighed. “Let me look at you.” She motioned for Aya to step closer. Once she came near enough, the woman grabbed Aya’s chin, turning her head from side to side. “Well, you have a pretty face. Show me your teeth.”
Aya curled back her lips. The cracks in them deepened as they stretched, and she winced, hoping they didn’t bleed in front of the woman. Aya hadn’t drank hardly any water in the last two days.
The woman bobbed her head. “A bit yellow but straight. That’s good.” The woman ruffled Aya’s hair. “The brown isn’t exceptional, but you have beautiful, soft curls. Bouncy, too. Men like bouncy.”
The woman put her hands on Aya’s shoulders and ran them down her body, stopping to squeeze her breasts and then her hips. Aya straightened her back and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Have you bled yet?”
Aya’s eyes widened, but when the woman’s face remained stern, she nodded.
“When did you start?”
Aya felt her face reddening. “About a year ago.”
“Fine.” The woman gestured across Aya’s chest then from her head to her feet. “You may yet gain a few inches here and there. Not that petite is bad. We could use another girlish lady.”
Aya didn’t answer. She tried to spy the exit from the corner of her eye. Maybe it wasn’t too late to turn and leave.
“And you have no family? No uncles or aunts, no grandparents or cousins, no one at all who will want you?”
Aya shook her head. The woman squatted down to Aya’s level and stared directly into Aya’s eyes. Aya noticed that the woman’s green eyes were watery, and faint wrinkles extended from the corners like cracks in the sand. The woman reached out and took Aya’s hand in hers and gave it a gentle pat. “Very well then. My name is Madam Huxley. I run the Rudder.”
“Cogsmith, eh?” The woman chuckled. “I heard about what happened to your father. The last mechanical tradesman gone by royal order. No wonder no one wants you.”
Aya bit her lip and looked down.
Madam Huxley touched Aya’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean it like that, but I see now why you are here. There’s no room in civilized society for a traitor’s daughter—guilty or not.”
Aya nodded. She didn’t want to talk to Madam Huxley anymore. Her stomach growled, and her feet ached.
Madam Huxley straightened. “Right. Let’s get started.”
She took Aya’s arm by the elbow and guided her into a hallway and through a thick, iron door. Inside the room, there was another girl, maybe three or four years older than Aya, seated on a bed. She had rich, black skin and the straightest hair Aya had ever seen.
“Aya,” Madam Huxley began, “this is Dellwyn Rutt, our ladies’ maid. Dellwyn, this is Aya Cogsmith, your replacement.”
Dellwyn glanced up from the stockings she was mending. Aya held her breath, waiting for recognition or judgment to cross Dellwyn’s brown eyes. If she knew anything about Aya’s father or his death, Dellwyn didn’t show it. “Yes, Madam.”
“Dellwyn, you will show Aya her duties. Aya, you will be responsible for cleaning up the rooms after use and attending to our ladies and guests as necessary. Dellwyn will teach you.” Madam Huxley paused so Dellwyn could nod her assent. “Good. I shall let you two get acquainted.”
Aya stayed in place as Madam Huxley turned to leave the room. However, before Madam Huxley closed the door, she turned back to address the two girls. “Oh, and Dellwyn, now that you are no longer our cleaning girl, I will be booking you priming appointments. I expect to you to be waiting in Room G at sunset to get Lord Collingwood ready for Alisa.”
“Yes, Madam,” Dellwyn replied. Madam Huxley shut the door. Dellwyn looked at Aya, as though waiting for her to speak.
“Priming appointments?” Aya asked. “What are those?”
Dellwyn sighed. “Let’s begin with where we store the mop.”
As Aya and Dellwyn walked between the propeller blades, Aya placed her hand on the one to her left, pinching it in her fist. Nothing in the main room of the Rudder had changed in the last ten years—other than Madam Huxley’s face, which now held a few extra wrinkles. A man stood on the other side of the tall podium, waving his hands in the air, his voice threatening to reach a dangerous level. “Are you protesting the word of an earl? The Earl of Cornsworth has been married for twenty years, and I know for a fact that he is a regular client of yours!”
Madam Huxley held up her hands. “I’m sorry, Lord Bernstein, but we simply cannot provide our services to married people. You know the law—adulterers, both the offending spouses, or in this case, the offending spouse and the unmarried concubine—shall be executed without mercy. Surely you don’t think that I, a respected businesswoman, would so blatantly defy the law. We only serve the unmarried.”
Dellywn laughed. Madam Huxley and Lord Bernstein’s heads snapped around. Dellwyn bit her lip to contain a smile and scurried off to her room. Aya, on the other hand, stayed put. They all knew the routine, and with Dellwyn scampering off, Aya would have the honor of being the bearer of good news.
“Aya.” Madam Huxley smiled, her voice rising to a high, feminine lilt. “Could you please escort Lord Bernstein out the back exit? Door M. I would hate for his reputation to be threatened if someone saw him leaving from the propellers.”
Aya nodded and looped her arm through the nobleman’s. He huffed but allowed himself to be pulled away. When they were out of earshot of the common room, Aya stopped.
“I apologize for your alarm, Lord Bernstein.” Aya gestured to a door on their left marked with a letter M. “I am sure Kalinda will do everything in her power to ensure that you are well compensated for your emotional distress.”
Lord Bernstein raised his eyebrows, staring down at Aya as if she had just proclaimed it was raining. “Won’t Madam Huxley be angered to learn I am being served?”
“Oh, you don’t understand.” Aya spoke softly and quickly, attempting to soothe Lord Bernstein and relieve herself of his company. “Madam Huxley was simply acting. You see, we cannot allow the royal guard to catch wind of our operations here. If King Archon knew, every employee in this establishment, along with every person who has signed the guest book, would be executed—you included. I assume you signed in at the desk?”
“Yes.” Lord Bernstein arched an eyebrow. “The Madam insisted on it.”
Aya smiled. “Good. Then we are happy to serve you in exchange for your discretion.”
Lord Bernstein shifted his eyes from door to door. Aya couldn’t tell whether he was upset that he had been duped into leaving evidence of his transgressions or relieved that he would be served after all. She stepped in front of him and opened the door to Room M, motioning for him to enter. He frowned then walked past Aya without another glance in her direction.
“Have a lovely evening,” Aya crooned, shutting the door with a loud thwap. She heard Kalinda giggle, and she hoped the nobleman had jumped at the noise.
Aya continued down the hallway to her own room, Room V. There were twenty-six rooms in all, one for each letter of the alphabet. They were assigned to the employees by seniority and clientele with the longest-lasting and most-requested person in Room A. Currently, Room A was held by Alisa, who had been in Room G when Aya came to the Rudder, and Room B was held by Augustus, the only man working in the establishment. Dellwyn had worked her way up to Room E, and she intended to be in Room C by the end of the year.
Despite being a full lady of the Rudder for five years, Aya still worked in Room V, but she didn’t mind. This meant that she spent most of her evening alone, and when she did receive a client, he didn’t take up much of her time. Of course, she sometimes received merchants who delighted in bedding the dead cogsmith’s daughter as some sort of cosmic payback for her father being more successful than them. She even received the occasional woman. While these visits were less invasive, she didn’t like them. Much like poor Lord Derringher, she simply didn’t know what to do with her hands.
Before Aya even seated herself on her bed, a loud knock issued from her door. She threw her cloak onto the chair in the corner and patted down her curls. Two more knocks came from the door, their strength causing the brass hinges to vibrate against the iron frame.
“Come in,” Aya called, trying to keep her voice low and smooth, despite the nerves creeping up in her chest from the rush and the noise.
The door flung open to reveal a large, muscular man with black soot caking his bearded face and hands. He wore a loose-fitting white shirt, also stained with soot, and plain black trousers, straining against his already-present excitement. A blacksmith, no doubt. They were always dirty from the forge.
Aya smiled demurely and moved to close the door. As she reached his side, the blacksmith extended his arm and grabbed her by her corset laces. “Where do you think you’re goin’?”
Aya took a deep breath, allowing her hand to slide up the man’s arm and caress his shoulder, her fingers kneading into the tight muscle to relax him. He shook his shoulder, sending her hand flopping uselessly to her side.
“I’m just going to shut the door. Madam insists on the privacy of her guests.”
The blacksmith jerked the laces of Aya’s corset, causing her to stumble back a few steps. He grabbed her around the waist and stared down into her eyes. From this angle, Aya smelled the char and sweat on his skin, and she knew the grease from his hands must be staining her corset.
“Forget the door. Get to work.”
Aya opened her mouth to protest, but the man slid his arms up her shoulders and pushed her down. She hit the floor so hard that her knees bounced off the metal before landing in place. Pain jolted through her kneecaps, and Aya grunted through clenched teeth. Her legs shook from the pain and her hands trembled from nerves, but she said nothing. With aggressive customers, Aya knew her only option was to remain silent and do exactly as instructed. For whatever reason, these rough clients did not want to be seduced. They needed to feel powerful, and the sooner Aya gave them that power, the sooner they left her in peace.
As the blacksmith unbuttoned his trousers, Aya began to count. When she had to fumble her way through seduction, her job could take hours. But in most cases, when her client only required compliance, she rarely had to count higher than a thousand.
One. Two. Three. Four.
As the door slammed shut behind the blacksmith, Aya leaned against her bed and pulled her knees to her chest. Her stockings lay haphazardly on the floor like two lifeless snakeskins. She shifted through the folds of her skirt to reveal her bare knees. Already her blood pooled under her skin, creating large, purple bruises on either kneecap. Gently, Aya reached one hand up to her neck and another to her hip. Both areas felt raw, and Aya guessed she would be sore from the blacksmith’s grip for at least a full day.
Aya allowed her head to fall back against the mattress and her eyes to shut. She took deep breaths, feeling the pinkness drain from her flushed skin and the muscles in her legs and back relax with each one. She had no concept of how long she sat like this, or even if she was awake the entire time. After a long while, Aya became convinced that she would not have any other clients for the evening. She went to fetch her cloak and heard a soft knock on her door.
Silently cursing her luck, Aya seated herself on her bed. She remembered a piece of advice Dellwyn once gave her, about setting the tone for the interaction, and she lay down on her side, hoping to avoid any more stress on her knees. She propped her head up with one arm, using her free hand to adjust her corset and push up her small breasts as much as they could be lifted. She tousled her skirt, making sure to expose the full line of her naked leg. First impressions, Dellwyn had said, could work wonders.
“Come in,” Aya called, arching her back as the final touch.
The door opened to reveal a man she’d never seen before. He appeared much richer than Aya’s usual clientele of wellman and merchants. He wore a three-piece suit made entirely of purple velvet and embroidered with gold filigree. Atop his head sat a matching top hat with a wide black ribbon wrapped around it. His eyes were beady and obscured behind small, round glasses.
Aya pushed herself upright. Her clients were not supposed to know her name. In fact, even the seediest merchants, the ones who’d despised her father and paid extra to be assured of her identity, didn’t say her full name.
“Yes, my lord?” She slowly curled into herself.
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