In Miwāfu, those who cannot use magic are called barichirōma. Translated into Lorban, it means “cursed to be forever deaf.”
— Dastor Malink, Awakened Magic
Kanéko tried to force the end of a connecting rod into place. The bracket was a foot above her. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t get the holes for the cotter pin to line up through both the bracket and the rod at the same time. Annoyed, she planted one bare foot on a wooden brace, and then lifted herself for a better angle. Her nightgown rose up on her thigh, but she didn’t have time to pull it down.
The rod slid further into the bracket with a clink, and she let out a satisfied chuckle. She lost her balance, but Jinmel caught her before she could tumble from her precarious position.
As he started to lower her, Kanéko shook her head. “Push me up… please? The holes aren’t quite lined up.”
She grabbed a nearby pipe and hauled herself back into position. Heat radiated underneath her palm from the pipe, but she pushed back the pain until she could find another handhold that didn’t burn her fingers.
“I can’t believe I’m going to miss your birthday.” Jinmel spoke as he strained to hold her. “First time you won’t be here at the tower.”
“I’m only turning seventeen.” She yanked at the rod, testing how well it sat in place. It was a perfect fit, despite taking a week to puzzle out its purpose and two days to forge.
“It isn’t that important,” she continued with a grunt. She grabbed the rod with both hands, threw all her weight on it, and then jerked violently. The bar scraped as it sank into place.
“Got it?” asked Jinmel. His voice was slightly muffled, he was looking away while he held her.
She nodded and braced herself again.
“Yes. Thank you.” She pushed her long, copper hair from her face and behind her ear. The grimy strands clung to her grease-covered fingertips, and she had to shake them free before she could inspect the rod and bracket. “Cotter pin?”
“In your apron, left side.”
Kanéko glanced down to the apron covering her front. The grease-stained canvas had a dozen bulging pockets filled with tools, screws, and bits of wire. She glanced to the sleeve of her sleeping gown underneath, where the silk had been frayed just a few hours earlier. Fresh burns and scratches covered older injuries along her dark skin. She balanced on the precarious perch and fumbled through her pockets until she found the pliers and a cotter pin. With a triumphant smile, she forced the pin into place and spread the ends to keep it from slipping out.
“There!” she announced as she hopped down. The hem of her gown caught an exposed screw and tore. She ignored it; one more rip wasn’t going to be noticed among the other tears, burns, and stains.
She faced Jinmel. Like her, he had dark shadows under his eyes from working all night, but with his brown eyes, it made him look like he wore a mask.
“Remember,” Jinmel said as he held up a finger, “you are going to bed as soon as it works… or doesn’t, agreed?”
She glanced out the window of the stables. “It is almost morning. Probably too late.”
“At least pretend to sleep. I’ve been up for five hours and you never went to bed.”
He gestured to a large boiler that towered over them, filling the entire end of the formerly abandoned stable. A few feet to the side, in the corner, was a narrow well. A large screw hung down into depths and a wooden channel led past the boiler and out the wall. “Ready?”
She looked through the shutters of the stable where the morning light was getting bright, “Papa is going to kill me if he catches me wearing this.” She toyed with the charred end of her sleeve.
“He’s going to kill you when you aren’t in your bed. I distinctly remember hearing him tell you at dinner not to work on this before your trip.”
“Bad enough you are ignoring his commands, but this trip is the law. You can’t go against the Silver King, not with your father being the one hunting you down. And then, it won’t be just you regretting it.”
Kanéko gave him a tired grin. “Then why do you encourage me? You caught me hours ago and didn’t force me out.”
Jinmel’s shoulders slumped. “Because I know how important it is to you. And I want to see it working just as badly as you, though maybe for slightly different reasons.”
Neither said anything for a long moment. Kanéko toed the ground as she fought the urge to keep working. She couldn’t leave the water screw unfinished, not with her father glowering every time he saw it. She wasn’t sure if it would still be standing when she came back a month later. She knew the reasons for the trip but it didn’t make it easier to leave her project behind.
Reflexively, she glanced at the crumpled academy letter nailed to the post. She had rescued it from the trash and kept it to remind her to keep working. She remembered the look in his eyes when he got to those fateful words.
Jinmel sighed twice and rubbed his nose. “So, what’s next?”
Kanéko sniffed and looked around. “What do we do now? Start the core? Compare it to the diagrams?” She gestured to the workbench and the plans for the water screw. The expensive plans she had bought months ago from the back of an issue of Emerging Wizardry. It showed every part needed for the mechanism, but Kanéko and Jinmel couldn’t get anything to work. On top of the diagram were their sprawled sketches of replacement parts, things they puzzled out, and random doodles.
“That thing is useless,” he sighed.
“Then,” she said hopefully, “just open the core?”
At Jinmel’s shrug, hope rose inside Kanéko. She hurried over to the fire core, a foot-tall metal vase covered in runes. It was buried underneath a bag of moldy and scorched horse feed. She grunted as she picked up the bag and shoved it aside. The vase was hot in her hand when she picked it up and carried it over to the boiler.
“I’m not going to drop it,” she gasped, “again.”
She pushed the core underneath the boiler and rested her hand on the lid. Four arms kept the lid clamped down, but as she touched the top, they released with a snick. The runes along the sides flickered brightly. “Ready?”
Jinmel grunted with a nod.
Kanéko pulled the lid off. Flames burst out of the vase and roared up. They hit the bottom of the boiler and splashed around the copper base. She scrambled back as the searing air choked her. Dropping the lid on the ground near the boiler, she backed until she stood next to Jinmel.
He chuckled. “While we wait, go look for leaks. I’ll go this way.”
Together, they inspected the boiler as temperature and pressure rose.
Kanéko found herself glued to the largest gauge, watching it climb. She heard the first gear start to turn, a squeak and a creak that she tried fix weeks ago.
Moments later, the water screw began to rotate.
“Kanéko! Get out here!” Her father’s rough voice echoed across the courtyard.
She jumped and gave Jinmel a terrified look. “Papa!?” She rushed outside. When she saw water pouring into a horse trough, she slowed down and smile broadly. In the second she stopped to look, her father cleared his throat loudly, making her resume her run to him.
Ronamar stood in the center of the courtyard, hands fisted at his side and scowling at the stables. He wore a simple shirt and trousers along with a rigid necklace of his royal title, a bartim. His brow was furrowed deep with anger. He cleared his throat before growling, “Why are you out here?”
“I got the pump working, Papa. Look—” Some of her excitement came back, but he crushed it by repeating his question.
“I said, why are you… out… here? In your sleeping gown? In the stables!? In the morning?”
Next to her, Jinmel excused himself and hurried back to the stables.
Kanéko wanted to follow him, but her father kept speaking.
“I allow this foolish hobby of yours—”
“It isn’t foolish, Papa.”
“Kanéko!” he roared and brandished his fist. “Stop messing with that thing! It is an abomination of nature. Just because you can’t do anything, it doesn’t mean—”
“I can do something, Papa! I’m—”
“You can’t!” he roared, “You can’t do anything. You are…” he shook his hand, the pain crossing his face. “Do something that brings honor to our family, not messing with devices that explode in the middle of the night.”
“It was only a ruptured pipe…”
“Enough!” He gestured to her ruined gown, “I’m tired of your mistakes. You should be in bed, not cavorting around like some sort of… of… I don’t know what they call themselves!”
“Mechanic,” she said sheepishly.
“Silence!” His roar echoed against the walls.
Around her, the ground rumbled as it responded to his anger. She could feel it bulging up and then lowering. Kanéko stared at the ground and held her breath. There would be more yelling in a second.
Instead of continuing, Ronamar took a long, deep breath and his voice calmed. “This is the last day you’ll play with that…” He struggled with the word, “whatever that thing is!”
“It’s a water screw, Papa.”
“No, it’s done. You’re done. No more cores, no more designs, no more staying up late working in the smithy.”
“You are the daughter of a bartim and it is time you acted like one. When you come back, I will—” He bellowed louder, “—have a daughter, not some greasy mech… mechanical… person!”
Silence filled the space between them. Kanéko struggled to find the words to convince him to change his mind. She peeked up at his face and watched as he worked his jaw in preparation for the next round of yelling.
Kanéko caught a high-pitched screech at the edge of her hearing. Turning her back on him, she cocked her head to listen to it.
Her father’s voice grew deep and threatening. “Don’t you dare turn your—”
The screech continued to rise in volume and pitch. It took her a heartbeat to recognize the sound of steam pouring out of a ruptured vent, but when it didn’t die down, she knew that something else was about to give. She could picture it in her head: a crack in the boiler and a weld that blocked off a pipe’s insides. A second whistle pierced the air, but that could only happen if Jinmel had turned the wrong valve.
Icy fear coursed through her veins. She took a running step toward the stables. “Jin!”
The top of the stable exploded in a cloud of timber, iron, and tiles. Shards of wood were blasted out of the way as the boiler lid shot straight up with a deafening bang. The concussion shattered windows and ripped the front wall off the stables.
The impact wave of the explosion slammed into her, peppering her face and body with rocks and chunks of wood. She flung her arms to protect her face as she staggered back. Between her fingers, she spotted a gear the size of her head ricochet off the ground and fly straight for her. She tried to move out of the way, but her body refused to budge.
Her father grabbed her shoulder, his strength grinding into her bone. He yanked her back as he bellowed out a word that her mind refused to comprehend. The spell gathered around his hands and his fingers glowed yellow from his bones. Without a pause, he jammed his hands into the ground. The hard-packed ground flowed around his wrists as he yanked up. The earth formed a wall of soil and rock. He flung his arms open and the wall spread out into a circular shield that blocked Kanéko’s sight of the explosion.
Kanéko stumbled back before she tripped. She barely felt the impact against her rear as she stared at the glowing wall of stone.
Tools and components slammed into Ronamar’s shield. His feet sunk into the ground as she watched him focus on maintaining his spell. Above the wall of stone, more shrapnel flew into the air before it rained down. Ronamar lifted one palm and slashed it across the sky. The dirt shield spread out into a dome over them.
Debris hit her father’s earthen protection and the ground shuddered from the impact. Wood and twisted metal bounced off the stone with muted thumps before falling to the side.
She staggered to her feet.
Her father counted aloud to three after the last of the impacts before he released the shield. Rock liquefied and sank back into the earth. Ronamar turned and glared at her. “You did this.”
Tears in her eyes, Kanéko ran around him and sprinted for the stable.
A shadow crossed over her as something plummeted above her. She stumbled as she looked for cover. Her father’s words rang out again and a stone shield formed over her head. The boiler lid bounced off the shield and slammed into the ground next to her. The earth underneath her buckled from the impact.
Kanéko gasped but continued her race to the wreckage. Dust and steam rushed out of the door and she inhaled at the wrong time. Coughing violently, she reached for the door frame.
Two of the wooden beams slid into the stable and slammed into the water pump. A rolling boom rang out in all directions. The courtyard rumbled from the impact.
Kanéko stumbled from the tremors and lurched through the door. “Jin!”
Inside, the core rolled across the floor, and flames roared in all directions. She jumped over the jet of fire, and then grabbed the urn with both hands. The heat burned her palms. Staggering from the pain and weight, she crawled over the steaming wreckage of the boiler and threw the vase into the well. Flame and water met with a second explosion and a massive plume of steam rose into the air. Kanéko stumbled back, shielding her face.
As soon as she could, she resumed her search for Jinmel.
She found him pinned underneath one of the roof beams. Blood seeped from his trapped leg, and his face was black with soot. A cut crossed his face along the ridge of his nose.
Kanéko sobbed as she reached for him. “Jin?”
He groaned and muttered in a broken voice, “My head hurts.”
Relieved, she hugged him tightly. “W-What happened?”
Jinmel’s left eye opened. It took him a moment to focus on her. “I tried to adjust the pressure, but the valve slammed shut. I’m sorry. I opened it, but then—” He coughed violently, a rattling sound that frightened her.
Kanéko shook her head, “No, don’t worry. Let me get you out of here.”
She tried to pick up the beam, but it didn’t even twitch. She looked around for something to use as a lever, calling out for help at the same time. In the back of her mind, she hoped to find something before her father answered, but she saw only useless metal and smoldering wood.
Ronamar crawled over the ruins and planted himself next to her. When he spoke, his voice was terrifying calm. “Kan, when I lift, you pull him out.”
His tone allowed no question, no resistance, just like when he ordered his soldiers. She just nodded through the tears and wrapped her hands around Jinmel’s shoulders. Her father braced himself over the beam, and then closed his eyes in concentration. Magic flowed from his hands and dripped into the ground. The hard-packed dirt responded. Rising up, it flowed under the end of the beam. Animated earth and stone pushed the timber toward the sky.
Jinmel let out a wail of pain.
Straining, Kanéko tugged at Jinmel until he slid free. Her father continued to lift the wood, his face reddened from the physical and mental effort, until Jinmel’s feet cleared the shadow of the beam. When he let it go with a gasp, the magic stopped and the wood crashed into the ground.
Behind them and in the well, the core let out a loud burp as the magical flames were extinguished.
Together, they carried Jinmel from the ruins of the stable. As soon as they were clear, Kanéko dropped to the ground and held him tightly. “I’m sorry, Jin, I’m so sorry.”
Jinmel cracked open his eyes to look at her, and then his gaze slid to the stables. Kanéko peeked over. At the sight of the ruined boiler, now with two large beams of wood piercing its heart, Kanéko let out a devastated sob.
Her father followed her gaze. When he spoke, his angry voice prickled her skin. “When you come back, that thing will not be here. You will no longer talk about mechanical devices, and you are to never, ever, set foot inside Jinmel’s forge again.”
The rush of emotions slamming into her prevented any words from coming out. She clutched Jinmel and cried.