The rafters shook with each impact of the battering ram, sending cascades of dust drifting down over her schematics. She ignored them and turned back to her creation. Her work was almost complete and she couldn’t stop, wouldn’t let them take this from her. She bent over the figure laid out on her workbench and began the final inscriptions.
Pale skin stretched thin over sinew and bone. Joints and tendons stood out beneath, marking the creature’s internal architecture. Creating the canvas alone had taken days, weeks even, hours stolen from the rest periods between duty shifts. Meticulous work, until her eyes grew too tired to focus. She had known what remained to be done, and would close her eyes then, using only her hands to continue.
She molded the skeleton from smooth switches made of willow and ash, binding it together with fine strands of silk coaxed from the hems of already ragged garments. Each part was inscribed in her precise hand so that it would know where it fell in relation to the others. So that it would know it was only a part of the whole, and worked in service to the mind.
Aged paper formed the skin. Faded headlines of the revolution, soaked in rainwater and painstakingly wrapped around armature. She’d bartered for a bolt of red satin, torn the fine fabric into lengths, and filled the chest cavity with the ragged ribbons. A glass jar no bigger than her thumb held the beating heart: a honeybee, thrumming restlessly against its cage, nestled behind the sternum. A moth fluttered in the throat, bound by a single thread. In the mouth, a mantis prayed, untethered and unconcerned. Behind the eyes, a brace of fireflies slept, awaiting the right moment to cast their pale light.
The whole tower shook, voices echoing up from the courtyard. Glass jars and ceramic pots rattled on the shelves; in the furnace vents, she heard a burst of wings. She brushed the dust away from the pages of her calculations, consulting them briefly before turning back. The scratch of the quill was surprisingly loud in the gaping silences left between thundering blows. She kept working, writing the knowledge of nerve conduction, of circulatory systems and respiration, of sensory input and processing. What makes us so unique, she wondered. The moth and the honeybee didn’t know. The mantis didn’t care. The fireflies, though, she suspected they had theories. It made her heart ache to know she would never hear them.
Somewhere beneath her, the outer doors gave way with a crash. She dipped the quill in the ink again, and leaned up to scribe a glyph on the figure’s forehead. The last loop of the symbol sent a shimmering pulse through the entire room. She ignored the tears on her cheeks, ignored the clatter of boots on the stairs. Paper became skin, wood became bone, satin became blood, the beating of wings became a pulse. Synapses flickered and fired in a mad storm of thought and memory.
She bent and placed a kiss on the creature’s lips and felt it suck in a shuddering breath. Twigs and dust and the ravings of a mad woman arched its back and moaned in confusion and pain.
Its hand flew up and she grasped it. A single tear fell from her face and splashed on the creature’s cheek. She held tight, and crooned under her breath. A moment later, the creature’s eyes opened, blinking, searching in a fog of newly awakened senses. She held on and waited until it could focus on her eyes.
“You’re late.” She laughed through her tears. “Can you sit up?”
“I can’t feel my wings.”
“I didn’t have time. Shh, it’s alright.” A racket erupted behind the heavy barred door, harsh voices shouting. Again, the boom of the ram filled the entire tower.
“Who is at the door?” White gold eyes turned to her, its expression confused.
“Not the welcoming committee I’d hoped for. Marut, I need you to sit up. You’re not safe here.”
“Haritha, you must come with me this time.”
“I can’t. I’m bound, you know that. This is your work now.”
“Haritha, please.” Two hands closed around the woman’s own.
Her breath hitched in her chest. “I can’t. Now, please, get yourself up. You need to flee.”
The figure, now vaguely masculine, did as instructed and levered itself up on shaking limbs and slipped to the floor. Sunlight flickered from behind his eyes, pale yellow beams lancing through the dust hanging in the air, sweeping around the room. “Haritha.”
“No, there is no time.” She touched his cheek, drew his gaze back to her. Even with the building coming down around their ears, it felt as natural as breathing to lean in and rest her forehead against his. “Do you remember the way? The schematics? My sigil?”
“I do.” The figure took her face between his frail hands and let out a shaking breath. “How could I ever forget your sigil? Next time, we will have more time.”
She nodded, the sound of heavy oak beams splintering behind her taking away her chance to respond. “Go!”
He nodded. One elegant hand sketched an arc in the air, and a curtain of air parted, falling like a sheet of rain to the floor. Beyond, she could see a meadow and a dark treeline only a few yards away. “Next time?”
“Next time,” she affirmed. There was always a next time, and it never seemed long enough for either of them.
She did not look away when the soldiers burst through the door, did not look away when they overturned her work bench and set the torch to her schematics. She did not look away when they fell upon her. She watched him step through and seal the way behind him. Only when she knew he was gone did she fall. Cudgels smashed down upon her and fire licked at her skirts. She closed her eyes and smiled. Meat and bone shattered, blood soaked into the floorboards. She drew one last breath and coughed.
A moth emerged from her lips, feathered antenna tasting the air. It fluttered and colorful wings stirred the dust motes on the floor. It launched itself into the air, heading in drunken spirals up through the smoke towards the one shattered window pane and into the cool clear night beyond.\