“Cin?” She stood at the top of the stairs. Upon consideration, she came down a few. “There are kind of a lot of people coming up Green Dragon Alley. Some of them have torches. Quite a few of them have torches, actually.”
“Torches?” said Hyacinth. She hauled stiffly to her feet. “Honestly?”
“Well, the lamp lighters haven’t been,” Ann allowed, trailing down the rest of the way.
“Not that I’ve noticed, but I wouldn’t rule it out, I suppose. Is there anything at all you need from me down here?”
Hyacinth took her hand and mounted the first two steps with assistance. The pins and needles were a bit of a hindrance. She hadn’t noticed when she’d been sitting. “Yes, stay with him. Don’t touch him, not unless he’s going to hurt himself.”
“Oh, no. The poor thing! How would he hurt himself?”
“Well, he might puke.”
“But don’t touch him to comfort him. You’ll just hurt him.”
“Oh,” but this time with a great deal more pity. “Cin,” Ann lifted a finger, “if they should make any attempt to burn down the house…”
“Grab him and run, yes.” Hyacinth had attained the main floor. She looked down with a smile. “It’s not as if it would help to bar the door.” There was neither a door here nor a bar. Inhabitants of this house, impaired as they occasionally were, had to be trusted not to fling themselves headlong down stairs. At least not accidentally.
Barnaby was kneeling with his bathrobe splayed theatrically around him and bashing the floor with a half-brick. “The tile here is badly broken,” he explained without prompting.
“Thank you,” she managed. “Are you just about done?”
“Why? What are you doing?”
“Facing an angry mob.”
“Well, then this is imperative.” He began chipping away at the tile again.
At least he was in a good position to get out, should such a thing become necessary.
The front door fell open. It had been a few hours, but nobody had taken the time to fix it, or even to loop some more string through the hole. Hyacinth implicitly approved of this kind of neglect, even when it extended to smashing the floor. Repairs were for people.
There were kind of a lot of people in the yard, and more filing in. The women, in their long skirts, favored the gate and the lowest places. The men were better able to hop the crumbling walls without getting snagged. These were not slum people, whose clothing was tissue thin and stood much trading and mending, but they were by no means wealthy people. Those who could wound their wardrobe with impunity had fled the city during the siege, and in the years since they had returned only in patches. They were not liable to be climbing fences and carrying torches. These people were a couple classes below, and maybe half a class above. In-between people, laborers with just enough skill to be trusted with cash registers, underemployed and unemployed. Renters who ran up lines of credit for furniture they couldn’t afford and groceries they didn’t always eat. People with just enough to really feel it when they had to do without.
They were throwing things at the house. Loose cobbles. Bricks. There were plenty in the front yard. Someone shattered the front window just as Hyacinth emerged.
“That is quite enough of that!” she cried. She positioned herself at the top of the stairs, which gave her a slight advantage in height and scope. “I know you’re here, don’t I? You’re not exactly subtle!”
Someone pegged a rock at her. She didn’t duck. She turned slightly and took it on the left side of her head. It was a calculated risk. She hoped the projectile was small enough and her own metalwork strong enough to prove impressive.
The stone bounced off with a faint ping, like a hammer striking the post of a chainlink fence.
There was a little bit of blood, which she ignored. She did not fall. She frowned.
That shut them all up.
“What did I just say?” she demanded of her audience, one finger raised.
That might’ve been enough, in other circumstances. Normal people did not live here. It was best to leave them in peace. But there were some in this crowd who had come here with a personal agenda.
A woman in front wore a long black dress and a white apron, either a shopkeeper or one of the better class of servant. She held a lantern aloft. The lantern bespoke thought and purpose. Torches, by comparison, were fast and easy, borne by passionate bystanders swept up from the street. It might’ve been a positive sign to see more torches. The woman was picking her way through the scrap wood with a disdainful expression, more disgusted than wary at the prospect of tetanus.
“Send him out!” she said. A few in the crowd picked up the cry and echoed it.
Hyacinth addressed them all as one, “Who’re you looking for?”
“The magician!” the woman said.
“I got a few of those,” said Hyacinth. “I got an old augur who couldn’t predict sunrise at cockcrow. You want him?”
Some laughter at this. A few voices said, “Yeah!”
“No!” said the woman.
“I got an ex-general with a real big ego who can turn into an even bigger bird. She eats pigeons! You want her?”
More positive reaction from the crowd. “Sure! Bring them all out!” The woman turned on them with a murderous frown.
“I got a minor enchanter. Works in that factory that makes windless watches!”
“Windless watches suck!” a male voice cried with violent good humor.
Hyacinth nodded broadly. “Don’t I know it? But it’s a job, isn’t it?”
Various affirmative noises. Most of these people were here to see what was going to happen next. This was sufficiently entertaining.
The woman in the black dress intimated her stake in the matter: “My child is dying!” she howled.
Silence then. Hyacinth spoke clearly into it, “And would your child be one of a couple young men who thought it might be funny to kick an six-year-old boy to death?”
“The horses kicked him!” the woman said. “My boy was helping him up!”
“Your boy was holding him down!”
“He’s in the hospital! Half his face is gone!”
“My boy, too!” a querulous women in a green dress and shawl asserted. “My boy didn’t do anything!”
“Send out the murderer!”
“Nobody here’s done murder yet!” said Hyacinth. “You lot are the only ones looking to start! I got a little boy in the basement who’s damn near dead! And let me tell it, if it was horses kicking him, he never would’ve made it here! Someone thought they’d have a little fun with him! Bruise him! Crack his ribs! Colored children are made of rubber, aren’t they?”
“Well, aren’t they?” someone shouted.
“This one’s made of tin now,” she said coldly, “because that’s all I had to fix him with.”
Muttered discussion. Even if they weren’t familiar with repairs made to living bodies, they knew tin was a cheap material for patches.
“At least he has a chance!” said one of the women.
Now, at last, Hyacinth dropped her attention from the crowd and spoke to the women alone, “The same as your children, if you bring them here. Less, if you bring me better material. Steel, and gold. Or silver, if that’s the best you have, but gold is better. Bear that in mind when you consider your jewelry.”
“And the cost?” said the woman in black. It was well known that Hyacinth did not work for free. She never charged more than one could afford, and the more fortunate often resented it. If she would do work for food, why should they have to pay money? The wealthiest, of course, felt no need to go skulking around back alleys in search of practicing ex-medics, but she would’ve billed them within an inch of their lives.
“No cost,” she replied, “only the material. And the time to use it.” She raised her voice, again including the crowd, “So I will thank you to refrain form setting my yard on fire — even by accident!” This last was addressed to an older gentleman who was examining a pile of orange crates with a dripping torch. “And these women will, too!”
There were a few boos. “Killjoy!” a soot-stained urchin called through cupped hands. The man over by the orange crates straightened and opined, “These are some good slats, these!”
“By all means, have them!” Hyacinth replied. “And have off! We only want damaged things here!” She turned on her heel. She could not slam the door. She had to lift it and open it, set it down, lift it again and close it.
“We’ll be back here!” a woman cried.
Hyacinth lifted the door, opened it a crack and set it down. “I’m not going anywhere!” she snapped. She lifted the door and closed it. “Knock next time, damn it!” she added through the wood. Safer, if momentarily, she clasped a hand to her temple and cried out, “Ow, mother fucker, that hurts!” There was a brief bright flash that turned the flesh of her hand orange and showed the shadows of the bones inside, then the steel plate flattened into place and the dent filled back in. She closed the gash with a single staple, drawn from the metal beneath. She’d put it back where it belonged when she didn’t need it anymore. Light-headed, she stumbled and leaned back against the door. It quivered and said it was not going to support her, so she put a hand on the frame.
“I saw that,” Barnaby said. He had ceased damaging the tile and was examining its placement in the greater fabric of the universe. Sixteen pieces was a great deal more auspicious than twelve. He wore faded cloth slippers that showed blue-veined and swollen ankles above. Mordecai only pretended to be very old and tragic, Barnaby was living the dream. He had the attic room and did not often come down, finding it difficult to negotiate the stairs and upsetting to be among chaos. He wore the bathrobe and silk pajama pants and he had entirely given up on combing whatever remained of his hair, perhaps afraid the attention would scare it away.
“Did you?” Hyacinth said.
“It was unavoidable. I didn’t want to worry you.”
“Bless you,” Hyacinth said.
“This is exactly the sort of thing a little proactive organization can prevent. Cousin Violet can’t do everything. I saw what happened to the boy.”
She pushed away from the door and came forward a few threatening paces, shaking one finger, “Barnaby, not one word about that to Mordecai, or about whether you could’ve fixed it or not, it’s enough that it happened.”
“It could be very important!” he declared. “The fates of empires could rise and fall!”
“It is important,” she hissed. “If you’re worried about empires, put it down in your charts and work on it by yourself.”
“I am not allowed upstairs, and might I remind you that is at your request? I keep telling you, the house is not going to burn down, it is going to explode.”
“There is a notepad in the kitchen!” she said. “Work on it there!”
There was a knock at the door.
“What?” she demanded of the closed wood, turning on it. She lifted it and opened it.
A young boy in a slouch hat and red bow tie was standing on the porch and bleeding. She recognized him immediately. “Soup? What are you doing here?”
“I fell climbing over your wall, Miss Hyacinth.”
“Were you throwing rocks at us?”
“No, ma’am. I just wanted to see what was gonna happen.”
She sighed. It didn’t really matter if he had been throwing rocks. It didn’t matter if he’d hit her. Nobody else was going to see to him. Soup didn’t even have parents, she didn’t think. “All right. Come inside and I’ll fix you.”
He hopped on one leg. The gray stocking on the other one was torn and dripping. She couldn’t help him while she managed the door. He looked up in passing and asked her, “Do you have anything to eat?”
“I got some Nadine’s Boxed Noodles, will that do you?”
He displayed a fetchingly gap-toothed grin. (The really poor ones were always cutest. It was like a survival thing. But they got old fast.) “Hey, thanks!”
She had collected two more patients, and Soup was happily eating a bowl of Nadine’s Boxed Noodles with a bandaged leg, by the time the torches and pitchforks crowd showed up again — this time much reduced. She should’ve expected this. There was a riot crawling its way across the city. It hadn’t started here, but most unpleasant things tended to end up here, eventually. Large groups of angry people didn’t care much for basic safety, or basic decency. Here, at the edge of things, where there wasn’t much around to loot and no police presence to antagonize, there were brawls and fires and broken windows. All of that left human damage and she had just loudly advertised that she was open for business.
Now came a lighted procession bearing two men on stretchers like a flying banner: Hey! There’s a doctor over here!
This was going to be a bad night. There was no metal left in the house. There had been a fire in a sweatshop earlier in the month, and Sanaam wasn’t due back with rent and presents for weeks. (The date was circled on the calendar, still two pages hence.) Most of these wounded would be put right with bandages and care, but she had want of a needle if she was even going to do stitches. (Staples, at the moment, were out of the question.)
At least these two were bringing their own materials, but she had promised to take no more from them than what they needed.
“Please excuse me,” she informed a woman with an arm full of broken glass. “I have promised to fix these two bastards on pain of my life. Sip water and say two Hosannas to the Angel of Morphine.”
Take thee two of these and calleth me in the morning, so mote it be.
She thought, with a faint smile, that Auntie Enora would probably take that at face value and approve.
They were moaning, which was nice. Whatever Mordecai had done, it set them back a country mile. She quashed the urge to continue her smile and made serious.
“That’s Johnny. This is my Johnny!” said the woman in the green dress.
“That’s very nice,” said Hyacinth.
That’s completely useless, thought Hyacinth.
“Your Johnny and your other boy need to come into the kitchen so I can see what I’m doing to them.”
“Edward,” said the woman in black.
Hyacinth smiled at her and nodded. I don’t care! She led the way into the kitchen, which was illuminated with improvised glass mage lights that had been hard-stuck to the ceiling, and smelled incongruously of noodle soup. “On the floor,” she told the stretcher-bearers.
“Not on the floor!” said the woman in black.
Hyacinth sighed. She picked the bowl off the table. “Move, Soup.”
“I’m not done yet!”
“I know. Sit here and eat out of your lap. That one on the table,” she indicated young Master Edward, “and that one between two chairs, please.” Green Dress, as expected, contained her displeasure at this unequal treatment. Hyacinth understood that she would be seeing to young Master Edward first as well.
Black Dress over there had not been medically precise in her description. Half of her dear child’s face was not gone — it, and his chest and shoulder leading down into his arm, had simply become something more interesting.
It looked like a merger. A great deal of wood splinters and some of his hair and clothing had been caught up in it. The hospital had apparently been trying to remedy this with forceps, which was patently ridiculous. It only looked like shrapnel. These things were rooted and accepted and removing them as a mere mechanical function was like pulling out fingernails — futile and ultimately damaging. Magic was regulated and suppressed, that didn’t make it nonexistent. Could it be possible the hospital didn’t have a decent material-worker on staff?
No, they likely had several, and they were tasked with emptying bedpans and mopping floors.
Hyacinth pulled down her goggles. “Ladies and gentlemen, please shield your eyes. Young Master Edward, are you quite conscious?”
“Oh, no, by all means, do not attempt to speak. I am going to bandage your eyes. This will feel hot and smell like burned pork, but it will hurt a great deal less than anything else that has been done to you this evening.”
She had to use her bare hands, the fingertips, find each individual piece and undo the bonds. They had been hastily-made, Mordecai clearly had no idea what he was doing, and there was no difficulty. It was just fiddly, that was all. She threw the pieces on the floor in a gathering pile. The burning wood smelled like incense, slightly sweet. It was not an unfamiliar scent, but she could not place it. The context was all wrong.
“What are you doing to me?” young Master Edward asked her, when he had lips and tongue again.
“I am reminding your body that you are not made of maplewood and cotton cloth. You are missing some pieces and I am going to replace some of them with more agreeable material. You will look interesting, but not more unpleasant than usual.”
“That man, that man…”
“Is none of your concern.” Now, here was a strange thing, more difficult than the rest. It appeared to be flesh. A thin little whisker of flesh.
She clapped a hand to her mouth to stifle the laugh. “Oh! It’s a bit of Julia!”
“A woman!” cried he. “He blew up a woman!”
“Don’t be absurd,” said Hyacinth. She coaxed out the string, which was fully three-inches long and coiled like an ingrowing hair. “A violoncello.”
“He plays ‘cello.” She looked at the pile of splinters on the floor. “Well, I suppose he doesn’t play anything now.”
“He hit my boy with a ‘cello?” said the woman in black.
“I wouldn’t say ‘hit,'” said Hyacinth. By the time it made contact, it looked like it hadn’t been much of a ‘cello, either. Well done, Mordecai. Your first merger and your first deconstruction, all in one day.
“It was an explosion, Momma!” Edward said.
“He’s a menace!” said the woman in black.
“You know,” said Hyacinth, “it’s funny. I’ve known him nearly seven years and I haven’t heard one word about him hurting anybody who wasn’t trying to kick a child to death. We all have our little idiosyncrasies.” She put out her hand. “If you have anything gold, I’ll have it now. He will not require steel.”
With delicate suspicion, the woman laid a length of gold chain across her palm. Hyacinth understood it by the feel. Twenty-four karat, the softest stuff. This would serve quite well for flesh. Mordecai’s own blend was ten karat and his health had suffered for it.
Not that it mattered so much on the outside.
She began to patch up the little divots that had been left by the merger and the incautious use of forceps.
“Will it scar?” said the woman.
“Slightly, but you can say it was something else. A little speckle of gold isn’t enough to say he was pulling orphans out of a burning building, but I’m sure you will manage quite a noble story for your friends, and his friends, and eventually his wife and children. You may even get to believe it yourself.” There were four inches of chain remaining and she handed them back.
The woman clutched and pocketed with a murderous frown.
“It’s hot,” Edward said, with one hand to his cheek.
“It will be painful,” Hyacinth said. “But not for very long. Take him back with you,” she told the woman. “He requires only sympathy, and he’ll get none of that here.”
Black Dress blustered for a moment, but Hyacinth ignored her and she burned herself out.
Green Dress was leaning over her own particular charge and fawning over him. “Oh, darling. That’s all right. That’s all right!”
“I believe you are actually hurting him,” Hyacinth observed with absent wonder. My gods, what a stupid creature.
“Do something!” said Green Dress, upstarting. “You’ve left him long enough!”
Hyacinth did not argue. She began and made done. This one was in slightly worse shape, with a cracked collarbone and a shattered cheek. He would require steel, and in places she was pulling wood out of bone.
Stupid and unlucky, she thought, with a bitter emotion that might have been within shouting distance of pity. This one had been no more or less complicit, just closer.
When she had finished with steel structure and was ready for gold, the heavy brooch that was laid in her hand was ten karat.
Stupid and unlucky, she reiterated to herself, already planning how and how much to steal.
It was a sea turtle, with diamond chips laid in it.
And no taste, she added.
She palmed some of the gold, literally palmed it, merging it to the first layer of skin and then concealing her hand.
“That was my grandmother’s,” Green Dress said miserably, when Hyacinth handed her a flipper and a head.
No taste in the family for generations, thought Hyacinth. Congenital. “I’m sure you can find someone to remake it for you…” The gods alone know why you’d try.
“Ow,” said Johnny, the first thing he’d managed. He was touching his face with cautious fingers.
“That isn’t pain,” said Hyacinth. “You’ll have pain later, more than your friend. Try to remind your mother I said that if she begins to shriek about how you’ve been butchered.”
He actually nodded!
“Thanks,” he said.
“Your gratitude is neither adequate nor required.” She shooed her hands at them, which was enough to get them out of the room. At least, they were gone when she looked over again, but that was quite some time later. It was hard getting glass out of an arm with your bare fingers — although the gold coating did keep her from cutting herself. Lucky, that.
More people had come with the stretcher bearers. Fortunately, none on stretchers, but some of them were bleeding badly enough that she felt they needed immediate attention. Mordecai, and the gold, would keep awhile.