“Shit,” Alta announced to the room as she threw her hands up to the sky. The two assistants that worked part-time in the workshop kept their eyes on their own work as the circuitry in front of Alta fizzled in submission as connectors gave out.
Lucretia smiled helplessly as Alta obviously got annoyed no one asked her what was going on. A warm feeling filled Lucretia’s heart as she watched the younger woman turn around and glare at the ceiling, waiting for someone to inquire about the most recent in a series of almost clockwork-like failures in the research. Lucretia had a mind to keep Alta waiting. When she was frustrated in the workshop was one of the few times that Alta regained some of her youthful exuberance of long ago.
Now twenty-six, Alta had blossomed into a lovely woman. But she was currently a service mechanic for the very power plants that her family used to own, and not many agreed with Lucretia’s glowing assessment of Alta’s beauty. Not that it mattered much; a lot of that came from the time they spent together in the way of the accident of Alta’s childhood.
No one saw how hard Alta had worked, how determined she had been to not lose sight of her goals. No one else held the deep guilt that Lucretia had as she watched the pale flower in Alta’s chest grow more brilliant and shining day by day.
“What happened?” Lucretia said tiredly, still with a smile on her face. Strangely, for the first time in her long lifetime, Lucretia truly felt old. It felt like a twisted sort of wisdom and pessimism about human nature that altered her entire worldview.
“Bah! The electromagnetic energy from the tree same is too variable. At one moment it is calm, at another it is raging. It makes sense, I suppose,” Alta said with a frown. “The tree is a living thing. As it breathes, so we all live. But even the small power contained in the smallest vein of sap that runs through the three can overwhelm the basic circuitry. And if I insulate it, there are times that the voltage ebbs, and there is no power generated…! Without it, basically the same thing happens: the reaction fails without a constant source of power, which burns out the circuitry.”
“So what’s next? For the day, I mean.” Lucretia said patiently. She already was moving to clear away the wrenches and soldering equipment on the workbench around the exposed vein. Her guilt didn’t come from anything Lucretia had actually done, although it started that way. Instead, it came from the realization that some things were inevitable; people were more like machines and less like amalgamations of random chance.
For example, in the wake of that baleful flower of karma blooming in Alta’s chest, Lucretia was slowly consumed by guilt. The more time she spent with the broken girl, the more she was reminded of her own experience, growing up without parents in a strange place where it felt like everyone was vaguely out to get her. The more Lucretia wished she hadn’t tempted Alta towards this convergence of karma.
But at some point, as the bitterness and rage Alta possessed had solidified into a desperate determination, the more Lucretia realized that Alta would have always chosen this same path. Lucretia only accelerated the process.
“A shift in the machine works,” Alta said with a bright smile. “Finally! I’m tired of simply looking at power systems. The mech I’ll be helping on is already two generations old, but still… its a modular frame with a basic suppression outfit. It hasn’t seen frontline duty, but we mean to shine it up until it can!”
One of the two assistants looked up from their work for the first time. “Does that mean the war in the third land is getting worse? Do you think the Weavers-”
“Of course not, no one wants a Branch War to occur,” Lucretia said shortly. Cierce, the assistant who asked the question, was an intelligent girl who they had been able to locate in the slums outside of Taft a few years ago when Alta had her first real breakthrough in how to use the sap of the World Tree as fuel. But she was weak to distractions, especially flights of nervousness fancy and gossip. Lucretia wasn’t of the belief that her slight increase of intelligence over the next desperate bright child was worth her faults, but Alta liked her.
Mostly because Cierce was somewhat of an airhead, and didn’t think too deeply about what the technology Alta was trying to perfect would do.
Lucretia glanced at Alta, who flashed her a slight smile. Inwardly, Lucretia shivered. She had been the sharp knife that had taught Alta that with power, anything was possible. She was a temptation. But not by choice. That was the heavy weight that Lucretia held in her gut now.
Merely Lucretia’s presence in the girl’s life was enough to lead her astray.
But for all that Lucretia had to face this hard truth about her nature and the way of the world, it had also propelled her ability to manipulate karma to new heights. For those who didn’t earn Lucretia’s empathy, it was hard for any to resist her subtle tugs.
It only took about five minutes to finish all the labor-intensive cleanup, and then Alta dashed out of the underground workshop to head towards her job. Cierce immediately fled to the kitchen to rid herself of the last of her nervousness with food, leaving Lucretia alone in the main workshop with the other assistant.
He bowed to her. “Miss Creta, I’ll be taking my leave.”
“Danz, if we come close to succeeding in this research, will you stop us?” Lucretia spoke in an almost playful voice, but she knew from experience that this was the sort of tone that sent a chill down the spine of those who held less power than you. Danz was relatively controlled, so he completed his bow without defect or visible response.
Danz they had found through an old business connection of the Bounty family. Although most people knew that Alta hadn’t inherited any of the true assets of her father, sometimes people still showed up who were either foolish or desperate. Danz was the ladder. Both of his parents died in some of the skirmishes in the lower lands, leaving him with three younger siblings and not a lot of marketable skills.
But what Alta wanted was discretion, and they had enough left currency over to support Danz and his siblings. Still, Lucretia could see the powerful effect that the war had on Danz life. She didn’t want anything getting in the way of Alta’s obsession.
And while Cierce was airheaded, Danz was meticulous and reserved. His active eyes undoubtedly had begun making connections between their materials testing and the extensive amount of research in energy discharge. Now that Lucretia had given Alta the basic idea for a battery to power mechs, rather than drawing strength from the driver…
“Of course not. If Miss Bounty succeeds, undoubtedly we will all benefit. Besides, you can rest assured that I understand your abilities. I am not a character with the clout to cross the Queen of Talons.”
Lucretia’s smile was dangerous as she watched Danz back. He was sweating. Did that mean something?
Shaking her head, Lucretia left the workshop as well. Although her employer and friend was at work, that didn’t mean she had any spare time. In fact, her time alone was likely busier than her time working at Alta’s direction.
And it was time to get to work.
Almost eight hours later, Lucretia and Alta met back in the Bounty’s old manor for dinner. Cierce and Danz only came in the mornings, and Alta wouldn’t hear of hiring another servant, so the two dined alone in the gloomy great hall. A table long enough for twenty people held only two, who talked in quiet voices.
“They are moving. Although I don’t like it, this will be one of our only chances to catch them distracted. With a little more information, I believe it will be much easier to pin down who exactly they are,” Lucretia said softly. Today had been very productive.
Alta paused, lowering her cutlery to the table. A large chunk of mutton sat forgotten on the end of her fork. “And by they, you truly mean…”
“Yes,” Lucretia said. “The same organization that attacked your family. The so-called, Council of Fates.”
Immediately, Alta’s face twisted away from that of a person to become a wicked beast that simply knew hunger. “Then we will go to stop them. If they so truly desire war, let us bring them a pitched battle. Let’s make them fear us.”
Lucretia chuckled awkwardly. “Alta, you won’t be coming. Your ability to defend yourself-”
“-Is you,” Alta interrupted. She gave Lucretia a look. “I WILL be coming. Do you have it in your heart to tie me up to stop me? What if I injure myself trying to escape?”
Lucretia sighed. Sometimes being a spectacularly useful tool came back to bite you. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been quite so effective at protecting her Mistress in the past, so the girl had a bit of reasonable fear for her own safety.