“But Mr. Carstairs is not like that. He isn’t at all like the others. And neither are Mr. and Mrs. Branwell.”
Before Tessa could say anything else, they came to an abrupt stop at the foot of the stairs. There was a heavy oak door there with a barred grille set into it; Tessa could see nothing through the grille but shadows. Sophie reached for the wide iron bar across the door and pushed it down, hard.
The door swung open onto an enormous brightly lit space. Tessa moved into the room with wide eyes; this had clearly been the crypt of the church that had originally stood on this spot. Squat pillars held up a roof that disappeared into darkness. The floor was made up of great stone slabs darkened with age; some were carved with words, and Tessa guessed that she stood on the gravestones—and the bones—of those who had been buried in the crypt. There were no windows, but the bright white illumination that Tessa had come to know as witchlight shone down from brass fixtures fastened to the pillars.
In the center of the room were a number of large wooden tables, their surfaces covered with all manner of mechanical objects—gears and cogs made of dully shining brass and iron; long strings of copper wire; glass beakers filled with liquids of different colors, some of them giving off wisps of smoke or bitter odors. The air smelled metallic and sharp, like the air before a storm. One table was entirely covered with a scatter of weapons, the blades shining under the witchlight. There was a half-finished suit of what looked like thinly scaled metal armor, hanging on a wire frame by a great stone table whose surface was concealed by a lumpy cluster of thick woolen blankets.
Behind the table stood Henry, and beside him, Charlotte. Henry was showing his wife something he held in his hand—a copper wheel, perhaps a gear—and was speaking to her in a low voice. He wore a loose canvas shirt over his clothes, like a fisherman’s smock, and it was smeared with dirt and dark fluid. Still, what struck Tessa most about him was the assurance with which he spoke to Charlotte. There was none of his usual diffidence. He sounded confident and direct, and his hazel eyes, when he raised them to look at Tessa, were clear and steady.
“Miss Gray! So Sophie showed you the way down here, did she? Very good of her.”
“Why, yes, she—,” Tessa began, glancing behind her, but Sophie was not there. She must have turned at the door and gone soundlessly back up the stairs. Tessa felt foolish for not having noticed. “She did,” she finished. “She said that you wanted to see me?”
“Indeed,” Henry said. “We could use your help with something. Could you come over here for a moment?”
He gestured for her to join him and Charlotte by the table. As Tessa approached, she saw that Charlotte’s face was white and pinched, her brown eyes shadowed. She looked at Tessa, bit her lip, and glanced down toward the table, where the heaped fabric—moved.
Tessa blinked. Had she imagined it? But no, there had been a flicker of movement—and now that she was closer, she saw that what was on the table was not so much a pile of fabric as fabric covering something—something approximately the size and shape of a human body. She stopped in her tracks, as Henry reached out, took hold of a corner of the fabric, and drew it away, revealing what lay beneath.
Tessa, feeling suddenly dizzy, reached to grasp the edge of the table. “Miranda.”
The dead girl lay on her back on the table, her arms flung out to either side, her dull brown hair straggling down around her shoulders. The eyes that had so unnerved Tessa were gone. Now there were hollow black sockets in her white face. Her cheap dress had been cut open down the front, baring her chest. Tessa winced, looked away—and then looked back quickly, in disbelief. For there was no naked flesh, and no blood, despite the fact that Miranda’s chest had been sliced open down the front, her skin peeled back on either side like the skin of an orange. Beneath the grotesque mutilation gleamed the brightness of—metal?
Tessa moved forward until she was standing across from Henry at the table where Miranda lay. Where there should have been blood, torn flesh, and mutilation, there were only the two sheets of white skin folded back, and beneath them a carapace of metal. Sheets of copper, intricately fitted together, made up her chest, flowing smoothly down into a jointed cage of copper and flexible brass that was Miranda’s waist. A square of copper, about the size of Tessa’s palm, was missing from the center of the dead girl’s chest, revealing a hollow space.
“Tessa.” Charlotte’s voice was soft but insistent. “Will and Jem found this—this body in the house where you were kept. The house was completely empty except for her; she’d been left in a room, alone.”
Tessa, still staring in fascination, nodded. “Miranda. The Sisters’ maidservant.”
“Do you know anything about her? Who she might be? Her history?”
“No. No. I thought … I mean, she hardly ever spoke, and then she only repeated things the Sisters had said.”
Henry hooked a finger into Miranda’s lower lip and pulled her mouth open. “She has a rudimentary metal tongue, but her mouth was never really constructed for speech, or for consuming food. She has no gullet, and I would guess no stomach. Her mouth ends in a sheet of metal behind her teeth.” He turned her head from side to side, his eyes narrowing.
“But what is she?” Tessa asked. “A sort of Downworlder, or demon?”
“No.” Henry let go of Miranda’s jaw. “She is not precisely a living creature at all. She is an automaton. A mechanical creature, made to move and appear as a human being moves and appears. Leonardo da Vinci designed one. You can find it in his drawings—a mechanical creature that could sit up, walk, and turn its head. He was the first to suggest that human beings are only complex machines, that our insides are like cogs and pistons and cams made of muscle and flesh. So why could they not be replaced with copper and iron? Why couldn’t you build a person? But this. Jaquet Droz and Maillardet could never have dreamed of this. A true biomechanical automaton, self-moving, self-directing, wrapped in human flesh.” His eyes shone. “It’s beautiful.”
“Henry.” Charlotte’s voice was tight. “That flesh you’re admiring. It came from somewhere.”
Henry passed the back of his hand across his forehead, the light dying out of his eyes. “Yes—those bodies in the cellar.”
“The Silent Brothers have examined them. Most are missing organs—hearts, livers. Some are missing bones and cartilage, even hair. We cannot but assume the Dark Sisters were harvesting these bodies for parts to create their mechanical creatures. Creatures like Miranda.”