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THE ARMORED GIRL
Builders—Render service as customary to Procurer
Drovers—Render service as customary to Procurer—No less than two teams and two carts.
Tanners—One twentieth, in custom or supply.
Herbers—Exempt. Render service to village Maior, save in time of war—then to Lord Marshal.
Menders—One twentieth in custom, save in time of war—then to Lord Marshal for service.
Tinkers—Exempt. Service to Procurer above all. Else, custom as Exchequer may see fit. Shall maintain the vault and secret Procurer’s commission on pain of death. Shall teach trade only within family.
—From Imperial Edict, “Concerning the tithes of the trades unto the Exchequer of the Sacred Throne”
Heloise wasn’t a small girl, but she’d never been a big one either. Right in the middle, her father had always said, and perfect that way, her mother was quick to add.
The war-machine made her a giant, a steel-monster puffing seethestone smoke into the gray sky. One of the machine’s metal fists was hidden behind a shield heavy enough to crush an ox’s skull even without the engine’s brutal strength. The other fist was empty, but no less deadly for it, an unforgiving bludgeon with the implacable strength of a mountain in motion.
Her eyes were still new enough to life to widen in wonder at the world, but they looked out through a brass-trimmed slit in a helmet of burnished iron. Out and down. She towered over the tallest man in the village, Barnard Tinker, the man who’d built the machine she’d used to kill a devil and lead her village in rebellion.
Below the helmet was the heavy iron gorget, and below that, the machine’s solid breastplate, covering the driver’s cage and Heloise’s body. Barnard had painted a red sigil across it, and again on the shield—a little girl, with a halo and wings, standing on a fallen devil’s neck. The girl’s hand was extended, palm outward, in the traditional pose of Palantines. Heloise felt the weight of her people’s expectations every time she looked at it. She knew who she was, and it wasn’t who Barnard, and the whole village, expected her to be.
The breastplate hung on a metal armature, long rods that formed a man-shaped cage around Heloise. Hung across it was more armor—pauldrons and vambraces, tassets and greaves, couters and sabbatons, and the heavy, wicked gauntlets. But where the gaps on a suit of armor would be covered with mail, the machine admitted the empty air, and Heloise shivered as the cold breeze blew through the openings and caressed her bare skin.
“They are coming, your eminence, they will be here by sunset.” It was the voice of Barnard’s son, Guntar, so much like his father’s that Heloise had to look down to confirm. He was red-faced, breathless. He’d leapt off one of Poch Drover’s cart horses, taken for his reconnaissance. Poch raced to take the animal’s reins, patting its lathered flanks and glaring at Guntar. The beast was made for slow hauling, not fast riding. It looked blown, and Poch couldn’t keep the anguish off his face. The old man loved his horses.
Guntar took a knee before Heloise, and the rest of the villagers joined him, as if she were a lord, or a Pilgrim.
Or a holy Palantine, a devil-slayer, a savior and protector.
She had slain a devil, but her throat still tightened at the reverence in their eyes. They had known her since she was a babe in arms. They were her home and her family. She wanted them to hold her, to tell her that everything would be all right.
But everything will not be all right, she thought, and if it is to be even a little bit right, then it is for me to make it so.
For all their fervor, the villagers around her were still an untrained rabble with barely three helmets between them, armed with pruning hooks and pitchforks, here and there a rusty pike or sword left over from their days as a levy in the Old War against Ludhuige and his Red Banners. They were old men, the wives and children of old men. Their names were Sald Grower, Ingomer Clothier, and Edwin Baker. None had the name “Soldier.” A few, like her father and Sigir, the village Maior, were veterans of the Old War, but Heloise knew that levies attended to their trades until they were called to fight. Soldiering was not their life’s work.
And the Order would be here by sunset. Heloise thought of Sigir’s words after the Knitting. The Order speaks of ministry, but it is the paint over the board. The wood beneath is killing. It is what they train to do, it is what they are equipped to do, it is all they do.
The rebels had just one thing: the war-machine Heloise drove, the giant suit of metal and leather that made her stronger and taller than the two most powerful men in the village combined. This new war-machine was made for her, her arms and legs fitting perfectly inside its metal limbs, her movements become its own. But as powerful as the machine was, it hadn’t been enough to save Heloise’s best friend, the love of her life. Her gaze swept the throng, ready to follow her into war. I couldn’t save Basina, she wanted to shout, what makes you think I can save you? When they’d beaten the Order before, they’d had a wizard with them. Now, there was only Heloise, her machine, and the supposed favor of the divine Emperor.
“Sigir, a word,” Samson said. His eyes flicked between the Maior and Barnard, his lips working beneath his gray beard.
“Samson, there is no time,” Barnard snapped. “You heard Guntar. The Order will be here soon. This”—he gestured to the massive war-machine—“is too loud. Too big and too shiny. The Order will know we’re here from a league off.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Samson shot back, then turned to the Maior. “Sigir, please. Now.”
Heloise looked down at her father. He was so like the Maior, both men thick-necked and thick-fingered, with heavy paunches that overhung their belts and shoulders broadened from the work that attended village life. Sigir wore long mustaches, but for that and the gold chain of Sigir’s office, they could have been brothers. It had only been a few nights ago that her father’s approval had meant the world to her, but the fight with the devil had changed everything. A part of her recoiled from the thought of defying him, but Barnard was right, there was no time.
“Father, it’s fine.”
“It is not fine,” Samson practically spat, his face reddening. “This is the other side of the sun from fine.”
“Samson, please.” Sigir gestured at the villagers all around them. Everyone is watching, the Maior’s face said.
Leuba, Heloise’s mother, was among the crowd. She lent truth to the old adage that a couple married long enough began to look like one another—heavy like her husband, thick-fingered and wide-cheeked. But where Samson was thunder, Leuba was the silence after its passing, and she kept her peace and let her husband speak, wringing the hem of her skirts in her hands. But Heloise remembered her mother’s fierce fire when the village had thought to cast her father out after his fight with the Order. I’ll stand at your side and the town fathers will have to look me in the eye as they speak their piece, her mother had said, eyes flashing. Might be that will make them think kinder of what they say.
Samson sighed, swallowed. “Barnard is right, the machine is too big, too loud, and too shiny. So we move it back, away from the road. We can have an ambush without risking the life of my daughter.”
Heloise wanted to agree with him. Here was the chance to step down from behind that sigil, shrug off the weight of it all. She wasn’t a Palantine. What business did she have leading an ambush against the Order?
“Samson,” Sigir said.
“No,” Samson said, “I understand that … much has happened in the past few days, but this is wrong, Sigir. You are the Maior. We follow you.”
Copyright © 2018 by Myke Cole