FF Story Winner: Portrait Of An Artist In Love, or The Perfectionist by Nora

I have been a member of the Fantasy Faction forum for getting on for five years now and one of the best things about the community has been the writing contest – it’s only 1500 words so come give it a goContest winners were posted on the website but that hasn’t happened for a while, so I’ve been asked to fill in. It’s an honour to do so, and here is another winner.

The theme for the competition when this story won was “Steampunk” and the story is Portrait Of An Artist In Love, or The Perfectionist by Nora. To read more of her work, To read more of her work, go to either her Archive of our Own profile or her Tumblr.

There is a motto within our guild:

‘Your client is your Art.’

It dictates our rules, weaves itself into our practices, shapes our pride, and though our clients are made to understand its impact, the phrase itself is not spoken to outsiders. It is a tenet, a pillar of our teachings, an invisible chain around our wrists. A chain I wonder if inspector Merig has come to tug.

‘You are a popular biomata craftsman and a respected guild member, Dr. Parahi,’ he says, clearly fishing for a reaction. ‘A true artist among steamwrights, I’m told.’

‘Inspector, what is this visit about?’

‘Just a few questions, if you please. Are you aware of the series of murders that have happened in the Kublai and Kodenshi districts?’

I smile tightly. So, this is about her after all.

‘I do read the papers. Even if I didn’t, the guild keeps us appraised of such… events as might disturb our work.’

‘When did you first become aware of the killings?’

‘After the one that happened at the Proctor’s party. Since that was only a district over, everyone here was made aware of the case. No one knew then that it was serial.’

‘We still don’t know for sure,’ the inspector says, pulling photographs out of a battered folder, ‘but they all have a few things in common.’

He pushes the glossy black and white photographs forward. I find myself oddly surprised. The content might be gruesome, but the police department has a talented photographer on their payroll. All the bodies are angled to showcase the gaping injuries. They lay sprawled in pools of grey, blood diluted in hydrofill, I suppose.

‘They were all either augmented or full biomata. They are all missing parts. A lot of parts.’

‘Oh, please. Are you suggesting a guild member is behind this? Me, even? No self respecting craftsman would destroy someone else’s work like that. Particularly not in such a barbaric fashion.’

‘No, rest assured,’ inspector Merig says, placating, ‘we’ve already sorted things with your guild concerning alibis. At least in your case.’

Nothing in our code states that we should not try to help the police. There is, however, no incentive for me to volunteer information, and so I stare at him in expectant silence.

‘Do you ever work on automata, Dr. Parahi?’

‘Never. All of my work is meant for live grafting.’

I wave a hand to encompass the atelier space all around us. The copper and ivory limbs showcased at the forefront all are to exhibit taste and designs. The hands made of tantalum, titanium and tungsten, laid out on the cabinet to our left, are where the craftsmanship is on display. It is all a front, a showroom, as it were, despite the small workbench. That one is for clients in need of repairs or simple cosmetics. There is no automata on display or in use. It would constitute false advertisement in such a curated room.

‘Would one be able to craft an automata out of parts taken from such victims?’

I feel a shiver run down my spine at the question. Surely, the real one will soon follow. It takes some effort to maintain the appearance of nonchalance, to not trigger the whirring of my knee joints with an anxious shift, to ignore the weight of the stare of my ancestors, perched in their gilded frames on the wall at my back. Six generations of steamwrights silently judging the last practising scion of their house, readying his lies.

‘Of course,’ I say, inclining my head with a smile, a show of scholarly indulgence. ‘Depending on what they wanted to build. If needed, you could smelt and reforge to fit–well, depending on the material. The only thing you cannot transfer or reuse are the tubing and the cores. The engine needs are completely different, and automata don’t require hydrofill. Anyone savvy enough can do this. It is not even considered guild work.’

‘What about building biomata with them?’

Here it is… And what can I say? It is another tenet of ours that you should never deny a client the components they bring you. Our work is… a communion, a shared vision. A concept I highly doubt officer Merig would ever understand or appreciate.
I look at him studiously as I mull over my answer, though there is nothing of interest to look at. He is what is derogatorily referred to in the milieu as a “meatbag”. There is no Art to him. Not even a glimmer of cosmetic copper-gold, ivory or amber, not a whisper of inner mechanism, no murmur of churning steam.

‘Obviously it can be done,’ I answer, keeping up with the affable professor persona. ‘People often inherit parts from deceased relatives and have legacy work done to integrate them. This would not be very different, except the guild is usually involved in the original disassembling process.’

‘Could you tell the parts were taken by force, if someone presented them to you?’

‘Not necessarily,’ I reply, lying through my teeth. In for a copper, in for a silver: ‘There are shunts that can be activated to section off limbs cleanly. If these were used, the limb would look as neat as if I’d taken it off the donor myself.’

I tap a ringed finger at one of the photographs, one of the more gruesome ones, as one of the parts removed was the insulation polysheet around the steam core.

‘Providing materials has always been a popular way to offset the cost of the operations for our clients. However some of these parts you simply can’t smelt or play pretend with. Anyone within the guild would know and call the police. This looks more like trophies to me, it’s so pointless otherwise.’

Inspector Merig strokes his bearded chin. Though he appears to be considering my point, his lack of surprise makes me think the idea is not new to him.

‘Could someone be out there,’ he asks, ‘someone not from the guild, enhancing themselves, or someone else, with the parts taken from the killings?’

I smile indulgently at this.

‘Inspector Merig. Surely you realise setting a steam core engine inside a living being is nothing like automata work? You need to be a talented surgeon for the client to even survive. The creation of a biomata is Art in its truest form, combining medicine, metallurgy, jewellery, design, engineering, fine tuning more precise than clockwork, and the mastery of the gods’ greatest gift: steam. Most of the processes involved are guild secrets too. If someone is out there trying to fiddle with an existing biomata without the proper training…’ I tap my chin, thinking, hoping to sell it. ‘It’s possible… At least they could try. But the guild would take it about just as well as if the imperial botanists heard someone was growing Telura on their roof garden.’

Inspector Merig snorts at the comparison.

‘Still, why come to me? Surely all of this could have been explained to you at the guildhall?’

‘You came highly recommended. Most popular in the district, I was told.’ Merig waves his gloved hand to encompass the shop and its shining collection of limbs and skeletal constructs. ‘Certainly looks like it to me.’

There is a certain quality to the man’s expression. The way his jaw is set, the tension around his eyes. It is a cousin to the apprehension I see in so many faces lying down on my workbench. A sort of uncertainty. It occurs to me then that maybe Inspector Meatbag here has been given a case in which he will forever be out of his depth. Maybe it’s a test, maybe it’s a punishment. All it means for me is opportunity.

‘Ah, you want help identifying the makers of the missing pieces?’

‘Yes. I hope you might also be able to tell me if you’ve seen any such parts in recent months.’

‘I certainly can do that,’ I offer, ‘but the best person to consult remains the creator of the parts themselves.’

‘That might not be possible. You see, all the parts we could trace back to a steamwright led back to a certain Dr. Asiheu, who has been missing for some time.’

‘Wait a second… You mean several of the victims were clients of the same steamwright?’

Inspector Merig nods gravely as he spreads more pictures of close-ups on the table and takes notes as I systematically fail to remember ever seeing anything relevant, but offer several names for him to go and consult. It is my honest opinion that the woman first killed in Kodenshi had her work done by someone from the Eastern branch.
By the time the Inspector rises again, shakes my hand and heads out with promises of ‘being in touch’, I am mentally exhausted. I lean against the locked door and lowered blinds, catching up on breath I’ve never run out of.
In the darkened shop I make my way back to the table. I push the lever, one my grand-father so distastefully hid in the branch of a candelabra, and watch the slab of carved stone shift to reveal the staircase to the actual workshop, the one with my tools, the operating workbench and steam reactor.

I can almost feel it at my wrists, the invisible pull Linia has on me, my greatest work of Art.

She lays sprawled on the workbench, like a sultry painter’s muse.
We have another saying, more informal, that states that a client is never closer to perfection than when the world starts to doubt their humanity.
She unfurls herself, titanium plates slithering over carved mother-of-pearl, tantalum rib cage pressing darkly against translucent syndermis, revealing the hydropump’s viscous throbbing and the soft glow of her steam core, nestled under her heart. I reach out, brushing strands of hair back from her angular face, fingers gliding over the grooves and embossments etched as verdant jungle ferns across the planes of her brass temples.

‘You heard.’

‘I did,’ she murmurs against my palm. ‘They’ll never find Asiheu… But it seems I now own you as much as you own me.’

‘You owned me from the start,’ I say, chiding, and watch her eyes crease in her characteristic smile, the very same she gave me when she first came to me, a mangled toy with very little figure left to her, and figure, in steamwright lingo, refers to meat. Hers was a jigsaw of swollen, septic flesh, patch-worked with steel junk. She had no left arm, her jaw springs were slack and rusting, her hydropump was overheating her innards… She was a mess, a mockery of the Art. A malicious garage job.

‘Who did this to you?’ I asked.

She’d smiled with her eyes alone–blue eyes like windows into fields of ice that never thawed–arced into cold crescents. She lifted a sack and laid it across the counter between us, the mouth of it parting to reveal the bronze glimmer of joints, rubber fingertips and polycarbon tendons.
I’d sealed my fate right then, by hastily gathering up the strings of the bag and reaching to the lever that would lock the atelier’s door.

‘Come. We can talk once I’ve given you some first aid.’

I’d seen the blood on the metal-composite fingers. I knew then, and every time thereafter, but she’d offered herself to me in full–this monster, this killer–to be my creation, if only I would make her perfect with the spoils of her vendetta.

And I was ever the perfectionist…

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