That autumn passed like a ghost, fleeting and thin, and Seffa and Key slowly came to the sort of mutual understanding only possible between people of their particular breed. Key had few friends—no friends, really, if you didn’t count the other young scions of industry his father encouraged him to play with—a fact which Key was as quick to admit as his parents were to deny. The fact was he didn’t want friends, didn’t need them, didn’t think of the acquisition of any kind of social circle as an appropriate ambition for someone such as himself.
Key might have described his feelings on the subject as simple neutrality—a disinterest arising from the obvious irrelevance of social interaction to his chosen pursuits. Seffa, had she been asked about the topic, might have opined that the problem was simple pretension at worst, self-absorption at best. But Seffa did not say anything of the kind to Key, as she worried that Key, being her only friend, might understandably take it badly.
Seffa was also possessed of a deep obsession with her own privacy that, for the most part, Key respected. He was able to recognize his own, if nothing else. It was this mutual acceptance of each other’s boundaries that allowed the two of them to grow past the stage of interested acquaintance and into true friendship, a bond that, it seemed to Key, was only strengthened by the fact that they did not share everything with one another.
Their careful restraint made for a surprising tenderness between them: as if the very fact that they’d decided to keep certain parts of their lives secret encouraged them to be all the more forthright about things they did share. She knew intimately of his ambitions in the sciences, and of his love for adventure stories, just as he knew that she suffered the expectations placed on Oridosi women, even women of Seffa’s apparent class, with little patience. She knew what she didn’t want as clearly as Key knew what he did, which turned out to be rather complementary desires.
On a brisk winter afternoon, Key happened to glance over at her while she tended the small wood stove he had set up to banish the bone-deep chill of their underground chamber. With the iron door open, her face was lit up by the fire within, and Key found himself transfixed by several points of interest all at once. In no particular order, there was the way her eyes caught the amber light and the soft line of her jaw, the unfortunate loss of heating efficiency each time the door had to be opened, the fact that the makeshift chimney he’d constructed seemed to be moving the guttering smoke into the drain pipe above rather effectively, the shadowed view into the neckline of the ill-fitting dress she wore when she bent over the stove, and the sudden appearance of a gem dangling from a silver chain around her neck.
Though a curious stirring below the belt struggled for prominence in his mind at the unexpected sight of Seffa’s growing body, it was the jewel that caught him. It, too, caught the light of the fire and shattered it into broken spectral rays on the gentle ridge of her collarbone.
“What is that?” he asked.
She glanced up at him, then down at the dangling pendant, then into the gaping bodice of her dress, and stood up quickly, tucking the necklace away and smoothing her clothes with her hands. She seemed to be blushing.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Just a necklace,” she said, wringing at her hands. “I’ve had it as long as I can remember.”
“But the gem—is it elekstone?” Key couldn’t help himself. The awkwardness of her response should have told him all he needed to know about the necklace: that it was off limits, part of Seffa’s other life, the one she didn’t share with him. Just as he didn’t share parts of his life with her. He briefly considered reassuring her that he didn’t mean to pry, but dismissed it as pointless remonstration. He did mean to pry. He wanted to know. Suddenly he wanted to know very much.
“Yes,” she said quietly, closing the door to the stove and latching it. She turned away from him, tidying something on the small table she kept next to her favorite chair.
“Could I see it?” asked Key. She paused, then looked at him over her shoulder, hesitant. After a moment she turned and approached him, taking the necklace out of her collar again and holding it up for him to see. The silver chain was plain but well made, the setting a simple set of prongs that showed off the cut stone to its best advantage.
“Elek,” he breathed, taking it gently in his hands, weighing it in one palm. The unnatural weight was there, and the way it took the light…Key was entranced. “It’s just…I’ve never seen a piece up close.”
“But I thought your father—” Key shook his head. His father was indeed an industrialist. His manufactories drew power from the phirotic generators the same as all the others. There were even smaller, backup generators in the factories themselves, fed by elekstone—glowcoal, as the workers called it—in the event of a failure in the Forge’s public power plant.
“He knew how much I wanted it,” Key explained. “He kept it from me. As motivation. I’d never give him the satisfaction.” He said it without the usual bitterness, too swept up in the glittering amber depths of the aetherstone’s glow. Valkin was a savvy man, and knew indeed that his son’s scientific passions drew him to the substance as a moth to a flame. He knew that if there were one thing Key might trade his convictions for, it might be access to the mineral more precious than gold, the gemstone that, in its raw form, was fed into the power mills like so much coal, fired like crude iron bloom to produce the electrical reaction that made the city’s greatest machines run.
Valkin had yet to make the offer outright; he’d only hinted, made subtle suggestions, playing to his son’s interests as he invited him to shadow his father at work, to see the factory’s operations. He was saving the hard sell, Key knew, for the day he became a man. The day he was old enough that Valkin would have to force a decision or come to terms with the fact that his son would spurn his legacy.
“So precious,” he whispered, turning it to make it glitter. “You must let me study it.”
“I mustn’t,” Seffa said, taking it from him and dropping it back under her dress. Had Key been more observant of people than he was, he would have seen the sharp line that had appeared between her eyebrows as a warning sign. He stood, confused, his palm still held out where it had supported the pendant. He put his hand down.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “I need—”
“I don’t care what you need,” she snapped. “This isn’t about you. And you didn’t even ask. You can’t just take my things.”
“I didn’t take it,” Key explained, trying to remain calm. “I simply—”
“You simply think that everything exists to either interest or dissatisfy you,” yelled Seffa. She squinted down at her shoes, suddenly quiet.
“It must be lonely, Key,” she finally said, still looking at her shoes.
The precise nature of the interchange had yet to assert itself in his mind, but Key was dimly aware that he had done something wrong.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Seffa only nodded and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Had she started crying? He replayed his actions in his head and couldn’t find anything particularly offensive about them. Surely enthusiasm for one’s jewelry couldn’t be deemed inappropriate behavior?
It was only after she left, explaining that she had to go home, that Key realized her reaction might not have had anything to do with him at all.
* * *
Seffa didn’t appear the following afternoon. It wasn’t the first time she’d failed to show up; both of them did occasionally have to behave like normal children. Key had appointments with tutors, uniform fittings, physician’s appointments. Invitations to classmates’ birthday parties were not generally a problem. And Seffa had…whatever it was Seffa had to do.
It occurred to Key that afternoon both that he knew very little about what her life outside their enclave was like, as well as that the reason for today’s particular failure to appear may indeed be related to his apparent failure of social interaction the day before.
He considered this while dissecting a sewer rat, and found that the matter intruded on his mind sufficiently to affect the quality of his observations of the animal’s kidneys. He was interested in the way blood was supplied to the vital organs, which necessitated careful and minute dissection, a steady hand and a careful mind. After the second ragged incision, he threw his scalpel down in disgust and scoffed loudly. The noise echoed off the walls of the manmade cavern, bouncing around the pipes that lined the ceiling.
He was on the verge of going home, in a distinctly bad mood, when he heard her quiet footsteps in the great cistern’s west entrance.
She walked up to his workbench and, from one of her small, perfect hands, produced the necklace, letting it tumble gently onto the surface in front of him.
“I’m sorry, Key,” she said. “I wasn’t nice, yesterday. You can study it. Just please be careful with it.”
“Of course,” he said, for once not as diverted by the stone as by her eyes. Some stunted part of him realized that there were things he should say, now; that in his place, others would know how to draw out whatever emotions warred inside of her. He couldn’t begin to imagine how to do that. The idea of eliciting personal feelings from anyone, particularly a girl around his own age, was more daunting to him than the most rigorous examination at school. He’d rather be caught by his father.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last. “I’m sorry.”
Seffa shook her head a little, and seemed to be about to say more, but instead she retreated to her little chair and started reading one of the books stacked beside it. Key watched her for a moment, filled with an unusual regret, before finally looking down at his prize.
He set it up on the stage of his microscope and rotated the turret to the lowest power objective lens, only to discover a smooth amber field before his eyes. His light source was a hooded lantern, which he could open or close as needed to control the amount of illumination reflected by the circular mirror on the bottom of the microscope. He flooded the crystal light, now, resulting only in a somewhat brighter amber surface. Curious, he switched to the most powerful lens on the turret, and only at a thousand power was he able to discern any structure to the stone at all.
Unlike the crude quartzes he’d dug out of the stone caves lining the Wall, the elekstone’s structure was apparently so fine as to be all but invisible even at the limits of his instruments. It was the first time his little laboratory had felt inadequate. At the University they had microscopes powerful enough to see inside living cells, a level of experimental capability Key could only dream about.
He focused again on the amber vision in his eyepiece, wishing he could see closer. But as he moved the lantern light around, changing the angle of the illumination, he could see strange striations in the crystal. Steadying the light at a good angle, he studied the structures, noticing that they branched and flowed not unlike the branches of a tree—or, indeed, the circulatory system of a person or an animal.
As he watched, the light shifted, ever so slightly, and a one of the veins of darker amber within the gem seemed to pulse, almost as if—as if it’s moving, Key thought. As if the vein was just that: a conduit for a vital fluid, pumping with the force of the substance moving through it.
“Impossible,” breathed Key, and Seffa, unbeknownst to him, looked up.
“What?” she asked.
“It’s alive,” he said. “It lives.”
“My necklace?” she asked.
“The world,” said Key. “There is life in its body.”
* * *
She let him keep it for three days, after which she politely asked for it back. Key’s research, while fascinating, had reached a dead end, and he knew that he’d truly be pressing his luck to try and hold onto it any longer. So he returned it, thanked her, and deeply regretted that he lacked the equipment and the training to investigate further.
He had managed to ascertain that the capillaries in the elekstone he’d observed through his microscope did indeed show signs of activity, which Key had tentatively identified as life. Without the ability to view them at a higher magnification, he could not prove that theory, but in his experience very few things moved so organically and were not alive. Certainly not things found within gemstones. The branching veins pulsed with some internal pressure, very much like the circulatory system of mammals, which he was very familiar with.
It could be a trick of the light, of course; even at his microscope’s highest power the capillaries appeared tiny. There was no way to be certain that what he was seeing wasn’t a strange reflective effect that made them appear alternately larger or smaller, depending upon the angle of the observer or of the light source. Perhaps there were even tiny chips of the stone caught within internal vacuoles, which shifted around and caught the light at different angles. Either was a more logical hypothesis than his: that a lump of stone lived, in the same way that an animal or plant lived.
Nonetheless Key wanted to believe it very badly, a feeling he chose not to investigate any further at that particular juncture.
When he gave it back, Seffa put it on immediately, replacing it at her breast with a look of relief that was obvious even to Key.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” she replied. “I’m sorry too. If I was too…protective of it. It’s just…it was a gift.”
“Who gave it to you?” The question was inappropriate on two levels. For one, it violated the unspoken agreement they had not to inquire into each other’s life beyond what each cared to share. For two, Key was at least as interested in her answer for its potential value in identifying the provenance of the necklace. A longshot though it may be, he couldn’t help but be curious how a young girl—an apparent street urchin, or near to—came by a piece of jewelry worth more than its weight in gold.
This fact might have concerned others more from the very beginning, but Key’s mind simply worked in a different way.
“My father,” she said, somewhat shortly. For she, too, had noticed that Key had asked an uncharacteristically direct question. She was silent before speaking again. “He died.”
“I’m sorry,” repeated Key. And he was surprised to find that he truly was sorry. The pained look that crossed her pretty, smudged face when she told him pierced his heart like a spike of rusty steel. Like those actually wounded by such a barb, Key was seized with a growing sickness that threatened to make his muscles spasm and light his brain on fire. He knew better than anyone that the seat of love, if one believed in such things, was in the head and not the heart. The slow burn in his chest, however, demanded otherwise.
“How did he die?” asked Key, for the first time truly interested, and not because it might benefit his studies.
Seffa sat down in her chair, sweeping her dirty skirt under her primly. She had a neat, polite way about her that Key had respected from the first. It was one of the many reasons he continued to share space with her. She was easy to live with, respectful of others’ boundaries. Of his boundaries, anyway. He wouldn’t know if she respected anyone else’s, and he didn’t particularly care. He and Seffa were like two gears that meshed perfectly, with little to no slippage. An engineer might say that they had high efficiency.
“He wasted away,” she said, and it occurred to Key that this seemed a very adult turn of phrase for a girl her age. For a boy his age, even, despite their otherwise abnormal independence. “One day he was healthy, the next he began to feel sick. Then a few months passed and he died, a withered thing, like a stick person, dry and yellow.” She shrugged. “I don’t know what happened.”
“What did the physicians say?” Key asked, then cursed himself. Physicians were a luxury only the rich could afford. Seffa was clearly not rich. He felt like an ass. Of course there had been no physicians.
But Seffa surprised him.
“They said it was cancer, but when they opened him up they found nothing.”
“Were they from the University?” he asked. Seffa nodded. “The medical college?” Another nod. Key pulled up another chair, a rickety wooden thing, and sat down next to her, confused. If University doctors had failed to even identify the disease correctly, then Seffa’s father had died from something rare indeed.
“Just last year.”
Key, acting with a precipitousness he could only attribute to the growing thing in his chest, put his larger hand over her smaller one. Seffa sniffed, and when the tears welled at the corners of her eyes she leaned over and put her head on his arm. Key stroked her hair awkwardly, certain that at any moment she would rear back, alarmed at his familiar touch. But she only snuggled closer, and after a moment Key got onto her old tufted armchair with her, wrapping his arms around her in the musty leather.
He held her then, cradling her small form against his narrow chest, resting his chin gently on her head as she sobbed, and wondered whether the fire within him was one he wanted extinguished.