Halvern studied the body his servant Garan had brought into their cabin. A woman-no, a girl, for she could not be more than sixteen. She wore a brightly-colored dress, torn in multiple places. Several bruises marred her chalk-white skin.
"Where did you find her?" he asked.
"By the river, sir," Garan replied.
Halvern instructed Garan to place her on his worktable. His servant did so, lowering her body gently with both his fleshy hand and his metallic one.
Halvern ran his fingers over the girl's face. A beauty in life. She could stay beautiful.
He saw she wore a thick necklace. If real gold, it could command quite a price. He removed it from her body. From the chain hung a pendant in the shape of a musical note. Halvern's heart danced a lively beat and his mind filled with images of what he could make of this raw material.
"Oh, she will do quite well, Garan. Quite well, indeed! Now, quickly. Get those clothes off her and dry her skin. We must do what we can to retain her natural self."
Halvern set the necklace aside and fetched a pen and paper. As Garan removed the girl's clothing, Halvern took in every detail. He first sketched what he envisioned for her outer form. Very little would need to be rebuilt. A few fingers on the left hand, perhaps. They looked to be broken. He drew her hair cut short to frame her oval face. The face is what everyone would watch.
Next he drew her future innards. A miniature bellows would supply the air. Gears to make the mouth move. The brain would be the tricky part. It would have to be more complex than any of his prior creations' brains, able to build new memories, to learn the words of the songs he would teach his lovely new pupil.
When he had crafted Garan to be his servant the brain had been simple. It only needed to take orders and follow them. Garan had been Halvern's assistant in life and his mechanical form had not needed to learn anything new.
Halvern considered the necklace, hoped the pendant was not an affectation. If the girl had sung before, it would be easier to make her sing again.
He made a few more notations on his sketches then went to the body and felt its skin. Nearly dry now. In the morning he would treat it to prevent decay. For now, he would eat and sleep. He was sure his dreams would be of a wonderful singing machine.
The work consumed him. Day and night he made adjustments to what had been the body of a young woman. When something was needed, he sent Garan out alone for it.
One morning, after returning from a walk, he found the the girl sitting up. A rush of excitement coursed through him.
She was ready.
Her trimmed hair framed her face. Her skin was clean, though much darker than in life. The chemicals which preserved the skin left it the color of tree bark.
Her eyes were shut. Gently Halvern slid them open.
"Do you have a name?" he asked.
For a moment, only the sounds of Garan building a fire could be heard. Then the lips parted. "No." Her voice was clear and bright, like the morning's sky.
"Then I will name you. You will be Corrine."
She sat motionless.
"Do you have a name?" Halvern asked again.
"Yes, very good. And you like music, Corrine. Very much. It is what you exist for."
She nodded. "I like music."
"Do you know any songs?"
Her jaw worked silently. At last, a single word again.
"That's fine. I will teach you. First, we will practice the individual notes ... "
Halvern woke one day and realized Corrine was not inside. His mouth dry, his breath ragged, he roused Garan to help him locate her.
They found her straight away. She stood near the windowless rear of the house. Perfectly still except for her head and neck, she looked from side to side, then up to the sky and down at the ground.
"Corrine!" The reediness of his own voice surprised him. "What are you doing?"
She turned to him.
"Where am I?" she asked.
"You're outside my house. Remember? We've come outside before. But I asked you not to go alone."
She shook her head. "Where am I? Where is your house?"
He wondered what relevance this was to her but answered anyway. "In the land ruled by King Allard, south of the Royal Mountains, west of the River Durneth."
He thought her gaze intensified, perhaps at his mention of the fatal river.
"Does that answer your question, Corrine?"
"Then please, come inside. I am cold and did not dress for the weather." Though spring had arrived the morning air held a coolness that pierced his sleeping clothes.
She did not move. As always, she wore the plain cream-colored dress Halvern had made for her. The only decorations were music notes, patterned after her pendant, colored only subtly different from the background. It was not a dress for cold weather but then, she would not feel the cold.
"If you come inside now, I will teach you a new song."
"I like to sing."
"Yes, I know. Now come inside. We will get warm and sing."
She walked unsteadily towards the house. Halvern wondered if he should have rebuilt the joints in her legs. But he had wanted so much for her to be as close to life as possible. She was to be made for beauty of voice, not for moving quickly or bearing burdens like Garan.
Inside, Halvern sat beside Corrine. "Now, what type of song do you wish to learn today, Corrine? A playful one like yesterday's? A love song? Perhaps a hymn to the gods?"
She seemed to consider this. Halvern was pleased at the capacity of her reworked brain. She experienced no difficulty learning a variety of songs and once she had even seemed to engage in wordplay. She had tapped her chest and asked, "Do you like these songs that I sing with my art?" Before the last word there was a slight aspiration, making it sound like the uplander pronunciation of "heart." She had no heart, of course. It had been removed to make room for the bellows that gave her voice. But then they had never spoken about what she was. He told her he liked the songs, they pleased him greatly, and she had smiled.
"Teach me a song that you like."
Of all things, the first song that occurred to him was a ribaldry he had learned as a young man. The thought made his face hot. Completely inappropriate for this girl and her voice. He cast his thoughts further back, to a lullaby he remembered hearing his mother sing to his younger siblings, before the plague had come and taken them. Before it took his mother and left Halvern and his father alone in this house.
"Wind-song, star-light," he sang. "Let these give you peace tonight ... "
He was going to miss Corrine. But he had taught her enough. More than enough. And money would be needed to buy food at the harvest. It was late summer and while he knew they should go, since finding a buyer could take time, he kept putting off leaving.
Corrine sat and looked at herself in a mirror. One of her hands touched her darkened face, feeling from forehead to chin. She looked at herself in profile then again full-on.
Her posture reminded Halvern of his mother and the many times he had seen her sitting there, adjusting her hair, or applying a bit of color to her face. She had taken pride in her looks. But Corrine ... He had not intended to make her conscious of her appearance.
He went to her and touched her shoulder.
"Is everything all right?" he asked.
She said it was and continued examining herself.
Halvern remembered the necklace and retrieved it. He placed it around her neck, nestling the pendant between the swell of her breasts.
In the mirror, he watched her look at the necklace. She touched the pendant, traced its echoes on her dress.
She turned to him and placed her hand on the outside of his leg, just below his hip. The rush of excitement this brought troubled him greatly. He wanted to move away, but her eyes had also captured him and he found he could not.
"Is this mine?"
"Yes," he answered, feeling dryness of his tongue, his mouth.
"Was it yours?"
"No. It has always been yours."
Corrine removed her hand from Halvern's leg, to his relief. She held the pendant up.
"I like music. Thank you."
She turned back to the mirror, let the pendant rest against her dress again, and resumed looking at her reflection.
It was too much. He was certain now that the time had come to let go of her. At Halvern's command, Garan prepared for their journey. When Corrine inquired of the purpose, Halvern only told her they would find new people to whom she could sing.
They went first to the nearest city. An industrialist there was known to cherish music and Halvern thought he might be interested in Corrine. When they arrived at his home, they were told he had died over the past winter. His widow invited them in. Corrine sang for her, but Halvern could see she had no real interest.
"My husband," she said, "would have marveled at your work. I'm sure he would have wanted this machine for his own. But I have no love of music, despite his efforts throughout our marriage. Someone else will cherish this more than I."
Halvern thanked her and led Corrine out. He noticed her face was hard and, once they had met up with Garan outside the widow's house, asked what was troubling her.
"I am Corrine."
He agreed she was. "But this does not explain your worry."
"The woman there. She referred to me as a machine. Why?"
"Look at Garan and tell me what you see."
"A tall man. Dark hair. Green eyes. He has a strong chin and broad shoulders. One of his hands is strange."
"He is not a man, Corrine. He was a man, but he died. As did you. Both of you are machines, even though you are based on human flesh." But you, he thought, are also something a bit more.
"How did Garan die?"
He told her of how Garan had been first his father's servant, then his own when Halvern's father died. Garan had been cutting trees to gather wood for the winter. Something happened-Garan did not remember-and a tree fell on him, crushing one of his arms and both of his legs. It was past nightfall when Halvern went to look for Garan. When he found him, the body was cold.
Corrine took this in without expression. Halvern expected and dreaded the obvious follow up question-how had Corrine herself died? But she stayed silent through the rest of the day's journey.
They had been on the road for over a week when they reached the royal city of Emerdine. The distance could be covered by a fast rider in less than a day but neither Halvern nor Corrine was capable of speedy travel.
In their most recent lodging a wealthy landowner had sought Halvern out after nightfall. He had heard of Corrine and offered her full price and more. But Halvern knew this man. He had purchased several of his past creations. Some male models to perform labors as Garan did for Halvern. Some female models for pleasure. Corrine was not to be put to such use, Halvern told the landowner. He had blustered, saying he had no such intentions. Halvern did not believe him. He saw how the man looked at Corrine and knew he would never sell her to him.
The only other interested buyer along the way had been a duchess. She offered half of Halvern's price and gave no room for negotiation. If Corrine was still with him when they went back by the duchess' residence, he would have a decision to make. He could accept her price-which would certainly drop further if he returned-or keep Corinne with him. They could get through the fall and winter somehow and try heading to the southern cities come spring.
Together they passed through the Emerdine gates shortly before dusk. Beyond the city lay the Royal Mountains. In front of the mountains stood the castle, which held the court of King Allard. Closer still was the city center, home to many merchants and other businesses. Halvern planned to visit several of these merchants the next day and, if need be, some of the other prosperous residents of Emerdine.
He found an inexpensive place close by the city gate for their evening rest. In some of the rural lodgings Garan's metallic hand had drawn notice. Here, the clerk paid no mind at all. His eyes were vacant and incurious like Garan's. But this was no machine, merely a shell of a man who sat behind a counter and drank wine to excess and burned through his days trading money for room keys.
They climbed stairs to their assigned room. It was small, but had two beds and was clean. Garan would spend the evening on the floor. Corrine would lie in one bed. Neither she nor Garan slept but they would wait patiently for Halvern while he did. Halvern had never wondered what Garan did during these hours, but Corrine was different. He wondered if she got bored.
At dawn, Halvern awoke to find her standing by the window, looking out at the city. He went to her side. She noticed him and pointed out the window towards the castle.
"That is where the King lives?"
He told her it was.
"Would he have use of ... of a machine such as me?"
"He might. But I would not be able to just walk up to the King's castle and demand an audience."
"King Allard loves music."
He looked at her. She gazed steadily out the window.
"What makes you think this?"
"I don't think it. I know it."
Her shoulders moved in something like a shrug. "I don't know."
"Maybe we can try going there if we have no luck with other buyers." He said it, but didn't mean it. The deceit made him uncomfortable.
Halvern left to wash up and eat. When he returned, Corrine was still at the window. He beckoned both her and Garan to get ready. They went into the city center to the establishment of a merchant who traded in imported goods. Years back, this merchant had shown interest in a creation of Halvern's, but a lack of funds had kept him from completing the transaction.
When they arrived, the store was not yet open for the day but the florid man beckoned them inside. "So, old man, what are you here to sell?"
"A musical marvel, sir. Her name is Corrine. Would you like her to sing for you?"
"Of course. Let me hear her. Does she know 'The Paladin's Ballad'?"
Halvern was pleased at the request and instructed Corinne to sing the ballad. This was one of the first long songs which he had taught her. She went through the first verse flawlessly, the merchant's eyes never leaving her face. Halvern could practically feel the heft of the bag of money he would receive as payment for his creation.
Her singing faltered at the beginning of the second verse. She mixed up some words and tried to backtrack. Her voice cracked off-key and she skipped straight from the middle of the second verse to the end of the third. Halvern's face warmed as if he were the one failing to perform properly. He saw the merchant had grown restless. The weight of a money sack no longer felt as real.
She finished the song strongly, but the damage had been done.
"A beautiful device, Halvern. A shame it does not make music which is as lovely."
He could not think of what to say. In all the demonstrations, Corrine had never failed. And on this song, one of those she had sung the most often. All he could do was thank the man for his time.
They left the store. Garan fell in step with them, going down the road.
"What happened, Corrine?"
"He did not inspire me."
Halvern stopped. His companions obediently came to a halt as well.
He looked at Corrine, staring in her eyes. She looked straight back at him. Something in her expression confounded Halvern. Again his cheeks were burning, but this time he was angry, not embarrassed.
"What inspiration does a machine need to perform its function?" She did not reply and Halvern's insides churned. The behavior could be a defect. But Corrine had long seemed to have some spark not present in his other creations.
"If you will take me to the castle," Corinne said, "you will find me quite inspired."
Damnation! A machine with a mind of its own.
"And if we're turned away?"
"Going there will be inspiration enough."
Halvern considered her for a long moment. Now, more than ever, he wanted to be rid of this one. And if this was the only way ...
"Fine. But I'll not get myself arrested by the king's guard. If they refuse us admission, we leave. And if you think you can play games with future demonstrations, understand I will take such behavior as a sign that you require repairs."
Halvern did not wait for acknowledgement. He started down the road with as much drive as he could muster. Garan easily strode beside him and Corrine followed closely behind.
On the way to the castle, he considered how best to request an audience. He could play Corrine's game and make a poor showing, then hold her to her promise that an attempt was sufficient. But she was so certain they would be let inside and what a coup it would be to say one of his devices had sold to royalty!
Halvern chose an epic song describing the battle which led to their land's independence. He instructed her to begin singing it as they made their approach up the road to the castle. When they came to the guardhouse, he motioned for her to stop.
"Gentlemen! His majesty's servant Halvern the inventor humbly requests entrance so he may demonstrate the machine whose singing you have just heard."
The guards glanced at each other. The younger of them spoke first. "What machine, eh? That's a girl you've got there."
Halvern reached for Corrine's mouth. She did not flinch. He opened it until it gaped wider than any person's mouth could and showed the guard the gears which moved her jaw.
"This machine, which I call Corrine, can sing many songs and learn new ones. It has come to my attention that the King is fond of music," he hoped fervently this was true, "and I believe he would be interested to see this device perform."
The two guards consulted. The older sent the younger inside and told Halvern's party to step aside. Time passed. Halvern shuffled his feet and tried to decide if a delay was good news or bad.
Instead of the young guard, another man eventually came out. He wore more formal clothes than the outside guards and bore a large sword at his waist. "You and the singer may enter. The third must wait outside."
Halvern directed Garan to wait by a stand of trees. He took Corrine's hand and they followed the speaker through the gates and down long halls. Several times she slowed to look at paintings hanging on the walls and Halvern had to hurry her along.
"Wait here," the man told them when they reached a dimly-lit room whose long table was set with food. "You will be allowed to demonstrate your machine while the king and his party eat."
Servants bustled in and out, making adjustments, bringing additional plates of food. Halvern gave Corrine a list of three songs to perform. She would sing the epic she had sung outside the castle, a humorous song about an old man and his young wife, and a famous love ballad.
Others soon entered and sat around the table. Two middle-aged men sat to the right of the chair at the head of the table. A woman Halvern recognized as the Queen came in, wearing a severe black dress, and sat to the left of her husband's chair. Several young men and women entered, chattering amongst themselves. They sat at the bottom end of the table. One couple, a girl dressed in fine clothes and a young man wearing garb similar to that of the man who led them inside, were particularly animated. Corrine moved closer to Halvern. He wondered if she could possibly be nervous. Nothing would surprise him from her now.
The king entered after some delay and the meal began. Halvern and his invention were introduced to little notice.
Corrine stood by Halvern and sang the epic, the jesting song, and the love ballad. Throughout Halvern saw the diners taking more notice of the singing. The applause at the end of the love ballad was fervent. He stepped up to take a small bow, bringing her forward with him.
The king began to speak but Halvern did not hear his words. Corrine's voice overrode his with a fourth song. His pulse raced. She interrupted the king! But he noticed no one appeared angry. Perhaps they simply thought of this as an encore.
Halvern could not relax, though, as he realized Corrine's song was not one he had taught her. It told of two girls, sisters. They had been thick as thieves as children. Their parents, nobles, had no other children, and doted on them both. Their lives were wondrous.
But they grew up and became women. They fell in love with the same man. One day the sisters confronted him and forced him to declare his love. He chose the younger sister and the elder raged away from them.
The dining hall was completely still, silent but for Corrine's voice.
She continued her song. The older sister came to the younger soon after, begging forgiveness. She had been wrong to deny her sister happiness and could not the two of them go riding together? The young sister, naive, embraced the other and rushed to ready herself. They went for a long ride, going for hours despite the early-winter chill. They stopped for lunch along the bank of a river ...
"Enough!" cried a voice. Halvern saw that it was the finely-dressed young woman who spoke. "I don't know what perversity makes you sing this song, but enough, I say!"
"Indeed," said the king, stirred by the woman's objections. "It's a fine singing machine, inventor, but your ill taste means you'll get no money from me."
Corrine stepped closer to the table.
"I am not just a machine. I am Marlaine. Father, I am your daughter."
There was a great uproar. Someone grabbed Halvern's arms roughly. Another guard went for Corrine but before he could take hold of her she threw something at the young woman who had spoken. The necklace with its musical pendant clattered to the table. The woman blanched and stepped away.
"Look at me, Father. Look at me, Mother. My skin is darkened and my hair is shorter, but look at my eyes. They are yours. Know me." She was silent momentarily. "And know her!" Corrine pointed at the standing woman. "Know her as the murderer she is. My death was not an accident. We stood there at the river side, and she asked me if I saw a boat coming down the river, and when I looked out, she pushed me in.
"That is the necklace you gave me when I turned twelve, and these are the eyes you gave me at birth, and this is my body now. And I am home."
Halvern and Garan left Emerdine that evening. Halvern had been escorted out of the dining room after Corrine's ... Marlaine's ... pronouncement. They had locked him in a small room, not a cell, but barely better, for over an hour.
When he was released no one would answer his questions. He was escorted briskly back to the castle's entrance. At the intersection of two hallways he thought he caught a glimpse of the young woman from the dining hall, her hands bound behind her back. But his escorts hurried him along before he could be sure.
Two sacks of money were handed to him before he left the castle. Payment for his invention, he was told. Now, he and Garan each had a bag concealed on them. There was enough money to keep Halvern in good stead for many years.
He wondered if Corrine's story was true. He knew little of the royal family and rarely received news from Emerdine. But if it had not been true, why the reaction of the diners and why would he have been set free with such a handsome payment?
Halvern should have felt delight, but knew he could never tell anyone about this transaction. He would get no glory from it. There was a hollowness inside him, too, as if he had not sold a machine, but a child whom he had raised and taught and would never see again. As the miles away from Emerdine and Corrine mounted, the hollow feeling grew and the once-pleasant weight of his money bag turned to a leaden burden.