Maintgear Kingdom was just about to enter final approach to Mechanus Prime, the first kingdom, protected by depth from the Colour Empire, when the noble Messenger emerged from the bathroom, amid a cloud of sulphurous steam.

He was holding his nose. He could have sworn Arentaria did not look up from his work – something delicate involving lots of glass tubing and a volatile liquid – but nevertheless he said "I apologize for the smell. It always smells of sulphur no matter what the purifiers do. One gets used to it in time." Now he looked up, and the Messenger had only just had the presence of mind to take his hand away.

Aren made a vague gesture – the Messenger was beginning to appreciate that the vaguer the man was the more closely he was attending to something – and the diamond-paned windows suddenly swung outwards. A gust of probability boiled in; it was caught in an instant by some unseen force and turned expertly into a burst of jasmine-scented wind that banished the sulphurous steam.

An unintended side-effect was that Arentaria's work suddenly, and spectacularly, exploded.

The Messenger started forwards, then froze as Aren's cool tones sounded. "Oh, damn," he said levelly. "Must not have caught it all." A hacking cough, through the clearing smoke, and then Arentaria Maintgear rose like a titan from his desk. There was a flower of glass suspended in midair over the worktop, sparkling in the warm gaslights.

The Messenger blinked. "That's...incredible..." he breathed. "The fastest kingdom reworking-"

"It wasn't," Aren replied, amused. "I'm not going to go using my power when there are perfectly sensible machines available for the purpose." He seemed to forget about the broken experiment and nodded to the still-open windows. "Would you look at that. Never fails to take my breath away. Don't suppose you've ever seen Mechanus from the outside?"

The Messenger shook his head. "Only through crawler portholes," he said.

Aren offered his hand. "Come with me."

He stepped up to the open windows, and frowned. From all around, metal whirled; elaborate balustrades and the crest of Maintgear wound amorously about sudden support pillars and burnished deckplates. Within a minute, an elaborate balcony was formed beneath the windows, jutting into pure possibility.

Mechanus Prime loomed overhead, probability pulled into tight skeins around it, whorls and whirlpools that pulled and teased the eye. A hundred thousand factories yammered across the vast construction, cogs the size of Maintgear ground round in stately procession, pipes and smokestacks belched into the void. Galaxies of lights flashed and danced, red, green, amber, brilliant white, soft cream, and every colour in between. At the centre, towering out of the mass of factories and foundries, furnaces and warehouses, docks and wharves with their skeletal cranes and cataracts of sparks and the great Hub which extended like a giant inverted spire from the base of the kingdom, to which every chain-weight was linked and whose Flame guided every independent vessel across all the arcs of possibility, rose the posh part of Mechanus.

Like a wedding cake, it loomed up, dead-centre, mechanically-precise. White marble – kept perpetually clean by hordes of drones – and roofs which rose from burnished bronze through to silver and then finally to the high golden domes of Tellurian's palace, the University's sprawling buildings and spires and that most select of residential districts, whose mansions sat fat and plumply self-satisfied under their golden eaves.

Arentaria thought it needlessly wasteful, but Mechanus was not his kingdom.

The Messenger dashed to the balustrade and took a deep draught of the coal-smoke-laden air with a dazzling smile. "It's beautiful!" he said breathlessly. "The industry, the engines...oh my! You can't see anything like this from any of the observation platforms! I can just see the Flame from here!"

Arentaria's mouth split into a wicked, wide grin. "Perhaps you'd like a better look?"

"Oh, yes!" cried the Messenger, a cry which swiftly dopplered as the Fabricant's hand crashed into his back and the railings obediently opened, allowing the figure to plummet forever into the ocean of pure probability.


The train ride into the more select parts of Mechanus Prime from the docks was a silent one, save for the roar of the engines and the shrill steam-whistle. Arentaria Maintgear, in dusty but serviceable midnight blue, a burnished, winged gear-and-sword as an epaulette of sorts at each shoulder, reclined in the plush seat of the first-class compartment, staring absently out of the grease-spattered window, so old its glass had run like syrup and had waves and bubbles and strange whorls inside it.

Aren frowned to see such shoddy maintenance, as the train wheezed away from the dock, but made no comment.

It wasn't as if his companion was in any state to give a coherent response, anyway. He hadn't taken to being hurled from the observation balcony of Maintgear into the infinite abyss at all well, even when the chain snapped tight about his ankle and arrested his fall.

Now, his fine clothes all in disarray – his handkerchief probably still falling – and his face a pale, porridge-like gray that was not healthy at all, he slumped bonelessly in the chair next to Arentaria, occasionally mumbling such things as 'falling...'

The porters had looked oddly at him as they manhandled the nobleman into the carriage – the only thing which shut them up was the Maintgear sigil and the sign of one of Her Ladyship's Messengers.

Aren glowered out of the train window at the smeary residential areas, clustered around the support pillars, huge cable-corded masses of metal conducting light, heat and water to all of Mechanus, built on cogs and gears and worm-ratchets, all in constant motion. Mechanus Prime went on for ever, at least for someone from one of the smaller kingdoms – which was all of them. Mechanus Prime was protected by depth, by the other kingdoms, and could afford her multitude of living souls. Others had to make do with clicking constructs and clockwork men, only a few soulfires burning so that their masters could find rot and infection, the creeping contagion of Colour wherever it took rogue root, quickly, before it did damage and corrupted the high arcs.

Maintgear was, as ever, something of an exception, with her bastion fortresses and staging grounds, foundries and mustering points, her unique service for Lady Tellurian; a legion of Colour-catcher Grenadiers patrolled her endlessly, searching out Colour wherever it assailed the kingdom.

Even so, Mechanus Prime was huge. "All hands, brace for chain-transfer!" The train jolted violently as a turntable shunted it onto one of the vast chains which drove the foundries and took loads between the levels.

A freight train, blocky and unlovely, its pistons spurting gouts of greasy water and gushing steam, shrieked past on the opposite line, coating the windows in a fresh layer of grime. Aren leaned back with a grimace. Mechanus Prime really had gone to the dogs.


Keep Tellurian, however, was still its old, dreaming-spire self, the original keep for which the palace was still named had long been subsumed under the layers of building, not even Arentaria could remember when it had been a stronghold, and now a broad golden dome stretched over the expanse which had been the fortress of Progress since time immemorial. Ancillary buildings, marble and gold, stretched away, frescoed and filigreed, and everywhere ticktock constructs in Keep uniforms moved.

"Oh, what glories has Lady T got that're new?" sighed Arentaria as he alighted from the train, the guards being bright enough not to bother him, or his ill companion.

"Ooh, look," he said, pointing. "That's new. Interesting..." That was a rose arbour, sending billows of scent wafting across the broad boulevard. He began to amble over to it before a death-rattle groan from the Messenger recalled him to his original purpose.

As he started up the palace steps, he turned to one of the ticktocks on every sixth step, at parade-ground attention, their uniforms and weapons all shiny and polished and out of style a thousand years ago. The baleful blue glow from its eyes lit his face an eerie, sickly shade.

"Recognized: lifeform, Progress, Kingdomhold, Maintgear, Arentaria, Prime Fabricant. Analysis: Not a threat. Clearance UV Top-Secret. Access: Authorized. Special Orders: Obey. Messages: One (1) Lady Tellurian requests the presence of Arentaria Maintgear in the Colchara Chamber at his earliest convenience. He must further bring one (1) companion, class Messenger Extraordinary." The ticktock's blue glare swept over the whey-faced nobleman at Arentaria's side. "Condition fulfilled. What are your orders, Arentaria Maintgear?"

Aren ignored the ticktock and turned to his companion. "Pull yourself together!" he hissed. "Do you want to embarrass me – and yourself – in front of all of Keep Tellurian?"

A shaky glare. "You pushed me into the ocean," he snapped.

Arentaria smiled. "So? A bit of diving never did anyone any harm. I had you caught, didn't I? It was a valuable experience for you."

"Yes, it reminded me to never trust anyone."

"Then the lesson wasn't wasted."

"Lesson? You mean you didn't enjoy doing that?"

Arentaria laughed. "I never said that. Now, come on. We can't keep Her Ladyship waiting." He stumped off up the stairs, his burnished arm flashing painfully bright. The Messenger gave an exasperated growl and started up after him. He was beginning to realise it was absolutely pointless to get angry with Arentaria Maintgear.

This did not sit well with him.

They stumped up under the shade of the portico at the head of the staircase, and Arentaria made a beeline for the nearest fountain, a tangled-metal construct of bronze and brass, probably representing something allegorical from Tellurian's glorious history. There were a gaggle of admirers around it; presumably it held some sort of artistic significance.

Aren moved through them as though they did not exist and bent over the fountain's bowl, splashing water on his face and carefully dabbing it dry with a handkerchief he produced, magician-like, from some inner pocket.

Everyone watched, horrified, as this...person, before the very gates of Progress, used one of the fountains as a washbasin. Not even Her Ladyship could have been the focus of such attention. The spell was broken halfway through when some courtier, braver than the rest, stepped forwards.

"Ahem," he cleared his throat pointedly. Arentaria swung around, his face still dripping.

"I don't know who you are sir, but realleah this is too much! Are you so ignorant of our glorious historeah that you defile a monument to one of our greatest triumphs?" his voice was like modulated yawning.

Arentaria raised an eyebrow. "Recognize lifeform," he commanded, obviously mistaking the man for a construct.

The courtier ballooned up with an indignant intake of breath. "I, sir, am not a construct! How dare you address me so!"

Arentaria remained very still; a faint blush stained his cheeks red. "Apologies," he murmured. "But you are saying I cannot use my own fountain for whatever purpose I see fit? I think not. Or has all of Tellurian's glittering court forgot the sigil of Maintgear?"

He finished wiping his face in the dumbfounded silence and then gestured impatiently to the Messenger, who had regained some of his colour. "Come on."


Arentaria strode purposely through the labyrinth of the palace, trusting the way to the more vital chambers would not have changed; it hadn't. Some things rulers felt were best left unaltered.

"Where are we going?"

Aren didn't spare a look back. "To see Her Ladyship, Messenger."

"But the throne room is that way," he objected.

"I know full well where the throne room is," Arentaria replied coolly. "And if this were a social call, that is precisely where we would be headed. As this is definitely not, and I do not do social calls, we go to the Colchara Chamber."

"Oh." There was silence. Arentaria knocked respectfully at one in a long line of ornate, anonymous double doors.

There was a snap and sizzle and Aren leapt back, sucking his fingers. "Someone's pissy," he remarked angrily. "Oyster, you stupid security system! Now open the bloody doors now."

There was a click and they swung inwards. Arentaria still had his fingers in his mouth; he looked quite ridiculous. He stomped forwards, ignoring the intimate splendour of the Colchara Chamber, towards the figure seated in a simple, overstuffed armchair by the grand table in the middle of the room, its tree-trunk legs sinking deep roots into the emerald carpet.

"Y'Ladyship," he said, bowing deeply. Her Ladyship was a brisk, middle-aged woman in a no-nonsense suit which nevertheless followed her curves and spoke quietly of wealth and power. A large black opal flashed at her throat, others were strung through her blonde hair, fading to white at the edges, though her sharp, eagle-eyed glare from burning eyes – the Messenger had a sudden, unpleasant jolt as he realised he'd seen those eyes on Arentaria – dared anyone to mention that fact.

Her lips curved up into a smile. "Ah, Uncle Aren. So good to see you in my halls again. We have missed you sorely."

Arentaria smiled. "You mean you've missed having me available in a sheath strapped to your side to wave around whenever some lord got uppity."

She inclined her head. "Well, that too. And I see you've met my spymaster."

Aren blinked. "Spymaster? The only...oh, no."

Lady Tellurian appeared to be covering a smile with a fan that had appeared in her hand. "Indeed so. Come forward, Varana."

Arentaria realised, suddenly, that he'd never asked the man his name, as the Messenger – Varana, he reminded himself – walked slowly forward and knelt before the chair.

"Rise, do." Lady Tellurian scrutinized her Spymaster, noting the disarray of his dark hair – the ties had fallen into the ocean, never to be recovered – and his rumpled clothes. "You look dreadful," she observed, taking in his porridge-like complexion. "What did Arentaria do to you?" She addressed the question to the Fabricant, though, who harrumphed awkwardly, the sound like two slabs of bronze being crashed together. "I may have thrown him from the observation balcony of Maintgear," he murmured.

Tellurian laughed. "Do you do that to everybody?"

"He asked for it."

"I asked for a better look, Sir Maintgear, not to be thrown off the kingdom!"

"I had you caught, didn't I? Don't know what all the fuss is about." Aren turned away and began to examine the intricate nacreous cogwheels that made up the Colchara Chamber. It was like being inside a very large, precision watch. The chimes of ratchets clinking was a restful background noise, and also served to keep out prying ears.

"Don't worry so, Varana. Uncle Aren does that to everyone, sooner or later."

"Your Ladyship..." Varana sputtered. "Uncle?"

She waved a hand. "Not by blood. At least, I don't think so. He's just...always been there, really. Uncle Aren."

Varana was silent, and then, with the air of someone greatly daring, asked, "Has...has he ever done that to you?"

Tellurian laughed. "Oh yes. I was about eight at the time, I think."

"He laid hands on your royal personage?" the man gasped in fury. "I'll-"

"You'll do nothing, little spy. I gave Lady T her first spanner, held her when her first machine exploded, stopped her sucking her thumb-"

"Thank you, Aren," said Lady Tellurian in a very final sort of tone. "Now, report."

Aren sighed. "Beg to report that the mission was a failure. Insertion was completed successfully; damage to the outer carapace was well within operating parameters. Unfortunately, your...agents failed. Young Ruthven had some sort of protection – it went through your special gentlemen in something under a second. I'm afraid there wasn't enough left of the bodies to bring back. Stormhold still holds strong as the eastern bulwark." Aren coughed. "I'm not actually sure how damaged Stormhold would be if Ruthven was removed. While we're on that subject, I trust I can charge your government for expenses."

Tellurian raised her eyebrow. "And what expenses would these be?"

"My Navigator got it into his head that he could catch the currents off one of the Colour kingdoms. He picked Stormhold. They, ah, shot one of our legs off before I could get us away. It rather needs repairing. I have Highgear working on it, but it'll be expensive."

Tellurian put her hand over her face. "And which workshop..."

"Herrlanz and Vulff, of course."

"Of course. But I must say it's a bit rich asking for me to finance you when you failed." Tellurian's glare snapped out; Varana cowered.

"I beg to differ. I achieved my part of the plan, thank you so very much. If your special gentlemen are now fertilising the plants in Prism, that's no fault of mine. So, I can charge repairs to the Prime accounts?"

Tellurian waved a hand. "Your mission has not been a complete failure, however. You have demonstrated that the barriers between us are not impregnable. Operating on this, I have ordered the shipyards across all of Progress to begin construction of a fleet of ships to take advantage of the holes you have discovered. They will be similar to your kingdom – thank you for the blueprints, by the way – and should hopefully-"

"My kingdom? Similar to my kingdom?" Arentaria sounded like a volcano threatening to go off. Even Lady Tellurian backed off a bit. "You stole my blueprints?"

Varana coughed. "That was me," he admitted sheepishly. "I got them from the control room when you, er..." he flinched back as Arentaria rounded on him.

"Aren, be reasonable," said Lady Tellurian. "This is for the good of Progress after all."

"I refuse to be reasonable! Maintgear took me centuries to perfect! What are you-"

"Be silent, Arentaria Maintgear!" snapped Tellurian, her patience exhausted. "You will of course have full control over the actual ships and can make modifications as you see fit."

Arentaria paled. "Oh no, Tellurian. I've had quite enough of-"

"Aren, you don't have a choice." Tellurian grinned evilly. "Either you accept and keep your lubricant-monopoly, or..." she tailed off suggestively.

Aren let rip with a string of swearwords more appropriate to dockhands. Varana flinched. Tellurian blinked. "You done?"

She leaned back as Aren's voice blasted out at twice the volume.

"Oh, shut up you old revenant," she finally snapped, and Aren fell silent, stunned, and white-lipped with rage.

"You, young lady, are obviously in severe need of education once more! You're not so old or so powerful that I won't take you over my knee like I did when you were little. By the sound of you, you certainly need it." Aren snorted. "Everyone's been bowing and scraping to you so much you're starting to take it seriously."

"Well, you'll have to be around a lot more, then, won't you?" Only Varana saw the little smile on Her Ladyship's lips.

"Damn straight! Wait – what?"

"That's settled then, Marshal. Report to the tailors and the weaponers for your gear – they'll give you the basics and the tools to get started properly." Her eyes flicked to the Spymaster. "Varana, you go with him; he always needs an assistant, and you're going to be working together anyway. Might as well get used to the Madness of Arentaria."


The machinists and tailors worked in some of the lower levels of Tellurian's palace, closer to the smelters and freight docks. The workmanship down here was exquisite; perhaps the crafters did not work in gold and marble as their more exalted counterparts did, but still their pride in their work put curls and curlicues and elaborate scrollwork on copper pipes, steam conduits and brass deckplates.

Arentaria appeared far more comfortable down among them than he was above, in the powdered and perfumed court. A number of the workers, however, seemed somewhat apprehensive. Anticipatory – the air was like lightning, as soon as Arentaria had stepped into the galleries – but apprehensive nonetheless.

Slowly, all work stopped; intricate machines were kicked onto standby, gusts of steam began to fill the galleries as Arentaria stumped forwards to the grandest and most ornate of them all.

"Foreman!" he bellowed, and a shimmering curtain swept aside, revealing an inky-fingered clerk whose ticktock arms danced and flashed, cables tightening, loosening, flexing in an oddly organic way amid burnished gears. Grey hair swept back from a high forehead, slipping into further sinuous cables, and piercing eyes glared.

"Ah, it's you. Marshal Maintgear. I'd bow, but..." he gave an unpleasant, burbling laugh, like a kettle on boil. A multitude of conduits and thick glass tubes boiled from his torso, engulfing his lower body and tying him, irrevocably, into his machinery and the entire gallery.

"You old reprobate," said Arentaria, fondly, the Messenger realized with faint horror. He thought he might faint when the horrible foreman crawled over his desk to get a better look at Arentaria. "They still got you here? I've told her again and again you're wasted with this."

"Her Ladyship has a longer memory than you, Arentaria."

"Mekkahn, I've known her for even longer than you, and I can tell you that that Madgirl has got a stubborn streak as wide as the Flame chain."

The ghastly clerk threw back his head and laughed, the gurgling sound echoing down the gallery. Varana's face was white as he heard Arentaria casually insult his ruler. The foreman noticed. "And that is?"

"Oh. That," said Aren, turning to look at the spymaster. "Apparently he's Lady T's spymaster. She's appointed him my lab assistant for my fitting-out as Marshal." Aren ground his teeth together, amply showing exactly what he thought of his new position. "So, what room have I got?"

Mekkahn gurgled. "Heh, you're going to love this," he announced. "Her Ladyship ordered the Machine Hall itself opened for you. Anything you want, anything, is to be given."

The ornate doors behind Mekkahn ground open, and Arentaria moved forward at a speed which would, in anyone else less dignified, be called a run.


"Soltus wrench!" came the yell, and Varana limped towards it, the elaborate knurled tool shining. All around, gears churned, furnaces belched and metal shrieked. God knew what Arentaria was doing; it sounded as though the very laws of nature and physics were being put through the mangle.

"Podger!" came the ringing cry and Varana voiced a small, heartfelt whimper.

"Why am I doing this?" he hissed to the clerk, Mekkahn. "Why the fuck am I serving that bloody madman like it's the most natural-"

"Podger!" came the yell, this time with a bit more force behind it. Varana found his legs snapping together and his hands searching without him even really thinking about it. "Where is this podger he's asking for?"

"Splitting maul!"

"And that?"

"Oh, you'll need help with that," said Mekkahn, with a sinister grin. "A fourteen-pound hammer, that."

"Lucerne hammer! Sturnley 130A ratchet turnscrew! Jig borer! Varana! Where the devil are you? Get in here – I need someone to hold the heppler turnkey-"

There was a thunderous explosion. It rained cogwheels.

"I meant to do that!" came the cry from inside. Varana put his head in his hands.