Cormac had pricked their finger, which was not new, except dandelions grew up from the blood they dripped on the heads of oversized flooring nails, surrounded by the clatter of looms and whiff of hot flax. The blooms opened, a zig-zagging spiral of saffron and gold, and Cormac opened with them. The air was still full of dust from inside and soot from without, still hazy with steam. But whorled within, flecks that were neither flax nor coal nor wood char shimmered. Called out as they whisked across quivering belts on pulleys, giggled in their twirl about spindles and gear axles.
“How do you look at anything else?” Cormac whispered to Mother, nose down in her work. She locked her gaze the way that would have meant a whipping, but Cormac didn’t mind now that thauma flashed behind her eyes.
Mother’s stiff-wire fingers squeezed their upper arms and their objections from them. “Where did you work it?”
The whistle sounded before Cormac could answer, and even Mother’s loom stopped running.
“Did I do—?”
The flash in Mother’s eyes swallowed Cormac’s voice. Even if it hadn’t, the overseer’s bellow would have crushed it, same as his boot heel tromped the abandoned dandelions to a smear on his myopic, floor-shaking march across the workroom.
“Why aren’t you at your loom?” he said.
“Looms aren’t running,” Mother said.
“Sounds to me like the best time to oil and clean.” He fixed Mother with a glare that would never notice the dancing fire in hers, the amber of his eyes dull in Cormac’s new sight.
“Even so.” Iridescent thauma made way for her and caught in her wake, gathered at the hem of her skirts.
“You—” The sweep of the overseer’s paddle-wide hands snared Cormac’s mate Purdie in his wave. He held three stacked pence between Purdie and himself, edges sunk into the callus of thumb and forefinger. “This for the taint keeper.” He added three more. “This for you if you get one here before my teakettle boils.”
Cormac thought to raise up their own finger, tip scabbed black, and claim the coin. Might fetch a whole Cornish hen, that, for the right haggle. Drips of red were a price they’d pay to wash away the pitch that stained their palms and beset their nostrils. Instead, flecks of iridescence and gold swarmed their tongue, bound their arms, knotted their voice. They didn’t need to turn to see Mother’s work in it.
• • •
She hadn’t. Oh, she had tried. Had locked the door to the alcove and forbidden Cormac go anywhere near it. But words weren’t wards, so near is where they went when Mother channeled. She’d never noticed the gap above the croaking hinge, dryrot-split wide enough for Cormac’s right eye if they pulled their shoulder in, pressed against the wall shared with the neighbors who smelled of rosemary and the charnel house.
Mother did a better job hiding the hen from the landlord, at cost of her own blood. Still a gentler price than indenture at the workhouse if she was caught working magic. A prick of the finger, and for it the landlord heard pipes rattle instead of clucking, found his eyes drawn to a flash of light if the wind caught a bit of white fluff. Cormac was jealous of how he smelled soot in place of hen droppings.
The hen gave good eggs. More important, she supplied Mother for her work. One small vial, drawn from the neck after prayers on Sunday, kept Mother’s loom running without snags or broken threads. Cormac blocked the mundane weavers’ sight while Mother channeled thauma. They witnessed the patterns she painted in the frame at the factory, but most days the overseer swatted at the back of their head and barked them off to clean under the looms, or set them to piecing before they could study them proper.
It didn’t matter how often or long they studied. The runes were different every day, or they felt different every day, or at least they wouldn’t stay put in Cormac’s head and never meant anything more than gibberish drifting through their mind. They busied themself brushing out bits of flax, oiling machinery so long that they could scrub away every bit of flesh on their palms easier than they could rid themself of the sharp stink of grease.
• • •
“Different. Not more,” Mother said. “Or more, but not better.”
She took them to the alcove, and they watched this time. For most spells, the hen was enough. Needn’t offer much to convince the thauma to keep a string in place, help a fire last longer, freshen stale bread. At least, not any more.
Great-grandfather used to have to kill a chicken for each spell, and a dozen greatfolk before that, the last time thauma opened a channel in their family, it only listened to the call of a soul sacrificed to it. But if Samuel Crompton could work out the spinning mule, seemed a foolish kind of magic couldn’t make itself easier to keep pace.
That was Cormac’s idea, at least. Mother had an alternative: “These days the mundane demands plenty enough blood from us on its own. Figure magic doesn’t see the need to demand any more. Not special enough if it did. And magic wants special. Thauma breaks every rule but its own.”
This was what Cormac loved most about thauma, even before they opened. It cared for structures and rules as much as Cormac did, which was to say as little as possible. Why did women work looms and men work mines and gangly children squirm into tiny spaces for both? And why was it that people who did none of the labor took the coin and used it to build mansions and throw fancy parties?
Cormac had snuck into one once, with Purdie. A mansion, not a party. A party would have meant a bustle and a corset or tails and a cummerbund, and either option was another set of rules not worth having. But Purdie’s cousin worked the kitchens, and before one of the parties, when the lady of the house brought in extra help, they’d managed to slide in with the washer women and the chimney sweeps and the window cleaners and the butcher’s and the baker’s boys.
There were windows so high and wide they made more sun inside than out, light that bounced off the bevels of an army of cut glass, gleamed in the curves of brass and gold. Drapes long as an entire roll off the loom, thick and lush, embroidered with a million stories. Iron wrought in flourishes to hold more candles for one evening than Cormac imagined they and Mother used in a year.
It had been worth the swearing and the chase when they were caught. Worth the beating the constable gave them. It had been the most beautiful sight, that mansion, and a foolish world that ruled only a precious few could enjoy it.
It was a garbage heap in the shadow of thauma.
• • •
Mother cut open the back of her forearm. She knew where to cut to avoid risking her work on the loom, but a place that healed clean wasn’t the same as a place without pain. She bit down until cords popped in her neck. Squeezed a spare bit of dough to quicken the ripe cherry runnels between her knuckles, into the bowl. Mother steadied the hiss of her breath while Cormac tied linen around the wound.
Thauma swarmed above the bowl, along the line of Mother’s arm. She dipped one finger in, knuckles bony from the loom, then began writing. Blood hung in the air. Symbols that had always slipped away before now sang Cormac their secrets. This one’s swirls called to the belly. The ragged triplet summoned pain. An interlaced binding, sight, blood—
“No.” It didn’t matter that Cormac had never read the spell before. They knew the curse Mother was writing upon them, but not before the air slurped the blood-wrought runes hanging in space. Flecks of infinity raced through Cormac’s squeezed eyelids, down their throat despite sealed lips.
When they opened their eyes again, Mother raised her finger. The sight of sticky red on its tip sent lightning through Cormac’s eyes and belly, staggered them out of the alcove rather than witness another moment of it.
“Because none of mine get bled dry for a bolt of cloth or a richer vein of ore,” Mother said.
• • •
They tried to acclimate. If a finger could grow a callous, and a cut sealed to a tougher scar, perhaps a body’s insides might work the same. Thauma didn’t work that way, or it made the pain worse each time to compensate for whatever Cormac learned to accept. Before this, Cormac would have sworn a dozen oaths that nothing would be more vile to their senses than the grease stench entrenched in the lines of their palms. Now, four months of trying still left them kneeling in a puddle of sick before they could write a single, bloody glyph.
They turned their back to Mother’s runes each morning, as much to avoid Mother as the blood. But there was only so long they could bend their head to clean under clattering hot machines when the world was ready to turn sideways instead. When they finally looked, a different burning rose inside them at the flash and twinkle of thauma in Mother’s loom. The waltz of the impossible gleamed all around, invited them to join in the vibrant gambol, and Mother had chosen to bind Cormac hand and foot.
• • •
“If it were,” she said, “the overseer would be pulling water and butterflies from thin air.”
The girl who followed Cormac back was thin and knobby all over like Mother’s fingers. Cormac snatched her elbow to stop her walking through a puddle of filth.
“Did you channel away your sense of smell?” Cormac asked. It was the first time she met their gaze, and Cormac smiled a greeting to the swirling thauma in her eyes.
“Why do you need me?” She nodded to the motes that swam in Cormac’s own.
“Curse,” they said. “Blood makes me sick.”
“That’s what they say about me.”
“Because they’re blind.”
“Vision doesn’t much matter when they lock all the shutters against the light.”
Cormac’s knees itched. They stopped talking, headed back toward the shop as a cloud passed overhead. Except it wasn’t a cloud, or not the kind they thought. Billowy and blotting out bits of sun, this one wasn’t made of rain, but smoke.
Cormac snagged the workhouse girl’s brittle wrist, stomach cold and heavy, and dragged her forward. They couldn’t miss the overseer barking at the throng, but Mother was nowhere along the edges. They pressed forward, pinched and shoved against hips plump and bony, were met with squeals and curses shouted and whispered and growled in a dozen voices that hadn’t reared Cormac. Grease and soot and sweat filled each quickening breath, but even the tang they couldn’t quite identify wasn’t from Mother. A beefy set of forearms shoved them out of the press of bodies and into Purdie.
“Musta been a worse problem with the steam than they thought,” he said. “Caught fire on one machine then ran straight across the threads to the others.”
“Can you stop it?” Cormac whispered to the channel girl. She laughed.
“Are you cursed with stupid, as well?” She flopped both flimsy hands at the blooms of fire and smoke. “Isn’t enough blood in my whole body to end that. You’d need a body full grown and well-fed just to stand a chance.”
Mother was one of those two. And maybe if she took some from Cormac, they’d amount to well-fed together.
There was an undulation in the streams of thauma. Cormac took it for agreement and bolted through the choking black that drifted from the front door. Calls followed them, but not their name or reaching hands.
They shoved the door open, then shoved again against the press of heat on the other side. Fire licked up the walls, whipped bright and vibrant across threads and frames. Smoke slithered upward, gathered at the ceiling, tangled and swelled in a mating ball of black and grey. Thauma cavorted in the spaces between. Its dance shone past the sting of soot in their eyes, and Cormac cursed it for abandoning them, leaving them to dodge the strike of yellow-orange fangs. Cursed its carefree amble of beauty in the billowing darkness that scraped its way down Cormac’s throat.
Then they realized this dance was not without pattern. That the iridescent spin and swirl flourished, yes, but with purpose. With direction they could follow.
They pressed on until the dome of Mother’s spell shone through the smoke, thauma beating back the snapping maw of the flames. Cormac didn’t think about what the dome meant until they pushed through the ashy fog. They had time enough for Mother’s chest to rise once before the flash of blood along the edge of Mother’s protection circle burned Cormac’s eyes and stabbed their belly.
Cormac squeezed their eyes shut, wiped the porridge of stale bread and bile off their lips, and called out, “Mother!”
The growl and hiss of fire was the only answer. They didn’t know if Mother fell from the smoke or the heat or if she might still be bleeding. They turned away from her and opened their eyes.
The motes were too bright for the black smoke to dim, brighter than the fire even at its heart. Thauma called and cried and sang, danced promises to swallow all the fire away if Cormac painted enough to quench its thirst. But the thauma would also tear through Cormac’s head and rend their guts if they so much as bit their lip, long before they could drag a bloody finger in a single sigil.
They cried into their hands to stop choking on impossible riddles, coughed at the cloying scent of grease on their palms. This was what caught fire. This was what burned. Their blood could run a thousand steam engines better than the useless black muck that fed the fire. Fire which would sooner or later devour the floor beneath Mother and gulp her down, because Cormac couldn’t offer sacrifice.
Couldn’t offer it to the thauma, at least. Whether they bled or not, the mill had happily drunk Cormac dry since they were old enough to carry scraps. And not just Cormac: Mother. Purdie. Every spinner, piecer, scavenger, weaver. At least a tenement’s worth of souls daily poured their lives out until it soaked into every drop of grease that turned gears and pulleys.
“And what foolish kind of magic is it,” Cormac said, “that would let grease keep all that sacrifice for itself?”
The thauma stilled briefly, then quivered in Cormac’s ears with a new, eager pitch. Cormac drug one shaking finger through a thick patch of grease and started painting. They followed the whorls and sweeps of dancing thauma, the patterns of forever, with a fingertip thick with both grease and the accumulated life that grease had stolen.
The motes drank it in. Thauma breaks every rule but its own, and it wouldn’t be outdone. The air chilled. Fire sizzled, shrunk, chuffed into wisps of ash.
Mother gasped, and Cormac drew a deep breath full of lingering char, themself.
“They won’t wait long to enter,” Cormac said. “You should clean the blood before they do.”
She gave a puzzled grunt, but the rasp of fabric scrubbing wood worked a staccato pattern behind Cormac.
“It’s gone.” The dirt and hair clinging to her cheeks wasn’t new, nor even the slump of her shoulders, but there was something new in the way Mother looked at Cormac. Not looked. Studied. “How?”
They offered her their hand instead of words, lead her to the patterns drawn in grease.
“That isn’t how it works,” Mother said. “Blood rules thauma, not grease.”
“Thauma breaks every rule—” Cormac said.
“—But its own,” Mother finished. Cormac worked one more symbol, then all of the writing melted away with a sigh. They eased the rag out of Mother’s hand, showed it clean of her blood.
“Never cared much for rules, myself,” Cormac said. It was a quip, but that didn’t make it untrue. It’s why they loved magic for so long, why the two of them had been waiting for each other since they came into the world.