A note from CLRobison

I'm going to post the entirety of Chapter 1 (A Shadow's Start) today. I tend to write very long "chapters" but I subdivide them into chunks of (usually) 1500-3000 words, with a median around 2200 words. Please let me know if you have any formatting issues, since I'm mostly pasting these from MS OneNote, which has great organization but tricky formatting.

-C.L. Robison

Elzie was my childhood governess - she taught about half of my lessons and spent more of the day with me than either of my parents, who had a thriving business to run. Not having any children of her own, I imagine she had some level of maternal feelings for Chiaro and me. She couldn't stop sobbing as she handed us off to Uncle Horantz, but she handed us off all the same. I imagine she realized she was a person of interest and understood that we would be safer in the care of somebody who didn't have strong Selenite features.

"You stay good for your uncle, do you hear me?" she sniffled.

I teared up, too, though I remember not quite understanding what was happening at the time. "Yes, Nanny Elie," I said. I hadn't called her that in years.

"Keep your brother safe, too. He's too little to know to stay secret."

"I will."

Elzie left on foot, the damaged carriage having been liquidated to bribe our uncle into looking after us. I say 'uncle', but Horantz was actually Elzie's uncle - if my genealogy is up to snuff, that made him my first cousin twice removed. The man was a clockmaker of modest means but, in his favor, a Gionian last name: Horantz Giespi. Uncle Horantz had been prudent about keeping his Selenite heritage and faith hidden from the public (even in better times, we were seen as outsiders), and thus he was not a target of the duke's Lapis-Crowns or the impromptu street gangs that increasingly took it upon themselves to persecute and vandalize any merchant suspected of having Selenite heritage or sympathies.

Uncle Horantz was also, I suspect, not the most proficient clockmaker in the city - in fact, he struggled to make ends meet. Certainly, he didn't turn down the two or three octavos Elzie passed him every few days when she came to check in on us. I doubt it even crossed his mind to turn down the money despite poor Elzie looking increasingly unkempt, stressed, and generally destitute with each subsequent visit. Elzie could have used the money more than Horantz, but he didn't seem to care. Alas, I was seven and didn't quite realize the desperation of our general situation. Instead, I was frustrated to be stuck in a house filled with clicking, ticking, chiming clocks. A house that I was not allowed to leave under any circumstances… except for when Horantz needed something from the tobacconist and didn't feel like getting it himself. Chiaro and I were stuck in a house with a grumpy old man toiling over his clockwork. Stuck in a house where the only things to read were books on clockmaking, gearwork, and insects (Uncle Horantz was an amateur lepidopterist, apparently). Whenever I got bored, anxious, or frustrated (which was often), I would pace. And when I paced, Horantz would send me out despite Elzie's insistence that we stay hidden.

"Hey, girl! If you must pace, why not run to the baccyman and get me two tins of snuff and a pack of shine," Horantz would sometimes grumble, looking up from his clocks.

"Miss Elzie said I wasn't to leave the house under any circumstances," I'd reply dutifully.

Uncle Horantz was undeterred. "You'll wear a cloak an we'll put in the eyedrops. Come on over, girl. Hey, don't be a baby like your brother…"

Chiaro cried quite a bit those days - mostly for mother or Elzie, but also just in general. I don't blame him. I cried quite a bit, too, but only when I didn't think anybody was around to overhear.

Horantz had an alchemical tincture that he'd procured on the sly to hide his distinctive Selenite eye color - the drops turned his forest green eyes an earthy brown for a few hours per application, and he used the stuff constantly during business hours. I hated the drops because they made my eyes water and sting for ten minutes afterward. Since my eyes were such an intensely green color, it took two drops per eye, and they didn't even turn brown. They turned a warm amber instead, which was still a fairly conspicuous eye color in Portogarra. On top of that, Horantz would make me wear an oversized cloak, which he promised would help me avoid notice…

As an accomplished sneak, here's a bit of free advice: cloaks are wonderful apparel for hiding your face. Unless it is pouring down rain, they are not great for avoiding notice, since the kind of people who wear cloaks in clear weather are often trying to hide their faces and anybody with the brains to walk a guardsperson's route is well aware of this. On virtually every occasion that I went out for Horantz's 'baccy', I was stopped by a guard who would dutifully push back my cloak and observe that I was a young, amber-eyed girl with tears streaming down her face.

"What's wrong, dear? What's got you so upset?"

"I'm just getting my uncle's baccy and shine," I would explain, and most of the time the guard would then walk me to the tobacconist's, wait for me to emerge, check my bag (to make sure I wasn't trying to smuggle anything illegal), and then walk me back to my uncle's.

Now… even at the tender age of seven, I had at least a scintilla of street-smarts. Instead of leading the guard back to Horantz's home and shop, I'd lead him into the poorer tenements just to the south of there and enter the common hall of one of the row houses. At one point, those slate gray houses had probably been quite expensive, but the neighborhood had since been exposed to a century of wear and the houses subdivided into tiny, dingy apartments, mostly for the Prosecan immigrants who did most of Portogarra's menial labor. Thus, the guards thought I was the niece of some Prosecan lowlife (not that I have anything against Prosecans - this is just what I imagine the guard thought) and not of a second-rate clockmaker of clandestine Selenite ancestry.

My brief forays into the city were plenty exciting, if you find heart-thumping anxiety exciting, but most of the time I was cooped up and bored out of my mind. I read every book in the house three times over and, since I'd just read a dozen different books about clockwork and keeping time, I figured that made me a bit of an expert on the subject. One afternoon while Horantz was out drinking with his fellow clockmakers or lepidopterists (or whomever he associated with - I never inquired into who his friends were), I disassembled the big, brassy grandfather clock that he kept out in the foyer as a demonstration piece, carefully arranging every gear, spring, axel, and screw along the several vacant stretches of countertop. Uncle Horantz was not happy.

"Girl! What have I told you about mucking about with my things?!" He took a leather belt and wrapped it twice around his fingers… it was unclear whether he meant to use it as a whip or leather knuckles because that was the farthest he ever got. He took a deep breath, counted backward from ten, and draped the belt over a stool. Uncle Horantz was an ass, but he didn't beat children… though, clearly, the threat of a beating was just dandy.

"You told me not to meddle with things I don't understand. But I understand your clock, so I figured it was fine?"

"The rule is you never take something apart if you can't put it back together again." He crossed his arms and glowered at me. "You're not getting any supper until you put it back together."

"Fine," I harrumphed. "I will." I then proceeded to do just that. It took me perhaps an hour to reassemble - I could have done it a lot faster, but Horantz had quite deliberately moved the stepping stool clear to the other side of the room and the clock was a bit tall for seven-year-old Vix Altorelli.

Afterward, Horantz inspected the clock, winding it back to one minute before the hour and waiting for the chime to ring. Obviously, it did, since I'd put it together correctly - the layout was exactly like the gearwork illustrations in the book I'd read, after all. He stared at me with a look that I would quickly come to recognize as the face adults make when a child displays competence far outside of their comfort zone. One tends to get that look a lot while a Scamp at the Perdita Free Collegium. But I'm getting ahead of myself…

"Acceptably done," he admitted, before carefully asking: "Say… do you suppose you could fix a broken clock all by yourself?"

I shrugged. "Depends on the clock." I figured it probably depended on how broken it was.

"I suppose we two will find out, then."

After that, Uncle Horantz found my presence a lot more tolerable - tolerable enough that he didn't complain much when Elzie stopped coming to the house to give him his octavos. That isn't to say he didn't complain, but at least he didn't grumble to himself, where I could hear him, that he might not be able to feed Chiaro anymore. No, instead, he'd give me a portion of the broken clocks that customers brought in for repairs - mostly jobs that required fine gearwork, jobs where the workings weren't too mangled and small hands helped, as opposed to clocks that had been dropped off a third story balcony during a thunderstorm or repeatedly stomped on by an irate racehorse (both of these actually happened during my time there). Those were a bit beyond my novice skill.

Sometimes, Horantz would even bring his fellow clocksmiths by to brag about his windfall of free labor. "Why don't we see what my little apprentice is up to," he would say. Then he'd lead them into the little back room that we'd set up to serve as my work area.

"How do you know how to fix that mantlepiece miniature, little girl?" one mustachioed gentleman asked, squinting at the gears through his monocle.

"There's only one way to put it together," I explained with a shrug. I was only seven and didn't quite have the fluency to explain that there was only one way for the ratchet wheel to interface with the hour hand that would give you an appropriate pendulum-swing to hour-hand ratio, which meant every gear in between could only be arranged in exactly one way. Yoked to that assemblage, the gear drum could only be associated with the escapement in one way such that gravity would transfer the potential energy of the clock's weight into the kinetic energy of the pendulum, and thus the interaction of these two systems, which is what drove the clock's function, allowed only one possible arrangement of parts. Mind you, I'd read all of these terms in Horantz's books, but didn't quite have the wherewithal to string them all together in a learned dialog. I probably could have recited most of it verbatim if you asked me to. Mostly, I just had a knack for how things fit together in order to work.

"Ah, very interesting," the mustachioed gentleman nodded with visible skepticism. But my results spoke for themselves: I never once put a clock together wrong.

As an aside observation, if you are hiding a pair of refugee children wanted by the ducal authorities in your clock store, do not brag to your friends about your wunderkind 'apprentice' of obvious Selenite heritage. And, if you do, at least make her apply the horrible stinging alchemical eyedrops that turn her eyes amber. Uncle Horantz wasn't a stupid man, but he was an abysmal spy and his many security oversights wound up getting us caught.


A note from CLRobison

I will post Chapter 3 as soon as I finish proofreading it! Thanks for reading!

-C.L. Robison

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MrPappy ago

I now know more about clocks than I really ever wanted or needed to know. Vix is definitely smarter than I am lol

tutpuppy ago

I loved taking apart things like clocks when I was little. Never had even the slightest interest in reassembling them.

    CLRobison ago

    When I was little, I used to take broken appliances and try to hook them together into neat contraptions. They never did anything, but some of them looked pretty cool!

ezlord ago


I read the summary and now I’m hooked.

BBZ ago

An excellent example of showing not telling us the girl is intelligent. You maybe over qualified for the medium but please don’t leave! I’m already hooked.

lenkite ago

Why aren't the Prosecan's harassed like the Selenites ?

    CLRobison ago

    Good question! The Prosecans were persecuted to some extent after Gionia conquered their island, but they have the same religion (Church of the Avatar) as the Gionians and speak a similar language, so they integrated quickly into the country. The Selenites speak their own language, worship a different God, and are generally more insular than the Prosecans ever were.

lenkite ago

but he was an abysmal spy and his many security oversights wound up getting us caught.

Seems rather contradictory to what was said earlier in the chapter.

Uncle Horantz had been prudent about keeping his Selenite heritage and faith hidden from the public (even in better times, we were seen as outsiders), and thus he was not a target of the duke's Lapis-Crowns

If the guy makes sure that everyone changes the color of his eyes before doing business or going out and kept his selenite heritage hidden for ages, why would he suddenly become stupid ?

    CLRobison ago

    The idea here is that he did many of the things that a regular person might do when trying to avoid scrutiny, but he did not practice good opsec because he wasn't a good spy. For instance, while letting Vix go out with eye drops to disguise her eye color is much better than letting everybody see her eyes, it's still insanely risky. It was wise for him to keep his ethnicity hidden, but he wasn't all that good at it.

Arcane_Pozhar ago

Very much digging the style. Best new read (of mine, clearly, I can't speak for every story) on RR for a long time. Many thanks, author!

The Aimless Passerby ago

Superduper cool green eyes ✅

Wow super genius child ✅

Tragic backstory and info dump in chapter 1 ✅

Uncaring old man substitute caretaker ✅

Bonus points for basically making them fantasy Jews

Two chapters in and the cliches go on and on. People eat it up for a reason I guess.


Strange how different the quality is compared to They Shall Call Me Empress. Though even there, Lynn has silver eyes with no pupils (???). Yet she somehow passes as a mortal 🙄. At least there the smoothie alchemy is an interesting take


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