A black-haired child sat with tongue protruding in concentration, fixing a fleck of gold in place. Tyndale scrutinized the object. It was a finely wrought armature of silver in the shape of a rearing horse. From its ivory hooves to its glistening obsidian eyes, from the hundreds of gears interlocked and enmeshed so as to form metallic tissue to its proudly flagged tail, it was every inch a possible masterpiece. The boy looked up eagerly and remembered to slide his tongue back into its cavern. Surely the Master would finally be pleased and allow him his freedom.
He waited. Lord Tyndale sighed, looked up at the rafters in theatrical despair, and then nudged the boy with his foot. "Well, start it up, Walsh, er Wade...whatever you're called."
"Wes, M'Lord. And...it doesn't start."
"Ah, you need more time. Perhaps you can continue after the others leave. At least have the kindness to explain what it will do. A nefarious instrument for the War Board? An ornamental steering device for the new class of airships? We can certainly sell a few to those pompous Transit Captains."
"It doesn't do anything."
Tyndale wished he had his own relief valve as he felt the pressure rise in his chest. "Yes, yes, idiot child, I understand that it is currently not functional. But what WILL it do?"
Wes picked at a bloodied cuticle on his index finger. "It won't do anything, sir. Ever. It's...it's...to look at, sir. Because it's beautiful. It's...Art."
The shrieking whistle of the man they had to call Master reverberated through the workshop, down the steam and smoke shrouded alleyways, and might have shifted the Pride of Mayfair off course had she been any lower in the atmosphere.
"So you fasten a few cogs to some wire and call it art. Art is beauty WITH FUNCTION! THERE MUST BE A PURPOSE! WITHOUT PURPOSE WE, AND EVERYTHING AROUND US, ARE USELESS!"
He swept the majestic equine to the floor, mopped his brow, and struggled to regain his composure. Casting about for something, anything, of worth, he settled upon two shadowy figures in an opposite corner.
"Briggs, tell me you've got something to salvage my integrity. Something...ahhh. Yes."
The apprentice had swept a piece of canvas away, revealing a human-like object seated beside the worktable.
"A clockworker. Wonderful. But far too delicate to work the mines or the looms, for that matter. It will need to be twice as substantial."
Nathanial Briggs, already halfway toward a Class A freedom certificate, smirked at Wes and then adopted a suitably pious attitude.
"M'Lord, it was built for the express purpose of replacing the striking matchgirls over at Bryant and May. Think of it, sir: we would be saving thousands of women and children from fossy jaw and cruel working conditions by using these instead."
Tyndale thought he might suffer an apoplectic fit. "You think that they will purchase mechanicals when they can hire otherwise useless human beings at a pittance? And what of the masses who will be turned out to starve in the streets? Great Machine in the sky, are you all without vision? Without a concept of consequences?"
While he was speaking, Tyndale had been idly stroking the copper forelimb of the clockworker. Now this was art, beauty with function. It was both graceful and elegant, with smooth sweeping curves and a faint sheen of fine oil; it even seemed to exhale a warm metallic scent which tickled his aristocratic nostrils. There was just the hint of a breast, sloping gently down to a narrow waist...
That evening the man known to some as the Master, to others as the fabulously wealthy Lord Tyndale, was seen hurrying through the streets with a cloth-draped object. To some, it looked like it might even have been a dead body, but no one questioned such things in the streets of London after dark.
Several months later, the unfortunate young artist called Wes found himself sitting on a bench aboard the Aether Steam Transit Company's airship Pride of Mayfair, headed for penal servitude in the Colonies. The man chained next to him cleared his throat. Wes thought he looked vaguely familiar.
"What's the sentence, lad?"
"Ten years. Deliberately and willfully wasting company funds on work of no particular value. Courtesy of Lord Tyndale. You?"
The man roared with laughter. "Lifetime banishment for surgical malfeasance. A certain wealthy Lord had an embarrassing mishap with a clockwork mechanical. And though we've advanced to the point of various gear- and piston-driven limbs, even the best inventors in our world have yet to create a working prosthetic for certain parts of a man's anatomy. He's managed to get me out of the country so that word doesn't spread of his lack of function."
Wes grinned. "Perhaps we could work together in the Colonies. I believe that we could create some remarkable devices together."
"And adventures, lad. We'll have adventures. Dr. Robert Liston." He smiled ruefully as he tried to extend his hand but was brought up short by his chain.
"Wesley Broward. At your service."
This is my very first attempt (and a bit rushed this week) at Steampunk flash fiction. Gentle critique is always welcome.