Journey Of Freedom

Metal wings flittered in the cage beside her.



A ticking, agile heart, made to be free.

A black cloth draped over the bell-shaped enclosure; a hopeful distraction, nature's ploy.

Maeve peeked beneath the cover. Everything she'd done, all those lives ruined, was for the creature she now possessed. Not that the creature belonged to her. Something so ancient, so intelligent—so unique—could never belong to anyone but itself. But in that one moment, on that empty, endless road, when the moon smiled, and the inky sky winked with thousands of stars, Maeve couldn't help but feel a spark of pride. She had saved a life—their life—and that connection linked them... If only for that brief point in time.

She let the cloth fall. The rhymic trot of her horse's hooves and the turn of the carriage wheels lulled her mind to the edges of sleep. The worst of their journey was over, the horrors had happened, and the road ahead was clear. Still, if experience had taught Maeve anything, she knew even the best-laid paths could hold hidden potholes.

Heavy eyelids fluttered. Maeve’s hands became slack on the reins, and her head drifted back, falling against the carriages headrest... And back towards the beginning of it all.


“Are you listening, novice? Where did you go?”

Maeve blinked.

Light smeared the room's edges, and she wiped her eyes with the silk sleeves of her robes. She blinked again.

She sat in the library beneath the palace, her hand curled loosely around the shaft of her quill. Books surrounded her in worlds of green and brown leather. She could smell the scent of candle smoke, the weathered pages and feel the hard wood of the chair digging into her back.

Of course, she was in the library.

Noise crackled, and Maeve glanced at the woman standing above her. The young woman raised a sharp brow, and finally, the last dregs of confusion emptied Maeve's mind. She shook her head.

“Apologies, Professor, I... I don't know.”

Professor Fei turned and returned to the chair on the side of the table. The leather squeaked as she sat and pushed the wire rims of her glasses back up her nose. She wore her hair short, black and slick, and to Maeve, it always reminded her of the feathers of a crow.

“No matter,” the Professor said, “you're back now. Perhaps,” she added, her tone stern, “I need to up the excitement during my lessons to keep those eyes and your mind awake.”

Maeve’s heart skipped. “I meant you no offence, Professor,” she said quickly, and her fingers tightened around her quill. “Truly.”

Flames popped in the golden holds of their sconces. A moment of thick silence passed.

Professor Fei smiled. “I know,” she said, “Now, if we may return to your studies.” She pushed forward a large leather book, and a creeping sense of déjà vu prickled along Maeve's skin. She flipped the cover to a page marked with a strip of gold ribbon.

Time had turned the thick paper a warm yellow. Maeve swept a hand over the double spread, and specks of dust and minuscule fibres came away with her skin.

Cursive flowed across the pages, the black ink sweeping between sketches drawn so intricately that Maeve wished she had a magnifying glass simply to appreciate it all.

It was the anatomy of a mechanical phoenix, THE mechanical phoenix, the first—and last—sentient machine ever made.

Thin, delicate lines angled the outline of the phoenix's body, its wings of intersecting alloys spreadeagled across the centrefold. Elegant cogs and thin rods linked the creature together, from the pinhead mechanism at the bird's beak to the gold, orange and red of the tailfeathers, each metal length coiling inwards at each end.

“It’s beautiful,” Maeve whispered. Her eyes drew to the centre of the diagram, to the fingernail-sized glass heart nestled behind a thin cage of gold in the bird's chest.

Even on paper, the heart seemed to pulse—a soft, rhymic tick-tick-tick bringing it to life, as though magic itself coursed through every line.

“Isn’t it, indeed?” Professor Fei mused. “A divine invention, and one, I'm afraid, that your father hopes to attain before the month's end.”

“It still exists?”

“That it does.”

“But why...” The feeling of déjà vu returned. She had said this before. Maeve blinked. “Why would father want it? Surely a creature such as this deserves its freedom?”

A sudden pressure pushed against Maeve's temples, and a high whine pierced the quiet of her ears.

“The properties of the Phoenix allow it to...” The Professor began to speak, but her voice sounded distant, far off—the crackle of an old record.

Maeve's body lurched, and something unseen cracked against her skull... The library spun.

This wasn't real...


Cold wind whipped at the loose strands of her hair, numbing her face. Outside, the world blurred. Moonlit trees raced by. The carriage's wheels bounced off the uneven ground, jostling Maeve heavily in her seat.

It was clear. Spooked, her horse had bolted, dragging Maeve and the cage behind it.

The cage.

Maeve thrust out a hand, slapping wildly in the dark. Skin met cloth, and she curled her fingers between the cage bars, pulling the object onto her lap. Maeve returned her grip on the reins, but rather than tugging—as instincts told her—she settled back and let the horse run.

Long and straight was the path, and after a few minutes, her horse slowed. Maeve called to it, her tone soft, and the steady trot calmed to a stop.

Silence fell like a curtain, severed only by her own panting breath and the short, sharp snorts of her horse.

Maeve swept the sweat from her forehead. An owl hooted in the distance. The creature beneath the cloth fluttered.

That dream—no, memory—felt all too real. The sounds, the smells. The sensation of the paper between her fingers. She hadn’t just imagined it—she’d visited it... Lived it again.

On her lap, the cage rattled, and Maeve lifted the cloth just an inch. Through the dim twilight, she could see much of the inside—a flash of gold, the spiralled tip of a tailfeather. She longed to let the creature out here, now, among the trees, the vast open sky. But even so far from the city, Maeve knew they weren't far enough.

Not yet.

She knew the greed of man, the lengths they were willing. Even those she thought were there to protect could hide sharp claws beneath lavish layers of silk.

Without prompt, her horse continued.

Sleep returned to her eyes, and Maeve found herself falling back once more, one arm wrapped securely around the cage.


Maeve blinked.

She was in the council chambers, back at the palace she thought she had long left behind.

Councillors and other court members settled in the centre of the room, the beginnings of war mapped on the circular table.

Curtains drawn, the candles did little to disperse the shadows, and the iron candelabra dripped wax from above, hard pools collecting like magma on the stone floor.

Soft murmurs filled the room but stopped as the doors opened, and the broad figure of her father strode into the room. A boy hurried behind, something large carried in his arms.

Polite inclines of the head greeted her father as he took his place at the last chair, the largest of them all. The boy placed the object on the table, his face red, and then scurried away.

The murmurs returned.

At the edge of the room, a few people stood, watching. Listening. Privy to the knowledge, but lesser enough to know not to speak. Among them, Maeve caught sight of Professor Fei, standing, hands clasped, her face a pinched picture of disapproval.

Their eyes met, and Maeve's mentor nodded towards the domed object.

Maeve suddenly understood, and her heart dropped. Her father, he'd found it: The Mechanical Phoenix.

Anger burned like wildfire in Maeve's chest. Her father was a good man... A just ruler, someone she had always been proud of. How could he?

Across the room, Maeve saw her expression matched equally with Professor Fei. Never had Maeve seen her mentor so unanimated. Horror had taken hold. Whatever her father had planned was worst than anything Maeve could imagine—for the Phoenix and the opposition.

Candles hissed. Wax spat onto the floor. Whispers and mumbles from the table choked the room in the chilling chant. Her father sneered, and as he waved his hand over the war plans, the cage shook.

The creature screeched.

Hands clasped over ears. Council members buckled in their seats. Maeve's father stumbled away, shock widening his features for only a moment; his sneer returned, sharper, deadlier than before.

The creature settled.

The room rightened.

But the peaceful forest inside Maeve had smouldered to ash. She damned her father and broke the rule. “Father, you can't!”


Maeve gasped for breath. Her chin smacked the top of the cage. Her head pounded, and something hot oozed from her nose. She wiped it away with her sleeve.

On her lap, the cage vibrated, and without thinking, Maeve whipped away the cloth.

Whatever was happening had to be because of it: the memories, the pounding headaches, the sleep—all of it. But as she stared at the Phoenix, at the elegant glow of its body, the soft crescent of it beak, all her anger ebbed away. It was far more beautiful than any drawing.

The Phoenix angled its head. Eyes like fire burned into her, and Maeve couldn't look away.

Light flashes and Maeve is in her father's study...


The cage in her grasp. Professor Fei helping her out of the palace...


Her father's men, revolvers drawn. Blood seeping from Fei's mouth, her eyes open. Blank. Gone.


Maeve stealing the blacksmith's horse, the tailor's carriage. The palace, her home, behind her. Everything gone. Fei...

The memory fizzled out, bubbling and charring like a damaged film reel.

Maeve blinked. She opened her mouth, but no words found their way through. The Phoenix tilted the crown of its head, and inside her mind, a voice spoke.

“I see now,” it said, crackling and low, warm like a welcoming fireplace. “You saved me—a heart, pure, true. I thank you.”

“I will find you somewhere,” Maeve croaked, “somewhere safe. Away. I promise.”

The Phoenix spread its wings and bowed. “I don't doubt that you will.”

Holding tight to the reins, to the cage, her horse carried on, their journey of freedom not quite at its end.

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