“Two very gifted machinists. It is presumed that they worked together in solitude in a rudimentary workshop, with nothing more than a few hammers and chisels at their disposal. I would assume, since you are in control of an entire machine shop, the creation of the cog should come easily to you.”
Unthank laughed, once, very loudly. He set down the schematic and looked Roger squarely in the eye. “This … thing is one of the most incredibly designed machine parts I’ve ever seen. Even with my entire shop devoted to the creation of this thing …” His eyes traveled over the words on the schematic, carefully unpacking their meaning. He murmured to himself as he read. After a moment, he looked back up at Roger. “These machinists—they did this with hammer and chisel? I’ve got to think that your Woodsy Magic had something to do with it.”
“Woods Magic,” the thin man corrected.
“Right.” Unthank paused. “What is that, exactly?”
“It’s the essence of the Wood, and it flows in the blood of anyone born to it. It is believed we are descended of the trees themselves. You Outsiders are shamefully ignorant of what happens beyond the Periphery, in these woods you so colloquially call the Impassable Wilderness. It is a vibrant and vital place. And I am offering you exclusive access, something that, to my knowledge, no Woodian has offered an Outsider in the history of our parallel existences.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that,” said Unthank. “What exactly does that entail, this access?”
“Absolute, unfettered access. A chaperone at your disposal to walk you in and out of the Periphery until such time that the Bind can be dismantled. The opportunity to market your wares to an entirely new world of buyers. Complete control over the resources of a country teeming with ancient forests. Trees, thousands of years old. Perhaps, once our dominion is cemented, you will be included in the administration. Machine Part Manufacturer to the Dauphin. How does that sound?”
“Intriguing,” said Unthank. He looked back at the schematic. “I mean, I suppose it could be … well, I don’t want to speak too hastily, but I’ve attempted these kinds of experimental projects in the past. Lord knows I have the shop for it. If this has been built before—if it has existed in the world—I’ve got to assume that if anyone’s got the stuff to make it again, it’s me. But it’s no small feat, I tell you.” He paused for a moment. “Did you say something about a dolphin?”
The man fixed Unthank with a perplexed look. “No,” he said. “The Dauphin. The young king.”
“And I would be, like, his main guy?”
“If that is what you wish.”
“Who is he, this Dauphin? And why doesn’t he just order this thing made?”
“Because he is currently indisposed. But this is unimportant information. I ask you: Will you make this cog, Mr. Unthank?”
Joffrey, his elbows resting on the arms of his chair, wove his fingers together in front of his lips. He looked down at the schematic of the Möbius Cog and back at Roger. Finally, he spoke. “How much time do I have?”
“Five?” Unthank’s hands dropped to the desktop. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I mean, it’ll take that long just to let the metal cure. I need a week, at least.”
“A week is not an option. There are others, Mr. Unthank, who would seek to make this piece as well; if they should succeed, all is lost. I have seen your work; I’ve been apprised of your abilities. I do not think five days is beyond your capability.”
“I mean, if I worked through the night—if I shut down all other operations…”
“If that is what needs be done, then it should be so.”
“But I’ll accrue costs—it’s going to cost a fortune to turn everything over to this. And what about my clients? I’ve got fifteen hundred dishwasher intake valves to make by Tuesday.”
Roger cleared his throat politely. “You will be more than compensated, Mr. Unthank, for whatever costs you accrue. I cannot stress enough how much this is worth your while. I’m promising you a world at your disposal, Mr. Unthank. Please consider that.”
Unthank lifted his hands to his face and tapped his lips with the tips of his fingers. “And what about these others—your competitors? The ones who want to make it too. What happens if they manage to create it before I do? What then?”
“That is not an option. Besides, I’ve taken steps to—how shall I say—hamper their progress, if not stop them altogether. But that is none of your concern, Mr. Unthank. Yours is simply the manufacture of this piece. That is all.”
Joffrey’s gaze wandered from the strange man in the leather chair to the line of windows above the shelf of blinking transponders. The wall of trees, the sight that greeted him every day as he walked into his office, was still there, standing vigilant in the gray light. A bird wheeled about one the tallest conifers. Somewhere, Unthank surmised, in that knot of forest, were the three girls he’d wantonly sent into its strange world, along with the dozens of others who’d suffered a similar fate. He imagined them frozen in place, like statues, victims to the terrible enchantments of that alien place. Or worse: being slowly digested by the very trees. And to what end? It had been a long, arduous voyage for Joffrey Unthank, but he felt as if he’d finally arrived at his just reward, though in a way he’d never, in his wildest dreams, anticipated.
He looked back at Roger. “It’s a deal,” he said.
The forest gave up nothing.
Still, not a sound. A tremendous panic was welling up in the pit of Elsie’s stomach. She’d never been so terrified in her life. The tall trees seemed to bow around her like a concave mirror, and she grew flushed and light-headed as she ran. She didn’t know where she was running. She didn’t know where she’d end up. She only knew what she’d promised: that she would find her sister. She thrashed through the heavy underbrush as fast as her little legs could muster, having to contend with the thick wool of the several-sizes-too-large trench coat she’d been given. She’d had dreams like this before; tired, confused, and running through an endless wilderness while her legs moved like molasses. The thought occurred to her, briefly: Maybe this was a dream. All it took was a particularly angry thorn scratch to her left hand, as real as pain can get, to remind her that she was, in fact, quite awake.