Excerpt: Crystal Cage

The Institute loomed before me like a veritable palace, its gardens lush and green, hydrangeas and violets in vibrant bloom adorning neatly dug flowerbeds. I passed through great cast iron gates with haste, the driver directing the carriage at my command. Gravel crunched beneath the horses’ hooves and the carriage bumped slightly as it drew to a halt.

I inhaled deeply, suddenly self-conscious about my mode of dress. My overalls were clean but hardly the kind of attire I should attend the Institute in. Father had been right when he said I should wear a dress, but the frilly pink monstrosity the servants of our house pulled from the garderobe almost made me weep in horror. In my defense, I had tried to don the gown, only to feel like a stranger in my own body. The mirror reflected an unfamiliar face back at me and I recoiled, finding the lie I’d borne in silence for years too much to endure any longer.

I tore the dress off and grabbed my overalls as my maid protested, her offense a shrill discord in my ear. My undershirt fit like a glove, my pants following soon after, followed by the loose overalls. The faint scent of grease lingered in the air, and it smelled like home, a far cry from the eye-watering perfumes Father had chosen for the occasion. I grabbed my goggles and fled from the house before he could inspect me, pressing an extra twopenny piece into the coachman’s hand to make haste from the grounds. I tied my hair into a neat bun with my own hands, long used to doing things for myself without the brood of maids who wanted to make me a ‘proper’ lady.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be the high society lady Father wanted me to be. That’s why I was at the Institute in the first place—trying to maintain some sense of honor for our house. It was clear to see that I wasn’t going to be a good wife, and so the only hope I could have of avoiding shame on our family name was to enter the realm of academia. I had applied to the Institute, sending them a small invention I had been working on: a heated cup that used crystal power to keep tea at its proper temperature. The crystal mines had seen an unprecedented yield over the past few years, and now a resource that was once rare and expensive was falling into the hands of common folk. It opened a whole new world of invention for me, and that was when I knew I couldn’t deceive others any longer if I wanted to be happy.

I was not a lady, a mother, or a wife. I was an inventor, my only children the ideas that took form and shape in mechanisms that improved the lives of ordinary people. The heated cup was just the beginning. I had vast swathes of ideas, the gate opening wider with every crystal that fell into my possession. Father would buy me jewelry and trinkets, hoping to make me attractive to men, and I would strip them for the blue glowing stones, causing him to sigh heavily and shake his head. He had told me—many times—that I was eschewing a life of comfort with these lofty ideas, and yet I saw in his eyes a slight glimmer of pride when he laid eyes on my creations. He had protested when I had told him my plans to apply to the Institute, but in the end, he relented—although not before every hair on his head was silver.

“You should have been my son,” Father had said, his eyes tired. “Fate makes cruel choices, sometimes. You will never be happy, trapped between two worlds as you are. The world does not understand such things.”

“I am happy, Father,” I said. “Just as long as I can be myself. That is all that matters to me.” I clenched my hand into a fist. “I don’t need the world to understand. I just need the freedom to do as I will.”

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