The metal on metal clang happened every second, echoing off the timbers. The old woman seemed to levitate like a mythical saint, arm wrapped around a rope, and a leg doing likewise down below in the shadows. The observer corrected his thinking. More like a circus acrobat. She wore a dress that would have been in fashion ten years ago in Paris, apart from being all in black, only making this all the more incongruous. Her hair was wild and silver, dangling over the abyss ad she reached out carefully with a brush on a long stick, swiping the spinning rotating iron arms, each weighted with a brass cylinder as they took their turns passing by her. She was a Builderist Nun, and therefore quite likely insane, and equally dangerous.
“Bat and bird droppings gum the works. And they cause discrepancies in the weight, getting the timing off” she explained to a question he had not asked.
He stayed rooted to the large oak timber he stood on, the dim dark floor of the old cathedral a world away. Still, some sort of conversation was required. “That’s a very old mechanism.. the clock” he said. “I’ve heard it’s one of the oldest in the city.”
“Oh verily yes, it’s a verge and follot. Dates back to.. oh maybe late Imperial even. Well maybe not. Damned if I know. I just keep it running. More accurate than you’d think. Only loses a few minutes a day.”
Despite his near-acrophobia he raised an eyebrow. “For that kind of escapement, that’s remarkable.”
She made a twist of her body, like becoming a wave, then snapped the rope above her and used the momentum of its return to push her a little towards him. She spun in the air, landing gracefully on slippers, softly on the beam beside him.
She laughed innocently, pleased with her landing. “When you build it right and maintain it well, age is no more than a factor to consider. What are you here for?”
The man put his monocle in place and took some forms out from a valise he’d been clutching carefully, “I’m from the city office. The census. I was told you’d be up here. Could we possibly complete this down on the floor?”
He looked back to the small cramped bronze contraption, looking more like a cage for some fabulously large bird than a man, which he’d been lifted up to by a bored sacristan downstairs. The monastic neither came up in it or down in it, of that he was sure. It felt somewhat humiliating to descend to earth now in the thing.
The old woman reached out her black brocaded sleeve and pale white hand for the papers “Let’s see it m’love.” she said. Her accent was Babbage with a hint of.. something. The census taker carefully handed over the papers.
She took them and flung them out under the vaulted arch ceiling “Happy day. Happy day!”
He looked out at his papers falling to earth like snow. “Madam-sister.. this is highly irregular. Illegal I think. I shall have to collect them and make sure there is nothing amiss.”
She tapped him in the chest at his fresh hot house flower pinned to his lapel. It was a painful jab, precise. His petals separated, and fell in turn. “You forget yourself, young bloom. The Church of the Builder is and always has been free of censure, census, and intrusive regulation, since centuries. We have an Imperial Charter.”
He guffawed “Madam these are modern times. Such charters, even if they ever existed, and I have no authority to admit that they did, have long since lost all legal power. We are a city state, the Emperors the stuff of bed time stories. We need a census to..”
She lifted a leg showing a shocking amount of ankle, that knitted slipper with a vulcanized rubber sole. She kicked him in the stomach, but not hard, just enough to shove him back into the cage before is knees turned to jelly and he lost his balance.
“Ayup” said the sacristan down below, pulling a lever and sending the terrified government clerk back to the old stones below.
She was cackling up above. “Take flight little bird. For I know what you heard. I have wrought thee from the nest oh young starling. Into the stars, yon ceaseless shining. The arc and angle of the Builder’s compass. Sing to me oh..” she carried on reciting scripture or making up verse. He had no idea.”
Another monastic he had not seen before was down on the ground, seemingly emerging from the shadows and the stones, walking up to his cage as he walked out of it. He was handed his paperwork neatly stacked.
“Accounted for. None missing.” the young man in more traditional black monk’s attire said.
And when he took the papers, the monk was gone, only the breeze and the shuttering of his papers belied the monk was still somewhere in the room.
Terrified the census taker fled the church, nearly knocking over a soup tureen outside left to feed the hungry.
When he got back to city hall to lodge a complaint to his supervisor, the older employees all had a laugh.
“The new fellow always has to go see the lady at the clockwork. It’s kind of a ritual.”
He got a few “there there” pats on his back.
“I still didn’t get their information.”
“Leave it.” the supervisor cautioned, staring intently over the pince-nez and across the desk lit by gas-lamp.
The census taker’s eyes widened, “what she said. There can’t still be an old charter like that.. can there.”
“Leave it.” the supervisor said. And he did.