The Clockwork Dagger (Excerpt)

Check out The Clockwork Dagger, an enchanting steampunk fantasy debut from Beth Cato, available September 16th from Harper Voyager!

Orphaned as a child, Octavia Leander was doomed to grow up on the streets until Miss Percival saved her and taught her to become a medician. Gifted with incredible powers, the young healer is about to embark on her first mission, visiting suffering cities in the far reaches of the war-scarred realm. But the airship on which she is traveling is plagued by a series of strange and disturbing occurrences, including murder, and Octavia herself is threatened.

Suddenly, she is caught up in a flurry of intrigue: the dashingly attractive steward may be one of the infamous Clockwork Daggers—the Queen’s spies and assassins—and her cabin-mate harbors disturbing secrets. But the danger is only beginning, for Octavia discovers that the deadly conspiracy aboard the airship may reach the crown itself.

 

 

Chapter One

 

Octavia Leander’s journey to her new source of employment was to be guided by three essential rules: that she hide her occupation, lest others take advantage; that she be frugal with her coin and avoid any indulgences that come with newfound independence; and that she shun the company of men, as nothing useful or proper is bound to happen.

Not ten feet from being let out of her carriage, Octavia was prepared to shatter Miss Percival’s most strongly advised first rule.

The dog was but a puppy, round tummy swaying and tail wagging. It had whirled in the middle of the busy roadway and then chased after a chugging steam car. Along the elevated wooden boardwalk on the other side of the road, a little girl cried, tears leaving clean streaks in the grey filth of her face. A broken leash draped from her hand. Even through the port side din of bells and motors and murmuring humanity, Octavia could hear the joyful barks of the puppy.

She also heard the sharp crunch and the guttural howl. Seconds later, the claxons and discordant notes of fresh trauma rang faintly in her ears.

Urgent healings of dogs and other small creatures, such as children, only invited grief. Miss Percival’s advice echoed in her mind. “You are a businesswoman, not a charity worker”

Those canine notes of pain pierced through any armor offered by rationality.

“Fiddlesticks,” Octavia muttered beneath her breath.

She glanced both ways. It was a busy avenue four lanes thick, the traffic a mixture of horses, steam cabriolets, and automated cycles, all of them stirring up a thick cloud of dust. The fumes stung her nose and burned in her eyes. She could no longer see the dog. No matter; the cry of fresh blood would call her forth. Octavia set her satchel atop her rolling case and strapped them together, then pulled forth her parasol. She flared it open to reveal cloth of brilliant blue with a white lace trim. Stabbing the parasol forward as a bright shield, she stepped into traffic.

A chorus of steam horns, like maddened geese, deafened her. A workman leaned out of his lorry and swore. Octavia refused to meet his eye. The wails of the body in need guided her around the backside of a cabriolet. She spied the filthy lump of mutt just ahead, not far from the fidgeting hooves of a drayman’s carriage.

“By Kethan’s bastards! Are you mad?” snarled the driver from his high seat. His body’s song burbled sour notes of infection.

Octavia didn’t deem him worthy of reply. In a graceful gesture, she shut the parasol and hooked it on her luggage strap. She snapped off her gloves and tucked them in a satchel pocket, then scooped up the fat pup. It whined and tried to struggle, the cries of its blood louder than the vocalizations. The dog’s side was caved in and bore the distinct narrow track of an automated cycle. Tucking the puppy against her hip, she strode towards the walkway, her suitcase bouncing with each rut. A few more horns blared, and then the rattle of traffic resumed.

On the boardwalk again, the reality of what she had done caused her knees to quiver. The puppy needed me, but I didn’t need to nearly kill myself in the process. Lady, what was I thinking?

Now here she was, burdened by luggage with a dying puppy on her hip, soiling her best new dress. Only new dress, actually. It was a good thing the cloth was a deep burgundy.

However foolish Octavia’s actions, Miss Percival’s first rule of travel still held true. Octavia couldn’t advertise the fact that she was a medician.

Shops and strolling merchants lined the boardwalk. Pedestrians swerved around Octavia and didn’t otherwise react to her presence, as though well-dressed young ladies often hauled about bleeding animals. So many bodies in proximity left her addled by the mad chorus of their bodies’ songs.

Her one certainty: the puppy was dying.

She glanced both ways and spied the dark recesses of an alley. Tugging her bags behind her, she found shelter in the shadows.

The space was tight, not ten feet across, with buildings towering high above. Rubbish bins and refuse almost blocked the way entirely. By the smell of the place, this was where chamber pots were dumped. Hardly a hygienic environment, but she had little choice. At least it was quiet.

Almost camouflaged by rotting bundles, a decomposing body sat in a collapsed huddle. The faded green clothes were standard Caskentian army attire. The posture reminded her of a child’s doll. The spine and head bowed forward to touch the lap, the legs and arms sprawled as if boneless. There was also a literal lack of bone—the legs were missing from the knees downward, maggot-smothered flesh exposed to the air. This had been a double amputee, a soldier. Whether he died by starvation or more insidious means, someone had stripped him of his mechanical legs and undoubtedly sold them for scrap. His soul was long since departed; there was no music, no hum.

The puppy squirmed against her. Urgency pushed her forward to the discarded chassis of a wagon.

She heaved her case up into the flatbed. The wood seemed relatively clean even if damp. Octavia set down the limp pup. She passed her hands over the extended staff of her umbrella. The fresh blood on her hands dried and fell away as dust. The copper of the staff was naturally antimicrobial, and radiant enchantments to kill zymes and eliminate excess body fluids took care of the rest. Her skin sanitized, she unstrapped her satchel.

Casting a glance to the windows above, she muttered, “Do you know the risk I’m taking, little pup? People are desperate, and angry, and I have so few herbs. I shouldn’t do this.”

Her fingers didn’t hesitate as she opened her bag to reveal clear jars with contents from vivid purple to sandy brown to powder white. She knew each jar by location, smell and sound, by how the contents spoke to her. A formal diagnosis wasn’t necessary; she knew she needed Bartholomew’s tincture and pampria to mend bone, flesh, and organ.

There were many herbs with natural healing properties that could be used in common doctoring, the stuff any illiterate goodwife could do, but only certain herbs could be utilized by the Lady with a medician as conduit.

With a flick of her wrist, Octavia opened the necessary jars. She undid the drawstring of the honeyflower pouch and scooped enough to spread it in a circle around the still puppy. Magical heat crackled beneath her fingertips as she touched the circle. The Lady was listening.

This was where it could be tricky. Would the dog understand what she asked of it and grant her permission to heal?

“Pray, by the Lady let me mend thy ills,” murmured Octavia, bringing her gold-tinted fingers to rest on the puppy’s head. The animal whined. She sensed the way easing, the conduit opening. Discordant music flared in her ears even louder than before. She hadn’t healed a trauma this severe since armistice.

Armistice—whatever that meant. As if the fighting between Caskentia and the Waste ever truly stopped. I can’t stop the conflict, but I can mend this dog. That is something. To that sobbing little girl, it may be everything.

First, to knit the bones that crushed against the poor beast’s lungs. She pinched out the soft white powder of Bartholomew’s tincture and tossed it over the bloody mess of the dog’s ribs. The enchanted herb was absorbed in an instant. The puppy grunted, releasing a sharp breath. The off-key tubas within the music went mute.

Next for the organs and flesh. She pinched pampria from its jar and extended her hand over the puppy. The image of the puppy filled her mind, of how it looked pleasant, plump, and intact only minutes before. The presence of the Lady dwelled on Octavia, warm and heavy, as the coarse red herb drifted to the dog below. Soft light traced the puppy’s body then faded to nothing.

The music altered to follow the rhythm of a heartbeat, the body of instruments almost synchronized. Octavia un-stoppered a final jar. Using a small spoon, she dipped out a few globules of soaked Linsom berries. They were absorbed in an instant as new lines of red, healed skin emerged beneath the crust of blood. No fur, but that would grow back in time.

“Thank you, Lady, for extending your branches.” Octavia bowed her head as a sense of sadness weighed on her again. Profoundly blessed by the Lady; profoundly isolated by most everyone else. Five minutes spared for this healing. Other girls might have prayed for an hour for the same results, and none could hear the song of a body outside of an active circle.

She brushed her hands against the soft grains of honeyflower. The music vanished, the circle broken. The healed puppy emitted only the faintest of tones, all in tune and easy to ignore. She brushed away the evidence of the honeyflower into the slants of the wagon bed.

The puppy craned its head as if to examine itself, tail already thudding a steady beat. Octavia smiled. Under normal circumstances, she would remove the blood and leave her patient looking as good as new. Here, it was best for the dog to appear unhealed and graced with a light wound.

Out of curiosity, Octavia peeked beneath the tail. A young boy-pup. Perhaps that explained his lack of judgment. She snorted and shook her head. As if I was any smarter as I bounded into the street.

She packed up to leave. A sudden ache in her left forearm caused her to pause. “Lady, already? It’s only been a few days,” she murmured.

With another glance up and down the alley, she unbuttoned her sleeve at the wrist and pulled it halfway to her elbow. She unwound the inch-wide bandage to reveal the plug of cantham wax over her wound. The wax sealed the incision, but also prevented it from healing.

Octavia peeled back the wax. Blood immediately welled along the fingernail-sized cut, and she angled her arm so it dripped between the wagon slats to the dirt below. The pressure in her arm eased, blood slowing, as a single blade of grass thrust up through the gap in the wood. Her offering was accepted. Quickly, she reapplied the wax and wrapped the bandage, then grabbed the puppy before he made a mad dash for freedom.

“Let’s go find your owner,” she said, standing with the wiggling puppy cradled against her hip again.

The decomposing body still slouched amidst the trash. She paused to stare. The bustling street was no more than a dozen feet away.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, pressing a fist to her chest. Sorry he had died like this; sorry that the alley vermin would steal away his flesh until there was no more. “Lady, I pray you granted him mercy in those final moments.”

She walked on. If anything, her experience in the war taught her to acknowledge the dead and not linger, or the countless corpses would consume her days.

Octavia crossed the street at the corner. The merchants along that side of the road looked to be shut down, and the shade of the walkway had become a lane of shanties. Most of the occupants seemed to be women and children, some of them gathered around a horse trough to scrub their threadbare clothes against slatted washing boards.

Ten years ago, I was like them. Orphaned. Hungry. The days a blur of sadness, cold, and the overwhelming discordance of humanity in ill repair—until Miss Percival saved me.

A disruptive hum rang in Octavia’s ears, though not as loud as the fresh blood of trauma. The notes came as no surprise. Sniffing, she detected the heady sweetness that was the signature of pox, as bodies exuded fluid from countless pores.

I don’t have enough herbs to save them all. If I stop, if I try, they will riot. They will tear me apart with their need. Lady, help me.

Tears beaded her lashes. Stiff-legged, she wound through refugees tainted with imminent death, and finally spied the girl who had held the dog’s leash.

The child’s face was still streaked clean with tears. Her jaw dropped at the sight of the puppy. “You found him!”

The puppy wiggled as Octavia handed him over. Warm coziness filled her chest. She had done the right thing, even with the risk considered.

A rail-thin woman stood behind the girl. “You thank the lady,” she said, her face hawkish and severe. “You thank her for saving you from that beating your pa woulda given once he got back.”

The girl lowered in a clumsy curtsy. “Oh, thank you, ma’am,” she said. “Now we won’t go hungry tonight and Pa won’t beat me or nothing.” Her eyes shone, bright and happy.

Octavia’s smile froze on her face. She thought to reply, and instead bobbed her head and backed away. I’m a fool. A puppy that plump couldn’t be a pet. The dog probably weighed almost as much as the child. It had undoubtedly been stolen to serve as their dinner.

The wheels of her case thudded on the uneven boards. She then realized the intensity of the gazes on her, her new dress, the bags hauled behind her.

It’s not as if Octavia had much in the way of material goods, either; she barely had enough coins for her trip. It would be a blessing to arrive in Leffen in several days, where money promised by Miss Percival waited for her in an account. Even so, Octavia had far more to her name than this sorry lot.

She crossed the street again, her pace brisk. The attention of the refugees weighed on her.

At the next street corner, she reached for the watch at her waist and fumbled open the case. It was ten till ten. Her eyes widened. Her airship left at the half hour.

She glanced back a final time. The two sides of the street seemed to exist across a great divide, but she heard their songs. Everyone suffered. Too many stomachs groaned, too many agonies went untreated.

Lady, help them. I can’t.She steeled herself and turned away.

Octavia entered the flow of hurried pedestrians, her eyes on the bulge of airship balloons visible between the high-peaked roofs.

 

The heavy, cloying odor of enchanted aether dwelled over the docks as heavily as the dust. Men were everywhere, yelling, walking, driving lorries. A few scattered women seemed out of place, too colorful against the drabness of sooty work clothes and suited businessmen.

Octavia paused along the walkway, gasping for breath as she stared up at the boarding masts. There had to be at least thirty of them, each resembling a lighthouse made of battered chrome. Most of the towers were vacant at the top. No surprise there. The Caskentian government had seized or declared privateer the best airships for use during the war. However, that still left a solid half mile of airships and masts.

The first mast had been altered into a giant clock. She gave it a double-take, just to ascertain the time again, and noted thick black bundles attached at each quarter hour. A sign in the center of the clock’s face read, “WASTE NOT“ in elegant calligraphy. She took in the size of the bundles, and the rough shape. The lowest one, suspended beneath the 6, had been shredded at the bottom, revealing skeletal feet.

The bundles were bodies, convicted collaborators of the Waste. No one else gave the clock a second glance. A few children played in its shadow.

“Oh, Lady,” she murmured. Displays of the executed were common at the front. The bodies of deserters would be strung on poles along an avenue. It was for morale, or so commanders said. Morale. It was for fear, fear to force their unwilling conscripts to stay. The same reason these bodies existed, suspended on time itself.

How many of these dead were truly Wasters? Few or none, likely. True Wasters were survivalists, hunters. They wouldn’t be caught so easily, nor would they give up on their war, no matter what the armistice declared.

Wasters wanted independence, and claimed it was Caskentia’s fault their land was blighted nothingness. As if Caskentia were to blame for the high peaks of the Pinnacles and the rain shadow on the other side! The Wasters’ demands were endless: for their blighted land to officially be known as the Dallows, rights to irrigate from the mountains, etcetera—and most ludicrous of all, a cure to the magicked curse on their prairie.

Caskentia couldn’t even cure itself. Its currency was worthless, its populace starving. The Queen, her council and Daggers stayed locked away in the palace, safe and secure, as slaughter continued by hunger and disease.

Octavia bent to her satchel and tugged out her boarding pass. Her eyes scanned both sides. A most unfeminine growl escaped her throat and she was half-inclined to ball up the pamphlet in frustration. It didn’t list a mast number.

Cities. Stinky, confusing, crowded, dead bodies all about. Lady, help me escape this accursed place.

“Oy, you need a porter?” piped up a voice. She smelled the boy before she saw him—he was dust personified, a golem of old in the form of a prepubescent child. She couldn’t even discern his hair color under the muck.

“Oh, thank you. I’m looking for the Argus. Can you perhaps show the way?”

He thrust out a grubby palm. She stared into it, blinking. Was he supposed to take her by the hand? It seemed strangely intimate.

His hand jerked back. “Hey, what’s yer game?” he snarled.

“My game?”

“What, you think I be doin’ this for free?” His facial expression turned outright feral, dark eyes glittering against his browned face.

“Oh,” Octavia said quietly as the boy shoved his way back into the crowds. She had so little money that even if she had known his desire, she might have resisted. Her light breakfast soured in her stomach. So far, her first morning of independence had been one disaster after another.

She continued onward, her case rolling with rhythmic ka-thunks along the wooden boardwalk. Her head craned and eyes narrowed, she could make out some of the craft names high upon their hulls. Some were wooden constructs, like a seafaring vessel, with the balloon suspended above; others had the craft built into the balloon itself. Was “balloon“ even the proper term? Octavia didn’t know. She knew very little, apparently. Miss Percival had bought the ticket and hadn’t told Octavia exactly what sort of ship she would spend the week on.

“I should have asked,” she muttered. She should’ve asked many things, but Miss Percival likely wouldn’t have answered, anyway.

Sadness stabbed at her chest again.

If she missed her flight, what would happen then? Could she get a refund? She didn’t have enough money for another airship booking. Perhaps barely enough for a hotel.

After a few more days, I won’t need to fuss about cities or worry about finances, not for a long time. Delford will be a quiet village, peaceful. They need me. After I aid their recovery from the Waster poisoning, it’ll be a place where the bird song is louder than the claxons of bodies in agony.

“Pardon me, m’lady, but you seem lost.” A musical, deep baritone caused her to turn. A man stood inches away in steward’s garb. His crimson jacket was right at her eye level, with double-rows of gold buttons fit across a rather broad chest. It looked reminiscent of an old military uniform, complete with glimmering epaulets. However, the attire had been in use for some years. White threadbare streaks radiated from the buttons and the epaulets had only haphazard gold fringe. All that she absorbed in an instant.

Then she looked up at his face.

His skin was the color of nutmeg, unblemished and tight. The skin color denoted him as Tamaran, from that nation of science and logic far to the south. But most of all, his hair drew her eye. Drawn into a leather queue, his thick mane had the texture of a black silk kerchief balled in a fist and set to dry. It lay against his shoulder like a cat’s poufy tail. She could imagine the texture of the rippling kinky strands beneath her fingers.

“Oh.” With a start, she realized she was gawking as if she hadn’t seen a man before. She had seen plenty, and naked at that. Albeit, the copious amounts of blood and gore were a sufficient turn off. “Oh, um, I’m looking for the Argus. If you can help, I do have a copper.”

Oh, you ninny.She would have withheld her coin from a beggar child yet volunteered it to the first man who smiled her way.

Such a pleasant smile it was, too—brilliant white against his darker skin. He even had all his front teeth. “Do not trouble yourself. I am going that way as well.” He jutted out an elbow.

Now this was a proper gentleman, complete with a lilting Mercian accent. Octavia hooked her arm around his.

“Shall I take your bags?” he asked.

Her smile froze on her face. “Oh, no. I’m quite fine, thank you.” Too many lives depend on that satchel. Touch it, and you’ll get a face full of capsicum.

He bowed his head in acknowledgment as they began to walk. She had the urge to close her eyes and listen to the soft music of the man beside her. He was healthy, his body fairly quiet. And yet… something was missing.

All medicians—even Miss Percival—required a circle to hear the music of a body in need. At the academy, it hadn’t taken Octavia long to realize how profoundly different she was, and how others responded to those difference.

This man was different from most of the others around, too. Half of his right leg was gone.

His knee was intact, but below that, his body was silent. There were physical signs as well—the mechanical extension was heavier than flesh, and he compensated with the slightest tilt of his torso and drag of his leg. The fact that he didn’t limp was noteworthy. Whoever designed the leg had the light hand of a master.

“Have you been in the city long?” asked her cicerone.

“No. Only a half hour or so, and I’m quite ready to leave. I much prefer the country.”

He glanced both ways and led her into the avenue. “This is nothing compared to Mercia. Have you been there, m’lady?”

“No, sir. I’ll visit there by airship this week.” A night in Mercia will be enough. I can say I’ve been there and never return.

He grunted. “’Tis a beautiful place in many ways, especially along the bay and the palace quarter, but the quagmire of exhaust and humanity corrodes the spirit with utter swiftness.”

She cast curious eyes on him. “That’s quite poetic.” And exactly how I feel.

“Is that such a surprise, for a man in my position to manage a few pretty words?” A gap in his coat revealed itself along a shoulder seam, showing a flash of a lighter red satin lining. He regarded her solemnly, head tilted to one side. “Forgive my forwardness, but ’tis dangerous for a lady to travel alone, especially to Mercia. You truly intend to travel by airship, by yourself?”

Oh, no. He did not go there.

Octavia stopped in her tracks, finger pointed towards his chest. “Please, don’t tell me you are one of those men who believes women should be treated like porcelain roses, brought down for an occasional dusting and public display.” She’d had enough of that pompous attitude from men at the front. If she could patch a ruptured bowel, she could walk across a street by herself, thank you very much. “I may need help navigating this strange city, but I am quite capable of making this journey on my own.”

He raised both hands in supplication. “If you are a rose, m’lady, ’tis to your advantage to have thorns.” She had expected more bluster, or chagrin. Instead, his words were sober and his gaze even. “Some lives attract more danger than others. This North Country around Vorana—I confess, I have visited here only for port calls, but it strikes me as a pleasant place, one worth staying in.”

Oh, Lady, if only I could. “If you’re not willing to help me, sir, then I’ll continue on my own.”

“No. Forgive me for speaking out of turn. I will escort you, and gladly. I am simply—I am simply weary of people being hurt by Mercia and its ways.”

She inclined her head to indicate agreement, but didn’t hold his arm quite so close.

They approached a mooring tower, its sides bearing a painted ad for Royal-Tea with its mimicry of the crown logo as depicted on coins. Swirling calligraphy boasted, “For vitality! For health! For crown!“ along with the smiling face of a tow-headed girl, a can of the tea held at her cheek.

“This is the Argus.” He motioned towards the airship attached to the tower of tea advertisements.

Octavia had seen a good many dirigibles at camp, but never from so close. The balloon extended for some 75 feet, the cloth dulled silver. Only the pilot’s nest peeped from the front; the rest of the cabin was within the hull. The lower part of the balloon was lined with windows and fluttering crimson swags cut in long triangles. The scent of dust was pushed aside by the increasingly heavy odor of aether-enchanted helium. By the intensity, she surmised some aether magi were at work nearby.

“The ship is rather…” She searched for a polite word.

“Dingy?” There was that grin again. Pale, icy blue eyes seemed to twinkle. That eye color was most definitely not a stock hereditary feature of Tamarania. Nor was the twinkling.

“I hoped for a more courteous adjective,” Octavia said.

“Most anything docked here could be described in a less courteous way. All of these airships are over forty years old. I believe the Argus was acquired by the military for use as a transport in the last war.”

“It’s a wonder the vessel was returned, considering…” How the military treated the expendable. Not a thought to finish out loud.

Miss Percival’s face flashed in her mind, so recently aged and wrinkled, her head bowed over financial figures at lamplight. Caskentia hadn’t paid the academy for its services at the front. Miss Percival would do most anything to keep the school open and the girls in good care.

She looked past her guide to the base of the tower. “I see the ticket agent is still boarding. My gratitude to you, sir…? I don’t believe I ever heard your name.”

“I had not given it, m’lady. The name is Alonzo Garret.” He bowed again, that magnificent hair draping forward.

Icy horror clenched her in place. A Tamaran, and so few of them lived this far north. The last name of Garret.

“Of relation to the General Solomon Garret?” she said, doing her utmost to keep her tone mild.

He stood tall again. Something had stiffened in his face, his eyes now unwilling to meet hers. “Very few people make note of that name these days, m’lady, after the heroism of the recent war. Solomon Garret was my father.”

“Thank you again,” she murmured. She yanked her suitcase along the cobbles of the port, walking towards the ticket line with all the world blurred around her.

His father. Of course. No wonder he had been knowledgeable of airships.

She had just spoken with the son of the man who killed her parents.

 


The Clockwork Dagger © Beth Cato, 2014

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