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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

In the Spotlight! The Clockwork Crown (Clockwork Dagger #2) by Beth Cato

Genre: Steampunk

Rich in atmosphere, imagination, and fun, the action-packed, magic-filled sequel to The Clockwork Dagger is an enchanting steampunk fantasy, evocative of the works of Trudi Canavan and Gail Carriger.

Narrowly surviving assassination and capture, Octavia Leander, a powerful magical healer, is on the run with handsome Alonzo Garrett, the Clockwork Dagger who forfeited his career with the Queen’s secret society of spies and killers—and possibly his life—to save her. Now, they are on a dangerous quest to find safety and answers: Why is Octavia so powerful? Why does she seem to be undergoing a transformation unlike any witnessed for hundreds of years?

The truth may rest with the source of her mysterious healing power—the Lady’s Tree. But the tree lies somewhere in a rough, inhospitable territory known as the Waste. Eons ago, this land was made barren and uninhabitable by an evil spell, until a few hardy souls dared to return over the last century. For years, the Waste has waged a bloody battle against the royal court to win its independence—and they need Octavia’s powers to succeed.

Joined by unlikely allies, including a menagerie of gremlin companions, she must evade killers and Clockwork Daggers on a dangerous journey through a world on the brink of deadly civil war.

IN THE SERIES


CHAPTER ONE

As she rode through the snowy wilderness of far southern Caskentia, Octavia Leander's spirits were buoyed by three thoughts: that although she fled from assassination and capture, she was undoubtedly in one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen; that thus far they had survived a full week without any sign of pursuit by horse or buzzer; and that her companion in the hard journey was Alonzo Garret, a man who had forfeited his career as a Clockwork Dagger--and possibly his life--in order to keep her alive.
Considering the dire circumstances, he made for delightful company.
Alonzo rode ahead on a chestnut bay stallion, their gray pack horse following close behind. This far from civilization, the world was utterly quiet but for the jingling of tack, the horses' breathing and the steady rhythm of their hooves, and the radiant life songs of the horses, Alonzo, and any wildlife within close range. In particular, she took comfort in the ever-present marching band brasses of Alonzo's life essence; she would recognize his particular notes in any crowd.
Since childhood, she had known people's and animals' health woes by their music, but only in a generic sense. She didn't hear specifics unless they had an open wound or she placed the patient in a circle to ask for the Lady's direct intervention.
The Lady's Tree moored its roots to the very spirit of the earth. Through the Tree, Octavia could heal with prowess beyond any other known medician. Lately, however, the Lady's magic had changed. Octavia had changed. Her power through the Lady had increased, and Octavia wasn't sure if it was truly for the better.
As if he sensed her attention, Alonzo glanced back. A Waster's fur-fringed hood framed his face and contrasted with the warm nutmeg tone of his skin. A coarse black beard lined his jaw. His song was ragged in weariness, his heart steady in its anxiety. His mechanical leg--though masterfully designed--could not help but grind the joint against his flesh below his knee. She had treated him with pampria and heskool root over the past few days to ward against infection. His leg pained him again now, but even so, his smile to her was tender. Heat bloomed in her own chest, along with a sense of terrible sadness.
She had told Alonzo that she wanted to search the famed libraries of the southern nations to find out where the Lady's Tree may be found. Alonzo knew that Octavia sought a greater understanding of her own magic through the Lady, but he didn't know of all the ways that her power was changing. Or how it terrified her.
How had Octavia's blood, combined with a true branch from the Lady's Tree, caused a massive tree to grow temporarily? That tree had acted in her defense and torn apart the men of the Waste who had tried to hold her captive. The branch that had done that was now tied to her saddlebag. It was green as if freshly cut, and hummed with life like any person or animal.
Then there had been the moment after she had pulled Alonzo from the edge of death. She had kissed him, and with the touch of her lips she had gone beyond her knowledge of his body's song. It was as if she had become immersed in his very soul, that she could pry apart his body's instruments and manipulate his health without any restrictions from the Lady's herbs.
That had frightened her even more than the persistent threats of both Caskentia and the Waste.
A flock of birds fluttered overhead, anxiety driving them as if they were pursued. Octavia craned around. The sky was a blanket of gray, the wind sharpened by early winter.
"What’s the matter?" called Alonzo.
"Something alarmed the birds."
"To the trees, quickly."
Their horses pounded down the hill, the action reverberating through her constantly-aching leg muscles. Thin snow sloshed underfoot. The forest welcomed them with a slap of branches and a shower of pine needles and ice. Roads had been scarce, signs of humanity scarcer. A good thing, in truth, though the long days of slow progress had permanently imprinted the saddle's curve into her backside.
"We should be nearing the Caskentian border. 'Tis a likely place for patrols to be wary for us." Alonzo reined up.
Octavia listened past the songs of wildlife around her. "I hear a buzzer." That's what I get for counting my blessings. I jinxed us.
"Yes. He is likely flying amongst the low clouds. Our tracks are bold on the snow." Alonzo pressed his horse onward, staying in the trees. She followed, brush scraping her legs. Trees crowded close. 
Because of the unusual strength of Octavia's skills, the settlers of the rogue territory known as the Waste had sought to capture her and use her against Caskentia. The Caskentian royal court, true to form, caught wind of this plot and thought the tidiest solution was Octavia's death.
She had known all her life that her government was as rotten as unsalted meat left out on a summer afternoon--the sort that looks fine to eat, and makes you pray for a merciful end hours later--but she had never expected them to send Clockwork Daggers to assassinate her. But Alonzo Garret, in the guise of an airship steward, had refused to carry out his assigned task.
"It could just be normal Caskentian border patrol, right? Perhaps they don't know to look for us?"
The buzzer roared overhead. Alonzo looked up with a grimace. "'Tis my hope that our feint will last longer, but I dare not be too positive. Our circuitous route has taken us a week. By now they are well aware of what transpired aboard the Argus and have tracked the Wasters' trail to where we did battle. If they suspect we are alive and free, our choices of destination are few."
"Well, we certainly couldn't go to the Waste, though that's where most criminals would flee. That leaves the southern nations as the obvious choice."
"An obvious choice, but not the only. There is always Mercia. 'Tis a warren. A person could lose their own shadow in those environs, and within a stone's throw of the palace."
And many stones are being thrown that way, I'm sure, knowing how people feel about Queen Evandia.
Mercia was Caskentia's capital, a sprawling city of half a million, a place of countless factories and miserable refugees. Octavia had never been there--never wished to go there, with its reputation for foul air, sickness, and utter lack of vegetation. Such denseness of humanity was the stuff of her nightmares; considering how she could hear Alonzo's song now, she dreaded to think of what it would be like to be surrounded by the starving and sick.
No trees lay ahead. Alonzo sucked in a sharp breath and reined up. "Damn."
She knew it had to be bad if he used that sort of language in front of her. She drew up alongside him. "What is--? Oh."
They had reached the end of Caskentia.
The ravine had to be some five hundred feet across, the basin of it far beyond sight. Sedimentary layers rippled in various tones of red and brown. On the far side, and further south, steam clouds billowed into the chilly afternoon. "Factories," Alonzo said. "There are said to be many on their side of the border."
"I don't see any signs of bridges or roads."
Alonzo cast a grim glance at the sky. The sound of the buzzer had faded again. "No, and if there are, they will be well-guarded. The southern nations have taken in many Caskentian refugees, but with restrictions."
"If all the unemployed and starving fled Caskentia, there'd be scarcely anyone left."
"Indeed."
They urged their horses to trot into the woods parallel to the ravine. The horses knew their anxiety; it showed in their quickened hearts and flickering ears. Octavia stroked her mare again. The white horse appeared delicate with her tapered legs and quick stride, but had revealed incredible endurance and a steady temperament over their long trek. Octavia's growing fondness for the mare was bothersome.
I must resist naming her. Maybe that will make our eventual parting that much easier--a lesson I should have learned with Leaf.
The thought of the little gremlin caused her to glance up in case she might see him for the first time in a week. Birds cawed, but there were no mews or chitters from man-made biological constructs.
The trees thinned out and showed open ground to the west. With another wary look to the clouds, they rode into the open. Clicking her tongue, Octavia encouraged her horse to gallop. Melted snow created thick mud that spattered her legs and chest; the enchantment on her robes would wick away the filth within minutes. Another stand of trees loomed a quarter mile away.
That high mechanical buzz returned to the clouds.
Octavia lifted herself higher in the stirrups, crouching low over the horse's neck. Mane lashed her face. She gritted her teeth against the burning tension in her thighs.
Alonzo looked over his shoulder. His hood had blown flat against his back, his bound hair blowing out like a miniature horse's tail. His mouth was a hard line. She almost expected for the buzzer to be mounted with an automated gun like the one that pursued them in the marsh outside of Leffen, for gunfire to follow them into the woods. They slowed as they entered the tree cover. Alonzo wheeled around. The buzzing grew louder yet.
With a grunt, he heaved himself out of the saddle. Octavia scrambled to do the same, and landed just in time to provide him with an arm for extra balance. His half-leg warbled with strain. Octavia grabbed both bridles.
"My thanks," he said. His walk was stiff as he headed toward the edge of the woods.
"What are you doing?"
"I want to get a good look at the pilot." He unholstered the Gadsden .45 from his belt.
"That's a particular kind of look. This--this likely isn't a Clockwork Dagger. It's probably just a soldier."
"A soldier must perform his duty. Our whereabouts will be reported." His expression carried both regret and resolve. He walked on.
Alonzo had reminded her more than once that Caskentia would pursue them across the border. That land across the ravine was their destination for the sake of information, not as a haven.
She calmed both horses, shushing and rubbing their muzzles as if she could soothe herself as well. This pilot would be like any of the thousands she had tended at the front--a boy who simply drew a bad billet this morning.
The gunshot jolted her and the horses.
She turned as Alonzo fired again. He had crouched at the tree line.
"'Tis going down," he said.
Treetops snapped in the canopy above as the craft roared by. As awed as she was by his marksmanship, her stomach twisted with guilt. Another life lost because of us. Lady, be with the pilot. Show him mercy at the end, please.
"Come! Let us follow."
Grief gnawed at her as they rode through the woods. "Octavia." Alonzo seemed to read her thoughts. "With fair winds and a good engine, 'tis a mere two days from Mercia to the southern nations. If he landed and relayed a telegraph, our odds would be more dismal by the hour."
"If the pilot's hurt--" The whine of the buzzer continued, though the sound did not seem further away. Odd.
"You know the state of your supplies better than I."
Octavia grimaced. The deplorable state. After her brief journey on the Argus, she was low on everything except wet Linsom berries to restore skin. Her most vital herb, pampria, was very low, and though she had a full bag of the dry herb she had had no chance to grind any.
"I'll try to use discretion," she said. Alonzo arched an eyebrow, clearly not believing she was capable of such a thing.
The buzzer had landed in a small clearing, engine on and roaring. Alonzo dismounted, gun drawn. Octavia followed suit, but her first priority was to untie her satchel from the saddle bag. Only with that secured across her torso, bandolier-style, did she reach for the gun in her trench coat pocket. It was one of the Waster's pistols, the cross-hatching on the grip almost worn smooth by use. She took both reins as Alonzo edged forward.
The buzzer's motor revved at full speed, the propeller a blur of movement atop its eight-foot pole.  The base resembled a somewhat flattened tricycle, all three wheels resting on the ground. The pilot had slumped over in the single seat.
"Alonzo. He's dead." From thirty feet away, she knew. His blood still wailed with its need to live, though the instruments of the full body had already been rendered mute. Octavia clenched and unclenched her fists. I have the tree leaves, but... I can't. I can't. I can't heal everyone willy-nilly. Lady, please let this person deserve this fate.
In her apron pocket, she kept four leaves from the tree that had grown from her own blood. A fifth leaf had already been used to return Alonzo from death. According to legend, all aspects of the Lady's Tree were embodied with incredible healing powers: the leaves, to bring back the recently dead; the bark, as a healing balm; the seeds, to resurrect the fully deceased.
Alonzo still advanced with care to check on the man. "Indeed," he said. "He lived long enough to make a proper landing, and only that."
He unstrapped the pilot and dragged him from the seat. The man wore a full brown leather suit, Caskentian standard for pilots. Octavia looked away and mouthed a prayer.
A few minutes later, Alonzo spoke again. "I found his papers. He is indeed a border monitor, though he is far beyond the normal route for his patrol. This bodes ill."
Everything about this bodes ill. She blinked up at the bleary sky. Clouds had plagued them in recent days. Winter's full brunt loomed far too close for comfort.  
Something glinted up on high.
"Alonzo!" She yelled to be heard over the propeller. "This isn't the only buzzer!"
"Grab my bag!"
She rushed to his saddlebag. A few motions and she had his hefty pack unbuckled. She could hear the new buzzer over the landed craft.
"Octavia!" Alonzo's voice was sharp. "Hurry!"
She released both reins and dashed for the buzzer. It was a one-seater. Alonzo had wedged himself as far forward as possible in the cockpit, hunched over the small dashboard. She tossed him his bag and then, hiking up her skirts, she climbed in behind him.
Thank the Lady my medician uniform utilizes trousers, not just bloomers.
Even so, it was an intimate fit. She drew the restraining strap across her chest. Her satchel bulged out just over the lip of the cockpit, her attached parasol jutting out at an awkward angle. Alonzo shoved his bag back to her and she somehow managed to wedge it beneath her right leg. Her knees hitched up near Alonzo's shoulder blades. She frowned. The seat felt warm. Blood. Of course. It was quiet now, cooled and apart from its body.
Alonzo's body shifted as he worked the controls. She squeaked as the buzzer bounced in place.
"Never flown these newer models," he yelled.
"That's hardly a comfort. Do you have a restraining strap?"
"No."
Being packed as tight as sardines should keep him secure enough. It had better.
"Oh, Lady," she muttered as the craft lurched upward. Her stomach threatened to rise higher than the rest of her body. Vibrations shivered through her, chattering her teeth, the motions far more immediate and violent than the engine of any train or airship. She couldn't help but clench Alonzo with both knees as they rose to treetop level and higher.
The green, gray, and white horizon tipped drunkenly. Alonzo had donned the dead pilot's hat and goggles. His hair and the helmet's leather straps whipped her in the face, so she leaned close enough to rest a cheek on his back, which also cut out some of the biting wind. She was no nesh to complain of the chill--the army encampment at the northern pass had many a soldier freeze to death on duty overnight--but sweet Lady, it was cold.
The buzzer leveled out and turned. The dome of the sky reminded her of the swirls in a polished stone. She had a glimpse of the black dot of the other buzzer and then they angled south. She only knew that because of the massive ravine. It was just as well they had a buzzer, as there was still no bridge in sight. She glanced down, awed at the ravine's depth.
We're out of Caskentia. Under different circumstances, she might have felt relieved.
She pictured the continent she knew from maps and matched it with the topography below. Caskentia, a long valley tucked against the western coast. This ravine formed the southern border. Here, the land of Tamarania tapered in a jagged peninsula with the collective southern nations at the tip. To the far north of Caskentia lay Frengia, a country known for its endless forests and bitter cold. The high peaks of the Pinnacles formed Caskentia's natural eastern border, though Caskentia had for centuries claimed ownership of the sprawling plains beyond the mountains: the Waste.
Many centuries ago, the Waste had been known as the Dallows. Then something changed--according to the Wasters, Caskentia had laid a magicked curse on the land. Whatever the reason, it became an inhospitable wasteland. Only in the past hundred years had the terrain been settled again--and half of the time since had been devoted to a near-constant war for independence from Caskentia.
War is all we know, all we've known since my grandparents' time. No wonder Caskentia thinks it's best to kill me. It's their easiest solution for any problem.
Alonzo yelled something that was lost against the wind and engine. She leaned forward. Even with the bite and clarity of the air, he exuded that particular masculine ripeness that couldn't be helped after a week and a half without baths.
"Watch that buzzer!" He had to yell it three more times before she discerned what he was saying.
Octavia craned around in the seat to check. "Far away! Staying on Caskentia side!" she yelled right into his ear. Alonzo nodded.
"More military, then!"
Caskentia knew they were alive. Knew where they were. The buzzer might not cross in their pursuit, but plenty more threats awaited them on the ground.
Oh, Lady. I'm a medician. I want a quiet cottage with an atelier, a garden, and woods for gleaning. I don't want any of this attention. The icy wind blasted tears from her eyes and dried them upon her cheeks. The warmth of the dead man's blood was utterly gone. Her warded uniform absorbed it.
Tall steam plumes stroked the gray sky up ahead. Alonzo aimed directly for them. Some civilization might be a good thing. Perhaps they could buy horses. There was still a good bit of wilderness to travel until they reached the city-states.
The buzzer dipped. Octavia yelped and flung an arm out to protect her satchel. Snow-crested pines crowded the ground below.
Trees. A realization struck her like a slap to the face. The blessed branch of the Lady's Tree. She had left it tied to her mare's saddle.
Octavia moaned and pressed her forehead to Alonzo's back. Of all the stupid, foolish things. A holy icon, something that had actively assisted in saving their lives, and she left it behind. Lost it. Over the past week, she had toyed with the thought of planting it in the ground again to harvest more leaves, but it had never happened. She was always too bone-tired after each long day in the saddle, and more than that, she was afraid of what might happen. The tree had been vicious before. It killed men. It tried to physically grab her and force her to the safety of its branches. It was an aspect of the Lady, but nothing like the Lady who Octavia thought she understood and worshipped. The grieving mother. The protector of the lost. The balm for any ill. The entity whose vines ripped the leg from a living Waster and dragged the limb across the dirt, like a dog toying with a bone.
Now the branch was gone. The only other one she knew of was in the palace vault in Caskentia, protected behind blood-magicked wards that only the true royal bloodline could penetrate.
Then there was the actual Tree, hidden somewhere in the Waste.
She worked a hand to Alonzo's ribs and clutched him as tightly as she could, as if she could siphon his strength. The buzzer bobbed again.
"... Problem!" he yelled.
"What?"
"First bullet--maybe did not miss."
It took her a few seconds to decode what he meant. The buzzer dropped. Something shifted in its high, obnoxious whine. Oh Lady, they were going to crash.
She held onto him tighter for a whole new reason. The old fears flowed over her again. Fire. The crash of the Alexandria. My parents. The village. The screams of blood, bodies, horses. Me, twelve years of age, utterly alone.
She countered her fear with reality--the gas tank of the buzzer was small and would most likely sear their lower bodies, as it had burned her would-be assassin in a buzzer crash the week before. He had survived, though in agony.
Besides, from here it looked far more likely they'd crash straight into the woods. Ah yes. That's much preferable to immolation.
Alonzo's elbow angled back and he laid his hand atop hers, briefly, before taking full grip of the controls again. She breathed through her terror as she did in her Al Cala meditations. Alonzo's father had created the buzzer. Alonzo had experience in piloting. He could do this.
He guided them lower and lower. Growls and odd hiccups interrupted the steady buzz. He wound them between several massive pines, so close she could hear the life thrum of startled birds, and then they were in the open. She gasped in relief. A meadow stretched before them, factories beyond. She almost closed her eyes but couldn't.
With a final, desperate wheeze, the engine stopped completely.
This was no airship with momentum behind it. The rotor seized. They dropped in the space of a gasp.
Metal met dirt with a violent crunch. The impact jarred through her legs and spine. Her head snapped back against the seat. Alonzo's body followed, crushing her like meat in a pressed sandwich. She listened. She knew the terror in his heart, the rush of adrenaline, how the force and pressure of gravity roiled through his body. But he was well. As well as she was, in any case.
Then she heard something more--the trickling of liquid.
"Petrol!" Alonzo shoved himself off of her.
Octavia didn't need further motivation. Her trembling hands managed to unlatch the restraints. Alonzo already had hold of his bag and leaped out. He pivoted to give her a helping hand. Her black coat snagged on debris and ripped, but that didn't slow her exit in the slightest. She stumbled into a run, gasping for breath. The saturated grassland sloshed underfoot. Her satchel slapped against her hip. Alonzo led her halfway across the meadow before he dropped to his knees on a dry rise. She fell beside him. His eyes grazed over her, worried, and she offered him a nod. His blue eyes crinkled in relief.
"Well, then!" Alonzo sat up, hands on his hips as he panted heavily. "Welcome to Tamarania and the southern nations."

###

Even though Caskentia had done its utmost to kill her, it still somewhat unnerved Octavia to be in a different country for the first time, and for it to be Tamarania of all places. Everyone spoke of the southern nations in such glowing terms: cities where people didn't starve, libraries abounded, and every child was guaranteed free schooling until age twelve. Plus, the region was known for its importation of cocoa and its numerous chocolatiers. If not for the threat of imminent death or capture, she could have played tourist.
Alonzo led the way toward the nearest factory. She felt the old familiar pressure in her chest--a life debt to Alonzo. It was the Lady's way of thanking those who directly saved the lives of her magi. It was regarded as a rare event among medicians, but the feeling had lingered on her every day of their journey. It was comforting and unsettling to know the Lady kept such a watch on her.
"Alonzo." He paused, and she rested her hand on his bristled jaw.
"Another blessing?" He looked discomfited by the attention, as he always did.
"For preserving the life of her medician, the Lady blesses you." The bothersome pressure dissipated. "Well, you do have a knack for saving my life."
New vigor carried through his stride as he continued. The blessing would enable him to heal faster and sleep more soundly, and spared her from an aggravating repetition of debt in the back of her brain that was reminiscent of a colicky baby's cries.
"'Tis a mutual thing."
"True. I suppose you need a patron to bless me in turn," she said. Alonzo chuckled. "How far are we from the cities now?" This late in the year, the veiled sun already leaned toward the western horizon. She dreaded nightfall. Their extra blankets had been abandoned with their saddles.
"A few days of walking, I think, though other options may be available. I believe I saw a rail line from above."
"A train! A train would be wonderful." Walking felt strange after so long in the saddle. She had some iodine for doctoring their tender feet, but not enough for extended days on foot.
"Octavia, I must urge you to act with special caution. I know on the Argus you intended to travel incognito. Here, 'tis essential. The southern nations do not look kindly upon magic. To them 'tis an antiquated practice, regarded with revulsion."
"The Wexlers on the ship acted like that. I've known others as well."
"This is a full culture with such an attitude, nor do they look kindly upon Caskentians." He grimaced.
"Your father. Was he... disowned because he moved north?" There seemed no delicate way to broach the subject of Solomon Garret. He had been a general in Caskentia, regarded as a hero when she was a girl. He was also the reason her parents were dead. He piloted a buzzer against a Waster airship over her village. The ensuing crash caused a conflagration that left Octavia as the sole survivor--all because she'd been a silly git and ran off to the woods in search of herbs.
When she first met Alonzo, she had been appalled to learn his last name. Now she understood that he was likely the only other person who comprehended the terrible grief of that night.
"According to my mother, my father was regarded more with bewilderment, as someone who stepped down from paradise to muck in with the commoners. I have never ventured to Tamarania. The few kin I have met came to visit our estate in Mercia."
Estate. A keen reminder of how Alonzo was raised among the elite in Mercia, though the inelegant manner of Solomon Garret's death had caused a significant fall in status.
"You said before that your mother maintains a household in the south."
"Yes. She lives part of the year in a flat that overlooks a blue fountain on the plaza. A cozy abode, I am sure, but we cannot go there. 'Tis the first place any Dagger would look for us."
"The gilly coins Mrs. Stout gave me. What value will they carry here?" Octavia felt the small purse as a heavy lump in her brassiere.
"Their value is not as it would be in Caskentia, but gold is gold." He frowned. "Is the Lady's branch squeezed inside your satchel?"
She flinched and looked away. "No. I--in the rush to grab everything, I left it on the saddlebag."
"Oh. I am so sorry, Octavia."
Sorry is such an inadequate word. I think I would have rather lost part of my leg, like Alonzo, than that blessed branch, that proof of the Lady.
They reached a stand of trees. Beyond that lay a field of tree stumps--a graveyard of mighty pines--with the log-hewn factory on the far side. It looked some five stories in height, chimneys reaching far higher. A trestle stood just beyond. A train idled there. White steam drifted upward, some men in black milling about.
"The dormitories are just over there," Alonzo murmured and glanced at the sun. "Shift whistle should have blown a short while ago. The train's presence is auspicious. The week is at end."
Octavia thought on what she knew of factories. "They will be traveling to Tamarania City for the weekend?"
"Yes. The train likely delivered fresh workers for the week. This crew will return to civilization. This remote locale is not a place where they would expect hitchhikers. Perhaps we can blend in."
"Let me take care of our bloodied coats."
She pulled out her parasol. Her medician wand was hidden in the handle. The copper and wood stick carried enchantments to dry blood and kill zymes. A few minutes later, their coats were somewhat cleaner. Alonzo rigged his saddlebag strap beneath his coat, closer to his body. Octavia almost laughed. Here they were, stinky and harried and hungry, and those were the very elements that would likely help them to blend in with the workers.
They crept closer to the train. Alonzo had tucked his pistol out of sight, but she knew he'd have it ready. A whistle blew. Workers poured from a brick dormitory. Many wore black coats, many faded to shades of gray. Unlike most such employees she had seen, these people smiled and talked amongst themselves, even if it was an exhausted murmur. A pending return to the city had brightened their spirits.
Suddenly, her acute awareness of their health woes draped over her like a suffocating quilt.
Noises. Songs. Tweets, bells, off-key trumpets. Cancer, a thudding, drumming mass. The sweetness of pox. The first stirrings of a pregnancy. Dragged notes of exhaustion--plenty of that.
Cities had always overwhelmed her, but this--this. These people were still thirty steps away, more following behind, and their needs swarmed her like bees. Octavia moaned, both hands to her ears, as she slid down the wall to the ground.
"Octavia?" Firm hands gripped her shoulders. "What is the matter?"
"The people. I hear them. I hear inside them." Lady, what's happening to me?
"Stand. I am with you, Octavia."
Yes, she had Alonzo. Her legs like gelatin, her brain addled, she managed to stand. People surrounded them. Hums, buzzes, bleats. Voices--familiar words. Refugees from her land. Caskentians would be more likely to recognize her as a medician. That brought a whole different kind of danger than what Alonzo had warned against.
His hand was her tether, the steady marching band of his heart clear even amidst the din.
"Separate!" a man's voice boomed. People jostled and shifted around her. A heart skips beats like a child learning to jump rope. Stomachs moan in hunger. The baby in the womb writhes as if it knows the excitement to come.
"Octavia." Alonzo's breath was hot on her ear. "They are separating the men and women, you must--"
"Come along then! Board! Say your farewells, it's only a few hour's ride--"
"Separate?" The horror of that word cleaved through her mental fog. "We can't! How will I--"
The train roared. Alonzo's hand jerked from hers. She struggled to focus, to see with her eyes and hear with her physical ears. Faces around her ranged from pale to deep coffee in tone, men and women both. Alonzo, tall as he was, had turned towards her, the determination on his face visible above another man's shoulders. The tide of humanity carried him away.
Women's voices jabbered around her, higher in pitch. Giggles punctuated conversations. The press of women ebbed and flowed toward a black train car and groups began to split off. Octavia found herself at a short set of stairs. Passing hands had smoothed the wooden banister to burnished gold. She staggered up the steps and tripped at the top. She caught herself on a knee and forced herself up and inside.
She had been on a train once, as a child. Mother and Father took her to the beach. To her delighted eyes, the train car had been a palace on wheels, even if she realized in hindsight that the velvet seats had been bald in spots like a mangy dog and the brakes had squealed like a pen of hogs.
But in comparison to this place, the train car of her youth had indeed been a palace.
The floor had been stripped down to coarse planks. Ridges of splinters snagged her shoes. Bleak wooden benches sat in rows, many of them already occupied. No seat backs, no comforts. Women laughed and murmured as their cases slid beneath benches. They doffed their hats and smoothed their bound-up hair. Octavia sat, hatless and conspicuous. She breathed as in her Al Cala. It was easier to focus with fewer people close by and metal walls separating her from the rest. Her fingers clutched at her satchel as she had desperately clung to Alonzo.
The train lurched forward, steam whistle piercing, the rollicking rhythm of the track shuddering through the hard bench. Where will this train stop? How will I find Alonzo?
"Hey. Who're you?" asked a raspy voice. The woman's face was creased and dented like an apple left to rot in the sunlight. Her body rang out its exhaustion. Hollowness echoed in her abdomen. Somehow, many years ago, she had lost a babe and much more.
"I'm new," Octavia managed.
"New. New, aye. Nice coat."
She looked down as if seeing it for the first time. Wasters did know how to dress warmly to survive their godforsaken plains. "Ah, thank you."
Gnarled fingers plucked at her elbow. "Wool, I think." The woman bent close to Octavia's chest and breathed in. "Yes, wool."
Prickles of unease trickled down Octavia's spine.
"Kethan's bastards. Look at that," said another woman, craned around. "What's that cloth there?"
More eyes turned her way. Another woman leaned and tugged back Octavia's torn coat to show the pristine white of her medician robes beneath. The cloth shimmered with its enchantment, unrealistically clean despite a week in the wilderness.
It made her a gleaming target.
"It's beautiful, like silk."
"That's a Percival robe!"
"No. It can't be. Here?"
"It is! I swear on King Kethan's tomb! I saw one once. My mum took me--"
"A medician. A magic user?" Expressions varied from disgust to delight to sly assessment.
Miss Percival had warned Octavia of this very risk, so many times. These Caskentian refugees would tear her apart with their need.            
Octavia had a gun but only four bullets. There had to be thirty women crammed into this space, and she didn't want to kill anyone. These women had suffered--did suffer. She knew their agonies, loud as steam whistles.
The hand stroking the wool of her sleeve gripped it tight instead. Others leaned in, reaching toward her, toward her satchel.
Octavia stood. The motion of the train almost bowled her over. Her calves rocked against the bench to keep her upright.
"I'm terribly sorry, I'm just--" Octavia began.
"I need a healing. My chest, it hurts, I can't breathe--" Lung cancer, bronchioles clogged like autumn leaves in a gutter.
"My foot! It--" was broken in childhood and set poorly. The bones grind together as if to spark a fire.
"I need a medician! I'm sick." The babe is quickening. The woman--the girl--is too small, too young. She starves, the babe starves. Together they breathe in the coke from the furnaces. Black nodules already stain and harden her lungs.
Octavia's awareness--the horror of it--almost drove her to the floor. These women called to her and it was as though their bodies, their woes, opened to her like a book. Octavia knew.
"I can't. I'm sorry!" Too many in need, too few herbs. Only one of her.
The women gathered around her, hunched against benches for balance, a shabby pack of wolves with snarling lips and desperate eyes. They lunged.
Octavia shoved several back. As she spun around, the stick of her parasol thwacked several more. A nose broke, and klaxons of blood began to wail. Oh Lady. Every train car will be the same. If I jump off--I can't. I would never find Alonzo again. She kicked someone's bag aside. An empty space gaped at the back of the room. She kicked away more suitcases as she stumbled that way. Her hand dove into the center of her satchel, to the medician blanket.
Two seconds later, she had the blanket fluffed out. The action surprised the mob. They retreated a few steps and cried out. A honeyflower-woven circle--oval, really--laid flat in the center of the blanket. Octavia threw herself into it, her fingers grazing the golden threads around her.
"Lady!" she cried out.
With an electric snap, the circle flared into existence. The heat of the Lady's scrutiny flashed against her skin, a stark reminder of the chill in the air. The women dove at her and crashed against the invisible barricade of the circle.
"By Allendia's ghost!"
"Magic!"
Howls of frustration filled the train car.
The circle of a medician blanket enabled the Lady's eye to focus on those most in need of healing. For most medicians, that border line created a sensation akin to walking through a wall of spider webs. It helped contain the patient within the circle if they thrashed or convulsed. Octavia, with her unparalleled power, formed something similar to a brick wall. She could cross her circle as she reached for supplies or whatnot, but the patient could not leave until Octavia broke the enchantment.
Octavia cradled her satchel on her lap. Her arms, her body shivered. Her parasol's staff gouged into her, but she didn't move. She stared at the women feet away, listened to their curses, their profanity.
Miss Percival always warned me and the other girls that if we went out in public in our gear, people would riot.
The thought of Miss Percival stung. Her mentor may have sold out Octavia and Mrs. Stout to the Waste, but the woman was still wise. She'd been like a second mother to Octavia for the past ten years. All those nights when the nightmares of her parents' deaths had plagued her, Miss Percival had been there, her presence a balm. Even in recent years in their medical ward at the front, Miss Percival had always avoided giving burn cases to Octavia except as a last resort.
Now these women--her own country women--would burn Octavia alive, if they could. They'd shred her apart with their bare fingers.
Frothy spittle pattered against the invisible wall and rolled down as if on glass. Several women pulled out eating knives and stabbed the barricade. Octavia flinched. Metal met nothingness with a sound like a wrench clanging on dense wood.
She had never known anyone to take shelter within a circle like this. Another peculiarity for the list. I can float a body within a circle, and guide it beyond. My blood has grown pampria, a temporary version of the Lady's Tree, and vines. I can hear the songs of zymes, those microscopic enigma that make people ill. And now I know the details of a person's health in greater detail than ever before. She was suddenly so tired. So very tired, and alone.
Lady, watch over Alonzo. Help him to blend in, unlike me. Help us find each other again. Please.
"The circle only starts at the thread, not the edge of the blanket. Look here," said one of the women. Her hands trembled. At the Look here, Octavia gained insight into her body. The sound was dimmed by the circle, but even so, the stranger's blood burbled with too much sugar, as if she were a Frengian maple tree ready to be tapped. The nerves in her hands and feet had atrophied, unable to carry tactile sensations back to the brain.
Octavia clenched her eyes shut, as if she could force away the insight.
Knives tugged and sawed at the white edge of the blanket. She felt the motions, but she also knew that wouldn't impact the integrity of the circle. Blankets were damaged and frayed in the course of their use, though she had never known anyone to willingly savage one.
It's spite. Pure spite. Rage wavered through her, hot and cold.
A woman cried out in triumph. "I'll patch my coat with it! The one bit that will never get dirty." Others laughed and cheered.
Octavia's rage dwindled to pity and numbness. They wanted something of her? Fine. At least it could be of use. "The cloth absorbs blood and other matter." At her voice, the women grew silent. "Use it to clean up injuries. Use it for your monthly. Don't keep it on open flesh as a bandage, though, or it will absorb too much."
They murmured at that. "It's a trick!" cried one. "She's trying to poison us."
"No. I've heard the same about this enchantment they do. It's why the cloth glimmers."
The knives went to work again. Their anger was gone. Now they worked in eager cooperation, like rag weavers gathered to rend cloth. Octavia bowed forward in the oval into a relaxed Al Cala pose. The satchel slid from her lap and rested like a thick log against her belly.
Unbidden, the image of the Tree flared in her mind's eye. The green branches that extended beyond the clouds as if to support the sky itself. The bark, gnarled, much of it patched in rough lichen. Leaves bobbed and swayed as if to wave in greeting.
The vision of the Tree had been a tremendous comfort since it had first come to her as a teenager. Most medicians experienced it, from her understanding, though it was regarded as a private thing not often discussed. Octavia knew now that this was no mere vision. She saw the Lady as she was, day or night, whatever the weather. Nothing was distinct about the nearby mountains--though they did not have the sharpness of the Pinnacles--or the normal forest that existed like moss at the Lady's feet. By some magic, this Tree had been hidden in the Waste for centuries, yet somehow the Wasters had found it. When they had Octavia captive, they had tried to bargain for her cooperation by saying they would take her to the Tree. It had to be done by land, she knew, and the trek was hard. Beyond that, the location was a mystery.
Can you show us the way, Lady? It seems everyone is trying to kill us. Can we find refuge beneath your branches?
And if not there, where?



Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager. The newest book, THE CLOCKWORK CROWN, comes out on June 9th, 2015.

Follow her at www.BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato. For More Information visit Beth at her website.


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1 comment:

alwssa12 said...

Ce actiune intensa in aceasta carte! Sigur nu te plictisesti citind-o!

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