Before the Broken Star by Emily R. King
A cacophony of ticktocking resounds through the otherwise hushed clockmaker’s shop. When I first came to live with Uncle Holden, the relentless ticking drove me mad. A decade later, the chant of time is now a comfort—his handcrafted timepieces echo the cadence of my wooden clockwork heart.
The bell on the front door jingles, and I look up from my book to see a blond gentleman step in from the foggy street. The man is a naval officer—a lieutenant, judging by his gray wool uniform and somber expression. He must be a noble. He’s too young to have worked his way up through the ranks, and only noblemen may enlist in the queen’s navy as officers.
The lieutenant admires the assortment of fine clocks, his eyes a startling blue. His high forehead is offset by a full mouth and a stern, square jaw. He fixates on the one clock in the shop decorated with delicate hand-painted daisies. Though his shoulders remain unerringly straight, he walks with a slight limp to the daisy clock and runs an admiring finger over the top.
My lips tense. “May I help you?”
The lieutenant’s gaze shifts to me at the clerk’s desk. “Good afternoon, miss. I’m here to pick up an order.”
“Name?” I set aside the map I was studying and open the customer log.
“I’m Jamison Callahan, but the order is under Markham.”
My fingers rattle against the paper. Before I allow my mind to spin away with unfounded conclusions, I remind myself that Markham is a common enough surname in the Realm of Wyeth. The lieutenant could be on an errand for someone else.
Another jingle as the front door opens and a second customer enters.
“Lieutenant Callahan,” says the man, embracing the young sailor, “I didn’t expect to meet you here. I thought the captain would be meeting me.”
My neck hairs bristle as I glance from the corner of my eye at the older naval officer, middle-aged with a service sword sheathed at his waist. I could never forget that voice; its gut-shaking deepness is scored into my memory.
A ticking booms in my ears. My clockwork heart, a device like a pocket watch that functions in place of my real heart, trips into a sprint.
“The captain is overseeing the arrival of the first prisoners,” the lieutenant explains. “He asked that you forgive his absence, sir.”
“All is forgiven,” says Governor Killian Markham. “I’m glad you’re in my service again, Callahan. You’ll be a tremendous addition to the first fleet. What changed your mind about going?”
Callahan’s countenance turns rigid. “My father and I had a disagreement in which he disavowed me of my inheritance. He was within his bounds.”
The governor pats the lieutenant’s back. “My apologies for prying. You’re an understanding son. In time, I’m certain you and your father will mend this.”
Hidden under my clothes, the regulator for my clock heart chimes a warning to calm down. I cannot. Not as Lieutenant Callahan and Governor Markham continue their conversation. Not as the lieutenant turns his curious gaze to the ringing coming from my location. Not as the governor’s gaze narrows on me. I clutch the neckline of my dress closed over my scar. The monster has found me.
Uncle Holden’s footfalls echo at my back and then he rests a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Everley, I’ll assist Governor Markham. You may go.”
I usually attend to the storefront while my uncle tinkers in his workshop, unconcerned by our customers, but Markham is not a typical patron.
The governor crosses to the desk, a flintlock pistol as well as his rapier at his waist. His boots have been shined to a polish, by a servant no doubt, and his dress coat fits his trim chest and waist impeccably, his silk neckerchief matching his wolfish gray eyes. The noisy clocks in the shop drum louder. I wait for him to recognize me, to picture me as the raven-haired seven-year-old girl I was when we met a decade ago. Uncle Holden squeezes my shoulder, a command to flee. But Markham does not recognize me. Why would he? He thinks I’m dead.
I want to scream—I am Everley Donovan, daughter of Brogan Donovan! But terror arrests me, as real and raw as the night Markham came to my family’s seaside manor under the guise of friendship. He was an admiral then, my father’s expedition partner. By some fateful trick, he looks the same. From his trimmed beard to his chestnut hair tied at the nape of his neck to the overconfident tilt of his lips. I recall his smile as he held a sword to my mother’s throat. He later battled my father with that same sword, its blade slick with my mother’s blood.
I duck into the workshop out of view and press my back to the wall. The striking clocks of the showroom pursue me. I cannot break free from the clawing hours or the bleeding seconds. My heart regulator rings again, a backup alarm for the ticker. I cover the sound emitter, muting the warning blare, and peer around the doorway.
“Holden O’Shea,” Governor Markham says, shaking my uncle’s hand. “I’ve been told you make the finest clocks in all of Wyeth. Have you finished our order?”
“I have, sir.” Onto the counter my uncle sets the marine chronometer, which uses longitude to guide ships by means of celestial navigation. The cords of my trust fray. My uncle did not mention who would receive his latest model of the portable time standard. According to him, Markham didn’t associate with the O’Sheas. My father, the Baron McTigue, married my uncle’s sister, a woman of lower standing.
“How does it function?” Markham asks.
I miss my uncle’s reply because the governor’s voice evokes a memory of Markham ordering his men to force my siblings and me at gunpoint out of the room, separating us from our mother and father.
Pain unfolds across my chest. I lean in from the doorway and press a clammy palm over my clockwork heart. I should rest. My ticker could seize if I push it too hard, but Markham has been gone from Wyeth for years. I cannot let this opportunity pass.
The governor counts out a fat stack of bills. “Here’s your payment, Mr. O’Shea. Pardon my leave, I’ve other matters in need of my attention. I’ll entrust the remainder of our business to Lieutenant Callahan. The queen thanks you for your service.”
He picks up the chronometer to go. My sword is stashed beneath the desk, but Uncle Holden won’t let me grab it in time. My gaze falls to the tools scattered across the workbench.
The bell on the entry door rings.
I swipe a chisel off the bench and round the corner into the storefront. Through the street window, I spot Governor Markham climbing into a horse-drawn carriage. Each strike of my heart punches through me—no, no, no—as the governor’s buggy hastens away.
Chase him, my fury urges.
But he’s already out of sight, and I won’t be able to distinguish his black carriage from the countless others on the streets of Dorestand in time. I glance at my sword beneath the desk, which is worthless now, and shuffle backward, stepping in time with my ticker. Gone, gone, gone.
Callahan glances at the chisel in my fist. I glare into his wide eyes, pouring the full breadth of my anger on him. The lieutenant serves in the governor’s fleet. No man under Markham’s supervision deserves respect.
“Everley,” Uncle Holden says quietly. His round eyes, the same cornflower blue as my mother’s and mine, relay an apology.
Shoulders sinking, I set down the chisel. I lost Markham. The monster who murdered my family and stabbed me in the chest as a girl has gotten away.
Uncle Holden picks up the chisel and slips it into his pocket. He’s worried I will demolish his shop in a fit of temper. He thinks I am reckless, unpredictable.
I have never been more focused.
Markham has returned to Dorestand—the man himself, not some ghoulish nightmare harassing my dreams—and I froze like a winter lake.
He left without even knowing my name.
My heart ticktocks louder than any clock in the shop, a shout in a symphony of murmurs. I should lie down, but I want to learn everything I can about Markham’s return.
Callahan clears his throat and speaks to my uncle, casting wary glances in my direction. “The governor asked that I take the second marine chronometer to the captain of the Lady Regina. We’re bound for Dagger Island with precious cargo.”
Gooseflesh scuttles up my spine. Over a decade ago, Queen Aislinn commissioned my father and Markham to settle more land and expand her rule, which is, according to our ruler, the destiny of the Realm of Wyeth. As such, we are at the forefront of exploration and ahead of the other three realms in transportation. Our naval fleet is the greatest in the world. The second closest realm has but nineteen ships, and we have seventy.
With our fleet, the queen set out to claim uncharted lands. My father, a great explorer, rediscovered Dagger Island. He was the first person in centuries to set foot on the mystic isle known as the Kingdom of Amadara.
Every child has heard the tales of the Ruined Kingdom and the tragic separation of Princess Amadara and her lost prince. Legends of this bygone world discouraged many from claiming or charting the isle. After my father completed his exploration, he recommended that the queen not settle the wild, remote island. Queen Aislinn listened until recent years, when her need for land increased. Concerned about the danger of prison riots in her overcrowded jails, she commissioned a fleet of ships laden with male convicts and soldiers to sail to Dagger Island and leave the men to settle there, and then she promoted Markham to govern the outpost.
Uncle Holden lifts a second marine chronometer onto the desk. “Can you say what the precious cargo is, Lieutenant?”
“Female convicts.” Callahan’s gaze flattens to an unreadable wall, hiding his opinion on the matter. “Queen Aislinn is sentencing them to serve as wives of the settlers at the penal colony.”
I dream of sailing and exploring like my father, but the isle is no place for people. Thousands of leagues away from Dagger Island here in Dorestand, we have heard the accounts of the settlers’ starvation and sickness and, odder, rumblings of men disappearing in the island’s dense forest. It is said the Ruined Kingdom, at the center of the isle, is protected by a curse. But the queen doesn’t believe in sorcery.
“You’re assigned to the outpost?” Uncle Holden asks. “I’ve been told the survival rate is one in four.”
“My orders are to oversee the female convicts on their voyage,” Callahan replies, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “We embark day after tomorrow.”
“And the governor?” I ask, ignoring my uncle’s silencing look.
The lieutenant’s attention sharpens on me. “Markham’s ship departs at dawn.”
Bloody bones. The governor has been stationed overseas on Dagger Island for years. Come morning, he will be out of my reach again.
“Governor Markham paid for both chronometers in full.” Uncle Holden dusts his hands off on his breeches. “Will that be all, Lieutenant?”
“Actually, no.” Callahan points behind him, his wavy hair brassy like the inner workings of a timepiece. “How much for that clock?”
“Which one?” Uncle Holden follows him between the shelves.
“This one here,” says the lieutenant, touching the daisy clock.
That is my favorite timepiece, a twin to one my uncle gave my parents on their wedding day. The original burned to ash long ago. I generally keep the clock out of view from customers, but this morning when I dusted, I moved it to the front of the shelf and forgot to push it back.
“It isn’t for sale,” I say.
Both men swivel toward me. My uncle’s graying mustache twitches over stern lips. A lady customer enters from the street, saving me from explaining.
Uncle Holden lifts the twin clock off the shelf and passes it to the lieutenant. “My apprentice is mistaken. She’ll ring you up.” He leaves Callahan in my care and greets the lady.
The lieutenant carries the daisy clock over and sets it on the desk. “I’ve been looking for a keepsake to bring on my voyage. The flowers remind me of the daisies outside the front gate of my family’s estate.”
I cannot begrudge him for wanting the clock as a reminder of home since I want it for similar reasons. My mother would read to us by our drawing-room hearth, with my sister, brothers, and I crowded around her skirt, and my father in his chair. The clock rested above us on the mantelpiece, a sentinel watching over us all, while mother told tales about fantastical creatures and worlds beyond our own.
“You seem fond of this clock,” the lieutenant remarks, studying me.
The lieutenant is too perceptive, too conversational. My ticker is still struggling to recover from Markham’s visit. It beats like a normal heart, though it looks and sounds like a clock. The inner workings—balance wheel, torsion spring, escapement, and gear train—are strained by emotional exertion more often than physical labor.
“I’m fine,” I say. “It’s just a clock.”
My ticker stutters, triggering my regulator.
Callahan’s gaze drops to my waistline, where the small regulator for my ticker is hidden beneath my dress. “Do you have a bell in your pocket?”
“What an absurd question.”
My regulator is a nuisance. The tiny noise box connected to my heart detects spikes in my pulse and rings three bells inside of it when I should rest. The outbursts are not unlike a tolling cuckoo clock, minus the wooden figures popping out. The alarm sounds when I’m nervous, overworked, or poorly telling a lie.
The lieutenant reads the price tag on the daisy clock and lays down his money. “Paid in full . . . Everley, isn’t it? Have we met?”
“No.” If I were lying, my ticker would tell me.
Callahan squints at me in doubt. I don’t know why he thinks we are acquainted. He’s a nobleman and I’m a shop clerk. Except at night when my uncle is fast asleep; then I become someone else. But the lieutenant would not know about my nocturnal escapades. Few do.
My fingertips tingle, a consequence of my offbeat pulse. I fumble to package the daisy clock with paper as my heart ticktocks erratically. While working faster, I drop the spool of twine.
“Let me help you,” Callahan says, retrieving it from the floor.
“I can do it.” I take the twine back and pain stabs my torso. I double over the desk. The gears of my ticker clunk and grind, the balance wheel swinging erratically.
The lieutenant’s morning-sky eyes cloud with worry. “Are you all right?”
I wave him off.
Uncle Holden excuses himself from the lady customer and strides toward me. “Everley, go to the workbench and find my caliper.”
He has fabricated an excuse to send me away.
I hold down my hitching chest and start to go. Two steps from the desk, my heart clunks to a halt as the balance wheel quits turning.
RIIIIIING . . .
My regulator emits a continuous, high-pitched warning. I stumble forward, agony punching out to my limbs. Big hands catch me, and Uncle Holden lifts me into his arms, sturdy from hauling stacks of lumber. Darkness edges into my vision and dims his troubled face.
“Sir?” Callahan asks. “How can I help?”
“You can show yourself out.” Uncle Holden nods at the door where the lady customer has left, then carries me into his workshop and kicks the door shut.