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Chainbreaker (Timekeeper #2)
Author:Tara Sim

Chainbreaker (Timekeeper #2)

Tara Sim

To those who resist.

And to Mom and Dad, for all the adventures.

She pushed back her veil

And revealed what has been revealed to many

But that few have seen,

Beauty that can mask the unseen

As in a dream,

When what we see is

Not always as it might seem.

She is of the East, divine or beast,

Of the day and of the night,

Moving through time without measure

In darkness and in light;

She is the way to destitution

And to bounteous treasure.

Come hither and join with me

And I will join with you,

Her many looks convey;

For to love them all is to love them as one,

To love them as one is to love them all.

She is my India — Ralph Steven Sim

London, September 1876

The clock counted every painful second with ticks as thunderous and regular as a heartbeat. It was half past two, the hands slowly climbing their way up to three o’clock. Ten minutes hadn’t yet passed, but already Daphne felt as if she had been sitting here all day.

It didn’t help that the chair beneath her was uncomfortably hard. The plain, whitewashed room contained better, padded seats than the wooden one her mother had been slumped in when she arrived, but Daphne didn’t want to drag over another and draw attention, lest it upset her mother.

St. Agnes’s Home for Women was a quiet place, where residents woke at seven in the morning and went to bed at seven in the evening. After they performed chores and underwent treatment in the afternoon, they gathered in the parlor for tea and socialization. Over and over, the cycle reset every night to begin again at dawn, like the old Greek tale of a mechanical eagle pecking out the fire-stealer’s liver.

The radio crackled and Daphne started; she’d forgotten it was on. The box beside them was a clunky, wooden-framed device that had grown popular in the last few months, a new marvel of telegraphy. Her mother liked to turn it on after luncheon, according to the nurses. The knobs were large and stained with greasy fingerprints.

“—it is, of course, quite an honor, and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that England is quite proud of Her Majesty. Only fitting she should officially be named Queen-Empress of India this year. She’s done a marvel there already, even after the events of the Mutiny—”

The male voice coming through the speakers was tinny and high-pitched. Daphne wished she could turn the dial down, but her mother raptly watched the radio, as though the words would form an image if she stared hard enough.

Daphne realized that her mother’s fair hair was beginning to pale, her thin hands knobby and dry. A hawk-sharp face had grown even sharper in this place, her nose and chin more prominent, her eyes more sunken. Still, she had managed to hold onto a bit of beauty about her mouth and cheekbones, relics of a time when men’s eyes would linger as she passed them on the street, even when she tugged her young daughter behind her.

Those other eyes had meant nothing; Daphne’s father’s had been the only ones that had mattered. Until they’d closed forever, and her mother’s had grown vacant.

“—so let’s all congratulate Her Majesty on a job well done!”

Daphne leaned forward. “Mother,” she said softly, “don’t you want to speak with me?”

Her mother sighed, gaunt shoulders rising with the breath. “What is there to talk about?”

Me. My job. How the hospital staff is treating you. If they medicated you last night to make you sleep.

“We can discuss the news.” Daphne gestured to the radio. “What do you make of it?”

“Make of what?”

“Her Majesty being named Queen-Empress.” The subject of India had always been a delicate one between them, yet Daphne still scrounged up a thimbleful of hope that this, at least, would spur her mother into conversation.

Her mother’s shoulders lifted again, this time in a shrug.

Daphne leaned back, defeated. A year ago, she would have prattled on just to fill the empty space. Now she didn’t bother. She could no more conjure hope than she could conjure birds from thin air. She’d learned too soon how painful it was to have disappointment constantly sinking its barbs into her. How they liked to twist and rip her open, filling her with holes.

A girl full of holes had no room for hope.

Daphne tried to visit St. Agnes’s at least once a week, but she wondered if her mother would even notice if she stopped coming. Guilt choked her at the thought, and she looked down at the weak sunshine that touched the edges of her boots. The distant roar of a busy London rumbled through an open window under the radio’s chatter. Daphne found it strangely soothing. She was unquestionably a child of London, bred from metal and steam and ash. All better caretakers than the woman before her.

Her whole life, her family had suffered echoes of the scandal caused when her English mother had married a man born to an English officer and an Indian woman. The struggle certainly had not improved after her father had passed. Listless days and frantic days and kill me days and I hate you days. Days when Daphne had been glad to be an apprentice clock mechanic, busy earning her own money, and days when she’d been reluctant to leave her mother alone to play with knives and hollow herself with hunger.

Doctors had advised committing her mother to the asylum many times, but it wasn’t until she had nicked Daphne with one of her treasured knives that she’d finally condemned them both: her mother to this place, herself to loneliness.

Daphne looked around the room. A nurse shuffled to each woman, handing out little pills. A weary-looking woman with frizzing hair stuck her hand out for the proffered tablet, then knocked it back like it was a tumbler of whiskey.

“Dreams,” her mother muttered. Daphne wondered if she had misheard. Then, again: “Dreams.”

“Dreams? Of what?”

Her mother lifted a hand and let it fall back heavily into her lap. “I have them.”

The nurse stopped beside them and offered a pill. Obediently, without even looking down, her mother accepted it and swallowed.

Daphne waited for the nurse to leave before she repeated, “Dreams of what?”

“My parents. My old stuffed rabbit. A silk fan my uncle brought back from China. James.”

Daphne winced at her father’s name. “Do you … miss these things?” Her mother nodded. “I’m sorry. I wish I could give them to you.”

“So do I,” she whispered.

They slipped into silence again, but it was a different kind; not the silence of deep water, but the silence of a lazy Sunday. Daphne almost felt pleased. It had been weeks since her mother had spoken so many words.