Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She’s the author of The Clockwork Dagger steampunk fantasy series, with the next book, The Clockwork Crown, out in June. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.
by Beth Cato
At the start of my novel, The Clockwork Dagger, medician Octavia Leander is leaving behind the academy that has nurtured her magical healing talents over the past decade. Octavia’s parents were killed when she was young, and headmistress Miss Percival became both her mentor and a second mother. Octavia and Miss Percival are uncommonly attuned to the world tree known as the Lady that is the source of their healing power.
For years, when loneliness overwhelmed her, Octavia would retreat to the academy’s upstairs office and crawl beneath Miss Percival’s desk. Above her, Miss Percival’s pen scratched on paper. Octavia bowed in Al Cala, forehead to the ground, breathing, taking in the mere closeness of another body.
‘Is it the fire tonight?’ Miss Percival would ask after a time, knowing of the nightmares that plagued Octavia.
‘Yes,’ she sometimes said, or ‘No. The others…’ Won’t talk to me. Say I’m too good for them. That obviously the Lady is the only friend I need.
If it was the latter, Miss Percival’s hand would work beneath the desk to rest on Octavia’s shoulder. ‘It was the same for me.’
When I mulled ideas for stories to set in The Clockwork Dagger world, I immediately thought of the conflict between Octavia and Miss Percival. The concept really came together when I realized the short story should be told from Miss Percival’s point of view.
This was tricky. I didn’t want to give away major spoilers for my novels. It really came down to the question of WHY rather than HOW. Why does Miss Percival make such devastating choices? Why does she become so cold to her star pupil?
The short story “The Deepest Poison” revolves around a crisis in the front-line army encampment where Octavia works. Thousands of soldiers have fallen deathly ill, most likely poisoned. Miss Percival arrives to lend her expertise so they can avert a full catastrophe.
I’ve now written two novels through the viewpoint of Octavia Leander. I felt like I knew her pretty well, but I didn’t know as an antagonist. It wasn’t too hard to figure out how she could aggravate people. Octavia is a goody-two-shoes to an obnoxious extreme. Her devotion to the Lady’s Tree is deep, a faith that defines her whole life. Her healing skills are the best ever known; Miss Percival used to have that distinction.
I immersed myself in this new perspective. What is it like to be in the shadow of your best student? To watch as her skills gain her adulation, even when you–the superior in age and experience–are nigh ignored? And when you do triumph, she questions it, and is so frustratingly nice the whole while.
Miss Percival wants to be the heroine of her own story. She has realized that she’s not.
That’s the conflict against the larger backdrop of poison, death, and the imminent danger of attack. You can guess what “the deepest poison” of the story really is–and why that syringe on the cover is filled with green. The repercussions of these events play out through The Clockwork Dagger and the second and final book in the duology, The Clockwork Crown, which comes out in June.
Miss Percival is a good person at heart, someone who saves thousands of lives on a regular basis and is keenly aware of that responsibility. Yet even good people can succumb to gangrene… and within this setting of medicine and war, Miss Percival’s gangrene is not of body, but soul.