Twist always had steady hands. No matter how intricate the device, or how tiny the springs and cogs, his aim never wavered. After minutes of silent work on the small brass pocket watch, he finally allowed himself a smile of satisfaction. He placed the last cog and then closed the back of the watch, admiring the glinting metal in the dim glow that seeped in through the window over his desk. He held the brushed brass up to his ear and closed his large, steel-blue eyes as he listened to the faint pulse of clockwork life.
A silver bell set beside the window rang out like a thunderclap. Twist’s slight frame shuttered at the sudden sound, his eyes flew open to stare at the bell in fright, and his grip on the watch slipped. He clutched at the chain as it fell through his fingers, catching the watch a moment before it crashed onto the desk. The unexpected success stole a breath from him, as the bell rang again. Twist placed the watch in the pocket of his thin waistcoat and hastened to his feet, turning to the stairs at the back of the room.
The blackness of the room, out of the candlelight, stalled his steps. He snatched up the candle in its tin holder and set his jaw in annoyance, only giving his angular features an even sharper and more delicate appearance. The bell rang out a third time as his feet flew quickly down the stairs. On the ground floor, Twist blew out the candle and hastily turned the key on the gas light at the front door, filling the small room with amber light.
Thick-paned windows flanked the heavy, dark, wooden door and spilled the ghost of damp light on the bare floor. There were no clocks on the walls of the shop, only framed mirrors of different sizes. There was nothing on the open floor save for a pair of red velvet couches that faced each other over a table made of disused gears from a tower clock. The silver mirrors multiplied the gaslight to a strange brightness that most people found unsettling. Twist didn’t even look at it as he quickly took his short black coat from the rack by the door and threw it on over his white shirt, black trousers, and still unbuttoned silver waistcoat. He only had time to straighten the collar and run a hand over his constant mess of wild and curly black hair before the bell rang out impatiently again.
Twist threw open the locks and pulled the door back just enough to peer out through the crack. A young woman stood on his step, her hand still on the bell pull. She was no older than him—older than twenty, but not yet thirty. She wore high boots over trousers, under a short, lace rimmed skirt, and a velvet bodice. She held no umbrella, and only a thin jacket to shield her from the rain. Her blond hair looked dark from all the water in it, hanging in a loose braid at her neck. Her sea green eyes locked onto Twist’s with a strength and determination that startled him.
“Oh thank heaven!” she breathed out in relief. “I thought no one was here.”
“Can I help you?” Twist asked, his voice as loud and clear as it would ever get.
“What?” the girl asked. “I didn’t hear you.”
“Come in,” Twist said, his small voice colored darkly with disdain. He pulled the door open for her and turned away, taking a seat on the center of the couch that faced the door.
The young woman let herself inside and closed the door behind her. She looked around the room in the reflected gaslight until her eyes fell on Twist again. He saw the same pause in her gaze that he usually did when others got a clear look at him. Feeling reassured, he remained perfectly still, leaning forward on his knees and staring at her steadily and expressionless. The girl seemed to shiver slightly, either from the chill of the rain or from the effect of Twist’s efforts, but she stepped forward all the same and took a seat facing him.
“You are … Twist, aren’t you?” she asked. She pulled the small shoulder bag that had hung behind her into her lap as she sat. Twist saw the rain water drip onto his couch and did his best not to grimace.
“I am,” Twist replied, his voice stronger in the silence of the small mirrored room.
“I’m Arabel Davis,” the girl said pleasantly. “I need your help.”
“Have you brought it with you?” he asked.
“Whatever you need fixed,” Twist toned, as if to a child.
“Oh,” she said, smiling to break the tension. Twist focused on keeping his breath shallow so that his small form would seem even more still. Her smile frayed slightly. “Well, I can’t bring it here. I don’t actually have it yet, you see.”
“Bring it here and I’ll see what I can do.”
“I don’t think you understand,” she said, her eagerness almost pleading. “I don’t need you to repair a watch for me, or anything like that. I need your help. I need you to come with me.”
Despite himself, Twist blinked into a confused frown. “Where?”
“Well, Nepal, but—” she began.
“Isn’t that in Asia?” Twist asked, hanging onto his placid expression for dear life.
“Yes, I have an airship,” Arabel said, obviously meaning to continue.
“No,” Twist said instantly.
“It wouldn’t take more than a few days to get there,” she tried, leaning closer over the table. Twist straitened up and leaned away.
“I’m not going halfway across the world, and I’m certainly not taking an airship to get there,” he said as firmly as his soft voice would allow. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”
“I can pay you, of course.”
“No amount of worldly wealth will get me off of solid ground,” Twist said, fighting to keep his anger hidden behind his chilly blue eyes. “I’ve never left London, and I have no desire to do so now.”
Arabel’s sea green eyes flashed with such a sudden and keen annoyance—remarkably like the glow of a smoldering canon wick, Twist noticed—that for a moment, he worried that she might like to hit him. He felt his heart beat faster, despite his efforts to keep it slow and steady.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, flatly. “If there is nothing else, then good day to you.”
“Are you really just nothing but an ordinary little clock maker?” Her voice was suddenly sharp.
“Excuse me?” Twist asked, appearing confused again by mistake.
“Do you only repair broken clockwork? Are the rumors about you all silly lies?”
“I’m sure you can find your way out,” Twist said, getting to his feet as smoothly as he could, and turning for the back stairs.
“I’ve found the clockwork princess.”
Twist froze in his steps. After a moment of silent bewilderment, he turned slowly to look back at his guest over his shoulder. “That’s a myth.”
“It’s not,” she said, a satisfied smirk now on her face. “I know where it is.”
“You can’t know where it is because it doesn’t exist.”
“It’s in Nepal, right now,” Arabel said. She reached into the bag on her lap, and pulled out a small clump of golden and copper gears, which she placed gently on the tabletop. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It’s as real as you or I.”
Twist turned back as she spoke, and took the item off the table gingerly. The moment Twist’s fingers touched the gears, his mind burned with images that he had never seen. He closed his eyes to see the vision more clearly in his mind: metal hands, elegant as a Vermeer maiden’s now laying broken on the floor of a dark room—years of dust and neglect, like slime on the once gleaming surface—those hands running lightly through tall grass in sunlight, long before—the sound of a girl’s laughter, brighter than any sunlight Twist had ever seen.
A sharp intake of breath at the intensity of the images brought Twist’s attention back to himself. His eyes flew open to see the gears in his palm, the clutching mechanism of a clockwork hand. He could just hear the echo of her laughter in the gentle shine. A shiver ran through his skin like an electric shock, making him shudder. She wasn’t just a beautiful fairy tale.
“Are you alright?” Arabel asked, now standing just beside him.
Twist looked to her quickly, surprised to see her so close. He nodded and took a small step away.
“It’s in pieces now,” she said. “But if anyone can fix it, I’m sure that you could. Only, it can’t be moved until it’s repaired. It was risky enough just taking that.”
Twist hardly heard her. His thoughts were still wound tightly around the images he’d seen. She’d been left all alone for so long, broken and forgotten. Overwhelming sadness tightened in his chest until he feared that he wouldn’t be able to breathe. He felt guilt at holding a piece of her so far away from the rest of her body. He knew the old stories well enough to easily guess at her constant misery. How could she have been treated so badly? Who could have left her alone? How could he stand by and let her continue to be abused by idiots and time?
“Did you take anything else?” he asked, surprised by how strained and rough his own voice sounded.
“Well, no,” Arabel said, drifting closer to him again. “I didn’t think it would be safe.” She lifted a hand to touch his arm as she bent her head to see his face.
Twist jerked away from her before she could touch him, and turned to face her. “When do you want to leave?” he asked, his features, under control again, held impossibly still and empty.
“That depends on whether or not you would be coming,” she said, hesitantly hopeful.
Twist’s fingers tightened on the gears in his hand, and for just an instant he heard the gentle ring of that childlike laugh again. “I’m coming.”
“Wonderful,” Arabel said, smiling broadly. “Then we can leave tomorrow.”