As Owen hurried toward the cider house, he called out, "Sir, there's a thunderstorm at 3:11!" He wondered if the old man's pocket-watch failed to keep the proper time, or if he had lost his copy of the official weather almanac.
The stranger looked up, glad to see a potential customer. The pedlar's right eye was covered with a black patch, which Owen found disconcerting. In the Watchmaker's safe and benevolent Stability, people were rarely injured.
When the pedlar fixed him with his singular gaze, Owen felt as if the stranger had been looking for him all along. He stopped clanging the handbell. "Nothing to worry about, young man. All is for the best."
"All is for the best," Owen intoned. "But you're still going to get wet."
"I'm not concerned." The stranger halted his steam-engine cart and, without taking his gaze from Owen, fumbled with the packages and boxes, touching one then another, as if considering. "So, young man, what do you lack?"
The question startled Owen and made him forget about the impending downpour. He supposed pedlars commonly used such tempting phrases as they carried their wares from village to village. But still . . .
"What do I lack?" Owen had never considered this before. "That's an odd thing to ask."
"It is what I do." The pedlar's gaze was so intense it made up for his missing eye. "Think about it, young man. What do you lack? Or are you content?"
Owen sniffed. "I lack for nothing. The loving Watchmaker takes care of all our needs. We have food, we have homes, we have coldfire, and we have happiness. There's been no chaos in Albion in more than a century. What more could we want?"
The words tumbled out of his mouth before his dreams could get in the way. The answer felt automatic rather than heartfelt. His father had recited the same words again and again like an actor in a nightly play; Owen heard other people say the same words in the tavern, not having a conversation but simply reaffirming one another.
What do I lack?
Owen also knew that he was about to become a man, with commensurate responsibilities. He set down his apples, squared his shoulders, and said with all the conviction he could muster, "I lack for nothing, sir."
Owen got the strange impression that the pedlar was pleased rather than disappointed by his answer. "That is the best answer a person can make," said the old man. "Although such consistent prosperity certainly makes my profession a difficult one."
The old man rummaged in his packages, opened a flap, and paused. After turning to look at Owen, as if to be sure of his decision, he reached into a pouch and withdrew a book. "This is for you. You're an intelligent young man, someone who likes to think – I can tell."
Owen was surprised. "What do you mean?"
"It's in the eyes. Besides," he gestured to the empty village streets, "who else stayed out too long because he had more to do, other matters to think about?" He pushed the book into Owen's hands. "You're smart enough to understand the true gift of Stability and everything the Watchmaker has done for us. This book will help."
Owen looked at the volume, saw a honeybee imprinted on the spine, the Watchmaker's symbol. The book's title was printed in neat, even letters. Before the Stability. "Thank you, sir. I will read it."
The stranger turned a dial that increased the boiler's alchemical heat, and greater plumes of steam puffed out. The cart chugged forward, and the pedlar followed it out of town. Owen was intrigued by the book, and he opened to the title page. He wanted to stand there in the middle of the street and read, but he glanced at his pocketwatch – 3:13. He held out his hand, baffled that raindrops hadn't started falling. The rain was never two minutes late.
Nevertheless, he didn't want to risk letting the book get wet; he tucked it under his arm and rushed with his apples to the cider house. A few minutes later, when he reached the door of the cool fieldstone building where his father was working, he turned around to see that the old man and his automated cart had disappeared.
"You're late," his father called in a gruff voice.
Owen stood in the door's shadows, staring back down the village streets. "So is the rain" – a fact that he found far more troubling. A crack of thunder exploded across the sky and then, as if someone had torn open a waterskin, rain poured out of the clouds. Owen frowned and looked at the ticking clock just inside the cider house. 3:18 p.m.
Only later did he learn that the town's newsgraph office had received a special updated almanac page just that morning, which moved the scheduled downpour to precisely 3:18 p.m.
From the Book: Clockwork Angels: The Novel by Kevin J. Anderson from a story and lyrics by Neil Peart. Copyright 2012 by Core Music Publishing. Published by ECW Press.
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