The wind was strong, and even if it wasn’t for the chilly breeze, the water was bound to be cold. The people on the beach weren’t going any further than getting their ankles wet, and even the ones who sat on blankets and wore swimsuits seemed to be using towels and blankets for added warmth. I imagined it was fine so long as there was sunlight, but the wind whipped the gray clouds overhead across the sky and the sunlight was intermittent.
I saw Lillian shiver, though she was trying not to show it. I shrugged off my jacket, and draped it over her bare legs, where her skirt didn’t reach down far enough.
“Thank you, Sy.”
I nodded, hugging my knees as we sat together on the slope that led down to the beach. Lillian moved a bit closer and rested her head on my shoulder.
“Five minutes,” I said.
“Hm?” she raised up her head.
I reached over with my free arm and pulled her head back into position against my shoulder. “Five minutes. Then you should scoot over. I think the Gages are the type that would think less of you if they saw you like this. The twits. We don’t want a repeat of the incident in the office. Or the time you slept over, last month, or the-”
“Okay, Sy. Okay. Shhh. Don’t ruin a nice moment.”
Jamie looked up at us and smiled, almost smirking. I shooed at him, and he turned forward again.
The profile of face and neck, the hair, the work in the notebook, I recognized that person. Then I remembered that it wasn’t him, and I felt a pang of loss. My best friend. I missed his talents when things were active and hectic and there was something to be done, and this new Jamie helped bridge the gap. But when things were quiet, I missed him, and the new Jamie hurt rather than help when it came to that.
I could see some of the drawing he was doing. Fine lines, wispy, each line assured and careful, more akin to the basic outlining a painter might do in ink before applying watercolor than anything else. A different hand and style than the Jamie I knew. He was drawing the boats, further down, and some of the ships he was drawing had long ago left the harbor.
Boats moved this way and that, like one of the puzzles Mr. Hayle had given us back in the day, until certain boats could slip through.
I thought of the child in the cage we’d seen on our way in. Was she already on her way out, aboard a ship?
I didn’t like the idea, and I didn’t like that acting on it would ruin things for Lil. Unless…
“Having second thoughts?” I asked.
Jamie looked up from the drawing. Lillian looked up at me.
“The runaway. It sounds like she had good reasons for leaving home. Being pushed into marriage with a noble?”
“The Baron, no less,” Jamie said. “The Duke got started early in terms of military strategy and leadership. The Baron? Sixty-four nobles would have to die before he got his shot at the Crown, possibly sixty-five if the Infante of Crown Hispana gets a younger sibling this year. The Baron is closer to the Gages in social rank than to the Duke. Five steps below the Duke, four steps above the Gages. Few opportunities, few reasons to go out and do things.”
“He’s festered,” I said, my voice low. “Gone stagnant. Cabin fever, but his life is the cabin. Nothing to do with himself but resent that he can’t climb higher and turn mean.”
Jamie gave me a nod of confirmation. I could see Lillian wince.
“I’m not going to mince words,” I said.
“Could you?” Lillian asked. “Really, about the mincing words thing. I know the Lambs have dilemmas all the time, I know it’s hard, and you guys make the calls. In Brechwell I made my voice heard, gave my input when I thought you were crossing a line or acting without all the information. But… why can’t this be easy? Can you help me make this easier?”
She’d lifted her head up from my shoulder, and pulled away a bit. She still looked a little cold.
“You wanted to be a professor,” I said. “This isn’t the last tough call you’re going to have to make. I could lie to you, and take action on my own, and it would take the weight off your shoulders. I could make decisions for you. But I don’t think doing any of that would be making you the best Lillian you can be.”
“I’m fifteen, Sy. These are decisions an adult would have a hard time with.”
“Fifteen is adult. It’s been adult for a long time, to a lot of people,” I said. “Fifteen or sixteen is when people have historically gotten married. It’s when kids have finished school and gone to work, if they didn’t start sooner. Don’t let that school of yours convince yourself that childhood somehow lasts until you’re older.”
“I’m not sure I’m ready.”
“Then let this opportunity slip by,” I said. “I’d say no harm no foul, but it will hurt you. Now, you’re not competing against any of your peers, because you are stellar and special. But you’ll end up competing against the students who are eighteen to twenty now. You’re going to find yourself in much the same position Fray was in when she was considered for a professor’s position. If those eighteen year olds are making the hard calls now while you’re holding back, you’ll fall behind.”
“It almost sounds like you’re trying to convince me to go ahead with this.”
“Do you think I would?”
“No. Which is why it sounds weird, coming from your lips.”
I looked back and over in the direction of the Gage’s home to make sure they weren’t approaching. This would be a bad conversation to have someone overhear.
“I want to help the Lambs, Lil. I want to help the people and the experiments who can’t speak for themselves, the children, the mice among foxes, even those mice who don’t know what that scratching means. I’m on the fence about this too, but it’s because, on one hand, I want to help now, even if it’s a small thing, helping one person. But on the other hand, I want to help you. Because I think, I hope, that you as a professor will help more people in the long run.”
“Even if that’s a journey that starts with this? Capturing someone that’s escaped a bad situation and a… horrible family, and sending her back?”
“It’s your lead, Lil. This is your mission, first and foremost. I don’t think we should sabotage the job, but it’s up to you, how hard you really want to try. We could get her back to her family, but do it late. It wouldn’t reflect so well on the Gages, it wouldn’t give you the same opportunities, but it would probably rest easier on all of our consciences.”
Lillian made a face, scowling at no one thing in particular.
“It’s your call. We back you.”
“Yep,” Jamie said, dead sincere.
“I know I should thank you, but…” Lillian trailed off, then sighed.
I rubbed her back.
Gordon and Hubris were making their way down the dirt path that separated the yellow-grass covered slope from the beach. He had one thing of luggage behind him, a smaller case set on top of it, and a third slung over his shoulder, resting against his back. Hubris was strutting with the handle of one luggage case in his jaws.
That dope. He was supposed to be walking the dog, not carrying stuff.
I might have gotten up to help, but he’d chosen to take on that particular burden, and I really didn’t want to.
Gordon’s approach made me miss the Lambs that weren’t present.
Jamie foremost among them. I looked at the person sitting further down the hill and felt another twinge of recognition, followed by the stab of loss.
Having a bad memory sucked, sometimes.
“Jamie,” I said.
“Can I have a piece of paper?”
He opened his book, flipped it over, using a finger to hold his page, and tore out the last page. He had to crawl a couple of feet up the hill and extend his arm, while I had to do much the same, reaching down, before I had the paper.
“Need a pen?”
“I’ve got one, thanks.”
“Scheme?” Lillian asked.
“No scheme. I was going to write Mary a letter. We know where she is, right?”
“Yep,” Jamie said. “She’s at-”
“Tell me later. I won’t remember between now and when I address this. Just wanted to get in touch, let her know where we’re at, what’s going on. Make it so she doesn’t feel so alone. Because being with Helen and Ashton, who are good company but not the best for actual conversation, and then there’s the new guy whatshisname-”
“Duncan,” Jamie and Lillian said at the same time.
“-who doesn’t have a doctorly name, it’s gotta be a little isolating,” I said.
“It probably is,” Lillian said.
“Unless you don’t want me to? If it would be weird, me writing a girl a letter, when we’re sort of, you know-”
“You’re not writing a girl a letter. You’re writing Mary a letter. My best friend. Are you honestly telling me that the clever Sylvester is this clueless when it comes to things like this?”
“The clever Sylvester is new to this sort of thing,” I said. “He’s got some of it figured out, but other parts, he just wants to not screw up too badly.”
“He’s doing fine,” Lillian said. “Mostly.”
“Mostly?” I asked. I moved the pen over to the other hand, reached up, and tugged at her hair, where it hung in front of her ear.
Lillian swatted at my hand. I saw her turn her head, looking for the Gages, then she leaned in and gave me a quick peck on the cheek.
“Stop smiling like that,” she said, jabbing me with a finger.
“I’m not,” I said, while suppressing a smile. “I am going to start this letter with ‘Dear Mary, Lillian is telling lies and abusing me with pokes and prods.'”
“Don’t. You saying that is going to make her miss us more.”
“True. And we might as well edit it so it’s fine if someone gets their hands on it. Like the Gages, who we’ll have to ask to mail it for us.”
“Yeah,” Lillian said.
“Dear Mary. Miss you.”
“That’s nice,” Lillian said. Jamie nodded.
Gordon joined us. He settled down a short distance from Jamie, at the foot of the hill, setting down the bags.
“Hey Gordon,” I said.
“How’s that heart of yours doing? Pounding? Feeling a twinge?”
“Because exertion like that, especially dumb, muleheaded exertion, for no reason at all, can’t imagine it’s that good for you.”
“I’m fine, Sy. No pain. Hubris isn’t telling me there’s anything he senses that I don’t.”
I looked at the dog. “And what happens if he says it isn’t, halfway here? Are we supposed to come look for you, or do the Gages find you? Because it reflects badly, you know, and you were being snobby earlier about how we’re all in this for Lillian and you had her back when I don’t.”
“I’m fine, Sy. I’m strong. The luggage has wheels. It’s not a problem.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “Right.”
“Right,” he said.
“The letter,” Lillian told me.
I reached over, and rubbed her thigh through the fabric of my jacket.
“Anything you want to add, Gordon? Letter to Mary,” I said.
“Tell her I’ll practice. I’ll land thirty-six out of thirty-nine, next time she gives me lessons.”
“Knife throwing?” Jamie asked.
“Land…” I said speaking very slowly. “Twenty out of thirty-nine.”
“Thirty-six,” Gordon said.
“Right, twenty-six,” I said, as I wrote down thirty-six.
“Hubris. Kill him,” Gordon said.
Hubris, panting from pulling the luggage, raised his head to look at me, hackles rising, teeth bared. He got to his feet, and he snarled. Lillian moved a little, just beside me, ready to throw herself out of the way.
“You’re such a faker, mutt,” I said, very casually.
The hackles went down, he closed his mouth, then flopped over onto his side.
I was nearly done the letter when a ship in the harbor blew its horn. I looked up and out and thought again of the kid in the cage.
It made me think of the conversation with Lillian, the cost, the gamble. How many small injustices did I have to let slide, to commit a greater justice?
I turned my head to look at Lillian, studying her.
She was the one who was going to outlive even me. Not that I was going to live that long.
Had to do this right. Build her up, make her strong, keep her happy and healthy.
Mary was more fragile in some ways, I was worse for Mary, but the damage done would be so short term. Lillian would, extenuating circumstances aside, be an enduring presence in the world.
She noticed me looking.
“What?” she asked. She flushed a little.
“This thing, right here. Whatever we’re calling this job. You have it in you to do it right. But it’s going to be tough.”
“I got the gist of that,” Lillian said. She turned to Gordon, “We were talking earlier about the moral dilemmas.”
“It’s your mission, you make the call,” Gordon said.
I gestured toward him. See? See?
“I know,” Lillian said.
“For the next part, I’m going to take lead. Because I think we can find a middle ground, where there is one to be found. I want you to pay attention. Start thinking along these lines. Looking for the less obvious roads. If it’s the only thing I can teach you, let me teach you this much.”
She gave me a somber nod.
I finished up the letter, keeping to general topics. The content of the letter didn’t matter – it was the fact it was being sent that mattered most, that she was being remembered.
We watched the ships for a little longer. Idly, I reached up and tugged her hair again.
She licked her lips, glancing back over her shoulder, and jumped a little.
I looked. It was the Gages. Everard and Adelaide.
The Lambs stood.
“Everything alright?” Everard asked. I didn’t get the impression he’d seen me pull Lillian’s hair, or that he’d understood what he’d seen. No wry look in his eyes, no puzzlement, nothing in his tone.
“Yes, sir,” Lillian said.
“We’ve found a boat. You’ll go from this harbor to the one in Lugh, sooner than you would if you reached out to your Academy.”
Antsy to get us going.
“Yes, sir,” Lillian said.
“I’ll show you to the appropriate ship.”
“If it’s no trouble, could you tell us about your daughter while you do?” Gordon asked.
Everard Gage blinked, a little surprised.
“If we’re expected to find her, we should know what we can about her, sir. Age, appearance, name, interests, personality.”
“I see,” Everard said. He looked faintly uncomfortable. He gestured for us to walk.
The Lambs moved down the hill to the luggage, collecting it, before catching up with the others. I saw Lillian heading over to grab the case with her things, and shooed her off. She could go empty handed.
I gave it to the mutt, instead. He gave me an annoyed look, but took the handle between his teeth.
“She’s a good girl,” Adelaide said. “Until this… flight of fancy. She’s always done well in her lessons, though it took some convincing for some.”
“Which ones, ma’am?”
“I’d have to ask the tutors to remind myself, but there’s no time for that, is there? There was an instrument she wasn’t fond of. It might have been the violin,” Adelaide decided. Then doubt crossed that young woman’s face. “Or was that dancing? It was the same teacher. The fellow from Eire.”
“It might have been the dancing she took issue with,” Everard said. “She wasn’t graceful.”
“Is there something she particularly enjoyed?” Gordon tried. “In food, drink, treats, entertainment, hobbies? Types of people she spent time with?”
I saw the look on the parents’ faces, as if they were utterly lost in the face of the simplest questions. If we pushed too much further, we risked offending them.
They barely knew their own daughter.
“Would it be better to ask the tutors, then get in touch with us by letter?” I asked.
“Perhaps,” Everard said.
It wasn’t a statement that should have ended the line of questioning, but it did. The others had sensed much of what I had, or had taken my cue, because they weren’t pressing any further.
“Her looks?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s a pretty girl,” Adelaide said. “Blonde, but she always wore her hair in that modern style, all curls, tight against the head. I don’t know if she still will, it’s so much trouble to upkeep. Not a problem at home-”
She went on at length about her daughter’s physical attributes, the particulars of dress, fashion, style, what looked good on her daughter, grace… I tuned out much of it. Jamie would remember the key points.
The people’s ramp up to the docks wasn’t so far away from where we’d been sitting. We made our way up, our footing swaying as a wagon cart made its way down.
The docks weren’t extensive, but they were nearly as crowded as the harbor was with boats. People were moving things from ship to dock. Construction material. Building homes from scratch was expensive and the materials were so often acquired from elsewhere. When you were going that far, why not go a step further and have the best wood, the nicest marble and stone?
I looked over the decks of the ships, searching, studying.
The wagon cart, with a cage build into it. The cage was empty, but the crowd of people matched. Young and old, roughly half of them natives of the Crown States. The other half were mixed, some white, some black, some Asian. There were kids and youths in the group. No chains bound them, but from the way they held themselves, the adults in particular, they might as well have had seven stone worth of shackles binding them from neck to wrist to ankle.
No, the monster that accompanied them was the shackle. If they tried to run, it would get them, sure as anything. There had probably been a hapless example. Or there would be, when one of them worked up the courage to act.
Adelaide was still talking. I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.
“Lillian,” I murmured, putting a hand on Lillian’s shoulder, leaning close. I spoke in her ear, just loud enough to be heard by others without being understood, keeping in mind that Adelaide or Everard might have had their hearing improved. “That thing I was mentioning earlier, we really should…”
Adelaide had trailed off. She glanced back at us.
“Is there a problem?” she asked.
“It’s minor, ma’am,” I said, “We would work it out ourselves, but in terms of doing this operation as well as it can be done-”
Her eyebrows went up, concern, irritation.
“Clothes, ma’am,” I said. I pointed at the people on the ship. “They’re slaves?”
“Indentured workers,” she said, archly.
“Whatever you need, let’s get it over with, the captain is waiting,” Everard said.
Just like that, we were onto the deck of the boat with the slaves.
“If I may?” I asked Everard.
He gestured at me. I was free to handle this.
“Captain,” I spoke to the man who gave off the impression he was in charge. He certainly seemed like he was working least and worrying the most.
“Boy?” he asked. Then he took note of Everard Gage, and closer look of my clothing. “How can I help you?”
“The indentured servants. Can I ask what happened?”
“Nonpayment of taxes,” he said, indicating the natives. “Crime. Those two families, a question of debts, purchased by the Crown.”
“Working off their sentences and debts to the Crown?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Even the children?”
“Except for that little criminal, yes,” he said. He indicated one boy with pale hair that stood up in every direction. One of the boy’s arms was shorter than the other.
Even the children, institutionalized and made to work to pay off the family debts. Sins of the father.
“Where are they bound?”
“Would be Key Isle,” Jamie said.
“Key Isle eventually.”
“But you stop in Lugh first?” I asked.
I saw him hesitate.
It was only a guess, but it was an educated one. I wondered if Lugh was the type of place that bred freedom fighters who would pay top dollar to free people from the Crown and get recruits, or if it was a question of business, offloading assets that ate more food and got more sickly the longer they were on a boat. It would be nice to know, because it would inform how we approached a strange city.
I stepped closer to the child that I’d seen in the back of the wagon. A girl, two or so years younger than me. Maybe older, but shrunken from malnutrition. I was brusque, checking her clothes, touching her hair. She shrank back and I grabbed her firmly. “Stop that.”
She froze, and looked up at her father, who wore a defeated expression, barely seeming to care about any of this.
“What’s this about?” Everard asked.
I leaned close to the girl, holding her hair to my nose. While close, I murmured under my breath, “Say yes.”
She wore a puzzled expression as I backed away. She started to speak, and I stuck a finger up, pressing it against her mouth. I looked at the captain. “How much?”
“Hm? To buy?” he asked. “Debt for that family is two thousand. That one’s five thousand, the criminals are working for five years at a dollar a day, if I remember right. Some for ten years, that one and that one.”
I pulled my finger away, pointing at the girl. I asked her, “Do you know Lugh? Have you been?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Good,” I said. I turned to Everard. “I want to buy them, sir. Pay their debts and take them on. All of the children of the debtors, the child criminal, and the parents as well. It’s extra ears on the ground, we can wear their clothes off the boat, so we don’t draw too much attention.”
“You don’t have the means of disguising yourself already?” Everard asked.
Yes, of course we do.
I grabbed the girl’s shirtfront, and sniffed it. “It smells like the seaside, sir. Sometimes we deal with people who have enhanced senses. Smelling like we belong is critical.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Everard said. “If that’s what you need to do, then do it. We’ll see about convincing the captain of the boat you’re taking.”
“Do you have the wallet?” I asked Gordon, gesturing subtly at the same time.
“No, it’s in one of the bags. I’ll get it.”
Everard made a ‘tsk’ sound, then said, “Captain, do you know who I am?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Gage.”
“I’ll pay you the next time you’re in this port. You know I’m good for my word.”
“Yes sir,” the Captain said, trying too hard to avoid smiling. He put his hands on the shoulders of different members of the group I’d pointed out, speaking to his pet monster, murmured orders. Telling it not to act, to let them go. He’d gotten a grotesquely good deal on this, I suspected. “You have the means of controlling them?”
“We’ll manage,” I said.
“Mm hmm,” he said, in a very ‘it’s your funeral’ way.
Nine people ended up coming, six children and three adults, two men and a woman, roughly half the group black, the other half white.
I didn’t see Everard’s negotiation with the captain, but I did see the captain give the order to move one set of crates off the ship and onto the dock. Making room.
I kept quiet and stayed focused, avoiding the puzzled glances of the parents and the children until the ship was underway. Everard Gage and Adelaide Gage stood on the docks, watching us as the crew freed the ship from the dock. There was probably a nautical term for it. Unmoored?
“You’re free,” I murmured, to the little girl, gripping the ship railing and staring out over the water. Lillian was standing right beside me, Jamie behind me. “After you help us in Lugh, but you’re free. Debt is paid.”
“Why?” she asked.
I didn’t answer. The ship started moving.
“Before this is done,” I said to the little girl, “After things settle down and you find a home, you need to learn to fend for yourself, to be clever and be strong. Because whatever your parents did to get into debt that bad, they’re going to do it again.”
I turned my head, meeting her eyes.
I saw a resigned look, one that suggested she’d long since accepted that she was doomed to rise and fall as her parents did.
“The next time, you can’t get caught when they do. You have to be able to manage on your own. Because I’m betting that one of the stops between Lugh and Key Isle is an Academy.”
“There isn’t,” Jamie said.
“Okay,” I said. “Then they keep you at Key Isle until you know just how miserable existence is there, and then they tell you that you can leave, have your debt cleared, if only you accept doing some work for the Academy. They’ll test something on you, and you’ll take that deal. You’ll wish you hadn’t.”
“Go wait with your family below deck. If there’s too many of us, the captain is going to get annoyed.”
She nodded again, then scampered off.
I liked her.
The ship rose and fell with waves. Hubris’ claws skittered momentarily on the deck.
“Was that what happened to you?” Lillian asked, quiet. “With the debt, working for the Academy?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “Wouldn’t remember if it was.”
She nodded. She took my hand.
“But it could’ve been what happened,” I said. “Which is reason enough.”