“Of course I shouldn’t.” She stood up and paced away. “Especially as he didn’t even want the list. I don’t like having games played with my safety. But—”
“But you’re in over your head, and you’ve someone else to watch over. It’s not easy surviving by yourself.”
“I—yes.” She looked at him, her eyes crinkled in puzzlement. “I wouldn’t have imagined you would understand. It is, after all, just one of those excuses that you decried the last time we spoke.”
Smite had his own experience of Bristol life, decades old now. But he simply shook his head. “It’s always difficult when responsibilities tug you in different directions.”
“Difficult.” She let out a sigh. “I feel like Antigone, operating under two incompatible directives.”
Smite froze. “Antigone.” He glanced up at her. “How do you know Antigone?”
She waved a hand. “I was raised by actors. You shouldn’t be shocked that I have some passing familiarity with plays.”
“Passing familiarity, yes, but… Antigone has not yet been translated from the Greek.”
“One of the members of our troupe was translating it.” She delivered this airily, with no sense of how remarkable that might have been.
There were only a handful of scholars who could have even attempted such a thing. Men who translated ancient Greek were fellows at Oxford. They didn’t traipse about the countryside putting on performances for rural audiences.
It wasn’t often that Smite was rendered stupid. “But… You were truly raised by actors?” It didn’t come out as quite a question. He’d already noticed that over the course of their conversation, her accent had drifted toward the learned tones of an Oxonian. Her vocabulary was far beyond what he would have expected from a poor seamstress.
“It’s not so hard to understand.” She peered at him. “Are you sure you’re well?” Before he realized what she was doing, she reached out and set her hand against his forehead. A brief flicker of her fingers against his temple—nothing more—and he was transported to a darker place. He was spitting out cold water, his hands rigid and aching from holding fast to wood. The light above him danced and dazzled—
Her cry brought him back to the present. He was warm and dry, no matter how quickly his heart raced. He wasn’t there. He was in a garret room, sitting next to Miss Darling. She’d touched his face, and he’d grabbed her hand. He hadn’t squeezed too hard, thank God. She was breathing quickly and looking at him as if he had perhaps passed over into lunacy.
He let go. “Don’t fuss over me.”
She flexed her hand gingerly.
“Will you be back, then, looking for records?”
She shook her head surely—but stopped halfway, her eyes focusing elsewhere. “Actually,” she said, “I will need to find out what happened with George Patten. The gaol—how would one go about getting the records there?”
“One needs to be a man of some standing in the community,” Smite said dryly. “Or one has the portcullis shut in one’s face.”
Instead of looking disheartened, Miss Darling simply nodded. As if she were contemplating—
Smite narrowed his eyes. “Thinking that you could pretend to be yet another person? No. I don’t think so. Consider the improvidence of committing fraud while you are inside a gaol.”
“Of course,” she said, all too obediently. “You’re quite right.”
He’d bet Ghost a romp through a manure pile, that she was making plans at this very moment. But what was to be done? He couldn’t watch the gaol himself. He could send warning.
But there was another option.
An odd impulse, nothing more. It had absolutely nothing to do with that wretched awareness of her that kept creeping out at the most inopportune moments—at least, he hoped it didn’t. If he was going to exert himself on her behalf, he might as well choose the option that didn’t end with her in prison. More efficient for everyone involved.
That was it. Efficiency. Nothing else.
“I have an idea,” he heard himself say. “I’ll take you there myself.”
AFTER LORD JUSTICE AND his dog took their leave, Miranda negotiated the rickety steps of the narrow staircase down a level, until she heard the faint sound of boys talking. Robbie’s deep rumble contrasted with Joey’s higher treble.
She paused on the third-floor landing and shivered. The window was half open, and cold night air poured in. Robbie and his friend were on the other side. They’d leapt the foot-wide gap between upper window and gables, and she could see them perched on the flat roof of the neighboring building. They leaned against one of the chimney flues for warmth.
Joey passed Robbie a bottle, and Robbie lifted it to his lips. Moonlight glinted on amber glass, and Miranda’s heart contracted.
Gin. At least Robbie was fake-swallowing, just as she’d told him. If you only took a little in your mouth…
She turned and flattened herself against the wall. Half of her wanted to storm out onto the roof, threatening bloody murder.
But she’d tried screaming. She’d tried punishments. She’d tried gentle affection and love. She’d tried everything in turn, until she’d come to the end of her wits. It all came down to the same thing: she was scarcely eight years older than he was. She simply wasn’t adequate to the task of raising a twelve-year-old boy.
All she could do was watch him fall from her grasp.
Her eyes stung, and she wrapped her arms about herself to ward off the cold.
Miranda tried to be optimistic. Her future was spread out before her. She had good friends. When her wigs sold, she had more funds than most solitary women her age. She’d made do so far.
But she felt like a juggler tossing torches into the air. The circus-master kept throwing more in. Sooner or later, one would fall, and the life she’d built would burn to cinders.
No wonder Robbie never minded her. What did he have to look forward to? A life of hard labor where, honest or not, he could still end up in gaol. Like George. Her fingers dug into her arm, stinging.
Miranda gave her head a short shake. No. Down that road lay surrender and despair. She’d seen it before, and she wasn’t going to succumb. Defeat might be inevitable, but she hadn’t dropped her torches yet, and she wasn’t going to stop trying.
Miranda straightened her spine, turned to the window, and wrestled it all the way open.
Out on the rooftop, Robbie jumped guiltily at the horrid creak it made. He shoved the bottle he was holding behind his back.
But all he said was, “What?” in a surly growl.
“I’m going dancing down at Pete’s,” Miranda called. “Want to come?”
Light. Heat. A fast country reel, and enough exertion that she could push aside the impossibility of her life.
“Dancing?” Robbie rumbled.
; She could hear the distant sound of the fiddle a few streets over. The music reached out to her across the cold night. It was the sound of a few hours of forgetfulness—cheaper than gin and twice as warming.
“I’m getting my cloak. I’ll be leaving in a few minutes.” She paused, then offered, “Come along. You’ll have fun.” It wasn’t an olive branch she held out; more like a twig stolen from some similar tree.
Robbie stood. “I guess.” He shoved something at Joey—the bottle, Miranda supposed—and crossed the roof to the window. He didn’t even look down at the gap between the buildings before he jumped inside.
“Do you want something to eat before we go?”
He smelled of gin, but he wasn’t unsteady on his legs. She really should scold him. Or maybe she should apologize. But as she watched Robbie climb the stairs ahead of her, what she breathed instead was a whispered promise.
“I’m going to keep juggling,” she said.
“Huh?” Robbie asked ahead of her.
She shook her head. “Nothing. It’s nothing.”
THIS TIME, THE WATER in Smite’s dreams was boiling hot and there was nothing to hold—no ladder, no stairs: nothing but rough walls that tore at his fingers. When he opened his mouth to scream, water bubbled in, stifling his voice to nothingness. He clawed for the surface, but it had ceased to exist. There was nothing but liquid surrounding him, nothing but this hot, filthy effluent stretching in all directions. No matter how he fought, there was no end to it.
It filled his lungs, caustic as lye soap, and he swallowed it, choking, burning—
Smite woke, jerking upright, swallowing a shout on his lips. He could hear it ringing around him, and he felt that old sense of embarrassment. Not that it mattered; there was nobody else about. What servants he employed lived outside his home; he’d arranged matters that way for this very reason. He gulped breath and urged his heart to cease racing.
There was a rustle in the dark, and then, against the palm of his hand, a cold nose.