“I am innocent!” she protested.
“Tell that to the judge,” James said sarcastically.
But it was the officer who held her who truly made her shiver. Because he leaned in and whispered in her ear what she had just begun to fear: “Tell that to the Patron.”
AFTER MIDNIGHT, MIRANDA GAVE up trying to sleep. Her cell was cold; the cot impossibly hard.
When she lay down, her corset cut into her waist. She couldn’t reach behind her to loosen the laces of her gown. Instead, she listened to the guards that patrolled the area.
They hadn’t brought her to the gaol; that was for convicted criminals. She was in a small holding cell at the police station. The only window was a small square hole cut in the door. Closed, only a faint trickle of gray seeped around the edges. She could see nothing. Her other senses brought her little information, too. There was the regular sound of booted feet as the guard crossed the hall and stood, not ten feet away, as part of his rounds. When he stood close by, the dimmest hint of light shafted into her cell from his lantern. He stayed for a few minutes. Then his footsteps started once more, and he disappeared down the hall. She counted past two thousand in impenetrable blackness before he appeared again.
Over and over, the patrol repeated, until her head began to spin.
The pattern altered sometime after a clock somewhere struck three. The rhythm of the footfalls that drew near seemed more complicated—the sound of two people walking, not just one. Miranda sat up, clutching her blanket. The patrol stopped in front of her cell. This time, metal jingled and a key scraped in the lock. The door opened.
Two lanterns shed light, turning the people outside into black silhouettes.
Miranda shrank back against the wall. One dark, cloaked figure strode in, and set a lantern by the door.
“Who are you?” Miranda’s voice shook.
No answer came. The wooden door thudded shut, but the figure did not move. Miranda’s breathing grew shallow. She held still, as if somehow, if she didn’t move, he wouldn’t see her. Outside, the footfalls moved onward. The officer had left her alone with…with whomever this was.
Still, the figure didn’t speak. Instead, he advanced toward Miranda.
“I’ll scream,” she choked out. She looked around wildly for a weapon, but the only thing within reach was a tattered blanket.
“Go ahead.” The answering voice was raspy, and not at all what she’d expected. It was a woman. An older woman.
“You’re with the Patron.”
The woman didn’t bother denying the charge. She reached out and grabbed hold of Miranda’s shoulder. Her grip was surprisingly strong, her arm muscular. She brought her other hand up, and a glint of light caught a metal blade.
Miranda did scream then, and she kicked out hard. But the woman simply grunted, absorbing the blow, and pressed Miranda against the wall.
“Shut up,” she said, holding the knife up near Miranda’s throat. “This is what your life is worth—five seconds and a scream in the dark that nobody hears.”
Her assailant grabbed a hank of Miranda’s hair and jerked her forward. Her scalp stung; the knife flashed. Miranda bit back another scream.
But the woman had done no more than cut off a lock of her hair. She stepped back, putting her knife away. Miranda became aware of the rapid beat of her heart, the shallow rasp of her breathing.
“I thought the Patron wanted a replacement,” Miranda gasped. “How could this convince me to support his cause?”
A snort came in the dark. “The Patron decides matters of justice. If someone doesn’t like the Patron’s version of justice, well… you can just tell that someone to construct his own version in its place. This is a warning, dearie. Count yourself lucky. You could have ended up like George.” Another chuckle. “You still might. This—” the figure held up the hank of hair “—is just a token of the Patron’s good will.”
“An arrest and a cold cell is a token of good will?” Miranda muttered. “I’d hate to see him angry.”
“Your name will be on the list distributed to the magistrates tomorrow morning. Lord Justice will free you before seven of the clock. You won’t even have to wait for the hearing.” The woman turned, and then threw over her shoulder. “Tell him that, when next you see him. Tell him that you’re here on sufferance. Next time…”
Miranda shivered. None of it made sense. Why would the Patron want her, of all people, as a replacement? A reluctant replacement would hardly do any good. And Miranda had shown little talent for running criminal enterprises. She could drive a hard bargain; that was it. All those days in Old Blazer’s shop—had he been watching her then?
She curled into a ball. Her hands were trembling. “If the Patron doesn’t want to harm me, why threaten me? Why threaten Robbie?”
There was a long pause. “The Patron wants what every man wants,” the woman finally said. “He wants to leave a legacy.”
Miranda rubbed her forehead. Her head was beginning to ache with the dull throb of sleeplessness. She could hear the sound of boots tramping down the corridor once again—hard slaps against the stone floors.
“Why me?” She’d meant those words as a pure whine—the sort of thing that Smite would have immediately dismissed as self-indulgent rubbish.
She received no answer.
The guard returned and opened the cell door. The figure leaned down to recapture her lantern and slipped away. The lock clicked behind her. Once again, footfalls traversed the station. Five minutes, that had taken. It felt like hours. Miranda sat in shaking silence, her mind awhirl.
If sleep had been unattainable before, it was unthinkable now. Every tread of the guard’s passing reminded her of the nightmare she’d just gone through. Her hands shook. She could not find warmth, no matter how tightly she curled up. She didn’t escape that sense of terror until black night turned to dark gray, and gray turned to dawn.
Dawn brought her the first ray of hope.
Sounds of activity rose around her: the indistinct murmur of conversation in some other room, and the clop of hooves, filtered through the one high window in her cell.
A clock tower eventually chimed seven. Miranda imagined the lists going out to the magistrates. Smite might not look at his immediately. He had other duties, after all.
He might first read the paper. He’d surely look over the accounts of the more violent crimes first. Or…
With each passing quarter hour, she invented a new duty for him to perform. But each chime of the bells brought a fresh wave of anxiety. When eight o’clock came, a new fear ascended: he wasn’t coming.
That possibility had never occurred to her, not once during that foul nightmare of an evening. But he’d remarked before about the use of public power for personal gain.
At eleven, a constable unlocked her cell and escorted her to the hearing room. It was every bit as dingy as it had been when she’d stood here all those weeks ago. But the faces that watched her seemed harsher, less forgiving. And the magistrates…
There were four this time, all dressed in a somber black. Two of them scarcely glanced at her. One frowned—a frown that said he had every intention of punishing her to the fullest sense of the law. And the last…oh, the last was Smite.
She might have collapsed with relief, seeing him there.
Yet when his eyes met hers, he showed no sign of recognition. No widening of the eyes. No smile. No shake of the head. It was as if she simply didn’t exist, except as another prisoner to be judged.
Her knees almost gave way. If he had been anyone else, she might have thought that he was acting indifferent so as best to help her during the hearing. But she knew Smite. It was no pretense when his gaze slipped over hers. He didn’t have it in him to lie that well.
No. She had to face the simple truth. He had well and truly set her to the side.
She’d forgotten what he sounded like on the bench. He was incisive and clear. He ferreted out answers. He did his duty
, without regard to the person who was before him. It was going to be awful to have him do his duty toward her.
Maybe it would be worse if he did not. The other magistrates were scarcely even attending to the other prisoners. Long ago, she’d told him that magistrates and constables saw the poor as guilty before the law, no matter what had actually happened. He was the sole exception to prove that rule.
She sat through three convictions before her case was called. She struggled to her feet and half stumbled on her way to the front. Her limbs were all pins and needles. But before anyone could speak, Smite stood.
He did not look her way. “Gentlemen,” he said to his fellow magistrates. “This lady is known to me. I cannot grant impartial judgment in her case. It is my duty, therefore, to recuse myself.”
Her head felt light. She reached out to take the arm of the constable who’d conducted her in. She wasn’t going to faint. Damn it, she was not.
“If you must, Turner,” one of his fellow magistrates said. “Always were a bit too nice about these matters.”
The voice seemed to come from very far away.
Even in her worst imaginings, she’d supposed he would be there. It had broken her heart to imagine him treating her with indifferent, sterile fairness. But it broke her courage to not have him at all. At least he would have listened.