“You’re well?” That was Dalrymple’s dubious comment.
“I’ll feel substantially more at ease once I’m off this vessel.”
“Amen,” said a voice. It took Smite a few seconds to place it. Jeremy Blasseur. Miranda’s friend; the grandson of the Patron. He didn’t want to think what it meant, that her friend had been able to find them. He heard the sound of metal clinking.
Mr. Blasseur, apparently, had the keys to Patten’s chains.
“George,” he was saying, “I’m so sorry. It’s my fault. I didn’t know what to do.”
Patten made an indistinct answer. In the dim light, Smite could barely see the man struggle to his feet. Mr. Blasseur reached out to help him up, and when Patten stumbled, took his arm to steady him.
As they made their way to the staircase, Miranda appeared by Smite’s side. She didn’t reach out and touch him. She just stood—near enough to comfort him with her presence, but not so close as to overwhelm him.
“Miranda,” he said.
He reached out at the foot of the ladder and took her hand. Her fingers were cold. His own were trembling. It was this secret he entrusted to her—the shameful prize of his weakness.
“I suppose,” he heard himself say, “I should tell you it’s not safe to be here.”
Her fingers curled in his. “You never make it safe to be by your side,” she answered. “This one might be a little extreme even for you.” The low teasing lilt of her voice robbed her words of any sting they might otherwise have carried.
“But then,” she continued, “I always did fancy dangerous men.”
“Get on up.” He watched her ascend, then started up the ladder behind her. Everyone was quiet above him. He reached the top. The rain he’d heard had turned to snow, flakes melting into grayness as they struck the deck. Just as he reached the top, though, Miranda let out a short, pained burst of air. She stepped protectively in front of him. Strangely, Mr. Blasseur did the same thing—moving in front of George Patten, who was still limping from the chains they’d unlocked.
Men were scrambling onto the deck. Two. Three. Four. Five. The count hit seven, and then the last man reached down his hand and pulled up one more person.
It was a woman. Smite hadn’t been expecting a woman.
Beside him, Miranda stiffened. “There’s no time to explain,” she said hastily. “She’s the Patron—Jeremy’s mother, Mrs. Blasseur. She wanted him to take her place. That’s what it has all been about.”
The Patron didn’t look like the sort of person who ran a criminal enterprise. Her face was pleasant, if gaunt and sallow. She walked slowly: not shakily, as if she were elderly, but each step was a heavy trudge. Smite could hear her breathing. She heaved as if she’d been running for hours.
“Jeremy,” she said in tones of motherly exasperation. “Why do you always have to make things so difficult?”
“It’s too late,” Jeremy said. “It’s all too late. The Duke of Parford is raising the militia as we speak. You have only a matter of hours until he comes after you.”
The woman sat down heavily. “Really, Jeremy. I have only a matter of days. It’s not the militia I fear.” She gave him a sad smile. But her gaze shifted beyond Jeremy, and she caught sight of Smite.
“Ah. Your Worship.” She graced him with a disconcertingly friendly smile. “I have so wanted to speak with you. I feel that we could have been very great friends. It’s a shame that only one of us will come out of this encounter alive. That seems professionally discourteous, after all. We’re in the same business.”
“Of course we are. We both deal justice. Only this time, it’s your life in my hands. What is it that you’ll offer me for it, I wonder?”
“Nothing,” Smite said.
Beside him, Dalrymple twitched.
Mrs. Blasseur took a handkerchief and coughed into it delicately. “You value yourself highly.” She cast her gaze about. “And your compatriots.”
“You misunderstand. If you have to purchase it, you cannot call it justice.”
Mrs. Blasseur curled her lip. But what would have been a cold, cutting silence was broken up by her ragged cough. Her frame bent over; Jeremy, standing next to George Patten, took one step forward.
She held up a hand. “Lord Justice, do you know why I began doing this? It was because your court paid little heed to crimes committed in Temple Parish. Rob a merchant, and you’ll hang; but let a man beat his poor neighbor half to death, and the constables are nowhere to be found. Ask Miranda where she went when she needed help. What would your constables have done with a seventeen-year-old girl who was threatened by an older man? I do good things for the people you scorn. If your justice isn’t paid for, why is nobody in Temple Parish rich enough to avail themselves of it?”
She coughed again.
Smite bit his lip. “I admit to some imperfections with my model. I’ve been doing my best to alleviate that.”
“Ah,” she said. “I know what you’ll say next. You’re going to remind me that I killed people. You might mention a few threats I’ve made. But I’ve seen men hanged in the name of the Queen. I saw you on the bench, once, issuing threats to others should they not stay honest. So tell me again, how are you different?”
Smite glanced back toward George Patten, still unsteady on his feet.
She caught the direction of his thoughts. “Yes. I imprisoned an innocent man. Are you so certain you’ve never done that?” She gave him a tight smile.
“This is sophistry,” Smite responded. “Let us be clear. I want you not to kill me—or anyone here. You know that your time has come. You’ve been discovered, and it’s only a matter of time until you and your organization are brought down. If I don’t do it personally, someone else will complete the task. You’re not here to mete out justice to me. You’ve come to beg for mercy.”
“I have not.” She had a sad smile on her face.
“No use denying it. And there’s no use pretending I can give it. There will be none for you. I have some discretion in the performance of my duties; I have none where murder has been committed. You have, by your own admission, killed.”
Mrs. Blasseur shook her head. “Oh, dearie me. You are serious, aren’t you? I’m not here to beg for my life.” She gave him another tight, sad smile. “I could scarcely walk here. In a few days, I doubt I’ll be able to stand. Even speaking winds me. The doctor says I simply can’t take in enough air to survive. You don’t have to hang me. My body is suffocating of its own accord.”
The Patron with nothing to lose… It didn’t bear thinking about. “What do you want, then?”
“I want you to let Jeremy take charge.” There was a low ferocity in her voice. “I’ve made my peace with death, but I want what I have built to live on. I want a legacy.”
“Mama,” Jeremy said.
“No, listen. He’s trained for this. He’s a good boy—he listens to people, and they like talking to him. He won’t do anything lightly. Agree not to interfere with him and I’ll let you go. After all we’ve suffered through, Temple Parish deserves justice. Don’t let it die with me.”
A few months ago, Smite would have suppressed the flash of unwilling compassion he felt at those words. There was only one answer to be made: there could be no other justice. His duty required him to eradicate the whole scheme, root and branch.
“Mother,” Jeremy said, his voice low. “I can’t do this. Don’t ask it of me. Please.”
“You can. I believe in you.” She smiled at her son, as if she were encouraging him to persevere in a difficult set of lessons. It was morbidly touching. “Everything’s already in place. If someone needs help, they know who to go to. All you need to do is respond.”
“What you do is not justice,” Smite heard himself say. “When I step down, my replacement will be chosen openly by Queen Victoria. I may have, by mistake, sentenced an innocent man to prison in the past. But I’ve never purposefully held a man who has d
one no wrong in an attempt to coerce my chosen replacement.”
Jeremy bit his lip and glanced at Patten.
“When I order you to be held, it will be because I have a reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime. A grand jury will hear the evidence against you and charge you. Should you live long enough, you’ll have the opportunity to rebut that evidence at an open trial. This system is funded by the open and equal administration of taxes and duties, rather than robbery and blackmail. I cannot claim that the rule of law is perfect. But it is not hidden. Its flaws can be examined by all, and changes made. Justice that shrinks from the light of examination is nothing more than vengeance. I cannot let your organization persist.”
Mrs. Blasseur shook her head sadly. “Then our conversation is over.” She raised her hand, and the men she’d brought with her started forward.
Smite met her eyes. “It doesn’t need to be. If I am not found, my brother will tear apart Temple Parish looking for me. What you have accomplished will be destroyed. There will be nothing to pass on at all. I have a better idea.”
Mrs. Blasseur cocked her head and slowly lowered her hand.
“Jeremy,” Smite said. “You were unwilling to serve as your mother’s replacement. I have another position in mind.”