She set a bonnet atop the golden hair. “You’re a shopkeeper, Jeremy, not a moneylender.”
“I wasn’t offering to lend you anything.” He swallowed. “We…we’re doing quite well, and—”
“I’m not comfortable with anything else. I don’t need a loan.”
“Miranda.” Jeremy set his hand over hers. “Listen to me. I don’t care if you need a loan.” He sighed. “George was supposed to be released today, did you know that?”
“Oh?” That should have been good news, but by the set of his jaw, it was not.
“I went to the gaol to inquire, but he wasn’t on the list of men who were set free.”
Miranda stared at Jeremy. “I can’t imagine George making trouble, getting additional time.”
“It’s worse. I made them check—he wasn’t inside the gaol, either. He’s gone.”
No wonder Jeremy looked so serious. Miranda shook her head in confusion. “How is that possible?”
“It’s this place.” Jeremy looked straight ahead. “It eats good people and spits out monsters. George didn’t even do anything, and he was tossed in prison. Now he’s disappeared. Mother—”
He stopped himself, shook his head, and looked up at Miranda. His pale eyes pierced her. And maybe they were done being shopkeeper and supplier, now, and were ready to move back to being friends. She closed her hand around his.
“Shh,” she said softly. She couldn’t bring herself to say that all would be well. Chances were, it wouldn’t.
“I’m losing everything I care about,” he said thickly. “I just want a normal life. Is that so much to ask?”
“Shh,” she repeated.
He pulled his hand away from hers and pushed her coin across the table. “Take it.” His face was stony. “And promise me that you’ll come to me if you need anything else. I can’t lose you, too.”
Miranda owed enough favors as it was. Still, she couldn’t turn him down—not with that look of stony certainty in his face. And so she picked up the small coin and slipped it back into her pocket.
It was just a little debt—a half-shilling’s worth. It couldn’t be too hard to make it up to him. She’d manage it somehow. And soon.
THE SUN HAD ALMOST retired when Miranda ducked out of Blasseur’s Trade Goods & More. It was early yet; the clocks had not yet struck five. Still, she pulled her cloak around her against the chill of the oncoming night. A lamplighter across the street had lit half the lamps on Temple Street; they cast a dim glow down the thoroughfare. But the road was unlit in the direction Miranda headed.
The coming darkness lent urgency to this last errand. Robbie would still be at the glassworks where he worked in the afternoon, but it was not long until evensong. Miranda still had to make one last perilous visit. No point postponing it, except to coddle her nerves.
She darted across the street, and then down a short, dark lane. The buildings blocked all light, before giving way to a wide space, framed by a forbidding gate. After the bustle of the gloomy streets, the fog covered the churchyard like a cold, clammy blanket. The edges ruffled in a small breeze. Out of that sea of mist rose the dark silhouette of Temple Church.
To her eye, the church seemed a bit sad. After its construction, one side of the bell tower had begun to sink. At this point, hundreds of years later, the tower had tilted so much that it had actually separated from the church building; gray fog swirled through the gap. One day, the tower would come crashing down.
Miranda shook her head. “Not your problem, girl,” she muttered. With any luck, by the time the whole thing fell to pieces, she and Robbie would be long gone. But for now…
She gathered up her skirts and trotted through the mist, around to the front of the church and up the steps. She paused before the doors, and dug in her pockets until she found what she needed. It was a black stone, with red wax dripped on one side—the sigil of the Patron. When she found it outside her door, it told her that she was needed. She set the stone just outside the church doors, signaling that she was inside and waiting.
It was colder inside the church than out, but the interior showed no signs of the decay that afflicted the tower. Lush paintings hung over the altar, and the benches shone with polish. The nave echoed with her footsteps. The church was empty at this hour. It was almost always empty. Nobody came here unless there was business to do.
Miranda pulled her cloak about her. It was just the chill, surely, that brought gooseflesh to her arms.
No one came to greet her. No bustling rector asked what she was doing. The church held only ghosts and memories, as far as she could see. She kept her eyes on the dark flagstones beneath her feet. They were cut in diamond shapes, and she followed their line diagonally to the side of the room.
There was no required confession in the Church of England. Confession, she had been told once by a gentle-faced curate, was a papist affliction. True confession, he’d said, was between herself and God.
But Temple Church had been built before there was a Church of England. While confession had been stamped out, the architecture was not so easily changed. Miranda glanced about her once more—she truly was alone—found her way to the third pew on the right, and then identified the place she needed, where the wall was overhung with heavy, forbidding curtains.
It was the work of a moment to slide them aside and enter.
The onetime confessional had long since been converted to a closet. In the dark alcove that waited stood a broom, a bucket, a cracked bar of harsh soap, and a three-legged stool. One wall was partially blocked by a rosewood screen—the last remnants of Catholicism in this ancient church. She pulled the curtains back, plunging herself into darkness. Then she sat on the stool, folded her hands carefully, and waited.
She never knew whom she would talk to. Sometimes it was a man. Once, she thought the voice she heard had belonged to a woman. She doubted she’d had any conversation with the Patron himself; whoever he was, his identity was a closely guarded secret. Unsurprising; if Bristol had a thieves’ guild, the Patron was the undisputed head.
But the Patron was more than that. The constables kept order in the prosperous parts of Bristol; the Patron had taken charge of those places where constables didn’t dare patrol. If Miranda walked undisturbed on the streets at night, it was because he granted her safe passage, and the lesser bullyboys didn’t dare risk his wrath. If he refused to allow Robbie to get involved with the other street boys…well, she’d bargained for that, too.
She was mired deep in his debt.
The bargain had seemed so simple, on that fateful night when she’d begged for his help. She received the Patron’s protection in exchange for one favor granted every month. Without the bargain, a woman and a boy living alone in the slums would never have survived.
But with every passing month, the value of that favor seemed to escalate. And now…
However pretty he had been, Lord Justice had promised to put her in gaol. In gaol, like George Patten. Who had disappeared. The room was cold, indeed.
Perched on that too-short stool, she felt her calves begin to ache. Finally, a soft rustle announced that someone had arrived on the other side of the screen.
The voice that addressed her today was a tenor with a bit of a rasp. She wasn’t even sure it was a man. She detected the faint scent of tobacco from the other side of the screen. Still, she formed a picture in her mind—some hulking, brutish thing lurking in the old confessional.
“Have you come to confess?” the voice asked.
“I have.” She reached out and snapped a straw from the broom, playing it between her fingers.
“The Patron will hear what you have to say, my child.” The voice always started with that, no matter who spoke to her.
“I did as the Patron asked,” she said. “I went to the hearing. I volunteered to speak on behalf of Widdy. The charges were dismissed as unproven, and he went free.”
Her simple report was met with a brooding silence. Then: “Lying is a sin, child. And so is om
ission. What is it you aren’t telling the Patron?”
Of course. The Patron had likely had a man in the hearing room. “I only volunteered, sir. I was not asked to speak by the magistrates.”
Perhaps the Patron would claim that this favor didn’t count, that it didn’t clear her debt for the month. Miranda’s stomach churned.
But instead of disputing the point, the voice simply said, “Tell me about Lord Justice.”
“He offered to accompany me back to my inn. I mean, he offered to accompany Daisy Whitaker. I slipped away before he found me after the hearing.” No point in giving more information than requested. The Patron hardly needed more of a hold on her.
The voice didn’t remark on her second omission. The Patron probably didn’t know about her second interaction with Lord Justice.
“Hmm,” that raspy voice said. “Do you think that he might have a prurient interest in Miss Whitaker? That might be useful.”
She could call to mind the turn of his shoulder, the quarter profile he’d given her. I particularly remember you, Miss Darling. She’d felt the most absurd curl of heat run through her at that, so much that she shivered now in recollection.
“No,” she said forcefully. “I’m fairly certain that he recognized me. He was suspicious, not lustful. I don’t think he believed me.” She shook her head, and then blurted out the words that danced on the tip of her tongue. “I can’t do this anymore.”
Silence met this pronouncement. Her pulse beat. More dangerous than working for the Patron was refusing to work for him. One didn’t say can’t to a representative of the Patron.
But it was either that or cross paths with Lord Justice once more. Miranda clenched the broom straw in her fingers, waiting.
A sigh came from the other side of the screen. “Then your association with the Patron is at an end. You’re not a slave, child. You have always been free to make your own choices.”
“Of course. Consider the old arrangement dissolved, if that is what you wish.”
“I do.” Her words were quiet, but she almost swayed on the stool, dizzy with blossoming hope.