“It would have been convenient if you had been able to wield some influence over Lord Justice as well, but the Patron has no real interest in him, either.”
Miranda stared at the rosewood screen. “Then…then why have me take so large a risk? I might have been caught. Arrested.” She tried to keep all hint of anger from her voice. She didn’t succeed.
“The Patron wanted information,” the voice said. “And now he has received it. You will be informed when you are required again.”
“What? What did he want to know? I haven’t told you anything!”
She waited, but only silence met her. She sat on the stool and peered as best as she could through the grate, but she could see nothing. She waited until she was ready to poke the broom through the holes in the screen, just so she could have some kind of response. Any kind of response.
But there was nothing. The audience was over.
What had the Patron learned? She pondered the question as she left the church and crept back down the alley. He’d learned that she could outrun Lord Justice—or at least, out-dodge him, with a little luck. But what use was that?
He’d learned that Lord Justice would give chase. She glanced to either side when she reached the main thoroughfare, waited until a brewer’s dray passed by, and then zagged across the street to the alley on the other side. This one was scarcely wide enough for her, little more than a gap between buildings, but at the moment, she didn’t want to talk to people. She didn’t have much friendliness in her.
None of the things she came up with seemed the sort of information that would justify the smug tone the voice had used.
Perhaps it was simply that. If you were a shadowy, anonymous figure, it made sense to pretend everything had gone according to some diabolical plan. Never mind if it hadn’t. Maybe it was all just for show. Miranda understood show.
Thomas Street was clotted with slow-moving carts. It took her a few minutes to jog down to her alley.
She might have negotiated Temple Parish by scent alone. The wealthy might choose their abodes by view—did one want a panorama that included the cathedral, or a look at Brandon Hill?
The poor chose by smell. At Miranda’s home, the scent of the coal burned by the glassblowers predominated during the day. At night, the breeze off the Floating Harbour brought in the smell from the starch works a few buildings over—a scent that put her in mind of clean laundry and boiling wheat. Far better than what she’d have endured with the stockyard as neighbor.
She shut her eyes and inhaled. And just as she did so, it came to her—the information the Patron had received.
“He wanted to know if I was willing to put myself in real danger after all this time being careful.” She spoke aloud. “And I let him know I was. I’m such a fool.”
Before she could do anything more, though, an arm snaked around her from behind—a strong, solid arm. She opened her eyes and tried to turn, tried to fight, but whoever had her took hold of her wrist and held it in such a way that she could scarcely wriggle without pain shooting down her arm. She hadn’t a chance to feel fear—not until she looked down and saw that the arm holding her was clothed in unwrinkled superfine wool.
Of course. Lord Justice knew where she lived.
“I’m such a fool,” she repeated.
“Would you know,” a familiar voice said in her ear, “I quite agree.”
WITH HIS ARM AROUND Miss Darling and his hand on her wrist, Smite could tell how thin she was. He could feel her pulse hammering against his grip.
“I’m going to turn you to face me,” he said, “as this is no way to conduct a conversation, but I’m not about to let go. I’ve chased you three miles already, and I’m not interested in starting over.”
“I didn’t offer false testimony today.” She struggled against him, but he held fast. “Ask anyone you like. Check the records if you wish. The clerk can tell you.”
He already knew that. He’d been there, after all. He took his arm from around her, but did not let go of her wrist.
She turned to face him. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Then why did you run?”
“You said you’d have me arrested if you saw me again.”
His eyes narrowed. “I never said any such thing.”
He stared at her, searched his memory. And then—“I said, ‘If ever I see you before me again, dressed as someone else and spouting falsehoods, I will have you arrested on the spot.’ I can’t have you arrested merely because I catch sight of you in a public building.”
She yanked her hand from his grasp. “Begging your pardon, Your Worship, but you could have me arrested for breathing. Who would gainsay you?”
“If you wouldn’t act guilty, I wouldn’t—”
“Act guilty?” she cried. “I’m poor. My mother was an actress; my father the manager of a traveling troupe of players. I sew some for a living, and when I’ve got the wherewithal, I make wigs. I don’t have to do anything to be guilty. I’m guilty the instant a constable lays eyes on me and decides I appear out of place.” Her hands balled into fists at her side. “It doesn’t matter what I’ve done or what I say. Who would listen to me?”
“I would.” He glared at her. “I do listen to people like you. Every day.” He took a step closer, and she shrank against the wall. “If you’re so innocent,” he pressed, “why were you there?”
But her gaze fixed on something just beyond him. Her mouth rounded. “Look out,” she called. “Behind you.”
He didn’t take his eyes from her. “A feeble attempt. There’s nobody there. You won’t be evading me so easily.”
And that was when something struck him from behind. He experienced a sharp, splintering pain in his head—a savage sense of disbelief—and then, the sure knowledge that his knees were giving way beneath him.
Darkness flooded his vision before he hit the ground.
SMITE WOKE TO HEAD-POUNDING confusion. A twisting burn of pain at the back of his skull warred with the dryness of his mouth. Straws poked his back; a warm, wet cloth lay on his forehead. The air around him was thick with a perplexing mixture of smells: heavy coal smoke, overboiled wheat, lye soap, and over everything, a heavy, distasteful scent that put him in mind of the worst of the street’s refuse.
Gradually, memory returned. He’d chased after Miss Darling in the gloom of a cloudy afternoon, ducking through the alleys of Temple Parish. He’d put his arm around her. She’d yelled at him. And then, the last thing he could bring to mind: her eyes cutting up and to the right, widening at what she saw behind him.
So. Her surprise hadn’t been a ruse.
That explained the knot of hurt at the back of his head. Someone had struck him from behind.
And now he didn’t know where he was or who held him. The thought of moving made his head whirl. He wasn’t precisely in a position to fight his way to safety.
“Wash your hands,” a voice said, not so far away. “It’s time to eat.” Not just a voice; it was Miss Darling. Rather a relief; he didn’t thi
nk she intended him any harm.
Smite also didn’t think that a bare nod to hygiene would make any difference, not with that scent of sewage so prominent. An unfortunate consequence of living in the poorer areas. No matter how the authorities tried to stamp out the practice, people would toss the contents of their chamber pots in the streets.
“I don’t want to.” That voice was unfamiliar. Flat and monotone, it hovered just barely above baritone range.
Miss Darling sighed. “Don’t be difficult.”
“You’re not my mother.” There were clinking sounds—dishes being moved, perhaps? He tried slitting his eyes open, but his head was turned full toward a window, and the red rays of sunlight left him temporarily blind.
“What does it matter, Robbie?” Miss Darling said. “I’m trying to do what’s best for you. Can’t you see that?”
“Ha,” came the morose response from the other occupant.
Smite couldn’t see him, but he could form an image in his mind of this Robbie. Young and hulking, if one trusted that voice. Muscular. A sweetheart, perhaps? He found himself vaguely annoyed by the thought of Miss Darling entertaining so boorish a lover.
“I can’t believe you hit him,” Miss Darling said.
“Huh,” came the man’s brilliantly articulate reply.
Wood scraped against wood. Smite moved his head a fraction, angling it away from the window, and slitted his eyes open again. From beneath his eyelashes, he could make out silhouettes against the light.
By the voice, Smite had expected Robbie to be a large, surly fellow, barely into manhood. But Robbie was a thin reed of a child, his voice desperately outsized in a scrawny body. Miss Darling, not precisely tall herself, towered a good six inches over him.
“You don’t let me do anything,” Robbie rumbled. Or rather, he attempted to rumble. His voice quavered on the last syllable, hanging on the verge of breaking until he cleared his throat and deliberately dropped it a handful of notes. “Can’t take work at the mills. And now Joey says I’m not to be allowed to work with him either. That’s ready money you’re stopping me from getting, to be had for the taking.”