FAIR NIGHT FOR FOUL FOLK  Chapter Eighteen


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Cover design: Corin Spinks. Portraits Alice and Pip: Heijo van der Werf

Background image: CORIN SPINKS, Heijo van der Werf

THURSDAY 2 NOVEMBER 1871

Pig Sty

Tamarisk Town

Prairie Ground


18. YOURS

On their way back to the Pig Sty, Alice’s companions complimented her negotiation skills at length.


“Did you see Ruxley’s face when she claimed moot-agent rights for Sinneport?” Gunning enthused.


“I cannot believe she won old Trulock over,” Haddent said. “Not bad for a Fishgut imp.”


“She came, she saw, she conquered,” Black declared with satisfaction. “We ought to hear from Congress ere dawn, and I’ve no doubt as to the outcome now that the other Hastings outfits are on board. Sterling work, Liss, sterling.”


Despite the generous praises there was no sense of accomplishment for Alice.


She said “bethanks” when their words registered, but for the most part had withdrawn into herself – all too aware that she had antagonised Ruxley, both unintentionally…


…I don’t rightly ken why…


…and intentionally, by outwitting him. With every renewed surge of anger she’d caused Ruxley to have, she’d driven Pip farther away from her and now the world was stifling and bleak. She’d be leaving early in the morning without so much as a goodbye. It was all over.


Black promised Pip would come to the Polymina. I ken Black well enow already to know he’s being overly cheerful, mayhap trying to…


Alice felt a brief flash of fierce anger at Black rise up, but she willed it away. In most things, Andreas Black had been a good friend. He had been unwavering in his dogged loyalty to Scylla, or Tess – Alice wasn’t quite sure. He had extended that loyalty to Alice without hesitation, armed her with insight, jumped to her defence, and, at the end, trusted her to make the right decisions by herself.


If he doesn’t want to parley about Pip, mayhap he feels awkward about it. I do! Mayhap it bain’t a thing to be tessy about. It bain’t his fault.


As if he knew that she was thinking, Black walked closer to her, increasing his pace a little to get ahead of the others. Alice followed suit so they could speak a bit more privately. Gunning and Haddent must have noticed, for they slowed down a bit to fall farther back.


“Liss. I owe you an apology.”


“Quiddy? You do, Mus Black?”


“Earlier, at the Polymina. With Lucy and that Lester Ruxley.” He paused for a moment, searching for words. “You were right to intervene. I was wrong and stood by idle as you fulfilled an obligation that was mine.” Black paused again. “I think I learned, or rather re-learned something today.”


“I were distracted from my obligation as Free Trader.” Alice shrugged unhappily. “On a run. Drawing attention to myself.”


Sticking Pip’s brother with a hatpin…how will he feel about that? Lester is rotten but bound to Pip by blood.


To Alice’s surprise, Black sounded tessy in his response. “Yes, yes. Codebound. At all costs, be it smuggling, privateering, or piracy – there are always codes to follow.”


“Zackly,” Alice confirmed. “Abouten the Free Traders anyhows, I don’t ken the others.”


“The others can be just as stubborn. I simply don’t know, Liss. I’ve seen that rigidity lead to tragic break-ups of…friendship.”


For the first time Alice had met him, Andreas Black wasn’t guarded – neither glancing quick in all directions to be bettermost aware of his immediate surroundings, nor careful in what he did or didn’t say.


“Something that could have been avoided,” he continued. “If people had allowed their heart to speak, like you let yours. It’s true that what has come of it – on two counts – I regret it all less. Just know, Liss, that it can break precious matters.”


“Quiddy, Mus Black? What could be avoided? What came of it? Two counts?”


Black continued speaking, a little faster and regaining his guard. “Just listen to your heart now and then. That capacity can rust away if you’re not careful, as I’ve learned today – to my shame.”


Although she was intrigued Alice was far more interested in something else. She blurted out: “Why didn’t Pip come tonight?”


“I don’t know.” Black sounded uncharacteristically helpless. “Perhaps he really was ill, like Ruxley said…”

So you don’t believe it either.


“…though I’m sure he’ll get better. If the two of you can survive being hunted in the marshes by four military aeroships, you should be able to handle a runny nose.”


I feel so empty.


“Mayhap,” Alice spoke carefully, “Tomorrow morning, really early…we could—”


“Perhaps, it might be better to let matters rest for a short while. Ruxley would try to skin you alive if you came anywhere near his home right now, and then I’d be forced to kill him.”


“Good,” Alice growled.


Black barked his laugh. “You wear that mermaid ring well. You’ll outgrow these smugglers and make a pirate yet.”


I wouldn’t mind.


As far as Alice was concerned, she might as well run away and become an aeroship pirate if she couldn’t see Pip again.


The conversation ground to a halt as they passed the last of the street lamps, entering the maze of low workshops and pens at the eastern end of Tamarisk. The Pig Sty was anigh – as was departure from Hastings.


Despondency took hold of Alice again. She found it increasingly difficult to fight off. Her body was tired, her mind exhausted, and her heart ached in a way she’d never imagined possible. 


Black, Gunning, and Haddent all strode toward the Pig Sty’s central fire like conquering heroes. Alice made a slower and far more listless approach. She had nothing to boast about like the others, who were contesting to regale their adventures to the remainers who were waiting around the fire.


Wasp leaned out of the circle and caught sight of Alice. “Sky-girl? What the Deuce!”


She rushed over and clutched Alice, who began to tremble lightly in the safety of Wasp’s embrace.


“Alice,” Wasp whispered softly, before she spoke louder, “What have they done to you?”


Wasp turned her head toward Black. “What the Devil, Andreas?”


“The negotiations went well,” Black explained. “But there was this boy, you see.”


“A boy?” Wasp asked.


Alice confirmed with a nod of her head against Wasp’s shoulder.


“’Old thy trike, Andreas,” Lady C strode over. “Wha’s this about a lad? When were this lad where?”


Black explained, “The other survivor from the ambush. The Chopback apprentice Liss escaped with. Pip he’s called. It may be they, erm, formed an attachment, and now it turns out the lad’s father—”


“There was a boy and you didn’t think to tell us earlier?” Wasp asked incredulously.


“I didn’t think it important…”


“Friggin’ wazzock! Not important my delicate derriere!” Lady C knelt down by Alice. “Kittlin?”


Alice turned her head against Wasp’s chest to look at Lady C with a hopeless expression and watering eyes. In a hoarse voice, she replied: “I’m one of Solomon’s withered rosebuds.”


“By the scaly baps of Chtulhu,” Wasp cursed. “Sky-Girl’s got it bad.”


“Aye,” Lady C concurred. She looked at Black accusingly. “Can ’ardly believe thar sed nowt about t’ lad. Come, Kittlin, to t’ Passio Hysterica. Best sort this on us own.”


Wasp supported Alice as they followed Lady C. When they passed the hapless Black, Wasp stung at him: “Men are daft buffoons. You always tell about the boy or girl. Always.” 



Alice was propped against the cushions at the head of Lady C’s broad bed, fussed over while tea was poured and menfolk cursed for their blindness. Bramble flew down from the rafters and offered Alice a scrap of carrot – dried out and smudged with dust from the elevated treasure trove where he had kept it. The tabby Growler appeared from nowhere to rub her head against Alice’s flank, inviting a chin-scratch.


Alice felt better already, with a Sister of Steam on either side, a steaming cup of tea in one hand, and a purring cat beneath the other. She poured the whole story out, barely pausing to breathe, although she did sip at the tea. She started with her first sight of an unnamed fellow apprentice aboard The Joseph Swaine over the Channel. She finished with the spiteful looks Matt Ruxley’s father and brother had given Alice when they had departed the Polymina after the Small Hastings Moot.


Alice had been afraid that she wouldn’t be taken seriously. Told she was too young to be feeling this way, or else made light of. Even well-meaning adults weren’t always helpful. Most in Sinneport had joked, or just about started ringing wedding bells when Alice hadn’t even started to figure things out for herself yet. However, Lady C and Wasp were good listeners, made all the right noises at the right times, knew when to offer physical comfort, when to dry a tear, and when to envelop Alice in an aura of empathy – sharing sadness and anger.


Although the pit of despair grew deeper as Alice worded its causes, she herself felt stronger and better for telling the tale – all the more so because her hosts didn’t treat it as a childish flight of fancy.


“I don’t ken why Mus Ruxley hates me so,” Alice concluded. “Pip and I, we bain’t done naun in Sinneport. We were both hurt badly, hag-ridden, and scared, that were all.”


Wasp said, “Steph Ruxley is a man quick to see the most negative scenario his own mind can devise.”


“’N hasty ta see t’ worst in other folk,” Lady C added. “Thar’s not ta let ‘im shame thissen, thar’s done nowt wrong no matter what t’ two of youse got up ta. Ruxley is a grumpy bible thumper. So don’t thy go blamin’ thissen for owt, Kittlin.”


“He were tessy about the shared room,” Alice said. “Howsumever, there were more to his anger. I bain’t figured it out yetner, but I ken for sure there’s somewhat else behind it. It were as if he were angry with himself as well.”


Lady C and Wasp exchanged a look.


I reckon I’m right then.


Bramble shuffled over and extended his neck to stroke Alice’s arm with his head, keeping wary eyes on Growler. The cat was on his back, purring and oblivious to the world as Alice absentmindedly stroked its chest and tummy.


“Bambam good boy. Nice girl. Rubbish cat.”


“Bethanks, Bramble,” Alice said.


Bramble was already distracted. He’s spotted the bit of carrot he’d brought Alice earlier and did a little dance. Whilst shuffling about like that, his head rotated at seemingly impossible angles so he could peek at carrot, cat, Wasp, Lady C, and Alice – all in quick succession.


Coo-ing “Nice girl, nice Bambam,” the macaw slowly edged towards the dried out, shrivelled sliver of carrot. A last look around, and then – shrieking “Mine!” – Bramble went headlong at the scrap, snatched it with his beak, and made off to the rafters.


That brought a brief smile to Alice’s face.


“Thar’s reit, cleva Kittlin,” Lady C admitted. “There is more tha make Ruxley sour. Includin’ Wasp ‘n missen.”


Wasp explained. “We’ve seen Ruxley behave like this before. The man’s a coward at heart. He’ll huff, puff, and bluff, but tends to fold at the last second. I reckon he’s scared of going face-to-face with those mercenaries and their Gatlings and Armstrongs. Quite frankly, I don’t envy you lot planning to attack that amount of fire power, and I’m partial to a good fight as you know. Possibly Ruxley hoped to stop any decisions of revenge.”


“But…he’s Codebound,” Alice said, disappointed that a Sussex Owler could treat the Code so lightly. She turned to Lady C. “Why are Wasp and yourself included?”


Lady C snorted angrily, leaving Wasp to do the telling. “Ruxley is not much impressed by SaSoS to begin with, regarding us Codeless.”


“Rubbish,” Lady C commented. “We’ve us own Code.”


“Not according to Ruxley,” Wasp corrected her. “Besides, there’s you and me, Lady C. Ruxley despises us, and he’ll tell anyone who wants to hear that we are—”


“—a great menny names,” Lady C said. “Ruxley will ‘ave guessed, if not ‘eard, where Andreas browt thar, Kittlin. If ‘e associates thas with us that won’t favour ‘is opinion.”


“He doesn’t like us,” Wasp concurred. “Not a bit. Reckons we’re wanton and promiscuous.”


“Promiskus! He said I were that.” Alice repeated, sitting up straight. “I just don’t ken how Pip is gwoan get better when Mus Ruxley is so tessy. He made me feel squimbly at first. I don’t even ken if Pip is really ill or naun.”


“Better ta know,” Lady C agreed. “Bur there’s nowt thar can do about it reit now either way, Kittlin.”


“I could try find Pip.” Alice proposed hopefully, half envisioning both Sisters of Steam aiding her on such a mission since Black would not. “I recollect the cats’ creep to Sinnock Square. I could go and rescue him. I should! We could—”


“Rescue him?” Wasp asked. “And where would you take him? You can’t bring him back here.”


“Bollinger would ‘ave a great big problem on ‘is hands if we took t’ lad to t’ Pig Sty.” Lady C said. “Ruxley would be ‘ollering ‘abduction’ faster than us Bramble begs for a treat, with t’ law on ‘is side.”


“English law,” Alice pointed out. “This is Tamarisk, bain’t it? Filled with fighting folk?”


“As you well know, youngling,” Wasp reprimanded her. “Tis better for things to remain grey. Bollinger can only maintain independence if he works together with Hastings. Kidnapping children bain’t a part of that.”


“Work together with Mus Ruxley.” Alice wrinkled her nose.


“Ayd swear I ‘eard rumour,” Lady C said, “Bout a certain Free Trader chief ‘n ‘is star pupil bein’ in cahoots with t’ Chief Constable of Brighton.”


“Like folk or not,” Wasp said. “Even Steam Riders follow basic rules to keep some peace at least.”


“Not too much, mind” Lady C added.


“Just a little,” Wasp agreed. “Cause if we don’t, nothing at all would come of this Sussex Moot you were so keen on.”


“Owler’s Moot” Alice corrected her, unable to think of any other counter argument.


“That be t’ one.” Lady C sat down, a movement followed by the quick occupation of her lap by a fluffy grey-feathered chicken. “Oh, eyup Bod. Tha Free Traders can ‘ave all t’ owls thas want, Alice, gi’ us a chicken enny day.”


“ME!” Bramble screamed from the rafters, peering down with angry suspicion. “Bambam good boy.”


“Or a macaw,” Lady C agreed. “Like us fine feathered friend Bramble. Treat?”


Bramble cheered up and flew over low enough to relieve Lady C of a fresh treat she held up.


“Pokpok?” Bod asked.


“Aye, there’s bound ta be a kernel or two of corn in us pocket, tha fluffy scrounger.”


Wasp shook her head at Lady C’s feathered distractions, but stayed on course herself, turning to face Alice again. “You’d be throwing away all you’ve achieved. And causing a ruckus with Old Town would be strange gratitude to the folk of Tamarisk who took you in like one of their own.”


“I hadn’t thought it through,” Alice admitted, deflated as she banished her last hope of seeing Pip before she left. “I were just hoping to say a goodbye, naun start a war.”


“Thar could write t’ lad a letter,” Lady C suggested. “We’ll ask Lucy ta be sure ‘e gets it. She knows t’ lad’s mother ‘n sister, they draw water from t’ same pump in Old Town ‘n chat there. Lucy’s mum told us.”


“A letter?!”


“Aye,” Wasp said. “You’re always boasting that you’ve extended your schooling at Brighton Library. What do you think reading and writing is for, if not to pen a good old-fashioned love letter? Or obscene poetry, either one will do in my experience.”


“It’s just a goodbye note,” Alice quickly said, briefly forgetting that she’d spilled her heart out to the Sisters of Steam.


Wasp laughed. “If you say so. I’ve got quills and ink somewhere. Better sit down by the table.”


“’N ayl ‘ave a look for paper,” Lady C said. “Time ta nip on, Bod.” She rose to her feet, causing the chicken to squawk a protest as she flurried off her perch.


The hen’s movement caught Growler’s interest. Bod took one look at the cat, and then hurried to a dark corner in a flurry of grey feathers. Running away wasn’t the best move. Growler took off, stalking towards the corner with a dangerous glint in his eyes.


Alice got up from the bed and kneeled down in front of the low table on Lady C’s side of the room. She was quickly joined by the other cat, the sleek black Sukie, which slouched down against her knee and started purring. 


Wasp brought quills and ink to the table, Lady C produced sheets of thick creamy paper that smelled flowery.

“I can’t send him this,” Alice protested in horror. “It smells of flowers, he’ll think…he’ll think…”


She was distracted by the sight of Growler, beating a hasty retreat from the shadows, chased by an outraged chicken.


“Listen, sister,” Wasp said. “I been round long enough to know what ails you, and don’t you dare deny it. Not because you’d be lying to me, but to yourself. Savvy?”


“Asides,” Lady C said. “This be all t’ paper I got, take it or leave it.”


“I’ll take it. Pologies. Bethanks,” Alice said, arranging the writing materials.


“Good,” Lady C said, before looking at Wasp. “Ayl nip outside for a last round of t’ animals. Care to ‘elp?”


“My pleasure.” Wasp walked toward the door of the Passio Hysterica.


“Bod,” Lady C told her chicken. “Be a good lass ‘n nip along. Time for bed.”


The two women and chicken departed, swiftly followed by Bramble, leaving the Passio Hysterica empty of all but Alice and Sukie, though presumably Growler was skulking around somewhere nursing wounded pride.


Alice stared at the blank paper. There were a hundred-thousand-and-one things she needed to tell Pip, but where to start?


She didn’t have much experience in writing letters. Some things were too abstract for Alice’s writing skills: the slow sweep of a touch, the brief brush of breath, an awkward smile, the reassurance offered by mere presence, communication at a glance, and that intense sense of being connected – feeling whole. Alice missed all these things so much that it hurt as the emotions waxed and waned. But how to explain all that?


Dear…


What if Mus Ruxley finds the letter? Or Lester? I don’t want to cause more moil for Pip. Maybe he can say it’s from someone else. They reckon I ken Pip, but do they ken I ken Matthew? I don’t reckon so. And they only ken me as Liss.


Alice smiled.


…Matt,


Deciding that Mus Ruxley might read the letter made writing it easier. There really wasn’t much she could say after having to exclude about a hundred thousand things.


I hope you are well. I have to go away to visit fambly.


Pip will ken that family also means Rottingdean Owlers.


Alice dipped the quill in the inkpot, thinking hard. She knew that Mum and Uncle Yard would be unlikely to allow her to return to Hastings to participate in preparations for a dangerous sky-battle. It wasn’t a promise they would let her make, but Alice reckoned it would make everything more bearable, so made the promise anyway.


I will come back


Alice stared at the words. There was nothing as important as returning to Hastings. She had to, there were no other options. She should be allowed to make her own decisions, being twelve already and an apprentice. Still anticipating resistance back home though, she lowered the tip of the quill again to add:


As soon as I can.


How would Pip know it was her though? It could be anybody. Recalling the children that had gathered around Dusky near Sinnock Square, Alice was suddenly convinced Pip probably had dozens of smitten Hastings girls write him notes all the time. She would have to think of something he would understand but that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else.


Grinning, she wrote.


I hope we don’t run into any Pooks, great big ship-ramming whales, cannibals, or coos this time.


Looking at her letter, Alice began to smile as her mind grasped a word which might just summarise a hundred thousand things. That word - and the gift of something that was real in a complex world of shadowy secrets.


YOURS

Alice


She tried to read the whole letter again, but it was as if her eyes had turned into a spout lantern, only able to focus on one part of the letter – one word.


The sheet of paper had been folded in four, ‘Matt’ inked on the top side, when Lady C and Wasp returned to find Alice nodding off at the table.


Alice was dimly aware that the Sisters of Steam lifted her up and gently carried her to Lady C’s bed where they unlaced her boots, took off her smock and breeches, and then tucked her in. Alice reckoned that she’d toss and turn, afraid to dream of the accusing dead, but exhausted as she was sleep came rapidly. Alice’s last waking thought was that one word.


YOURS



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