Cover design: Corin Spinks. Portraits Alice and Pip: Heijo van der Werf
Background image: CORIN SPINKS, Heijo van der Werf
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
17. IN THE SNAKE PIT
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
17. IN THE SNAKE PIT
“You’re to leave my son be,” Ruxley barked at Alice.
“Quiddy?” Alice asked, slowly lowering her hand.
She barely registered what Pip’s father had said, instead staring wide-eyed into the face of youth who had mistreated Lucy earlier. Alice’s earlier vague impression that the mean-faced bully had looked familiar made sense now, seeing his face in close proximity to Ruxley’s.
Lady C said Lucy was upset because of a sweetheart on board of the Swaine. Old Town means Chopbacks. Lucy’d been smitten with a young Chopback. “Hal now, Hal is so…so…”
…I missed the meaning of that, didn’t connect the dots.
The bully was staring at Liss with equal astonishment. It seemed she was the last person he was expecting to encounter at an Owler’s moot in the beached brig’s cabin.
“Lester. He’s a nasty bit of work. Unlike his brothers Hal and Matthew.”
That means Pip’s real name is Matthew.
The sweetness of that realisation was all too short, quickly soured when Ruxley spoke again, his voice full of venom. “By Pize! You ken damn well what I mean, girl. Don’t you dare play me for a fool. You’re naun to try and hurt or nurt the lad again. I’ll naun be having it.”
“Naun hurt him again?” Alice glared at Lester. “He…he…”
It’s another ambush. Mus Ruxley fired a broadside. Where is Pip?
— A windfunnel, roaring with the fury of storm-whipped waves, began to draw Alice into its dark depths. She fought the surge that threatened to swallow her whole into that whirling darkness – remembering the last time when she’d come to; ready to strike with her hatpin and screaming like a Green Fin-tailed Jenny. But that had been with many friends around her. Who were her friends here?
Naun now. Naun now. Naun now—
“He…” Alice clawed her way back to the here and now, as if dragging herself from a freezing and filthy waterlogged ditch in Romney Marsh.
She pointed at Lester. “He started it! He put his hand on…he touched them…he…”
“SILENCE!” Ruxley thundered, before hissing: “You dare accuse my son of unchristian behaviour?”
“Yarr,” Alice bit back. “It were plain where his hand was at.”
Black stepped to Alice’s side, hand resting on the pummel of his sword.
Ruxley avoided eye contact with Black, turning to his son. “Lester, pay attention. Note how quick she is to lay blame on your brother. It is written that ‘the lips of an immoral woman are as sweet as honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil. But in the end she is bitter as poison, as dangerous as a double-edged sword’.”
The strength of his dislike struck Alice like a vicious squall.
What if he attacks me? Who are my friends here? Black and Gunning for sure. Thomayne came to warn me. Bollinger – we’re oath bound but he needs to be neutral.
“Proverbs, 5:3-4,” Black said. “Liss is a Free Trader and temporarily my responsibility. What is your business citing Proverbs at my charge? As for your son…” He looked at Lester with a stern frown.
“My son!” Ruxley spat. He glowered at Alice full of disapproving disdain. “Do you not reckon I ken what happened in Sinneport, girl? Nurting him with your flesh? ‘A promiscuous woman is as dangerous as falling into a narrow well’.”
His eyes lingered on Alice’s budding chest and she folded her arms to shield herself from those eyes, made uncomfortable by his perusal.
“Quiddy?” Alice asked. “Promiskus…a well?” She frowned at Lester who was sneering at her with vicious triumph.
Lester hasn’t told his dad about me stabbing him. Ruxley is talking about Pip…
Matthew. His name is Matthew.
Alice smiled, to the visible confusion of both Ruxleys.
Ruxley recovered quickly. “Behold her impudence! ‘The acts of the flesh are obvious: Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery’!”
Beginning to understand what he was driving at, Alice’s eyes widened. “Nothing happened, Mus Ruxley, nothing at all.”
Naun even a kiss.
Ruxley laughed scornfully and turned to Lester. “‘This is the way of an immoral woman: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’.”
Black said. “Proverbs 30:30, but you’ll find it’s an ‘adulterous’ woman, not ‘immoral’. If you’re going to fling Proverbs about, do it correctly.”
He lowered his hand to fold it around the grip of his sword. Alice saw he exerted so much pressure his knuckles grew white, yet he continued to speak with moderated control.
Alice glanced at Wynne Thomayne, recalling her words.
“He’ll try to make you tessy, to draw you out. He wants to pick a fight.”
More voices crowded into her head. Wasp and Lady C’s.
“We have a tendency to roar, scream, or shriek immoderately. Or sigh, weep, and moan most pitifully.”
“Liable t’ commit criminal acts o’ violent savagery.”
She stared at Ruxley who was regarding Black warily, as Wynne Thomayne’s voice replayed in her memory.
“He wants you hissing and spitting like a cat.”
Alice took a deep breath. Thomayne had said Mus Ruxley wanted to discredit her. Alice reckoned that if she wasn’t careful, she’d help Ruxley determine how all these other new people would see her.
An echo of Tucknott provided support: You be a Free Trader on a run. A Rottingdean Owler. The bettermost Owlers in Sussex. Act like one or I’ll show you trouble like you never bain’t seen afore.
Alice’s subsequent firm intent was not matched by her heart, which pounded in her chest at the notion of further confrontation with Ruxley. His unexpected hostility had already threatened to overwhelm her and suck her mind into the hungry gaping maws of that dark wind-funnel.
She was relieved that Ruxley directed his attention at Black. “Bad company ruins good morals, highwayman. I’ll not have the girl corrupt my son any more than she already did, nurting him with her wicked female wiles.”
Alice didn’t understand all of it but got the gist. She clenched her fists, keeping her mouth shut with difficulty.
Lies! We’ve done naun of that.
Black spoke in measured tone again, albeit with notable difficulty. “The children were in Tess Hawkhurst’s care last night. Do tell me, Ruxley, if you’d care to accuse Tess Hawkhurst of being complicit in this transgression your words seem to imply, or else apologise to Liss.”
Alice noted that Ruxley paled a little, hesitating for a brief moment before he sneered a silent answer at Black – hand gripping the hilt of his fisherman’s knife.
Alice snatched her hatpin. If Black was going to stick Ruxley, she’d stick Lester again. After all, she’d promised Black her protection.
Lester’s eyes widened for a moment when he recognised the hatpin, and Alice curled her upper lip in a wolfish warning.
“Now, now,” Bollinger strode forward to place himself between the two opposing parties, hands raised, palms outward. “We’re naun here this night for these misagreements, sureleye.”
Black and Ruxley froze, ceasing the rapid escalation at least, but staring and snorting at each other with the fury and meanness of angry bulls.
Will Trulock came over and took place by Ruxley’s side. “Steph can hardly be blamed. Look at the girl. The Good Book says ‘Woman should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control’.” He looked at Alice’s boots with disapproval. “You can make out the shape of her calves in them boots.”
“Zackly,” Ruxley agreed. “And she be wearing men’s clothes. It was written. ‘A woman shall not wear a man’s garment.’ ”
“Buggers burned Joan of Arc for that reason, bain’t it?” Wynne Thomayne – wearing men’s clothes herself – placed herself at Alice’s other side. “What are ye after? Intending to hang us as witches again? I bain’t having naun of your nonsense.”
Unbidden and ludicrous amidst the tense face-off, Alice was distracted by the image of Pip at the Mairemaid wearing nothing but girl’s bloomers. She bit on her lip to stop from giggling; fighting a sudden urge to tell Ruxley that both his youngest son and she had seen far more than each other’s calves – had in fact seen everything, just for the look on Ruxley’s face when he learned that.
Mayhap his head will explode. Boom.
Thomayne continued. “Ah, but this be a tiresome now, women Free Traders been around since forever and longer ago. There be naun ye can do about it.”
Gunning stepped up next to Thomayne. “I’m duty-bound to speak for my Chapter Sisters Lady C and Wasp in this matter. Asides that, I bluv they’re right meself.”
“I’d join ye, Steph and Will, fightin’ for proper traditions and whatnot,” Haddent called out. “But I need to keep me plume clear of parrot skyte .”
Alice struggled to control a new giggle, envisioning Bramble hovering over Ruxley.
Bramble, do thy rubbish on Ruxley’s head.
Professor von Windbeutel stepped to Black’s other side. He didn’t seem like the imposter Alice had reckoned the Starlings to be. Coolly calm as he looked at Ruxley, von Windbeutel’s hand rested on the decorated hand-rest of his gentlemen’s walking stick. Alice did a double take when she realised what the subtly hidden mechanics of the walking stick implied.
It’s got a gun built in it. Deedy!
Will Trulock shook his silver head at the professor. “I reckon your Starlings are to blame for this new-fangled business bout letting women on ships, Gorlassar. Furriners just bain’t unnerstan that it be ill fortune to have womenfolk on board, be it on sea or in sky.”
Von Windbeutel smiled at the grizzled fisherman most courteously. “Thank you, Will. I’ll be sure to mention your sentiments to Mademoiselle Adele de Drivitte.”
“Your Dele is a dear,” Thomayne told the professor. “Howsumever, women have been part of Free Trading long afore the Starlings were founded. Who do you think has been doing all the hard work these last past centuries? Had we left it to menfolk – they’d have made a gurt hugger-mugger of it, as sure as Freya’s blinding beauty strikes Christians blind.”
The Pevensey and Eastbourne moot-agent looked at Ruxley, Lester, and Trulock. Her eyes and body conveyed both defiant challenge as well as her readiness to trade blows over the argument.
Everyone other than Bollinger had taken a stance now. Alice greatly appreciated Black’s attempts to teach her the ins and outs of local politics, but this physical line-up gave her far more understanding.
Trulock looked at Professor von Windbeutel with awkward embarrassment, shaking his salt-wizened head. “Please, Squire, pass Lady de Drivitte my humble regards.” He stepped away from Ruxley, to stand by Bollinger’s side.
Ruxley bristled but gave no sign of budging. Lester attempted to copy his father’s stance and expression, though he lacked the inner fury that seemed to consume Ruxley.
Bollinger gave up being diplomatic. “Blast and Tarnation! I bain’t schoolmastering unruly chavvies here. This is a middling Free Trade moot. Heed the Code for Pize’s sake. All are equal, all have a right to speak, and all a middling right to their own mind on matters – provided they be ruddy civilised about it. Stand down or else I’ll happily haul all of you along the Polymina’s keel. Right through the dirt and shingle beneath my fine ship, each and every one of you. Twice if need be, no thrice even, sureleye.”
Alice reckoned the governor was contradicting his appeal for Codebound equality somewhat but smiled at his effort.
That’s what Hattie Tucknott would have said.
It appeared that Ruxley had crossed a boundary as far as Black was concerned. “I’m not a Free Trader, nor bound by your Code, Governor. I demand Ruxley apologizes.”
“I wun’t be druv,” Ruxley growled. “And most certainly naun by a Codeless highwayman.”
The men stared at each other stubbornly, reminding Alice of that moment earlier when Lester’s pride had prevented him from backing down in front of his friends.
It’s a man thing. Black is deedy but he has too much pride. What would Lady C do? What would Neeva and Scylla do?
Alice laid a hand on Black’s arm, feeling just how tense it was.
Drackly, he’ll stick Ruxley with his sword and I reckon Black won’t play around, he’ll kill him. That bain’t the way to win the Chopbacks to our side.
Black acknowledged Alice with a nod, but didn’t take his eyes off Ruxley. “Liss, take a few steps back. Now if you please. I need room to swing my sword.”
“Mus Black,” She gave his arm a pat. “It’s alright.”
“Is it now? With this slander on your reputation? Your honour? I don’t think so.”
Alice shrugged. Black meant well but in this he lived in a different world where much value was placed on these things. Alice was a slumgirl. Posh folk called slumfolk the ‘vicious classes’. Girls like Alice were considered to be bred like animals for a short career of servicing gentlemen in the twittens – a fancy brothel for the prettier ones – and then the toil of imprisonment in a work house, the near death sentence of forced labour, or a feverish end when pestilence swept through the slums. That is why Alice was committed to Free Trading. It allowed her to earn a living outside of the slums. Slave to no master, and none of that promiskus stuff.
Still, people like Ruxley would think the worst of slumfolk, no matter where and how they earned their keep. Alice sighed. Nothing at all had happened in Sinneport in the way Ruxley seemed to imagine. Alice hadn’t even thought about it that way. She been hoping for – and apprehensive of – a single kiss. She dispelled her anger at Ruxley, and took a deep breath before looking up at Black.
“Mus Black, I forgive Mus Ruxley.”
That startled Black, though he seemed more composed than the Ruxleys, both of whom looked at her with open-mouthed stupidity written on their faces.
Smiling sweetly, enjoying it now, Alice told them: “I forgive you, Mus Ruxley. And I forgive Lester. I forgive the both of you.”
Both Black and Ruxley were confusedly distracted by her ploy, sufficient to deflate the tension.
“Mus Black,” Alice said. “The honour of me reputation feels much better now. Let’s all sit down?” She indicated the table, and stuck her hatpin back on her hat, hoping no one noticed that her hand was trembling lightly as she disarmed herself.
Without waiting for Black’s response, Alice turned her back to the Ruxleys with a detached calmness she didn’t feel at all, for her heart was thumping like overheated pistons. She walked to the table slowly, forcing herself to imitate Scylla’s regal bearing.
Black hesitated a second, then followed her example, turning his back to the Ruxleys.
When Alice passed the governor he turned to join her. As soon as his face couldn’t be seen by the others, Bollinger whispered a near silent “Bethanks.”
Gunning understood Alice’s game and rushed to the table to pull out a chair, like a proper gentleman would do for a proper lady. Alice sat down as Bollinger took his seat at the end of the table. The rest followed suit. Alice was seated between Black and Thomayne, opposing Ruxley who sat between his son and Will Trulock. The lower end of the table was occupied by Gunning, Haddent, and Professor von Windbeutel. The two clerks had reappeared and sat down behind much smaller writing tables tucked into a corner; quills, ink, and parchments at the ready.
Bollinger spoke. “Ruxley, you have our sincere condolences for the loss of your Harold. Had you come in a mite less tessy, we could have started with that.”
Everyone present, other than Lester, spoke or murmured their sympathy, even Alice and Black.
The governor looked around at them. “Now, at long bloody last we can—”
“—I’ve an objection,” Ruxley interrupted him. “This here gennelman – ,” He pointed at Black, “– has admitted hisself that he bain’t Codebound, and refused to act according to the Code. That dismerits him from being moot-agent. The Code says so. Let him stand in a corner if he must, but bidden to hold his silence.”
He sneered at Black.
Bollinger made to protest but Trulock shook his head and said, “Tis the Code, Guvnor. Bain’t a proper moot otherwhile.”
Alice scowled at Lester’s arrogant grin but kept her mouth shut.
Ruxley played a foul hand, but Black took the bait. Zackly what Wynne Thomayne warned me naun to do.
Black caught Alice’s eye and gave her a quick wink, before resting his right hand on the table, so that his mermaid ring gleamed with meaningful menace, drawing the eyes of all. Alice made sure that her left hand remained below the table’s edge, out of sight.
Ruxley stared at Black’s ring. “It bain’t my fault, Black, that Sinneport has no moot-agent disyer night. Tis the Code. You should have stuck to the Code. You be sure to tell her that.”
“Oh, I will. In exquisite detail.” Black slowly rose to his feet, keeping his eyes on Ruxley. “I yield the table.”
“Stay seated, Andreas,” Bollinger said. “As my esteemed guest and advisor, but naun to parley for Sinneport.”
Black hesitated for a moment, then said his thanks and sat down again, sliding off the mermaid ring and slipping it into a pocket.
“Very well,” Bollinger announced, before rattling off: “Small Hastings Moot. Present: Chiefs of the Chopbacks, Staders, Starlings, and Mericans. Associates consist of moot-agents for Rottingdean, Pevensey, and Eastbourne, the Chiefs of the SaSoS 1066 and South Downs chapters, Ruxley’s son Lester for some reason unbeknownst to me, and Andreas Black as my personal advisor.” He gave Ruxley a pointed look. “Notably absent is an eyewitness. Codebound to testify, Ruxley. Chopback prentice and your youngest son, Pip.”
“Squeak!” Lester added, before guffawing at his own wit. He repeated, this time in a squeaky voice: “Pip Squeak.”
Alice stared at him coolly, hating every bone in the bully’s body. It was hard to believe that this lumbering lump of filth was Pip’s brother.
Life in the Ruxley household must be a nightmare. Poor Pip.
“Enow of that,” Ruxley told Lester. He turned to Bollinger. “My youngest has taken ill, Guvnor. Fevers. The lad is tossing and turning in bed, glowing hot as a stoked boiler and spouting gibberish. God’s punishment for his sins.”
“No!” Alice exclaimed, filled with immediate and overwhelming concern.
Ruxley looked at her with cold eyes, before addressing Bollinger again. “The lad might pull through, mayhap not. I got some parley with the boy afore I was called away to mind matters…elsewhere. After that Lester talked with him some before the boy was struck by fevers. We’re both able to speak on behalf of my youngest lad.”
Alice made to protest but Bollinger gestured at her to remain silent. He told Ruxley: “The Code allows for that. What did the lad tell you?”
Is Pip alright? Is he really that ill?
Lester continued leering and sneering at her from across the table, safely in the lee of his father. Alice willed his presence out of her mind and tried to fix her face into a steel expression.
I want to see him.
Intensive memories of shared moments flooded her with warmth.
He’d feel better if he saw me, I’m sure.
She’d made an enemy of Pip’s father. The man clearly despised her. She wouldn’t be allowed to come anywhere near Pip. The full finality of Pip’s non-appearance struck her. All her insides dropped, and she had to fight the gaping maws of that voracious wind-funnel again.
His real name is Matthew. I like ‘Matt’ better. I wonder if he would mind if I called him that.
I’m naun going to see him again. I’ll be on my way to Rottingdean in the morning.
Far away from Matthew… Matt…Pip.
I won’t see him naun more.
Alice struggled to keep her face from betraying her despair and tried to focus on Ruxley’s words.
“The Joseph Swaine reached the rendezvous with the Frogs on time. The Fishguts had sent one of their tubs as well. Both crews had just finished shifting the crop when four Rozzer sky-sharks appeared and opened fire on the Frogs.”
It was all so dreadfully familiar that Alice wanted to shut him out.
Nay. He’s up to something, that’s why he won’t let Pip talk. You have to pay attention.
Ruxley continued speaking in a curt tone. “Cap’n Hobden, his lad Brock, my eldest son Harold, and young Pip were crewing The Joseph Swaine.”
“A bettermost name,” Trulock interrupted him. “A Stader to be sure. Joseph were a pillar of the fishing folk, I knew him when I was but a nipper. A bloody shame what the Rozzers did to him, murdering bastards that they be.”
Ruxley grunted, and then continued. “Cap’n Hobden tried to outrun the Rozzers but made the gurt big mistake of following the Fishgut sky-skiff. The Fishguts led our crew straight into disaster, and both skiffs were brought down…”
He let his voice trail off, staring at Alice as he did so, his eyes daring her to challenge his distortion.
Pip would have never told him that. Pip said I were a Cloud Weaver.
Alice sensed that both Black and Thomayne tried to give her a look, but she didn’t need their reminders. She clenched her fists by her sides and bit her jaw shut – suppressing her raging fury. She was Codebound to let Ruxley speak. The man had already used the Code to silence Black for the time-being. He was hoping to goad Alice into breaking it too. It would be a glaring black mark against her, diminishing anything she hoped to say. For her to shout at Ruxley that he was a liar was probably exactly what he wanted.
Along with the anger, she fought her despair. She had imagined delivering her eyewitness testimony side by side with Pip, as they had done that morning in Sinneport. Pip had jumped up and challenged Grout-head in Alice’s defence, showering her with the highest accolade he could think of. That was how she hoped it would go again, the two of them unstoppable, and maybe afterwards – a kiss she now regretted not having collected earlier.
A draught passed by, an echo of Nell’s voice. “Let us enjoy the good things that are present…let no flower of spring pass by…”
Too late. I left it too bloody late, can’t I do anything proper?
It was as if she were trapped in a waking nightmare. Unexpectedly involved in a vicious and exhausting battle. Pip kept from her side. Black neutralised. Bollinger held back by his need to marshal the moot. She was with friends, but also on her own and that was dreadfully lonely.
Alice registered a flash of disappointment across Ruxley’s face. She reckoned he’d realised she wouldn’t take the bait. He shrugged indifferently. “Lester, tell the rest of it.”
Lester spoke by rote, like a schoolboy reciting a lesson. “The prentices survived. They were found by Mudlarks in the mush. The Mudlarks took them to Sinneport and made them welcome.”
“Scylla be praised.” Black interrupted his son. He invested his words with solemnity, but looked directly at Black as he spoke, his eyes full of gloating amusement.
Why is he like this? There has to be a proper reason.
Ruxley picked up the story again.
“They stayed there for the night…” Ruxley allowed for a tense pause but didn’t dare go as far as accusing the Mudlarks of wrong-doing in their care of the apprentices, Black had achieved that much. “The highwayman brought them back to Hastings today. And here we are.”
“What did Pip say about the attacking aeroships?” Bollinger asked.
“A bettermost question, James,” Ruxley said. “And one of the first I asked of him after getting the main gist. Howsumever, alas and alack, that were when the fever set in, leaving him babbling nonsense. Bain’t that right, Lester?”
“That were the way it went,” Lester confirmed.
Bollinger continued pressing for details, but all his questions were dismissed by Ruxley’s assurances that there had been no more sensible information to be had from Pip.
Alice stared at Ruxley, trying to let thought rather than emotion rule her head. With Black unable to provide a Sinneport account, it would be her turn to speak soon and she mustn’t hiss and spit like a cat. She suspected Ruxley would challenge her every word. Slowing the moot to a standstill. Trying to make her angry. Distracting all from what had to be decided with pointless skirmishes. Alice’s response would be all-important.
Tess, Nell, Scylla, and Neeva appeared in her mind’s eye, in a tumbling jumble. It would make sense that Tess was Scylla, but it didn’t quite seem right. Alice had no idea who was who, but was fairly sure they were all connected. They would probably not only know how to defend themselves, but launch their own attacks, by…by…
…never letting naun doubt who’s in charge… That’s it. That’s what I need to do. How?
Bollinger gave up trying to elicit further detail from Ruxley. He cast a worried glance at Alice. “In level of seniority, ‘twould have been Sinneport to testify next, but…”
He knows Ruxley lied. But he can’t accuse him. It has to be me, and I can’t accuse him neither. I have to do it otherwhile.
Alice decided she had to protect her words from being doubted at every turn. Taking a deep breath, she turned to Bollinger.
“The Code must be heeded, Guvnor Bollinger. Sinneport will speak afore Rottingdean.”
He looked confused at that, which was good because it probably meant the rest were as well – apart from Black that was. She glanced at the highwayman for a brief instant, long enough to note his slight nod of approval and encouragement.
“If the Code is heeded,” Ruxley said, speaking to Alice slowly and loudly as if she were a small child that was being particularly chuckle-headed. “Black bain’t nohows allowed to parley for Sinneport at this present council. Unless you mean to suggest we break the Code?”
Lester sniggered as if that had been a masterstroke, but the trap was blatant and Alice wasn’t about to stumble headlong into it. Instead, she was determined to follow the Code to perfection. Make use of it even if she could. Ruxley would find her an apt pupil. If he could, so could she.
“Sinneport sent two moot-agents to Tamarisk today.” Alice placed her left hand on the table. Her ring caught the light from one of the lanterns and lit up in a spectacular manner, flashing bright as lightning for an instant, arresting the eyes of all.
Lester snarled. “How dare you claim to speak for Scylla. Did you steal that ring, Fishgut?”
“Enow of you,” Bollinger told Lester. “Speak like a man if you must speak, naun like a spiteful child.” He turned to Alice. “You claim to speak for the Mairemaid of Sinneport?”
Alice wanted to laugh at the insanity of it. She would never have risked making such a ludicrous claim, meriting severe punishment by the Code if proven false, but saw no other way out. She glanced at her hand. Whatever else, Tess Hawkhurst – for reasons of her own – had gifted a valuable token that told all Alice was a Mudlark associate, empowered to speak on Scylla’s behalf. An agent with at least some of the clout Black had, though it was far harder to exude confidence when you were a great deal smaller, younger, and just a prentice girl – not to mention hardly knowing Scylla at all. Regardless, Alice needed to be a pirate queen now, just like Tess Hawkhurst had been.
She knew Dad. They fought together. Side by side. Black as well. There must be dunnamany stories I bain’t heard.
It was unsettling to think that her father had had a life from she was entirely excluded – the same emptiness that had hollowed Alice on Old Town’s High Street, when she’d assumed the children gathered around Dusky were known to Pip and Pip to them.
Stay on course!
Alice took a deep breath and confirmed. “I speak for Scylla of the Mudlarks, Guvnor Bollinger.”
Bollinger glanced at Black.
Alice looked up at the highwayman just as he looked down at her, his eyes gleaming with pride as he spoke. “Liss speaks for the Mairemaid of Sinneport, Governor.”
Professor von Windbeutel chuckled. “There’s untold depths to this one.”
Ruxley turned to Bollinger in appeal. “I object. The girl’s just a child and prentice.”
“Moments ago you were accusing her of something entirely different,” Bollinger answered. “Old enow to be nurting men into sin.”
Alice withheld a grin.
Pip would have liked being called a man by the Guvnor.
Her brief amusement was quelled by her uncertainty regarding Pip’s health. Was he really that sick he might die? Or was this all part of Ruxley’s game?
Bollinger shook his index finger at Ruxley like a schoolmaster warning a pupil. “You dursn’t say the one and then claim the other, Ruxley. A prentice may speak for their folk when there’s naun other to do so, as per the Code. The mermaid on the girl’s finger tells us Scylla considers Liss as one of her own. Objection dismissed. Liss, was does Scylla have to say?”
Alice chose to speak slowly because it was strange forcing herself to see things from a different viewpoint. She wasn’t speaking for Uncle Yard or the Chief Constable, nor Rottingdean or Brighton. That would have been easier. Instead, she spoke for Sinneport.
“Mudlarks were out last night to run in a crop of tea. They heard Gatling salvos over the salts and saw four strange aeroships. They were naun the usual Coastguard or RAF cutters or brigs. The sky-sharks had search-lights sweeping the salts. They were hunting two chavvies…”
– Alice paused briefly as she visualised Pip and herself scrambling up the embankment, forever and longer ago –
“…who came out of the mush and claimed to be Free Trade prentices and the sky-sharks’ prey. The chavvies were tested and found to be Free Traders. Brought to Sinneport, to the Mairemaid Inn, as part of the run’s crop.”
Alice paused for a breath, reminding herself to keep sounding confident.
“Scylla summoned a Mudlark Moot. Several Mudlarks vouched for the prentices…”
Alice presented the specifications of the four sky-shark vessels as general conclusions drawn by Scylla’s whole council, rather than specifically her own impressions as Wind Reader. She added the council’s assumption that the mysterious sky-sharks might well be foreign mercenaries, crewing Milanese gallearezzas skirring from Corinthian aeroship carriers.
She paused expectantly after breaking that news.
Pip’s father and brother joined in the collective growl that arose around the table – but joined in just a little bit late. The rest – including Trulock – had sounded more sincere in their anger.
“It was decided to help the prentices get back home,” Alice ended. “And Mus Black was asked to take them back.”
“What a thorough account!” Professor von Windbeutel exclaimed. “Bravo.”
Alice couldn’t resist a proud smile, but noted that Ruxley’s face was a mizmaze of disbelief and anger.
“That is just…” He protested. “That is just—”
“—That, Mus Ruxley.” Alice forced herself to stare into his horrible eyes. “Is the outcome of Scylla’s council.”
Ruxley seemed to wilt in his chair. Alice avoided looking at Lester, afraid that she wouldn’t be able to resist thumbing her nose at him.
“What else did Scylla decide, Liss?” Bollinger asked.
Alice glanced at the mermaid ring, grateful that Tess Hawkhurst had granted her such a weapon and humbled by the enormous trust. She would have to honour that by being truthful – no matter how strong her own convictions.
“Romney Marsh will naun come to fight, naun attend an Owler’s Moot,” Alice said slowly. “All-along-of it being Sussex business, and naun the purvension of Marsh Folk.”
There were frowns and concerned looks around the table at that news, so Alice quickly continued.
“She also said that if it’d been a Mudlark crew attacked, she’d be itching to fight. And that if Hastings were to call for an Owler’s Moot and choose to fight alongside Rottingdean, twere Fair Winds she wished for all.”
“Bethanks,” Bollinger replied. “For Sinneport’s eloquent voice. Are we all agreed on what happened last night?”
Ruxley seemed to have run out of objections. Alice hadn’t made him out to be a liar, hadn’t contradicted anything he’d claimed, and had focused mostly on what he’d left deliberately blank himself. He stared at the tabletop, temporarily defeated at least.
“Then there’s Rottingdean’s account.” A light smile trembled on Bollinger’s lips. “Does Rottingdean’s moot-agent have anything to add to the previous two testimonies?”
“Yarr, I do.” Alice took a deep breath. She wasn’t finished yet but her throat felt dry and she seemed to have exhausted all her energy. She looked at Ruxley, expecting him to voice another objection, but he continued staring at the table.
Alice glanced at the others. Bollinger had set his face on neutral again, helped by the dark glasses and the cloud of smoke that surrounded him as he lit a new cigar. Black and Gunning looked so proud it was embarrassing. Thomayne had folded her arms, looking sideways to observe Alice with curious amusement. Haddent was yawning disinterestedly; he’d retrieved a penknife and was labouring away at the dirt beneath his fingernails.
Mericans, Chopbacks, Starlings, and Staders.
Those were the senior votes. Bollinger was her ally – bound by oath. Ruxley hated her.
Alice looked at Professor von Windbeutel and Will Trulock.
Von Windbeutel was regarding Alice with thoughtful interest. He’d been kind so far and had stepped into the line opposing Ruxley during that face-off – also silencing Will Trulock by mention of Mademoiselle someone or other.
Trulock might have stepped away from Ruxley’s side, but his face was one of stern disapproval as beheld Alice. He’d made clear what he thought about women Owlers, yet it was he she would need to win over. Even if the Staders didn’t have any aeroships, because both Black and Bollinger had told her this was how things worked in Hastings.
Trulock growled with the rest when he heard about the furriners. He’s his own man, not Ruxley’s to command.
Alice decided to ignore the rest altogether and talk to Chief of the Staders directly.
“My pologies, Mus Trulock,” she said. “For not knowing who Joseph Swaine was.”
He snorted in reply.
“Howsumever, when you talked about Mus Swaine, it made me think of Rottingdean. I was there during the Massacre on the Green. I heard the Gatling guns. They took two of our aeroships down. Twelve Owlers died.”
“This is nohows on course,” Ruxley objected, animated by new antagonism. “If anything, Rottingdean has a whole lot of explaining to do. Why not try that, girl?”
“Ruxley,” Bollinger shook his head. “A moot-agent must be allowed to finish…”
“It’s alright, Guvnor,” Alice said. She looked at Ruxley. “Explain what, Mus Ruxley?”
He pressed on, triumph in his eyes suggesting he reckoned himself to be at an advantage again. “Were we not told last year that we had to skirr in Rottingdean’s wake? Fishguts and Jugs it were. Reckoning that they’d found an answer to the troubles that plagued Sussex. The bloody Trinity Accord, bain’t it?”
Alice nodded. Sussex had become a powder keg after the Massacre on the Green. Rozzers and Free Traders had been on the verge of open warfare and all feared a spark that would ignite hostilities like never seen before in centuries of conflict between Owlers and the Crown. As if by miracle, Lunnon had sent an envoy, a mysterious figure known to the world as the Ambassador. Alice had met the man herself and talked to him. He had brought together both her employers, Chief Constable Willoughby of Brighton and Yard Pilkin the Poet of Rottingdean, to reach an agreement dubbed the Trinity Accord.
It had been a bitter pill for the Free Traders to swallow at the time, Alice recollected, for it involved paying a shadow tax of sorts, albeit a far kinder one than official duties. Every set period, a small part of a crop was to be offered to local police forces. This to create the illusion that the relatively new – but mostly local – blue-coated constabularies had managed to curtail smuggling activities where the Army, Royal Navy, Coastguard, and RAF – mostly outlander sheere-folk – had failed.
It had worked like a charm. Lunnon had stood the military down from war-footing, easing the tension to the benefit of the smuggling communities. Deep in Lunnon somewhere – placed high, high up –someone looking at a far larger picture of which Sussex was but a small part, was pleased to see potential rebellion avoided with minimum fuss. Alice knew that Willoughby had been relieved that Brighton’s under-funded and under-staffed constabulary could focus on what he considered proper criminals: muggers, thieves, robbers, rapists, and murderers – Brighton had them all.
The previous night’s ambush and hunt was contrary to agreements made under the Trinity Accord. Alice’s instinctive reaction was to jump to the defence of Rottingdean, but despite her dislike of Ruxley she understood this part of his mistrust. The more she thought about it, the angrier she got – solemn guarantees had been made by Lunnon to impose strict controls on military activities. Some folk on the Rozzer side were Oathbreakers.
“Tis true,” Alice conceded. “Howsumever, I don’t ken the answer to that—”
Ruxley jabbed a finger at her. “All-along-of being naun more than a chavvie and prentice. Tis unaccountable that you parley here as an equal, and that twice over, but if that must be, so be it. But then you can damn well tell us why disyer Rozzer sky-sharks murdered our crew and my son. How the Rozzers skirred in out of nowhere when we trusted Rottingdean’s promises that all would be well. Rottingdean asked us for trust, we gave it willingly, but look where that led us. Down a crew, skiff, and crop. And now you ask us to trust you again? Where be the sense of that?”
“She bain’t asked you nothing yetner,” Gunning pointed out.
“Steph.” Bollinger shook his head. “We’ve more than established Liss’s right to speak tonight, on several counts.”
“But it be wrong, James,” Ruxley growled. “You heard some of what the child said. Rozzer sky-shark crew what looked like insects? With eyes growing out of the side of their heads? My youngest lad was babbling on about that as well in his fever talk.”
Pip. Alice shut her eyes for a brief moment. Does he miss me at all? Too ill? Or mayhap there wasn’t what I thought there was – mayhap it were just me…
“If I may,” Professor von Windbeutel said calmly. “I’d be able to provide a perfectly logical explanation for that.”
“Perfectly logical.” Ruxley mimicked the professor before sneering at him. “We don’t need naun experts. We need real Owlers to deal with this threat. Naun furriners.”
“I’d be middling grateful, professor,” Bollinger countered. “To hear your explanation.” He gave Ruxley a cold look. “A matter of courtesy as well as basic common sense, Steph.”
“It’s likely to be a matter of auditory transmogrification,” the professor said.
“Oddiwhat?” Haddent asked.
“The theory of Optical Sonance has been doing the rounds ever since my esteemed colleague Professori Arpakuutio Kalsarikännit first proposed it some ten years ago. The concept of transmogrifying audio into visual reception is rather fascinating, and I have heard rumours of prototypes being developed at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, in Italy.”
“Quiddy?” Alice asked; glad to see that just about everyone was puzzled by the professor’s explanation as well.
“It’s a new invention, a device attached to the face, with closed eyepieces and outwardly-curving tubes leading to hearing horns raised alongside the head, up and over the head’s crown to create the insectoid impression the children spoke of.” The professor mimed the tubes by raising his arms alongside his head, forearms and hands flopping comically outwards. “It allows the wearer to visualise sound waves and deduct the sources. To see sound, as it were.”
“See sound?” Alice echoed incredulously.
“Pest,” Trulock said. “The work of the devil, if you ask me.”
“With all due respect, Squire.” Ruxley’s face betrayed none of that respect, just disdain. “But that be just daft. I told you the lad was feverish.”
“Not daft at all,” the professor countered. “The eyepieces block your regular sight, opening the wearer to the visual transmogrification of auditory input…that is, to see sounds.”
“Is that even possible?” Alice wondered.
“Bain’t it the case that Wind Readers can read the wind?” Gunning asked. “This seems a mite alike.”
“I s’pose so,” Alice admitted. “Perfessor, what kind of sounds can they…see?”
“The prototypes I heard rumour of had an effective range of a hundred yards. Within that range, even the creaking of rigging could be heard. The strength of auditory perception fades rapidly as range is increased, that is: it weakens quickly. A human would need to shout at a hundred-and-fifty yards to be ‘seen’. At two hundred yards a small steam-engine would only be picked up by the keenest ‘hear-out’. Optical Sonance is a remarkable concept, and actual auditory transmogrification a splendid achievement – a shame it appears to be utilised for military purposes.”
“So mayhap that be true,” Ruxley conceded. “Howsumever— ”
“—We talked and shouted,” Alice quickly said, before Ruxley led them all on another wild goose chase. “When they had their engines on, all-along-of being safe to talk then, most-in-general. Would those see-sound machines work when there be a running engine nearby the crew wearing the hearing-eyes, Perfessor?”
“No. They wouldn’t be effective at all. However, you mentioned they used wind-powered flight as well. During stealth skicing the ‘see-sound’ machines would be particularly effective.”
“Howsumever, they ken where we were even when they were steam-powered,” Alice mused. “Can they sound-see the wind? A sheer?”
“I’m almost entirely sure the devices were made specifically to intercept animal or man-made noises. The addition of natural phenomena like the rushing of the wind, river, or tide, would create too much input, producing a blanket wall of sound.” Von Windbeutel indicated the gleaming housing of his artificial eye. “A blinding one in this case.”
“They skiced on wind sheers like Night-Fliers,” Alice pointed out. “How did they do that then, unless they had Wind Readers on board?”
The professor smiled, it appeared he was thoroughly enjoying their conversation. “I don’t know. I have a suspicion regarding possible experimental chromofractive developments, but there are some colleagues I’d have to discuss that with first.”
He turned to Bollinger. “If approved by this moot, I shall set out tomorrow to find an answer to that question. I’ll return with all haste, but it might take a few days.”
“Thank you, Gorlassar.” Bollinger replied. “Understanding this foe will be important. Please do that with all haste.”
“Hold that,” Ruxley said. “What if—”
“—I’d like to finish speaking now,” Alice appealed to Bollinger.
“By Pize,” Ruxley cursed.
“Tis her right,” Thomayne said. “By Code.”
Alice turned to Will Trulock.
“I don’t ken what happened to the Trinity Accord, Mus Trulock. I ‘spect my folk back home ken less than you do now. They’ll want to find out, bain’t naun doubt. They’ll want to ken who disyer furrin murderers are.”
Alice halted for a deep breath, laying a hand on her heart. “I do too. It was my skipper, my crew – and for me that includes them from The Joseph Swaine all-along-of us skirring together. While it lasted we made a bettermost team.”
“As for my boots, Mus Trulock…” Alice shrugged helplessly. “I can’t help it. I skirr for Rottingdean but I live in Brighton.”
That evoked loud laughter around the table, barring Ruxley and Lester. Even Trulock looked amused. He said: “There be something of everything and everything of something in Brighton, tis unaccountable.”
“Tis unaccountable,” Alice echoed. “Mus Trulock? Would you tell me how Joseph Swaine died?”
He closed up again. “It bain’t popular entertainment.”
“Yet you brought it up first, Will,” Bollinger said. “So an answer is due. Back in those days, Liss, there were naun in all of Hastings who weren’t involved in Free Trade. We were all at it. Young, old, large, small, deedy, and chuckle-headed. In Old Town, folk never locked their foredoors, afterdoors, nor courtyard and garden gates. I remember this as a young lad. The fambly eating round the table. Naun would even blink an eye when an Owler or two would burst through the foredoor, lugging tubs or sacks, speeding out the back and skicing into the mizmaze of twittens and cats’ creeps out back. Followed by Queen’s Men a few minutes later, marching stuggedly and loudly up the street, passing closed doors. Old Bo Peep looking for ‘er sheep.”
“That be true,” Trulock acknowledged. “I recollect you as a nipper.”
“Yarr.” Bollinger smiled. “And I recollect a certain brave young Owler, bursting through the foredoor lugging a gurt big bale of bacca and heading out back, but naun afore nicking a slice of bread with a cheerful ‘bethanks’.”
Trulock grinned. “Free Trading be a hungry business.”
“Forgive us old ones, Liss,” Bollinger said to Alice. “Regaling old memories is what we do best. I was telling you about Joseph Swaine.”
“Ye weren’t telling it well, James,” Trulock said. “Ye were drifting this way and that like a tossicated Kentishman in the telling of it. I’d better tell it meself. Joe Swaine was a fisherman, sailing from the Stade in his lugger. Had himself a wife and five younglings. Rozzers back then had taken to poking fishermen’s nets with sharpened steel rods. Took less time than having a proper coke about for a crop. But them rods were devils to the nets. When this Rozzer wanted to poke Swaine’s nets, Joe misagreed, not wanting his nets injured. They argued afore the Rozzer shot Joe dead.”
“Oh, Gemeeny,” Alice said. Recalling the rapid poverty of families who’d lost a breadwinner after the Massacre on the Green, she asked: “How about his wife and younglings?”
Trulock looked at her proudly. “The Staders took care of ‘em. Every single household pitched in tillwhen they were old enow to earn a living. Chopbacks lent a helping hand as well. Three of the Swaine younglings are Staders now.”
“And one of them a Merican,” Bollinger added. “And the other one a Chopback, bain’t that so, Steph?”
“That’s what my mum and dad taught me Free Trade was all about,” Alice said. “Folk looking after their own.”
“Solidarity,” von Windbeutel agreed.
Alice had omitted to say it hadn’t worked as well in Rottingdean. Uncle Yard had become leader of the Free Trade collective after the massacre. He’d done his best, but with two ships lost, most of the best Owlers dead, and so many households dependent on support, he hadn’t been able to keep it up. It was only recent that Rottingdean had once more earned a dominant position – and a great deal of that was due to the respect still commanded by the memory of Captain John Hawkeye.
Alice understood why Uncle Yard traded on her father’s name at times, but she didn’t like it and avoided doing the same. She didn’t want to earn respect simply because of her father. She suspected it would help her case with Trulock a great deal if she did mention the name, but reminded herself she was on a run, and the Code said to conceal who was who allwhen on a run.
“My dad were a fisherman, Mus Trulock.” Alice said. “In Rottingdean. Sailed on a hog-boat. Otherwhile an Owler – a Night-Flier. He were shot by Rozzers at the Massacre on the Green.”
Alice’s voice trembled lightly for an instant. “My dad survived and crawled out of the skywreck. He were brought to his knees by a volley of Rozzer muskets. One of their officers finished the job with a headshot, shooting my dad down like a mad dog.”
She couldn’t help but snarl that last with sudden anger, and continued speaking in a harder tone.
“I heard those Gatlings again, Mus Trulock, over the Romney salts shortwhen ago. The Martlet was already a Night-Flier down. One of the Chopbacks, Brock, skimmed over to The Martlet to help us exit a sheer. We were friends in a minute, a working crew in two. I watched him and my skipper go down, right in front of me, struck by Gatling bullets again and again. I saw a man on the deck of The Joseph Swaine on fire, mad with pain.”
“That would be Cap’n Hobden, may he rest in peace,” Ruxley confirmed. “Gatling got Harold, or so Pip said.”
There were renewed murmurs of empathy around the table, all sincere, which seemed to mollify Ruxley somewhat. Alice was relieved to finally find out that it hadn’t been Harold consumed in flames in front of Pip’s eyes.
Focusing on Trulock again, Alice continued speaking. “Rottingdean bain’t strong enow to fight these sky-sharks on our own. We’re already a skiff and two Owlers down – and still hurting from the Massacre. Howsumever, my folk will want revenge. I want revenge. If the ardle-headed puckstools had done their job proper, they would have shot me down last night, like they did my dad. I want them to regret they bain’t done so. I want those Rozzer bastards to pay for what they’ve done. For Mus Swaine. For my dad and his Rottingdean crewmates. For the Hastings and Rottingdean Owlers who died last night, and the French channel-runners as well.”
Alice looked at Ruxley. “For your Harold, Mus Ruxley, sureleye.”
He looked away.
Addressing the whole table, Alice continued. “If we don’t fight back, they’ll keep on coming, to ambush and aim their Armstrongs and Gatlings at our Night-Fliers one by one. They’ve tasted blood now, and they’ll come back for more…”
Thinking hard, Alice was struck by inspiration from Sinneport. “One by one, Mus Trulock, we will be dispersed as mist driven away by the beams of the sun. For our time is a very shadow that passes away. Solomon said that, he were a wise Sinneport Owler. So I say, let’s use that time well.”
She turned to Bollinger. “I bain’t asking you to fight, not yetner. What I’m asking you, as Rottingdean’s moot-agent, is to call an Owler’s Moot, so that we can parley about it with as many Free Trade folk as possible. With Marsh Folk blessings, at least. Together we will be strong enow to show ‘em Sussex wunt be druv.”
There was a moment of silence, before Bollinger broke it. “That is a fair request, and I am honoured to call for a moot vote.”
Ruxley started to object: “Wait—”
“—Code,” Trulock told him. “James be right. Enow’s been said. I vote ‘yarr’, let’s raise Sussex. We wunt be druv.”
Alice stared at him in amazement, flooded by relief.
“It’s a steadfast ‘yarr’ from the Starlings,” Professor von Windbeutel said. “Sinneport and Rottingdean have spoken well.”
“Steph?” Bollinger asked. “Your son is one of those we aim to avenge. And the other Chopbacks.”
Ruxley looked desperately unhappy, but nodded and issued a ‘yarr’ between clenched teeth.
“Bettermost,” Bollinger said cheerfully. “I’ll have to put it to Congress, of course, afore I can give Tamarisk’s answer…”
There were sighs and groans at that, other than Haddent who was pleased. “Good! Are we done? It’s gone midnight and I need a piss.”
“Yarr, you’re done,” Bollinger said. “I’m naun, I’m frit my night’s just beginning.”
Liking Alice Kittyhawk? There are two novellas preceding Fair Night for Foul Folk that may interest you, available as paperback or Kindle.