CHAPTER SIX: A Pound of Flesh
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought, 'tis mine, and I will have it.
- Merchant of Venice
"Here you are! Ellie, do you know what has been going on here? Where were you?"
"Ezekiel," she gasped, wrenching free and gaping at him, too shocked to be angry. "Ezekiel, what the devil are you doing?"
"Ellie, Mr. Bishop is in the hands of the king now."
"So what? It was a street riot, he will be released in a day." She turned, looking for Captain Montmare, knowing how worried he would be when he saw she was not behind him.
"Ellie!" Ezekiel yelled, and she whipped around, her attention on him. Ezekiel did not yell. "The riot was started when the customs official found a palm length diamond in his baggage. A diamond stamped with Donald Dillane's insignia."
Angeline felt the blood draining from her face. "They believe he stole it-"
"Which is punishable by death."
"Unless he proves the man he stole it from to have committed a worse crime." Angeline looked swiftly behind her, and found Captain Montmare's head nowhere in sight. She sprang into a trot, pushing through the crowd, Ezekiel in step behind her.
"What does he have that he can prove?" she asked, shouting over her shoulder. It would not matter who overheard, for in this busy street it could have come from anyone about anything.
"I do not know; we must believe the worst, that he has kept correspondences with the Dubh against orders, as insurance in case a thing such as this occurs."
"Blast and bugger it," Angeline muttered. "What did Papa want me to do?"
"Convince him a better fate lies with us than with the king."
Angeline stopped short, and Ezekiel almost collided with her back. "How am I to do that, perchance?" She rounded on him, livid. "He is at this moment being conveyed to the palace by an armed guard that will not let a woman through for private conversation. If Papa believes I can infiltrate Mr. Bishop's house and burn this supposed evidence, then he is mad: for even if I was able to get past his cronies and toughs to find a treasure trove of letters and incriminating documents, how are we to know that is all there is? This is not a stupid man. He will have the most important on his person, and that is out of our reach now and forever. What does Papa expect I do?"
Ezekiel looked at her blankly. "He did not say," he said simply. "Only that it must be done."
Angeline looked at him with despair. "There is nothing to be done then. Does Papa not have Agents in the palace? Can't they intercept him on his way to prison?"
"I don't know what else has been set in motion," Ezekiel said.
Time ticked loudly in Angeline's mind as she thought hard, trying to pry her way into her father's iron guarded plans. He wanted her contacted for a reason.
"I will go to the palace," she said firmly, "and convey this news to our Agents there. That is all that can be done from the outside. Get a street boy to Mr. Bishop's residence, just to be sure, and have him burn anything related that he finds. And look into his friends, acquaintances, past lovers, all you can think of where he might have stashed whatever it is he has acquired. Send Helena to the Praetor's office to see if she can buy us some time with the processing officials." She barely waited for the inclination of Ezekiel's head before she had resumed her pushing through the crowd, this time towards the long hill that led to the palace.
She had only traveled this road once before in her life, and that time had been with her father, when she was a small child. He was introducing her to their most important contact in the palace, a maid whose region encompassed half of the royal family. She had since passed away, leaving a successor much less sympathetic to their cause. It was not a total loss, for they still retained a small army of maids and nurses that reported ever slightest bit of gossip they got their ears on, but gone was the power of actively seeking out this information: these low ranking girls did not have the courage to take initiative, and preferred only to listen, never to look. It was still an invaluable resource.
Angeline was not now after a maid, but one Master Crane, a clerk in the Praetor's office who wielded a respectable amount of power, for it was he who transcribed or oversaw all orders that came out of that wing of the defense system. Angeline had never met him before, but she had memorized his description, as she had all Agents her father deemed necessary for her to know, and knew where to find and how to get to him.
She came to the head of the hill and passed through the grand, iron gates, dusted with a layer of gold that suggested Midas's touch. She forced herself to ignore the beauty of the palace grounds; almost immediately beyond the gates, the grey cobblestones gave way to shining white tiles that were floor to a massive courtyard. Directly across from the gates was an enormous balcony from which the king or his delegates could give addresses to the people, when they so wished. King Edward had not set foot on this balcony since he attained the throne, and he was an old man now; the only men to address the people since then had been clerks and officers of the Guard, either delivering proclamations relieving the people of their rights, or ordering the populace to enforce this theft on their neighbors.
There were not a huge number of people in the Grand Courtyard, and Angeline felt very small. She raised her chin and straightened her spine, imagining her feet hardly touched the ground, and she rushed instead on streams of air.
She turned away from the great double doors beneath the balcony for a more modest, but still imposing and with a touch more menace, entrance on the left. This was the public's entrance to the Guard's headquarters, where those who believed an injustice had been done to them could go to hopelessly plead their cases.
She finally reached the doors and flew down the halls, past soldiers that followed her wake in amazement, wondering if a visiting queen had decided to humble them with an audience. They did not even bother to question her when she came to the doors where citizens should not be allowed to pass; she fixed the guard with a piercing gaze, and proclaimed in a steely voice, "I have an appointment with Master Crane. I must reach his office immediately."
Stunned by her verve, they blinked stupidly after her as she stepped past, not waiting for a concession or reply. Outwardly, she was a warrior queen, master of all who went before her. Inside was a very different story: her heart pounded almost as quickly as it had in the stable only an hour ago, and a slick sheen of sweat began to coat her palms. She used this as an excuse to slap angrily at her hips, startling a servant boy carrying a pot of ink. She almost shot him an apologetic look as the black liquid sloshed over his impeccable white sleeves, but caught herself in time: she was steel. She was ice. She could not be moved.
Finally, she reached a door crowned by a plaque bearing the name of Master Crane, and pushed in without knocking.
For a man of such power and importance as he, the office of Mr. Crane was noticeably sparse. It was only a little larger than her father's study at home, and was stacked more with filing cabinets than with bookcases. It was not dominated by an imposing wooden desk, with an equally imposing man holding perpetual court from his throne. Instead, a small man, not quite wizened but not a sprig of youth either, sat at a factory made, open desk that showed his trouser-ed knobby knees. He wore large spectacles with frames that matched the grey of his thinning hair, which flew about in wisps; the ends of some were stained with the ink that coated his thin fingertips. He looked up in astonishment at the intrusion, his eyes wide as an inkpot.
"I say, what is this?" he asked, flabbergasted, adjusting his spectacles, staining the glass with flecks of ink in the process. He frowned, cross eyed, at this new mess, but ignored it, settling his glasses once again on the arch of his nose and trying to look imposing. He only succeeded in looking constipated.
Angeline closed the door, and said quietly, "Master Crane, are the walls of this office thick enough to guarantee we are not overheard?"
"Well, yes, I had them fitted so myself," he said in surprise, glancing about him. A startling thought seemed to cross his mind, and he looked at her in terror. "You are not here to murder me, are you? I say, I have done nothing wrong, I have a wife and three small children at home, you would not want their blood on your hands too?"
Angeline had not realized how stern she looked until this moment, and quickly forced herself to relax. "No, no, sir, you misunderstand me." She rooted about in an inner pocket of her skirts, ignoring his terrified squeak as he imagined all manner of daggers, poison, and disemboweling tools concealed in there, and she extracted proof of her mission: a Scottish three cent coin, but where the profile of King Edward should have been there was the image of a cloven hoof.
She offered it to him, and he snatched it from her rapidly, lifting his spectacles to inspect it. When he saw the image, he began to laugh. "Oh me, oh me, look how silly I get in my old age!" He waved his arms wildly. "Please, sit, sit, pardon the paranoia of an old man!"
His exuberance made her smile, and relax further. "You are not as old as you think you are, Master Crane, or at least you do not look it." She pulled a cushioned chair from its spot in the corner (she noticed it was more comfortable looking, and better made, than Master Crane's own).
"You are a sweet girl to say so." He took off his smudged glasses and proceeded to clean them, squinting at her near-sightedly. "To what do I owe this visit, Miss…"
"Ahh, little angel. And in French, no doubt! Surely you have loving parents!"
She was glad of his temporary blindness, for he did not see the sour twist of her mouth at his comment. "I would hope so, sir." She sat forward, and he put his glasses back on in surprise. "Master Crane, I come to you as a matter of urgency. Are you familiar with the workings of the movement you are involved in?"
"As much as I am needed to be, my lady. I am not a crusader for the cause, you understand. I will do what I can to help the unfortunate, and I hope this means I can believe myself a better man for it, but… my conscience is too delicate to involve myself too deeply with the darker aspects of this production."
"You are a lucky man, then," Angeline said enviously. "In that case, I shall give you a brief lesson. The Dubh's main industry at the moment is in smuggling arms to Scotland, and to our supporters, wherever they are spread across England, or even in the governments of nations hostile to the Kingdom. He is able to accomplish some of this through his own jewelry business, but jewelry is too heavily regulated to conceal large shipments of arms and ammo without great effort, and so this business is used mostly to raise funds and bring in information and allies.
"The actual smuggling is conducted and orchestrated by a man named Horace Bishop, whom the Dubh had recently caught selling part of his illegal stash of arms to the crown. Instead of facing his reckoning, which likely would not have been severe, given the importance of his cooperation, he attempted to flee London, but was barred at the customs house when he attempted to bustle through so they would not notice the very large diamond he had stolen from the Dubh. He is now on his way to be processed as a prisoner of the crown, both as a disrupter of the peace, and as a thief."
"And you believe he will attempt to finagle for his life with a bit of leverage against his employer," Master Crane said perceptibly, fingering his spectacles. "How real is the threat that this accusation will do harm?"
"We do not know." Angeline felt a morsel of shame at this admittance, but Master Crane did not look like the type who would judge for it. "Our Agents are looking into it as we speak. Any oral blame laid by Mr. Bishop will do little damage, for as it stands now the Dubh is a respectable businessman, and Mr. Bishop a rabble-rouser and a thief. What we fear, Master Crane, is that he possesses a hidden stash of correspondences, whether on his person or elsewhere, that may lead to the destruction of our entire operation, and death to the majority of those involved."
Angeline saw the sudden constriction of the clerk's throat, and she hurried to reassure him. "This would likely only include a small group of people, sir, those identities that can be obtained through torture, documents, or affiliation. You have no such ties but the knowledge of a select few who would die to protect it. You are too important a piece to give up." He seemed to relax, and she continued. "However, those like you who have no concrete ties would be useless without the nucleus connecting you to a central core. If the Dubh and his deputies are unmasked, the cries of Scotland and other victims of the crown will go unanswered forever."
"What would you have me do, then?" he asked, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers on the desk.
Angeline pulled a scrap piece of paper towards her, and at a motion from her head he handed her his quill. She quickly wrote down the names of several enlisted soldiers in the guard, and slid the list across to him. "First, you must make sure all of Mr. Bishop's possessions, and those of his followers that were captured, get into the possession of yourself or these men. You know several maids in the cause, yes?" He nodded. "They would do as well. Go through everything, even his undergarments if you can procure them; sift through his waste if you can find a way. Secondly," she tapped the piece of paper with a fierce finger, "make sure one of these is the man who interrogates him. Order it as an important training exercise, or a measure to against corruption, whatever you believe the most feasible. We must know where he is holding his incriminating objects.
"Thirdly, put him in seclusion, under guard by these men and separated from other prisoners. Finally," she leaner forward, her eyes flashing, "keep this from the ears of the Praetor as much as you can. He is the first man with the authority to launch a massive search, and he will not waste resources on a whim of any random officer who believes this a matter of importance. Keep this insular. Keep it quiet. We must not let any suspicions leave the officers' mess."
"How do you know that these are his intentions?" Master Crane asked. "Might it not be that he was simply trying to take a holiday?"
She would have believed him sarcastic, but he was utterly serious. "He would not have taken such an obvious connection to the Dubh if it was a mere holiday. And you do not know this man. He is a snake, a rat; he follows only the golden stuff, not honor nor loyalty nor conscience. Everything he does is for the good of himself, and as you well know, being hanged as a thief is not in his best interests. Even if he were such a man that these thoughts would never have crossed his mind, we must prepare for the worst of all outcomes. That is how we have survived for so long."
Master Crane studied her for long enough for her to begin to feel uncomfortable. Without preamble, he stated, "If you say it is so, lady, I believe you." She felt the hint of a shameful flush begin to build on her neck. He dipped his quill, pulled a fresh piece of parchment towards himself, and began scribbling furiously. "Now then, I will need you, if you don't mind, to run out and fetch me one of the errand boys, and then-"
A reserved knock sounded at the door, and Master Crane nearly upended his inkpot. Angeline saved it in time, and grabbed his shaking hands as he began to look around wildly. "I am a cousin," she said firmly, looking hard into his eyes. "I am visiting London for the first time, and have come to you looking for a place to spend the night." She took the list of names she had written for him, as well as the document he had started, and tossed them into the fire. They curled into the flame. She nodded at him.
"Come in!" Master Crane called. She was not prepared for the authority in his tone. If not for the barely perceptible tremors running through his hands, she would not believe anything to be the matter.
The door opened to admit a dignified looking man just north of middle age, with his mostly grey hair pulled into a stately plait. Despite his fine clothing and immaculate carriage, he was undoubtedly a servant. It lay in the care with which he maneuvered himself, the thought he placed in setting his feet at a certain angle from each other. Even though his employ obviously lay in servitude, he made an impressive figure.
"Ahh, Mr. Farley!" Master Crane said with obvious relief, relaxing noticeably. Angeline tensed as this registered on the face of Mr. Farley; his sweeping eyes took her in and she carefully adjusted her features to the proper level of confusion.
"I am sorry for the intrusion, sir," Mr. Farley said in impeccable Queen's English. "I was not aware you would have a guest."
"I am Isabel Daltrey," Angeline lied quickly, before Master Crane could respond. "I am a cousin of Master Crane's, new to the city."
Mr. Farley bowed politely. "At your service, my lady." He turned to Master Crane. "My master wants to confirm your appointment for tomorrow at noon. Although, I am sure he would be able to reschedule if you would like to spend the day with your cousin."
"No, no, of course, that will not be a problem. I shall see him tomorrow, then."
Mr. Farley gave another brief bow, and repeated again to Angeline. "Very well, sir. Enjoy your stay in London, my lady." He left with nary a click of the door.
"Who was that?" Angeline asked, partly out of curiosity, but mostly to decide if Master Crane was indeed being faithful in his vows to her father's cause.
"Him? Oh, that was Mr. Farley," he said, as if it should be self-evident. "Farley, he is commonly called, but I believe in treating a man of his stature with some respect."
"Is he not a servant?"
"Oh, he is. But a well educated one, with a fine mind."
"Whom does he serve? I can only believe the royal family would be able to find such a person."
"His master is not quite a royal, but he shares a close bond with his highness the prince. I believe with them it was not the normal process of hiring a servant: Farley chose his master more than his master chose him."
"However did that happen?"
"I do not know the whole story, but I believe that Mr. Farley was serving at a noble's house in Devonshire when his current master averted some unspeakable tragedy for one whom Mr. Farley cared for. Or something along those lines, I do not pride myself as a purveyor of gossip."
"His master must be a fine man indeed," Angeline mused.
"He is of a rare stock, for surely. Now," he said authoritatively, although it was ruined slightly by his quirked lips, "to the business at hand. If you would rewrite the list, Madame?"
Angeline did so, and watched in close to fascination as Master Crane set his clerical skills to work, dipping the brush and daubing the tip and sliding it onto the paper in the most natural of motions, as if he had know how to handle a pen before he could clutch his mother's hand. The words flowed from his quill like the tail of a cat draped in the sand.
"Here you are," he said proudly, handing her the document. In a few short minutes he had fashioned an entire manuscript, complete with brush worked heading and a fawning dedication to the king. She read through the orders, and found herself utterly impressed with his ease at convincing his enemies of the clarity of his convictions.
"Master Crane, you do not receive what you are worth."
She was amused to see the old man blushing. "I do what I can, miss. I hope this will suffice?"
"It will at that, I do believe."
"Good then. If you would ring the bell on the far wall, that will call an errand boy who will bring these orders to the Guards." She rose to do so while he sanded the letters to keep them dry, folded the document precisely, and stamped it with the authoritative seal of the Praetor, stating that the words contained would be obeyed as if from the mouth of the master of the guards himself. Angeline marveled at her father's prowess of discovering men such as these; not just those with power, but the intelligence to use it properly. She had a sudden longing for Master Crane not to be caught up in this mess of politics about which he knew next to nothing.
He should live out his life on a farm someplace, she thought sadly, seeing his brow wrinkle as he straightened the fold. Happy and free of danger, as all good men should. But then she remembered the steel in his voice when he answered the door, and the talent that flowed in his fingers and mind. A man like this would not be happy in seclusion for long, no matter how idyllic. The thought made her sad.
"Right then," she said briskly when the boy – the same who she had startled into staining his shirt, which still bore the black smudges – had collected the document and whisked it away. "I must be going now, to see if the Dubh has any more need of me. Is there any favor you have to ask of me before I go? A message for the Dubh? Or anything else?"
He smiled the smile every child wishes from a parent. "Only that I may someday see you again, without the fate of the world to be borne on our shoulders."
Angeline, touched, rounded the desk and kissed his cheek. She had surprised herself, but was happy for it, because when she pulled away to look at him she saw a rosy blush staining his cheeks. She bit her lip to restrain a giggle at the sight.
"I would like that very much, Master Crane," she said earnestly.
"Alright then, girl, off with you! Great things are afoot! Do not hesitate to call again if you have need of me, cousin Isabel." He winked, and she, with a final smile, quit the room.
She returned home without incident, brimming with pride at her accomplishment: with nary an instruction from her father, she had single handedly crafted, if not the ultimate solution to their problem, one that was likely to have a great impact. She felt an immense surge of patriotism as she walked home, for she knew that she had served her country and her cause and her family, and she could think of no higher accomplishment than that.
She came in the door brimming with energy, ready to find a house full of people raring to do something, change something, further this thing she had been a part of, but the apartment was silent, a single candle waning by the window as the sun sank towards full dark. She looked around the room; no scattered papers, or squashed cushions, or muddy boot tracks from uncouth men. It was as if no one had been here since she left.
She climbed the stairs and entered her bedroom. Mary sat on her knees behind Helena, braiding the older girl's hair for bed; Helena had already done the same for her. They looked up in surprise when Angeline entered.
"Lina, thank goodness you're back, why ever were you out so late?" Mary cried, dropping the half finished braid.
"Mary!" Helena said, exasperated, as the caught the thick rope before it unraveled. Mary bounded off the bed and gave Angeline a giant hug. Over Mary's shoulder, Angeline traded a sober look with Helena: something had happened here since she had been gone, which they would discuss once Mary and her inappropriate exuberance were out of the room.
"Mary, let Eline sit down. Get her some tea, it is chilly out there." Mary agreed vigorously, glad to be of help, and rushed down the stairs. Unlike Helena, she would not feel the need to wake Magdalene for it, and they would have a few minutes to themselves.
"Helena, what is going on?" Angeline asked, sitting beside her sister. She would have completed the braiding, but she sensed the potential to get angry during this conversation, and she would not want to risk the other girl's wrath if she yanked out a few silky fibers. "Why has no one been here? Is there not still a situation with Mr. Bishop?"
Helena looked at her blankly for a few moments, then said, "Eline, there never was a situation. Mr. Bishop was told to run the diamond by Papa, and to get caught; it was part of his punishment for selling guns to the crown."
"Then why did Ezekiel tell me Papa needed my help?" Angeline felt her hands beginning to shake with rage, and even the fiery Helena shrank from the lightning bolts firing in her eyes.
"I overheard Papa speaking about it," Helena said, putting what was supposed to be a comforting hand on Angeline's arm. She shook it off and jumped to her feet. The hair on her neck stood on end.
"What did he say?" she demanded.
"It was a test," Helena said quietly. "Of you. Of what you'd do. Of where you'd go, and how far what you did would come to saving Mr. Bishop."
"But he was safe all along," Angeline muttered. Horrid thoughts of betrayal swam through her head. "Who knew of this? Ezekiel? Master Crane?"
"I know for sure that Ezekiel did not know until he arrived at Mr. Bishop's house to find he must not burn it." Helena quirked her full lips in such a way that made thousands of men swoon. "Personally, I would have liked to have seen the bugger's place reduced to ashes. Then he might think twice about where he keeps the trophies of his conquests."
Angeline chose to ignore that last statement; she had more important things on her mind. "And Master Crane?"
Helena shrugged. "I do not know who that is, and Papa never mentioned a man by that name. Angeline, I understand why you are upset, but I do not believe Papa did this to antagonize you."
"But I have proved myself, Helena," Angeline said in despair. She kicked the bedpost halfheartedly. "With my whole life I have proved it."
The heat in Helena's voice startled her. "You have proved nothing, Angeline, least of all today."
They stared at each other, Angeline in remorse but trying not to show it, Helena unreadable except for her wrath, the anger of the avenging goddess.
Mary entered the room with tea and cups on a platter, and delivered it on the nightstand with a flourish.
"Lady Gray, just as I like it," she sang out, forcefully breaking the tension in the room, if only for the fact that any melancholy in the face of her sunshine would be noticed immediately, and frowned upon.
Angeline took her tea and sat at the windowsill, cupping it in her hands and looking out at the dark street. She heard a few murmured words pass between her sisters, followed by a sharp, "Well do I look it?" from Helena.
A worried silence later, and Mary asked, "Lina, are you coming to bed? Or shall I shut the lights?"
"Go ahead Mary," Angeline said, still looking out at the silent street.
With the soft whoosh of Mary's breath, the room dropped into darkness, the only light from a single lamp outside, under which a single cloaked figure hurried through the chill of the London night. Angeline shivered as a draft blew in the window, and took a long drought of her tea, feeling the heat swirl up into her head and pour through her stomach, heating her core like a furnace.
She tried to summon up the righteous anger she had felt on Helena's admission. It was wrong for her father not to trust her. She was the one he had trusted most all these years, since she could first hold a quill. Or so she had thought.
It was not right to feel so betrayed; she knew it; as she had told Master Crane just an hour before, they were in a dangerous business, and the loyalty of all must be distrusted, or the faith of no one could be counted on. What angered her, she believed, was that this testing had been performed so publicly. What would Master Crane think when he found out that his orders and panic had been for naught, that the soldiers he had taken pains to attach Mr. Bishop to had possession of him already? Would he think her merely a fool, or a betrayer of trust, just as she felt about her father just now? It was rare she wanted respect so badly from a new acquaintance.
She sipped her tea and new warmth blossomed deep inside her as the liquid seeped into her bones. It spread upwards to her cheeks as she remembered the last time she had been so utterly warm that day, with Captain Montmare's back pressed tight to her legs, his form collapsed against her. He had been betrayed too, this day, and by her alone. Her father had called her away, and under false pretences too, but it was she who had vanished without warning him. Would he think her a scamp? A tease? Or God forbid, afraid of the nearness he had shared with her. Of course not that. But he would not know.
She closed her eyes and pressed her heated brow to the windowsill, sighing softy at the relief it brought. She would find him on the morrow. That she would do first. She would not confront her father, or apologize to Helena for what she knew had been a gross moment of unfairness on her part. She would find Captain Montmare and explain that she was not the kind of woman to let herself be alone with men in abandoned barns, not because she was afraid, but because she was a respectable lady who was above that sort of temptation. She would be strong, as she had this day on entering the palace. She knew the storms she could gather on her brow if she willed it. He would bend to it, and she would never see him again, because it was proper and it was right, and because Papa trusted her.
A/N: Sorry for the long hiatus, as well as the incoherentness of this chapter. I know it's confusing, but I decided to put it up mostly unedited because I feel bad for keeping everyone waiting. Big things happen in the next chapter though, and if you review you'll get them faster. Thanks for reading!