((This follows hard on the heels of blog post “August 18 — Yes, She’s Learning.”))
Mariah Lanfier strode down the narrow street in Clockhaven, heading toward the Gangplank. She’d been avoiding the Clockhaven district ever since she started returning to New Babbage, knowing there were plenty who would recognize her, disguised or not. But she’d gleaned enough information to know where everything in Clockhaven was, and the time for disguise was over. She had a message to deliver.
She opened the door of the pub and stepped inside, and heard the low hum of conversation die off. She took a couple more steps forward, letting a light shine directly on her face, and looked around. Yes, there were several familiar faces, faces whose eyes widened in surprise as they recognized her. Mariah smiled inwardly as sudden, hushed conversation spread out from her like ripples on a pond.
She stepped up to the bar and ordered a whisky. As she waited for her drink, she heard a hissed command behind her, and the slap of bare feet running on the floor. Turning her head a little, she caught a glimpse of an urchin whisking through another door. ‘Good,’ she thought. ‘I won’t have to wait too long.’ She also saw a clocked figure at the end of the bar, and made a bet with herself about its identity.
Taking her delivered drink, Mariah turned around and saw an empty table, one that she knew full well had been occupied by three men just a minute before. She sat down, relaxing into the chair, saying nothing, apparently not looking at anyone, just patiently waiting.
The door behind her opened, bringing in a breeze to stir the flames of the lamps. Boots thudded heavily on the floor. A presence loomed massively behind her.
“Captain Montrose,” Mariah said amiably, without turning around. “It’s been a long time. Please, have a seat.”
Montrose edged around the table and sat down in the chair opposite to her. He’d always been a large man, and was now even more bulky, his years of retirement showing in the added folds of his chin that even his large, black beard could not hide. Mariah had always considered him stolid and unimaginative–adjectives not usually associated with a successful smuggling captain. She’d always wondered just where his success came from.
“Captain Lanfier,” his bass voice rumbled. “You’re out of your bounds. Why are you here in New Babbage?”
“Relax, Captain. I’m here on personal business.” Mariah rolled her eyes a little. There it was–that lack of imagination that led him to see only one possible explanation for her presence here. “I have reason to believe that a citizen of this city, Miss Bookworm Hienrichs, may be in some danger from Dr. Obolensky.”
None of the watchers in the pub had time to more than barely register that her right hand was moving before a knife was in view, point barely digging into the table, her palm resting on the top of the hilt, keeping it balanced upright.
“Miss Bookworm is under my protection. I will take it very much amiss if anything should happen to her.” She leaned forward, her hand driving the point of the knife in a little deeper. Her voice took on a distinct growl that rumbled through the room, and her eyes glinted dangerously. “I will take it just as much amiss should anyone, of this or any other city, decide to help him.”
As suddenly as the knife had appeared, it was back in its sheath, and Mariah leaned back in her chair, whisky glass in hand, her face and voice all affability again. “I’d appreciate it, Captain, if you would pass the word.”
A welter of emotions crossed Captain Montrose’s face, making Mariah wonder if he had some involvement with the doctor, perhaps more than he ought. But finally, he replied, “I’ll do that, Captain Lanfier.”
“Thank you.” Montrose waited a minute, but when Mariah didn’t say anything more, he finally heaved himself up out of the chair and left the pub.
Mariah lingered for a few more minutes, seemingly oblivious to the murmured conversations around her. She wanted to stay long enough to show that she had no compunctions about being here in New Babbage, but not so long that people would begin to think she really was here to cause trouble for Captain Montrose. She wasn’t–at least, not yet. When she judged that the right amount of time had passed, she downed the rest of the whisky, dropped a coin beside the empty glass, and exited. She didn’t go far, though, but ducked into the alley right off the doorway, keeping to the shadows. If she was right, someone from inside would soon be following her out…
She didn’t have to wait long. The door of the Gangplank opened again, and the cloaked figure stepped outside. A breeze wending its way down the street pushed the hood back just far enough for Mariah to see something of the face inside–a face she recognized. She whistled a low, breathy sequence. The figure didn’t even check its stride, but did nod slightly as it passed by.
Mariah waited a moment, then left her hiding place. She took a different route, but made it to Mureaux Park at the same time.
“Well, that was an interesting performance,” said the amused voice of Lord Mureaux’s contact.
“Hmmm,” Mariah said noncommitally. “I doubt it’ll do anything about those already working for him, but at least I made it a hell of a lot harder for Dr. Obolensky to hire anyone new.” She smiled. “It’s nice to know my reputation hasn’t dimmed too much with the years.”
“I’m curious,” her contact said. “What did Captain Montrose mean by saying you were out of your bounds? And what *is* Miss Hienrichs to you?”
“Those questions are more connected than you may think,” Mariah replied. “But I’ll need privacy to address them.”
The contact nodded, and led Mariah through a maze of alleyways, back doors, and hidden stairs, until she finally ushered Mariah into a small, windowless office and shed her cloak. “Scotch?” she asked, holding up a decanter.
“Please,” Mariah replied, settling down into a comfortable leather chair. She judged that they were somewhere in Lord Mureaux’s sprawling complex, and that was all she needed to know. She took the proferred glass and downed a good-sized swallow. “Very nice,” she said with a smile.
Her contact smiled back, topped off her glass, and sat down in another leather chair. Mariah took a smaller sip of the scotch, then leaned forward, rolling the glass back and forth between her palms. “Understand–this isn’t something we normally discuss with outsiders, but if your Lord Mureaux is going to have more dealings with smugglers, he should know about this.
“It is rare for the captain of a smuggling vessel–water or airborne–to…retire voluntarily.” Mariah grinned at the chuckle that wording elicited. “Many are captured by law enforcement or military, or ousted by underlings, or killed in any one of several dozen circumstances. So those that do make it to retirement–especially those who retire well off, if not downright rich–are very well respected by other captains. If they wish, they can become mentors, of a sort; dispensers of news, rumors and advice, repositories of confidential information, even arbiters between captains. To avoid favoritism, though, they must do this in an area where they did not operate during their smuggling career.
“When I was active, I operated in this area–New Babbage, Caledon, Winterfell, Armada. So when it came time to retire, I decided to move to America. I spent several years in New York, then decided to move to Boston. Not long after that move, though, is when the trouble began.”
Mariah sighed, remembered annoyance plain on her face. “One of my last jobs was supposed to be a rather large, complicated affair for..some parties in Caledon. There were three other captains involved, including one Robert Wycliffe–young, overconfident, and misogynistic. Not the best combination of traits for working with me. Well, the further we got into the process, the more I realized that the plan given to us simply wasn’t going to work. I told everyone to cut their losses and run. The others did; Wycliffe didn’t. He was captured, and spent eight years in prison. From what I heard, he insisted on blaming me for it, instead of his own stupidity. When he was released, he tracked me to America, and to Boston. Once there, he began spreading rumors of my past throughout the neighborhood where I lived.”
“Did he really think he could get away with that?” the woman asked incredulously.
“As I said, he was overconfident, always. He thought he’d covered his tracks well enough. He hadn’t.” Mariah shook her head and grinned.
Her contact grinned back. “What did you do to him?”
“Oh, I didn’t have to do anything,” Mariah replied with a bit of a bloodthirsty smile. “In revealing my past, he’d broken one of the codes of the smugglers. We don’t have many, but breaking one is a very serious matter. All I had to do was turn over my evidence to other captains, and *they* took care of him.
But, of course, the damage was already done. Not that I cared what those old biddies thought of me, but their cackling was getting loud enough to attract the attention of the law. I was ready to sell my house and move.” Mariah paused for a deep draft of the scotch.
“So what happened?” her contact asked.
“Right in the middle of all this, a couple moved into the neighborhood. Patrick and Josephine Hienrichs–the parents of Miss Bookworm. Their son had married and moved to Boston, and they decided to follow, especially when they received word that their daughter-in-law was expecting. Of course, they were told all about me–not just the original rumors, but others that had been completely fabricated out of whole cloth. And what do you think their reaction was?”
Her compatriot shrugged.
“They immediately paid me a call.” Mariah smiled. “They both said that they much preferred to get to know me before they decided on anything as drastic as ostracism. And curiously enough, a great deal of respect sprang up from that initial visit, respect that developed into friendship. And they championed me in the neighborhood with such vigor and eloquence, I was able to stay after all.”
“Did you tell them the truth about your past?”
“A bit. And they did make it clear to me that they didn’t approve of it. But they also said they wanted to deal with me as I currently was, not as I had been.”
“Remarkably broad-minded of them.”
“Indeed.” Mariah grinned. “Well, when Dr. Obolensky briefly took over New Babbage last summer, and they finally received that news, they begged me to come with them to try to get their daughter out, as I had told them that I used to live here. I agreed, and got in touch with…a former employer, who owns a small lodge north of the city. He agreed to let us use it, and I got in touch with the Militia. Imagine my surprise when I found out she was already making arrangements to escape. I simply had them send her out to me, and took her on to her parents.
“I wasn’t sure about her at first, but I soon saw that she was very much like her parents in her attitude toward me, even when she learned what her parents knew about me. So, a couple of months later, when she contacted me and told me she’d joined the militia, and asked if I would be willing to help with her training, I agreed. I’ve been doing that, off and on, since then.”
Her contact nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you for the information–it should be quite useful. What will you be doing now?”
“For now, not much, except for some more training when she goes to visit her parents next week,” Mariah replied. “Miss Bookworm is, in many ways, her own worst critic. She knows what she could have done better. I’d appreciate it, though, if you could let me know the moment it looks like another contretemps is brewing between her and Dr. Obolensky.”
“You think there’ll be one?”
Mariah nodded. “And I’d very much like to observe it, unseen. I have an idea about what is going on, but I need to see them interact to be sure.”
The other woman nodded. “We’ll do that, and arrange transportation if you need it.”
“Thank you,” Mariah replied. “I’ll let you know if that’s needed.” She finished her glass of scotch and stood up. “I should be on my way–there is much to start setting in motion, if I’m right.”
Her contact escorted her through the maze and back into the outer world of New Babbage. “Good luck,” she said, “and I’ll be seeing you.”
“Hopefully, not too soon,” Mariah replied with a slight smile.