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Late October – Homecoming

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The airship docked at the Babbage tower on a bright but chilly afternoon. Mrs. Pritchard stood in the waiting room of the tower, fidgeting impatiently just a little. She watched the passengers disembarking, scanning them until she spotted the three she wanted. Waving them over, she called out, “Welcome back, strangers!”

“Thank you,” Mariah said, smiling and shaking hands with the housekeeper.

“I still can’t believe I got appendicitis right when we were returning,” Bookworm said with a wry grin. “Such perfect timing.”

“Well, better in New York than on the airship,” replied Mrs. Pritchard.

“Good point.” Bookworm chuckled.

They made arrangements for a horse cart to take most of their luggage on to the house, while the four of them, carrying only a few suitcases, took trams–first rail, then canal–to their street. As she climbed up to street level, Bookworm kept her eyes peeled for a first glimpse of the new house. She finally spotted the sturdy brick structure, and grinned at seeing not one, but two turrets on the front.

Mrs. Pritchard ushered them inside, stacking their suitcases by the door, and led them on the grand tour–starting, actually on the top floor, with the bedrooms for Bookworm and Mariah, as well as their bathing room. On the next level down was the dining room, connected to the kitchen below by a dumbwaiter. On the ground floor was the large front library, shelves ready to receive their freight of books. In the back was the kitchen, and the rooms for Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Sawyer. Then Mrs. Pritchard led them into the north turret room, which was also lined with bookshelves, but had no windows at all. Bookworm looked around curiously.

“This room was my devising,” Mariah said. “I left very specific orders on its construction. This will be a strongroom for your rare books.” She nodded toward the door. “Go ahead–close the door.”

Bookworm tugged at the door and grunted, surprised at how much it resisted movement. She pulled harder, finally getting it closed.

“Reinforced steel in the walls and door,” Mariah said with satisfaction. “It’ll take a larger explosive even than the one the Man in Blue used to bring this down, so it’ll make a good place to retreat to in need. And should that happen…” She trailed off, peering down at the floor. Mrs. Pritchard stepped forward, but Mariah held up a hand. “Wait–I want to see if I can find it.” After a few minutes of close searching, she stooped and tugged at a section of floor. Bookworm hadn’t seen anything distinguishing about that area, but suddenly a handle came up in Mariah’s hand, and she pulled open a trapdoor Bookworm would never have guessed was there. She peered down, and saw a ladder leading to a rough earthen floor.

“That’s actually what took so long,” Mrs. Prichard remarked. “Especially making sure it was kept secret.”

Mariah nodded. “There’s a tunnel down there that leads to the sewer line. If we need to, we can escape this way, and come up through one of the manholes, or go down to the canal.”

“Remarkable!” Bookworm exclaimed. “How did you get the idea for this?”

“The house I had in New York,” Mariah replied with a grin. “It was previously owned by another smuggling captain–paranoid old bugger. He had several secret rooms and tunnels like this. It was fun searching them all out.”

Once the tour was finished, all four women settled down in the kitchen, currently the most furnished room in the house. Armed with tea, Bookworm, Mariah, and Mrs. Pritchard listened as Mrs. Sawyer caught them up on the news and gossip of New Babbage. After some time, Mrs. Sawyer turned to Bookworm. “You finally have a new militia captain,” she said.

“Really? Who is it?”

Mrs. Sawyer grimaced. “I’m sure I’ll get the name wrong, but I’ll try. Something like… ‘Ash-ee-ko Que-row-ee?’”

Bookworm’s response tried to be an indignant exclamation, but as she was taking a sip of tea at the time, it came out as several seconds of sputtering and coughing. The others gathered around, plying her with water and pats on the back. As she finished catching her breath, Mariah said ironically, “I take it this isn’t good news?”

“Ashiko Kuroe was Dr. Obolensky’s right-hand man when he took over New Babbage,” Bookworm replied with a little heat in her voice. “He’s been a pirate and mercenary as long as I’ve known of him. How on earth did he get named to this post?!” She looked at Mrs. Sawyer, who shrugged.

“I’ll go out tonight, and see what I can learn,” Mariah said briskly, and turned the conversation to other things.

The next morning, over breakfast, Mariah said, “Apparently, everyone was taken by surprise at Kuroe’s appointment. No one seems to know how it happened.”

“Which probably means Underby’s involved,” Bookworm remarked, chewing on some toasted bread. “That’s a man who knows how to keep his secrets, and I can’t imagine anyone else being able to get Tenk to agree to such a thing.”

“So what are you going to do?” Mariah asked. “Are you going to stay in the Militia?”

“That’s rather up to Captain Kuroe, isn’t it?” Bookworm replied wryly. “But if he should happen to ask me to stay on… I think I will. I’ll want to keep an eye on him.”

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