Authors: Kristin Bailey
I wanted to burst from the cabinet immediately. I couldn’t breathe within it. I had to get out, escape. It was nearly impossible to wait. All my instincts screamed that I should leap out of the cabinet, but I didn’t know if the captain would return. I didn’t feel secure until we heard him shouting for his men from the docks. I opened the cabinet and spilled out onto the floor. David pushed out from behind the crates.
“We must leave here quickly. They’ll return any moment.” I grabbed my thin skirts and ran for the deck, with David close behind me.
WE HURRIED OUT ONTO THE
deck. David suddenly grabbed me and threw me down behind a pile of canvas. I gasped, but he put a hand over my mouth. I held deathly still as he peeked over the canvas. “Stay down,” he whispered.
I scowled. I was the one wearing a black wool cap over my dark braids. His blond hair was far more conspicuous, and my eyes worked every bit as well as his did. I didn’t wish to borrow trouble, but his insistence on watching the enemy was placing us in greater danger.
“It’s clear,” he said, and pulled me up by the hand. Then he ushered me behind him as we scrambled down the gangplank. I could see the man in the mask walking down the
street to my left. Secretly I prayed a thousand prayers that he would not turn and catch sight of us.
I outpaced David and reached the alley a couple of steps before he did.
“Where have you been?” Michael asked as Noah reined in his agitated horse in the dark alley. “We’ve been waiting here too long.”
“We found him. The man in the clockwork mask is here. He’s returning to sail on the tide. We’ll meet at Pricket’s Toys.” David ushered me up into the cab and took a seat next to me.
The cab lurched, throwing us back against the seat as we hurried out of the docks and back toward the fairer side of town. “We must tell Oliver immediately,” I insisted.
“There’s no need. I’ll send my men after the ship, and we’ll have him arrested before morning. Your grandfather will be restored within the week.” The lamp swung above David’s head. He looked steadfastly forward, as if nothing could shake his certainty.
“Now is not the time for foolishness.” I adjusted the shawl against the bitter wind. Light flakes of snow began to fall, appearing as ephemeral flashes of white in our small halo of lamplight. They flitted past as we sped through the slick streets.
“There’s nothing Oliver can do for you that I cannot.” David looked at me, his eyes turning as flinty and cool as the winter sky. “I am a wealthy earl with contacts and resources you cannot imagine.”
And I was not a simpering girl who would fall at his feet for such things. “You are a boy among the peerage, and an apprentice in the Order. Oliver is a well-respected duke and the Headmaster. There are things he can do that you cannot.” The cab splashed through an icy puddle, sending the spray from the wheel flying as the horse tossed his head.
“Why must you discount me at every turn?” David asked. “All I’m trying to do is give you what you need.”
“I haven’t asked for it!” I swore David had to be the most stubborn individual I’d ever met, and I knew a fair number of Scots.
“Only because you’re befuddled by this romance you’ve invented.” Now there was no hiding the bitterness in David’s tone.
“This isn’t about Will.” The snowflakes grew thicker, catching on my cheeks and neck and stinging my skin with their sudden chill. I may have loved William MacDonald, but he was away in Scotland working at the Foundry that supplied the Amusementists with all the parts they needed to
construct their amazing inventions. “Whatever I might feel for Will has nothing to do with you.”
David’s eyebrow lowered suspiciously. “Doesn’t it?”
The cab rolled to a stop, and I felt comforted by the sight of Potter’s bakery and Mrs. Wallace’s bookshop. But something wasn’t right. The lamps were blazing in my neighbors’ shops so late at night.
A weak, high-pitched whistle cut through the otherwise still air.
I launched myself out of the cab, leapt to the ground, and ran toward Pricket’s Toys and Amusements—my shop, my home.
“Meg, wait!” David called, but I didn’t heed him. My heart was in my throat as I reached the windows at the front of the shop.
“Meg! Thank heaven you’re alive,” Mrs. Wallace exclaimed, gripping my arms. “We heard your whistles and found the window broken.” Mrs. Wallace was a gentle and quiet woman with a thin face and blond hair tied back in a bun. She was not the first person I would have imagined to come to my defense, and yet here she was, unafraid. I glanced back at the boys. I couldn’t let her discover me with them, or I’d be ruined.
“I’m fine, Mrs. Wallace. I’ve contacted the constable. Whoever it was wanted only money.” I knew it was all a lie, but it didn’t matter. I needed to get her back inside her own shop. I took her by the shoulder and led her back toward the bookshop, waving at the Potters in their window to let them know I was unharmed. “I’ll silence the alarms, and the duke’s men are coming to set things right. I’ll be fine.”
“You are so brave, dear. Are you sure you don’t wish to stay with Kate and me? Robbing a toy shop at Christmas,” she mumbled as she reached her door. “How heartless.”
I took her hand. She was the most kindhearted person I had ever met. “There is much I still need to do tonight. I will be fine. Thank you for your generous offer.”
I had a similar conversation with the Potters before they handed me a large round loaf of bread and retreated to their shop as well.
Only then was I able to face my home and this newest violation.
The glass in the window had cracked and was splintering through the lead holding the small panes together. I could feel the bile rising in my throat, my heart pounding as soundly as the hooves of the horses as my friends cantered up the street.
The door to the shop hung limply on the hinges, swinging open. The handle had been pulled loose. I reached out to open the door the rest of the way and stepped into the darkened shop.
It was almost Christmas. I had decorated the shop with evergreen boughs and bright holly berries. My toys had filled the shelves in cheerful profusion. Now the shelves had been spilled callously upon the floor, the boughs shredded, and the needles scattered amid the fallen tin soldiers. Expensive porcelain dolls had been trampled upon. Marionettes, pulled from their strings, lay lifelessly on the floor.
I felt the stinging in my nose as my eyes welled with tears.
An arm reached across my shoulder. I instinctively turned into the embrace, surprised to find it was Michael who stood next to me. Noah came up on the other side. He too was a shopkeeper, and seemed as horrified as I felt. “Oh, Meg. I’m so sorry.”
“At least he didn’t use a bomb,” I said, and sighed. “This can still be set right, and no one was hurt.” But that was a lie. I hurt. My heart was breaking, seeing all my hard work destroyed. The man in the clockwork mask had no cause to wreck the shop, other than to make it seem like a burglary. Or maybe it had been only for spite.
I used the edge of my shawl to dry my eyes, then pulled away from the comfort of my friends to cross the gallery and inspect my parlor.
I felt as if I were back in Rathford’s house when I’d been a maid, delicately stepping around the broken shards of the vase at the bottom of the stairs. Rathford had never allowed anyone to touch the fractured pieces. Only, this time I stepped over the shattered remains of a pair of music boxes and the tangled ribbons from a puppet lying limp across the floor.
I didn’t have to bend down to see the strongbox. It lay open on its side. To add insult to injury, he had taken my money.
Manoj approached. “Where is your housekeeper?” he asked as he made his way back toward the door that separated the shop from the parlor of my living space.
I sniffed. “Thankfully, she left to be with her sister in Dover for the holiday. There was no one here tonight.”
If not for David’s scheme, I would have been asleep in my bed, alone. I would surely now be in the clutches of a monster.
“That was very fortunate,” Manoj said. “I’ll inspect upstairs. If this is the man who planted the bomb last time, we should take caution.”
David entered, but Samuel remained outside.
I reached up and twisted the top off the last alarm, which
was near the door and was still valiantly attempting to whistle for help. The sound died and left the shop in utter silence.
“Is there any wood we can use to board up the windows?” Noah asked.
I nodded. “In the mews out back.” I picked up a doll. Her face was cracked, leaving a gaping hole where her eye should have been. She smiled sweetly at me as her head hung listlessly to the side. “There are tools there, a hammer, nails.” I choked on the last word and the doll slipped from my hands, the remains of her face shattering against the unforgiving floor.
“David, take her away from here,” Noah said. “Manoj and I will secure the shop.”
“Thank you. I don’t know what I would do without such friends,” I said, then turned to Michael. “I need to see the headmaster. He must know about this.”
He nodded. We exited the shop and climbed back into the cab. It was a short drive to the Chadwick home in St. James. The duke’s coachmen met us at the gate and took the horses. I kept my eyes downcast and my shawl high around my neck to hide my face. I didn’t want rumors among the servants, and most wouldn’t notice me at all dressed as a housemaid.
Staying several steps behind Michael and David, I
followed the others up the stone steps. A footman quickly ushered us inside.
The interior of the luxurious townhome provided a stark contrast to my dark thoughts. The house was adorned with holiday cheer. Holly boughs trimmed with apples decorated the foyer. The scents of orange, exotic cinnamon, and cloves filled me with warmth, even though only a few candles lit the large halls at so late an hour.
“May I ask the purpose for your visit, my lord?” The footman addressed David, ignoring Michael and me completely, which was fine with me. I settled in next to Michael and attempted to remain invisible.
“I’m afraid it is an emergency. I must speak with His Grace immediately,” David said.
“Of course. He’s in the conservatory. Follow me.”
At first I wondered what Oliver was doing in the conservatory this late at night, but once we reached it, the answer was clear.
Normally the conservatory was warm and inviting, a haven for prize fruit trees and plants that bloom through the winter. The conservatory should have been both humid and warm, capturing the weak winter sun during the day and trapping it within the glass walls. I was shocked when the
footman opened the door and we were greeted with a blast of frost.
The entire room was filled with mounds of white fluffy snow.
The footman bowed as we entered, then shut the door quickly behind us, most likely to protect the main house from the sudden chill. Frost had painted itself over the glass walls and ceiling in delicate swirls of branching ice. All the trees had been moved. In their stead were several tables and chairs surrounding brass caldrons for fires.
As we turned a corner, I lost myself in awe.
Before us, taking up the center of the conservatory, was a glimmering carousel. Icicles draped along the canopy, and I marveled at the mounts. Each exquisite creature had been carved from ice, then saddled with thick velvet pads in deep blue and embroidered with silver thread. The shining poles pierced through the hearts of the creatures, holding the crystalline beasts in perfect form.
I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.
Oliver, the Duke of Chadwick, poked his head out from behind a frosted mirror panel that obscured the view of the gears and mechanical structure that made the carousel turn.
His brown hair was as haphazard as I’d ever seen it, and
the gleam in his eyes as bright as ever. One eye did not open quite as wide as the other because of an injury he had sustained over the summer, but this gave him an air of curiosity and a certain roguishness.
“David?” Oliver straightened, removing thick gloves even as his heavy coat seemed to swallow him. “What on earth are you doing here? You’re not supposed to see this before tomorrow night.”
Oliver then noticed me and Michael. “Dear Lord, Meg? Why are you dressed like a housemaid?”
“There’s been another attack on Meg’s shop,” David said.
Oliver came forward quickly, swinging himself between a glistening ice dragon and a delicate unicorn.
“Are you hurt?” Oliver took my hands and looked me over. I didn’t know how to explain to him that I hadn’t even been in the shop at the time it had been attacked.
“I’m quite all right, but the shop is in shambles.” The thought made my stomach twist into dreadful knots, but I knew it could have been far worse. The first two times the man in the clockwork mask had broken into my home, he’d intended to kill. He’d started the fire that had taken my parents, and only last summer he’d tried to destroy the shop with a bomb.
Yet his intent now seemed fixed on kidnapping me. I had no doubt I was the “quarry” he had referred to on the ship. I just couldn’t figure why his intent had changed. “The man in the clockwork mask has been sailing upon a French merchant vessel named
. It’s leaving for Le Havre tonight.”
Oliver’s normally bright hazel eyes narrowed. “And how do you know this?” He turned his scrutinizing gaze to David. “What have you done?”
“Well,” Michael announced, swinging his hands and clapping them together. “It has been a lovely night, and your carousel is remarkable work, Headmaster, but it is really time for me to be going.” He turned on his heel while tipping his cap, and with rushed steps walked back the way we’d come.
I reached out to stop him, but Oliver’s voice sent a chill down my spine. “Let him go. You two, follow me.”
David and I walked in step, like dutiful soldiers behind our commander. We followed Oliver up the stairs and into his large study. He took his place behind a desk that seemed fitting for a duke. However, he didn’t kick his boots up onto it the way he normally would.