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BOOK: Wrede, Patricia C - Mairelon 01
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"You
ain't unfastened me yet," she pointed out at last.

           
"An oversight."
Mairelon bent and tugged at the
cord that fastened Kim's ankles. Again the rope slid apart, and Mairelon
straightened with a flourish. "Now, what do you say?"

           
"You'd
really show me how to do that?" Kim asked, her mind whirling. If she could
learn a few of Mairelon's tricks, she might be able to get steady work at one
of the Covent Garden theaters--real work, the sort that required more than a
low-cut dress and a willingness to do whatever might be asked. She could earn
enough to eat regular and sleep warm without looking over her shoulder for
watchmen or constables or Bow Street Runners; she could stop being afraid of
Dan Laverham and his like, she could--she forced herself to cut that train of
thought short, before the hope grew too strong, and waited for Mairelon's
answer.

           
"That
and quite a bit more," Mairelon said. "How else could you be any help
in the act?"

           
"She
don't look like she'll be much 'elp anyways," Hunch muttered.
"Nobody's a-going to pay to watch a grimy little thief."

           
"Call
me that once more, cully, and--"

           
"Enough."
Mairelon's voice was quiet, but Kim found herself swallowing her words faster
than she ever had for Mother Tibb's angry screeching. "Stop provoking her,
Hunch."

           
"If
you can't see what's under your nose--"

           
"Oh,
she doesn't look like much now, but I think you'll be surprised at how well she
cleans up."

           
"I
ain't said I'm coming with you yet!" Kim said crossly.

           
"And
you haven't said you're not, either," Mairelon replied. "Come, now;
make your decision. I have things to do if you aren't."

           
"Huh."
Kim was unimpressed. "I ain't wishful to get into no trouble with the
nabbing culls. What's your lay?"

           
Mairelon
smiled. "I'm a traveling magician. I play the markets and fairs."

           
"Give
over! I told you, I ain't
no
flat. Folks that can do
real magic don't waste time flashing tricks at the markets. And you ain't got
yourself no wagon done up like a gentry ken that way, neither."

           
"That's
my affair. I'll give you my word that we're doing nothing illegal; if you've
other questions, you'll have to wait for answers. After all, we don't know you
very well yet."

           
"No,
nor want to," Hunch said under his breath.

           
Kim
frowned at him automatically, but her mind was busy elsewhere. She'd never get
a chance like this again, she was certain. Risking Mairelon's unknown
objectives was a small price to pay for the promise of a few days' worth of
regular meals and a safe place to sleep, even without the promise of tutoring.
Add in the possibility of learning something that would free her from the
perilous hand-to-mouth world of the
London
slums and Mairelon's proposal was well-nigh irresistible, especially since
she'd probably never find out what the magician was really doing or what was so
important about that bowl if she didn't go along. And if she didn't like it,
she could always tip them the double and come back to
London
.
She'd be no worse off than she was now.

           
"Well?"
Mairelon asked.

           
"All
right, then," Kim said. "I'll do it."

           
Hunch
groaned.

           
"Good!"
Mairelon said, ignoring Hunch. "We'll see the tailor tomorrow about
getting you some clothes
. "
We won't be long in
London
,
so I'm afraid there won't be many of them."

           
"Sounds
bang-up to me," Kim said. It took most of her will to sound moderately
pleased instead of all but stunned speechless.
Clothes from a
tailor?
For her?

           
"She'll
run off as soon as she's got everything she can off you," Hunch prophesied
gloomily.

           
Kim
started to protest, but Mairelon's voice overrode her.
"Hunch,
if you don't stop trying to pick out a quarrel with Kim, I shall be forced to
leave you in
London
."

           
"You
wouldn't never
!" Hunch said.

           
"No?"

           
Hunch
muttered something under his breath and stomped to the far end of the wagon.
Mairelon looked after him and shook his head. "He'll come around, never
fear. You've nothing to worry about."

           
"Ain't
you forgetting something?" Kim said.

           
"What?"

           
"That
skinny toff down at the Dog and Bull, that sent me in here lookin'. What're you
going to do about
him
?"

           
"I
think he ought to get what he's paying for," Mairelon said after due
consideration. "Don't you agree?"

           
Kim
thought of the underhanded way the skinny toff had held back information to
keep the price down. "No."

           
"Yes,
he certainly should," Mairelon said, as though he hadn't heard Kim.
"I think you should go back to that place you mentioned--what was the name
again?"

           
"The
Dog and Bull."

           
"Of course.
I think you should go back and collect your
five pounds." He paused and smiled at Kim. "What do you say?"

3

           
Kim
darted across a street directly in front of a hackney, causing the horses to
shy. The driver's curses followed her as she slipped into the pedestrian
traffic on the other side, but she paid no attention. She was late for her appointment,
and she didn't know how long the skinny toff would wait.

           
Not that
she was particularly anxious to see him again, five pounds or not. She still
wasn't sure how she'd been talked into this. Maybe it was because Hunch had
been so set against it; knowing how much he disliked the idea, she couldn't
resist going ahead with it. Or maybe it was Mairelon's persuasiveness. The man
made it all sound so
reasonable
, and he knew just how to appeal to Kim's
curiosity.

           
That, of
course, was the root of the problem. Kim dodged a lamplighter, ducking under
the end of his ladder. Someday she was going to get into real trouble if she
didn't stop poking her nose into things just to find out what they looked like.

           
Still
castigating herself, Kim turned down the crooked lane that led to the Dog and
Bull. Here the traffic was less, and she made better time. When she saw the
cracked sign with its garish painting, she broke into a run, and a moment later
she was inside. She stepped to one side of the door and paused, panting, to
survey the room.

           
It was a
moment before her eyes adjusted to the gloom. Though the single window was
large, half or more of its panes had been broken and stuffed with paper, and
those that remained were dark with dirt. What light there was came from the
fire in the huge, blackened hearth, and it did not penetrate far into the smoke
and steam that filled the air.

           
Three
long, bare tables occupied the center of the room. The backless benches on
either side were half full of large men in well-worn clothes. Most were hunched
over mugs of beer; some were eating with single-minded intensity from an
assortment of battered bowls. There was no sign of the toff anywhere.

           
Kim
frowned. Had she missed him, then? There was no way of telling. She decided to
take the chance that he, too, was late, and made her way to one of the tables.
She squeezed herself into a corner where she could watch the door, ordered a
half-pint of ale, and settled in to wait.

           
The
procession of customers entering the room was not exactly encouraging. Most
were working-class men identifiable by their clothes--carters, bricklayers, a
butcher, one or two costermongers,
a
swayer. A
nondescript man in a shabby coat slouched in and crept to the far corner of the
table as if he expected to be thrown out. Kim sipped at her ale, wondering
unhappily whether she should risk attracting attention by asking questions.

           
The door
opened again, and another collection of solid men in rough-spun wool and grimy
linen entered. In their wake came a tall man made even taller by his top hat.
He wore a voluminous cape that made it impossible to tell whether he was fat or
slim, but the white-gloved hand pressing a handkerchief to his lips was
impossible to mistake. Famble-cheats and a top hat, Kim thought disgustedly, in
a place like this. He was the one she was waiting for, all right. She
straightened, trying to look taller so that he would see her.

           
The toff
surveyed the room disdainfully, then made his way among the tables and stopped
beside Kim. "I trust your presence means you have succeeded, boy," he
said.

           
"I
done what you asked," Kim said.

           
"Good.
I suggest we conduct the remainder of our business in one of the private rooms
in back."

           
"You
want everyone here knowin' you got business with me?" Kim asked without
moving.

           
The
toff's face darkened in anger, but after a moment he shook his head. "No,
I suppose not."

           
"Then
you'd better set down afore everyone here ends up lookin' at you," Kim
advised.

           
The man's
lips pressed together, but he recognized the wisdom of Kim's statement. He
seated himself on the bench across from her, setting his hat carefully on the
table. The publican, a fat man in a dirty apron, came over at once, and the
toff accepted, with some reluctance, a mug of beer. As the publican left, the toff
leaned forward. "You said you'd done as I asked. You found the bowl, then?
You have a list of what is in Mairelon's wagon?"

           
"What
would the likes of me be doing makin' lists?" Kim said sarcastically.

           
The man
looked startled. "I had anticipated--"

           
"You
wanted a list, you should
of
hired a
schoolmaster," Kim informed him. "I can tell you what I saw in that
magic-cove's wagon, but that's all."

           
The man's
eyes narrowed. "In that case, perhaps five pounds is more than the
information is worth to me."

           
"In
that case, you ain't getting
no
information at
all," Kim said, mimicking his tone.

           
"Come,
now, I think you are unreasonable. Shall we say, three pounds?"

           
Kim spat.
"I done what you said, and you never said nothing about no list. Five
pounds and that's flat."

           
"Oh, very well.
Did you find the bowl?"

           
"I ain't saying nothin' until I get what you promised."

           
The toff
argued, but Kim remained firm. Eventually he agreed, and unwillingly counted
out the five pounds in notes and coin. Kim made a show of re-counting it, her
fingers lingering over each coin in spite of herself. She had never had so much
money at once in all her life, and every silver shilling and half crown meant
another day or week of food and possible safety. She stowed the money safely in
the inner pockets of her jacket, feeling highly pleased with both herself and
Mairelon. If it hadn't been for the magician's urging, she might have passed up
an easy mark.

           
"Satisfied?"
the man said angrily. "All right, then, tell me what you found."

           
Kim smiled
inwardly and launched into a detailed and exhaustive description of the
interior of the magician's wagon. She noticed the anticipation on her
listener's face when she talked of the pots and pans in Mairelon's cupboard,
and carefully saved the information that they were all made of iron for the end
of the sentence. She got a perverse satisfaction out of seeing the flash of
disappointment on the toff's face.

           
The man
got more and more impatient as she went along. Finally she mentioned the locked
chest. The toff sat up. "Locked?"

           
"Yes."
Kim paused. "But I got in."

           
The man
leaned forward eagerly.
"And?"

           
"It
looked like that's where the cove kept his magics. There were a whole bunch of
little paper lanterns, and a couple of them little wooden boxes, and a stack of
silk--"

           
"Yes,
yes, boy, but the bowl!"

           
"Bowl?"
Kim said, feigning innocence.

           
"The
silver bowl I described to you! Did you find it?"

           
"I didn't see nothin' like that in Mairelon's wagon,"
Kim said with perfect truth.

           
"What!"
The toff's voice was loud enough to make heads turn all along the table. He
controlled himself with effort, and when the other customers had turned away,
he glared at Kim. "You said you'd do as I asked!"

           
"And
so I have," Kim retorted, unperturbed. "Ain't nobody
could
of found somethin' that ain't never been there."

           
"Not
there?" The man sounded stupefied.

           
"Use
your head, cully," Kim advised. "If this Mairelon swell had something
like that, I would
of
seen it, wouldn't I? And I
ain't. So it ain't there."

           
"You're
certain?"

           
Kim
nodded.

           
The toff
glared as though it were her fault. "Not there," he muttered.
"All this time, wasted on the wrong man. Amelia will never let me hear the
end of it. Merrill could be anywhere in
England
by now, anywhere!"

           
"That
ain't my lookout," Kim pointed out. "You want to hear what else he
had, or not?"

           
"And
you," the toff went on in a venomous whisper, "you knew. That's why
you made me give you your money in advance, isn't it? You little cheat!"

           
On the
last word, he lunged across the table. The sudden movement took Kim completely
by surprise. He would have had his hands at her throat if a grimy,
disreputable-looking man had not half lurched, half fallen against the toff's
back at that moment.

           
The
unexpected shove knocked the toff heavily into the edge of the table; Kim heard
his grunt of pain plainly. She stood and backed away a little, watching with
interest. She recognized the grimy man
now,
he had
come into the public house just before the toff's arrival.

           
The grimy
man was the first to recover. "Sh-shorry, very shorry," he said.
"The floor jusht, jusht shook me over, thash all." He waved a hand to
demonstrate, and lost his balance again.

           
"Get
away from me, you idiot!" the toff snarled.

           
"Right.
Very shorry."
The
drunk made ineffectual apologetic motions in the toff's direction. Since he was
still draped halfway over the toff's shoulder, this succeeded only in knocking
over the almost untouched mug of beer in front of them. A wave of brown foam
surged across the table, picking up dirt and grease as it went.

           
The toff
made a valiant effort to spring back out of the way, but with the drunk still
leaning helpfully across his shoulder, he didn't have a chance. The pool of
cool, dirty beer swished into his lap, thoroughly drenching his previously
immaculate attire. The taproom exploded in laughter.

           
The drunk
began a tearful apology, which was more a lament for the wasted beer than
anything else. Cursing, the toff shoved him aside. He began wiping vainly at
his clothes with a pocket handkerchief while the publican escorted the drunk
firmly to the door. Kim judged it a good moment for her own departure and
slipped quietly out in the drunk's wake. Her last sight was of the toff,
gingerly picking his dripping top hat out of the pool of beer.

           
Still
chuckling, Kim paused in the lane outside. It was now fully dark, and a yellow
fog was rising. Not the best time for running about the
London
streets, even for as ragged a waif as Kim looked. Still, she hadn't much
choice. She swallowed hard, thinking of the coins in her pockets. If she lost
them, she'd have nothing to fall back on if her arrangement with Mairelon fell
apart. She started off, hugging the edge of the lane.

           
As she
passed the corner of the Dog and Bull, a pair of dirty, beer-scented hands
grabbed her. One clamped itself over her mouth, the other pinned her arms. Kim
threw herself forward, but the man was too strong. She was dragged quickly and
quietly into a filthy alley beside the public house.

           
She
kicked backward, hard, and connected. The man made no sound, but his grip
loosened, and Kim wrenched one arm free. She bit down on the hand covering her
mouth and felt her captor jerk. Then she heard a whisper almost directly in her
ear. "Kim! Stop it! It's Mairelon."

           
Without
thinking, Kim struck at the voice with her free hand. Then the words
penetrated, and she hesitated. She couldn't imagine what Mairelon might be
doing in this part of town, but magicians were a queer lot, and she'd already
decided that Mairelon was one of the queerest of them all. And who else would
expect that name to have any weight with her?

           
"It
really is me, unlikely as it seems," the whisper said. "If I let go,
you won't make a sound until you're sure, will you? Nod if you agree."

           
Kim
nodded, and the hands released their hold. She turned and found herself
confronting the drunk who had caused so much trouble a few minutes before. He
no longer seemed drunk in the least, though he still looked and smelled
thoroughly unpleasant.

           
Kim took
a step backward. The man raised a warning hand and she stopped, peering at him.
He was the right height for Mairelon, but he had no mustache and his face was
half hidden by a layer of greasy dirt. Then he grinned, and Kim's doubts
vanished. Impossible as it seemed, this
was
Mairelon.

           
She
smiled back and he doffed his grimy cap and bowed with a stage magician's
flourish. She opened her mouth to ask what he was doing, and at once he held up
a warning finger. She stepped closer, wondering even more what was behind his
strange behavior.

BOOK: Wrede, Patricia C - Mairelon 01
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