The Theft of the Papers, Part 6

If it took great care and planning to prepare to break into Hookman House, it was as nothing compared to the monumental effort of robbing the offices of the Bazaar itself.

Endless neddy men, flocks of bats, the spires completely covered with Correspondence symbols; these were the obstacles she knew. It was what she didn’t know that wanted to make her frantic; Merri courted every rumor, every whisper, every mad raving in the Flit, examined every known route into and out of the building likeliest to have the papers, called in every favor she had and promised a few she didn’t to gather the resources and information she needed. Many of her contacts faded into the background when they learned her plans, not wanting to be associated in any way with what they plainly considered to be an exotic form of suicide. Most of the rest didn’t care — they were beyond the reach of the neddies and the constables. They told her what she wanted to know.

The minutes turned into hours and the hours eventually spanned a day. She didn’t sleep, drank little, ate even less. Her shoulders and thighs burned with exertion, crossing and recrossing what used to be the eastern half of the city after questions, and after answers. Poor Harry kept up as long as he could, but his youthful exuberance and enthusiasm simply couldn’t keep pace with the determination of his guardian, a woman determined to protect those she loved from coming to harm. She left him curled up in a makeshift hammock near the Topsy King’s court and gave one of the raggedies the string of dead rats she’d found and a fat envelope of reading material (the forbidden kind of course) to watch after her young ward while he slept.

It was eventually Carlo who tracked her down, discovering her amid the stays and supports of one of the great bridges that spanned the Stolen River. Merri was deep in conversation with another darkly-clad woman when she saw him approach, but paid the woman her glim and sent her on her way before her henchman arrived.

Madonna. You’re going to find a place to sleep. Now.”

“Oh I am, am I?” Tired, aching, everything in her bristled at his tone. “Who’s going to make me? You?”

“If you want.” He shifted his weight easily on the vast cables, as if waiting for her to make her move. Carlo had absolutely no illusions about her — it was usually something she found refreshing, but just then it only added to her aggravation. Merri also recalled that the reasons she hired him were his utter loyalty to his employer’s red-gold, and his ruthlessness in carrying out his orders.

Well, let’s give him one, see if it distracts him. I can’t afford to stand down now, this is coming together too quickly. “I want you to head back to the Docks,” she told him flatly, obviously disregarding threats both open and implied. “I’m going to need a distraction at the front offices of the bazaar here in a few hours, something to draw off the neddies. You’re going to have to hire some more toughs — maybe some of the dockworkers striking this week would like to collect a day’s wages for an hour’s work…”

His weight shifted again. “I’ll have it seen to. But you’re going to sleep if I have to knock you out myself, madonna.

“Threats, Carlo?” She readied herself to leap to the deck of the bridge if need be — she was a Black Ribbon duelist, he was not –but she would not kill him without cause. “Aren’t you still taking my rosty-gold?”

Sí. I want to go on taking it too, for a long time. Can’t do that if you’re dead.”

Her eyebrows flickered. “I’m not going to die.”

Carlo stared at her levelly. “I know you’re not. You’re going to sleep a few hours, then you’re going to eat, because without those things you’ll be too spent to do the thing right. I can collect information. I can give orders for you. You already have your plan, you’re just waiting on details now. Even a ‘stupido like me can manage that.”

“You’re not stupid,” she hissed. “You know I could kill you. I know you do.”

“Maybe. I think you’re too spun out right now to pose much of a threat to anyone. Let’s test it. Make your move.”

It held there for a long moment, long enough for her to feel the defiance start to bleed out of her, long enough for her to notice the fuzziness at the edges of her thoughts. His fingers twitched — and that extra fractional second it took her to react to it — an interval that could well have meant the distance between success and failure — was what finally caused her shoulders to sag in defeat.

“Good choice,” he drawled. “Come on. I know a place. You’ll be safe. You still have friends here, madonna,” he told her, gesturing for her to lead the way back across the bridge. “People here take care of each other, they remember a good turn done for them, not like some of those society people.”

Merri bristled again, looked at him sharply, but didn’t have it in her to rebuke him. His opinions about her usual class of friends and acquaintances had never been high — a reverse kind of snobbism, she’d supposed. But it was an argument they could — and certainly would — have later. If she survived the Bazaar.

“Just shut up and tell me where we’re going, so I can tell you what I’m waiting for….”

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