"Oy! You there, lad! Yes, you!" The sailor hurried up to the scrawny boy and tipped his cap to the two young ladies with him. "Afternoon, Misses," he said, shying off a little as he laid his hand on the boy's shoulder. He had hoped the boy was alone, but when the two girls stopped abruptly, he knew he had chosen poorly. Women always made things more difficult with their weeping and handkerchief waving.
"Can we help you?" the lad asked in a cool, measured voice. He was educated, then. The sailor looked down at the boy's robes and sailor cursed silently to himself. When had he lost his eye for recruiting? It should have been obvious this was a dead end, ladies or no ladies.
The sailor scratched the back of his neck, searching for a way to slip away with his pride intact, but under the eyes of the two girls—two strange girls, he thought now—he couldn't summon up a convincing lie. Instead, he decided to push onward, despite the improbability of success. "How would you like to sail the salty seas down to the Cartovian Islands, lad? Join up with Captain Fallhorn, and I can personally guarantee you'll make yourself a small wealth of cash in the spice trade!"
The lad shared an unreadable look with the two girls, and the sailor quickly added, "Wouldn't it be nice to have the means to buy pretty things for your beautiful sisters? Silks or jewelry, perhaps?"
One of the girls whispered to the other and then looked away, though the sailor thought he caught her smiling before she did. The other stood firm and immobile, arms crossed, eyes chilling; she was the obstacle between him and a cabin boy for the Captain. Quite a piece of work, if he did think so himself. Couldn't imagine who would want to contend with that cold glare, passably pretty or not.
"The Cartovian Islands, you said?" the lad asked, suddenly far more friendly. He had not taken his eyes off the sailor for a moment, and now he leaned forward eagerly, as if in confidence. "How's the weather in those parts, currently?"
"Oh, beautiful, lad! Beautiful! It'd make you crazy to know how beautiful it is down there, compared to this filth-hole we call a city. Think of it, lad! With the money you'd earn, you could move your lovely sisters out to some quiet, clean place in the country! Perhaps by the sea, even? A nice little cottage with a flower garden, perhaps?"
He stole a furtive glance at the cold sister, but his inviting suggestions had not softened her expression in the slightest. The lad crossed his arms and nodded thoughtfully, looking back at the cold sister. "Yes, that would be nice, wouldn't it, Sissy dear? A little cottage where you could knit on the porch?"
"I'm not an old maid, you-" she paused in her sharp whisper, and glanced at the sailor. When she spoke again to the lad, her voice had softened. Slightly. "No, I think this place does quite well enough for the likes of me. What with dear older brother waiting for us-" Something about the way the girl's eyes glittered at that made the sailor think she might mean something more than she said. What it was, he certainly couldn't tell. "-Shouldn't we get going?"
The sailor thought he would have to return to Captain Fallhorn empty-handed, yet again, which would be greatly unappreciated, when the lad shook his head and grinned. "No, I think I'll join up!" he said, and turning to the sailor, he said eagerly, "Will I really be able to get money? Lots of money?"
"Absolutely lad!" the sailor cried. "You'll be your own man, and the money we make will be fairly doled out after our transactions."
"That's great!" the lad cried, turning to his sisters. "Isn't this wonderful? With the money I'll earn, we'll finally be able to afford a dowry for the both of you!"
"Don't do me any favors," the cold sister grumbled.
"Yeah, I think I'm all set," the other sister replied. The sailor noted that her smile was gone. Over the lad's head, she asked him, "Excuse us for a moment, will you?"
The cold sister caught the lad by the ear, which made him bite back a yelp, and the two sisters hauled him over to a side alley, out of traffic's way. The sailor slouched and put his hands in his pockets, waiting. Surely, the sisters would disallow the boy to register. He was wasting his time.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" Megan hissed when they were far enough away from the crusty old sailor. "Have you lost your mind?"
"We're going after Raife, not trying to make money," Daphne added firmly. "And that ship isn't going anywhere near Northermeed Island, is it?"
Otto swatted Megan's hand away from his ear and scowled. "Not this one, no. But we're not going to go on this one. Look, when someone signs on to join a ship's crew, they have to go to the shipping offices on the docks. They have a register book there of every ship coming in and out of the harbor, their destinations, and their cargo. They don't show it to anybody, except when someone has to sign their name to the crew registry. If I say I'll sign on, we'll be able to get a good look at all the shipping traffic in the area. One of them has to be heading past Northermeed!"
"Correct me if I'm wrong here," Daphne said, "but I'm assuming we're still in an age before women were allowed to sail on ships, right?"
The boy scoffed. "Women on ships! That's rich. We're not going to join the crew, you idiot, we're going to stow away in the cargo hold!"
"Don't call her an idiot," Megan snapped.
"It's a good plan, though, isn't it?"
Reluctantly, Megan admitted that it was. There didn't seem to be many options for obtaining free passage to Northermeed, and this was as good an idea as they'd had all morning. "All right," she said. "We're following your lead, here."
Otto puffed out his chest with pride and frowned solemnly before giving her a mocking salute. "I won't let you down."
The two girls rolled their eyes and followed him back out into the busy street.
The sailor straightened as the lad returned, his two sisters looking chastised and in tow, at last behaving like proper women. "Well, lad?" he asked. "Do we have a deal?"
"Oh, boy, have we ever!" the lad cried. "Sign me up! Where do I go? What do I need to do?"
No more fourth watch for me! The sailor thought with a grin as he pointed down to the building at the end of the docks. "Right there, lad. See that building there? That be the Shipping Office. Go right on in and tell them you're the new cabin boy for the Eyes-O'-Pearl, under the honorable Captain Fallhorn. They'll get you squared away. We set sail tonight with the tide, so spend the day with your sweet sisters but don't be late! We sail without you, if you don't make it on time, got that?"
"Aye, aye, sir!" the lad cried, saluting him. The sailor laughed and slapped the boy on the back.
"Attaboy! You're a sailor already! Now remember, register at the offices and be back to the Eyes-O'-Pearl by night tide. The fellows at the office will tell you where to go to catch the skiff out to 'er. You're in for a real treat, lad, a real treat!"
Megan watched as the man scurried away into the crowd. "I hope you know what you're doing," she said as Otto started leading the way to the offices. "We've got enough troubles without a bunch of sailors coming after us for a broken deal."
"You worry too much," Otto said, grinning over his shoulder. Something about his flippant, overconfident tone made her skin crackle. "I'm not going to sign my real name to the roster! Besides, once we find a ship heading out to Northermeed, we won't even be in the area. Chances are, we'll be leaving tonight on the night tide. They won't have time to investigate."
He moved ahead and Megan dropped back to walk beside Daphne. "He's already starting to act like a thief," she muttered. "Did you notice the chip he's suddenly got on his shoulder?"
Daphne chuckled. "He sort of had that before, you know. You can't blame Raife for this one. He hasn't exactly been around to influence the kid."
Megan scowled. "He doesn't have to be around! His ego is big enough to pollute an entire city, even from Northermeed!"
The other laughed, and Otto glanced behind him from some distance ahead in the crowd. He waved them on, and they hurried to catch up, still chuckling quietly to themselves.
As she wove through the sweltering, overcrowded streets, Sherry Calivander—for that was her last name, though no one ever bothered to ask—grew more and more certain that finding Gus was just a malicious little plot to keep her away from all the excitement, spearheaded by that little brat Megan. Who did she think she was, anyway, giving everyone orders like she owned the place? Sherry grinned at the thought of the purplish-blue welt on the girl's cheek where the Master Thief had punched her. At least someone in the city wasn't all googley-eyed over her. What was so special about her anyway? Even that rock-headed idiot Raife seemed to hang on her.
Well, not anymore, I guess, she thought. He finally took my advice and ran away like the coward he is!
She rounded the corner and slipped into the shadowed alley where she and Daphne—and, unpleasantly, Raife—had hidden the giant Karras robot, and stopped abruptly. The canvas under which the robot had been hidden, tucked away behind a pile of old junk, lay discarded on the ground. Gus was gone.
"Great," Sherry muttered, glowering at the cloth as she picked it up. "Stupid robot couldn't even stay in one-" Her voice trailed off as her eyes settled on a large metal hammer beneath the canvas and the rust-smattered gray stones beside it. She tossed the cloth aside and bent down to brush the spot with her fingers. It was dry, but she knew a pool of blood when she saw it. Hammers.
A chill tingled up her arm from the stain as she slowly rose to her feet and glanced around the alley to see if anyone was watching. Thankfully, the overcrowded streets did provide some shelter from detection. Everyone was too busy trying to keep their pockets from getting picked to pay any attention to the lone girl in the alley, standing beside an old bloodstain and a Hammerite's mallet.
Now that she looked up, she began to see signs of a struggle. There were other blood stains on the cobblestones in the alley, other mallets dropped by the injured or dying. Several large craters had been blasted into the surrounding walls. But most chilling of all was the trail of little cogs and springs and screws leading out of the alley. Sherry hugged her shoulders and glanced back the way she'd come, away from the line of broken machinery as unnerving to her as a trail of blood.
What should she do? Daphne would be distraught if she thought something bad had happened to Gus, and something bad had assuredly happened. She couldn't go back to the meeting place yet, anyway, and the thought of showing up empty-handed made the barmaid sick to her stomach.
I have two days until they come back, she thought, bending down to pick up a small golden cog. She twisted it between her fingers and sighed. "Well, I guess this isn't going to be so dull after all."
Slipping the cog into her skirt pocket, Sherry hurried down the alley, following the trail.
Unlike blood, which dries and remains fixed in place, following a trail of screws and cogs proved far more challenging. The distracted feet of every person on the street had as effectively erased the trail as a fox wading through a stream when the hunter's dogs were after him. The barmaid had managed to weave her way down two streets before the trail vanished completely, and she was left standing with no direction, and in a much fouler mood than she had been in for the whole of this insane adventure.
She leaned against the wall of a side alley, glaring at the passerbys while her furious mind defeated every cool, logical attempt to determine where she should go next.
That stupid girl would know what to do, Sherry grumbled in her mind, squinting extra hard at a wealthy lordling riding through the street in a horse-drawn carriage. She'd come up with something clever, something I wouldn't have thought of. And then everyone would be so impressed, and they'd all pat her on the back and say, 'Wow, Megan! That's a great idea! Why didn't I think of that?' and Daphne would clutch her arm and cry, 'You're so smart, Megan! You're so awesome! You're the most awesome person in the whole damn world!' The barmaid felt her skin burn at the thought. No. I'm not going to let this defeat me. I'm going to find that stupid robot, and I'm going to bring him back, safe and sound to Daphne, and then I'll be the one with all the amazing stories, and I'll be the smartest one, and everyone will love me and congratulate me for my witty and heroic efforts. That appeased her temper just enough for her to clear her head and think.
"If I were a Hammerite," she whispered to herself, "and I had found an old Karras robot patrolling the streets, where would I take it?" There were several cathedrals in the general vicinity, but there was only one big enough to hide a giant robot in without every Hammerite and his brother knowing about it. Gormalt Cathedral. The very same cathedral she and Daphne and Raife almost landed in after the run-in with the Hammerite guards. It seemed so long ago, now, but even so, the thought of willingly going to the place made Sherry's heart start hammering in her chest.
I can do this, she thought, forcing herself to move before the moment of insanity passed. I'm not a coward. This is my mission, and I will succeed in at least finding out where they have Gus and whether or not he's okay.
The crowds of early afternoon were beginning to thin as people moved into the shadowy doorways of the local pubs for vittles and a cooling ale, relief from the heat in the streets. It made travel easier without having to weave through the endless, unrelenting stream of bodies, but it also made Sherry feel exposed. She made an effort to slip into side streets and take a curving, difficult route in the hopes of shaking any invisible trailer she might have picked up over the course of her travels through the city. Every so often, she would slip into a shadowed overhang and wait, watching the street for anyone following her. Whether it was simply the nervousness of what she was about to do, or a legitimate intuition, she couldn't shake the feeling that she was being followed by someone. But every time she checked, she found nothing to substantiate the itching feeling at the nape of her neck that always made her glance back.
It was late afternoon by the time she arrived at the street across from the cathedral. The shadows hung long and heavy from the sinking sun, but the musty heat remained even in the darkest corners. Sherry sat crouched behind an abandoned shop stall, hidden from the street but able to watch the front doors of the cathedral. She had watched two lines of armed Hammerites leave the building by those doors just a few minutes before, and she had a growing feeling that if she were going to make a go for it, it would be best to slip inside while a large portion of the guards were absent.
Along the way, she had bought an invisibility potion, and she held the glass globe flask in her sweaty palm as though it were her last tie to life itself. She wished fervently that she'd taken the time to pilfer some pockets when the streets had been crowded so she could have bought a second potion to use on the way out. But it did no good dwelling on things like that now. She had to act, and fast. She could feel her nerve slipping away with every inch of lengthening shadow. With the guards gone, she might be able to slip into the cathedral unnoticed and save the potion for use in an emergency, but she'd have to go now.
With a deep breath that didn't seem to quite fill her lungs, Sherry peered over the stall at the street, looking for witnesses. There was no one. Rising cautiously to her feet, she slipped out of her hiding place and moved to the corner, trying to look as unsuspicious as possible. A golden, glinting object caught her eye in the sun-soaked courtyard between herself and the front doors of the cathedral: a screw. That she had in fact found the right place, that her instincts had been correct, gave the barmaid a slight boost in confidence, enough to get her feet moving. She glanced around the corner and saw that the way was clear. With a burst of energy, she bolted across the open space to the shadowed cleft beside the front doors of the cathedral.
The blood thundered in her ears as she stood pressed into a slender alcove beside the doors. She didn't dare breathe or move. It had been a miracle to get this far without detection; she didn't want to ruin it by a foolish misstep now. In her hand, the neck of the flask was slippery. She clutched it closer, fearing that even the slightest gesture might make it slip from her hands and spill its expensive green fluid across the ground.
The pounding in her ears slowly subsided, and the warmth of the shadowed hiding place lulled her nerves. This wasn't turning out so bad after all. There was no sound at all from the courtyard save the happy gurgling from a small fountain in the corner, surrounded by well pruned hedges and orderly flowerbeds. Weeds were an abomination in a Hammerite garden. A fly buzzed along the stone balustrade not more than a few feet in front of her. Its tiny shadow flitted along the ground by her feet. For all she could tell, the interior of the cathedral was just as lazily quiet, but she didn't want to act on an assumption.
Cautiously, Sherry slipped out of her hiding place and into the bright sunlight warming the wood and iron castings of the cathedral doors. She glanced behind her, half expecting to hear a shout and see the two troops of guards rushing toward her, hammers raised, but all was quiet. She reached out and took hold of the enormous iron door handle, warmed like a snake in the sun.
She opened the door as quietly as she could, wincing when the hinges made even the slightest groan, and slipped inside, closing it softly behind her. In the sudden interior gloom, while her eyes adjusted, she brushed along the wall to a small curve in the wall where a statue stood in head-bowed penitence. Behind this, she hid, hoping it was as dark as her sun-drowned eyes told her it was.
All was quiet and cold. The heat of the streets could not penetrate the thick stone walls, and the heavily stained-glass windows seemed to provide a formidable barrier to the brightest of the sunlight. Sherry crouched and waited, eyes closed, until she could see clearly enough in the dark. Her skin prickled from the chill stone as she leaned back against it and she shivered. Somewhere far away she thought she heard a movement, but after waiting for what felt like hours to hear it grow closer or repeat itself, she finally decided that it was nothing to worry about, at least yet.
Rested and readjusted to the surroundings, Sherry held her breath and slipped out of her hiding spot. The thick carpet runner along the hall muffled every step she took along it, and though she was grateful for that, she also feared it would as willingly do the same for any armed Hammerite walking toward her. Every opportunity she got, she ducked into a shadowed spot to wait, to listen, and to plan her steps. She was already further inside the Hammerite cathedral than she had ever been before in her life. The only other time she had ever been even in the foyer of such a place was years ago, back when her mother was alive, when they came in their rags to beg for a few coins. For years after that, she had worn a small hammer around her neck, believing that the Builder would somehow rebuild their lives into something beautiful and amazing. When her mother died, unable to keep both herself and her child alive on the pittance the Hammerites dolled out to her on holy days, Sherry buried her with the talisman.
It was all show. Looking now at the expensive decorations lining the walls, at the gold and silver candlesticks on every table or on stands beside the holy sculptures, at the sheer luxuriousness of the cathedral's design, she knew how hollow their gestures of kindness toward a poor, starving woman and her little child had been. And she recognized the temptation within herself to relieve them of a little of the wealth they refused to share.
The Master Thief would strip this place from top to bottom, she thought. He wouldn't think twice about it. What use do penitents have for gold and gems, anyway, compared to the people who could use it? I could take just a handful and feed several families on the street for weeks. They probably gave my mother two copper coins while lighting seventy candles on a golden candelabra.
But she was not there to rob. A missing artifact would likely alert the Hammerites to her presence, and she could not risk that before finding Gus. Besides, she prided herself on being a cut above thievery. She didn't need to steal to earn money, even if from time to time she had to resort to less desirable ways of making a living besides serving ale for tips. Even then, she never stole so much as a half-weight silver coin. That girl is a thief and a liar and a cheat. She acts all holy and pure, but she's just as bad as that idiot Raife. How could I even look at myself in the mirror if I knew I had sunk to her level?
Forcing her mind back to the task at hand, Sherry was about to slip out of hiding, when she heard the soft padding of someone—perhaps more than one someone—coming down the hall toward her. Now, she heard them speak, quietly, softly to one another.
"Dost thou truly believe the boy is the Builder's Hammer? He is naught but a child!"
"Thou has heard him speak, hast thou not? He doth know every inch of our holy texts, without ever having read them. He speaketh of things only we would know of! He is a vessel of great information. If he doth not come from the Builder's holy sanctuary, where doth he come from?"
The footsteps drew closer over the moment's pause in their discussion. "I do not know, Brother Regulus, but there is something…wrong about him. I do not trust him. He hath too much respect for the heretic Karras' teachings. Hath he not brought one of the heretic's own creations in amongst us? And not just among us, but into the workrooms in the catacombs, where our holy dead layeth in peace?"
"Hush!" the other said, lowering his voice still further. "Brother Smegglen didst warn me that the Hammer might install the heretic's security eyes about the cathedral."
"See?" the other Hammerite did not seem concerned about the volume of his voice. "This is what I fear! That he doth claim Karras is sitting beside the Builder's right hand, that he hath earned the Builder's respect! It is heresy, I tell thee!"
The two Hammerites passed in front of Sherry's hiding place, and she pressed back against the stones, as though she might be able to submerge herself within them for better concealment.
"Thou shouldst not say such things, Brother Artech. The Hammer doth have a violent and passionate rage against those who challenge him."
"He is but a boy! With one swift stroke of mine hammer, I could-"
"Do not say it, or we shalt both feel his wrath! I beg thee, Brother Artech, Anslom, please. The priests doth say that the Hammer is indeed a messenger from the Builder. To challenge the Hammer is to challenge them as well! Thou wouldst do well to remember to guard thy tongue, if not for your own sake, then do so for a friend."
The two Hammerites passed along the corridor toward the end of the hall. The first mumbling something under his breath, which Sherry could not hear, until—just as they turned the corner—he said loudly, "What is this automobile he speaks of, anyway? Sounds like pagan witchcraft to me!"
She heard them laugh and listened as it faded down the hall. Then quietly, she hurried back the way she had come. Unsure of where to go, she had passed several doors, one of which bore a placard labeling the place she now must go, though she loathed the thought of it. She pushed through the door and felt the already chill air drop several degrees, making her shiver as her breath turned to steam. She closed the door behind her and found herself in almost absolute darkness. The stairs descending in front of her were only visible by the weak light of a torch at the bottom. Even her quiet breathing seemed to carry unnervingly well in the cold air, and she heard her own sigh whisper down the stairs like a ghost. She looked down at the flask in her trembling, clammy hands and debated using it. Would ghosts or the walking dead be deceived by an invisibility potion? Not days ago, she would have never thought such things even existed. She would have laughed at the patron who mentioned such hocus-pocus things and would have turned him away as a drunk. But she had seen things in these last few days that she never thought she would ever see in her life. She couldn't deny that the walking dead were real, and dangerous.
Biting her lip, Sherry pushed the idea from her mind. When it was needed.
And it would be needed.
"Joining the crew of ol' Fallhorn, eh?" the scabby man behind the counter said as he leaned forward, surveying Otto with a mocking, patronizing gleam in his eyes. "Have you ever seen Fallhorn, lad? You'd remember if you had. Bull of a man, patched eye, real mean looking teeth. He'll eat you for breakfast, my laddy boy, that he will. Won't he, Pollux?"
"Aye," the younger, cleaner man replied as he hoisted the giant tome of the shipping records onto the table in front of them. He was dressed more like a clerk than a sailor, and his hair was combed neatly and shone with what was likely some form of hair product. He glanced up briefly at Daphne and seemed to flush a bit around the cheeks, but she couldn't be sure under that swarthy skin of his. His eyes were dark and penetrating. "That he will."
"Would the ladies care for a drink?" the old sailor asked, leaning back in the seat with an open flask he'd pulled from his jacket pocket while his young coworker fetched the quill pen. "This here stuff is downright mystical. Brought it all the way from the Beachseed Isles in the tropics. Natives drink it like its water. Don't know how they keep their heads on right." He scratched his gut with his grimy hand and took a drawn-out swig.
"Thanks, but I'm sure we're all set," Megan said, emphasizing the chill in her voice as Otto peered at the giant book.
The scabby man leaned forward in his seat, across the counter and leered at her. "You're a right tart little trollop, aren't you, lassy?" His voice went low and gruff when he added, "I like that in a woman."
Megan's face went red from her neck to her hair, and Daphne stifled a chuckle as the young man came back with the quill and ink.
"Fat ugly oafs aren't exactly my type," Megan growled back, fists clenched at her side.
"Oh, ho ho!" the crusty sailor laughed, bringing his meaty hand down on the counter so hard Otto jumped and nearly spilled the ink pot. "Like fire, this one! Careful, missy, or you'll make me lose my mind faster than this here drink will!"
The thought that talking back actually made the creep more interested changed Megan's flushed face slightly green, and she crossed her arms defensively across her chest as his greasy eyes rolled up and down her. She looked ready to puke.
"He said it was the The Moon Keeper, I think. That sounds almost like what it was." Otto stumbled over the name as his eyes darted down the record, searching for something with a track that would bring them generally close to Northermeed. His stumbling seemed to irritate the young clerk, who glared down at the record.
"It must be the Eyes-O'-Pearl," he said curtly. "That's the only ship Captain Fallhorn is sailing currently."
"But that name doesn't sound right," Otto said, whining in just the right tone to make the young clerk almost cross his eyes with frustration.
"Well, if you're sailing under Captain Fallhorn, that's the only ship it could be!"
"Maybe it wasn't Captain Fallhorn," Daphne put in sweetly, peering over Otto's shoulder. The clerk's eyes darted briefly down to her chest, and now Megan was certain he had blushed. "Do you remember if the man said Fallhorn? Perhaps it was Melbourne?"
"That- That could have been what he said," Otto stammered, frowning.
"Do you remember what the man looked like?" the clerk asked. His tone had changed completely, and he tried to turn the book to help them search.
"No, wait. I think I'll know it if I see it." Otto twisted the book back toward him, out of the hands of the clerk. There was a brief moment when Megan was sure the clerk would burst into curses, but with a furtive glance at Daphne, he swallowed whatever obscenities were at the tip of his tongue.
It was clear that their delay was starting to be slightly suspicious, for the older man said, "You ladies must be awfully brave to let your little brother rush of to sea at the first suggestion of it. Much more so because the lad can't even remember the name of the ship!"
"Well, it's what he really wants to do," Daphne said, glancing at Megan for support.
"He's always liked the sea," Megan stated, still avoiding eye contact with the grimy ex-sailor. "Our father was a sailor, you see."
"Was he now?" the old man had eyes only for her, and she fought to keep the revulsion from her face. "Where was his home port?"
"A little south of here," Megan lied.
"I don't think so."
"What did you say his name was?"
"I didn't." Megan was starting to become flustered by all of his overly-interested questions, and she feared that much more of this quick-fire interrogation would unravel the flimsy lies they had already spun. "Have you figured out which ship it is?" she asked, trying to look over Otto's other shoulder without leaning too close to the scrutinizing old man.
"Yes, I think they're right," Otto said, pointing to the entry for the Eyes-O'-Pearl. "I think it was Captain Fallhorn. I'm pretty sure it was. Look, it says it leaves tonight at the tide. Isn't that what the man told me?"
Megan nodded, trying to convincingly play the part of the interested and concerned older sister. "I believe so, but do be sure. Sissy, is that the right ship?" She looked over at Daphne and found her friend making eyes at the young clerk.
"Seamus? That's a cute name," Daphne was saying, flitting her eyelashes and twisting as she stood. She yelped when Megan punched her lightly in the arm, and scowled at her.
"What?" Daphne demanded under her breath. "You've got Raife, why shouldn't I have a little fun, too?"
The fire-engine red of Megan's cheeks flared up again and the mortified look on her face made Daphne shrug and smirk. As Megan's lips searched for the right words, Daphne leaned over Otto's shoulder, looked at where he pointed, and with a nod said, "Yes. That's the one, dear. Where should he sign?"
The clerk jumped to flip to the appropriate roster page, and as he did so, Megan leaned in close to Daphne's ear and rasped, "I don't know what you're talking about. I was just trying to stop you from looking like a slut!"
Daphne scoffed and rolled her eyes. "You're just jealous because the cute one likes me, and the creepy one likes you." She said it just loud enough that Megan shot back from her, glaring, and casting an uncomfortable glance at the old man behind the counter. He hadn't apparently heard.
When Otto has scribbled his illegible name across the blank line at the bottom of the roster, he handed the quill back to the clerk. "Is there anything else I need to do?" he asked, sounding completely genuine in his interest.
"Just make the boat on time, lad," the old man said. "Pack up no more than a few little trinkets and socks, got it? There isn't any storage space on the ship for a scamp like you, so keep it small."
"Aye, I understand!" Otto said. "Thanks a lot!"
The old man was too busy returning to his flask to pay any attention as the three turned and headed out of the office, and the young clerk was too distracted by Daphne's leaving to say anything in response.
The moment they stepped out onto the street, Otto gestured to a side alley, to which he made a beeline, as though more than willing to leave them behind. He actually looked slightly angry. When Megan and Daphne finally arrived at his location, he turned on them and growled, "What's wrong with you two? You almost gave us completely away with that nonsense in there! Why couldn't you just sit back and keep your mouths shut?"
Megan flared up immediately and looked about ready to strike him. "You better watch your own mouth, or so help me I'll send you packing right back to your mother! This may be your plan, but it's our mission, and we can still hogtie you and leave you behind. Or better yet-!" she added through clenched teeth, "-we could just hand you over to ol' Captain Fallhorn and let him deal with you! I'm starting to think I'd like to see you sail away to the tropics!"
The boy seemed to actually quail under her verbal assault, for the annoyance on his face fell immediately and he seemed to shrink in on himself. Daphne tried to calm Megan down, to let the kid off the hook, and made the mistake of touching her arm.
"As for you!" Megan nearly shouted, whirling on her. "What hair-brained train of logic makes any of what you said in there make any- I mean, really! You think that me and- and-" She gestured violently with her hands as though unable to force her mouth to speak the words in her head. "I don't even like him! And I'm tired of hearing people insinuate that- that-"
Daphne had never seen Megan so enraged before, and it did truly frighten her. But likewise, a little flame of her own had sparked up, a little fire that didn't like being talked to in such a tone. Her skin felt tight, and everything looked slightly green. "Relax!" she hissed, barely noticing the soft, multiple layers in her voice. "And cut Otto some slack. This was his plan, and it's going to work! As for what I mentioned, I was only joking! I know you and Raife hate each other, all right? It's just funny to make you mad, that's all! Besides, you said I looked like a slut!"
Her own outburst seemed to strike some fear into her friend, whose angry blush had faded to ashen, and whose mouth was open and mute. Even Otto seemed slightly stunned and had pulled back a little, pushing his back against the wall.
"Is she okay?" he whispered to Megan, and Megan took a little too long to nod.
Daphne quickly realized what had started to happen, and in her horror, she swallowed down every ounce of anger she felt. She hadn't even been that angry, only irritated. Was that all it took now that she no longer had the Hammerite talisman? She shivered and the fear snuffed out the last spark of anger. "I'm sorry," she gasped. "I- I wasn't thinking-"
"It's fine," Megan said quickly. "Let's not ever mention any of this again. I overreacted. I was just scared that they might figure out what we were doing, but you're right. I was totally out of line. I'm sorry."
Daphne crossed her arms and looked down at the ground. She could still see the fear in Megan's face. "Forget about it. And don't look at me like that," she whispered. "I don't like this any more than you do."
She felt a warm hand on her shoulder and saw Megan smile. It was a weak, perhaps forced smile, but the attempt was enough. "I didn't even realize-" she murmured. "I wasn't even that mad, it just-"
"I know," Megan replied. "It's fine. You couldn't help it. We'll work through this together, okay?"
Daphne nodded. "Right." Then, turning to Otto with a nervous huff, she asked, "So what's next?"
Otto's concern melted into a sly grin. "Follow me," he said, and the three of them hurried down the back alley, away from the docks and toward the warehouses.