Overhead, the sun shone down on the mid-morning crowds that filled the Grassmarket. Orange-feathered firehawks soared through the soot clouds. Shouts from merchants, conversations from patrons, and even the call of livestock from the cattle market at the far end filled the air. Here and there, the occasional clockwork courier owl flew past just above the crowd. Toward the quieter side, where the market joined Candlemakers Row, the noise lessened and groups of people grew thin. Most anyone that walked along were on their way to the Grassmarket, or were leaving it. Moira and Captain Hunter were among the latter.
The walk back to Neily’s Boarding House from Grassmarket was a long one, made even longer from their frustration at losing sight of their quarry. Hunter’s face was a frown set in stone. Moira, however, was more animated. Occasionally, she would look over her shoulder with a regretful glance, back towards the market crowds where they had lost sight of the ruffians who had attacked Lydia. Finally, they arrived at the weathered boarding house. Given the circumstances, Hunter decided to forego the pretense of knocking before entering.
William, who was seated at the dining table with Vivian and Lydia, looked up as Hunter and Moira walked from the hallway into the dining room. Pale yellow sunlight filtered by the room’s soot-dusted window panes cut a hard shaft across the dull blue carpet. The frustration on Moira’s face told the young man volumes. Even the sun-faded, brightly colored flower paintings on the walls seemed dim, given the pair’s dark looks.
He cleared his throat. “Where’d they lose ya?” William asked.
“The Grassmarket.” Captain Hunter replied with a heavy sigh. “Given how quickly they vanished among the crowd, I have the feeling they’ve done that before.”
Vivian touched the damp washcloth to Lydia’s face where the bruise had turned an ugly black around her eye. Lydia winced. The older woman gave Lydia a sympathetic, motherly look while she rinsed the cloth in the old white and blue porcelain washbasin between the women. When the few bloodstains stubbornly remained, she reached into a pocket of her dress and withdrew a small wooden box, no larger than three inches on a side. She turned the sole dial on its face to the mark indicating ‘dining room’. A muffled clunk sounded from beyond the walls, only a room away.
“Those two, always comin’ round.” Vivian said sternly. “They be roustin’ good, honest folk who be barely scrapin’ by. They ought ta be horsewhipped.”
Moira glanced over at Lydia, then Vivian. “So those bloody gits do this all the time, then?”
Vivian looked at Lydia, who turned her eyes to the floor. “Not all the time. They were just sent ta fetch me fer work.” Lydia said after a moment.
William looked confused. “I thought ya said before this was your day off?”
“I musta’ got the days wrong,” Lydia said as she rose to her feet. “I … I need ta be goin’. They’ll be expectin’ me at the factory. They said there was a big order that came in last night… when I was out lookin’.”
Before she could take a step, Vivian stood and guided the young woman back into the chair. “Sit, yer goin’ nowhere. Ye arm’s hurt so bad, ya can barely move it. Na ta mention there’s a slowly bleedin’ cut by yer eye in that bruise.”
A low murmur of gears and springs heralded the approach of an automata servitor. Just two feet tall, its tarnished, cylindrical metal body and domed top trundled into the room on a stubby tripod of three spoked wheels. The clockwork servitor wheeled up to Vivian and stopped within reach of her. She patted it almost affectionately before opening its domed head and dropping the used washcloth inside. She closed the head, then opened a smaller panel on its cylindrical chest to recover a clean washcloth from a small stack there. Vivian smiled at William, who watched with fascination.
“It belonged ta the Colonel, me late husband. He always be tinkerin’ with somethin’ around the house. It was only made ta handle one task, but he tweaked it ta be doin’ a few more.” Vivian explained.
Hunter was still watching Lydia suspiciously. “Has this happened more than once?”
“Ye need ta tell ’em.” The older woman urged. Lydia simply kept her gaze focused on the floor near her feet.
Vivian tossed the clean washcloth into the washbasin. It fell into the water with a wet, soggy splat. “Ye go runnin’ out at all hours o’ the night, lookin’ fer Allison, which be braver than anything Ah’d seen. Them two mongrels come sniffin’ round and ye wilt like a wet flower.” She gently tilted Lydia’s chin up and looked her in the eye. “Young lady, ye need ta tell someone. They won’t quit till ye do. Seems ta me, yer new friends here be good ones ta start with, since they seem ta be able ta chase off them two bad apples.”
“It’s nothin’.” Lydia said, her voice agitated. “I … I really gotta go work.”
Vivian gave Lydia a frustrated scowl, then picked up the washcloth again and applied it to the cut on the young woman’s face. “If’n ya won’t say, Ah will. Yes Sirrah, this be happin’ more’n once. Lydia’s only the current one be sufferin’ it. Another girl, Maggie Campbell, had the same problem na long back.”
Moira sat down at the dining table with the others. “Ya make it sound like they stopped botherin’ her. How’d Maggie make ’em leave?”
Vivian paused in her ministrations to Lydia. “She never came home. Last Ah seen her was several weeks back.” She said solemnly.
Hunter’s frown deepened. “What of the constables? Have you told them any of this?”
Vivian laughed cynically while Lydia shook her head and glanced briefly at Hunter. “I told ya, they don’t help. They never do. They know that Maggie’s gone. They’ve not found anythin’ yet. One of them peelers even said Maggie probably just moved on.” The young woman’s cheeks flushed with anxiety. “That just ain’t true! This was better’n where Maggie came from! She was livin’ off scraps before she got here. She’d not just leave.”
Suddenly, Lydia stood up again, her hands shaking. “I gotta go, I really gotta go. He’ll take me job! I won’t be able ta eat.”
Vivian was immediately on her feet again. She leveled a hard stare into Lydia’s eyes. “Yer hurt and canna go. If’n ye lose that job, I’ll let ya work here, Heavens know Ah can be usin’ the help. Now, sit!”
Lydia frowned back at Vivian, and for just a moment, Hunter wondered if the young woman would bolt out the door anyway. However, Lydia seemed to come to a decision as she then slowly sat back down in the chair.
Vivian nodded in approval at the young woman. “Good, now once Ah get the bleedin’ ta stop, we can go do the dishes.”
William leaned forward with a grin. “Besides, we can go speak on yer behalf. Tell the owner ya got hurt and can’t come in. He’ll understand.”
Lydia closed her eyes. “He won’t.” She said in a small voice.
“If he’s interested in a smooth operation of his business, he’d best understand. Just who owns this particular milling factory?” Hunter asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “And where is it?”
“Gilbert Monkhouse.” Lydia answered. “His mill factory’s along East Silvermills Lane. North a’here, past the castle and just north of the Queen Street Gardens.”
“Not a far walk. Would he be there this time of morning?” Hunter asked curiously.
Lydia sighed, almost in surrender. “Yes,” she said softly. “He’s always stayin’ around in the mornings. Leaves mid-day.”
Hunter gazed at William and Moira. “We need to pay this Sirrah Monkhouse a visit.”
William patted Lydia on the shoulder and stood eagerly. “I’m ready. When we leavin’?”
Hunter smiled slightly. “Now would likely be best, if we’re to call on Sirrah Monkhouse before we do the rest of our hunting today.”
Once they had bid a good morning to Vivian and Lydia, Hunter paused outside the front door of the boarding house, lost in thought. Moira watched the captain a moment, then looked away.
“I’m bothered by it, too.” She said eventually. “She’s got a streak of steel in her, but them two gits and that Monkhouse have her runnin’ scared. An what happens if they come back while we be away?”
“It’s just not right.” William protested. “Ya don’t send somebody around ta beat up yer workers ta get ’em ta work.”
Once they both fell quiet, Hunter glanced at them. “Agreed. It seems we’ve more than one problem here. If we’re to help Miss Olivander find her friend, we’ll need to see this Sirrah Monkhouse and have a chat with him to soothe this entire situation. Perhaps he’ll see some reason.”
William thrust his hands in his pockets. “And if he won’t?”
Hunter smiled. “He must. And if he’s difficult, we will just have to be very charming and persuasive. After all, he’s running a business. Harming his workers isn’t the best way to make sure his workers are the most efficient. He might not even realize what his men are really up to.”