Preemption Of The Heart
A long day for Josephine begins.
Friday, February 14th, 1868
Odyssey, the harbor of Trieste
Josephine showed Evie the constellations and they talked until the hour grew late. They pushed their couches together and piled the blankets high and fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the boat. The stars wheeled overhead as they slept. It was February but it was also Trieste and its famous Mediterranean winter weather was in full force--it was cold but not uncomfortably so and there was no frost. Sleeping on the open deck was not a hardship.
Josephine woke to the screech of gulls and a warm weight against her side. Looking down she saw Evie had shifted during the night and nestled under her arm. The girl's eyelids twitched and Josephine knew she was dreaming. She drew their blankets closer around Evie against the cold. The light of dawn slanted across them on their couch, setting the girl's ears to glowing a soft shell pink, and Josephine couldn't resist stroking them. Her fur was incredibly soft under her fingers and Evie sighed but did not wake.
Tenderness flooded Josephine then and a small voice inside whispered, She's not a baby, Jo. She's sixteen. Almost old enough to marry. Josephine's hand paused and continued stroking as she countered the thought with another. Her mother died when she was young. She's lost years of mothering that by rights should have come to her. Josephine knew from bitter experience how painful that loss could be and how deep a wound it made on the heart. Finding Evie had done much to soothe Josephine's own hurts and it went far to explain how the girl had become so dear to her in so short a time. Josephine secretly hoped she was able to offer the girl the same solace, but only time would tell.
Evie's ears and whiskers twitched, her teeth clicking as she dreamed. Josephine ceased her stroking, reluctant to wake the girl. Tucking the blankets closer, Josephine lay and stared at the brightening sky overhead and pondered a matter sure to distract her from the gift that was Evie.
We are on his boat. We've been wined and dined, have accepted his hospitality. And yet he is a Russian subject, of a nation hostile to the Crown. What are we doing here?
By rights, they should never have acknowledged his existence once they made harbor. They could ill afford the rumors that would inevitably start flying as to their association with him. Josephine was not unaware the damage he could do to their credibility as a team and also to herself as an agent. If it were suspected he had wormed his way past her defenses, if it was believed he commanded her affections, her career with the Colonel—as an agent of the Crown—was over. Her security clearance would be rescinded, her worth as an agent ruined. Nothing she would say to the contrary would be believed.
So why are you still here? You could have left last night and your standing would have been preserved. But you didn't? Why?
Was she falling for the man, with his damned showy gestures, his effusive speech, his obvious attentions? God help her, she didn't know. More to the point, Jo, what can you do to salvage this situation? You must act quickly. Once word gets to the Colonel what's happened, it will be over for you.
So ran her thoughts as the sun rose and the gulls keened overhead.
Evie was having the dream again.
She didn't dream very often...or perhaps it was that she didn't remember dreaming very often. But when she did remember them, she always remembered being aware. And this one was the only one she had more than once. Leaping from rooftop to rooftop in the dark, the city slept beneath dream Evie's feet as she plied her trade. And then it would always happen. The darkness would overwhelm dream Evie and she would freeze, confused, wandering and looking for something familiar. Evie would scream at her dream self, try and tell her to stop moving, to be patient. But of course, tweren't the way dreams worked. Every time she screamed and every time her dream self would continue moving like she hadn't just lost her window into the world that kept her alive.
And then the step, nothing but air underneath her paw. And as dream Evie would fall, screaming as the wind rushed past her in the blackness, Evie the watcher would no longer be watching, but instead would be sucked right into her dream self, until both were one. And the ground approached faster and faster and their screaming grew louder and louder until...
...Evie bolted upright, her breathing shallow and ragged. Where the pits was she? Nothing looked familiar. Her world had an odd motion to it and she weren't in her kip. She quickly glanced around and caught sight of Josephine lying beside her, staring into the sky above. It all came rushing back as the freshness of the dream faded with the morning light. You soddin' berk, how could you forget? she admonished herself. She was on board the ship, with Miss Josephine and that silver-tongued man who seemed to have even more jink than he had charm. And that was a piking load of coin, because he had left Evie speechless for the first time she could remember.
Char, who had been sleeping in a little ball next to her, made a soft little trill and wrapped himself around her neck and nuzzled her face. Evie stroked the side of his face and let that comfort ease her. It wouldn't do to have Miss Josephine or any of these high ups on board to think she couldn't handle herself.
Josephine felt Evie start and guessed at its cause, if not the exact nature of it, and deliberately kept her gaze on the sky to give the girl time to pull herself together. She listened to Char's trill and suppressed a grin—that little bugger must have snuck under the blankets right after Evie. They're inseparable. Not for the first time Josephine wondered how Evie acquired the Frendal dragon and her practical side answered her: she stole him, of course. Perhaps stole his very egg and hatched him herself. It was not something she could ever ask, however, for the oblique insult it would bestow on the girl's attachment to the animal. So Josephine made a slow count to a hundred and slid a look at the girl.
"Good morning. Sleep well?"
"It ain't the City, that's for sure, miss." She left it at that, letting Josephine read into it what she would. She hadn't thought it would be possible to have that many stars above you at night. But then, she thought, ain't that been the way of it for you this whole jaunt? She had seen so many things that would've gotten Bobby accused of being deep into bub if he tried to spin tales of them at night. She had thought London to be the center of well, everything, but it seemed now just to be one place. The dark of it was that it didn't seem all that nice when compared to being able to sleep someplace warm without worrying about who might be looking to filch her coin while she slept.
That said, she was developing habits that she didn't like none. Sleeping up next to Miss Josephine like she was her mother? Bad for staying on edge and bad to be thinking that way. Miss Josephine might say she was partners with her, but partners was business. Thinking of it as more was just a path towards dazzled and dizzy and a quick hop to a cage and the leafless tree. Besides, Evie figured there was someone else that Miss Josephine ought to be snuggling up with. She smirked a little and said, "You sleep well, miss? Betting you would've slept better somewhere else. Or maybe there wouldn't have been no sleeping then..."
“Don’t you start.” It was too close to the nature of her thoughts on Kalashnikov and too uncomfortable to admit. Josephine sat up and put her feet on the deck, flinching as the cold wood met her bare skin. “Katherine and Ezekiel had more than enough to say on that subject.” She hugged her arms across her chest for warmth and quit the sleeping couch, leaving Evie the blankets. The sun was fully up and its rays were painfully bright. Josephine looked aside, blinking spots, and was appalled to find her eyes prickling with incipient tears.
Evie could sense something was wrong, but she didn't have any idea what. Had she gone and said something blinkin' stupid again? Well, weren't nothing for it but to apologize. She stood up, encouraging Char to fly and exercise his wings a little. As he flew off to the other side of his ship, Evie walked up and stood next to Miss Josephine. "I'm sorry, miss, if I upset you. I didn't mean nothing by it. You can doughty me up but I ain't nothing but edges and points underneath. Don't give nothing I say weight, miss." And she laid her head on Josephine's shoulder.
“Apologize? For speaking your mind?” Josephine slipped her arm around Evie and gave her a hug, sniffing mightly. “I’ll have nothing of the sort. I may need your advice, from one partner to another.” Josephine released the girl and leaned on the rail and spoke to the morning in a voice pitched for Evie’s ears alone.
“Have you ever had to contemplate doing something distasteful and know there was nothing you could do but go through with it? But you can’t make yourself take that final step? I’m not asking you for details, Evie. Your life before we met is still yours, to reveal as you like.” Josephine slid a look at the girl and turned back to the water again. “A yes or no would suffice.”
"There was the one time, yeah, miss." She remembered when her mother died. Evie hadn't known what to do the first day or so. Even at 8, she had known that she didn't want her mom to suffer a pauper's funeral. Taken and cut with the sharps, not even allowed the peace and quiet of the dirt? Weren't no way Evie was going to allow it. Her mom wouldn't have wanted it. But the alternative had been hard. So very hard. She had sat there at the table where they had eaten just the other night, looking at the match for what had seemed an eternity. But in the end, she had walked away knowing that the flames engulfing the building behind her would give her mother the peace she deserved.
Josephine kept her eyes on the water but her ears told her what she needed to know. She slipped her arm around Evie again and hugged her.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into the soft fur on Evie’s head. “I had hoped your answer would have been ‘no’.”
Evie shrugged a little as she let Miss Josephine hug her. It had been a long time since she had been hugged and she stood there a little stiff, not knowing quite what she should do.
"If a cutter ain't had to make hard decisions, Miss Josephine, then they ain't had to make decisions at all."
Josephine nodded, Evie’s fur soft on her cheek, and stiffened her spine. She gripped the rail with both hands and said quietly to the harbor, “I know.”
"You going to be all right? Something I can do to help?" It felt kind of strange, Evie had to admit. Miss Josephine always seemed to have the answers and her looking to advice from Evie seemed flipped, but they were partners. And partners meant doing what she could.
Josephine watched the sunlight on the water and considered Evie’s offer. She knew it wasn’t social noise, something offered lightly. As such, Josephine could do no less the give it the weight it deserved and answer in the same vein.
“I don’t know.” Josephine turned and pulled Evie’s hands gently into her own. “And that is because I cannot predict what will happen and so I cannot tell you what I need. But I trust you will be there to help me pick up the pieces if I break. You have my back and I have yours. It’s what partners do, right?”
"You ain't gotta gaze far to find me," Evie confirmed. Talk of breaking sounded a little like Miss Josephine might cut her own knees out before she got started, but Miss Josephine knew better than she did. At least when it came to these sort of things. Evie squeezed her hands once before moving them on to the rail and staring out across all that water. She knew people must swim in it, but that would make her wetter than she had ever been.
Gratitude warmed her like the sun shining across the harbor and Josephine could think of nothing to say that wouldn’t sound flippant or insincere. So she smiled at Evie and leaned against the rail and let the quiet of the morning speak for her.