It wasn’t dark enough to light the candles in Caleb’s study, and that was Molly’s first mistake. She was used to slipping in quietly at the back of the house whenever she saw lamplight in the window, and as often as not Cal wouldn’t notice. The shutters were open and the windows were dark, so this time she didn’t bother going around to the back, instead walking up to the main door of the house and slipping out of her mud-splattered boots on the porch. Molly tugged at the handle, pulling the door open as quietly as she could manage, and went for the stairs as fast as she dared in stockings.
“Moll,” Cal called, his voice muffled through the walls of the study. Molly skidded guiltily to a halt.
“I might at least go change,” she called back, tapping her fingers impatiently on the banister. “We were up to the knees in mud down there.”
She wondered if she’d been better off to leave Geller at the mouth of the cave and not bother coming back to the house at all. Except Cal would certainly have been alarmed if she’d still been gone after dark. Molly still had no idea how she was going to manage with Torrent—and whatever he might have already noticed in the cave—but heading off a completely unneeded rescue mission from her brother-in-law was certainly high on the list.
“Bother the mud,” said Caleb, opening the door to the study and peering down the hallway over the tops of his half-moon spectacles. A thick fountain pen was tucked behind one ear, and his hands were liberally dotted with ink stains. The shirt cuffs were little better; any further damage to the sleeves was masked by a thin gray peacoat, which appeared to be Caleb’s only concession to the chill in the house. He never seemed to notice the cold as badly as Molly.
“Gellar find anything?” Caleb asked.
“Nothing,” Moll replied, edging toward the stairs. “Said the same as the last one. I told you it was a waste of time.”
“And the mining pros—Molly, are we going to be shouting up and down the hall, or will you get in here and tell me properly?”
Molly sighed. She probably should have simply trudged into his study, muddy boots and all, and he’d have been quick enough to shoo her out again. All she needed to do was threaten to sit on his favorite chair.
Caleb stepped out of the study, holding the door open and giving her one of his looks, the kind that took full advantage of his long, beak-like nose. Biting at her lip, Molly came down the hall, brushing past him as she went in. An inch closer and she could have left a lovely streak of mud on the hem of his coat. She’d almost be tempted to do it if she didn’t know very well she’d be the one scrubbing it out later on.
“He said it’s worthless to dig in the lower passages,” Molly said, crossing the room to stand near the window as Cal followed her in. “It’s too wet for saltpeter, or any other gunpowder components, and there’s no sign of anything else worth the trouble of hauling it out.”
Cal shook his head, although he had to have expected the answer. He turned back to the desk and jotted a few notations in one of the open ledgers.
Caleb had taken over the study surprisingly thoroughly considering he’d barely been a year in the house, his collection of archaeological paperweights scattered across the desk and the adjacent bookshelves. Beside the ledgers, a framed portrait sat prominently in the middle of the desk. It was of a man and woman, elegantly dressed, the woman’s smiling face half-covered by a flowered bonnet. The man was unmistakably Caleb, and what little showed of the woman’s face matched Molly’s features precisely. Except for the smile, it could have been Molly. Molly didn’t think she’d ever smiled like that, though, serene and effortless.
“They’re sending a boat up the river in five days,” Molly offered, edging to the door while Cal was busy with the ledger. “Same terms as before.”
“It ought to be more,” said Cal, not turning around.
“You think they’ll agree to that?”
“You think they won’t?” Cal countered. “Do you really think Dart is in any position to refuse?”
“Of course he’ll take it,” said Molly with a shrug. The finances were more Cal’s side of the operation, but that didn’t mean Molly lacked for opinions. “He very nearly has to. But he won’t like it, all the same.”
“He doesn’t have to like it,” said Cal irritably. “He just has to pay it. Not his money, is it?”
“The Territorial Authority barely has the money to pay its own soldiers. Dart isn’t going to like it,” she repeated, half under her breath.
She took a tentative step toward the door, but Cal lifted a hand without turning around. “Do sit down, Moll,” he said, pointing toward the spindly, leather-backed chair opposite the desk.
She winced. Torrent’s single candle wasn’t going to last long, and Molly wasn’t sure which she was more worried about—what might happen to the tailor once he lost the light, or what sort of trouble he might get into while he still had it.
Carefully, Molly stepped closer, gathering her mud-drenched skirts in front of her before settling on the very edge of the seat. The chair back seemed to loom behind her. Molly imagined the leather would still smell faintly of her father’s pomade, just as her sister’s room still smelled, unaccountably, of the lavender sprigs that had decorated her room during Lissey’s last spring. Little reminders, Molly thought. The subtlest of ghosts.
“So Gellar isn’t impressed with our prospects,” Caleb said. “Did you see anything of interest down there?” It would have been an ominous question, given the circumstances, if Caleb hadn’t been in the habit of asking it every time she went into the Hollow. Another question he already knew the answer to, but he kept on asking anyway.
“Nothing but mud and rock,” Molly lied, willing her tone to be light and sympathetic. When the university was still open, she’d had plenty of practice breaking the news to would-be chemistry fellows that their experiments had fizzled, exploded, caught fire, destroyed their beakers, or anything else that would result in a charge for replacement glassware, and possibly a failing grade. At least Cal didn’t sulk as badly as the students. “According to Gellar, it’s not even very interesting rock. Dart’s going to think we’re wasting his time.”
“Dart is going to admire our industriousness in exploring every avenue to procure him his supplies,” Caleb corrected succinctly. “Remember, he’s the one who’s come begging to us. He’s hardly in a position to be critical.”
“If he shows up one day with a militia at his back, it won’t look like begging.”
“You worry too much about what Dart thinks. He’s getting what he wants, it’s all he cares about.”
If it had only been a case of getting Dart what he wanted, they never would have needed a geologist to look at the cave in the first place, and Molly still didn’t understand why Cal was so insistent on trying to push the mining into the lower, wetter levels of the cave.
At least there was one good thing about Cal’s insistence on needless surveys: Molly had been the one to find Torrent wandering around down there, rather than one of the sappers.
Caleb broke off for a long moment, gazing fixedly into the pages of his ledger. Tentatively, Molly started to get up from the chair; impatiently, Cal waved her back to her seat.
“Your father has received a letter,” he said, lingering over the words as much as his clipped Palmyra accent would allow. “Sent from the Commonwealth War Department.”
He turned from the desk, an envelope dangling between his fingers, the double heron emblem of the Commonwealth emblazoned prominently across the front. It was addressed in the plumb-straight letters of a print block, her father’s name marred by the jagged rip across the top of the envelope. Besides that, Molly could see the telltale wrinkling where the letter had been steamed open and hastily re-sealed. This close to the Annex, the heron emblem was certain to have attracted attention of precisely the wrong sort.
Slowly, Molly took the envelope, opened it, and pulled out the two sheets of paper within.
“Your man Harrow’s gone missing from a military hospital in Idria,” Cal said. Molly gave up on reading the paper and focused on trying to breathe normally. “Polite way of saying he’s been charged as a deserter.”
“Missing,” Molly repeated, her eyes flicking from Caleb to the letter as she flipped over to the next page—a copy of Torrent’s warrant papers, the legal description of the man they sought.
“They’re going to be looking for him,” said Cal in a low voice. “Looks like they’ve decided to start their search here.”
Molly bit her lip, dropping the letter to her lap. If Commonwealth officers came here—if they found what Molly and Cal had been digging and processing in the cave’s upper levels—well, Torrent wouldn’t be the only one up on charges.
“We’re a long way from Idria, Cal,” she stammered, as he plucked the papers out of her hands before she quite realized she was giving them up. “No one from the Crimsons has been in Snow River in, what, six months? You think one missing soldier’s going to change that?”
“They knew to send a letter here, didn’t they?” he said. He was gripping the paper hard enough it was crumpling between his fingers, the paper crackling like embers on a hearth. Molly scooted farther back into the chair. “Why? Why would they send the letter to Laurel House?”
“I don’t know,” said Molly, and it wasn’t the right answer. Caleb threw the letter onto the desk, his fist thumping on the wooden surface. A white-glazed pottery shard leapt off the table with the impact; reflexively, Molly caught it before it could hit the floor. There was a reason Cal’s most long-standing curios tended to be made of iron.
“Did he keep your picture?” Cal snapped, his eyebrows furrowing hard as he stared at her. “Or a lock of your hair? Would he have told his mates about the sweetheart he was going back to, on a little farm outside Snow River?”
Molly crossed her arms, gripping the shard of pottery between her palms as she got to her feet. Cal was a belligerent ass when he was angry, but Molly wasn’t going to sit and let him lecture her on decisions she’d made months before Cal’s arrival, and concerning a man Cal had never met.
“You know very well it was never a proper arrangement,” Molly snapped back. “He was only here for, what, eight months?” Even when he’d still been writing letters, with affectionate talk of ill-fitting uniforms and terrible food, it was surprisingly easy for her to see their time together for the soap bubble it was—beautiful, shimmering, and utterly transitory. That particular summer would never come again, and Torrent, as she imagined him, had no proper habitation but those scant few months.
Except, improbably and unexpectedly, he’d come back equal parts mud and desperation, and it was all too new for her to have any time to think it over.
She clenched her fingers hard about the blunted edges of the pottery shard, because if she said anything else she might come perilously close to crying. With Cal, anger was always the safer choice. He noticed the things people cried over. Trust him to remember them, and bring them up later. Not always in nice ways.
Caleb closed the ledger, staring at her as he ran his thumb over the edge of the pen, regarding her with the same look of displeasure he’d bestowed on the letter.
Molly took a deep breath. She’d made the decision to throw in her lot in with her brother-in-law months ago. Which meant they each had to deal with the other’s tempers, foibles, and occasional demands. Which also meant she shouldn’t lie to him, especially about something that could mean both of them brought in chains to Palmyra—or shot as traitors, without even the bleak formalities of a wartime trial.
It would be terribly simple to tell Caleb exactly what he wanted to hear. She only had to say a few words, and Caleb would gather up a few of the sappers and go down to the cave. And Molly could fetch the bottle of gin and go to her room. She would drink it and she wouldn’t stop, no matter what she heard in the yard or saw from the window. Molly was certain there was enough gin in that bottle that she wouldn’t quite remember meeting Torrent in the cave, or the way he looked at her as she walked away. She would have a hell of a headache, but that was a small enough price to pay.
And then Caleb would be gone for a few days, and he would come back to Laurel House with some ribbon or commendation from the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth would be happy with Cal, and Cal would be happy with her.
And things would go on exactly as they had before.
Carefully, Molly set the bit of pottery back on the table.
“I’ll write the War Department tonight, if you like,” she said quietly. “But they must know it’s not our problem to be tracking him down.”
“It’s our problem if he’s given this house as his address,” said Caleb testily, but his voice had lost its brittle edge.
“Then we hope they catch up with him somewhere else,” she said briskly. Then she added, “They wouldn’t . . . kill him, would they?”
Cal’s mouth tilted up in a kind of strained smile, and he looked away suddenly, as though there was something in Molly’s face he didn’t want to look at directly. “Able-bodied soldier? Shouldn’t think so,” he said lightly. “Not so long as the Terror Men can do the job.”
Abruptly, he threw open the ledger and picked up his pen, running it in the air over the lines as though searching for a particular entry.
Seeing her opportunity, Molly slipped out of the chair and past the desk, bending to rescue the crumpled letter from the floor as she headed for the door.
“I’ll expect to see you tonight,” Cal called.
Molly stopped at the doorway. She glanced back, but he wasn’t even looking at her. He was still staring at the desk, but whether he was looking at the ledger or the photograph beside it, Molly couldn’t tell. The row of numbers coming barrel by barrel out of Coriander Hollow, or else the picture of the woman who could have been Molly, but wasn’t.
“I’d best get changed,” she said softly.
Molly took the back staircase; it was draftier than the front hall, and certainly that was why she was shivering. Caleb had never even met Torrent, for God’s sake. But a letter showed up and Cal has to prove he’s still in charge.
Molly all but ran up the stairs, turning into the second-story hallway and into her own room at the back of the house, pulling the latch as soon as the door was shut. At least the latch gave her an illusion of privacy. Some days, Molly felt illusions were very nearly all she had to work with anymore.
The good news was, Caleb would think it was only a continuation of their argument if Molly slipped out the back door and was gone until after dark.
Molly went to the table nearest the bed, opened the bottom drawer, and reached behind a half-knitted pair of socks until her fingers felt metal. She fished it out by the grip, pivoting the barrel upward to check that the thing was still loaded. It was a two-shot Rimfire percussion derringer, bought from a member of Captain Dart’s militia three months ago. Very small, very black market, and most probably illegal. It had almost certainly belonged to a Commonwealth soldier; the double heron emblem was still visible in the corner of the barrel, although the serial number had been filed off. Molly hadn’t asked how a Commonwealth-issue firearm had ended up in the hands of the Territorial Authority, and the fellow selling it hadn’t offered. The gun, as Molly had discovered the few times she’d practiced firing the thing, was hardly accurate at anything over thirty feet. But Molly hadn’t bought it for its ability to hit targets at long distances.
Hurriedly, Molly slipped the gun into the right-hand pocket of her mud-splattered utility skirt. She closed the drawer and went back to the stairs. Torrent’s candle wasn’t going to last forever; she had best get moving as soon as she could.
* * *
Coriander Hollow sat at the end of a narrow ravine, at the bottom of a steep slope which Caleb rather grandly referred to as a headwall. The ravine leading up to the mouth was a maze of rutted tracks barely wide enough to accommodate a dog cart. Thickets of laurel and catawba blanketed the sides of the path, the leaves clattering and popping underfoot with every step. Five months into a dry season that some in Snow River were beginning to call a drought, the trails were hard-packed, the earth cracked, dusty, and parched.
Walking between the wheel ruts as the path continued down the hill, Molly looked carefully at the faded impressions of boot prints visible in the dust. Two sets of boots entering, and two sets of boots leaving again. Her own tracks and Gellar’s, crisp and clear, overlaying a maze of older footprints. No other fresh marks.
No recent tracks, either, from the sappers or their carts, most of whom were on their way to the Snow River township to spend their furlough and better part of their month’s pay on watered-down wine and black-market whiskey. Some of the sappers would be back at the camp in a few days, others would be away the better part of the week. A few wouldn’t be back at all. Still, Cal seemed to have no trouble finding folk willing to work digging saltpeter out of a hole in the ground and not ask too many questions about why or for whom they were digging it.
The lack of fresh footprints was a puzzle, and she was keen to know what Torrent might have to say for himself when she finally got back to him.
As Molly came around the last turn, the cave mouth sprung into view, a shadowed overhang under an unremarkable ledge of worn gray sandstone. The laurels had been hacked back on either side to allow the sappers’ carts to turn around, giving the rock a barren look, like an unhealed scab. The leaves on the remaining laurels shifted in a wind peculiar to the mouth of the cave, sending the dry leaves twirling around each other in whispering rustles.
As was her habit, Molly opened her satchel to look over her equipment. She rechecked the position of her matches, candles, and lantern and walked under the ledge without lighting any of them. The floor, a dimly visible muddle of trampled earth and bare rock, began sloping gently downward as the light faded. As the ceiling rose, Molly straightened her head. Ahead of her, the four sets of try pots were visible as thick gray columns, looming up like phantoms among the collections of pickaxes, buckets, and canvas-covered heaps dotting the Porch. Ahead of her, the pale canvas walls of the sappers’ canteen stirred in the breeze, fluttering in and out like bellows. Molly stepped deftly around the debris, walking half by sight and half by memory. The try pots were one reason she never lit her candle in the Porch if she could help it. While saltpeter itself was inert, the same could not be said for the sappers’ percussion caps and demolitions equipment scattered in the straw-lined boxes lining the back wall of the Porch. Not to mention their finished batches of gunpowder mixed together with charcoal and the sulfur Dart had brought from Alexandria.
Dart insisted they make at least two small batches of gunpowder from each rending they did, to avoid the expense of sending a bad batch of saltpeter all the way to the munitions factory in Larrick An. It was tricky work, in production as well as storage, the finished cakes wrapped in oilskin and covered with damp canvas. The precautions were better than nothing, but Molly, who was possibly the only one with enough chemistry appreciate how explosive their homemade batches were, was only slightly reassured. She’d worked with more dangerous materials as a technician at the university lab in Alexandria, but in significantly smaller quantities, and with the benefit of things like containment hoods, flammables lockers, and pearl-ash fire extinguishers.
Past the last vats, the darkness around her was nearly complete. She took three more steps then turned to the left, her feet slipping over the rock as she felt her way forward. Eight steps, then another half turn to the left. Three steps forward and the floor of the cave began to slope sharply downward, the air thick with the smell of dust. Four steps more.
Molly looked over her shoulder, pleased to see the last light from the cave mouth disappear precisely when it ought to. She took another few steps in total darkness, remembering that as a child she had once tested herself, seeing how far she dared walk along the passage before she had to reach out and feel for the walls. Not wishing to fall flat on her face, and certainly not with a loaded derringer in her pocket, Molly stopped and pulled the lantern out of her bag.
With a fresh charge of carbide rattling inside the lantern, she only needed to apply a judicious bit of water to start the chemical reaction. Feeling across the top of the lantern, Molly spun the drip wheel, waiting a few seconds for the resulting acetylene gas to begin burbling its way out of the reaction chamber and into the tube. She brought her hand down hard against the striker. A pinwheel spark tumbled across the reflector, swallowed instantly as a tongue of flame, longer and skinnier than that from a candle, flickered to life in the middle of the reflector.
Molly glanced into her satchel a second time, a final check that everything was where it ought to be should she need to find something quickly in the dark. The derringer was an unsettling weight in the pocket of her skirt; her kit was normally so methodically arranged that any additional element seemed eerily out of place. Molly’s first thought was to leave the damned thing hidden somewhere out of sight before she went any farther. Except Torrent would certainly have questions if she picked it up again on returning, and there would be even more questions if she left it to be found by the sappers. Better to keep it where it was. Not that she’d need it, Molly told herself. Certainly not with Torrent. Better to keep it handy, all the same.
For the first hundred yards, Molly walked slowly. She held her lantern out and to the side, the better to illuminate the passage without dazzling her own eyes. The rock floor was thick with the sappers’ boot prints, indentations in the layers of dust that rose up in puffs as she walked. The ceiling was low, coated black with smoke; the walls were gouged with pickaxe strikes. Over the last six months, the sappers had managed to dig out what seemed like entirely new rooms, so that the upper passages almost seemed to change from visit to visit. As if the cavern was transforming itself into something new and unfamiliar—wider, taller, dustier, and not quite what it was before.
The main thoroughfare, which the Blighs called the Salt Gallery, had changed the least, being the main passage connecting the Porch with the lower levels of the cave. Now there were four large tunnels breaking off from it, following seams of guano through what, prior to the mining, had been little more than dead-end crawlways.
The cave seemed subdued in the sappers’ absence, only the muffled sounds of Molly’s own footsteps breaking the silence. It felt eerie, a reminder that it had been months since Molly had been in the cave entirely by herself. Except she wasn’t by herself, and that was the problem. Torrent was down here, in the mud-choked passages above the Hibernaculum, and that was an even eerier feeling.
No one else was supposed to be here. No one else was supposed to know what they were mining, or who they were mining it for. And now someone was here, and the fact that it was Torrent only made the question of why he’d come even more pressing. Had someone recruited him as a spy? Could he be a prospector himself? For a moment, Molly regretted not saying anything to Cal. He would have come with her, if she’d asked, and she wouldn’t be walking alone into the pitch-black innards of an illegal mine to demand explanations from a man who had no good reason to be there.
Which was silly. Molly had been in and out of the cave since she was a girl. And Molly reckoned she had better chances of getting an honest answer out of Torrent if Cal wasn’t around. It was bad form to assume Torrent would be hesitant about telling her the truth—he certainly wouldn’t lie to his own almost-fiancée.
Was she still Torrent’s almost-fiancée? After two years apart and the whole situation with Cal?
Nothing good would come from examining such questions any closer, so Molly resolutely turned her attention to the pickaxe-gouged walls lining the Salt Gallery. As the floor became rockier, the mishmash of footprints grew fainter; the black patina of smoke on the ceiling became indistinguishable from the rock. A tiny puff of air brushed against Molly’s cheek, colder and clammier than the air in the Porch. Farther in, the air was always chill and heavy with moisture, quite different from the dry, dusty cold found in the upper levels of the cave.
Molly stopped and adjusted the reflector to direct as much of the light forward as she could. When she started walking again, she was counting under her breath. Forty-seven steps to the end of this passage. Then down and to the left. Then eight steps, and left again.
At times, it almost felt like a dance, as though Coriander Hollow were a ballroom and she merely running through the steps as dictated by the surrounding rock. She could slow the pace or speed it up as much as she wanted, but in the end she was still following the same steps every time. It was how Molly and Liss had first learned the cave—by counting and steps, by rope and chalk, by tracing and re-tracing the soot marks on the ceiling and the footsteps in the mud.
It wasn’t foolproof. Lissey had been fourteen when Molly and their father found her in one of the rooms near the Chimney. She’d been lost for over a day and she was frantic, hands and knees scratched bloody from scraping them against the rock. She’d stayed in bed for two days after that and wouldn’t let Molly shutter the windows or blow out the lamps. Lissey had still gone into the cave afterward, but she’d never again gone alone.
Molly hadn’t been so easily dissuaded. Still, she was careful to carry duplicates of everything important, and always more carbide for the lantern than she thought she’d ever need. For the most part, Molly knew the cave well enough that she no longer needed to mark her little chalk Xs on the limestone walls, or count her footsteps, or lay out her coils of rope or white pebbles.
This passage, from the nook in the Wash Basin to the top of the Chimney, was exactly one hundred forty-seven steps. It had always been one hundred forty-seven steps, and it had never been anything different. Yet no matter how often Molly counted out those paces, she could not quite quell the notion that someday the passage would not be one hundred forty-seven steps. Perhaps it would be eighty. Perhaps it would be two hundred. Perhaps it would go and go until Molly ran out of numbers to count, like a loop of paper curling back on itself, with no possible end or exit.
It was an impossible notion, but Molly wasn’t certain the cave took much notice of what was impossible and what wasn’t. It did what it liked, and Molly simply hoped to stay well clear of it. Her mother would have hated the notion. But Anestelle would also have applauded her daughter’s precaution in counting every time, even if the reason behind it was little more than superstition and fear of the dark.
* * *
Even though Molly knew that good sense had never been one of Torrent’s strong points, she was still expecting the tailor to have stayed more or less where she left him. So when a shadow lunged from the wall ahead of her, Molly bit back a yell. The lantern shook, making his shadow dance behind him, as though the cave was suddenly home to a fluttering crowd of shades.
“The floor was too rocky to take footprints,” he was saying, talking too fast and too loud. “But I thought I could figure out which way you’d gone by soot on the ceiling. There isn’t just the one route through here, is there?”
“Three, at least,” said Molly automatically, taking a deep breath and raising the lantern to look at him. Torrent seemed drier than when she’d last seen him, the mud flaking around his shoulders, smeared and damp across his face. His eyes were bright, nearly feverish in contrast, and he’d finally turned his coat the right way around. He seemed thinner than she remembered, and there was something strange in the way he held himself, shoulders rounded like a mantling bird.
“I was hoping you’d be back soon,” the tailor continued, as though now that he’d broken the silence of the cave, he wouldn’t give it a chance to return. “The candle was getting dreadfully small . . .”
The tailor’s candle was down nearly to a stub; he was cupping it awkwardly in the palm of his hand. He smiled, quick and anxious, one corner of his mouth twisting up in a way Molly found uncomfortably familiar. She began to say something and stopped, already flustered before she’d even said a word. Once, Molly had rehearsed a dozen different speeches for this moment, but she found herself more out of practice than she would have expected, for she could find no words that seemed relevant.
Molly set down the lantern and pulled another stubby candle from her satchel. She handed it over and he took it awkwardly, holding it between the third and fourth fingers of his left hand, lighting it against the little stub held between his forefinger and thumb. He’d always been quick with his fingers, and terribly proud of it. Now here he was showing off, and she didn’t have time for any nonsense. She plucked the used nubbin from his fingers and blew it out, pinching the wick to make certain, and stowed it in her bag.
“You should’ve stayed where you were,” she said, and it sounded shrewish. She tried again, hoping for something that balanced kindness with irritation that he’d been gone for two years and managed to return in the most dangerous and inconvenient way possible. “I told you I was coming back.”
As greetings went, it was decidedly unwelcoming, and it must have been worse the first time when Molly had shoved a candle at him and scampered off to rejoin Captain Dart’s geologist. Molly wondered if she ought to hug him, or at least dodge around the lit candle enough to give him a peck on the cheek, but the tailor was cupping the candle in front of him like a shield. Like Lissey when she’d gotten lost, not letting any of the lights go out. Molly didn’t want to think about what Torrent’s trip through the cave had been like, that he was holding the light so close.
Or what it might mean that he was making no move to hug or kiss her either.
“I was hoping you would,” the tailor said, still speaking too loudly for the closed, echoing space. “Thought I could save you the trouble. Stroll out of here, walk straight to the house, knock on the door and invite myself to dinner. Just to see if I could get a free meal out of the evening, you understand. And you haven’t said hello.”
“Should I?” asked Molly, feeling that she was not quite up to maintaining the pace of his chatter.
“Say hello, or feed me dinner? I’d happily settle for either, or both.”
“Hello, Torrent,” Molly said quietly. She wondered if maybe now was the moment she ought to kiss him. But the part of her that had once taken great delight in kissing Torrent was now strangely silent on the subject of whether or not she should. She glanced at her satchel and suddenly remembered the apples. Hurriedly, she snatched one out of the bag and held it out. For a moment, it looked as though he wasn’t going to take it. Then he hastily set the candle on the rock floor, wedging it next to a stone before straightening up and snatching the apple out of her hand. He bit into it, mumbling something that might have been a thank you.
Molly turned away, setting her lantern at her feet and making a show of rummaging through her satchel. She coiled a bit of rope that didn’t need coiled and tied off the free end with the most complicated knot she could remember. Anything but stand and look at Torrent tearing into the apple like he hadn’t had a proper meal in days.
“How far down are we?” Torrent asked around the apple.
“Deep,” said Molly, shrugging her shoulders. “I’ve never known how to figure it properly. Gets wetter the farther down you go. Some of it floods when the snow melts. Where we are now, I’d say we’re a little less than half a mile from the entrance. Half a mile as the passages go. I’m sure if you could drill a straight line, it would be quite a bit shorter.” Molly cut herself off, aware that she was rambling. It wasn’t like her to be intimidated by the cave’s persistent silence.
“Could you drill a straight line?” Torrent asked. “The water seems to have done a fairly good job of it.”
“With enough sappers and blasting cartridges, we could drill wherever we like,” said Molly flippantly, before remembering she shouldn’t know anything about that sort of thing. And Torrent shouldn’t know it, either, not if there was the slightest chance his loyalties were more with the Commonwealth than with her.
“The last letter was in March,” she said, hoping to change the subject.
“Ought to have been at least one after it,” said Torrent, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Half the time, I didn’t know whether to give them to our couriers or theirs.” The tailor swallowed and hastily continued. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say—I know that Jacob has always, that is—”
“We’re still with the Commonwealth on paper,” said Molly, closing her satchel and getting back to her feet. For once, a political discussion might be safer conversational ground than a personal one. “Or at least that’s what the newspapers say.” She didn’t add that the newspapers were hardly any more regular than Torrent’s letters. “Some of the families in Snow River might wish it otherwise,” she added.
The tailor pursed his lips, turning away with that peculiar round-shouldered look. “Would there be difficulties, if my presence at Laurel House were to be generally known?”
“Yes, there would,” replied Molly sharply, resisting the urge to angle the lantern so she could see him properly. He had the most annoying tendency to step out of the light whenever she tried to get a good look at him. “Is that why you’re hiding down here?”
“I’m not hiding,” said Torrent, sounding aggrieved. He took a last bite from the core of the apple, then tossed the remnant bits off into the dark. “I was trying to get back to you!”
“Were you?” Molly said in a flat voice, remembering he’d called her Lissey at first. And a funny way to go about trying to find her, coming first to the cave.
“Of course,” said Torrent, sounding equal parts earnest and muddled, as though he had no idea why she would doubt him on that point. Or maybe he was confused as to why she didn’t immediately throw herself into his arms at the least hint of any romantic overture. Liss had been the one to trade fearlessly in sentiment; her twin’s example was all Molly needed to be wary of doing the same.
“How did you get down here, anyway?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
Torrent looked momentarily flummoxed, either because he hadn’t been expecting an interruption or because he didn’t have a good answer to her perfectly reasonable question. The tailor bit his lip, and Molly hurriedly looked away, because it was a gesture Molly remembered. For a moment, besides the mud, he was precisely as he was before he left, before the illusion vanished and his appearance telescoped back to stubble and desperation.
And Molly relented, if only the tiniest bit.
“It’s known for being a strange place,” she said. “The Hollow, I mean. You hear stories.”
“Stories about what?” Torrent asked sharply.
Things appearing where they shouldn’t and disappearing when they ought not be able to leave, thought Molly. “I don’t think you came through the mouth,” she said instead. “There weren’t any new tracks when I started down. And if the sappers think some claim jumper’s found another entrance—”
“There isn’t another entrance,” he said, sounding tired. “Not a proper one, at least. And I don’t know how I got down here. There was a man, and a queer little Coriander chapel on the Buria road, and—”
Torrent stopped and turned back to the wall of the cave, as though addressing the surrounding rock might be more comfortable than continuing to face Molly and the lantern. “I’d put out word in Buria I was looking for a way into Snow River. Was set to meet a fellow outside of town, at an old Evangelist chapel with a boarded-up labyrinth on the floor. Fellow seemed more of a robber than a guide. He went after me with a knife. Next thing I know, I’m on a labyrinth somewhere else, in the dark, with no idea where I am. Never knew there was anything like that down here. Never knew any of the baldwinn nonsense worked.”
“There isn’t, and it doesn’t,” said Molly automatically. There weren’t any other entrances besides whatever unfathomable route the underground river took as it left the cave. And there certainly wasn’t a labyrinth. Molly and Liss had been in and out of the cave since they were children, and they’d never found anything of the sort. If they had, Molly reflected, Liss probably would have insisted on trying to sacrifice a frog or mouse on it, on the off chance they might summon a baldwinn. Once, the twins had tried to prove a connection between the underground river in Coriander Hollow and the spring a mile away at Seldom Seen. Being eleven, they’d accomplished this by pouring their mother’s perfume into the deepest sump in the cave, then running to the spring to sniff it out where it emerged. Their father was angry because they’d wasted the perfume; Anestelle herself seemed more annoyed that her daughters hadn’t thought to use a stronger-smelling chemical.
None of Molly’s explorations—hers as a child, or the sappers’ over the past year—had ever turned up any hint of a labyrinth or a second entrance.
All of which meant Molly ought to seriously consider whether Torrent was simply lying to her. If the Commonwealth wanted to send a spy, they could do worse than pick a man who’d once lived on this very farm.
Though if that were true, they wouldn’t be circulating letters calling for his arrest.
Or if the tailor was lying, why hadn’t he come up with a more sensible story? No one had summoned anything on a labyrinth since the days of Jean Micher.
“Anyway,” the tailor murmured uneasily, squinting at Molly against the glare from her lantern. “How have you been?”
He was looking her in the eye as though terribly interested in her answer. Or perhaps he was simply interested in diverting the conversation away from his less-than-sensible accounting of events.
Molly started to give the usual brusque, meaningless answer—and hesitated. Torrent didn’t know any of the last seven months because Molly had deliberately not put it in her letters. There wasn’t any way to sum it up politely and dispassionately. About Lissey, about her parents or Caleb, the mine, or any of the whole rotten mess.
She was quiet long enough that Torrent rushed in to fill the silence.
“First, I heard that one of you had died,” he said. “And then Stanley Derrick said that was all wrong, that it was only Liss had gotten married and left home.”
For a moment, Molly was a much younger woman in a black dress, speaking the appropriately sorrowful words to a kaleidoscope of well-intentioned acquaintances from the shadow of a black-ribboned bonnet. Thank you for coming. Yes, terribly sorry. No, I couldn’t possibly—
“It was Lissey,” she said tightly, and Torrent was smiling that crooked grin again and murmuring something about felicitations, and she knew he’d gotten it wrong.
“Liss passed six months ago,” Molly said. “I never could bear to put it in a letter.”
There hadn’t been any letters after April, for all she might pretend that some vague missives might have gotten lost in the post. By April, it had been three months since they’d last had news of Torrent, and writing bad news to someone who might himself possibly be dead was more than Molly could manage.
Torrent was already shaking his head, his face crumpling into a horrified expression.
She reached for his arm. The sleeve collapsed into a jumble of pleated linen, devoid of the slightest hint of skin or bone. Molly bit back a cry, convinced for an instant the rest of him would be vanishing in short order. That he was only ever a ghost to begin with, and the vaulted cavern was taking him back in pieces.
“Damn it all,” said the tailor under his breath, as she ran her hand up the stiff pleat along the top of the empty sleeve, nearly reaching the shoulder before she felt anything even slightly solid. His shoulders, his face, the rock wall behind, all had gone strangely blurred.
“Do let it alone,” Torrent said, his voice sounding like something scraped over a rock.
Molly yanked her hand back.
“Of course,” she said, and she dropped to her knees next to the lantern, fiddling with the reflector, which was already perfectly aligned. It wouldn’t do to stare. It wasn’t as if she’d never seen folk with slings or crutches in the township. She blinked, and blinked again, refusing to rub at her eyes while Torrent might see.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Torrent said, still in the same rough voice, and Molly didn’t know which he meant. His arm, or her sister, or the two years he’d been gone. Or all of it together, or something else entirely.
“Thank you,” she said quietly, the demure and proper and meaningless answer. And then she rushed past it, because she wasn’t the only one who’d cared for Liss, and Torrent deserved to know. “My parents don’t know she’s . . . gone. There’s still been no word from Alexandria.”
That, at least, happened early enough that she’d written him the gist of it, pretending the matter wasn’t as serious as she’d suspected it was. Anestelle had insisted on continuing to lecture as long as the university was open, even after the school sent home half its staff and all the lower-level students. When Molly turned up at Laurel House and reported this to her father, Jacob had gone to Alexandria himself to convince Anestelle to come home. Ten months later, there had still been no word from either of them. Only a series of letters forwarded to Laurel House from Anestelle’s city lodgings—guarded inquiries from other lecturers, a handful of unpaid invoices, Molly’s own frantic letters come back to her, an embossed missive with the double heron crest offering a lecture post in applied chemistry at the university in Palmyra. Then a second letter from the same office, dated a month later, advising Professor Bligh that all Commonwealth war-support industries were now exempt from paying license fees on all of Anestelle’s most valuable process patents.
After that, the gunpowder became nearly the family’s sole income, and the farm Molly’s sole link to her parents.
“How did it happen?” Torrent asked, coming a pace closer. She could see his reflection in the lantern’s glass, looming out of the dark like a figure in a stage play.
“Influenza,” she said. “Last spring. And—”
He knew what she was going to ask and rushed in to keep her from asking it.
“June. With the Crimsons at Seven Pines.”
Molly nodded. Even as far away as Snow River, they’d heard about Seven Pines.
“That’s where I was shot, I mean. The arm didn’t come off until somewhere between there and Idria,” Torrent added, dropping effortlessly back into his chatter. “Ended up at the hospital for months. I halfway thought they might keep me there until the whole mess ended.”
The stark, black letters on the War Department stationary loomed large in Molly’s mind. Clearly, he was leaving something out, though Molly didn’t have the slightest idea what.
“Does the regiment know you’re here?” she asked. They didn’t—the letter as much as proved that. But Molly wanted to know, in some clear and scientific way, whether or not he’d lie to her.
“No,” said Torrent after a short silence. “They don’t.”
“But they wouldn’t have sent you back to the lines,” said Molly, exasperated, getting to her feet and brushing at the dirt on her skirts. Surely the Commonwealth wasn’t short enough on soldiers to send one-armed men off to fight the Territory. They’d expand conscription to include women before that happened, instead of only accepting those ladies who had the money or influence to buy themselves commissions as officers. “Not with your arm how it is. They give out pensions for that sort of thing, don’t they?”
“Not for this,” said Torrent firmly. “I heard my orders before I left the hospital, and I didn’t much care for the sound of them. Is your contraption quite in order?”
“Yes,” said Molly, picking up the lantern and wondering what, exactly, he wasn’t telling her. Sensible people didn’t simply walk out of military hospitals contrary to orders. Not that she’d ever considered Torrent particularly sensible, but this was a stretch even for him. If the War Department might send to Snow River to look for him, Molly had a right to know what, exactly, he’d done to attract such attention. Why he’d left the hospital, why he’d come to Laurel House, and what in hell he planned to do now that he was here.
If Torrent had secrets, Molly did as well. Many of them were sitting just inside the entrance to the cave. She didn’t like the idea of lying to him, but she liked the idea of explaining why she was crafting gunpowder—and who she was crafting it for—even less.
“Shouldn’t be long to get back,” she said, inaccurately, and set off down the passage. They couldn’t take the main route; it was impossible to go through there without seeing evidence of digging—pickaxe marks, boot prints, shovels, wheelbarrows. Mole Passage, not quite a crawlway, had barely been touched. She’d just have to make sure she didn’t miss the turn—or allow the light to show when they were turning off a well-tracked passage into a lesser-used one. She’d forgotten how many steps she’d taken before Torrent had surprised her; she’d have to start over once she got to the Slab Room. A small error, and easy to remedy. Better to concentrate on that and issues of a similar size, problems she had some hope of actually fixing. Leaks in the chicken coop, dust in the downstairs parlor, spent slurry building up in the workings of her lantern. Torrent’s problems, on the other hand . . . well, if one came right down to it, his problems were his own, and perhaps she’d do better to not ask questions and hope he did the same in return.
The passage wasn’t wide enough for the pair of them to walk side by side, leaving Torrent a few steps behind her. Keeping her eyes on the silt-covered cobbles, she heard him scrambling and stumbling over the rocks at her heels. Frowning, Molly slowed her pace, adjusting the reflectors on her lantern to a wider focus and aiming the beam just ahead of her own feet.
Smoothly, she turned into off the water-worn rock of the Slab Room and made a quick left-hand turn behind the jumble of boulders leading to Mole Passage. The footing was even worse here than it had been in the Salt Gallery. In the passages the sappers routinely used, they often kicked whichever loose stones they could out of the middle of the track. Gardening, they called it, and it hadn’t been done here. The floor was covered with pieces of breakdown—rocks that had cracked loose from the ceiling, with more of the same hanging over their heads. Unsettling enough to contemplate—even more so when one happened to hear a piece fall, which happened more and more often since the mining started. The footing was erratic, forcing Molly to lean against the wall with her free hand just to keep her balance.
“It gets lower here,” Molly warned, as the breakdown became, all at once, a deeper pile. Two more steps and Molly had to bend over, bracing one hand against the ceiling and shuffling forward in a stoop. Thinking of Torrent’s missing arm, she felt a twinge of guilt, but firmly squashed the impulse. He’d obviously learned to manage without it, and if a longer route took them an extra half hour to get out, arguing with Cal about her unexplained tardiness was still better than arguing with Torrent about her unexplained gunpowder mine.
For several minutes, there was only the sound of their breathing and the patter and scuffling of boots on stone.
“It happened when I was with one of the long guns,” Torrent said from behind her, his voice little louder than a whisper. “Been with the crew since last fall. Named her the Stagger Lee, after the fellow in the song and how she always liked to pull to the left. She was a big one, nearly a dozen feet. Carted her around hitched to a pair of draft horses.”
Molly nodded. He’d said as much in his letters, before those had stopped.
“Third day at Seven Pines, they’d already moved the artillery’s line twice. We had the high ground, firing case shot along with just about every other gun on the line. Couldn’t much tell what we were hitting. Everything on the other side was on fire, and the smoke was sitting low, over our lines and theirs. You couldn’t imagine what a noise it all was, like an anchor chain running out over a ship’s hull, and it never stopped. Excepting our own gun, you couldn’t tell one explosion from another. It went on and on like thunder.”
Torrent stopped for a moment, and Molly heard him take a deep breath. She risked a quick look back, but he was staring at his feet, arm held out awkwardly as he minced over the boulder-covered floor.
“There were eight of us working the Stagger Lee that day,” he said. “By mid-morning, the firing pin split. Second one we’d broken. Properly, it ought to have been Leander gone to fetch another one, but his feet were all in blisters. I thought I’d save him the walk. The caisson wagon didn’t have one, so I had to go all the way back to the depot. The fellow there gave me a talking-to about taking it; said we must be loading the powder wrong in the breech for the pins to keep breaking so often. I couldn’t have been gone more than half an hour altogether.
“At first I thought I’d forgotten where the Stagger Lee was. I kept running about up and down the side of the hill, with the firing pin tucked in my shirt to keep it dry. The air was all choked with gunpowder, no breeze to keep it away. My third time around I started looking more closely. I found the Stagger Lee right where she was supposed to be. There just wasn’t anything left of her, or the crew either. Hardly anything you’d recognize.
“So I started walking back along the line. I suppose I had a funny notion I’d bring the firing pin back to the fellow at the depot, seeing he was so nattered. But when I got to the wagons, I just kept walking. I was still holding that damned pin.”
Molly had given up trying to count her steps a good while back. She ducked her head as the ceiling dropped, glancing back at the tailor. With the lamp still pointing at their knees, Torrent was little more than a hunched, tattered silhouette.
“The first sentry had his rifle out before I even saw him. I put my hands up, and he just looked at me. Didn’t say anything, just looked at me for a long time. And he dropped his rifle. Buried the tip in the dirt like he was drawing in the mud. I put my hands down, real slow, and kept walking. I didn’t think he’d shoot.
“I didn’t think the second sentry would shoot either.”
“So it wasn’t a Terror Man,” Molly said in a low voice. She stumbled over the last of the pile of breakdown, holding out her hand as Torrent picked his way down after her.
“If it was a Terror Man someone would have given me a medal and a discharge by now,” said Torrent, bleakly amused. He took her hand, jumping down the last foot, and squeezed her fingers once before letting go. “Though I suppose it doesn’t matter so much. Field nurses gathered me up, same as everyone else bleeding and wearing the right colors. It was already starting to go septic even before I got to Idria. They had the arm off, and I was weeks in bed. I honestly thought . . . I was a half-lamed soldier, same as most everyone there, and it didn’t occur to me there’d be anything worse in store than the arm coming off. A courier came from Palmyra every week with assignments for the ones that recovered. I’d taken to helping the orderlies with their mending, much as I could, and one of them tipped me off what was in the letter. Running seemed better odds than a court-martial.”
Molly had to agree with him there. She turned back to the passage, pulling her rucksack tighter to her hips as she turned sideways through the last of the Mole Passage’s pinch points. Another forty yards of passage and they’d reach the first of the mining debris scattered about the Porch.
“Would they try you for treason?” she asked.
“Desertion,” Torrent corrected, managing to sound both amused and offended, and Molly realized her slip. Treason wasn’t Torrent’s charge, but it could be Molly’s, if anyone ever found out about the mine.
Torrent grunted as he contorted himself into the gap she’d just slipped through. “Hard labor, usually, but it’s the firing squad for some. I didn’t like my odds, and it shan’t be much different if they catch me. If they want to hang me as a deserter, I might at least enjoy the full benefit of the crime.” Molly thought she heard the ghost of a smile in his voice.
That explained the letter, at least. Molly wondered whether the War Department was likely to concern itself with anything more than sending a letter to a last-known address. If the Commonwealth wanted to make an example of Torrent, it might take more than a token effort to find him, and that could mean stumbling right into the middle of the mining operation she and Cal had gone to great pains to conceal.
Or Torrent could give away their secret himself. Knowledge of the mine might be enough to convince his superiors to commute his sentence.
They were rapidly approaching the jumble of try pots, explosives, and gunpowder piles near the entrance.
Molly glanced back at Torrent, who was hunched close behind her as if he was trying to stay as close to her—or the lantern—as he could. Nervously, Molly checked the drip wheel. Even with the lantern on its lowest setting, there’d be no way to disguise the abrupt change in the floor when they entered the Porch. Not to mention the pots and mining implements scattered along the walls, many of them visible with nothing more than the entrance’s natural light, if one’s night vision was decent and one knew where to look.
But Torrent didn’t know caves, not like Molly did, and he didn’t know about precautions. With ropes, with chalk arrows, and most of all, with light.
Two more steps, and the clinging rock on either side gave way to the long expanse of the Porch. Molly turned back to the tailor, holding the lantern high and close. The tailor’s cheeks flushed—or it looked that way under the mud—and Molly understood the gesture to be more intimate than she intended. She didn’t step back, watching his eyes in the glare of the lantern and regretting the necessity. Looking at him only served to show how little her memory of the tailor resembled the real thing, a jarring moment where the Torrent in her head and the Torrent in front of her didn’t match.
None of it mattered. Whether she wanted to kiss him or whether she didn’t, romantic aspirations paled in comparison to the necessity of keeping the secret of the gunpowder mine. Or the need to get Torrent away from Laurel House—and away from Cal, who might decide to take the problem of what to do about Torrent entirely out of her hands.
Molly stifled a shudder. It didn’t matter what Cal might or might not do, because Cal wasn’t ever going to find out the tailor had been here. She just needed to get the tailor across the Porch without him noticing anything, and then everything would be fine.
After a few seconds, Torrent’s pupils had dilated very nicely.
“It’s about to get darker,” Molly warned, and she closed off the drip valve at the top of her lantern.
Torrent started to object, but the flame was already gone. The tailor grabbed blindly at her arm with a noise of protest. She took his hand, tugging on it, pulling him close, for it wouldn’t do for him to blunder into the try pots. Three steps to the left and she was out in the open space of the Porch, barreling past the Canteen and the canvas-draped gunpowder piles mostly by memory.
“Moll, slow down—”
She knew she was going too fast for him even without him hissing in her ear for her to stop, but if she lingered too long, he’d be able to see again. The Porch was too close to the entrance to achieve true midnight dark, only a middling twilight, and if she waited too long his eyes would work out the shapes. He’d been a soldier on a gunnery crew; there was no telling what he might recognize.
“It’s close now,” Molly told him, and his fingers were digging into her arm hard enough to hurt. Torrent’s breath was loud in her ear, panting like he was running. He stumbled against her as the floor began to slope.
Barely able to see anything herself, she kept pulling him along. The air still held hints of ash and sulfur from the last lixiviation, and she knew the floor would be covered with boot prints. A gray tinge of daylight broke ahead of them, palpable as smoke, and Molly angled toward it.
Now it was Torrent who was hurrying, leaning hard on her arm as he stumbled over the rocks that were sloping and splattered with mud. Oaken vats and canvas-covered piles passed as unremarkable as shadows as the light from the entrance grew brighter and more distinct. Boot prints and wheel tracks covered the floor, but the tailor didn’t seem to notice. Then the crescent mouth itself was in view, belching light, its laurel branches writhing in the constant wind.
Torrent would have staggered to a stop the moment they crossed below the overhang, but Molly didn’t let him. She kept hold of his arm, squinting at a sunset-tinged sky gone painfully bright against her eyes. None of the mine workings were visible from the outside the cave—at least, not when the try pots weren’t boiling—but there was no sense in taking chances. Molly didn’t slow her steps until they were past the turning circle and on the churned-up furrows of the cart track.
“Give me a moment,” said Torrent faintly, releasing her hand and taking a few steps toward the laurel-covered edges of the path. He bent over, gasping as though they’d been running. “Air’s better up here, I think.”
Molly had never known the air in the cave to be in any way foul, except perhaps when the sappers were burning their pots. Though here, with the evidence of the mine safely behind them, it was easier to think she might have been too callous with him. The time she’d gotten lost, Liss had been weeping when she came back to the surface.
“The lantern’s light shows from the road,” Molly said quietly. “And you’re not supposed to be here.”
“And you’d rather not have to explain it all to that other fellow,” Torrent finished, straightening up. He ran his hand across his face, looking dubiously at the streak of mud it left on his fingers. “The one who was with you before.”
Gellar. Hopefully the Territory geologist was halfway to the Snow River township by now, thinking of nothing beyond the obvious explanation for why Molly had crept away for a few minutes’ privacy while he’d been examining a gypsum seam.
Frowning, Torrent spread out the pleats of his coat, grimacing at the layers of mud and silt. There was hardly an inch of clothing not covered with muck. If anything, both of them looked even worse in daylight than they had in the cave.
The silence in the laurel thicket was broken by a cricket calling raucously, as though he hadn’t yet heard the winter frosts were a scant few weeks away. They were out of the cave, and Torrent hadn’t, apparently, noticed anything incriminating. They were away from the dangers of rockfalls and missed turns and back to the usual dangers of war, treason, and warrant papers. Out here, she couldn’t ward off disaster simply by counting her steps or carrying spare lights and matches.
Torrent let the folds of his coat fall back against his thighs and turned back to Molly, squaring his shoulders.
“Molly, I should like to—” he began, but she cut him off almost before she guessed what he was about to say.
“Mr. Harrow,” she interrupted.
“Mr. Harrow?” Torrent echoed, disbelieving. “Really, Molly—”
“I suppose it would be captain, or sergeant, or some other thing,” she said, deliberately missing his point. Torrent was a deserter and wanted by the government. She couldn’t simply bundle him up to the house like a lost puppy.
“It’s Corporal Harrow,” the tailor said cheerfully. “But from you, I shall insist on Torrent.”
“Corporal Harrow,” Molly said, as though trying out the name for the first time.
“Yes, indeed. Or rather, not since last week,” he said. “Now, Molly—”
“They’ll be looking for you,” said Molly sharply, folding her arms, steeling herself against his prattling. “The Commonwealth, I mean. They’ll be looking for you here, and Caleb . . .”
Molly trailed off, at a loss for the right words to continue. Laurel House wasn’t safe for Torrent, and neither was Snow River. Not if someone in the township had already read the War Department’s letter. Someone in town would remember him, the itinerant tailor who once made dresses for the twins at Laurel House and stayed long past the completion of his work. “If Caleb finds you here, he’ll take you up to Palmyra himself. I can’t—it’s not as simple as—”
“I don’t need protecting,” said Torrent abruptly, his face carefully blank. “I’m quite used to looking after myself.”
“Torrent, no,” said Molly, shaking her head. The tailor turned away from the laurels and stepped closer, dipping his head as though trying to better read her expression in the fading light.
“Something sent me here,” Torrent said urgently. “Somewhere on the road, I found a crack in the world. Out of all the places on the whole earth it could have taken me, it sent me here, to you. That has to mean something.”
The only thing it meant was the cave was strange, a thing not to be trusted. And perhaps the things that came from it ought not to be trusted either. Not the gunpowder, which Molly had known from the first, and perhaps not this man. He had no right to waltz into her life after two years away and assume it meant something.
“There’s no time for somethings anymore,” Molly spat out. “Things happen, and they happen for no reason at all. You can’t stay here. They’ll find you, they’ll court-martial you, they’ll drag you back to wherever you were trying to get away from, and I can’t help you.” Now came the words she’d been dreading, the ones that would keep everything exactly as it was, and keep everything she had from falling to pieces over a man she’d not seen in two years. “You are no longer welcome at Laurel House.”
Torrent stared at her, face blank, something twitching at the corner of his eye. “I promised you I’d come back,” he said, something haggard and desperate in the words. “My promises mean something.”
Unlike yours. The accusation hung in the air. Molly knew she could hit him, and he didn’t have it in him to hit her back. She’d already brought up her hand before she checked the impulse. He was Corporal Harrow now. He’d been two years a soldier, and she did not know what he might be capable of.
He’d seen the motion, and the tailor’s face flushed scarlet.
“I’m sorry,” Torrent said, stiff and formal.
“So am I,” Molly said in a low voice. And she was sorry, more than she could ever put into words. For Liss, first and always. For her parents, both vanished into the Annex and months without any word. For Caleb, and how she never would have gotten through the first months without him. For the sappers, and the digging, and the gunpowder, and the secrets. Most of all, she was sorry for Torrent, for coming all this way for the sake of a woman he’d known who’d done all manner of unfortunate things since he last saw her.
All leading up to this, the most unfortunate thing of all.
“It’s getting late,” Molly said. “I think you’d better go.”
“Alright,” he murmured, already beginning to walk down the road, even before he’d properly turned around. “Well, then. Alright. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” Molly said, and she wondered if the tailor had even heard her, for he didn’t look back at all. Lingering wouldn’t do her any good, so she stepped into the laurels, batting the branches aside and forcing her way up the hill toward the first switchback onto the track to the house. She stopped at the turn. breathing hard, scanning the ribbon of road below her until she could make him out. Even without a uniform, he looked the part of a soldier. It was something in the way he held himself, the rhythm of his steps as he marched toward Snow River, an entire company of one.
She’d be needing the gin at the back of the cupboard tonight.
And though she ought to be getting back to the house, Molly lingered, watching him march along the road until the barren trees and fading light hid him completely.