A City Reclaimed, Chapter 2
Exhausted, Gabriel drove his cart onwards. He was passing through Corveny’s slums when he suddenly remembered that he’d promised to look in on the oil-seller’s old mother. So he looped around a block, knocked on her door, made certain that all was well, and left once more.
Except that when he circled back, the street had a new addition. There was a girl lying in the gutter.
Oh, no, he thought. She looks just like Rosalind. Is she…
Fearing the worst and unable to tear his thoughts away from his late wife, Gabriel stopped his cart and jumped down. Gently, he rolled her over. She was breathing steadily, but there was a large swollen spot on the side of her head.
Her clothes are too nice for her to live in this area. She must have been mugged.
The strange thing was that Gabriel didn’t recognize her. Corveny was a very large city, so it wasn’t impossible, but Gabriel had a good memory for faces and he was quite sure he’d never seen this girl before.
She’s probably not even older than James, Gabriel thought. I hope she hasn’t been here long. Leaving her there would have been unconscionable, so Gabriel heaved her onto his shoulder—she was heavier than she looked—and lifted her onto his cart. He laid her on the back seat, removed his coat, folded it up, and placed it under her head.
The girl stirred.
“Who’re you,” she mumbled.
“It’s okay,” Gabriel said, not entirely sure what else to say.
Who’s Samuel? “I’m afraid not. Was he with you?”
“Dunno. Who’re you,” she slurred again.
Some kind of concussion, Gabriel thought. “I’m Gabriel Mullary. I’m the governor.”
She was quiet for a while after that. Gabriel checked on her every minute or so, making sure she wasn’t falling asleep. His cart chose a moment halfway through the trip home to stall for the third time that day. He tugged at the power wheel, but no use—it was stuck. Again.
“Your power chain’s the wrong size,” the girl mumbled. “That’s the clicking. It’s… catched. Caught.”
Gabriel turned around. “I know,” he said, frowning. “The last one rusted out and this was the best replacement I could find on short notice. But how did you know?”
She blinked at him.
“Are you a mechanic’s apprentice?”
“Mechanic,” she said. “Those… took my tools. And money.”
“Are you feeling okay? Do you know what day of the week it is?”
“Okay. I’m taking you home. You look like you could use a good meal and a place to stay for the night. Maybe I can call in a favor and replace your tools.”
She scowled up at him. “Why are you helping,” she asked flatly.
Gabriel looked back at her, not sure how to answer—stuck between trying to ascribe his actions to the habits of generally decent people when he had his doubts about how many examples of such she might have met, or trying to explain to her that she looked like his late wife and the complicated emotional mess that came with seeing her life in trouble.
Struck speechless by this for a few seconds, Gabriel paused. Finally he decided not to answer, mumbled a warning to the girl not to fall asleep, and stepped off the cart to crawl underneath and unstick the chain.
He returned to find that she was most certainly not asleep. She was standing up, looking highly displeased, and she’d unlatched the rails that served as the cart’s door, clearly ready to run, or stumble, away.
“Explain why I should trust your help.” Some of the focus had come back into her expression.
Gabriel was nonplussed. Most everyone in the city knew and trusted him. In the back of his mind, suspicions of his own were gathering. A girl he’d never met before—and due to her strikingly familiar appearance, he was absolutely certain he would have remembered her had he ever so much as seen her in the street—who didn’t know who he was either despite his status as governor, and who furthermore had obviously gone through experiences such that she didn’t even trust a kind, well-dressed stranger. Gabriel looked like no thief, after all. And, what, was she alone? Wandering this area in the evening? There had to be more to her than was apparent.
He tried to smile. “I can see you have some survival instinct—”
At this point she looked so alarmed that he thought she’d bolt right then.
“No! Please don’t! I mean you no harm.”
Her dubious scowl didn’t move. However, neither did the rest of her, so Gabriel saw that he had a chance.
“Look,” he said, slowly removing the gun from his hip holster and stowing it under the seat, then showing her his open, empty hands. “I’ve disarmed myself.” He patted his sleeves, to show that he had no weapons hidden. The girl’s eyes scanned his pockets, and apparently she trusted that he had no other weapons, because she sat back down. Then she reached under the seat.
Oh, that’s all I need, Gabriel thought, for her to trick me into picking her up and then steal from me or take me hostage…
But she didn’t even cock it, merely examined it. “This looks familiar. Where did you buy it?”
Gabriel shook his head. “It was a gift.”
She sighed, her posture dropping into a weary slouch. Then she asked, “Have you ever been to Muncival?”
Gabriel thought this was a rather strange question, given the circumstances. “Well, yes; why? We export mechanical things there.”
She paused, chewing on her oil-stained nails. “Can you tell me who’s running the city right now?”
“Theodore Blackwood, isn’t he? I’m sorry—our communications with that area aren’t the best right now.”
“I’m afraid you’re a bit behind the times,” she said, and asked no more questions.
She let Gabriel drive her to his mansion, let him lead her inside. On the doorstep, unlocking the door, he spoke to her once again.
“You may leave whenever you like. I won’t make you stay here. But I hope that you’ll let me help you.”
Glad of this acceptance, Gabriel opened the door. “Will you give me your name?”
She hesitated. Then: “Ella.”
Wondering whether that was her real name, and even if it were, why she didn’t offer a last name, Gabriel stepped into the entry and called for his housekeeper. He could already smell the supper she’d prepared.
Tall, strong, and with curly, chin-length hair, Connie appeared from the dining room in a swirl of mild blue skirts. She carried a tray with Gabriel’s evening tea and a pile of cheese sandwiches.
“You look done in, Gabriel! Here, I’ve had the warming stone on your chair for hours. Who’s our guest?”
“Her name is Ella,” Gabriel replied, choosing not to respond to the stunned look on Ella’s face as she watched Connie. “She’s a bit down on her luck. I don’t suppose there’s enough food tonight for another person?”
“Oh, you know how it goes with stew,” Connie chattered as she bustled around, setting down his tea, moving the warm stone from Gabriel’s chair, moving some half-read newspapers and unfinished mechanical knickknacks out of a second chair. “You start throwing ingredients in, and then you think something else would be a nice addition, and soon you have enough stew to feed a regiment. Or James during a growth spurt, even! I’ll have to let out his shirts again soon, he’s growing far too tall…”
Gabriel steered Ella towards the chair Connie had cleared.
“Would you like your dinner in here again, Gabriel?” Connie asked cheerfully.
“Yes, please, Connie,” Gabriel said. “A generous portion for Ella here, if you will.”
As Connie left, Gabriel handed Ella one of the cheese sandwiches and poured her some tea. Then he leaned back in his warm chair, folded his hands in his lap, and asked her one more question.
“Ella,” he asked, “would you mind telling me precisely who is trying to kill you?”
It had been somewhat of a shot in the dark, but the panicky expression that returned to Ella’s face told Gabriel that he was nevertheless on target. Yet he didn’t move, didn’t threaten her at all.
“I’ll remind you that I’m not making you stay here,” Gabriel said, “but also that you probably won’t last long if you don’t take me up on my offer. Those tools were your livelihood, and you’re not likely to get them back. I also wouldn’t like for you to join the ranks of the homeless and unemployed; there are enough of those in my city as it is.”
She was silent for a few moments more. Then she moved in her chair, turned towards him.
“I…” She faltered.
Gabriel remained silent. It was a full minute before she regained her—what, composure? Confidence? Trust? He even closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair.
“I,” she said, “am Lady Estelle Blackwood III.”
Gabriel’s eyes shot back open, and he sat up. He certainly hadn’t been expecting that. Then he remembered her oddly-placed question about Muncival.
“What has happened… in Muncival?”
She opened her mouth again, but seemed to be at a loss for where to start. Another minute passed in her confusion as she tried, apparently, to think of a way to tell her story.
Instead she broke down sobbing.
It took Estelle quite a while to calm down. Meanwhile, Gabriel marveled at the implications of what she had told him. He was almost certain she hadn’t lied to him—not with a concussion, not in this emotional state. But there were enough contradictory elements in her story to form its own periodic table. How would a noble girl from Muncival end up alone in Corveny, working as a mechanic? Gabriel knew that Muncival customs were very touchy about weapons, but she’d been more afraid than offended at seeing Gabriel carry one; that wasn’t unusual in and of itself, but when he took it off, she’d simply picked it up. Something about the way she’d handled it, too; she held it correctly—and carefully, but not fearfully—that made him wonder if she’d had to use one (and if so, who had threatened or provoked her enough to be on the wrong end?). Then, the first thing she did after picking it up was ask where he’d gotten it. Gabriel had no idea why she’d done that. And “Samuel”—who was he? Why would she even know anyone from Corveny if she’d come all the way from Muncival?
Her statement had brought a cargo boat’s load of questions and very little of an answer. Still, Gabriel waited until they’d finished supper to question her more.
“When did the trouble start?” he asked.
This was all it took for the story to come pouring out of Estelle. She told him about the disease that had devastated her family, how she’d shut herself away and managed to avoid it, the well-dressed man who had leveled their mansion, the traders who had helped Ella escape before the usurpers managed to lock down the city’s communications and travel, who had sold her valuables for her and traded to help her get her tools. She told him about Samuel, her tutor, who had taught her skills which had saved her life many times over the past months, and how the mechanical talents he’d passed on to her had provided her livelihood. She told him how she’d come to Corveny looking for him, how she’d mistaken Gabriel for Samuel and run after him, but had been mugged, and how similar the styling of Gabriel’s weapon was to Samuel’s own custom gun, which she’d not only handled but had been taught to shoot.
Gabriel had a hard time processing her wild tale. He had absolutely no doubt that it was true—Estelle’s facial expression and body language were far too open a book for her to be lying—and yet it seemed awfully far-fetched—but it did explain quite a lot—though still…
“Lady Estelle,” Gabriel started.
“Ella,” she corrected.
“Ella,” Gabriel said, “I don’t know what to make of this. You’re telling me that you survived these… events” —he waved a hand to vaguely indicate everything that she’d just said— “on your own? That you actually avoided infection by hephrol? That you managed to know just when to run, just how to avoid the blasts, just where to go for help? That you negotiated your way into my city and into a relatively stable job for yourself?”
“Well, I was lucky,” she said.
“Er… yes.” She fidgeted in her seat.
Gabriel shut his eyes and leaned back again. “Ella.”
“Well, I mean,” she said, fidgeting even more restlessly, “I did help it along a bit.”
A pause as neither of them knew what to say next. Then, just as the awkward silence began to feel truly uncomfortable, Connie serendipitously swept back in to collect their dishes.
Gabriel ushered the girl out of the room, glad of an excuse to change the subject. “You shouldn’t sleep tonight,” he said. “You’ve got a concussion, so sleeping is a bad idea—it could cause more serious damage.
“I can’t stay up with you,” Gabriel continued. “As you might imagine, work is rather pressing, especially with all these pirate attacks. My son, James, will give you some company and make sure you don’t fall asleep. Don’t worry; he’s a gentleman. I’ll ask Connie to check in on you every few hours.”
“Pirate attacks?” Ella asked.
“Not one for gossip, are you?” Gabriel said. “They’ve been going on for months. Very quietly, though. Lots of burglaries in the night.”
“Is that what’s happening with all those barricades?”
“Yes. You really haven’t seen any pirates?”
“I was usually home by sundown,” Ella said, “and I slept in a barn. I don’t think they wanted to steal hay.”
“That would do it. Still, surprising that you haven’t heard. But I suppose you were lying low.”
They made their way out one of the back doors of Gabriel’s mansion. Ella looked around at the vegetable garden, the chicken coop, the barn which held Gabriel’s horse, a dairy cow, and a few pigs, and the nice little flowerbed from which Connie had taken the flowers that stood in vases around the house.
“You only have one servant, and she takes care of all of this?” Ella asked.
“Connie is my housekeeper,” Gabriel corrected, “and no. We hire a gardener who lives inside the city. His son takes care of the animals. Family business, you see.”
She cocked her head at his answer. Gabriel wondered if she’d been half-expecting him to be offended by her question.
“She called you Gabriel,” Ella observed.
“Well, that’s my name,” he replied.
Gabriel passed the apple trees, which were still buzzing with the presence of late-working bees, and led her to the trapdoor which went down into the lab he’d had built for James.
“This,” he said, “is where you’ll be spending the night.”
AN: MUAHAHAHAHA! This sounds like an ominous cliffhanger, but it’s actually not. James is a nice kid.
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