The sun was cresting the horizon when I arrived in town. The air already lay heavy but the streets were still quiet. I walked directly to the steps of the church, undid my scarf, tore my coat away from my sticky body and sat down to wait for Ol' Bishop.
Soon albeit slowly, the world awoke. Jittery with nerves, I watched the market keepers arrive at their shops. They unlatched doors, opened windows and swept front steps. They set out their wares; milk, butter and cheese. My stomach rumbled as the smell of fresh, warm bread wafted from the baker's down the road, up the church steps and into my eager nose.
The loaf end I'd brought from home was neither warm nor fresh but I ate a tiny piece slowly, hoping the simultaneous smell would convince me otherwise. It didn't. I only ate a morsel anyway, in case I needed more later in the day.
The top of the hour passed. The church bell should have rung out the news but it stayed silent. Back at Belmont, Daddy would surely be awake and eating his breakfast. Soon, he'd realize I was not sleeping in my bed, or sweeping the barn or out mucking in the field. He'd sense something was wrong.
I pictured him reaching into the blanket chest to find that Balthazar was gone. He'd take the horse and wagon out to search for me. He'd look for me along the road, stopping at one neighbour's farm and then possibly another before deciding to come all the way into town. I had just over two hours before he'd find me, perhaps still sitting here on the church steps.
I clenched my hands, in frustration. There was so little time and so much to do.
But I couldn't do any of it without Ol' Bishop. I couldn't even start.
Where the hell was he?
I heard his jocular whistling before I saw him. I leapt to my feet, bounded down the church steps and nearly knocked into him as he rounded the street corner.
"Ai, ai! You trying to spook the living lights outta me, girlie?"
"You should have been here at the top of the hour to ring the church bell! Why are you so late?" I barked. Ol' Bishop took a step back to catch his breath. He looked me up and down, slightly offended. Then he shrugged and stuck both of his thumbs under his suspenders.
"Bell ropes frayed themselves two days ago. Father's fixing to ask for donations to replace 'em. Until then - yours truly gets a little morning lie-in," He said, smiling. I sincerely doubted the veracity of the ropes 'fraying themselves' but said nothing. Ol' Bishop was lanky and tall and carried himself like the town's dim-witted caretaker. But I knew better. He was a charlatan and when you needed information or something to happen, he was the one who could help. For a price.
"Haven't seen you in town, Miss Portia. You know - not since," He said, pulling off his cap respectfully, "She was kind, your mum. Always had a smile and funny word for me."
"She was fond of you as well. She often told me that if I was ever in trouble, you'd look out," I said. That last part was a lie but Ol' Bishop beamed like a newborn pup, "And I need your help today."
"Mmmhh?" Ol' Bishop's sunny disposition flew away. He clocked my coat and bag by the front door and frowned. Quickly, he moved and passed me to head up the church steps.
"Father ain't in the habit of housing runaways," he said.
"I'm not running away from anything. I'm running to something," I said, as Ol' Bishop turned back to me. I had his attention, for better or worse. I took the leap.
"Is there a cart going out to Merchant Academy today?"
Ol' Bishop frowned deeper, worry lines forming between his grey eyes. He hemmed and hawed and cleared his throat, delaying a real answer, let alone a clear one. I didn't have time for any of it.
"Never mind, I know for a fact there's a cart going out today," I said, "I was at the apothecary two weeks ago, before Mama - I was getting tea herbs for her fever. Anyway, I overheard Mrs Bassanio chatting with the doctor about her young niece, Elabi. That'd she'd been admitted to the Academy and was starting this fall. Leaving two weeks hence."
"And so you think that the cart goes out today?"
"Was that a question? I'm asking you!"
"Ai, ai... The Merchant carts are a mercurial thing. Only those admitted are given the details about the departures. Been that way since time immemorial." Ol' Bishop turned his back and slipped a brass key into the church door lock. I grew impatient with his evasions. Tears of panic formed behind my eyes but I forced them back. I needed to stay calm. If I grew desperate and emotional with dumb Ol' Bishop, I would never have the strength to face the next man.
After he stepped into the dark foyer, I followed. I reached for his spindly arm and stopped him from walking further away.
"I need a seat on that cart, Ol' Bishop," I said. He shook his head, in disbelief.
"You know that's a one-way ticket, Miss Portia."
"Yes. I know."
"And an expensive one at that."
"I know." I stared at him, jaw set, unblinking. Ol' Bishop folded his arms across his chest and stretched his long neck to peer down at me.
"And it's a ticket for only those who've been admitted," he said in a singsong lilt that sent a jolt of rage through my body. Balthazar was close at hand, after all. If I couldn't convince him, maybe I could scare him.
"And last I checked, you were too old and unacceptable to be admitted," he finished.
"I've heard of girls my age gaining entrance. Some even at seventeen."
"Sure, those with status. Or new family coin to back the fees," he shrugged with some sympathy because we both knew I had neither of those things, "It's not your fault. You're a fine young lady. Just not a Merchant Academy Young Lady. It's just the way things are."
"50 just to you. For a seat on the cart," I said. His eyebrows lifted at the thought of personal coin. But in the next beat, they knitted together skeptical. Ol' Bishop's forehead was quite the wonder of expression. And I sensed when he started to rub it roughly that he had grown weary of this conversation. He wasn't alone in that.
"Sure. 50. A seat on the cart. As you wish."
"But you don't have the 50, do you?"
"I'm going to get it right now."
"And to even get a ride on the cart, you'll need admittance papers to the Academy. Which you also don't have?"
"I'm getting that, too."
"That's not your concern, Ol' Bishop. Your concern is to ensure me a seat on the Merchant cart for 50. Agreed?" I stuck out my hand, hoping that the formality would quell my nerves from bubbling to the surface. But when Ol' Bishop shook my hand and sighed dramatically, my stomach quivered.
"Cart should arrive in the next quarter hour. The carriage driver will water and rest his horses for only a few minutes. They'll be off right quick after that."
"I'll be back by then," I said, and hurried for the door.
"With the coins and the papers? Ai, sure, sure," he said, with a laugh. As I headed outside, his jocular whistling began again. This time, ringing in my ears like a mocking refrain. Ol' Bishop didn't think I'd return with the means to live up to our handshake deal.
Truth be told, I wasn't entirely sure I would return at all.
YOU ARE READING
When troubled Ophelia is found dead, four of her classmates are accused. With conviction and punishment a foregone conclusion, the girls - Portia, Beatrice, Viola and Desdemona - plot a daring escape in order to unravel the conspiracy behind the mur...