Cover design: Corin Spinks. Portraits Alice and Pip: Heijo van der Werf

Background image: CORIN SPINKS, Heijo van der Werf


Tamarisk Town

Prairie Ground


“I don’t understand, Mus Black,” Alice said as they made their way down a narrow Tamarisk street near the beach. 

They were back on Dusky, but the going was slow as they followed in the wake of Lady C and Lucy, both afoot. Bramble flew above, his presence betrayed by an occasional flash of blue and gold. 

The sky was dark now, but the streets of Tamarisk were lit up by gas street lights – familiar to Alice from Brighton, but odd to find on the dirt streets of a makeshift township.

“What don’t you understand?” Black asked.

“You said you needed to talk to the local Owlers, but you went to the Governor instead, unless…oh!”

They passed the open doors of a black-tarred warehouse, filled with tubs, casks, chests, and bales.

“The import and export,” Alice guessed. “The Governor is involved.”

“Apart from being Governor of Tamarisk and proprietor of the Polymina Alehouse, James Bollinger is also the Chief of the Mericans, which he likes to describe as an import and export business of international repute.”

Alice grinned at that. “The Mericans bain’t worth their reputation then, all-along-of the state of his uniform.”

“You judge too soon, Liss. That old uniform has been passed down from Governor to Governor. It used to belong to George Washington before he was executed for Treason. Besides, the Mericans say that if you don’t like Bollinger’s outfit, all you need to do is wait a few hours and he’ll invariably dive into his wardrobe to find something else to wear. You’ll probably see that for yourself later tonight.”

“How so, Mus Black?”

“Like Ruxley predicted, Bollinger will summon a local Owler’s moot, and then a Tamarisk moot – Congress they call it. Congress will be talking late into the night, I’m sure. We’re only required at the start, for the shorter Small Hastings Moot, to tell them what we know.”

“Do you reckon Mus Ruxley will come?” Alice asked. She was somewhat worried that the dour-faced man would choose not to attend. That would mean she wouldn’t see Pip for a long time…or even longer than that. It was an unbearable thought that tore at her heart.

“Absolutely certain. He has to. Ruxley is the Chopback chief.”

“He’s the chief!”

Alice was incredulous, but also disconcerted to realise how little she actually knew about Pip. He hadn’t uttered so much as a single whisper about his family’s importance. It was the Free Trader way, she supposed. She hadn’t told him she was The Martlet’s Wind Reader until he’d guessed it when they’d met Scylla. Nor had Alice revealed who her father had been.

We don’t even know each other’s real names.

Alice hated the sinking feeling in her belly as she contemplated how little there really was to encourage that odd special feeling, other than a single day in each other’s company. Was it as real as it seemed only hours ago? Fighting a wave of dejection, she forced herself to focus on Black’s information.

Alice frowned. “But the Governor is a Merican, so…”

“As I said, the whole place is ripe for bedlam. There’s a great deal of local politics involved. Don’t be fooled by Bollinger’s jocular appearance. Governing Tamarisk is like balancing on a tight-rope whilst juggling fine china. The Governor happens to be remarkably skillful at it.”

“So the Chopbacks and Mericans work together?”

“Co-exist would be a more accurate description. It gets more complex even, as there are four local outfits. Apart from the Chopbacks and Mericans, there’s the Starlings out at St Leonards, and the Staders from Rock-a-Nore, the Old Town’s seafront. The Staders scoff at the use of aeroships, they only do sea-bound runs – as old-fashioned as they come but much valued and respected as oldest Owling gang.”

“Chopbacks, Mericans, Starlings, and Staders,” Alice repeated. “Still, Lewes has more gangs I reckon.”

“Don’t even get me started on Lewes,” Black agreed. “Only local Lewes folk understand loyalties there. I dare say, however, that Hastings gives Lewes a run for its money if further levels of complexity are taken into account. For starters, Tamarisk Town is a magnet for all sorts; malcontents, outlaws, rebels, adventurers, refugees…and you know how Sussex folk feel about people who hail from more than a hamlet or two away…”

“Furriners,” Alice said. “But that bain’t complex, all-along-of sheere-folk being outlanders. Furinners be furriners. Chuckle-headed and dubersome, everyone ken that.”

“Thank you for proving my point. Have you considered, by the way, that by your reckoning I am a ‘furriner’? As are Magnus Volk, Lady C, McFeck, and Keto – just to name a few.”

Alice shrugged. “That be different.”

“How so?”

“Well, all-along-of me knowing you…”

Black barked a short laugh. “I’ve never encountered a people more stubborn than Sussex folk.”

Alice beamed at the compliment. “We’re stubborn as pigs, if naun more so.”

“Indeed. Needless to say, it plays a part in local politics.”

Lady C came to a halt by a grocer’s entrance. She cast a look at Dusky. “Might’nt ah impose on thee, Andreas, to ‘ave thar Dusky lug a few bits ‘n pieces ‘ome.”

Alice scrambled off the bench. She moved too fast and carelessly, reminded instantly of her aches and pains. Nonetheless, she quickly said, “I can walk Lady C!”

“Grand, thanken thee, Kittlin,” Lady C said, before glancing at Black. “Bein’ a gentleman, aym sure thar won’t mind ‘elpin’ us ‘aul some loot from t’ shop.”

“It’ll be my pleasure, Lady Christina,” Black said. He looked at Alice, “Liss?”

“I’ll watch Dusky.”

“Treats!” Bramble landed on Dusky’s passenger bench. He turned his head sideways and peered at Lady C intently. “Treats!”

“Ah ‘ear thee, bur won’t obey,” she told the macaw, then beckoned Black to follow her into the shop.

“Is she really a Lady?” Lucy asked, staring after them with awe in her eyes.

Alice laughed. “As far as I ken naun durst to ask her if it’s made up or real. I dursn’t, anyhows. I reckon she would’ve happily shot that bully if he’d made more moil, sureleye.”

Lucy frowned. “Lester. He’s a nasty bit of work. Unlike his brothers Hal and Matthew.”

“You ken the bully?”

“He lives a street away in Old Town. Completely different from his brothers, Hal now, Hal is so…so…”

Lucy sighed dreamily, sounding a lot like Lottie. Normally Alice would have rolled her eyes at such silliness, but bereft of her previous certainties regarding these matters she sighed along in sympathy instead – Pip’s absence a continuous ache.

Lucy returned to her initial subject. “So Lady Christina is dangerous then?”

“I recollect seeing a man kick a dog at Hollingbury Aeroport once, out of pure spite. Lady C left, to go powder her nose she said, but the man were found behind a hangar with a concussion and a broken leg shortwhen later. She said it were ‘coincidental’ and ‘most unfortunate’.”

Lucy laughed.

Bramble launched himself from Dusky and landed on Alice’s leg, claws digging into her sturdy breeches. He cocked up his head to look at her and inquired hopefully: “Treats?”

“’Pologies, Bramble,” Alice said. “But I bain’t got naun on me.”

“Liar!” Bramble screeched in outrage before sticking his head in her empty pocket, nudging the corners of the pocket with his beak, much to the amusement of both girls.

When Lady C came out of the shop again, followed by Black staggering beneath the weight of several bulky sacks, Bramble quickly scrambled up to Alice’s shoulder and rubbed his smooth head against her cheek. 

Looking at Lady C, the macaw cooed, “Nice girl. Nice girl.”

“What’s that bird bin up t’ this time?” Lady C asked Alice.

“Nothing!” Bramble answered indignantly. “Bambam good boy.”

Black loaded the sacks on Dusky’s passenger seat. Bramble perched himself on top of the bags, self-appointed guardian glancing about in all directions to spot potential thieves.

Black mounted and started Dusky, guiding the trike along at walking-pace. Alice and Lucy walked to one side, Lady C to the other. Lucy seemed wary of Dusky, throwing a few anxious looks at the source of the trike’s zilzish and occasional crackling sparks, which Alice barely registered as it was a common sound in Brighton with all of Uncle Magnus’s lektrishaws humming about.

“Mus Black,” Alice said. “You were talking about the local Owlers and their moot. About the mizmaze of layers.”

“There’s much more,” he said. “The Starlings, for example, are seen as interlopers by all.”


“They’re Gentle folk, every last one of them.”

Alice shrugged. “Toffs have almost always been part of Free Trading.”

“This is different. ‘Toffs’, as you say, have been involved as financiers and main beneficiaries, but kept their hands clean and let others do the dirty work for them.”

“Doaty scrotes that they be,” Alice said full of conviction, forgetting for a moment that Black himself ranked from that class.

Lady C chuckled. “Nar where did thee learn those words?”

Black continued. “The Starlings don’t ask or pay anyone to get their hands dirty. They conduct every aspect of Free Trading themselves. Purchase, collection, running the crop in from sea, and the rest of it. In modest quantities only. I believe they’re happy to break even at most.”

Alice was astonished. “What the Pize is the point of that?”

“They are in it for the thrill. The excitement. They’re very dedicated hobbyists.”

“For fun?”

“For fun,” Black confirmed. “I do understand. Have you ever felt more alive than when you’re up in the clouds at night playing hawk and starlings with the Coastguard?”

“Yarr, but that bain’t as important as the cost of gas,” Alice declared. “Besides, being shot at bain’t much fun neither. That’s why folk say furriners be chuckleheaded, Mus Black.”

“An opinion shared by many in Hastings regarding the Starlings. The Staders and Chopbacks despise them. The Mericans tend to view them as harmless.”

“And Governor Bollinger?”

“Takes them seriously. He’ll invite them to the moot tonight. Bollinger needs them. The only reason Hastings hasn’t requested a few battalions of Redcoats to end Tamarisk Town for once and all, is because they hope to achieve a bloodless victory in court. The lawyers have been arguing for nigh on forty years now. Apart from Bollinger and Hastings Borough, the Chichester, Cornwallis, and Webster estates all lay claim to Tamarisk, not to mention the Crown itself. That has complicated matters endlessly – helped by a few ‘friendly’ judges, some of them investors, others bought off. Bollinger employs an army of lawyers, most of whom are members of the Starlings. By respecting them as an equal partner in Free Trading he purchases more motivation than he could possibly purchase with money. They have use of a rent-free warehouse in Tamarisk Town which accommodates their aeroships and goods – and can thus fly out at far less risk as part of the Tamarisk trading fleet.”

It all seemed very confusing to Alice, but she understood enough of it to admit it made sense.

“That’s not the end of it though,” Black continued. “Apart from Chopbacks and Staders being wary of ‘sheere-folk’, as you call us, there is also dislike based on envy.”

“Envy? Because most Tamarisk folk are furrin? Proper Sussex folk nohows envy folk for being furrin, Mus Black.” 

Alice recalled what Nell had said about allowing McFeck to stay in Sinneport. “We feel sorry for them.”

Black barked another short laugh. “That’s awfully kind of you, but in this case the envy is based on the Mericans having a rather unique position in the Free Trading business. Think of it. Having established an independence of sorts, it’s Bollinger who decides what taxes to levy on imports and exports.”

“Lower than the rest of England?” Alice guessed.

“None at all. That makes Tamarisk Town a favoured destination of channel-runners. The volume of semi-legal trade here is staggering and that doesn’t always sit well with the neighbours, so Bollinger makes sure enough work comes their way to keep them appeased.”

“Tis a lot more complex than what I’m used to in Rottingdean,” Alice admitted. “A proper hugger-mugger .”

Lady C shook her head. “Aym not sure why thar troubles poor Sky-Girl wi’ so much schoolmasterin’, Andreas. She looks fair jiggered n’ in need o’ rest.”

Black shrugged. “As eyewitness, Liss will be asked to give her account of the Rozzer ambush. The girl is quick to think on her feet and more likely to be able to influence the snake pit if she’s forewarned.”

Alice did feel tired and in need of rest, but her curiosity was much greater. “Influence, Mus Black? Snakepit?”

“I understood from the Mairemaid moot this morning that you wanted revenge.”

The pain-struck faces of Tucknott and Bill flashed by in Alice’ mind’s eye. The burning Chopback. Had that been Pip’s brother Harold? This time she also recalled the triumphant cheers and hoots of the Rozzer crew that had blasted The Martlet out of the sky.

“Yarr, I want revenge.”

“You see, Lady Christina,” Black said. “The ships that attacked the Free Traders are uncommonly powerful and aggressive. They’re probably foreign mercenaries. I’m not well acquainted with Rottingdean, but I suspect their fleet is far too small to take on these Rozzers by themselves.”

“We’re not,” Alice agreed. “We need everyone to work together, the whole coast!”

“And to achieve that remarkable ambition, you need Hastings on your side. If Hastings and Rottingdean unite, it’s more likely that the rest of the Sussex coast will follow. If they don’t work together…”

He didn’t need to finish. Alice understood well enough that each community would be at the mercy of the four sky-sharks. There would be many more deaths, and plenty of families brought to utter destitution – unable to afford as much as a cup of tea.

“Please tell me more about Hastings then, Mus Black,” she said.

“There’s more at play. Folk in Old Town might well attend church but spend most of their time looking forward to the May Day celebrations and the great bonfires in autumn – folk memory stretches back a long time, to the old ways. Bollinger bankrolls most of those celebrations, which is why you won’t find a finer Jack-in-the-Green in all of England. That keeps a lot of folk on his side, especially the Staders.”

“Tis said the Hastings Jack-o’-the-Green be bettermost,” Alice conceded. “Even in Rottingdean.”

“Oh, but it be zackly that!” Lucy said proudly.

“On the other hand, there are those in Old Town who consider themselves ‘proper’ folk, allied to the finer quality people who reside in New Town. They view Tamarisk Town as a most un-Christian and sinful abhorrence that needs to be eradicated. They’d be cheering if either the army or navy trained cannon on the place and bombarded it to smithereens.”

“It bain’t naun of their purvension,” Alice said.

“Ironically, it is their business in a manner of speaking. The moralists are themselves subject to a less visible division. Many of the more wealthy owners of townhouses in New Town are landowners and magistrates. They’re required by society to publicly condemn Tamarisk Town, but have far too many investments in Tamarisk’s import and export business to ever add deeds to their condemnations.”

Alice laughed. “That be the case all along the coast.”

“Indeed,” Black acknowledged. “As for the other moralists—”

Lady C sniffed derisively. “Why, ‘alf o’ them come straight t’ Tamarisk afta mumblin’ their ‘amens’ at their pious church sermons, ta sup our ale n’ brandywine n’ ogle the women. T’ other ‘alf, t’ judge by their passionate letters ta t’ local paper, nip home n’ fantasise in girt detail about t’ sordid depravities they imagine be tekkin place ‘ere.”

Lucy giggled.

“So everyone is on different sides and every side is divided as well,” Alice summarised. “And Governor Bollinger needs to get them all to agree.”

“That’s the long and short of it,” Black said.

“Not completely,” Lady C said belligerently. “If t’ Redcoats ever show up t’ lower Star ‘n Stripes, they’ll catch on sharp enough most folk in Tamarisk are armed t’ teeth n’ know ‘ow t’ fight.”

“They’d resist?” Alice asked, doubt in her voice. The palisade seemed a paltry defence against the might of the British Empire, which could bring artillery, men-of-war, and juggernauts into play.

“They would,” Black answered. “Because they would have nothing to lose. Branded rebels, they would hang or be transported to the Colonies. A great many of them…” he glanced at Lady C, “…of us…are outlaws in one way or another already, so even if granted amnesty for rebelling against the Crown would still face dire punishments. I suspect most would prefer to die with sword in hand, rather than kicking our heels at the end of a noose for her Majesty’s pleasure.”

“Aye, n’ tek a few o’ t’ Jessies wi’ us t’ keep us company in ‘ell,” Lady C added.

“But now local folk are divided.” Alice pointed out, after which she voiced a worry. “What if they won’t let me go to Rottingdean?”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Black said. “That’s none of their business. It’s Scylla’s desire you go home and I am oath-bound to carry out her wish. I’ll blast our way out of Tamarisk Town if necessary.”

“Happen thar won’t ‘ave t’ do that,” Lady C said. “Ah doubt enny local chiefs would dare cross t’ Mairemaid of Sinneport. They may be stubborn bur they’re not gormless.”

“So what is our plan?” Alice asked.

“You attend the moot,” Black answered. “Which you have to anyway if you’re Codebound. You are, aren’t you?”

“I made the pledges.”

“I thought I recalled apprentices do so,” Black continued. “You'll need to try to convince the Free Traders here that local rivalries need to be set aside until this problem is dealt with. That you all need to work together. Then we rest for as long as it takes Bollinger’s Congress to talk itself into exhaustion.”

“They’ll manage while dawn, easily,” Lady C said.

Black nodded. “And hopefully reach a decision. If they aim to fight together you can take their invitation to an Owler’s Moot home, Liss. If not, then you’ll have to tell Rottingdean it has some hard thinking to do.”

They reached the eastern end of Tamarisk Town, near the gate and guard towers facing the castle cliffs over Priory River. The buildings here were low, mostly stables and workshops with a few fishing huts and multi-story net huts between them.

There was a tall double gate to their right, between two stables.

“Us shed at Hollingbury Aeroport is just for campin’, Liss,” Lady C told Alice. “This ‘ere is ‘ome.”

Someone had painted KEEP OUT on the gate in big red letters but it wasn’t locked. Lady C pushed it open and announced: “Welcome t’ Pig Sty.” 


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The Pig Sty

Tamarisk Town

Prairie Ground


The Pig Sty consisted of a central courtyard surrounded by single level stables and sheds. Lit lanterns hung here and there around the courtyard. Those and a merrily burning fire in a large iron brazier in the centre of the courtyard provided a warm, homely light to see by.

Some of the buildings had an open front, others were closed off and had doors and small windows, as well as chimney flues. Most of the open-fronted spaces served as technical workshops, brighter lights within revealing parked steambikes and tools hanging from the walls. One corner was devoted to animals, with cages and pens of all shapes and sizes. Some of the pens and cages were open, their likely inhabitants scattered across the courtyard. 

Alice saw a fair number of chickens pecking at the dirt ground, a pig rooting in it, a few cats practising disdainfulness, and a couple of dogs bounding to Lady C with wagging tails and excited yelps.

Lady C led the rest toward the fire and Alice was grateful for its warmth. She breathed in deeply, comforted by the smell that was a fusion of farmyard and mechanical workshop: manure and oil, hay and burnt coarse coal. The smells reminded her of sunny afternoons by the barn in Saltdean Gap, where her father had taken her sometimes when he was doing repair work on The Salty Mew.

“Lady C! What manner of foundlings have you brought home this time?” A gangly woman came striding out of one of the mechanical sheds, wiping her hands on a rag. She had a gaunt but lively face, with short dark hair cut like a man’s. She was clad entirely in black leather, from boots and tight-breeches to an aviator’s coat with sheepskin lining. A holstered pistol hung from her belt, a colt just like Lady C’s side-arm. “Ain’t we got enough mouths to feed already?”

“Wasp!” Alice called out happily.

“Sky-Girl! Well I’ll be damned,” Wasp replied. “Look what’s escaped from Brighton.”

She spread her arms and Alice gave her a tight hug.

Others emerged onto the courtyard. One was someone Alice had never met before, a silver-bearded old-timer wearing a fisherman’s cap and puffing on a long-stemmed pipe.

The other two she knew. “Red! Keto!”

“Sky-Girl!” Red and Keto greeted her simultaneously.

‘Red’ was Jim Gunning’s nickname. He was a large man, heavy-set with broad shoulders. He had short light brown hair and vivid ginger sideburns and moustache. He wore sturdy boots, dark brown trousers, shirt with rolled up sleeves and unbuttoned collar, a waistcoat, and a derby hat. Gunning was leader of the South Downs Chapter of the Sons and Sisters of Steam. Alice had first met him when she’d been nine, still living in Rottingdean, in the presence of her father’s driving energy. Gunning was also a proper Sussex man, unlike his companion who hailed from far away.

Keto’s full name was Vladimir Shukhov Ketonski and he was fond of claiming this was a regular British name in his Eastern-European accented English. Few chose to argue with him because he was six foot tall, bulging with muscles, and had a keen interest in blowing thing up with explosives – often of his own invention. Keto had a stunningly handsome face and untidy raven black hair. At times his expression was lively, with a twinkle in his eyes that betrayed a keen sense of humour, but most often he appeared absent-minded, his mind filled with new inventions to further improve his steambike, The Ketonski, in order to satisfy his insatiable appetite for speed.

Before Alice had a chance to greet them, there was a loud roar as a great big steambike jetted out of a shed towards Lady C and her guests. The driver wasn’t someone Alice knew. She got a brief impression of a face mostly concealed by dark goggles, a brown horse-hoof moustache and unkempt sideburns. The man wore a plumed French cuirassier’s helmet that formed an odd contrast to the suede and fringed breeches and jacket of a North American frontiersman.

Lucy let out a small scream of fright. That sound, combined with the sheer wall of noise made by the onrushing vehicle, seized Alice and transported her wholly—

—to the unexpected sound of powerful aeroship engines kicking into life overhead…darkened conical shapes swooping down on The Martlet…hungry barrels of nine-pounders and Gatling guns ready to spit death…

Seized by shivers, trembling all over, Alice drew her hatpin and held it in front of her. “No! No!”

Someone called her name but Alice remained focused on the heavy roar, jabbing in its direction with her hatpin. “Bloody Rozzer bastards!”

Her name was called again. Someone laid a hand on her shoulder. Alice twisted angrily to dislodge the hand, but then her name was called again – repeated like a mantra – and more hands sought to restrain her. Alice screamed in fury, struggling, struggling, struggling—

—a confused daze. Alice’s struggles ceased as she eased into the embrace of multiple arms—Lady C, Wasp, Lucy holding on to her—voices drifting into her ears as if from far away—


“There now, Kittlin, it’ll be reit.”


“What’s wrong with the girl?”

“Harris, I could bloody well murder you here. Now. On the spot. Painfully.”

“Aym o’ mind t’ bray thee as well.”


Alice made an effort to focus on her confusing surroundings, not quite sure where she was for a moment and hoping strongly that she’d discern Pip’s shy smile when she made sense of all the people around her.

Reality came flooding back in – the women she’d already identified, but now the men swam into her vision against the backdrop of the Pig Sty. Black, Gunning, Keto, and the old silver-beard. The rider in his outdoorsman gear and French helmet was shrugging, holding his hands up in exaggerated innocence.

“Did ye not tell the chavvies that this be a Steam Rider’s den?” He asked Lady C, growling the words like an accusation as he dismounted from his bike.

Her surroundings were clear enough again, but Alice felt herself seemingly sinking downward in misery when she realised Pip was definitely not in their company.

He’ll be at the moot, she assured herself. In a few hours.

“Sky-Girl bain’t unused to bikes, Harris,” Gunning told the outdoor rider in a curt tone. “That were uncalled for.”

“I’ve seen her cool as a cucumber faced by far worse frights,” Keto added his disapproval to Gunning’s.

“Something bad must have happened.” Wasp’s came voice closer to Alice’s ear, her breath warm like a summer’s breeze. “What’s the matter, sweetheart?”

“I’m sorry,” Alice said to no one in particular.

“No treats!” Bramble screeched in outrage as he landed on Lady C’s shoulder.

“The girl’s been through hell and back.” Black spoke for the first time since they arrived at the Pig Sty. “Of the type after which sudden loud noises aren’t greatly appreciated.”

“How was I to know?” Harris grumbled. “Andreas! What the hell brought yer sordid carcass to Tamarisk? I hadn’t even seen ye yet, what with hysterical waifs all over the place.”

Normally, Alice would have glared at him but she was feeling too despondent, alarmed to discover how much missing Pip seemed to be causing a physical ache, a sense of pointless emptiness.

Lady C was sharper in her reaction, befitting her reputation. “Ah ‘av ‘ad m’ fill o’ thy mitherin’, ‘Arris. Bramble?”


“Neya, bur would thee please do thar rubbish on ‘Arris’s ‘ead?”

“Bambam good boy!” Bramble agreed and spread his wings to take to the air in his usual flurry of colours.

“Naun!” Harris shook his helmeted head. “Do ye ken how long it took me to get the parrot shit off me plume last time?”

“Then bloody well behave,” Wasp snapped at him, before speaking to Alice. “Sky-Girl, this is Harris Haddent, fearless leader of the 1066 Chapter of the Sons and Sisters of Steam, and about as bright as a snuffed candle.”

“Bramble, abort t’ mission,” Lady C called out to her feathered companion. “Aym sorry, Sky-Girl, Lucy. ‘Arris ‘as fell off ‘is bike too often. Lands on ‘is noggin every time, scramblin’ ‘is common sense beyon’ repair. ‘E can be a reit berk.”

Alice stared at Harris Haddent without saying a word, not liking the man very much. Haddent stared back, meeker now, keeping an eye out on Bramble as the bird circled above them. He still dared a grumble though. 

"There were a time womenfolk kept their teethtraps shut unless spoken to.”

Wasp snorted with derision. “In your dreams only. We’re all Free Folk here.”

“We’ll git out o’ thy way, oh Lordship,” Lady C decreed. “Tek the bairns t’ Passio Hysterica. Andreas? Can tha tell t’ lads what’s a-wing in Sussex skies?”

Black nodded. Lady C beckoned Alice, Lucy, and Wasp to one of the larger huts that had a door and windows, as well as a crude sign that read Passio Hysterica. Bramble swooped down to fly into the hut before Wasp shut the door behind them.

The hut was clearly divided into two halves, a stout wood stove marking the division by the wall opposite the door.

One half of the room was Spartan, clear of clutter and containing only basic furniture. A high bed with chests tucked beneath, a chair, a simple wardrobe, and a chest of drawers. The other half was bohemian. It was carpeted and the walls made striking with colourful wall-hangings from India, the furniture painted in prime colours, clothes draped over chairs and the thick mattress on the bed – pillows everywhere.

“Why is it called the Pass...?” Lucy was looking around with wide eyes, as if not entirely sure what to make of it all. “Passo Histrica?”

“Passio Hysterica.” Lady C went towards the stove, lifting the lid of the big kettle that sat on it and nodding approvingly at what she smelled before she began to gather lavishly decorated but chipped and aging cups. “’Av a seat, girls, wherever thee can find. We’ll start wi’ a propa brew t’ fortify our frail feminine nerves. T’ name o’ our ‘ome is courtesy o’ Dr Rowley of Uxfut University n’ the Royal College of Physicians.”

“That sounds important,” Lucy said. “Do you know this Doctor?”

Wasp laughed, striding towards the near empty half of the room to sit down on the bed. “It might be a good idea to let Lady C loose in the Royal College of Physicians. I reckon it’d turn into a proper bloodbath.”

Lady C snorted disgustedly and began to pour four cups of tea.

Wasp seemed happy to instruct Lucy. “The eminent Doctor Rowley fancied himself an expert on what posh toffs call ‘the fruitful vine that flowers every month’.”

“Quiddy?” Alice asked.

“The monthlies?” Lucy guessed.

“Aye, the bloody monthlies,” Wasp confirmed. “When delicate ladies in their flowers are encouraged to wither on a couch, and common folk carry on with their work riding the rag, regardless of their moon.”

Alice’s mum had talked to her discreetly, about expecting the monthlies sooner rather than later, but Alice had never heard it discussed so openly before. She wasn’t surprised that of all people it would be Lady C and Wasp who had no hesitation talking about it as such. Lucy, however, looked shocked.

“T’ Passio Hysterica,” Lady C explained. “Was Rowley’s term for t’ insanity which ‘e reckoned is tied t’ our moons.”

She began to hand out the cups of tea.

“Apparently,” Wasp said with amusement in her voice, “we have a tendency to roar, scream, or shriek immoderately. Or sigh, weep, and moan most pitifully.”

“Liable t’ commit criminal acts o’ violent savagery,” Lady C added. “Therefore best sedated, preferably wi’ plentiful opium.”

“The opium is sensible enough.” Wasp grinned impishly. “I don’t mind that bit so much.”

Alice took a sip of her tea. As she had suspected it was strong enough to stun an ox and she took another delighted sip.

Lucy still looked puzzled. “But why name your home—”

“—Wasp,” Lady C said. “’Ow menny menfowk ‘ave bin in ‘ere while we ‘ung up that sign? Invited or uninvited.”

“Not a single one,” Wasp said with satisfaction. “It helped that we flew a stained T-bandage from a makeshift flagpole as well, until your blasted bird took off with our bloodied banner.”

Lucy looked shocked. “You don’t like men?”

“Oh, ah li’ them reit enuff,” Lady C said. “Bur on us conditions, not theirs. An’ the simple creytures are ‘orrified by owt related t’ our menses.”

Wasp shrugged, “They can be vaguely amusing when they’re off their guard.” Wasp shrugged. “But on the whole…”

“They can be utter bastards—” Lucy blurted out, before turning red and throwing a hand over her mouth in shock at having said such a thing. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Wasp said.

“Tha ‘as every reit ta ‘ave that opinion,” Lady C said. “Afta what just ‘appened at t’ Polymina.”

“What happened?” Wasp asked sharply.

Her face grew thunderous when Lady C related the bother Lucy had been in. “Why, I want to—”

“T’ young idiot were given a useful lesson already,” Lady C said with satisfaction. “By us cleva Kittlin ‘ere, wielding ‘er ‘atpin like a regular swordfighter – she jabbed ‘is ‘and.”

“Splendid! Well done,” Wasp complimented Alice who glowed with secret pride. “Although next time, stick it in his—”

Lady C interrupted her fellow Sister of Steam. “Figured Lucy needed cup o’ propa tea. Sky-Girl n’ all, ‘sides which, when we finish our tea, ah’d like t’ skeg at ‘er hands. Are thee ‘urt anywhere else, Kittlin?”

“I’ve got cuts and bruises all over,” Alice confessed. “The Hawkhursts at the Mairemaid Inn tended them last night in Sinneport, but some places are beginning to hurt again.”

“Sinneport?” Wasp asked. “What on earth were you doing in Sinneport?”

“About time we ‘eard t’ whole story,” Lady C agreed. “As ah understan’ it, Sky-Girl were on a run n’ ambushed by a new kind o’ Rozzer aeroship.”

Alice took another sip of her tea for courage. It was as if she’d been doing nothing but telling the story again and again – to the Mudlarks out in the mush, Neeva at the Tumtops Farm, Scylla’s council at the Mairemaid, Andreas Black on their journey to Hastings, now to Lady C and Wasp. She’d have to tell it again later at Governor Bollinger’s moot, and the next day in Rottingdean would be hardest of all, because Hattie Tucknott’s husband and sons and Bills family would want to know what happened. That weighed far heavier than the dread of having to report the loss of crew, sky-skiff, and crop.

She kept it short, mentioning the Hastings skiff but not naming either The Joseph Swaine or the unfortunate crew, focusing on the ambush, the manoeuvres, and the Gatling salvos at the end.

“We ran from the crash-site,” she finished simply, omitting to mention Pip by name because that just made matters more complicated and Alice wasn’t sure if she would be able to stay strong. “The Mudlarks found us and took us to Scylla.”

“Who sent you on to us,” Wasp mused. “The deal was that Scylla of Sinneport drowned the likes of you in all sorts of mud, wasn’t it?”

Alice grimaced in response.

Lucy had begun to fidget. “I ought to be getting home, to me mum, afore she gets worried. She’s only got me to help take care of the little ‘uns.”

Alice recalled that Lucy lived in Old Town and might well know The Joseph Swaine’s crew, but was so weary of telling the tale that she figured it was better if Lucy learned the details there.

“Ayl ride thee ‘ome,” Lady C offered.

“Oh! But I can walk, it’s naun far at all,” Lucy said.

“You’d deny Lady C a spin on her beloved NautiLass?” Wasp asked. “You’re braver than I am.”

NautiLass?” Lucy asked.

“Aye, my steambike,” Lady C said. “’Sides, ah’ve got alfa min’ t’ ‘ave a small chat wi’ thy mother.”

“My mother?” Lucy asked in alarm. “You mustn’t tell her what happened, please. We need the Polymina wages.”

“You’ll be reit,” Lady C assured Lucy. “Bur those lads may still be out there. Aym takin’ thee back afta thar’s finished thee tea, n’ thar’d best accept t’ ride.”

Alice smiled. Lucy had little choice in the matter, people far stronger than she had been deflated by Lady C’s staunch convictions. Lady C went outside to stoke NautiLass’s boiler, or rather – to judge by what Alice could hear outside – walked to the brazier around which the men were talking and suggested to Keto that the quality of his life would be much improved if he prepped NautiLass. When he objected, Lady C changed the subject from quality of life to quantity of life, after which Keto demurred.

Lady C returned looking smug. She ordered Alice to strip down to her shift, got out her medicine chest, and treated the girl’s injuries with expert hands while Lucy finished her tea.

When all that was done it was time to go. Lucy said her goodbyes to Alice and Wasp before hesitantly trailing out the door behind Lady C. Shortly after, as Alice was dressing again, she could hear NautiLass chugging across the Pig Sty’s courtyard, breaking into a roar beyond the gate.

“Sky-Girl,” Wasp patted the covers of her bed. “Come sit here, would you?”

She pulled a large wooden chest from underneath her bed, and began fidgeting with the lock. Alice wandered over and sat down next to her.

“Damn and blast,” Wasp cursed at the chest. She drew her gun and aimed it at the lock.

“Naun! Wait! You’ll frit the animals and Lady C will be tessy.”

“Ever the clever one,” Wasp said approvingly, holstering her gun. “Maybe I’ll use the key.”

She retrieved a far smaller wooden box from beneath the bed and set it on her lap. When she turned the small key in the lock and opened the lid, Alice saw it was filled with more keys, large and small.

Wasp began shifting them about, looking for the right one.

“I can’t throw keys away,” she confessed. “Dunno what most of ‘em are for anymore, but I’ll be damned if I get rid of so much as a single one. Just in case. Ah, here it is, this is the one I reckon.”

Bramble descended on the bed in a flutter. He cocked his head sideways, beady eyes with narrowing pupils homing in on the keys. The whites around his eyes glowed with a red blush. The bird stepped this way and that, as if to examine the content of the box from all perspectives. “Keys!”

“Mine!” Wasp retorted.

“MINE!” Bramble lunged for the box, but Wasp shut the lid before the macaw could reach it and locked the box, adding the small key to the larger one already in her hand.

The bird gave Wasp an enquiring look, then cooed as it stroked her arm with his head, inching closer to her hand – and the keys in it. “Bambam good boy.”

“Bramble, you daft bird, I wasn’t born yesterday.” Wasp closed her hand around the keys.

Bramble squawked in outrage and spread his wings to take to the air. “Help! Abuse! Neglect!”

“Oh, the drama,” Wasp commented dryly.

Bramble descended on a rafter and strutted to and fro, peering down angrily. “Murder! MURDER! HELP!”

Alice looked at the hut’s door, half expecting Lady C to burst through it.

Wasp laughed. “Even if she was back yet, Lady C is wise to Bramble’s tricks, don’t you worry. He’s tried that far too often.”

She turned her head to look Alice straight in the eyes. “So I gather you’ve been shot at, watched your crew die in front of you, and had to run for your life.”

Alice nodded, suddenly wary. The cry she and Pip had shared during the night had been a floodgate that had released a lot of tension, but the pressure had begun to build up again. It had been hard to focus on Black’s lengthy explanation about local politics. At times everything other than the demise of Free Trader crew and skiffs seemed meaningless, bereft of any relevance whatsoever. She didn’t want to break down again in front of Wasp, or any of the other Steam Riders. Maybe, when Pip came to Polymina Palace, they could find some time alone and be sad together again. He’d been there, he understood perfectly and feeling sad together before had been comforting.

“Out there,” Wasp said slowly. “It’s fine to play the courageous Free Trader, Alice. But between you and me, how are you doing. Are you coping?”

Alice blinked away a tear. “Fair to middling.”

Wasp shook her head. “You don’t always have to be brave, I hope you know that.”

“I know,” Alice said in a small voice. “I’m scratching along.”

“I don’t believe a word of it,” Wasp smiled. “But I won’t press. Just know that if you want to talk—”

“It’s all so confusing!” Alice blurted out. “The day afore, everything made sense. Now I don’t ken what is what halfwhen.”

Wasp sighed. “Life does that. I can’t remember the last time anything made sense to me, sweetheart. Folk will tell you that you get used to it, but they’re lying. Don’t believe them.”

“It spins round and round in my head. Enow to make me dizzy. Some-one-time I want to scream. Really loud, but I smile instead.”

“Then it needs to come out, one way or another. Talking can help.”

“Mayhap when I get back from the moot,” Alice said. “I reckon I should like that, but I’m not sure. Bethanks, anyhow.”

“Sure, that’s what leather-clad and deviant black sheep are for.” Wasp grinned. “But I can think of something that might cheer you a little at least.”

She opened the chest. The raised lid blocked Alice’s view of the content.

“Footwear,” Wasp explained.

“Oh,” Alice said, not sure what to make of it. She felt somewhat slighted by the notion that the turmoil in her mind was something that could be bribed by shoes, just when she’d felt greatly comforted because Wasp talked to her like a regular person, instead of a mini-human incapable of speech or thought…

…or feelings…

…On the other hand, poverty had introduced Alice to a pragmatic way of looking at life. She had lost her boots. It was cold and muddy outside. Footwear was a rare luxury for a slum child and would undeniably increase her physical comfort. “Bethanks.”

Wasp was unwrapping something from thin packaging paper. “I reckon these are your size. Truth be told, I couldn’t bear not to own them and got them just in case my feet ever decided to become a great deal smaller.”

The rustling of paper ceased. Wasp peered into the chest, a frown on her forehead. “They are perhaps a bit risqué, a trite burlesque.”

Curiosity vaporised Alice’s previous objections. She tried to peer in the chest, just as Wasp lifted a pair of boots from it. They were knee-length, somewhat heeled but in a practical manner. The black leather was polished to a shine, and it appeared there were several miles of strawberry red laces that had to be done up.

Alice’s eyes grew wide.

“Whorish even,” Wasp said, looking at the boots with a dubious expression. “Not at all appropriate for a young miss.”

“I love them! I can wear them?”

“Worse! You can keep them. I’ll weep bitter tears of regret later, Sky-Girl, wondering at my temporary lapse of sanity in gifting them to you. Keep ‘em safe at night, or I’ll be tempted to steal them back.” Wasp thrust the boots at Alice. “Quick, afore I change my mind.”

Alice grinned and took the beautiful boots, turning them over in her hands and admiring them. “They’ve got steel-caps!”

“All the better to kick men in the groin with.”

“OUCH!” Bramble protested from his perch.

Alice started to pull on one of the boots.

“Here, let me help. We’ll have to pull up the legs of your breeches a bit, but they’ll tuck in nicely.”

The boots fit well and Alice was pleased to find her toes had a bit of wiggle room. Lacing them up was made harder by Bramble. Apparently deciding the risk of being murdered had subsided, he flew down and undid the laces on the first laced up boot as Alice and Wasp worked on the second boot.

“I’m going to pluck you and grill you over a fire,” Wasp grumbled, shooing the bird away from Alice’s new boots.

“Cannibal!” Bramble hopped onto the chest, head rotating as he eyed the shut key box on the bed from different angles. He cooed: “Keys.”

“He’ll be sticking his beak and nails into the keyhole next,” Wasp predicted. “To no avail. When was the last time you ate, Sky-Girl?”

Wasp put a pot of soup on the woodstove, stirring as it heated up.

Her action drew the attention of two young cats, appearing from nowhere to stretch and yawn, before circling Wasp’s feet and legs.

“Hello there, Suki,” Wasp greeted the black cat fondly, before looking at the tabby. “And Growler  has deigned to greet his staff as well. Must be feeding time.”

The cats meowed their agreement.

Alice looked at the cats happily for a moment, she liked cats a great deal and missed her own black-and-white Bubba – no doubt lazing around the stove in the little house on Artillery Street back in Brighton.

She got up to walk about so as to get a feel for the boots, pleased to find how supple they were. She discovered Lady C had a narrow standing mirror tucked into the corner of the room and took place in front of it. A quick glance told her that Wasp was busy feeding the cats, so Alice allowed herself to admire the sight of the red-laced knee-length boots in the mirror.

Normally, if Alice looked into a mirror too long she started telling herself stories as to what could be on the other side of the mirror glass. For the first time in her life, she wasn’t curious about those mysteries, content to look at her reflection, and – also a first time – content with what she saw in a strange manner that gave her goose bumps. She looked a bit older in the boots, she reckoned, more…serious.

She wondered how she would look through the eyes of Pip – and felt elation because the steady passage of time was shortening the wait, surely the Polymina moot would get started sooner or later.

Spotting a hairbrush and reckoning that Lady C wouldn’t mind, Alice took off her top hat and attempted to save the wreckage of her tangled hair. Her mood alternated as she brushed her stubborn hair. At times she’d feel an echo of the bliss she’d felt on Dusky’s backseat and the surety that things would make more sense when Pip was around again. That was interchanged with stern reminders to herself that she had a job to do. Black’s words on the necessity of making an alliance had taken firm root within her. She yearned to avenge Hattie Tucknott and Bill – and the rest. She was confident Pip would want the same.

Her hair somewhat tamed, Alice donned her top hat again, after which she looked at the woodstove to see Wasp staring at her in apparent amazement.

“You’re all aglow,” Wasp mused. “Someone caught your fancy?”

Alice blushed. Fortunately she was saved by Bramble, who had indeed been trying to pick the lock of the small key box all this time, and chose this moment to give up, screeching “Frigging wazzock!” at the lock before taking to the air in protest. Descending on one of the rafters again, the bird sulked.

Alice sat down on Lady C’s couch, and was immediately joined by the tabby which purred as it gave Alice soft head-buts.

Wasp handed Alice a bowl of soup and chunk of bread, taking the same for herself. “Eat.”

Never quite having enough to eat roused a perpetual appetite, and therefore it was odd for Alice to find eating a chore. Perhaps it was because she’d eaten two hearty meals already on this day, but it could also be because she was strangely light-headed, too scatter-brained as her thoughts were continually drawn into rising anticipation of the moot.

A more pragmatic side of her insisted she struggle through the meal, however reluctantly. She was just wiping the bowl with the last of her bread when they heard NautiLass returning from Old Town. Bramble perked up, and started shuffling along the rafters.

Shortly thereafter, they could hear Lady C conferring with the men, and then walking towards and entering Passio Hysterica.

“Soup?” Wasp asked her, and proceeded to fill a bowl without waiting for an answer.

“Hello, mum!” Bramble dropped off the rafter just above the door and plummeted down to Lady C, who caught him deftly and cradled him like a baby.

“Ey Bramble, ‘ows thar bin?”

“Hello, mum. No treats. No keys.”

“We’ve mistreated Bramble terribly,” Wasp confessed.

“Abuse,” Bramble agreed. “Murder.”

“Thar skeg reit t’ us eyes, Bramble, beautiful as evva.” Lady C told the macaw. Bramble began to make a rumbling sound, almost as if he were purring like a cat as he allowed Lady C to fuss over him.

“Did you speak to the girl’s mother?” Wasp asked.

“Nowt as much as I would ‘ave liked. Ayl ‘ave t’ go back again. Old Town were in a ‘ullabaloo ‘cos o’ t’ news Sky-Girl n’ Andreas browt from Sinneport. Lucy were upset agin n’ all, kept on wailing ‘Tis t’ Swaine, tis t’ Swaine’.” 

Lady C looked at Alice questioningly.

“The Hastings skiff were called The Joseph Swaine,” Alice said.

Wasp brought Lady C’s bowl over and Bramble clambered up her bosom to perch on her shoulder, peering critically into the bowl, lamenting: “No treats.”

“Ah think Lucy meight ‘ve ‘ad a sweetheart on board,” Lady C said, shaking her head sadly.

We both did! Alice wanted to shout triumphantly, just managing to stop herself. It was horribly selfish because of Lucy whom Alice had come to like, Pip himself, as well as Harold – and also somewhat shocking because it was the first time Alice had thought in those terms.

“Oh!” Alice exclaimed instead, eyes wide with shock at her own thoughts. She threw a hand over her mouth to silence herself before she blurted out something foolish.

“Ah see that Wasp ‘as spoiled thee, Kittlin.” Lady C admired Alice’s boots. She set her bowl down on a low table on her side of the room, and started rummaging through a pile of clothes. “Ayl be damned if ayl be left behin’.”

She produced a long and thick wool scarf, colourfully knitted in Bramble’s blue and gold livery, one end with green, black, and white, even the zebra-patterned stripe which curled around the macaw’s eyes.

“Knitted this missen,” Lady C said proudly, wrapping it around Alice’s neck. “Ah want thee t’ ‘ave it, Kittlin.”

Alice was delighted and dashed to the mirror again, watched critically by Lady C and Wasp.

“I’ve never seen a more curious mish-mash,” Wasp said.

Alice had concluded the same, but she liked it. “I’m a mizmaze,” she assured them. “A hugger-mugger from both Rottingdean and Brighton.”

And maybe, secretly, just a little bit from Sinneport for she felt a curious connection to the place. While that didn’t apply to Hastings or Tamarisk Town so far, it certainly did to the Pig Sty, and wasn’t she flying Lady C’s colours now, just like Bramble?

“Reit well, Miss Mizmaze,” Lady C said. “Ah ‘ope thar’s ready t’ show yursen, t’ lads sez it’s time t’ nip on ta t’ moot. Gaffer Bollinger sent word.”

The Polymina…and Pip!

Alice nodded. “Let’s go. I’m ready.” 


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More Lockdown Specials (read: Freebies) featuring Alice

A younger Alice features in the first part of A Sea Voyage on Wheels part 1: Perfessors & Spurrimenters, also featuring her friend Lottie, Jim "Red" Gunning, Magnus Volk, and Herr Doktor.  https://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk/south-coast-coglings

Herr Doktor also features in a story of his own (NEMESIS) in which Alice makes a brief (unnamed) appearance: https://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk/nemesis-short-story