Sharon grudgingly assented. He’d been leading us toward a fence at the edge of the yard but now pivoted and took us into one of the buildings. We climbed two, three, four flights of stairs, until even Addison was wheezing, then followed Sharon through an open door into a small, squalid room. A gash in the ceiling had let in rain and warped the landing like ripples in a pond. Black mold veined the walls. At a table by a smoky window, two women and a girl were sweating over foot-powered sewing machines.
“We need some clothes,” Sharon said, addressing the women in a stentorian basso that shook the thin walls.
Their pale faces looked up. One of the women picked up a sewing needle and gripped it like a weapon. “Please,” she said.
Sharon reached up and pulled back the hood of his cloak a little, so that only the seamstresses could see his face. They gasped, then whimpered and fainted forward onto the table.
“Was that really necessary?” I said.
“Not strictly,” Sharon replied, replacing his hood. “But it was expedient.”
The seamstresses had been assembling simple shirts and dresses from scraps of cloth. The rags they worked with were heaped around the floor, and the results, which had more patches and seams than Frankenstein’s monster, were hung on a line out the window. As Emma reeled them in, my gaze crawled around the room. It was clearly more than just a workspace: the women lived here, too. There was a bed nailed together from scrap wood. I peered into a dented pot that hung in the hearth and saw the makings of starvation soup, fish skin and withered cabbage leaves. Their half-hearted attempts at decorating—a sprig of dried flowers, a horseshoe nailed to the mantel, a framed portrait of Queen Victoria—were somehow sadder than nothing at all.
Despair was tangible here, weighting down everything, the very air. I’d never been confronted with such pure misery. Could peculiars really be living these discarded lives? As Sharon pulled in an armful of shirts through the window, I asked him. He seemed almost offended by the idea. “Peculiars would never allow themselves to be so reduced. These are common slum dwellers, trapped in an endless repetition of the day this loop was made. Normals occupy the Acre’s festering edges—but its heart belongs to us.”
They were normals. Not only that, but loop-trapped normals, like the ones on Cairnholm whom the crueler kids would torment during games of Raid the Village. As much a part of the background scenery as the sea or the cliffs, I told myself. But somehow, looking at the women’s weathered faces buried in rags, I felt no less terrible about stealing from them.
“I’m sure we’ll know the peculiars when we see them,” Emma said, sorting through a pile of dirty blouses.
“One always does,” said Addison. “Subtlety has never been our kind’s strength.”
I slipped out of my bloody shirt and traded it for the least filthy alternative I could find, the kind of garment you’d be issued at a prison camp: collarless and striped, its sleeves of unequal length, patched together from cloth rougher than sandpaper. But it fit me, and with the addition of a simple black coat I found tossed over a chair back, I now looked like someone who might plausibly be from this place.
We turned our backs while Emma changed into a sacklike dress that pooled around her feet. “It’ll be impossible to run in this,” she grumbled. Plucking a pair of scissors from the seamstresses’ table, she began to alter it with all the care of a butcher, ripping and jabbing until she’d sliced off the bottom at the knee.
“There.” She admired her rough handiwork in a mirror. “A bit raggedy, but …”
Without thinking I said, “Horace can make you one better.” Somehow I’d forgotten that our friends weren’t just waiting for us in the next room. “I mean … if we see them again …”
“Don’t,” Emma said. For an instant she looked so sad, absolutely lost in it—and then she turned away, put down the scissors, and moved purposefully toward the door. When she turned to face us again, her expression had gone hard. “Come on. We’ve wasted enough time here as it is.”
She had this amazing capacity to turn sadness into anger and anger into action, which meant nothing ever kept her down for long. And then Addison and I—and Sharon, who I suspect hadn’t quite known whom he was dealing with until now—were following her out the door and down the stairs.
* * *
The whole of Devil’s Acre—the peculiar heart of it, anyway—was only ten or twenty blocks square. After coming down from the workhouse we pried loose a board from a fence and squeezed into a suffocating passageway. It led to another that was slightly less suffocating, and that led to one a bit wider still, and that to one wide enough that Emma and I could walk side by side. On they widened, like arteries relaxing after a heart attack, until we came to something that might properly have been called a street, with red bricks running down the middle and sidewalks paving the edges.
“Fall back,” Emma muttered. We shrank behind a corner and peeked out like commandos, our heads stacked.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Sharon said. He was still in the street and seemed more worried about being embarrassed by us than being killed.
“Looking for ambush points and escape routes,” Emma said.
“No one’s ambushing anyone,” Sharon replied. “The pirates only operate in no man’s land. They won’t come after us here—this is Louche Lane.”
There was, in fact, a street sign to that effect—the first I’d seen in all of Devil’s Acre. Louche Lane, it read in fancy handwritten script. Piracy discouraged.