She let out a shaky breath and shook her head, as if chasing away the memory. “I just break.”
“Me, too,” I said, remembering the pain I felt whenever I saw Emma hurt, the terror that gripped me every time she was in danger. “Me, too.” I squeezed her hand and searched for something more to say, but she spoke first.
“I need you to promise me something.”
“Anything,” I said.
“I need you not to die.”
I cracked a smile. Emma didn’t. “You can’t,” she said. “If I lose you, the rest isn’t worth a damn.”
I slid my arms around her, pulled her tight against me. “I’ll do my best.”
“That’s not good enough,” she whispered. “Promise me.”
“Okay. I won’t die.”
“Say, ‘I promise.’ ”
“I promise. You say it, too.”
“I promise,” she said.
“Ahh,” Sharon said airily from the corner, “the sweet lies lovers tell …”
We broke apart. “You’re not supposed to be listening!” I said.
“That was long enough,” he said, dragging his chair loudly across the floor and planting it next to the bed. “We have important things to discuss. Namely, the apology you owe me.”
“For what?” I said, irritated.
“Impugning my character and reputation.”
“Every word was true,” I said. “This loop is full of scumbags and creeps, and you are a money-driven lout.”
“With not an ounce of sympathy for the plight of his own people,” Emma added. “Though, again, thank you for saving us.”
“Around here you learn to look out for number one,” Sharon said. “Everyone’s got a story. A plight. Everyone wants something from you, and they’re almost always lying. So yes, I remain unapologetically self-directed and profit motivated. But I deeply resent your suggestion that I would have dealings of any kind with someone who trades in peculiar flesh. Just because I’m a capitalist doesn’t mean I’m a black-hearted bastard.”
“And how could we have known that?” I said. “We had to beg and bribe you not to abandon us at the dock, remember?”
He shrugged. “That was before I realized who you are.”
I glanced at Emma, then pointed to my chest. “Who I am?”
“You, my boy. Mr. Bentham’s been waiting a long time to speak to you. Since the day I first hung my shingle as a boatman—forty-odd years ago. Bentham ensured me safe passage in and out of the Acre if I promised to keep an eye out for you while I did it. I was to bring you to see him. And now, finally, I’ve kept my end of the bargain.”
“You must have me confused with someone else,” I said. “I’m nobody.”
“He said you’d be able to speak to hollowgast. How many peculiars do you know who can do that?”
“But he’s only sixteen,” Emma said. “Really sixteen. So how can—”
“That’s why it took me a while to put it all together,” said Sharon. “I had to go see Mr. Bentham about it personally, which is where I was when you two ran away. You don’t fit the description, see. All these years I’ve been keeping watch for an old man.”
“An old man,” I said.
“Who can talk to hollows.”
“As I said.”
Emma tightened her grip on my hand and we exchanged a look—no, it couldn’t be—and then I swung my legs out of bed, charged with new energy. “I want to talk to this Bentham guy. Right now.”
“He’ll see you when he’s ready,” Sharon said.
“No,” I said. “Now.”
As it happened, at that very moment there was a knock at the door. Sharon opened it to find Nim. “Mr. Bentham will meet our guests for tea in one hour,” he said, “in the library.”
“We can’t wait an hour,” I said. “We’ve wasted too much time here already.”
At this, Nim went a bit red and puffed out his cheeks. “Wasted?”
“What Jacob meant,” Emma said, “is that we have another pressing engagement elsewhere in the Acre that we’re already late for.”
“Mr. Bentham insists upon meeting you properly,” Nim said. “As he always says, the day there’s no time for manners, the world’s lost to us anyway. Speaking of which, I’m to make sure you’re dressed appropriately.” He went to the wardrobe and swung open its heavy doors. Inside were several racks of clothes. “You may choose what you like.”
Emma pulled out a frilly dress and curled her lip. “This feels so wrong. Playing dress-up and having tea while our friends and ymbrynes are forced to endure bird knows what.”
“We’re doing it for them,” I said. “We only have to play along till Bentham tells us what he knows. It could be important.”
“Or he could just be a lonely old man.”
“Don’t talk about Mr. Bentham that way,” Nim said, his face puckering. “Mr. Bentham is a saint, a giant among men!”
“Oh calm down,” Sharon said. He went to the window and pulled open the blinds, allowing a weak, pea-soup daylight to dribble into the room. “Up and at ’em!” he said to us. “You two have a date.”
I threw back my covers and Emma helped me out of bed. To my surprise, my legs took my weight. I glanced out the window at an empty street enveloped in yellow murk, and then, with Emma holding my arm, went to the wardrobe to pick out a change of clothes. I found an outfit on a hanger tagged with my name.