“Simple!” Sharon said, and he let out a barking laugh. “Except for that last part.”
“And the first,” I said.
Emma stepped close to me. “Sorry, love. I volunteered your services without asking. Think you can handle that hollow?”
I wasn’t sure. True, I’d been able to make it perform a few spectacular moves in Fever Ditch, but bringing it to heel like a puppy and leading it all the way back to Bentham’s house was asking a great deal of my rudimentary hollow-taming skills. My confidence, too, was at an all-time low after my last disastrous encounter. But everything hinged on me being able to do it.
“Of course I can handle it,” I took too long to say. “When can we go?”
Bentham clapped his hands. “That’s the spirit!”
Emma’s gaze lingered on my face. She could tell I was faking.
“You can leave as soon as you’re ready,” Bentham said. “Sharon will be your guide.”
“We shouldn’t wait,” Sharon said. “Once the locals have had their fun with that hollow, I reckon they’ll kill it.”
Emma picked at the front of her poufy dress. “In that case, I think we should change.”
“Naturally,” said Bentham, and he sent Nim to find us clothes more befitting our errand. He returned a minute later with thick-soled boots and modern work pants and jackets: black, waterproof, and with a bit of stretch to them.
We retreated to separate rooms to change and then met in a hallway, just Emma and me dressed in our adventure clothes. Rough and shapeless, they made Emma look slightly mannish (though not in a bad way), but she didn’t grumble—she just tied back her hair, snapped her head to attention, and saluted me. “Sergeant Bloom, reporting for duty.”
“Purdiest soldier I ever did see,” I said, drawling out a terrible John Wayne impression.
There was a direct correlation between how nervous I was and how many dumb jokes I made. And right now I was practically quaking, my stomach a leaky faucet dripping acid all over my insides. “You really think we can do this?” I said.
“I do,” she said.
“You never doubt, ever?”
Emma shook her head. “Doubt is the pinprick in the life raft.”
She stepped close and we hugged. I could feel her trembling ever so slightly. She wasn’t bulletproof. I knew then that my shaky faith in myself was starting to dig a hole in hers, and Emma’s confidence was what held everything together. It was the life raft.
I’d come to regard her faith in me as somewhat reckless. She seemed to think that I should be able to snap my fingers and make hollowgast dance at will. That I was allowing some inner weakness to block my ability. Part of me resented that, and part of me wondered if maybe she was right. The only way to find out for sure was to approach the next hollow with an unshakable belief that I could master it.
“I wish I could see myself the way you do,” I whispered.
She hugged me harder, and I resolved to try.
Sharon and Bentham came into the hall. “Ready?” Sharon asked.
We let go of each other. “Ready,” I said.
Bentham shook my hand, then Emma’s. “I’m so happy you’re here,” he said. “It’s proof, I think, that the stars are beginning to align for us.”
“I hope you’re right,” Emma said.
We were about to go when a question came to me that I’d been meaning to ask the whole time—and it occurred to me that, in a worst-case scenario, this could be my last chance to ask it.
“Mr. Bentham,” I said, “we never did talk about my grandfather. How did you know him? Why were you looking for him?”
Bentham’s eyebrows shot up and then he smiled quickly, as if to cover his moment of surprise. “I missed him, that’s all,” he said. “We were old friends, and I hoped I might see him again one day.”
I knew that wasn’t the whole truth, and I could see in Emma’s narrowed eyes that she knew it, too, but there was no time to dig any further. Right now the future was of much greater concern than the past.
Bentham raised his hand goodbye. “Be careful out there,” he said. “I’ll be here, preparing my Panloopticon for its triumphant return to service.” And then he hobbled back into his library, and we could hear him shouting at his bear. “PT, up! We have work to do!”
Sharon led us down a long hall, his wooden staff swinging and his massive bare feet slapping the stone floor. When we came to the door that led outside, he stopped, bent down to match our height, and laid out his ground rules.
“It’s dangerous where we’re going. There are very few unowned peculiar children left in Devil’s Acre, so people will notice you. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Don’t look anyone in the eye. Follow me at a slight distance, but never lose sight of me. We’ll pretend you’re my slaves.”
“What?” said Emma. “We will not.”
“It’s the safest thing,” said Sharon.
“Yes, but it will raise the fewest questions.”
“How do we do it?” I said.
“Just do whatever I say, immediately and without question. And keep a slightly glazed expression.”
“Yesss, master,” I said robotically.
“Not like that,” Emma said. “He means like the kids in that awful place on Louche Lane.”
I let my face slacken and said in a flat voice: “Hello, we’re all very happy here.”