Pocketing the bills of sale, the young man hoisted himself up on the first of the three Thoroughbreds. Digging his knees in, he carefully guided the train through the busy streets. They sidestepped mothers with children who stopped and stared, men smoking their pipes and debating over the fate of the notorious outlaws – not just any outlaws, but the Court of the Black Prince of all people – as if they themselves were on the jury, and young women who flushed and giggled behind their hands at the tip of his hat.
Trotting by city hall, he glanced up at the clock tower before pushing his hat down. Making a sudden right, he urged the horses on down the quiet alley until they broke out into the bright sun. Behind the stables, the underweight stable boy hurried onto his feet before running to him and sticking out his hand.
“$50 for your discretion as promised.”
Greedily the dirty hand plucked the crisp bill from his hand and tucked it in the band of his pants. Pulling his shirt over, he grinned at him.
“Don’t you worry, mister. I’ll make sure no one knows about them horses.”
“Please ensure that you do,” he said coldly and dismounting, walked briskly to the inn. Whistling to himself, the boy led the three tall, proud horses into their waiting stalls, all the while wondering why in the world such a gentleman had such a need to keep secret three horses. Not that it was any of his business; after all, he hadn’t been paid to nose around. He’d been paid to keep quiet, and he sure as hell was going to make sure he did as he was asked. He wasn’t sure if he’d done it on purpose, but nevertheless he had still gotten a good eyeful of the man’s pistol and he wasn’t about to try and test his aim.
She whipped around when she heard the door open behind her. Nearly upsetting the bottle on the table, she hurriedly looked over her shoulder, only to see him walking in with his hands raised.
“It’s just me.”
“Did you get them?”
He nodded curtly. “$1700’s worth,” he added with disgust. “Was god damn robbed.”
“At least now you know what it feels like to be on the receiving side.”
He let out a huff of air in some poor man’s imitation of laughter before coming to stand by her. Throwing his gloves onto the table, he glanced over her work. Nodding, he took the empty seat across from her.
“We’re going to have to go out tonight for the cables. I’ve bribed the foreman at the steel mill; he’ll keep the gate open for five minutes at midnight.”
“You couldn’t just ask him to sell you the cables?”
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
She quietly wiped her hands free of the oil and kerosene before reaching behind to let loose her hair. Settling in her seat, she leaned back and closed her eyes, when she heard him say, “Apparently in spite of being offered a deal, each and every one of the men refused to give up my identity.”
He paused, as if turning something over in his mind before slowly thinking aloud.
“They must fear the Black Prince more than they do their government.”
“If they feared you, they would have given you up. Men hate what they fear because it makes them feel weak; because it shows them their fallacy; the hollowness of their self-perceived infallibility. If they really feared you, they wouldn’t have hesitated to betray you.”
“And what of women?”
She opened her eyes at his question. So there was for him a distinction between the two sexes. How interesting.
“What of women?”
“Do women also hate what they fear?”
“If they did, the institution of marriage wouldn’t exist, and you and I, nor any other born of man and woman, would be here.”
“You have decidedly cynical views of the relationship between men and women for someone so young.”
“Yet old enough to be married in the same manner as cattle being sold for slaughter.”
He pursed his lips but said nothing more, which was just fine by her. Standing up, she went to stand by the window and peer out. Touching the warm glass, she watched the town bustling from its edge. If she squinted just hard enough, she could see a shimmer on the horizon, which she presumed to be the sea. She had always wanted to see the ocean. She’d heard stories of it and its vastness but had never once in her life been able to witness such grandeur, so it was frustrating to be so close and yet so far all at the same time. But what could she do? How could she possibly ask him if she could go for a leisurely stroll on the seaside? They had come for urgent business – to save their compatriots from certain death, not to while away time as if on vacation.
“…Have you ever seen the ocean?”
Surprised, she glanced at him as he leaned against the window’s ledge. Letting the curtain fall back into place, she raised her head high and imperiously stared at him, but he met her gaze evenly.
“Would you like to?”
“Would I like to what?”
“See the ocean.”
“Haven’t we got better things to do than something as frivolous as that?”
When he caught the look on her face, he insisted he was telling the truth. “All we can do now is wait until nightfall. There’s nothing more that we can do to prepare.”
She stared at him hard to see if he was trying to trick her or if it was a test of some kind, but as much as she searched his face, there could be no deviousness to be found. And though it embarrassed her to, her childhood wish overcame her, and she slowly nodded.
“Yes, I would,” she said quietly. “Very much so.”
And for the first time, she saw him smile, not as a part of some act, but out of what she would have assumed was happiness if she hadn’t known any better. It was a small one and was barely there, but it was still there all the same, and though she knew better, she still returned his smile anyway before turning back to the window and glimpsing the ocean’s wink in the bright, blinding sunlight beyond.