It took only a moment for her to check her stride for just an instant, her instincts telling her that she was being followed. A brief glance behind, under pretext of shifting her package, showed her a quickly-seen shadow between two buildings, and she smiled slightly. One of Lord Mureaux's men, she was sure. Good--that should mean she shouldn't have to wait for her contact long. Mariah continued on her way, not looking behind her again, and entered the Cocoajava Cafe, after checking to be sure Miss Hienrichs wasn't there herself. She wasn't sure she liked meeting in such a busy place, but it was more in keeping with the more demure persona she was projecting today. She helped herself to a cup of coffee, and settled down on a cushioned chair off to one side, waiting.
It wasn't long before she heard a feminine voice by her say, "May I sit here? Shopping certainly can be exhausting at times."
Mariah looked up, recognizing the code phrase. "But the rewards are often immeasurable."
The agent of Lord Mureaux sat down next to her, nodding at the package Mariah had set on the nearby table. "I see you've been attaining those immeasurable rewards." Mariah nodded, and the two of them started talking amiably.
Anyone watching them would simply have seen two women sipping coffee and having an animated conversation, as happened every day in the cafe. Anyone eavesdropping would have heard the same sort of conversation as happened every day--gossip, news of the city, loving complaints about family. Even if someone had strained to listen when their voices dropped below the volume of normal conversation, they would have heard only private family matters--slightly salacious perhaps, but nothing of interest to a stranger.
However, after about 20 minutes, the hushed conversations turned to other matters.
"Any news?" the agent asked.
Mariah nodded. "I ran into an old rival a couple of weeks ago--a Captain Berenger. He let drop that he'd been hired to keep a look out for someone during his business runs, and what he said definitely seemed to point to your Lord Mureaux. He was hoping I might know something."
"Hmmm. Where can we find this Captain Berenger?"
"No need," Mariah said with a grin. "I made some noises about New York City--specific enough to get him interested, but vague enough to keep him there for months, looking."
The agent chuckled. "I don't think he'll be too pleased with you when he returns, if he's on a wild-goose chase for months."
"Ahh, it'll be all right. Ber has a knack for turning any situation into a profitable one--that's what made him such a good rival, and one of the few fellow captains I truly respected."
Their conversation changed subjects, and swelled back into audibility to casual ears. After several moments, though, Mariah dropped her voice again and asked, "Anything new with Miss Bookworm?"
"She's currently in dispute with Mr. Lafayette Steamweaver over the books being burned at the Athenaeum," the agent replied.
"Hmmm, yes. I saw that article of hers in the Primgraph. She might actually make a decent journalist if she really worked at it."
"Yes, well, things have heated up since then. The two of them just made a wager. If Miss Hienrichs can raise $10,000L or more in ten days, as donations toward the storage costs of the books, Mr. Steamweaver will stop burning them, and even match the amount donated out of his own pocket. If not, she must turn over her personal library to him."
Mariah whistled soundlessly. "I'm surprised she agreed to that."
"Oh, she's admitted to it being a desperate move. I would guess she hasn't seen any other way--well, any legal way--to stop him."
"Well, if this doesn't work, don't put it past her to move on to illegal ways. She's very...passionate about books."
The agent nodded, grinning. "She's also continuing her training with Mr. Somerset, both physical and mental. She--"
"Wait, wait," Mariah interrupted. "Mental training?"
"Oh, yes." The agent described the basics of the sessions to Mariah, who listened with amazement. "I never would have pegged her for believing in such things," she said.
"Well, she had to, after being possessed by the ghosts in the graveyard." Seeing Mariah's frank astonishment, the agent grinned. "She didn't tell you about that, I take it?"
"Not a word," Mariah replied with a hint of a growl in her voice.
The agent filled Mariah in on the details, including how close Bookworm had come to death, and her rescue by Zachary Somerset. "The basics of this are common knowledge here in New Babbage," she said at the end of her recital, "so Miss Hienrichs shouldn't be surprised when you evince knowledge of it."
Mariah closed her mouth with a snap, suddenly realizing that her jaw had actually been hanging open because of her surprise. She shook her head. "Amazing. Truly amazing. Surely she has, or will, move, though?"
The agent shook her head. "She shows no sign of it. I think she's too content--and too stubborn--to leave."
Mariah chuckled. "That certainly sounds like her." Their talk switched back to innocuous conversation for several more minutes. But then, Mariah dropped her voice again. "Miss Hienrichs certainly seems to be thrown together with Mr. Somerset quite a bit. What...what is the nature of their relationship?"
"Close," the agent said. "Quite close. But not as close as you're thinking, nor will it develop that way." Mariah nodded with relief.
"In the end, her training is showing great benefit for both of them. She seems more confident. Bolder. And Mr. Somerset... Well, let's just say the distraction is a good one. It takes his mind away from questions he shouldn't be trying to find the answer to."
Mariah nodded thoughtfully, and picked up her package. "I really should be going now. But thank you for your company."
"You're welcome," replied the agent. "I hope I'll see you again soon."
Mariah nodded, smiled, and waved, leaving the busy cafe, and heading south toward the Mechanix Arms.
Not even a flicker of eyes betrayed her as she passed by Lord Mureaux's new properties. In fact, she was quite abstracted, thinking over all that she'd learned from her contact. She hadn't even known Miss Hienrichs a year, and she could already see a great deal of change in the woman. Militia member, zombie attacker, occasional journalist, investigator of murders and oil shortages, and contactor of ghosts...it really was quite amazing. And now this near-feud with Mr. Steamweaver...
She walked up the steps to Miss Hienrichs' apartment, and knocked at the door. "Who is it?" came the call from within, and Mariah nodded in satisfaction. She wasn't just opening the door to anyone.
"It's Mariah, Miss Hienrichs," she replied, shifting the package to a more comfortable position on her arm.
She heard the lock on the door turn, and Bookworm opened it, a smile on her face. "Mariah! It's good to see you again. Please--come in."
Stepping inside, Mariah glanced around, seeing Miss Bookworm's apartment for the first time. It certainly suited her--simple, but stuffed to the gills with books. She wondered how on earth all of it could be transported to the Athenaeum if Miss Bookworm lost her bet. "You know," she said aloud, "you could hide some of your books elsewhere. I rather doubt Mr. Steamweaver would know the difference."
Bookworm smiled wryly, not appearing too surprised at Mariah's abrupt introduction of the topic. "Believe me, I've considered it. But I don't think that'd be...honorable. I do keep my word."
"Hmmm, yes. Well, you'd best hope your fundraising endeavor succeeds."
"Indeed," she said, a bit grimly. "So, what brings you to New Babbage?"
"I have the items I promised you," Mariah replied, smiling as she handed over her package. Bookworm eagerly took the package and opened it, revealing two pairs of boots, one black and one brown, and two corsets.
"Try them on now," Mariah said. "I want to be sure they fit you correctly. Nothing worse than ill-fitting boots--or corsets, for that matter."
The two of them were busy for the next several minutes, as Bookworm tried on the various items, and Mariah pointed out the various features of each. Mariah also gave Book a small, diamond-tipped blade, very like the one she had hidden in her own boot heel. No sense, after all, in giving her such things without a few pieces of useful equipment to hide in them.
"Now then," Mariah said as Bookworm redressed. "Would you be free to come to the lodge in a few days for training, and stay for about a week?"
Bookworm looked at her a little uncertainly. "That's...before the deadline for the fundraiser."
Mariah nodded. "It is. But I made these arrangements before I knew about that, and unfortunately, I have no flexibility for changing them. Besides, are you that unsure about winning your wager?" Mariah grinned, a hint of teasing in her smile.
"I suppose not," Bookworm replied. "But it would be nice to see his face at the end of this, especially if we manage to raise a great deal more than our goal." Bookworm grinned back with more than a hint of maliciousness.
"Well, perhaps someone else can take care of anything that comes up while you're away. And could take photographs."
Bookworm chuckled. "Hmmm...yes, there may be someone. I'll check with her."
"Then you'll come?"
"Excellent. Can you find the way on your own, or shall I meet you somewhere?"
Bookworm pondered a moment, then said, "I think I can find the way."
"Then I'll see you there on Saturday."
Mariah went down the stairs, and around the back of the Mechanix Arms. She paused by the fence surrounding the graveyard, read the sign attached to the graveyard, and then stared into it with narrowed eyes. After several moments of such study, she shook her head and went on. 'I don't like it,' she thought, 'but I don't think she's going to shift, even for that. I just hope this mental training she's getting will protect her.'
Mariah also made sure her path back to the Palisade gate took her by the Athenaeum. Digging into a hidden pocket, she brought out a handful of money and tipped it into the donation box. 'May as well bring her that much closer to peace of mind.' With that thought, she hurried on her way, mind full of the preparations to make for the training session.