“Now hold your breath, hon.”
Phoebe Black gave a few yanks on the stays and tied a quick bow. “Lovely. You can breathe again now.”
“Oof. That’s what you think.”
“Well,” Phoebe said as she fastened the pocket hoops on Olivia’s hips, “it could be a lot worse, you know. And be glad you’re traveling. You’d have a lot more to manage if it was real formal. Bigger hoops, bigger hair. Sorry it’s not the early nineteenth, when they got kind of sensible about clothes for a while. I like those Regency dresses.”
“I do too,” said Olivia with regret. She’d imagined herself a Jane Austen heroine often enough in her teens. By now, though—this was her third and final fitting—she’d grown used enough to having parts of her body squeezed into the appropriate shape and parts completely obliterated. It was actually moving in the clothes that still bothered her.
“Come look in the mirror,” Phoebe invited. Olivia examined herself. She wore a linen shift, cut low in front, with elbow-length sleeves, the hem falling just below her knees. Over this went the stays, multiple strips of simulated whalebone enclosed in faux silk, flattening her stomach, slimming her waist, and pushing up her bosom. The pocket hoops were, she had been assured, small for the period, but they looked ridiculous, like hips for a giant tied onto a normal woman. She laughed at the image.
“I know,” Phoebe said, giggling back, “but it’ll be all right with the gown on.” She tugged here and there, straightening up her creation, then looked over her shoulder at the door.
“Are you expecting someone?” Olivia said.
“Oh. Sorry. Yeah, I was kind of expecting George. He’s got a fitting right after yours, and he has this sixth sense about when to show up early. I think he’s making a collection of Underwear Through the Ages.” Olivia stirred uneasily, and Phoebe went on, “Don’t worry, hon. He’d knock first.”
Olivia decided that Phoebe’s confidence was probably justified. She had let George deliver her home last evening, after ritual protest about taking him out of his way, and he had melted away into the night unobtrusively as she let herself into her house. Her few small rooms had seemed large and empty, and she had taken too long to fall asleep. This morning’s commute to Eagle Costuming, already torturously indirect, had been complicated further by last night’s Arcadian bio-bomb at her local transit tube station, the contagion luckily contained before spreading far, but the explosion itself killing several and injuring more. After the maddening delays, redirections and transfers, she had begun to envy George his own vehicle. Perhaps she could catch a ride back to work with him after his fitting.
“I’m not worried,” she told Phoebe.
“Oh, there are lots worse than George,” Phoebe agreed. “Anyway, let’s get your clothes on, then you won’t have to worry, okay? Petticoat first.”
She kept up a monologue about comparative costuming while helping Olivia into her fancy dress. “I wish you didn’t have to wear those nasty stays. But I like to be authentic. I mean, with your figure I could just put you into a twentieth-century girdle and you’d be, well, not comfortable exactly, but feeling a lot better. But the line’d be wrong, plus it’d be a big surprise for someone if they took your clothes off.” She laughed at Olivia’s expression. “Not that. If you faint”—a distinct possibility, Olivia thought, still trying to adjust to a new breathing pattern—“or fall in the river or something, and someone decides you need your stays loosened, well, you’d better have stays. Even if you’re only there for an hour, you never know.”
“I think it might be more than that. Not very long, though.” Actually, the length of their visit to 1773 was still up in the air, which bothered Olivia, though George seemed to take it in stride. At least they had a date to head for, and a place, even if the plan of action would be improvised on the spot.
“Well, good,” said Phoebe. “Easier that way. There you go, hon,” she added, pulling the skirts of Olivia’s gown into the correct line over her petticoat and adjusting the tapes that gathered them into poufs. “That blue’s a silly color, in London, but light shades were in. I’m sure you can manage not to get it dirty. Shoes now.”
Olivia slid her feet into low-heeled slippers, which assuredly would not stay clean in London. “Shouldn’t I wear… what are they called? Pattens, to keep my feet out of the mud.”
“Too much practice learning to walk on them. And you can’t run at all.” Olivia frowned. “I just learn from the post-jump reports, hon,” Phoebe said. “There we go. Look at yourself. A new woman, huh?”
She didn’t pause for an answer, but started pulling Olivia’s dark hair into various permutations, up off her neck entirely or with bits curling down. “You don’t have quite enough hair, you know—” she began, and then there came a knock on the door. The two women looked at each other and broke into a shared smile.
“Come in, George!” Phoebe called out, and went on fiddling with Olivia’s hair. “I’ll put you in a cap,” she said decisively.
“Oh, do,” George chimed in, all English again this morning: practice he certainly didn’t need. “I’d pay to see that. Good morrow, sweet coz,” he went on, approaching and nodding to Olivia. “You look… stunningly eighteenth-century. Not that I would have expected anything less from the clever mistress of the wardrobe here. Good morning, Phoebe dearest.”
“I’m not done with Olivia yet,” Phoebe said, “so you can either wait ten minutes, or go see Robin down the hall.”
“I cannot imagine leaving the company of two such lovely ladies,” he replied, “not for all the Robins of the field or any of their early worms.”
“George, hon, what are you on this morning?” Phoebe inquired, and went right back to discussing Olivia’s hair. “Let me get the pins. I don’t think we’ll need to powder it. Not your wig either, George. Beginning to go out of fashion by now.” She laughed. “I mean then. You all must get mixed up a lot.”
“It’s pretty much a constant state,” George agreed, and settled into a chair.
Phoebe, fetching hairpins from a cabinet, was distracted by the sight of Olivia’s discarded garments. “Olivia!” she exclaimed. “You’ve got a chastity blouse! It’s an original, isn’t it?”
“It was my grandmother’s.” Phoebe’s delight was wholly apparent, and exactly what Olivia had meant to provoke when she donned the blouse that morning, though she wished they’d managed to have the conversation before George’s arrival. The point of the blouse, though, was that you took it off yourself—the fastenings were fingerprint-coded to the wearer alone—and Phoebe had not been present at the disrobing.
“You can buy them nowadays, of course,” the costumer was continuing, “but it’s not the same thing. Kind of a different…”
“Ideology?” suggested George. It was that, certainly. Olivia’s grandmother, encouraged by government campaigns, had worn hers as an armor of virtue (though if family photos did not lie the protective buttoning had started low enough to offer a tantalizing view of the gold cross dangling between the ample breasts). Today’s young women (and this was a fashion of those much younger than Olivia) wore theirs symbolically, to suggest independence in the sexual realm, an option of refusal, even if one not always exercised.
“Only the top button coded, right, George?” Phoebe asked.
“So I have heard,” he said carefully. “Practically speaking, of course, it isn’t much—“ He stopped. “Did your grandmother leave that to you in her will?”
“She’s still alive. She gave it to me when I was sixteen. I had to have it recoded for my prints.”
“Well, it would have been going a bit far to have your grandmother undress you every night. So… did it work?” He didn’t mean the recoding.
“I’ve hardly ever worn it,” she said, and regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. His eyebrows rose. Luckily, Phoebe had not exhausted her knowledge of fashion history.
“They used to market them for men as well,” she said to George, “but those are much rarer. And the trousers. Should I have a look out at auctions for you, hon?”
“Dearest Phoebe. Always my welfare at heart. I’m sure the price would be beyond me.”
Phoebe giggled, then put the blouse down reverently and walked back to Olivia with the pins in her hand. “Thanks so much for showing it to me, Olivia. If you ever want to sell…”
There was a promise in George’s eyebrows and mouth that no reply Olivia could think of would discourage, so she turned back to the mirror silently and let Phoebe pull her hair into place once again. Studying George’s reflection as he slumped in the chair, she noted that despite his ready banter he looked far from fully awake.
“Cousin, cousin, how have you come so early by this lethargy?” she quoted at him, an irresistible association, and he gave her an odd look.
“Driving people all over the county last night had something to do with it,” he answered.
“But it wasn’t…” That late, she continued silently, feeling Phoebe’s eyes on the back of her neck.
“How do you know you were the only one?” he replied, with a tired half-smile. “Unless you really are keeping track of my movements, which would be disconcerting, if flattering.”
“Of course I’m not,” she answered.
“Damn.” Some of the flippancy went out of his voice as he went on. “I saw the news this morning. Seems it might have been a good thing I was keeping track of your movements.”
Olivia had done her best to ignore the timing of the bombing, but part of her had recognized that had George not taken her home she might have been one of its victims. “Maybe. Did you notice anything when you drove past the station?”
He shook his head. “I was on my peaceful way home to my quiet bed, where, believe it or not, I stayed up far too late reading.”
Olivia was still trying to decide whether thanks were appropriate or melodramatic when Phoebe, done experimenting with hairstyles, interrupted. “All right, kids, break it up. George: dressing room, your suit’s in there. Olivia: practice moving around. Go to the end of the room, around the little table with the tea setting on it, come back to me and curtsey, sit down in the chair.”
“And don’t smash the teacups,” George called on his way out the door. “They come out of the budget.”
* * * * *
Olivia paced the short distance from the bookcase to her desk and back again, muttering “Smaller steps, hon” and “Lead with the bust, not the hips.” Phoebe had allowed her to bring the stays—which she now wore, redundantly, under the chastity blouse—and the hoops and petticoat back to the office, to get used to them as best she could. The cubicle was a challenging environment for full skirts. Defining the boundaries of her new somewhat larger self had taken a while, but finally she had learned to sweep around to Phoebe’s satisfaction and to execute a decent curtsey. And she hadn’t broken a single teacup.
Clothing made an enormous difference to one’s perspective. She had never thought of chairs as a misogynistic invention before, but watching George, attired in frock coat and breeches, settle back comfortably into his while she inhabited only a tiny portion of hers, she had wondered how the women of the day had ever put up with it. Phoebe had smacked George for relaxing in front of a lady, and he had straightened his back obediently, declaring that he would never dare to be at ease for a second in the presence of either of them.
Her screens were down at the moment, as George was not in his office to throw witty remarks in her direction, and the other jumpers felt no need to comment on her playing dress-up; they’d seen it all before. Making a final pass across the cubicle, she turned gracefully and sank with moderate dignity onto her desk chair, which was unfortunately the wrong height to practice on, then opened a file on the net. The Cities of London and Westminster circa 1773 rose in three dimensions in front of her, and she zoomed in on the area west of the Tower, trying to imagine herself actually walking the narrow lanes and broad avenues, cobbles underfoot and stone and brick buildings all about. Dutifully, she set to memorizing the layout of the streets, a necessary precaution for jump emergencies. Thoughts of the jump were leaving a bitter taste in her mouth, however.
George was not in his office, because he was in a meeting: a meeting to which she had not been invited. Charles had greeted them on their return and whisked George off, Anna and Katie in train, and, when she had begun to follow, had taken her arm and pointed her in the other direction. “That’s fine, Liv—Olivia; you don’t need to bother about this one. I’m sure you’ve got plenty to get through before next week. Stop by later and let me know how it’s going.” She had felt like a child reprimanded for wanting too many treats.
Of course, they could be holed up in there discussing something besides the London jump, but George hadn’t mentioned working on any other projects, and even if he were, the chance of both Anna and Katie being assigned to the same contract as researchers was slim. If they were discussing the tea retrieval, there seemed no reason to exclude her except her inexperience. And how did Charles expect her to learn while being kept out of meetings?
She could not help thinking they were talking about her, paranoid and egotistical as the idea was. Could something about her search for Bernard have leaked back to Charles? She couldn’t see how, unless George had drawn some deductions from her perusal of the Alice book or her reactions to his lecture on time breaches, and felt obliged to share them. But he seemed an unlikely snitch, considering his usual attitude toward the rules. She had reluctantly come to the conclusion that he’d spread the story about her friendship with Charles, but that was gossip and not tale-telling, a different matter altogether.
Or, perhaps, George was preempting her, informing Charles that he no longer wanted to work with her after this jump. But the presence of researchers shouldn’t be required for that. And Charles had called the meeting.
She pushed the unanswerable questions away and dragged her attention back to the map display. “Lower Thames Street,” she murmured to herself resentfully. “Water Lane. Great Tower Street. Seething Lane.” Good one. “Dunstan’s Hill. Mincing Lane.”
She heard a sound next door, shut off London and turned quickly, just in time to see George vanish behind full screens. Damn. She hesitated for a minute, wondering if she should interrupt him, then decided that he had done it to her often enough. Foregoing a vocal exchange in front of the other jumpers out of a sense of privacy, she informed the net she needed his attention, and waited for his response.
Yes, coz? wrote itself across the desk surface.
I need to speak to you.
A moment’s pause. Then: If you have reason, be brief.
She rose and made her way into the hall, stopping at George’s door. There was nothing to knock on, but she waited only seconds before he lowered the screen in front of her. “Password?” he asked.
Oh, stop playing around, George. She made an effort to think of something clever, but nothing was clear in her mind but the map of London. “Billingsgate,” she said crisply.
His eyebrows rose. “You’d better come in, then.”
The screens surrounding them were an unadorned pale blue, but there was music playing, something complex and eighteenth-century sounding, the volume turned up too high for them to hear one another easily. George called out, “Music stop.” The jangle of instruments ceased. He looked at her, measuring some quality of which she remained unaware. “Um…” he said, glancing at a paper list on his desk, “Haydn, opus twenty, number two. Volume low.”
He grinned at her as a string quartet started to play. “Very civilized: good background for genteel conversation. Fishwives need not apply. Have a seat.”
She perched on the edge of the chair he offered. “So to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” he went on.
“Don’t worry, I will be brief. What was that meeting about?” she asked.
An uneasy look flickered across his face, then vanished. “Nothing of great importance. They changed the target date on us again. Katie found a new source.”
“You weren’t in there an hour just for that.”
“I’m not supposed to tell you about the twentieth-century pornographic films the boss shows us. Oops.”
She sighed. “George…”
“Reciting encomiums to Olivia? Conspiring against you behind your back? Planning a surprise birthday party?”
“My birthday’s not till November.” He had managed to undercut her legitimate suspicions about her exclusion through ridicule; the technique was very George and it was beginning to infuriate her. “I don’t understand why I shouldn’t be allowed to attend a meeting about the project I’m working on,” she went on, gritting her teeth.
“Very little about this project, actually. Just what I already told you. Mostly discussion of future contracts; nothing that would interest you.”
“How do you know? I do work here, after all.”
“Listen, Olivia…” He paused for a second. “It wasn’t my idea to keep you out. The boss has his reasons, whereof reason knows nothing. It’s his decision not to involve you in this.” He stood up and gestured towards the door. “It does mean lots of new work for me, though, and I need to get on with it. So much as I’d like to serve you tea, or dance a minuet—and I must say you’re beautifully dressed for that, if not for more intimate encounters—I’ll have to ask you to excuse me for now. Drop by any time, though.”
She contained her irritation with an effort, rose, and smoothed out her petticoat as she turned for the door. “I’d actually forgotten I had it on,” she told him, forcing the light tone into her voice.
“Good. That’s exactly how you should feel.”
Don’t you tell me how to feel. She whirled around once more, petticoat spinning, and addressed him bluntly. “Am I contributing anything to this jump besides looking good in my clothes? And no facetious remarks, please.”
“How do you expect me to communicate, then? All right,” he went on, as she opened her mouth to tell him how, “I’ll manage. Music stop.” The string quartet left off twittering, and George took a deep breath in the silence. “I think you’re contributing plenty. I haven’t got your study habits, for one thing. But you’ll be there mainly to learn, and how to be at home in your clothes is the first step of that process. How to be at home in Miss Lake of Ringwould, Kent is something you’re going to have to get used to.” He pressed his lips together as though he didn’t like what he had to say next.
“I’m there to help. We’re both there to get the job done. But I’m in charge. Not because I’m a bit older or, God forbid, because I’m male, or because I don’t look as gorgeous in my costume—goodness knows I try—but because I’ve got the experience. I do, believe it or not, know what I’m doing a fair amount of the time.” He looked at her pointedly. “And so does Charles Constantine.” It was the first time in her hearing that George had not referred to him as “the boss.”
He hadn’t really answered any of her questions, particularly the ones like Why am I here? that she was going to have to answer for herself. His speech had been all misdirection and avoidance; but it was also fair criticism of her priorities. She looked him right in the eyes, nodded; then dropped him a curtsey, turned and left his cubicle without another word.
She expected to hear a cheery “Farewell, coz” floating in her wake, but he said nothing to her, and all she caught was a low-voiced “Locatelli, Sonata in G Major, please,” and the quick flare of violins, before his screens closed him in again.
* * * * *
It would be easier not to be nervous, Olivia thought a week later, standing in the dressing room at the Time Travel Institute, if everyone weren’t acting so deadly serious. Charles had given her a solemn handshake and a short “be careful” lecture before sending them off, and Anna had followed them right out the door with last-minute instructions. They’d managed to avoid Marc this morning, but the final meeting with him yesterday had been positively grim.
Even Phoebe lacked her usual lightheartedness. She pinned up Olivia’s hair around a roll of cloth, to make it look as though there were more of it, and settled a mobcap on top to protect it, nearly every move in silence. This was the real thing, no doubt about that. Couldn’t they set the sim-program going, do a dry run, practice London? No. This is the only chance you get.
The worst moment had come when Phoebe, inspecting Olivia’s costume in detail, had grabbed her left hand and gasped, “Oh my God, I almost forgot. Take the ring off.” Olivia had been unable to object, but it was with a pang of indefinable loss that she removed her wedding ring and handed it to Phoebe, who promised to keep it safe. “I’m so sorry,” she said, massaging Olivia’s finger to erase the indentation in the flesh. “I should have thought of that before, given you a chance to get used to it.” And then she’d hurried off to fetch the hairbrush.
George came in while Phoebe was providing Olivia with gloves and traveling cloak, looking more straight-faced than she’d ever seen him and even refraining from making a comment on her cap. He was fully dressed, wearing a tie-back wig in a color similar to his natural hair, a frock coat in a flattering shade of green over a tan waistcoat, and very tight breeches; he carried a three-cornered hat in his hand.
“Phoebe, am I allowed to wear this thing?” he asked, waving the hat at her. “It’s almost too snug a fit over the wig.”
“Wear it if you have to. Some men used to just carry them, like a fashion accessory, but put it on if you need your hands free. Try not to leave it anywhere, all right? Looks like you might need it again.”
Oh, really? George turned to Olivia with a distinct air of changing the subject, and inquired how she was feeling. She shrugged, a delicate and refined shrug appropriate to her costume, and informed him in perfect accents that she was as ready as she would ever be, and could they please get on with it?
“That’s the spirit,” he said, and grinned. It was a relief to see someone less sober-faced in her vicinity, and she gained confidence. “We’re on schedule, I think,” he added, “as long as you’re almost finished, Phoebe.”
“Oh, we’re done. She’s all yours.”
“Hm. We’ll see you after the show, then. Don’t sit up late or anything.” It was a feeble joke, considering that from Phoebe’s perspective they would see her again in about fifteen minutes: it would be ten minutes until they jumped, they would be gone for only three by the Institute’s clock, no matter how long they spent in the past, and then they’d return to the dressing room to remove their costumes. Not every jump was attended personally by the costumer, but lacing stays was certainly easier with assistance, and Olivia had appreciated Phoebe’s help.
“Bye, George. Olivia, good luck.” Phoebe squeezed her hand. “You’ll do just great, hon.”
Olivia smiled weakly at her, dry-mouthed. George motioned toward the door, and Olivia preceded him through it and down the hall to what she couldn’t quite bring herself to call “Tim’s office.” She’d been here once before; sim-jumps were run using the same machine. But that had been five years ago and felt like decades.
At that time, she had been surprised that the laboratory was not merely the antechamber to a cavernous space more appropriate to the mind-shattering event of time travel. Its cramped quarters housed the time machine, large enough to hold about four people (or two and a half when one wore hoop skirts), in addition to an operator’s console, a desk, and a few chairs. Now, for some reason, the limitations of the chamber made more sense. O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…
Not, perhaps, the best quotation for the occasion, Olivia. Pull yourself together.
The technician, a curvaceous woman in her early twenties, turned out to be the famous Marisol. She greeted George with a seductive “Nice breeches” and addressed most of her subsequent remarks to him, her smile telling Olivia more than she wanted to know about the nature of George’s bribe. In the technical explanations to Olivia, however, Marisol was all business.
“We try to bring the machine in somewhere where it won’t be spotted. Not easy in London, but it’ll only be visible for a few seconds while you scramble out of it, then it launches itself a bit into the future so it can’t be seen or detected. Don’t forget where it is. When you return to it, it’ll sense your DNA—right now it’s keyed to yours and George’s only, so no one else can activate it—and appear again. It’ll bring you back automatically.”
She cleared her throat. “You reappear here three minutes after you leave. If you don’t come back then, you’re presumed unable to return. I wouldn’t be able to do anything, though, until the TTI Director signed off on a release, and they’d contacted your next of kin. Then we’d bring the machine back. Sorry. I have to say all that, it’s the law. Hardly ever happens, you know.”
“And it’s not as though we have a limit on how much time we take to get back to the machine,” George explained. “There was one jumper who… well, you don’t want to know about that. They called him Rip van Winkle afterwards, I hear.”
Olivia was not certain whether to take him seriously, though the picture of a white-haired jumper stumbling out of a machine he’d entered three minutes earlier as a young man was haunting. There were a number of plausible scenarios for such an accident: a prison sentence, transportation to another country, slavery, involuntary draft into the armed forces; even a conscious choice to remain, later reconsidered. Not to mention a time breach that later repaired itself.
“Have the two of you worked out a plan for what to do if you get separated?” inquired Marisol briskly.
“Yes,” George said, looking at Olivia and checking her responsive nod. “We’ve talked about it. It’s far more important to get back and let them know here, if you think your partner’s in serious trouble, than to go looking for him yourself. After a reasonable amount of time has elapsed, of course.”
“I’ll be sure to give you at least half a minute, then,” she countered, trying hard for frivolity, and he grinned at her.
“All set, then?” asked Marisol. “Let’s make you history.”
* * * * *
The jump was completed in near silence, none of them meeting the others’ eyes. Marisol’s concentration was devoted to her console, making crosschecks and small adjustments; Olivia stood in the narrow box next to George, looking down at her gloved hands clenched together; George kept shifting his feet from side to side. “Ready?” said Marisol, and the two jumpers nodded. Olivia repressed an absurd desire to reach out for George’s hand… and then the world went absolutely blank.
She felt as though she had been whirled down into a pinpoint of self, microscopic in size, tiny and insignificant in the context of time and space passing. Then, before she could even become short of breath, the whirlwind reversed itself, and she spiraled up again into Olivia, hundreds of years and thousands of miles away. She gulped in air as though she had been drowning, looked around for George wildly, and found that he was already exiting the box and gesturing for her to do the same.
Behind them, the machine did its vanishing act, and Olivia was able to assess her surroundings. George, who had been to London before in several eras, had assured her that she would, first thing, notice the stink. Her cautious sniffs, however, met with a strong floral scent, and she turned to see a climbing rose gracing a wrought-iron arbor, blooming even in the chill of an October dawn.
They had landed in the churchyard of St. Dunstan’s-in-the-East, on the slope of a hill behind the massive Custom House that sat on the shore of the Thames not far from London Bridge. Early morning light crept between the shadows of the surrounding buildings. Olivia turned her head and looked up at the soaring stone structure behind them; the church had one great spire above the bell tower, resting on a four-sided arch, strong but delicate. Four lesser arches on the corners of the tower also strained upward to the heavens, the light reflecting from them: glory above the darkness below. Other spires were in view from where they stood; London was—among other things—a city of churches.
“This way, coz,” George said softly, and they made their way to the gate. As they began to walk along the cobbled street, he held out his arm to her, and she took it, with only an instant’s hesitation.
“Thank you,” he said, still in a low tone. “We’re in it for appearances here; don’t be afraid to look like a member of the weaker sex. Allow me to guide you around this puddle, dear cousin,” he went on, raising his voice, “and pray do not trouble your mind about its probable composition.” Olivia averted her skirts hastily. “I’m counting on you to carry on like an hysterical female and shed a few tears if necessary, or even faint if the circumstances warrant it. It would look very odd at this point in history were I to fall down senseless and you to sweep me up gallantly in your arms, though I’m sure you could handle it at home.”
Olivia was doubtful of this—though she appreciated the sentiment behind it—as George had four inches on her in height and breadth in the shoulders to match. She’d become aware of his stature not only because she was clinging to his arm, but because most of the men they were passing on the street were shorter. Even she was taller than some of the men, and had the advantage of nearly all the women. They didn’t stand out too much, however; there was a reason why most time jumpers were average in build.
Soon they reached the foot of the hill and turned right into Lower Thames Street to walk around the Custom House, whose red brick bulk loomed up before them. Here the crowds were more numerous, and there were more noises and more smells: smoke and river mud and fish, as well as the stench of urine and the sour odor of spilt beer, and a general impression of unwashed humanity. There were people of all sorts about, now: working class men and women in drab colors hurrying along to their places of employment, ragged beggars sitting by the sides of the street, well-dressed prosperous-looking shopkeepers setting out wares while their wives or servants scrubbed the doorsteps, sailors in pantaloons and pigtails who had not yet found their land-legs, upper class dandies in bright silks and powdered wigs reeling home from all-night drinking parties, solid middle class citizens like Olivia and George going about their morning’s business.
George nudged her. “Don’t look like a tourist,” he whispered. “Even if you are one.” She bent her gaze downwards: not a bad idea anyway, as the horses had left as many reminders of their presence as the people. Few places were more impractical for skirts that brushed the ground.
She might not be accustomed to avoiding ordure underfoot, but she was quite used to moving in crowds, and despite the skirts she did not hold back George’s pace more than was proper for a lady; they reached the end of the Custom House shortly and rounded the corner into Billingsgate Fish Market. Stands and horse-drawn wagons displayed the silver-scaled wares of dozens of vendors, and clumps of buyers clustered around each, arguing loudly over prices. And beyond them flowed the Thames.
The broad shining river was barely visible, at its near bank, under the press of shipping in harbor: forests of masts, sails taken in to the echo of shouted commands, small boats shooting to and fro. A group of fishermen was unloading a hold full of their catch just in front of the market. Mid-river, a Channel-bound ship was getting underway; its white sails flashed in the morning sun, billowing as the wind found them. Olivia’s breath caught in an involuntary gasp. George squeezed her arm. She shot a sideways glance at him; his face was rapt with pleasure. Tourist, indeed.
They continued through the fish market, ignoring the sales patter about fresh eels and fine sturgeon. The breeze, barely perceptible in the maze of buildings behind them, blew strongly from the southwest. Every minute Olivia spent in the eighteenth century made it clearer to her that this was real, not a holographic illusion, and the scent of the river in that moist wind, the cry of the wheeling seagulls, the bustle of activity around her, made the tangibility of the place impossible to doubt. This was wholly different than a sim-jump, no matter how closely that other London had tried to mimic the real one in sights and sounds and even smells, and she knew without doubt that if she jumped to the London of Shakespeare’s time it would outstrip her previous experience as the terror and hurricane of a real shipwreck might shame a stage production of the same.
And yet it was still like a play; she knew herself an actor in a costume, but not quite as she’d expected. The people about her were assuming a solidity she had never sensed before in the crowds of any city; as a general rule, it was best to ignore the humanity of those with whom you waited in line or sandwiched yourself into transit tubes. Her initial feeling that she and George were playing the leading roles on a stage full of extras was fading, replaced by a sense of being the least real and least important person here.
Without realizing it, she had slowed her steps to a near shuffle, and George urged her along with the pressure of his arm. “Quite a change from Ringwould, is it not, dear cousin?” he asked loudly, and Olivia knew that he had recognized her retreat from the character she was supposed to be portraying. Here, now, in this world, Miss Lake of Kent needed to be as real as the Londoners about her.
“O brave new world…” she called back to him, over the noise of the wharf and the breeze and the people, and he smiled. “Cousin George, we have a ship to find, I believe.” She pulled her cloak around her to keep the wind off, and tucked her hand more firmly under his arm.
They strolled along past docks and piers, pausing now and then to gaze out at the river, looking for the familiar silhouette of the William: one of the tea brigs sent to Boston, though it had failed to arrive, wrecking on Cape Cod instead. Dash’d all to pieces… but eluding time breaches. George had a small telescope in his pocket, which he peered through to identify candidates—on occasion he would pass it to Olivia, looking indulgent—but they had no luck in locating their quarry, despite venturing nearly as far as the Tower and back. Olivia’s feet ached, and George was muttering under his breath.
They had just dismissed yet another brig when George’s frustration exploded aloud. “Where the bloody hell is it?” he called out, far too loudly, and Olivia put out a hand to shush him.
“Oughtn’t to talk like that in front of a lady,” said a cracked voice behind them, and they turned to see a raggedly dressed man leaning on a crutch that took the place of a missing leg. “You lookin’ for one in particklar? There ain’t much old Simon lets by without noticin’.”
He hobbled closer to them. “Penny a ship, sir. I’ll find ’em for you.” He held out a filthy palm.
George hesitated a moment, more, Olivia thought, for show than anything else, then fished in his pocket. He put a penny into the man’s hand. “The William. Bound for America.”
Old Simon looked thoughtfully at the coin in his hand, which was, though he would never know it, the product of a twenty-second-century metal shop specializing in antique reproductions. Then he cackled, with an evil humor. “You’ve missed her, ain’t you? Gone yesterday, she was. Sailed on the evening tide.”