It is very late one Friday night when I find myself back at The Rose & Crown. I have no idea how I got here or how long I’ve been here, but the empty glass in my hand smells like paint thinner. I vaguely remember meeting Mark and his friends here to celebrate the upcoming release of Virtue’s Lady this Monday, and at some point I think I allowed him to talk me into trying seventeenth century gin.
The pounding in my head tells me that was a terrible idea.
The lights are low and most everyone has left. Bess Henshawe is sweeping the floor while Judith collects mugs scattered over the sticky tables. Joe Ledford is asleep--dead?--across one table beside the door, his fist clutching his empty glass. Judith pries his dirty fingers off of it one by one, until his grip is loose enough for her to take it. She can’t be more than about nine years old, but she carries out her task with the resignation of someone who’s been cleaning up after people for years.
Apart from Joe and the Henshawe sisters, the only other person in the bar is Jack.
It’s 1671 and Jack is sixteen. His book won’t be finished for more than three hundred and fifty years. I decide I’ve had too much gin to explain to him how strange this is to me. In any case, I’m not sure he knows who I am. He sits across the table from me, watching me with patient concern.
He’s no more than a kid, really, but he’s already beautiful. He’s still quite short, has blue eyes so dark that they’re nearly black, and just a hint of a cleft in his chin. His hair is crazy. It’s black, curly, and sticks out at odd angles. Carys said he would grow up gorgeous, and I can see that she’s right.
Jack doesn’t strike me as someone who knows that he’s handsome. Actually, he doesn’t strike me as someone who pays much attention to himself at all. Right now, he’s just trying to make sure I don’t pass out like Joe.
A mug of hot black coffee appears in front of me and I look up to see Alice. We haven’t spoken here since our last interview, and I don’t think she’s going to speak to me today. She leaves the coffee with a fresh beer for Jack and returns silently to the kitchen.
I look pointedly at his beer. “Do you ever pay for a drink in here?”
He shrugs. “Haven’t yet. It’s Mark, you see. The Henshawes look after us because they adore him.”
I can see Alice peeking around the corner over his shoulder. “Are you sure?”
He frowns, clearly puzzled, and sips his beer.
I brave a taste of the coffee, immediately regretting it. It’s much worse than I remembered. “I have some questions for you,” I say to him, struggling to stay awake.
Jack almost smiles. “Would you prefer to wait until morning? Perhaps after some more coffee…”
I wave a hand. “I’m fine. Never know when the TARDIS is coming back. We don’t have much time.”
He clearly has no idea what I’m talking about, but he agrees. Either he trusts me, or he’s used to humoring people who’ve had too much to drink. I pull out my notebook and begin.
You guys came into a little money last summer. What did you do with your share?
(He lowers his voice) I rented a flat for my mum and my sister up in St. Giles. It’s not much, but it’s better than where they were. Mum’s not well, you see, and Joanna tries to look after her, but she’s only a little girl. I used to look after them both, before I came down here. That is, before my apprenticeship started. (He clears his throat) I’m sorry, I’m told I talk too much when I’m nervous. If I’m talking too much, just say.
It’s okay. Are you enjoying your apprenticeship?
(He nods) Of course. Mark’s brilliant. He’s like a brother to me, truly. I owe him my life, and more. I try to help out as much as I can, but there hasn’t been a lot of work these past couple of years. Most boys have it harder, I know. They get beaten, starved, they never get a holiday or any wages for their work. Mark’s never treated me as anything less than a friend, and I wouldn’t be able to help my mum without him. If he hadn't have found me when he did, I’d still be picking pockets. Probably be hanged by now. Everyone gets caught.
Who did Harry leave with tonight?
(He blushes and cracks a smile) I couldn’t say, to be honest. Once he decides he fancies a girl, he can be quite single-minded. He’ll stomp about the house all day, making noise everywhere he goes, but then he’ll see a pretty girl and he’ll just vanish. He’s going to get himself into trouble one day.
What about you, Jack? Are there any girls you fancy?
(He turns a brilliant scarlet and looks into his beer) I don’t really see girls the way he does.
I heard you pulled a knife on a guy a couple of months back. What was that about?
He hit Alice! (Jack lowers his voice) He made a lewd suggestion and when she tried to leave, he struck her. I daresay he was going to try to give her a beating before he felt the knife between his ribs. I should have run him through.
Why would you do that?
I don’t react well when I see people assaulting women. Something snaps and it’s all I can do to keep myself from killing them. It’s awful, I know, but I can’t seem to help it. If that man had hurt her and I could have saved her but didn’t, I’d never forgive myself. It’s the same with animals, beggars, children. Anyone who can’t defend themselves.
You’re a good guy, Jack. You’re really sweet, but kind of intense. Is it all women, or just Alice?
All of them. (He shrugs) Alice is different. People overlook her all the time, and she’s so small, it’s a wonder she doesn’t get trampled. She’ll never speak up for herself, so I try to keep an eye on her. When that awful man put his hands on her, she didn’t see much as cry out, though she was plainly distressed. Some people say she’s simple, but she’s anything but. You have to pay attention to notice, but it’s all there if you’re watching. She’s easily the cleverest girl in Southwark.
Pretty, too. Don’t you think?
(He frowns) Of course she is. Why do people keep asking me that?
Just want to make sure you’ve noticed, I suppose. Do you have any questions for me?
(He leans in) Is it true that you grant wishes?
I’m not exactly a genie, but I’d love to help you if I can. What do you want?
(He takes my hand) Would you please look after my sister? I worry about her constantly. It’s not good for her to be alone in the flat with all those men passing through. I can’t protect her, but I was hoping you can. Would you please protect my sister when I’m not there?
I can do that. I promise you, Jack, no harm will come to your sister.
You can meet Jack and Alice in Tyburn and get to know them a little better in Virtue’s Lady, coming out this Monday. You can still pre-order Virtue’s Lady in any ebook format you’d like from Liquid Silver at 20% off the cover price. It’s out in less than 48 hours now and that’s a pretty good deal!