They had nearly come to the bottom of the hill and were now on a flatter path that bordered the river. Though it shouldn’t have surprised her, Rosalyn was again struck that there was no water, simply open sky, on which barges were moving, some towed by mules.
“Lid down, now,” murmured Gaétane. “Can you reach it?” Rosalyn flipped the lid closed and hunkered down inside, shifting her knees to the side. “You’ll have to stay out of sight until we’re among those we can trust. Not too much longer.” Now she had to rely on her ears and nose for a sense of where they were. She could see bits of the barge path through gaps in the wicker, but mostly she could tell they were nearing the town because the crunching sound of gravel had given way to the smoother slap of hard-soled walking boots on cobble stones. She heard shouts of laughter from path to barge, felt their party squeeze to one side to allow a cart to rumble by, smelled the warm barn odour of the donkeys they passed. She felt a flutter of excitement in her stomach, or was it nerves? Being forced to stay hidden made her feel uneasy, as if danger was imminent. Was she feeling excited that they would finally find Jason, or anxious that they wouldn’t?
They were climbing stairs. She braced herself with her arms as she felt the basket tilt from side to side with each step up. Soon she could see and hear their small party join a larger stream of people entering the town for market day.
Suddenly, there was a commotion behind them and the sound of horse-hooves clattering on the cobblestones. “Make way! Make way for his Excellency!” shouted a loud voice.
As discreetly as possible, Rosalyn craned her neck and lifted the lid of the basket with the crown of her head so she could get a glimpse of the excitement. The crowd was pressing itself against either side of the bridge. Nora gasped. Gaétane swore. They were trying to get deep into the crowd, close to the bridge railing with their backs turned to the grand carriage that had come into view. Four black horses with red plumes on their heads were proudly pulling a magnificent coach with huge wheels, glossy wood sides and a door outlined with gold leaf and emblazoned with a handsome coat of arms. One quadrant caught her eye, a little red snake with four short legs. A red-liveried driver sat out front, his whip dancing over the horses’ backs and two young men in a similar uniform stood erect at the rear. The occupants of the carriage were out of sight behind drawn shades.
All of a sudden, in the press of the crowd to get out of the way of the powerful horses and the crushing wheels of the carriage, someone tripped and fell, spilling a load of potatoes that bounced and rolled all over the cobblestones directly in the path of the oncoming vehicle. The driver gave a shout of anger, pulling hard up on the reins to stop the horses who were at risk of slipping on them like marbles and overturning the carriage. He began to yell insults at the poor farmer who was scrambling desperately to pick up what few potatoes he could to salvage some of his income for the day. He didn’t notice the driver raise his whip and screamed in pain and shock when the tail of the whip sliced through his homespun shirt and cut open a thin line of his back.
“That’ll teach you to block his Excellency’s way, you clumsy fool,” shouted the driver. Some in the crowd laughed, others shook their heads and muttered. “Poor man, nothing to sell at market and hurt bad, too.” Others complained at the cruelty of the nobles. “He can afford all the potatoes in the world and he deprives this man of his one basket…”
A movement in the window of the carriage caught Rosalyn’s eye as the crowd was looking at the spectacle of the spilled potatoes. Someone had raised one of the blinds and whose face should be stuck to the glass, nose pressed flat, aiming for a view of what had stopped their progress, but Jason’s!
She clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a yell. She had one split second to confirm that it was him, his blond curls, his eager look, before a hand reached out and quickly pulled the blind closed again.
“Gaétane!” she whsipered, unable to contain her excitement, not caring who heard her, “I saw him, I saw my brother! In the carriage!”
“We can’t talk now,” sang Gaétane, to the tune of what might have been an old folk-song. “The time will come.”
Rosalyn took the hint, but could hardly sit still. He was here! No nasty orphanage to visit, no lengthy quesitoning of merchants today. They could run their errands, collect Jason from the nobleman who had rescued him and be on their way. She forced herself to breathe, her heart was facing so fast. She wanted to stand up and scream with joy, but she chewed on her thumbnail instead. The carriage moved off and the crowd began to inch forward again. As the conversations got louder and the spaces between them and the other market-goers widened, Gaétance said to the others quietly, “The boy was in the carriage.” She didn’t sound pleased. Why was she saying it as if it were bad news instead of the stroke of luck it was?
Nora answered, “We’ll have to discuss it at Lutetia’s. I think we can trust her.”
A short time later, she heard the jangle of a bell over a shop door and the light dim as they stepped indoors. “Good day, my dears!” called a rich, alto voice. “I’ll be right with you. Make yourselves comfortable.” Rosalyn was lifted off Gaétane’s back and both of them sighed with relief. She wanted to poke her lid up and look around, but the lid wouldn’t budge. When she twisted her head to see why, she saw the outline of Gaétane’s hand firmly resting on it.
“A beautiful choice, Madame,” came the woman’s deep voice. “Yes, we will have it finished early next week. Will you call for it, or shall I send Jack?” The reply was only a murmur. Gaétane’s fingers began drumming on the lid, like rain on a metal roof. Finally the bell jangled again as ‘Madame’ left.
“So lovely to see you, dear Nora,” said the velvety voice, coming nearer with the swishing sound of a long skirt. She greeted Nora and Gaétane with kisses on both cheeks.
“Oh, Lutetia, we’re in need of your help. We’re sitting between two chairs this time.” Nora sounded on the verge of tears.
“If it’s anything financial, I can always assist you. You know that, and there’s no need to make any reference to the Bonvent pride.”
“No,” protested Nora. She paused and lowered her voice, though the shop was empty. “We can’t talk about it here.”
“Ah, I see,” came the reply, with steel under the velvet. There was a rustling, then she said, “Come this way.” Hoist by hoist Rosalyn was carried up some stairs and finally plunked down on a carpeted floor. Her neck was aching, her shoulders felt stiff, and she was beginning to feel claustrophobic in this tight space. Being lugged up the stairs had not been a pleasant experience, bracing herself against the sides of the basket to avoid getting knocked about. Nora had said this person could be trusted and it seemed they were somewhere more secluded. Rosalyn cleared her throat loudly.
Gaétane’s hand flew to the basket once more and held the lid down. Fighting panic, Rosalyn focused on slowing her breathing down. She was safe, she could move her torso, and her legs, and she would soon be let out. She closed her eyes and counted, four seconds in, eight seconds out like her mother had taught her to do when she had trouble falling asleep.
After the click of a door closing, the voice spoke again, “I’m afraid I do not have as much time as I could wish. I must return to the shop in a few minutes, but please, speak freely.”
There was a slight pause. Rosalyn wanted to pop out of the basket and yell at them all, “What’s the hold up? Just knock on the stupid guy’s door and let’s get my brother!” Instead, she exhaled as loudly as she dared through her teeth and listened.
“Two days ago,” began Nora, “we received an unexpected visitor. When Gaétane was out rowing in the afternoon, she rescued a poor child stranded on a cloud and brought her back to the manor. This girl told us that her brother had also fallen into our sky, but she had lost sight of him. We said we would come to town to search for him on market-day but—“
The woman chuckled, “That explains it. I didn’t think Marcella had brought me a cat, nor did I think your lace had taken on a life of its own, unless lace has begun breathing loudly.”
“Shall I let her out?” asked Gaétane.
“Heavens, by all means! She must be suffocating in there.”
Rosalyn needed no more invitation. The minute Gaétane’s hand shifted, she flipped the lid forward and stood up, wiggling her legs to get the blood flowing. She was in a most feminine sitting room. Pink and white striped chairs and loveseats were arranged around an intricate rug. Lace tablecloths covered spindle-legged tables of varying heights and porcelain figurines dotted the room. Sheer drapes muted the bright late morning light and, silhouetted against the window, was an elegant older woman with perfect posture in a deep rose gown. They looked at one another and Rosalyn felt awkward, underdressed and doubtful that this person could be of any help. She was too fancy, too fine. Nora and Gaétane, whose well-cut wool walking clothing had impressed her at the manor, suddenly looked shabbily dressed, as out of place as barn animals in the living room.
Gaétane scooped her out of the basket and Nora smiled and held out her large hand to Rosalyn who took it with relief in this stranger’s house. Nora already seemed as familiar as a favourite aunt.
“She’s older than she looks.”
“Yes, I was getting to that,” said Nora. “Yesterday we all had quite a shock when we realized she was fixed and we assume her brother is, too.”
“Two fixed children?”
“I wish that were all.” Nora wrapped an arm protectively around Rosalyn’s waist. “We have reason to believe—“
“My cousin Scalamandre picked up the boy,” cut in Gaétane.
The woman’s hand flew to her throat.