When Kellen got to the foot of Walnut, Vincent wasn’t waiting.
“Damn it.” Her breath puffed a tight cloud in front of her mouth.
Along the two blocks of Philadelphia nearest the waterfront, the city dropped, sometimes gently and sometimes less so, from high to low. West of Front Street, away from the river, scattered steeples mingled with more mundane homes and shops and grasped for the heavens: the State House, the courthouse, the Academy on Arch Street, the Presbyterian Church. Over all those, nearest to the center of the Philadelphia skyline, loomed the crisp lines of the Christ Church tower.
East of Front, cobbled streets dipped toward the river with the inevitability of a sinner falling from grace. A series of dank, narrow stairwells descended from the steepled high ground to the waterfront, paths of plain stone steps that cut through the river’s embankment to Philadelphia’s wharves.
“Haven’t I always
taken care of you?
Just like at the end of every other day, Kellen had clomped over the uneven footpath along the landward side of those wharves. Like every other docker hustling home, she wore trousers and a woolen coat and a cap. Hers were as threadbare as anyone else’s, and they did just as piss poor a job of keeping her warm, even in the elbow-to-elbow jostling of bodies spilling through the day workers’ pay lines.
Since Kellen had been twelve, this had been her life—give or take, she wasn’t exactly sure of her birth date and couldn’t have figured the years between anyhow, since she’d never learned her numbers. She just knew what Vincent had told her—she’d been twelve, and it had been half their lives ago.
Kellen shoved against the tide of men pushing along the street until she reached one side of the throng. Then she stood there, stamping her feet and blowing into her cupped hands and waiting.
The ship holds where Kellen spent her days hooking cargo generally stank of livestock and spoiled food, but the wind was blocked, at least. Out in the open, that wind blew across the slush-clotted Delaware River, raging between the poles of tightly furled ship masts and driving sleet across the wharves. Thunder even rumbled.
Wicked damn weather, and past time to be in out of it. She glanced back the way she’d come, to see if she could pick Vincent out from the most recent wave of workers crowding up to the clerks.
Off the edge of the wharf, choppy waves thumped against pilings and casements and grumbled in an angry voice, as if they hoped to claw through wood and chew through years of made-earth to drop the waterfront back into the river. On days like this, Kellen thought that if the Delaware could figure out how, it would punch holes in all the hulls of all the moored ships and take them to the bottom of the river. Then it would pitch itself against the land until water covered Philadelphia. And if the river could manage that, maybe it would just keep going from there, until the whole world was one monstrous ocean.
Beneath the sounds of wind and water curled a hesitant whisper, as if someone spoke nearby but just out of sight—except that there was no place that was close by and out of sight.
Just the wind, probably, and Kellen didn’t have time to dwell on it in any case. Suddenly, she spotted Vincent—not back at the clerks still, but closing in on her. His dark head bobbed into and out of view as he shoved past workers moving more slowly. His black hair, stringy and too long and damp from the rain, clung to the contours of his head.
Vincent’s dark eyes fixed on Kellen. The wind seemed less cold, and Kellen smiled.
Vincent came straight at her, shoulders down and leaning forward like a dog on a trail. He wasn’t smiling, and Kellen started to wonder if she should be worried. Then Vincent was five strides away. Four, three. Two.
Before Kellen could say anything, Vincent grabbed her elbow and pressed it. “Just go.”
Vincent was taller than Kellen by a head, but past his shoulder she glimpsed a massive figure slouching along the crowded wharves. Hair so pale as to be nearly white was plastered against his too-big head. Kellen couldn’t see his eyes from a distance, but she could nearly feel his gaze as he turned his head side to side, his nose lifted slightly as if he were a predator scenting prey.
Burke Ripley. Kellen abruptly stopped noticing the cold altogether.
Vincent spun Kellen around and shoved her between the shoulder blades. She started walking even before she’d gotten her bearings.
“He’s in a mood.” Vincent’s breath warmed Kellen’s ear as he spoke beside it. “Don’t need you in his path.”
Kellen preferred to stay out of Burke Ripley’s path every day, mood or no mood. Real men might not hit women, but no one had ever accused Ripley of being a real man.
“It’s daylight and crowded.” Kellen had some vague notion she could reassure Vincent, or maybe herself. “He won’t start anything.”
“When has common sense ever stopped Burke Ripley? With some luck, someone else will get between him and us, and he’ll get distracted beating on them. Now stop talking and go.”
Kellen went—uphill along Walnut, around the corner onto Front Street, and north toward Market. Vincent walked nearly on her heels, driving her before him.
Philadelphia was supposed to be laid out in a grid spread tidily between the Schuylkill River on the west and the Delaware River on the east. Nothing ever goes according to plan, though, so most of the city’s buildings and people had ended up clumped along the Delaware, and there was little tidy about it. Houses of alternating red and black brick mingled with awning-fronted shops, walled estates kept company with coffee houses, and the hanging tree boughs and prim roses of gardens stood within an elbow’s reach of smoky taverns. Alleys crept from street to street, insinuating themselves in zigs and zags wherever whim had thrown up rows of unplanned buildings. Streets and houses straggled off toward the Schuylkill, thinning out the further west you walked, but when you said Philadelphia, most people knew you meant the strip of city along the Delaware.
Raucous laughter and tall tales interspersed with the tang of pipe smoke rolled out from the taverns and coffee houses Kellen and Vincent passed, alternating with the cool, quiet brick fronts of houses and shops. They broke through the rising and falling of sound and warmth, silence and cold, like swimmers breaking through waves.
A few breathless minutes later, Kellen spotted a familiar pewter platter shuddering on a sign pole outside its namesake tavern, a landmark that pointed the way home. Kellen turned west onto Market, and Vincent fell into step beside her. As they rounded the corner, she glanced down Front Street, back the way they’d come, and saw no sign of Ripley’s overbearing form.
Vincent slowed his steps, and Kellen matched hers to his. She let her breathing ease, and her skin shivered from nothing more than cold again.
The mall running up the middle of Market was empty, and the street itself nearly so. Two days of the week, the market teemed with color and sound and movement, not just inside the covered stalls but in and outside the shops lining both sides of the street and even out in the street itself. Today, damp muffled the sound of their shoes on the brick footpath, and a rain-dulled gray hung over the street’s cobbled breadth. A block behind them, the Christ Church’s heavy bell tolled the hour. Other, more distant bells joined the peal.
Kellen skirted one of the posts that separated foot traffic from the street and shot a quick glance up at Vincent.
His eyebrows were drawn together.
“So what happened?” Kellen asked.
Vincent shrugged without looking at Kellen. “Dunno. Ripley’s temper’s been on a short fuse lately, even for him.”
Kellen frowned. Like life wasn’t hard enough, without another problem thrown in their path.
A chaise rattled past, the hooves of its single horse clattering on the cobbled street. Smoke wafted out from the Indian King as they passed, but the voices drifting out were more cultured and less harsh than anything coming from one of the unlicensed tippling houses on the waterfront. The King sold wine and spirits, not just cider and ale, and to merchants and politicians, not to the sailors and water men who frequented the wharfside taverns.
A brief wish to step inside one of those places, to be in warmth and noise and human company, tickled in Kellen’s chest, but she shoved it away. She and Vincent only ever went straight home. Coins were for saving, not spending.
Vincent cupped his hand against the back of Kellen’s neck, just below where her chopped-off hair bristled out from beneath her cap.
She slowed her steps and looked up at him, and he leaned down and kissed her. The sleet freezing in his scruffy black beard rubbed off on her cheeks, cold touches surrounding the warm brush of his mouth.
“It’s all good.” Vincent took his hand away from Kellen’s neck and walked facing forward again. “Haven’t I always taken care of you?”
Despite his words, his mouth was turned down, and his eyes seemed distant. Kellen’s worry didn’t want to slip away from her, but that wouldn’t be what he wanted to hear.
She forced a smile. “You always have.”