The librarians glanced at them sideways. Hildegarde supposed they were an odd pair – her in her daffodil dress and kid gloves, him in his undersized school uniform. If anyone had asked, Hildegarde would’ve told them that Albie was her brother, even though she was about seven shades fairer than him. If a good lie was nowhere to be had, then a blatant lie was pretty effective at stopping unwanted questions.
But nobody asked. Hildegarde stuck to the deepest, emptiest shelves, because she couldn’t be sure that none of the librarians would recognise her. She was glad Albie had come with her, because he could reach the highest shelves far more easily, though he was slow to find the books.
“That one,” Hildegarde said. “The one by Vasilica.”
His hand hovered. “What colour is it?”
“Green,” she said. “Can’t you read?”
“I- yes, obviously. I obviously can.”
He pulled the book out too forcefully. Hildegarde raised her eyebrows as she took it.
“You totally can’t read.”
“I can,” he said. “It’s just- it takes a while. It’s not my fault. There’s a name for it.”
Hildegarde was privately glad. She didn’t want him looking over her shoulder and checking what she was reading, not if she found what she was looking for. He’d offered to help her, but he didn’t know what she planned to do.
Nor did she. She read for over an hour, but found nothing specific. Several historians discussed assassinations of degas, and one or two mentioned the use of a knife, but none said anything about the type of knife or if it had been used in a specific way. Hildegarde snapped shut book after book, her stomach growling, her eyes growing itchy. The watch on her wrist read half past twelve – the chauffeur would be coming to collect her soon.
“What are you looking for?” Albie asked, for the third time since they’d arrived. “It’d be faster, if I looked too.”
Hildegarde knuckled her forehead. “Thought you couldn’t read.”
“I can read. I told you.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter.” Hildegarde started shoving the books back onto the wrong shelves. “There’s nothing here. Waste of bloody time.”
“It’s…it’s only been an hour.”
“Yeah, well, that’s all I get,” she said. “I’m not going to be able to come back here, not on my own.”
“I can, though,” he said. “If you tell me what you want to find, I could- I did mean it, when I said I wanted to help.”
“You mean when you ran off?” Hildegarde said. There was no anger in her voice, just weariness. “You’ve got no idea what I’m trying to do. Why would you help me, anyway? You don’t even knowme.”
Albie looked down at his hands. “I still want to help.”
He didn’t look up for a moment. When he did, he didn’t meet Hildegarde’s eyes.
“I don’t want to- not here,” he muttered, as if to himself. “It’s too quiet in here.”
“I made this friend, back in primary school,” Albie said, his voice quiet and awkward. “Mary-Ann, but she’d kick you if you called her that. Her second name was Jennings, so she made us call her Jen.”
Hildegarde nodded at him to keep talking. They were walking past the church, which rang out quarter to the hour. The chauffeur would be on his way now. Maybe just setting off.
“She didn’t have a lot of friends,” Albie said. “I thought it was because she went to a different infants’ school, at first, but it was more…she was a bit rough, I guess. She came from an orphanage in another part of York, one for posies. I didn’t really know what it meant.” He rubbed his nose. “I knew posies were…assistants, I suppose? I didn’t think about it much. I wasn’t very old.”
Hildegarde almost asked why he’d never asked questions, then remembered that she rarely had either. Even though it was her future.
“We were friends through primary. Neither of us liked school much, but it was the only time we really got to see each other,” he said. “She didn’t want me coming to that House she was at. The matrons didn’t like her coming to mine much either, but she did sometimes. My mum always made a fuss of her. Used to make me jealous, actually.” He breathed in. “Dad didn’t talk to her as much. He used to tell me I should try and make other friends – not meanly, like. He just thought it’d be better, because…”
“Because she was going to go off to be a posie?”
“Mm,” Albie said. “She got an agent just after we started at secondary school, I think. She kept missing days so she could go meet all these degas who’d made offers. It didn’t seem to bother her much, but I just…couldn’t believe it was actually happening.” He squinted into the middle distance; a V of geese flew past, too quick for Hildegarde to count. “She seemed excited, almost – a degas in London bid for her, and she was practically bouncing when she came back from visiting her. Said she had this penthouse flat right by the river and that she was going to get three rooms to herself.” He swallowed. “I wanted to be glad for her, but I- it stung, because she seemed so fine with leaving me behind. And I just kept thinking, she’s going to be off living the high life, and you’re going to be stuck here doing homework.”
The breath he drew in was shaky. Hildegarde looked sidelong at him.
“You mean you didn’t know?” she said.
“Not then,” Albie said. “But there was this- I started helping out in my uncle’s shop about that time, just on Saturdays when Mum wanted me out of the way. And these two women came in, maybe about two weeks before Jen was meant to go to London. I don’t- I don’t remember what they were saying, really, but they got round to talking about a boy they knew who was going to be a posie. They were just joking around, but I heard one of them say…it was something like ‘how’re they going to suck his personality out when he’s not even got one?’” He paused. “They left almost right after, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I…asked Mum about it, when I got home.”
The pair of them stopped at the edge of the pavement, waiting for a motorcar to pass.
“And she told you?” Hildegarde asked.
“Not straightaway, but she’s a bad liar and I knew she was hiding stuff, so I kept on at her. Eventually she sat me down and explained it all.”
Hildegarde hesitated. “What did you do?”
“I was just confused,” he said. “I started saying something about how we had to tell Jen, but Mum, like, caught my hands. And she said ‘you’ve got to promise you won’t tell her’.”
“What? I thought your mum liked her?”
“She did. She said she wished more than anything that we could help her, but that Jen was…she belonged to the House, and if you jeopardise their ability to sell, they can sue you for damages – if they found out it was us, they’d bankrupt us.” His voice wobbled. “So I said we’d just be secret about it – send her a note, or something, but- but there’s this law, that if a House can’t sell a child to a degas, they’re entitled to make up the losses however they can. They can sell them to anyone. For anything.”
Hildegarde let her imagination fill the gaps. There’d only been one boy, in her time at the House, who hadn’t gone on to be a posie. She’d asked about him once, but the matrons just said he’d been ‘sent away’.
“How is it allowed?” she said. “How’s that a law?”
“Parliament’s full of degas,” Albie said. “It always has been.”
The newsagent’s came into view. When Hildegarde let her eyes wander to the other side of the street, she saw the chauffeur’s car gleaming like a beetle carapace on the kerb.
“What did you do?” she asked. “About Jen?”
Albie shrugged - a pitiful, helpless gesture. She knew what he was about to say before he said it.
“Nothing,” he said quietly. “I did nothing.”
Maybe she should’ve found it despicable. But instead, she only imagined how those two weeks must have been for him, watching her smile and count the days. How it must’ve been saying goodbye. Had he hugged her, but tried not to cling too hard? Told her to look after herself?
Hildegarde thought of Louise. Be careful.
“I want to help you,” Albie said quietly. “Or try, at least.”
Hildegarde let out a long sigh. He wasn’t brave. She could tell that much. But nor were most people, until they had to be.
“What I need you to do,” she said, slowly, “is find out how a degas can be killed.”
His eyes widened – but, to his credit, he didn’t flinch.
“I’ll try,” he said.
Hildegarde reached out and squeezed his hand. As she turned and walked towards the crossing, the church bell tolled a distant one o’clock. There were no birds in the sky, so she counted the chimes instead. She tallied seventeen before she reached the car.