Carter didn’t get any sleep that night. Tossing and turning, laying still and staring at the ceiling, the wall, or the headboard of his bed. The only things that kept running through his mind, moving too fast for him to try to catch in his hand and hold still long enough to understand, were Shiloh and coterie.
None of it made any sense. Questions swirled around the hazy outlines of his mind, running like dozens of rivers splitting off into impossible waterways that had no end.
Was Shiloh really in the coterie? What if Isha and Gideon were lying? Where would Shiloh be if they were? Where would she be if they weren’t? If they were telling the truth, why would Shiloh lie? If they were, why would she be in the coterie at all?
Despite the slight buzz running through his veins and the overall distressing nature of the whole business, Carter didn’t feel much of anything, except awake. He grew annoyed fairly quickly, wishing that he could just fall asleep quickly. Why hasn’t something invented an off switch for anyone’s brain yet?
He supposed there was an off switch, but he didn’t want to entertain that idea to much depth.
So Isha might have been right about not being the only one who wanted answers. The great unknown of black and white and the grey in between loomed before Carter like a monster with huge teeth. He felt as though his feet were glued to the ground, and without any means to fight the monster, it was just waiting for the perfect second to devour him.
She had, however, been wrong to think Carter was crazy enough to come after them. Isha might have been nice enough before, but that didn’t change that her and Gideon had admitted to being in one of the coteries. Or at least, associated with one. Maybe she had been playing nice on purpose.
Maybe they did mean to hurt Shiloh and Isha had lied about that. Maybe they were trying to lure Carter in too, so when he arrived at the inn, he’d be ambushed and captured and forced to do horrible things.
A storm swirled in his stomach when he couldn’t decide what was worse: being forced into the coterie and all the kinds of perfectly awful that came with it, or never seeing Shiloh again.
Gideon had sure looked like he wanted to take a chunk out of Carter. He couldn’t be that far out of the realm of possibility, right?
Thin beams of the early, pale golden sunlight were starting to slice through the trees. From what Carter could see above the plentiful bushels of green treetops, a powder blue dawn was starting to swallow the last of the silent, cold dark of the clear night sky.
He rolled out of bed shortly after he started seeing the glint of the sun. It wasn’t much earlier than he would’ve normally gotten up, but the second Carter put weight on his feet, a bone deep exhaustion settled over him like an itchy, unwanted blanket.
Carter forced himself into the kitchen with all the enthusiasm as a dead cat. The worn-out and yellowed wall clock that couldn’t have been much bigger than Carter’s hand – in fairness, Carter had big hands – ticked with a sad little hissing noise. It read just after five in the morning.
The irate-blanket feeling stayed with Carter as he prepared a meagre breakfast of a leftover muffin that Whisper had given him – recently enough that it couldn’t have been that bad, he hoped – and a tin mug of milk.
He ate sullenly, wanting nothing more than to return to bed and bury himself in soft, warm blankets. Maybe he should have tried covering his head with them. Maybe it would have given the cue to his mind to shut up for a while and let him rest.
Starting to chores and letting the horses out into their respective pastures was no easier. The sun had started to break through the tree line and cast a pleasant, buttery hue over the landscape.
At another time, Carter might have been more appreciative of the view, delighted even. But it wasn’t another time, and he merely dragged his feet against the gently waving glass of Bazzoli’s neatly tended lawn and wondered why it was that he didn’t just go back to his bed.
Reese was sweet enough to nose at Carter’s face and snuff into his hair when he came into her pasture to move her, as if checking to make sure he was okay.
He was cleaning the stalls when he heard the old barn doors, with the rusted hinges, squeal as they opened. Carter jumped, a crawling feeling running up his arms, and paused to peer out of the stall. He heard a stomping noise from down the aisle.
Bazzoli was already scowling by the time he looked at Carter and crossed his arms over his chest. His dark auburn, cropped hair was slicked back with some sort of gel. Carter supposed it was to make him look fancy or rich, but he thought it just made him look like he’d been rolling in grease.
“I’ve told you a thousand times to oil those hinges,” Bazzoli told Carter. His eyes were still puffy from sleep, and he wore some sort of butcher’s apron. Carter didn’t feel like asking why. Chances were, it was just because it made him feel tougher.
Carter shrunk away from him and shrugged, looking down at his scruffy shoes that had strips peeling off them at the toe. “Been busy,” he mumbled at the floor, clutching the handle of shovel in a white knuckle grip.
When he risked a glance up, he found Bazzoli taking in his appearance. He harrumphed with displeasure. “You look like you slept in one of the stalls last night. What trouble you getting into?” He squinted at Carter.
“Um, I. Um, nothing, I-I just couldn’t, um. I couldn’t sleep.” It wasn’t a lie, but it sure felt like one. But Carter was more afraid of facing Bazzoli’s punishment if he found out that Gideon and Isha had been here. Would he be mad? That wasn’t Carter’s fault. Right?
He didn’t want to find out.
Bazzoli gave him a long, hard look, before waving his hand and grumbling to himself. “Stop saying ‘um, um’,” he mocked, raising his voice into a pig-like squeak. “It makes you sound like a whining dog.”
Despite the mocking tone, there wasn’t much heat behind Bazzoli’s words. It was a dismissive tone and Carter just nodded to play along. He stayed rigid, ready for anything, but Bazzoli was more asleep than angry.
There was several moments that followed of silence, where Bazzoli gazed around the barn with a scrutinising look. Carter held his head down and waited until Bazzoli either dismissed him or left.
Finally, his boss yawned and his arms dropped to his sides. He pointed at Carter, his meaty finger wavering in front of them.
“I have clients coming by who are looking for a stud later. Do them and yourself a favour, make yourself scarce.” Bazzoli considered him for a long moment. “You can go into town to go visit that little witch of yours if everything is straight and in order.” He wagged his finger once more in Carter’s face before dropping his arm. “Don’t forget that I’m the one that stands between you and living in those dark alleys with no money, boy.”
Carter nodded quickly but heat still rose to his cheeks at Bazzoli’s derogatory tone when he mentioned Whisper. If he were a little braver, he would have corrected him. He knew it was the right thing to do, but he kept his mouth clamped shut instead.
He expected Bazzoli to leave him alone then, but Bazzoli continued to linger. He stared at Carter for several uncomfortable moments, and Carter squirmed under his gaze. Then Bazzoli harrumphed again. A strand of his oily hair popped out of place and stuck sideways.
“Where’d that pretty sister of yours get off to? I didn’t see her come back last night.”
The mention of his sister made Carter’s stomach turn. He didn’t feel like mentioning that Bazzoli had also missed two people who were probably coterie members too. He shrugged instead, rubbing the toes of his shoes together. “Um. I don’t know. I, um, she’s probably at her, um. Her job. A-at the crossroads.”
He felt silly for clarifying, Bazzoli had heard that Shiloh had gotten that job. Or at least, she said she had. Carter wasn’t so sure now.
“Hmph.” Bazzoli sniffed. “If I were her, I’d have thrown you to the wolves as a squirming piglet. She’s got enough looks that she doesn’t need a sorry kid brother like you dragging her down.”
Carter also didn’t want to mention that Bazzoli could have done that when Carter was younger, and he hadn’t. His cheeks burned at his comment about Shiloh enough that he didn’t think much about it either.
He’d always hated the way some people spoke about his sister, as if she were some object. Shiloh always told him to ignore them. Carter couldn’t help but wonder how she felt about them, even though she said she could handle it.
Bazzoli nodded to himself finally and frowned at Carter. “This whole stable better be new and shiny,” he said, without specifying when it needed to be new and shiny by. He had a tendency to neglect important details like that.
Without another word, Bazzoli turned and walked out of the barn. Although his walking was more like clomping. He was a bear of a man in most every sense. Carter was grateful that Bazzoli wouldn’t be able sneak up on him, anyway.
He heard the pained creak of the old barn door’s hinges again. “For God’s sakes, boy, oil those hinges!” He heard Bazzoli shout, just before the door slammed shut and Carter was left alone once more.
Letting out a long breath, Carter let himself relax. It had been one of Bazzoli’s better days, and as long as Carter could stay out of the way later, he might be able to pretend everything was normal.
Pretend that two strangers hadn’t appeared out of nowhere yesterday and implied his sister to be affiliated with the coterie.
The muffled noise of a clock chiming made Carter jump again. His eyes darted around the stable, and then tapped the end of the shovel again his forehead. He’d been expecting someone to leap out of the shadows with a knife again.
Without realising what he was doing, Carter counted the number of chimes as they passed. He stayed still long enough to count seven chimes, before they cut off and Carter shook his head. He frowned at himself and turned back into the stall to continue cleaning.
He had about two hours to finish cleaning the barn and making sure everything was ‘straight and in order’ and get to town before the clock struck ten.
As he shovelled another scoop of the manure into the wheelbarrow that waited patiently outside the stall for him, the sensation of cold water trickling down his spine gave Carter a nasty chill.
Bazzoli hadn’t mentioned when his clients were coming over. Why was Carter trying to get to town before ten rolled around? Most of Bazzoli’s appointments were in the afternoon, because the man himself loathed mornings enough to avoid them where he could.
You want answers, don’t you? You’re not the only one.
It took all the time for Carter to put another shovel full in the wheelbarrow before he remembered who had said that to him. The chill ran through him again. He realised that he had already started scheduling everything in his mind to be able to get to Greenwich before Gideon and Isha had left.
“No,” he said, and then felt foolish. They weren’t here to hear him decline their offer. It was just Carter, and now he was talking to himself and considering chasing after perfect strangers who would probably kill him in his sleep. Or worse.
He couldn’t just run off into the blue on the off chance that Shiloh was in the coterie and Gideon and Isha were actually her friends. Friends? Were they friends? Did coterie members have friends?
Maybe Whisper would know what to do. She was smarter and braver than Carter by a longshot, she’d have better advice then Carter’s panicky mind.
But there was a worm wiggling around his heart like it had infested an apple, because he could ask Whisper whatever he wanted about what he should do. He knew, if it came down to it, Shiloh’s opinion would matter more. And Carter knew if he was in the same situation as Shiloh, there would have been no hesitation in demanding to come along.
He had three hours to decide whether to follow his heart or his mind. Carter didn’t know which one was less reliable in this whole situation.
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