Dawn on a Distant Shore Page 98

"You're awake." She came to sit on the edge of the bed. "Come to table, then. The food is here."

Nathaniel ran a thumb over the line of her jaw. "You've got shadows under your eyes. Maybe you should come back to bed, instead."

She took his hand and kissed his knuckles, and then she stood. "I will admit that I haven't adjusted very well to this daytime sleeping and nighttime waking, but I am looking forward to walking on deck. Do come eat, Nathaniel."

Curiosity had already dismantled the joint of beef when they sat down. Steam rose gently from bowls of cabbage and beets. It had taken a sharpish note from Elizabeth to the captain to get them plain food instead of the jellied eggs and partridge stuffed with sausage, as he had first sent to them.

Nathaniel tucked Lily into his left side and sat down to pour ale from the pitcher, keeping to himself his longing for venison, red corn soup, and water from the spring at Lake in the Clouds.

"Hannah?"

"I sent Charlie for her," said Curiosity. "The child cain't keep track of time when she all wound up with that microscope machine." Her tone was a cross between irritation and something else Nathaniel couldn't quite put a name to, something close to insult.

He could see Elizabeth thinking the same thing. She said, "We are very fortunate to have the Hakim's support and friendship."

Curiosity thumped her knife down. "Did I say we wasn't?"

"No, of course--"

"Then don't be puttin' words in my mouth."

There was a sudden silence while Elizabeth flushed, her chin up at an angle. Both babies began craning their necks between Elizabeth and Curiosity, more alarmed at this silence than they would have been at raised voices. Nathaniel put his free hand on his wife's knee under the table.

Curiosity met his eye. "You got somethin' to say to me, Nathaniel?"

"I suppose I do," he said. "Maybe you should tell us what's on your mind about Hannah."

Elizabeth said, "I wish you would."

There was a tic in Curiosity's cheek. She tapped her spoon on the edge of her plate twice, and then she put it down.

"It don't set right, this whole business. Now you two do me a favor, and don' start tellin' me again what kind of mess we're in. I guess I know that well enough myself. It don' mean I got to like sendin' the child out to spy."

"That is a very strong word," said Elizabeth testily. "I should not call what Hannah does spying. She merely listens, and tells us what she hears."

Curiosity snorted softly. "You call it what you want, but I'll tell you this: I ain't so sure as you that she safe on this ship, runnin' around by herself. But it seem like you happy to look the other way. And I hope that child don' have to pay the price."

All the high color drained from Elizabeth's face, leaving behind only the dark circles under her eyes.

"Has someone been bothering her?" she asked. "Is there some threat?"

Curiosity frowned. "I cain't say there is, but I can say this: there's something wrong. She don't sleep well, and ain't you ever took note that she won't go up on deck without somebody go along? Charlie or Mungo or the Hakim, or one of us."

Nathaniel said, "She's never said anything to me about trouble."

"O' course she ain't said nothing. She's a child. It don' take much to set her mind to workin', somebody lookin' at her too hard, or sayin' something nasty about the color of her skin. That might give her bad dreams, but she ain't goin' to come runnin' to you to say so, Nathaniel Bonner. She's prideful."

Nathaniel said, "I'll talk to her."

"Here she is," said Curiosity as the door banged. "I'd like to hear you get someplace with her, I surely would."

Hannah came flying into the room, one plait hanging half undone over her shoulder and her arms full of books, a covered basket, and a squirming bird. As she came to a halt the bird got the better of her and flapped away through the room to come to a standstill near the open transom windows. It stood upright to show off a white breast, its dark wings folded into its body. There was a broad white mask on its face with eyes almost human, and a large triangular beak banded in yellow, red, and blue.

"Lord above," muttered Curiosity. "Do that creature call itself a bird?"

"It's a puffin," said Elizabeth, holding up Daniel so he could see it better.

"Puffed up, more like." But Curiosity was grinning.

The bird gave them all an indignant stare, turned, and seeing the open windows in the transom, began to lift its wings.

"Oh, no!" Hannah cried, and lurched toward the bird, dropping her basket and going down in a tangle. Papers flew everywhere and the basket rolled, spitting out a collection of small corked bottles.

The twins broke out in deep belly laughs just as Curiosity got hold of the puffin. In the crook of Nathaniel's arm Lily wiggled helplessly, her mouth spread wide to show her toothless gums as she laughed.

"Hannah," Elizabeth said. "Where did you get a puffin, of all things?"

"Mr. Brown gave her to me to keep for a while," she explained, picking up her papers. "He raised her from a chick. Her name is Sally."

Daniel's laughter had taken on a familiar note, one that meant his mood was about to turn for the worse. Elizabeth got up with him. "I'll have to hear about Sally later," she said, taking Lily from Nathaniel. "I fear it may take some time to settle these two for the night."

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