1Samantha?” Nat’s whisper sounded overly loud with the engine shut down, but he didn’t know how much time he had before Mister Garth returned from relieving himself over the side. A few days before, the engineer would never have considered letting Nat stay down there alone for even so short a time, and that was a trust he didn’t want to lose. “Samantha?”An icy chill raced down his spine when she didn’t answer his repeated call.The biscuit he’d saved from breakfast seemed little enough to sustain a body. He’d tried his best to save something from every meal, but he hadn’t managed each time. Nor had it always been possible to give what he’d reserved to her without arousing the engineer’s suspicions.Nat glanced toward the hatch, closed against the inclement weather, and slid between the copper pipes. He could always claim to have heard the hiss of steam escaping. Mister Garth had him wrap a weakened section just yesterday, the pipes old and worn as much as the rest of their vessel.But she had a good heart and a good crew. He wouldn’t choose to be on any other ship in the Company’s fleet.“Have you food?”Nat slammed his head into a pipe, his reaction threatening to cause the very damage he’d hoped to use for an excuse. His teeth closed down over his tongue to hold back words his mother would have whipped him for speaking in the presence of a lady, no matter how threadbare and dirty her clothes.“Not much for you, but it’s what I was able to secret away.”How she managed to traverse the pipes with little more than a whisper of cloth he had no idea. She made him feel twice his size and more in the fashion of a bumbling circus bear than a man full grown.She rubbed the back of one hand over her eyes, offering a hint as to her delayed response. “I have no right to complain. You’ve done so much for me, more than most others would have.”A wide grin spread across his face, and he ducked to hide the reaction to her praise. “It was nothing. No more than any decent fellow might do.”Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her shake her head, a movement that sent her lank hair to swaying, offering a hint of its beauty when properly tended. Sure, she had coal dust smeared across one cheek and grease under chipped nails, but Nat could sense she’d clean up right fine. Too fine for the likes of him no matter what his family had been, at least until he earned command of his own steamship.“Can I have it?”The hint of laughter in her voice made a wave of heat rush up from under his collar. Grateful for the dimly lit space, he dug out the biscuit. At the same time, he marveled over her change in demeanor now that she had food, irregular as her meals might be. He would never have mistaken her for a street child now.Samantha took the biscuit from his hand and nibbled it slowly, requiring no reminder to make it last unlike the first time he’d offered her food in amongst the pipes. She no longer seemed feral, though he could not imagine any of the young ladies who’d made his acquaintance in his mother’s drawing room managing these circumstances half so fair.He lingered though he knew he should get back to the task of cleaning coal dust and soot from the valves, in this, a rare break from running the engine. Mister Garth had been almost as reluctant as the captain to shut it down, not wanting to end such a long run without trouble. Still, if the pipes clogged or the gears bound, they’d be back to where they’d been before, or maybe worse if the engine shook itself apart.Nat twisted in the tight space, knowing his duty for all that Samantha fascinated him.She stopped eating and brushed her fingers along his arm, enough to get his attention without restraining him.Another young girl might have begged him to stay, desperate for the company, but Samantha had not shown that kind of weakness. If the isolation pained her, she would never sink him with the knowledge.“I must be getting back. Mister Garth could return any moment.”“I don’t mean to keep you,” she said, her voice softer even than a whisper. “It’s just I’d thought the trip to the Continent a short one. When will we make land?”Nat sank to his heels, his body twined around the pipes in an uncomfortable fashion as he twisted back to look at her. His tongue felt heavy as his mind raced forward. He’d forgotten his decision not to burden her with where they were truly headed when he first learned of her existence. She couldn’t have changed anything. By now, though, he’d thought she’d have figured it out.“You still think we’re bound to the Continent.”Her shoulders rose. “Where else?”Between one heartbeat and the next, she went from self-sufficient and amazingly strong to a sheltered girl with no understanding of the ways of trade or sea passage.A sigh rustled past Nat’s lips. “If we’d been heading for the Continent, we wouldn’t have been more than a day or so before the first port. Even those steaming up the Med stop in France or Spain to offload the post and the occasional passenger. It’ll be a long time before you fetch up on those shores.”The darkness that shadowed her blue eyes told him her question had not been as much out of ignorance as he’d thought. He wished more than anything to wash her fears away. “Have you no one in the colonies?”She shook her head, her jaw tightening in the way he’d grown used to seeing when she set her mind to something even with their short acquaintance. “None I know of.” She sucked in a breath. “I’ll manage. I’ve gotten this far.”Her reaction startled a laugh out of him. “You’ll go much farther before we’re done. Don’t worry. Captain Paderwatch has a good head for the trades, and he gives us each a share of the earnings once his costs are repaid. I should net enough to buy you passage back home, or on to the Continent, once we reach land.”“You’ve done so much.”He didn’t have the chance to reply because the steady clomp of boot heels approaching thudded overhead, an affectation the engineer maintained even when anyone beyond the officers went barefoot.After a quick wave goodbye, he turned and started winding through the pipes to get into place, leaving Samantha to her limited repast and even slimmer hopes.He should have told her, if not when she’d first revealed the misunderstanding, then any number of times since. How had he failed to consider the impact of each day passing as her belief in their destination slowly crumbled? Her strength might have been born of the understanding that her ordeal would soon end, something she could no longer hold on to.Their passage would be measured in weeks. The runs across the Channel took a fraction of that time.He’d survive on short rations, but she’d suffer more than he would, especially with little hope of giving her anything other than stew-soaked bread. Even without the difficulty of the dishes, he had no way to hold back his porridge or stew without raising the very suspicions they both needed to avoid.Nat slipped back amongst the soot-darkened valves and picked up his rag just in time.The hatch swung open, and Mister Garth stomped his way down to the chamber.Though he bent to his task, Nat’s thoughts spun a familiar revolution. He questioned, as he had many times before, the wisdom of giving in to her pleas not to tell the captain back when they’d been no more than a few days out. The consequences to their schedule if they’d turned back then were not to be considered, but how could he have let her become the very rats he’d suspected her of being, living in hiding with only crumbs to sustain her.Despite her fears, the captain was a good man.Nat sighed. Whatever he thought now, he could not reveal her without making his involvement obvious.“Don’t be so glum, Mister Bowden. It might be dirty work, but it’s important. Think back on when you woulda done anything to get permission to come through that hatch. You got what you’d wished for.”Mister Garth gave a laugh that held a gruff edge but none of the bitterness Nat had first faced from the engineer. He’d gone a long way toward proving his worth to the man, and nothing would convince him to give up the gains.Not that he’d been frowning over the task, anyway. If the engineer thought it grimier than scrubbing down the deck boards, he’d been too long below.Nat let the teasing pass without comment, more so he wouldn’t be pushed to explain the true source of his upset than out of any need to suffer it.The way Samantha’s predicament gnawed at his mind, he’d be hard pressed not to fail both her and himself in blurting out his concerns. He had no right to share them with anyone, certainly not the self-same man who, a short time ago, was willing to see Nat hang on the suspicion of theft. How much more harshly would Garth deal with one who’d stowed away? 2Sam stared after Nat for a long while, the biscuit hanging forgotten in her limp fingers. Her mind churned with suspicions turned to fact as though the bent gears she’d replaced in the ship engine infested her thoughts.In the confusion of the docks and under the influence of the steam engine’s cry, she’d never considered the many destinations a ship could seek. She’d had little time to ruminate on such thoughts between fighting the aether-laced demands and just as powerful hunger pangs, but even so she’d started to wonder at how slow they’d taken what Henry believed an easy passage.Now Nat’s sacrifice seemed so much greater.When she’d begged him to keep her secret, it had seemed a simple request. He had known just how long she’d been asking for even if she had not. And he planned to do more when he must have a family counting on whatever returns he could manage.She clenched her fists, stopping only when she realized her motion would crush the biscuit and scatter its crumbs. As little as the dry bread offered, she needed every bit of it and she refused to waste what Nat gave up.Another person who risked everything for her just as her sister Lily had done when not much older than Sam was now. No matter how much she tried, her gift got in the way, and got others in trouble.The steam engine whispered in the back of her mind, aether-driven promises reminding her of one bout that had aided rather than harmed—the engine repairs. Only now the engine wanted more, more power, smoother running, and the chance to be so much better than it had ever been.Sam shoved the biscuit into her mouth, almost choking on the dry, floury taste of it. She focused on the process of chewing, trying to savor each bite and stave off the vulnerability that would let the engine in.Her one success, her one time where she did what she needed to fix the engine instead of transforming it into something the others could not handle, and it threatened to trick her into doing more. The engine cried out for changes like those she did to the steam carriage, changes which had cost her a carefully scheduled trip to the Continent with enough money in her purse and a hire carriage to take her where she needed to go.A laugh escaped her at the memory before she remembered to make no noise.At least Nat had been talking at the same moment, and it seemed neither of the sailors noticed her slip.She would not have to take her friend’s slender earnings after all. She had the means to buy her own passage back in the pouch Henry had given her, or at least enough to pay part.The coins had been tucked into her boots for so long she’d forgotten they existed. Sam had no need for money when pressed to the ship wall. It couldn’t fill her stomach or help her hide from sailors who’d be quick enough to punish her for her presence.Sam pulled the pouch free and shoved it into her pocket. She had coin enough to pay for her passage. She’d give it to Nat to buy her place once they found port. Out here in the vast ocean, though, they would not be able to use her money to buy the extra supplies needed to take on a passenger.Elation rushed through her where she’d expected despair, carrying with it a tingle Sam almost didn’t recognize in time. The engine had found a crack in her resistance.She fought the urge to wrap herself in aether and forget all her troubles while she made the engine’s dreams into reality. Only memory of the steam carriage, of the coachman’s shouts that soon became screams as the carriage leapt out of his control, kept her from jumping from her hiding spot. She wanted to brush past both Nat and the engineer to reorder the engine’s gears into a better pattern so it could race this old boat across the waves, turning a long voyage into half the time as long as it could hold together under the pressure.Sam released her grip on the pipe standing between her and the open space where she’d be exposed, only then aware she’d gone.She owed Nat for what he’d done for her, and what he planned to do. Her actions had cost him too much pain already. Sam would not add to it evidence both of her presence and that Nat had been feeding her from the precious stores, for who else came down into the engine room besides Mister Garth? No one would believe Nat shorted his own portions from what she’d seen.No matter how much the engine wound its way into her thoughts and desires, she refused to repay Nat’s kindness with more of the disasters that followed in her wake ever since she’d left Henry’s property for the world beyond it.First Lily, then Henry, and now Nat had been strong for her.This time Sam would be strong on her own, strong enough to avoid both bringing more trouble down on Nat’s head and tearing this old ship apart by giving in to the steam engine’s dreams of power.
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