It was the longest transport ride of Clara's life.
She paced the length of the cabin. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down.
Ezra sat and watched her. He was looking worse and worse at every passing moment, and part of Clara felt guilty over asking him to do all of this in his condition, when all he needed was rest. But a larger part of her worried that rest wouldn't be enough. He just seemed so frail.
The transport came to a halt, but it didn't click into place at the transport dock.
"What's going on?" Ezra peered out one of the small windows. "Is it supposed to do that?"
Clara let out an impatient sigh. "It just means there are other ships using the transport dock right now," she explained. "It doesn't happen often, but with large events such as a giant wedding, it's not uncommon. We have to wait our turn."
Ezra sat back down and leaned his head against the wall, closing his eyes. "So, are we going to make it?"
"Well, if there are ships still arriving, that means all the guests haven't arrived yet," Clara reasoned. "And I'm sure Araminta is going to do her best to stall. So I don't think we'll have to burst in on the ceremony."
Ezra opened his eyes back up. "Clara?"
"Help me understand."
She gave him a questioning look. "Understand what?"
"I'm not saying this to pick a fight." He shifted his weight in his seat. "But I guess I just missed a lot. Araminta and Harrison, I mean, you've never particularly disliked the people you work for. Not like me. But now you seem to actually like them. And I know you're not doing all of this for them, but they're definitely a part of your determination for getting this done. And I know you. You're not dumb enough to risk all this just because you like some boy."
Clara sighed and sat down next to him. "The situation is messed up," she acknowledged. "The whole system of the world we live in. But just like not everyone on earth is good, Ezra, not everyone who lives in the sky is bad. Maybe it's just a little change, but it has to be better than no change at all, right?" Part of her was desperate for him to confirm her thinking. All of this had to result in something positive.
"I suppose you're right."
"And regarding Harrison." Part of Clara desperately wanted to open up to him. Ezra, the person who had been by her side, been her family, for years. If she couldn't talk to him, who else could she talk to?
"Look, you're right, I'm not risking all of this because I have some fantastical notion that we'll get to live happily ever after when all this is over." Clara took a deep breath. "But is it so bad to think that maybe, just maybe, there's a possibility that I could find someone who might love me in the way that my father loved my mother? And I could return that? And we're not stuck in a situation where one of us is already married?"
"You love him?"
Clara shook her head. "No. I've been too busy with everything else that's been going on to think about love." Clara bit her lip. "But I think I could. You know, just give me a little bit more time with him when I'm not in panic mode."
Ezra chuckled, but then he quickly quieted. "Well, I can't wait to meet this man," he said. "If he has your approval, then he must be alright."
Clara glanced at him, half a smile on her face.
"You know I just want you to be happy, Clara," Ezra said quietly. "And if he ends up being a part of that, then I guess I can't complain."
Clara squeezed his hand. "We just have to get through today," she said. "And honestly, I have no idea what tomorrow is going to look like."
Ezra smiled. "You know what? I like that idea. I've spent too long knowing exactly what I'd be doing at every moment of my time."
The transport lurched into movement again.
"Well, get ready to be launched into uncertainty," Clara told him. "We're arriving in just a few minutes."
And as she predicted, in a few minutes, the transport doors slid open. Holding her head high and avoiding contact with anyone, Clara strode out, Ezra sticking closely behind her.
She headed to Araminta's chambers. She would most likely be there in her wedding dress, getting ready with her parents. And while Clara could avoid the most populated guest spaces, the pair didn't go completely unnoticed.
The transport operator gaped at them when they came out. A few guests who lingered in the entryway looked shocked at the sight of them. No one stopped them, but Clara guessed that everyone was too confused and startled by their haggard appearances to do anything.
"How do these things stay in the air?"
Clara turned around to see Ezra stopped and gazing all around him at the intricate detailing of the hallway. She shook her head, imagining how amazed he would be if he ever saw the ballroom.
"Ezra, no time," Clara said sharply. It was his first time on an airship, and this was about as extravagant as they came, but he would have to hold his wonder for now. She grabbed his hand and pulled him along.
He was wheezing by the time they got up all the flights of stairs. Clara herself felt a bit lightheaded herself, but she was too amped up on adrenalin to be bothered by her lack of sleep. Not taking anytime for decorum, she pushed open the door to Araminta's chambers and barged in.
It was a silent for a moment. And then Lady Llewelyn let out a small shriek. "Clara!" she exclaimed. "You're, you're alive!"
Right. Araminta's parents both thought she was dead. Clara forgot about that. The two of them stared at her in disbelief, unable to process that she was, in fact, not dead. Not to mention, she and Ezra were both dressed like prisoners, Clara with a skirt six inches too short, and covered in sweat and soot.
Then Araminta came out from around her changing screen.
Clara's mission left her mind for a second. Araminta was dressed in a huge ballgown, more extravagant than anything Clara had ever seen. Layers of shiny, gold fabric made up the skirt, and the corset was sparkling with beading and jewels. She looked amazing.
But then Araminta strode across the room and gripped Clara's arm. "You made it," she half-whispered in disbelief.
"We made it." Clara could hardly believe it herself.
Behind her, Ezra swayed in his place and had to lean against the wall to keep upright.
"Araminta," Lord Llewelyn said sharply. Apparently, he had recovered enough to speak. "What is going on?"
"Father, this wedding cannot happen." Araminta spoke firmly.
Lord Llewelyn threw up his hands. "Really, Araminta? You bring this up now? Ten minutes before you're supposed to walk down the aisle?"
Araminta crossed to the table by her bed and opened the drawer. She rummaged down to the bottom and pulled two pieces of paper out. The two letters Clara stole from Mr. Norrington's office. "Before you accuse me of throwing a fit," she said coldly, "you should read these."
Lord Llewelyn accepted the papers and began reading, eyes narrowed. As he began to understand what exactly the letters were insinuating, however, they widened. When he finished, he looked up at his daughter while handing the letters to his wife. "If this is true," he said, "and our family is connected to his…"
"It's ruin for us," Araminta finished for him.
Lady Llewelyn finished reading and looked not at Araminta, but at Clara and Ezra. "You two," she said. "You were there?"
"I was just there for a day, my lady," Clara said. "But Ezra," she glanced back at him, "he was there for weeks."
Araminta's parents turned their attention to him. "And all of this talk about slavery and kidnapping, it's true?" Lord Llewelyn demanded to know.
"I don't know what is exactly on that paper," Ezra said. "But yes, I was held against my will, forced to work under horrid conditions without pay, and am starved and sleep deprived."
"An investor of the project is here at the wedding," Araminta said. "They don't know about what really was going on. And this one, Benjamin, Harrison thinks he can help get this story out and shut the whole project down."
"Well, we're certainly not going through with this ceremony until we get to the bottom of this," Lord Llewelyn said. "Follow me." He strode out of the room, Lady Llewelyn hurrying behind him.
"Is he going to confront your fiancé's family in front of everyone?" Ezra asked.
"Looks like it," Araminta said. She looked Ezra up and down. "Which means they're going to need your entire story. So we should go, too."
"Honestly, I kind of want to see this," Clara murmured to Ezra. He put his arm around her shoulders, and she steadied him as they followed Araminta and her parents.
Guests milled around outside the ballroom when Clara and Ezra limped into the space. Clara caught sight of Lord Llewelyn approaching Mr. Norrington, but she searched for someone else.
Harrison appeared out of nowhere. His eyes searched her face, but all Clara could manage to give him was a weak smile and a small nod. A man about ten years older than Clara followed behind him.
"Harrison." Clara breathed a sigh of relief and felt some tension melt away. They were attracting many looks, ranging from curious to outright hostile, but she didn't care. "Araminta's father is talking to yours right now. I'm not really sure what's going to happen, though. But Lord Llewelyn is determined to find out if there's any truth to what we told him before the ceremony."
"Harrison, is this the young woman you were talking about?" The man behind Harrison came to stand next to him.
Harrison nodded. "Clara, this is Benjamin, the one I told you about."
"The Benjamin who's going to shut down the factory?" Ezra questioned.
Benjamin gave him a curious look. "The Tower and Bridge factory, yes. I understand that despite what Thaddeus London and Mr. Norrington told me, the workers were not in fact given good wages and reasonable work environments?"
Ezra let out a bark of laughter. "Not after the first week."
Benjamin nodded, a frown on his face, but didn't have time to reply.
"Ladies and gentlemen." Mr. Norrington addressed the room, and the guests quieted down. "I ask all of you to continue into the ballroom. There has been a slight delay, but we'll start the ceremony momentarily."
Murmurs erupted in the crowd, but most did as Mr. Norrington asked, shooting looks at the Norringtons, Llewelyns, and Clara and Harrison as they filed into the ballroom.
"Gerard, you might want to hear this." Benjamin called over an older looking man. "Gerard is a very respected judge," he told Clara in a low voice. "If he believes you, then the factory is done, for certain."
As the ballroom doors slammed shut, only eleven remained: Clara, Ezra, Harrison, Araminta, Lord and Lady Llewelyn, Mr. and Mrs. Norrington, Thaddeus London, Benjamin, and Gerard.
"What is this about, Mr. Norrington?" Gerard asked.
"Yes, I would like to know that as well," Thaddeus London added.
"Apparently, you and I, Thaddeus, are being accused of slavery and kidnapping by my future daughter-in-law's servant." Mr. Norrington said the last word with a sneer.
"Is this true?" Gerard almost immediately took control of the situation. He looked at Clara questioningly, but without hostility. He had a very calming presence.
"Yes, sir," she replied. She shifted some of Ezra's weight. He was leaning on her more and more. "Oh, and I'm also accusing Mrs. Norrington of attempted murder." If she was going to lay everything out, now was the time. "But I believe that's it."
"Oh, that's it?" Mr. Norrington's voice rose. "You're accusing my wife of trying to kill you!" He rounded on Lord Llewelyn. "You can't tell me you believe this, my lord?"
"These are very serious accusations," Gerard said. "What proof do you have?"
"Clara and Araminta showed me these earlier." Lord Llewelyn handed Gerard the letters, and Clara saw Mr. Norrington blanche.
"And I was a worker in the factory," Ezra spoke up. "I was hired in the beginning, when the promises they made us appeared to be true. But then they locked us all inside. I only escape because of a plan Clara, Harrison, and Lady Araminta came up with."
"Gerard, I am so sorry about all of this." Mrs. Norrington spoke up, a fake smile plastered on her face. "You really need to know, Clara here is just a bit upset over the whole wedding."
Clara gaped at her.
"You see, she and my son had something of a relationship," Mrs. Norrington continued. "Obviously she is making all of this up to try to stop the wedding." She looked at Ezra. "I doubt this young man even worked in the factory."
"Gerard." Harrison gave his mother a disgusted look and then turned to the judge. "I admit, Clara and I are very well acquainted," he said. "I will not lie to you. But that does not mean she is lying. She told me about Ezra's appearance not long after it happened. And I know my father keeps records of his workers in his desk. I'd be happy to retrieve those now as proof that Ezra worked in the factory."
Gerard nodded. "That would be most helpful."
Harrison sped out of the room.
"This is ridiculous," Mr. Norrington said.
Gerard held up his hand. "Ezra," he said. "I would really like to hear your story, now."
It took him almost a quarter of an hour to recount everything that happened with Tower and Bridge, starting with the demolitions and ending with the escape. He sank further and further into Clara until she was practically carrying him. And when he finished, his head bowed and eyes closed.
"Mr. Norrington," Gerard said, "would you please go get a chair for this young man. As you can see, he is very weak."
Mr. Norrington gaped at him, clearly displeased with being given orders in his own home. But he also seemed to realize that his entire façade was falling apart, and that behaving well was the way to go. He got the chair, and Ezra sank down into it.
"Here are the records." Harrison had returned halfway through Ezra's story, and he handed Gerard the file. He stood next to Clara, their shoulders brushing.
Gerard looked through the papers. "Yes, Ezra is listed here," he confirmed.
"So, what?" Mr. Norrington tried again. "They got one of my workers to come up here and try to destroy me. What does that prove?"
"If you gave them the wages and conditions you promised them, I don't think anyone would be up here trying to destroy you," Benjamin pointed out.
"Oh, do be quiet," Lady Llewelyn snapped.
Clara and Araminta made eye contact. Clara almost had to suppress a smile. It was nice seeing Lady Llewelyn snap at someone besides her.
"Well, further investigation is needed to determine any guilt or wrongdoing," Gerard said. "However, there is enough proof here to open that investigation."
"Gerard." Araminta spoke up.
"Yes, my lady?"
"My maid was almost murdered because of this. I would like to go over that evidence as well."
He nodded. "Of course." He turned to Clara expectantly.
She told her own story of escaping the platform. "I know it sounds fantastical and impossible that I made it out alive," she said. "But it is the truth."
"And there is a witness," Harrison added. "Someone who has told me she is willing to testify."
"Would you please go get her?"
Harrison nodded and disappeared again.
He could only have been talking about Cadence, and Clara felt a surge of gratitude. Cadence had done so much for her, and now she was putting her job on the line.
Uncomfortable silence filled the room as they waited for Harrison to return. Clara noticed Benjamin shooting concerned looks at Ezra from time to time. Ezra appeared to be struggling to remain upright, even seated.
Harrison finally came back, Cadence walking beside him. She gave Gerard a respectful nod. "I believe you needed some information from me?" she asked.
"Yes," Gerard said. "I would like you to tell me the events you witnessed involving Clara during the engagement party for Harrison and Lady Araminta."
"Of course," Cadence obliged. "I was in the kitchens, officially getting another platter of food for the guests, but also taking a small breather. That's when I heard banging on the window. Occasionally we get birds crashing into the glass, but when I looked, I saw Clara hanging on to the end of a rope. I rushed over and got her inside, and quite honestly, she was petrified. Her hands were bleeding from rope burn. The marks will probably still be there."
Gerard turned to Clara, and she offered up the palms of her hands. The wounds had healed, but faint red lines still ran across the skin.
"She told me that it was Mrs. Norrington who locked her out on a platform and then retracted it in so she would fall," Cadence continued. "I helped her get to Harrison's room unnoticed so she could tell him what was going on."
Gerard had remained calm the entire time, but Clara noticed a hardness develop in his eyes as he listened to all the testimony. He nodded. "Thank you, Cadence."
"This is preposterous." Thaddeus London looked around in disgust. "You're accusing us of these horrible crimes based on what? A few pieces of paper and the word of a few servants? Their words mean nothing!"
"I'm not accusing anyone of anything," Gerard said coldly. "But I cannot ignore the solid evidence presented here. I suggest all three of you not say anything else." He turned to Lord and Lady Llewelyn. "I cannot stop the wedding, but the Norringtons and Thaddeus London will not be present for it. We'll head for the courthouse right away. And I wouldn't argue with me." He looked sharply at Mr. Norrington, who had opened his mouth to argue.
"Well, the wedding is not happening," Lord Llewelyn said. "Cadence, will you let the guests know?"
"Of course." Cadence nodded and disappeared into the volume.
"Let's go," Gerard ordered.
With stricken expressions and loathing glances, the three accused followed him. There was nothing else to do.
Clara felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of her chest. She looked at Harrison, who stared back, stunned.
Then he glanced at the direction his parents left.
"You should go," Clara told him gently.
He turned back to her. "They've done terrible things, Clara."
"I know." She took his hand, ignoring everyone else in the room. "But they are your parents, Harrison. It's alright if you want to go with them."
Harrison tucked a piece of her messy hair behind her ear. "Can I kiss you right now, Clara?"
She nodded, butterflies that she hadn't felt in a long time reappearing her stomach.
Harrison bent down and briefly but firmly pressed his lips to hers. Then he pulled away and kissed the back of her hand. "I'll see you soon," he said softly. And then he was gone.
Araminta was smirking. Her parents were pointedly looking away. But Benjamin had crossed to Ezra's other side and had knelt down beside him, gripping his shoulder. He looked concerned.
"Ezra, I think you need medical attention," Benjamin said. "I know a hospital that I can take you."
Ezra shook his head and struggled to get to his feet, gripping Clara's arm. "No," he said. "No, I just need to go home. I want to go home." He sank back into the chair.
"Ezra, I think you should listen to him," Clara said. She knelt down next to him as well. "I'm not sure you'll get any better at home."
"I understand you want to go home, and I understand you have no reason to trust anyone who was involved with the factory—"
"Exactly," Ezra said. "So I'm going home." He tried to stand again, and this time he succeeded, but Clara wondered if he would even be able to walk.
"Benjamin," Clara said, getting an idea, "I have a younger sister who has a persistent respiratory illness." She dropped Ezra back into the chair. "If Ezra goes to this hospital, would you be able to get her treated there as well?"
Ezra looked up and gave her a death glare, but Clara just gave a small shrug.
"Yes, of course," Benjamin said immediately. "At no charge, of course."
"Ezra," Clara ordered. "Let's go."
He obliged. Clara knew he wouldn't go just for himself, but if it meant getting Emme help, there was no question.
Clara and Benjamin both took an arm and half dragged Ezra toward the transport dock. As she passed Araminta, Clara's mistress but a hand on her shoulder. "I'll make sure your family knows where you're headed," she said quietly.
"And thank you, Clara."
Clara gave her a small smile before passing her completely. She hoped Araminta would be able to see Lucretia today.