Well, that did not go at all to plan. I am writing this in the coach, and we are bumping along terribly, as the road is pitted with holes full of half-melted snow, and covered in pebbles and grit brought onto it with runoff. My handwriting is atrocious, but I must do something else I go mad, alone in here with Mr. Miller.
Yes, Dear Reader, my plan failed. And it was because of my own stupidity and weakness that it failed. I shall tell you how it happened.
As I had intended, I waited until breakfast was finished and Zebediah and I returned to our rooms to gather what little we had with us in order to meet the coach downstairs and begin the journey back to Madison. Instead of packing my own things, however, I waited a minute, then went next door and knocked on Zebediah's door. He answered it shortly and invited me in, though he left the door open.
I closed it. That, I think, was my first mistake. "I must speak with you," I said, and his expression became very grave. I suppose it was obvious from my face that my stomach was churning with nerves, and he could probably tell by the way I fidgeted that something was very wrong. "Might we sit down?" I asked. Another mistake, for whenever someone says you "must talk" and then invites you to sit, good news almost never follows.
He motioned to the pair of simple, serviceable armchairs near the barren fireplace; as he was supposedly leaving in half an hour, there was no point in keeping the fire burning. I sat in one chair, and he took the other once I was settled and looked at me with an expectant, slightly worried expression.
I had thought and thought of what to say, but seeing him before me, every word flew right out of my head. "I... I do not think you should go back to Madison with me," I blurted.
His surprised showed on his face, and he leaned forward, eager for me to continue, though he looked as though he would argue if he could.
"It isn't... I mean, you don't..." Goodness, I didn't know how to go on! "You've done so much for me already, and I know I can never repay you for... for saving my life and protecting me and..." I clamped my teeth together to stop the words, at least for a moment so I could gather my thoughts. It was easier if I didn't look at him, so my gaze fell instead upon the black ash that had previously been dry wood burning bright with heat and light. "What I mean to say is... is that... you needn't follow after me any longer. You... I mean, you never should've got mixed up with me in the first place. I'm on this quest to find my family, and I must learn all I can about Illumination in order to help... the cause, or the country, or whatever, and you're... you're not tied to me, nor I to you." My fingers tangled together, weaving up then down, then down and up. I couldn't stay still. "We're--we have been good friends, and I am very glad of it, and will have... f-fond memories of our time together." At this point, it became a little difficult to speak, and my vision blurred with a slight sheen of tears. "But we're... we're just not... r-right together, I mean, we shouldn't b-be together, and... Not that I th-think we're together, but we've been... close. Too close. For propriety's sake. Some of that was... was circumstances, couldn't be helped, but I... we..." I looked up at him, not thinking, and the tragedy I saw stole the breath from my lungs.
He looked as though I had taken his most treasured possession and dashed it on the ground. As though he had held out his hand to shake and I had burned it with a hot iron. As if... I had broken his heart. And seeing that look in his eyes broke mine as well.
"Oh, don't!" I cried. "Please, don't! This is for the best, you must see that! We can't go on... adventuring like this, traveling around together, alone! Not alone," I corrected, "but... together." Surely he had to understand how it must look.
For what seemed like a very long time, Zebediah sat and said nothing, looking at the floor. But then he nodded slowly, and sat up a little straighter.
I stood up, taking that as his agreement that he would stay behind, whether or not he meant it that way. "I thank you, then, for all you have done for me," I said, my hands clenched in fists at my sides. I nearly choked on the next words, but eventually I got them out. "Goodbye, Zebediah."
I hadn't taken two steps before he was on his feet, blocking my way. "You can't go alone," he said with hand gestures. "Dangerous," he spelled on my palm.
"I am going back to the academy, to Professor Eberhart," I told him. "It's safe there."
"It wasn't last time," he told me.
"Then I shall go somewhere else! The Professor will know what to do, and if he doesn't, then... I'll figure it out!" I said stubbornly. "I got this far on..." But I trailed off. I hadn't done any of it on my own. From the minute I stepped off the train in Sun City, decisions had been made for me; other people had either forced or helped me along.
"I won't leave you," said Zebediah.
"You're staying here," I insisted. "I'm the one that's leaving." I started toward the door again, but he moved quickly to block my way again. "Move!" I shouted, shaking by now from nerves and a sick feeling deep in my stomach.
He took my hand again and I yanked it back, but he grabbed my wrist with one hand, prying my fingers open with the other. Furious, but unable to pull free, I moved as far away from him as I could with his fingers wrapped around my wrist, and looked away. I didn't have to watch his fingertip as he spelled letters out on my hand. I understood as plainly as if he had spoken aloud.
"I love you."
Tears stinging my eyes, I still did not look at him, too angry and upset to risk it. But from my peripheral vision I saw him bend over my hand, then I felt his lips touch my fingertips. Then my palm, snowflake-soft. "Zebediah," I whispered, my voice shaking. The door was closed, and I was alone with a man in his bedroom. This is how so many "dreadful" copper novels begin, with the quiet, gentle seduction of a naive young girl. It was highly inappropriate. But I couldn't make myself pull my hand away even after he loosened his grip on my wrist.
When a tear spilled down my cheek, he let me go at last. I did not even dare to look at him, but hurried to the door, threw it open, and nearly ran down the corridor to my own room. I cried as I packed my things, and found him waiting at the front door when I returned downstairs, just as I had expected and feared.
Mr. Troxill had packed enough food for four people in the coach, and the driver stowed our meager belongings in a little enclosed space above the seating area. Our host came to the door shortly after I arrived there to bid us farewell. "Thank you again," he said as he shook our hands. He could not explain the reason for his gratitude in front of the coachman, but I knew he referred still to the way we returned his wife to him.
"Do not mention it," I murmured. Surely he must have noticed my reddened eyes and blotchy face, but he did not say anything about it. Zebediah stood stiffly and was very careful not to look at me even from the corner of his eye. Our host must have known something was the matter, and my cheeks burned with shame, as if he had seen my weakness in Zebediah's room.
A minute later Zebediah and I were both inside the coach, but just as Mr. Troxill turned to go back into his house, I called out to him, remembering that I had wanted to ask him something at the last second. He came up to the window, which I managed to lower after fiddling with the crank for a moment. But when I opened my mouth, I realized how stupid my question was. "I... I apologise, it was nothing," I mumbled.
"Are you sure, my dear? You may ask me anything you please, though I cannot promise I shall answer it." The ghost of a smile flitted across his lips.
"I..." How could I ask something about his dead wife so soon after her passing? But again I remembered his cruelty and selfishness, which was ultimately the cause of her (second) death. And I remembered that he would've sold us to men who could have killed us or worse! So I asked it. "Why... if I may ask... did Violet stutter? Was it... a natural affliction, or something brought about by her... unique situation?"
He looked very puzzled for a moment, but he had agreed to answer anything he could. "It was a side effect of using clockwork parts," he told me after moving closer so the driver could not hear. "In my presence, when I concentrated the Illumination on her, she was better, but away from me, away from the crystal, the parts... skipped, I suppose is the best way to put it."
Hearing him mention the crystal reminded me of another thing I had been wondering about. "Why did you not imbue your wife with the Gift, if you had the ability?" I asked.
His expression grew very sad at that, and I almost felt sorry for asking it. "I tried," he said softly. "But it did not work. I think... I think that it was because... she was no longer fully human, after her return."
I had not thought of it like that, and his answer banished any further interrogations from my mind. "Farewell, sir," I said softly, and he nodded. After checking behind on both sides, the driver whistled to the horses, and we lurched forward. I cranked the window back up and watched Mr. Troxill disappear behind people and cabriolets and street lamps as a light snow began to fall.
Now I am scribbling away in my diary by the light of a lamp, at least an hour from reaching the inn where we are to stay, and doing my best not to touch, look at, or speak to Zebediah. I am not sure if I am angry with him, or disappointed in him, or disappointed in myself for allowing him to accompany me still. But I have not spoken to him since I left his room this morning, nor has he "said" anything to me. My only solace is that tomorrow, we shall be at the academy. Perhaps Professor Eberhart can talk sense into him.