Not long after, he returned. His gaze seemed a bit distant, but seeing his family - the big grin returned. Eliza peeked out the window as the tall, dark man and two compatriots walked away. That evening, after a final drink by the fire, Thomas tucked Eliza into her bed.
"Tell me another Greek story... an Amazon story," she asked.
"You'd rather not hear a pirate tale?" He scratched his beard a moment. "Ah... I have it. Cyrene."
"Aye. She were an Amazon, but people said she were also a pirate.”
"Oooh? Tell me!"
He sat on the edge of the bed next to her in the silent house and put down his tankard. Thomas pondered.
"This girl Cyrene were a true warrior. An expert with a sword and spear alike. Once to frighten away an invader, she wrestled a wild lion right before their eyes."
"You bet, lass. But, she and people of her village loved the sea. They would go out find their fortunes. And so they did... so well that some thought they must be pirates."
"Why?" she blinked.
"Being a sailor is a rough life, my girl. And to be prosperous takes a lot of work. So, if you be prosperous and others are not - they may think you didn't earn it. But, rather stole your fortune."
"Are we… prosperous, father?"
He chuckled and looked around the modest house.
"In many ways, no my dear." he said, putting his large arm around her. "But, in other ways..."
He continued his tale, mixing myth with their imagination of the beautiful, strong Cyrene sailing her ship across the ancient seas and fighting Greek pirates - with her gleaming bronze sword. As Cyrene went to live happily ever after, Eliza rubbed her eyes.
"You think I will sail with you? Like John?"
"It's late. You're mother will have plenty of things for you to do in the morn," he said as he stood.
Thomas paused, long enough to kiss Eliza on the forehead. He took the carved figurine he'd given her and placed it on the shelf over her small bed.
"You'll sail with me, won't you?"
"Aye, my girl - of course," he smiled and blew out the lantern. The dreams of childhood came, and went.
Eliza awoke to the sun peering into her window. The house was quiet, but it was most days when her father and John were at sea. Since she's outgrown her child's bed several years ago, she'd inherited John's room. Yawning, she rose and tilted her head through the lower doorway and made her way downstairs - still in her nightshirt.
Her mother was already up, rolling out scones on the table. The room was warm from the renewed fire. Sleepily, she watched Lucinda working diligently for their breakfast, noticing a few new streaks of gray in her dark hair.
"You should let me..."
She reached out for the rolling pin, but her mother would have none of it. Lucinda shook her head, but smiled.
"Grab the pan... put some lard in it if you want to help. But, ye father's due today and I like to have things waiting for him."
Mother and daughter worked in silence, baking breads and chopping seasonings for the evening's meal.
"You need to go," Lucinda finally said. "Mr. Aikens will be opening soon."
She looked up at her daughter; her features, long golden hair and bright eyes. Her little girl had grown up, but she was still very much the precocious tomboy who would swim in the ponds, scuffle with boys and yen for far off adventure.
"How is his son... Stanley? I heard he walked you home."
Eliza rolled her eyes as she went to the stairs.
"Mother... don't be in such a rush to marry me off. He was being a gentleman... nothing more."
Descending some time later, Eliza was wearing her modest dark dress with her hair tied back. The kitchen smelled of scones and several were laid out for her on a small cloth. She wrapped them in the cloth and tucked it into the pocket of her apron. Stepping into her shoes, she gave her mother a hug and headed into town.
Aiken's Emporium was already bustling with carts unloading merchandise and the early risers pawing over the newly arrived vegetables. Aiken's himself was already bustling for another day of trade. He was a fastidious little man with his leather bound account book.
Aiken looked over his spectacles at Eliza as she strolled past the crates from all over the realm.
There were teas from India, sugar from the Americas, rum from Jamaica - most of them bearing the large East India symbol. She would have much more preferred to see those crates coming from the hold of her father's ships. But, with only he and John's ships at sea - it was not a common site anymore.
"So good of you to join us, Ms. Creststeel."
"I'm actually early, sir..." she said, taking out a scone from her pocket. He shook his head with a sigh.
"Good business is on it's own schedule," he replied, "The pewter shipment is here, so I will be detained. Tend to the customers... get the produce stocked."
The day went quickly, with a steady flow of people around her. Farmers and craftsmen were bringing goods, townsfolk were shopping and asking questions, and she would occasionally see Stanley watching her. He was just shy of being her height and dressed well. His brown hair had not thinned yet, like his father's. To any other local girl, he would be a nice catch.
"Have you plans for lunch?" he asked.
"I plan to eat as I work," she said. "Your father has quite the chores for me."
"We could take a few things and eat by the dock. Someone told me you like the ocean."
At midday, Stanley came back with a small basket and escorted her to the wharf. She passed by some familiar faces. Some of the sailing men who had been amused by her as a playful girl now leered at her as a strapping young woman. Stanley seems a bit out of place, so his determination to bring her made Eliza smile.
They set some bread, dried meat and cheese on a dock pylon and watched the ships as they ate. Stanley wasn't sure what to say, but Eliza would point out ships she knew and talk of where all they'd been and who crewed them. But, something caught her eye. The Manchester Lady was home and docked.
"John?" she said aloud. "Come... you can meet my brother."
She led him down the pier, but as they grew closer she knew something was wrong. Several men in black coats and hats stood at the gangplank. A tall, stern man that she had a faint recollection of, was talking to John. He was holding a writ. Her brother was clearly agitated. He turned go back aboard. But, suddenly two of the men grabbed him.
Unthinking Eliza broke into a run. Startled, Stanley dashed to keep up.
But, she had already hiked up her dress and hurried down the pier.
"Ye have no right here, Mercer!" John shouted.
Eliza collided with one of the men at full speed, ramming into him with her shoulder. He was sent sprawling to the deck. John struck the other man in the jaw with his freed hand. His sister moved to his side; her hands were raised like a prize fighter.
"What are you doing here, little sister?"
"Apparently, evening the odds," she said with grin.
The two well-dressed thugs staggered to their feet and were joined by their two compatriots. Mercer stepped behind them.
"As I said," John repeated. "You have no right."
"The company has every right." Mercer stated coldly. "This vessel was collateral for your father's loans. Payment is past due. By the contract your father signed, the company retains the collateral unless the balance is paid."
"And how am I to pay the balance when so many of our customers are now under contract with East India?!?"
"That is not our concern," Mercer replied. "Your crew has until sundown to remove personal property and vacate."
"Vacate?!?" Eliza cried, "Some of these men have crewed this ship for years. They are loyal sailors."
"Whose services are no longer required."
She gritted her teeth and glared at him. Finally, John relented. He put a hand on her shoulder.
"He's right. The law is on their side."
"Only because they buy and sell it," Eliza sighed. She lowered her hands and put an arm around John.
"We will be back to take possession." He nodded at them, then Stanley. "Mr. Aiken. Say hello to your father for me."
Stanley was silent. Mercer nodded and directed his men to leave.
Eliza struggled to finish her day, but her mind was fixated. The Manchester Lady was gone. She and John had countless adventures on her old deck as they would run about with wooden swords fending off brigands and monsters in their imagination. She learned that ship from one end to the other and was still visibly upset about the confrontation. The whole incident had unsettled Stanley and he didn't speak to her the rest of the day.
She opened the door to the house to find only a few candles burning. Lucinda sat in the rocker by the hearth, gazing into the embers.
"Mother? Where is everyone?" Eliza asked as she struck a match.
She started a lantern, then stoked the dwindling fire. Her mother looked up at her. Eliza kneel down beside her. She could tell Lucinda had been crying.
"Tavern," she said quietly. "John came in here. He said we lost the Lady to the East India company and he ran out. Ye father came home before supper time. He wouldn't speak to me. I could see he were ashamed. Said he'd be back, but that were hours ago."
Eliza patted her mother's hand and gave her a hug.
"I'll bring them home."
The Maiden Head tavern was a boisterous brew house on the wharf and Eliza knew it well. Too often, her father had slipped down here over the years with her in tow. He would plop her on the bar or hold her in his lap while the room full of sailors would cavort, share stories and drink their cares away. Thomas was at his favorite table. The number of empty bottles in front of him told enough. John was seated beside him, laying asleep on his folded arms. He hadn't yet his father's stamina for drink. Eliza made her way to him, avoiding dart throwers, serving wenches and a quick twirl with a dancing drunkard. Thomas guzzled from his mug.
"Maggie! Get your lovely self here and fetch me another!"
Eliza took a seat. At first Thomas wasn't sure who she was, until his blurry eyes focused.
"Go home girl! Men need to be men here!"
"Mother's worried sick," she said. "You can drink at home."
"Home..." he scoffed. "The sea were my home, girl. And your brother's. And now... Now, it's back to ferrying livestock across the channel."
"Ale!!" He shouted and lolled his head, spying for a serving girl.
A stout brunette girl came by the table with a fresh mug. Eliza put up her hand and waved her away. Thomas grumbled as the girl departed and started to stand.
"Are ye gettin' between me and my spirits, little miss?"
He was an imposing man at his full height; looking down at her - even as tall as Eliza was. She could never imagine him striking her, but she had never seen him so drunk. He put his large hand on her shoulder, and she could feel the weight of his arm as he staggered from behind his chair.
"Tempted to put you over my knee, in front a' these people!"
But, just then his sudden standing caused him to grow dizzy and he began to list. Eliza leaned into him, but he was turning dead weight.
"John!" she called.
Her brother stirred and in a few moments, they were aiding their father along the walk toward home. After some time in the cool night air, her father was able help himself, but they still aided him from swaying.
"I wanted the best things for you two. John to have his own ship... and you my lovely girl to have anything you wanted. But, I got careless and made loans to keep us going. Men like Mercer and Beckett just see folks like me for how much we're worth on paper."
He lamented his failure the whole way home. Returning, he and their mother held each other a moment, then the three of them aided Thomas to his bed. He looked up at them.
"If I can't be at sea... I have nothing to live for."
"Tom," Lucinda said sharply, "Don't speak like that."
Eliza watched from the doorway as her mother whispered softly to her father. He quietly nodded as she tucked him into bed. After a moment, he was fast asleep - the spirits having done there way. Lucinda looked at him one last time, then walked out.
"Come with me," she said. Eliza nodded and followed her back to the small den.
Lucinda sat back in her seat and bid Eliza to sit close. The young girl took a moment to remove her work apron and untie her hair before taking a seat.
"Elizabeth... dear. Ye father's been through a lot. He wanted so much for you and John, but we back where we started. One small ship and only your brother able to run the business."
"Mother," Eliza interjected, "I know the business as..."
"And no man would take you serious, girl. But, something else I want you to think about," her mother tried to smile, but was failing. "Stanley Aiken."
"His family is very successful. He's a handsome, young man with a future. And I've seen the way he looks at you."
"He is... sweet, mother," Eliza nodded. "And I know he has feelings for me... but..."
"But?" her mother's eyes flared and the tone in her voice darkened, "My dear... this isn't just about you anymore. The Aikens can give your father's company a chance to survive. You need to think about that."
Eliza nodded silently, like a scolded child. Her head was spinning and she was completely drained as she slipped out of her shoes and padded up the stairs to her bed. Sleep was no respite from her swirling thoughts. By the first light, she wasn't sure she'd even slept. In a fatigued daze, she dressed and grabbed some fruit for her walk to the market.
She wearily turned to see Stanley, well-groomed and dressed as always. His smile was welcoming, but she could still tell something was agitating him. He glanced about, as though looking for someone.
"Good morning, Mr. Aiken," she said. She wasn't sure if she was smiling very brightly.
"Eliza, I'm glad I found you." he said, "I needed to speak with you..."
"You've always been so kind," she said, unsure where this was heading. She had thought briefly, maybe she could make a life with a man like him. But, could he with a young woman who was in love with sea and wanted so much to command a vessel as much as command her own life.
"There's a problem," Stanley said. It snapped her awake.
Behind them, his father was approaching at a quick pace.
"Ms. Creststeel... my office."
There was little if any discussion; to the point she wasn't sure why he'd called her in the office at all. She was dismissed. No reason given. But, Eliza didn't fight it. It seemed fitting. As she departed, she could hear the other clerks muttering. Then, at the market entranceway, she turned back and saw Mr. Aiken speaking with a man in a black coat and hat. It was the man her brother and father called Mercer. He nodded at Aiken, then glanced at her. His gaze was empty, no emotion. He turned and disappeared into the crowd.
Eliza couldn't bring herself to go straight home, not to tell her mother she was out of work. She visited several shops along the way, but even the proprietors she knew were not in need. Finally, she stepped in her father's favorite tavern. Maggie the serving girl put in a word for her and Eliza was told she could start the next night. At least it would be money, but everything felt so backwards.
As she approached her door, Stanley was waiting for her.
"I was hoping to catch you, but..."
She nodded silently.
"I'm terribly sorry. After that... incident, some men from East India inquired about you. When my father discovered you were in a brawl with some of their agents, he felt he had no choice."
"He had a choice," Eliza stated. Her voice was firm, a bit louder than she'd expected.
"You don't fight East India. Most of my father's goods come from them... they control the harbor... and the trade routes... I'm sorry."
"Don't be," she said.
He took her hand.
"I'm sure my father would not approve of me consorting with someone who brawls in the street, but Eliza... you are a woman of courage and conviction... not just beauty."
She blushed, unsure what to say.
"Would you ever consider marriage?"
"Are you proposing it?
Stanley blinked, then he actually blushed.
"Well... not at the moment. I..."
"Oh," she nodded.
"I just asked if you'd consider it."
"Consider it? Yes, I will. And Stanley, sometimes a person needs to fight for what is right, even if its... unseemly."
She turned and went into the house. Her mother was quickly making herself busy in the kitchen.
"Oh, home already?"
"Yes Mother. The curtain is still moving from where you were peeking out of it."
"Just heard voices," Lucinda said. "Took your hand did he?"
"I'm supposed to be... considering it."