“It looks like you’ve been through an ash heap or two since I saw you last,” Hestia said. “I guess we all have.”
Despite what she said, Edward could not see that the last seventeen years had touched her much at all. She was older, of course. Her hair was touched with silver and a few wrinkles had sprung up in the corners of her eyes, but overall she had passed through the poisonous world unscathed.
“You know each other?” Blake asked in surprise.
“We met once,” Edward said. “Look,” he said, turning back to Hestia, “I’m not looking for anything for myself. You took some kids for me before; now I’m asking if you can again. I have one named Sean who’s in the hospital here. Just give him a good home and I’ll get the hell out of here.”
Hestia gave a small smile. “Hell,” she repeated softly
“You said hell. I just wondered what you meant by it.”
“I—I don’t know, I just said it. What does it matter?” He felt a flash of anger.
“I was just wondering because most people in here consider out there to be more or less a literal Hell. They would do anything not to go out there and the people out there would do anything to get in here. So why the hell do you want to go back out so badly?”
“I can survive out there. It’s where I belong. I’m in control there.”
“Ah, ‘better to rule in Hell’ and all that.” Hestia sat down and motioned them to chairs. Blake sat down but Edward didn’t move. “I’m curious, Eddie—”
“Squid? Really?” She shrugged. “I’m curious, Squid, what you’ve seen out there. What’s the world like?”
“You know what it’s like,” he said. “You said it yourself. Everything is sickly and twisted. Food is scarce. Everybody is hungry. Everybody suffers.”
“Even me! But what’s the alternative? Live in here where everyone tiptoes around in fear of losing their position.” He would not tell her, but a small part of him wanted to stay—longed for that safety and security. Still, he could not do it. A bird that had been freed and lived in the open forest could not voluntarily step back into the cage, no matter have much gilt was put on the bars.
“You know,” Hestia said, “the right to murder and steal is not as precious in a place where no one is your enemy and everything you desire is freely given. But let me tell you about the world outside. Cambridge is the solitary island of civilization in England, but we are branching out. We even have a seaport now in Great Yarmouth and a rail line connecting us. It was the closest port we could find.”
“Was Ipswich destroyed?” Edward asked. “That would be closer.”
Blake made a noise of exclamation and Hestia stared at him. “Are you making fun, Squid, or have you really been that isolated from things down there in your scuttle-hole?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean, that Ipswich is the antithesis of civilization now,” Hestia said. “It’s a seething den of crime and piracy and every terrible thing you could conceive. They are our main enemy, since they are the only ones that send targeted attacks against our supply lines.”
“I didn’t know,” Edward said. He didn’t know how he felt about it. Part of him wanted to go there, to test himself against a whole city of the worst villains and thieves, but part of him didn’t want the competition. He enjoyed being the top dog.
“We have a few mines and a small refinery,” Hestia continued, “although a lot of what we get is still through salvage. That’s my job here. As Minister of the Exterior, I send out people to find things and bring back the best. Blake works for me sometimes, finding robots.”
“And that’s what you want me to do, to go find stuff and bring it back.” Edward thought of the chren mining that Hinsen had tried to get him to do and suppressed a shudder.
“That’s the idea,” she said. “Listen: what you’ve got here is a golden chance. We don’t pull molerats—outsiders—in and offer them jobs very often. Actually, never. But you’re here and at least I’ve met you before; someone who attracts little kids like a magnet and tries to find them good homes can’t be a total blacksoul. So, here’s the deal. We’ll give you a house here—you don’t have to live in it if you don’t want—and the boy can stay here. You can spend most of your time outside and do whatever you want, as long as you bring me some good stuff every now and then. If you ever want something more, let me know.”
“What the alternative?”
Hestia waved her hand carelessly. “Take the boy and leave. But if you do, my offer won’t be renewed and you won’t get back in. I’m too busy for that.”
“What do you need me to find?” Edward asked and Hestia smiled.
There was a buzz and Blake took out his e-device and looked at the screen. “The hospital says the boy is awake.”
“You mean Sean?” Edward asked.
“He says his name is Damian. And he is asking for you.”