The months travelling from England to Japan passed relatively uneventfully, allowing Minerva more than enough time to indulge in her fondness for trashy literature no well-bred young woman would admit to reading. Minerva might have been effectively barred from the family fortune and titles, but her connections with the various mystical circles and clubs hidden among the secret societies of the world allowed her to live comfortably well-off. This irregular income was frequently supplemented by impressionable new members with more disposable wealth than talent, awed by her reputation and what few conjurations she could still manage in a world gradually losing its magic.
Violet had been right; Minerva had a knack for efficient power usage in her spells. It certainly helped that her spell architecture allowed for some especially flashy displays, useful for showing off to anyone requiring proof of ability.
From Southampton, she took a ship to Suez, and from there to Bombay. Given a choice of emulating Phileas Fogg's railway trip across India to Calcutta, Minerva instead chose more sea travel, and by the time the ship sailed down the Straits of Malacca into Singapore, Minerva had managed to become passably fluent in Japanese, thanks to the textbooks enclosed within Violet's package. The real test would come when she finally arrived in Japan, but Minerva had always been confident in her ability to pick up new languages easily. Practicing conversation with the puppets she had brought with her helped significantly; if any of the crew found it strange that their mysterious English passenger spent most of her time in her cabin talking to herself in foreign tongues, they gave no sign.
Minerva's luggage had been kept intentionally light, compared to most of her travels: the bulk of it was her performing equipment, with her stage costume and a few essential puppet dolls. A repair kit had been packed in as part of the set, and Minerva had bought some more materials for puppet-making along the journey, which she had resorted to when she quickly finished her limited collection of books.
And, of course, she spent the calmer parts of the voyage working on her book. Her collection of notes expanded tremendously, and Minerva had taken to reusing the pieces of paper in order to save space in her luggage. It wasn't as though anyone else would read them, anyway; the final, finished product went into the book. Minerva had not named it yet; "Margatroid's Guide To Magic And Magical Theory" seemed pretentious, especially since the book would essentially be self-published. Circulation would be limited, at best, among the few trusted and true practitioners of the magical arts Minerva knew personally.
It was of little consequence. A suitable title would probably come to her in time.
By her reckoning, it was probably around summer when she left Singapore, although being in the tropics made it intolerable both indoors and out. Minerva spent most of her time out on the deck instead of her cabin, practicing her puppetry, and regularly gaining an appreciative audience.
Hong Kong saw her sell off most of the books she had finished reading, in exchange for more stationery for her research and note-taking. Shanghai was spent ashore, under the hospitality of an American teacher living in the International Settlement, who happened to be a secret dabbler in the arcane arts. Minerva found him enjoyable company, if limited in skill, and she lingered perhaps too long in his home.
"Japan?" he said incredulously when she told him of her journey. "Now why would you ever want to go there? Some job you need to take care of?"
"In a manner of speaking," Minerva replied cautiously.
The teacher shook his head. "You don't want to go to Japan," he said. "They don't know how to treat people right. The whole mess with what's his name, Richardson... one of yours, wasn't he? Bad business all around." He took a sip of lemonade. "Still, it's been twenty years. One would hope they've learned a thing or two since then."
It was on the final leg of the journey that the trouble happened.
The first sign Minerva had of anything amiss was the heightened concern of the crew, which had spread to the other passengers. Theories and wild guesses on the nature of the unease were the topic of conversations during mealtimes.
"It can't be anything dangerous," one of the passengers said. Minerva suspected him of being an officer somewhere, educated in Britain, but showing the faintest hint of something else in his accent. Prussian, Minerva decided. Here on holiday, or perhaps an opportunity to see the world as part of his military education. "They'd be panicking a lot more if it were."
"You don't think we are going to sink, are we?" asked a lady in hushed tones. Minerva didn't like her. She was almost flamboyantly French, travelling with her husband, who had taken to his cabin and stayed there, claiming seasickness. Minerva entertained the brief notion that they were actually spies, acting like the giddy couple to throw off suspicion. It would certainly have made them more tolerable.
"Of course not. That'd be happening a damned sight faster than whatever's gotten them spooked." Big, bluff, American businessman; Minerva guessed Texan. His purpose in going to Japan was clear enough, at least.
"Perhaps another incident regarding foreign ships in Japanese waters?" Minerva suggested. "The crew could have heard something on the radio that hadn't made it on the regular news yet."
The others at the table gave this due consideration.
"Has anyone asked the captain?" the lady said archly.
"Tried," the businessman replied promptly. "He just gave some assurances that it's nothing to be concerned about. I don't know about you, but that sort of thing just makes me even more nervous."
"I did see the crew counting heads yesterday," the officer mused. "And the cook seemed terribly distraught. Maybe we've got a stowaway."
"A stowaway!" The lady could have a respectable career in theatre, Minerva decided, as long as she took the roles involving screeching, sighing, and fainting dead away in shock. "Are we in danger? Could this stowaway be violent?"
"I am certain violence will not come to pass," the officer said, raising an exasperated eyebrow at Minerva. "We'll be arriving at Yokohama the day after tomorrow, in any case. The situation will likely be resolved by then."
In fact, it was mostly resolved just before dinner the next day.
Minerva heard the shouting first, along with the unmistakeable voices of her fellow passengers: the businessman attempting to take charge by means of raising his voice in successive tiers, and the lady's melodramatic wailing, accompanied by an unfamiliar voice Minerva took to be her husband barking in rapidfire French.
She laid down the stage costume she had been modifying, put her sewing kit back into the satchel, and crossed over to the door, just in time to hear a curious scratching noise from the lock. A few seconds later, there was a spanging noise as the lock was defeated, and the door opened to admit a small ragged blur.
Clearly the enterprising lockpicker had not expected to end up where she did, freezing in shock upon seeing the room occupied. Minerva took in a few details as she quickly slammed the door back shut, preventing escape: the child looked barely eight, although Minerva could have guessed a stunted ten. Blonde hair, as dirty as the rest of her, and dressed in whatever scraps of clothing she had been able to scavenge, in true street urchin style.
And as Minerva's hand ran over the lock, she felt the faintest traces of...
Someone else was rapping on the door, conveying a precise sense of polite urgency. Acting on impulse, Minerva quickly bundled the surprised stowaway into a corner, placed a finger on her lips to suppress the alarmed squeak, and tossed the voluminous costume across the child.
"Madam? Are you all right?"
The officer stood neatly outside Minerva's cabin at parade attention. Minerva resisted the urge to see if the stowaway had followed her instructions to hide. "I heard a commotion outside," she said. "What is this fuss about? Is something the matter?"
"We've cornered the stowaway to this area of the ship." The officer hesitated. "Or, I should say, the crew claims to have cornered the stowaway to this area of the ship. I have yet to see any sign of the culprit myself. Have you?"
Minerva held his gaze steadily. "I haven't seen anything out of the ordinary, I'm afraid."
The officer's eyes flickered to the side, coinciding with a faint rustle of fabric from somewhere behind Minerva. She shifted position, trying to block his view of the cabin interior.
A shadow of a frown crossed the officer's face. "Are you certain you haven't seen anything, madam? The... little rascal might be more mischievous than expected."
Little rascal, Minerva noted. And he claimed he hadn't seen the stowaway before. "I am. Will that be all?"
"I... suppose so." The officer bowed. "My apologies for disturbing you, madam. Oh, there is one more thing." This time, the glance towards the cabin interior had been deliberate. "Will you be joining us at the table tonight, madam?"
"Actually, I think I'll be having my meals in my room from now on," Minerva said. "All this... excitement. It's a little trying on the nerves. Speaking of which, I'm surprised our French friend is up and about."
"Yes," the officer agreed, the corner of his lips quirking up. "There is more to him that it seems. There is, perhaps, more to everyone than it seems. I shall inform the others. Good day, madam." He clicked his heels together.
Minerva closed the door with a sigh of relief. The lock worked perfectly, as though it had never been picked.
The little girl stood in the corner where she had hidden, clutching the dress in her hands. She started in surprise when Minerva caught her staring, and jerked her gaze away.
"It's all right now," Minerva said. She held out a hand, not quite sure of how to deal with small children in a manner that did not involve a puppet show.
After a brief hesitation, the child took her hand, and Minerva felt the tingle of power once again.
"You have a strong talent," she said, kneeling down to brush the girl's hair away from her eyes. "But I'm not sure how you came by it. Raw talent, perhaps, untrained... but the way you opened the lock so quickly means you've done this sort of trick before. Or are you just naturally nimble?" She chuckled, aware of the edge of desperation in that sound. "Maybe I should check my belongings to make sure they're all still there."
The girl stared at her.
"Can you understand me?"
A prompt nod.
"Can you speak? Just say something. Anything at all."
The girl's stare grew quizzical, but she remained silent.
"But you made a noise just now, so you're not completely dumb. Unless it's some form of aphasia." Minerva sighed. "Where did you come from, child? What are you doing on this ship? And am I making a mistake by taking you in?" She stood, the girl's hand still in hers. "Let's get you cleaned up first. I'm afraid the plumbing on this ship is a little basic, but running water is all we need."
Further mysteries were soon revealed: despite the girl's condition on first sight, she did not show any signs of protracted malnutrition. And what dirt she had seemed more consistent with hiding away in the nooks and crannies of a steamship than a lifetime on the run.
The girl did not resist Minerva's ministrations, apparently trusting her implicitly for some reason. There was a brief repeat of the hastily-improvised concealment when a crewmate delivered Minerva's meal, but there were no additional incidents.
"What shall I do with you?" Minerva wondered, as she watched the girl wolf down the meal. Having no clothes in the child's size, Minerva had dressed her in a spare blouse and a shawl for now. "I don't suppose you have any family?"
The girl glanced up, and shook her head once, before returning to her food.
"Poor thing. I can't turn you over to the captain, obviously. And someone with your power is... well, I'd rather not leave you with whatever authorities there are in Japan. I doubt they care much for abandoned foreign children. But I can't send you anywhere else alone, and I don't have enough money on hand for a return trip to England like this... what's your name, by the way?"
The query was ignored in favour of the food. The girl had cleaned up most of the meal, and was licking her fingers clean.
"Stop that. I see table manners is something else I'll have to teach you." Minerva reached out with the napkin to wipe the girl's mouth. "My name is Minerva Margatroid. You may call me Miss Margatroid, or Miss, or... or anything at all, come to think of it. As long as you call me something, rather than remain as speechless as you are."
The girl stared uncomprehendingly.
Struck by inspiration, Minerva dragged her luggage over to herself. "Look, over here." She pointed at the embossed nameplate. "Minerva Margatroid. Min-er-va, Mar-ga-troid. Oh, never mind. I don't even know if-"
The girl extended a finger, running it over the letters. "Mah, Margah. Mah gah tuh-roid." Her voice was quiet and light. "Margatroid."
Minerva could not resist the smile that spread across her face. "So you can read. And speak." Without thinking, she brought the girl in for a hug. "My dear little child."
The girl made a few muffled noises of surprise at this sudden show of affection, before yawning widely. She was missing a few teeth, Minerva noticed; the perils of growing up.
"Oh, that's right. You must be tired, after today." Running around the ship, hiding from the crew and passengers, stealing what food she could, and finally ending up in the wrong room... or maybe it was the right room after all.
After she tucked the girl into bed, Minerva retrieved her sewing kit, and checked the oil lamp in the cabin. The extra light did not seem to bother the sleeping child, but Minerva was not looking forward to having to work with needle and thread in these conditions. In addition, she was running out of spare clothes; she would have to visit a dressmaker when she arrived in Japan, for yet another drain on her dwindling funds.
But that was only a temporary situation. She'd finish what Violet Hearn had brought her to Japan to do, and improve her solvency at the nearest banking institution affiliated with the Crown. The sun never set on the Empire, after all; she'd find her way back to England somehow, her new ward in tow. Maybe she could prevail on her contacts among the magical community for advice, and hand the child over to someone she trusted, leaving the girl's instruction and protection in far more capable hands.
No, it was still too soon to think about that, and there were too many obstacles to overcome. And yet, Minerva glanced at her unfinished book of magic, the idea taking root with insidious temptation. After all, it would not take all that long to rewrite some of the more complex portions with an apprentice in mind.