“Girls can’t be in the navy! Girls take care of babies! You’re so stupid, you don’t know anything!”
London. 1783. Wendy Darling is an orphan, living in an overcrowded almshouse, ridiculed for believing in a future she can never have. More than anything in the world, she wants to be the captain of a ship. But that’s impossible. Isn’t it?
By 1789, she’s sixteen, old enough to be sold into service as a dressmaker or a servant. When she learns the Home Office is accepting a handful of women into its ranks, she jumps at the chance, joining the fight against the most formidable threat England has ever faced. Magic.
But the secret service isn’t exactly what she had hoped. Accompanied by a reimagined cast of the original Peter Pan, Wendy soon discovers that her dreams are as far away as ever, that choosing sides isn’t as simple as she thought, and that the only man who isn’t blinded by her gender… might be her nation’s greatest enemy.
By the year 1780, London was bursting at the seams. Almost a million people had been stuffed into every nook and cranny, and a good number of these had no idea where they had come from. Nestled in baskets and swaddled in rags, they had appeared overnight on the doorsteps of almshouses all over the city. Babies. Staring wide-eyed at mystified caretakers, demanding explanations.
But there were none to be had.
This was why Wendy Darling believed in magic. It was the only thing that made sense.
Opinions, however, were divided on the subject.
“Babies don’t come from magic. They come from mothers.”
Mortimer Black was seven and thought he knew everything. He was different from the other children because he had arrived with a note. The note gave his name, penned in a woman’s delicate hand, and he lorded it over the rest of them every chance he got. Mortimer knew he had a mother.
“Just because some babies come from mothers doesn’t mean they all do,” Wendy would argue. She was also seven, but she was very logical.
“Yes, they do all,” he would counter. “You’re just jealous ’cause you don’t have a real name.”
“You take that back! Wendy Darling is my real name!”
But she had her doubts.
Mrs. Healey, the caretaker, was fond of the name Wendy and thought her a darling child. Wendy, darling, fetch me the pitcher, please, she would say. Or, Wendy, darling, where has little Charlie run off to?
Wendy secretly thought Mortimer might have a point.
“You’re nobody,” he would tell her, laughing and poking her with a cruel finger. “You’re just a foundling!”
Fortunately, Wendy had an excellent right jab. That usually ended the matter, at least until she was ten. Ten was the year Wendy’s whole life ended before it had even begun.
The disaster struck at Bartholomew Fair, in September of 1783.
The almshouse barely took in enough money to feed everyone, let alone send the children off to fairs. But there was a particular lord in London who loved fairs more than anything, and Bartholomew Fair most of all, with its acrobatics and its puppet shows and its exotic beasts smelling of faraway places. Of desert spices and fever dreams.
Unfortunately, a lot of drinking went on there too, and he was a public figure. He had to keep up appearances.
So this lord, whose name we won’t mention so as not to rat him out, came up with the scheme of funding a trip for the almshouse every year. “For the poor foundling children,” he explained, addressing the querulous, upturned noses of high society, “who have no mothers to take them on outings or to buy them sausages or gingerbreads or hot pies or puddings.”
He was especially fond of puddings.
He would arrive at dawn on the appointed day in September with a handful of carriages, each drawn by two fine horses, and the children would all line up behind Mrs. Healey—arranged alphabetically so she could keep proper track of them.
“Adam, Agnes, Arthur, Bartholomew,” Mrs. Healey would bark, ticking the children off on her fingers. “No, Bartholomew, the fair was not named after you. Bridget, Cecilia, Charles,” and so on.
As each name was pronounced, she would tap the corresponding child lightly on the head, and he or she would be off like a shot, tumbling into a carriage. They laughed and screamed and piled on top of each other to fit in. All but Wendy, who was always last in line, terrified that this time they would run out of room after Valentine and she would be left behind.
“Wendy,” Mrs. Healey finally pronounced.
Wendy raced to the first carriage, but Mortimer Black stuck his head out the window before she even got to the door.
“No room!” he yelled. “Go to the back of the line!” Wendy could see for herself there was plenty of room, but she heard Mortimer’s friends laughing and carrying on. “Back of the line!” they echoed. “Back of the line, Wendy!”
Wendy looked despairingly down the line at the rest of the carriages, all stuffed to the gills, with little heads and arms poking out the windows. But then Charlie, to whom one of those heads belonged, called out to her from the fourth carriage. “We have room, Wendy. If we squeeze a little more.”
Wendy trotted toward him, but only as far as the horses—a lovely pair of matching brown mares, with black manes and tails and wide, strong hooves.
“Excuse me,” she said to them both. “Do you think you could pull one more? I hate to ask it. I can see you have a full load already. But I would very much like to go to the fair too, if you think you could manage it.”
“What’s this, then?” the driver grumbled. “You don’t have to ask them, for heaven’s sake. They’re just animals.”
“All right,” she said, to appease him. But then she whispered to the horses anyway, “Could you?”
The mares looked at each other, and they looked back at Wendy. They puffed out their chests and held their heads high, each nodding just once against the bit.
“Thank you,” Wendy whispered. Only then did she run to the door and clamber on top of the pile.
It was a beautiful day for a fair, and London had come out in droves. The children wanted to see everything at once. “The high wire! No, the fire-eater! No, the rhinoceroses!” Rules were set, compromises were made, motions were passed, and a schedule was confirmed.
First, puddings. Acrobatics from 9:00 until 10:00. Then meat pies. The strong man and other amazing feats from 10:30 to 11:30. Then gingerbreads. Exotic beasts at noon (they were always Wendy’s favorite). And so on. Unfortunately, the world ended before exotic beasts, at 10:48 on the dot.
The foundling congress was mobilizing from the strong man to the fire-eater when it encountered a small contingent of officers in the Royal Navy. The men were tall and fit, handsome and proud, resplendent in their blue long-tailed coats and fine gold buttons. The sea of children parted around them, but not Wendy. Wendy stopped dead in her tracks and stared.
Ever since she had read The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, on loan from Mrs. Healey, she had longed to sail the seas, embarking upon fantastical escapades and witnessing all the strange and magical wonders of the world. When one of the sailors noticed her attention, he tipped his hat and smiled, and all the yearnings of her heart welled up in her small chest, bursting out of her at once.
“When I grow up, I’m going to be an officer, just like you!” she declared.
“Are you?” he asked with a chuckle.
“Yes, I am,” she insisted, but his laughter confused her, and she looked less certain than before.
“What’s this?” asked one of his companions.
“She says she’s going to be an officer,” he repeated. “I’d watch your back if I were you, William. She’ll be after your job soon.” And now they both laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Wendy wanted to know, but the cold grip of dread had already wrapped its icy fist around her heart.
Before they could reply, Mortimer Black, who had heard everything, hollered out, “Girls can’t be in the navy! Girls take care of babies! You’re so stupid, you don’t know anything!” He looked around with a cruel gleam in his eye, shouting even more loudly. “Did you hear that? Wendy thinks she’s going to be in the navy!”
Everywhere she turned, children laughed and pointed.
She whirled to face him, but the crowd kept on spinning. Spinning and spinning. Like the carousel. Faster and faster. The sky closed in around her. Gray fog and then smoke and then starless night. And Mortimer’s pale face swam up through its depths, his eyes pitch black. Black as his name, black as his heart, piercing her soul. Over and over, around and around. And she thought she heard him singing.
If women ever sail the sea,
They’ll scrub the decks for men like me!
They’ll marry none but Davy Jones,
And for their children, only bones!
She closed her eyes and fell to her knees.
It isn’t true. It isn’t real.
The thought steadied her, and the ground snapped back into place. Solid beneath her knees. Beneath her fingers splayed out for balance across the cobblestones.
She launched herself to her feet and ran.