Harry

There was a rhythm to it, Merri thought as she leapt the distance to from one roof to another, dive-rolling to cushion the shock of accumulated momentum. It only seemed spontaneous or chaotic if she thought about it too much; when she just let thought go and moved with that internal flow, the running, twisting, leaping, jumping, swinging — it was all as beautiful and necessarily precise as any Ming vase, mathematical equation or baroque fugue…

Don’t think don’t think don’t think! She’d nearly missed the drop-off to that rope bridge, thinking about not thinking! Move move move just keep moving! Vault over the side of the bridge, catch the rope, swing to the spire atop that tower — let go now! Grab the spire one hand got it! Clutch with a leg spiralling spiralling a slide down the peaked roof and up! Run the roof ledge to the end and dive….!

I’m flying… oh sweet God I’m flying…!

It honestly had not occurred to her that she had no idea whether there was anything to catch once she’d taken to the air — but there was indeed another rope, knotted at its fraying end! Catch it long arc swing and up up up to another roof another ledge another sprint move move move…!

Much as she always wanted it to, it couldn’t last. Lungs burning, muscles trembling, Merri finally forced herself to stop. Laughing again, seated atop some church or other, leaning against the cross that jutted up rather crookedly against the backdrop of the cavernous ceiling of the Neath. All this room to move, space to fly, yet so securely confined by borders both seen and unseen. “Oh dear Lord,” she gasped, not sure if she was truly capable of praying anymore or whether there was a God to hear her or if it was just a way of speaking to fend off the loneliness. ” ‘I could live in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams…’ .”

“Oy! ‘oo you talkin’ to, lady?”

The words startled her out of her reverie and her little rattus faber gun was in her hand before she registered it was a child’s voice. Merri peered around herself, trying to penetrate the inky black shadows that surrounded her without success. Fine time to regret selling those silly goggles…!

“Ah, no one, I suppose. Or myself, perhaps. Who are you?”

“Ain’t nobody. Wotchu laffin’ at?”

Merri relaxed marginally, but only marginally — the orphans of the Flit were children, certainly, but they were often feral children. She’d made some positive contacts among the Fisher Kings, but they were only one gang of urchins in the Flit and she wasn’t entirely sure if she was in their territory or not.

“Same answer. Why don’t you show yourself? I have some spore toffee to share, if you’d like.”

It was almost unfair bait — all the urchins adored spore toffee. She caught the slightest movement in the shadows under the chimney-stacks to her right.

“Wotchu want fer it? I ain’t got nuffin’ to pay yer wif.”

“You have yourself, don’t you? I’d very much like someone to share the view — and the toffee.”

“Yer a strange ‘un, ye are.” With that preamble, the voice resolved itself into a scruffy, scrawny, half-starved child. Age indeterminate but certainly not yet adolescent, sex completely impossible to divine under the layers of dirt and rags. “If’n yer wants, I c’n eat yer toffee, jus’ don’ try anyfing funny ‘r I’ll ‘ave yer guts in a pile afore ye can say ‘’Bob’s yer uncle’.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Merri told him (?) honestly, patting the stretch of level beaming beside her, simultaneously retrieving the wrapped spore toffee from her pocket. “My name’s Merri. What’s yours?” She asked, offering him a piece as he took a seat — not quite in arm’s reach, but close enough to lean in and snatch the sweet from her fingers.

“Name’s ‘arry,” he replied just before stuffing the toffee into his mouth. The name confirmed her suspicions about gender, not that it mattered. “That ain’t wut they call ye in the Topsy King’s court, eh? Wotcher wanna lie fer? I ain’t got nuffin’ on ye eiver way!”

“Oh.” She giggled a little and popped another piece into her own mouth. “They call me by my alias, I suppose. The one I took when I came here. Clockworks. Would you prefer that to Merri?”

He shrugged, chewing on his toffee. “Makes no never min’ to me,” he assured her, eyes darting nervously all around them. His hair seemed to be fair, as did what skin she could see under the smudges of soot. “Ye c’n call yerself whatever ye like. They say yer a lady.”

“They?”

“Yeah.”

Merri waiting another moment, but seeing as he expected her to know the identity of this unspecified and very general “they,” she was eventually forced to shrug and find an answer. “I suppose I have some ladylike qualities,” she finally admitted. “I hope I do.”

“Oy, watsa lady doin’ up ‘ere anyway?” The toffee swallowed, he turned immediately suspicious. “Yer don’ dress like a lady. Are ye sure yer not a fief like me?”

Something like a smile flickered over her mouth at that, but carefully, as even these young ones could have a fierce sense of dignity and pride. “Oh… I don’t imagine there could be another thief like you up here, Harry.” She tossed him another piece of toffee, not surprised at his ability to snatch it out of the air, skin it of its wrapping and cram it into his mouth in what seemed to be one smooth motion. “Dressing like a lady to run the Flit would be pretty silly though, don’t you think? I mean, just imagine those great skirts and petticoats and bustles flying in all directions, just trying to walk across a rope bridge!”

Harry apparently liked that imagery, for he cackled appreciatively.

“I dress like a lady when I need to be doing ‘lady things.’ I dress like this,” she concluded, extending a trouser-shod leg and booted foot, “when I want to be up here. It seems to work out all right.”

“Been followin’ yer,” he admitted, bouncing the toffee wrapper on an open and horribly filthy palm. “Ye don’ do much up here. Ye just run a lot. I don’ ken it. Wotcher runnin’ from?”

Merri slotted him a look at that, wondering and a little intimidated at the experiences that went into making a child sound like a man. “Not everyone who runs is running away from something,” she told him, taking out her last piece of toffee and offering it to him. He scooted a little closer to take it. “Sometimes it just feels good to run.”

Harry returned that slotted look, disdainful that she could say something so apparently stupid. “Yer runnin’ from somethin’, I c’n smell it,” he said flatly. “But’cher don’ have ter tell me, I guess. I was jus’ wunnerin’, tha’s all.” He nibbled the toffee, making this piece last longer than its predecessors. “Someone’s lookin’ fer ye. Tall gent, pretty words like yers. Dark hair, sharp eyes. Been askin’ about ye. D’ye ken it?”

Obviously she didn’t, and shook her head thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think I know anyone up here that well. I didn’t think I did. Does he have a name?”

Harry shook his head. “I din’ ask. But I c’n fin’ out, if’n ye want.”

“I do. Most certainly,” Merri agreed. “Does he run the Flit? Or just a tourist?”

The lad thought about that for three-quarters of a second. “‘e’s na’ a touris’, na’ quite… I ain’t seen ‘im runnin’ it, but ‘e acts like ‘ e could. Ye get me?”

She nodded. “I think so. I’ll be happy to pay you for whatever you can learn about this man.” She retrieved a couple of pieces of rostygold from her pocket and tossed them to him. “That’ll get you started, I think.”

He clipped them out of the air and caused them to disappear, then got to his feet with a satisfied air. “Oy, I like ye. They said ye’d be all stuck on yerself, but yer not. If ye ask around ‘ere for ‘arry Duffins, I’ll find ye. Ye ken it?”

She chuckled and nodded again. “I do. Thank you, Harry.”

“Never a worry, lady,” he told her with a comical little bow. “Don’ be lookin’ down, now.” And with that parting shot, he disappeared back into the shadows whence he’d come.

Merri sat looking over the lights of the city far below, mulling her encounter with the boy, and the implications of the black-garbed man. Her ties to the surface were cut completely, she couldn’t fathom who from the surface would be here, in the Flit, looking for her. Or why he hadn’t found her, she’d certainly made no effort to hide or disguise herself. Perhaps he’s watching me, too.

Another thought occurred, and this one brought the smile back to her face. With a name and a description, it was completely witihin her talents to begin hunting him. Pleased with that conclusion, she got to her feet and began her descent to the other life, the one she lived on the streets below.

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78 Comments

  1. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 11:20 am

    In keeping with his promise, Henrik arrived to rap at her door at a little past eight (or so his watch claimed; although he kept it wound with scrupulous care, the patterns of light and darkness in the Neath had begun to make him distrust it). “Miss Fawkes?” he called. “Merri?”

  2. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    An older woman opened the door. He recognized her as Merri’s housekeeper, a dignified woman with sallow skin and something of a pinched expression.

    “Mr. Paulsen, good day. Please step in, I’ll see if the lady is recei–”

    “Of course I am, Esther. Thank you.” It was Merri’s breathy voice, from above. As Henrik stepped inside he saw her descending the steps from the second floor. Gone was the black felt suit and mask; in its place she wore a very fine midnight-blue gown and was clipping moon-pearls to the lobes of her ears as if in some haste.

    “Do please check on your nephew’s progress with our new charge — the bellowing has stopped, so I’m left to assume they’ve come to some sort of arrangement.”

    “Yes, my lady. Shall I serve tea?”

    She smiled and glanced knowingly at Henrik. “That would be delightful, Esther. In the parlour. And serve the cream with it also, if you would.”

    “Of course, my lady.” She curtsied stiffly and withdrew. Merri smiled up at Henrik, still somewhat breathless, and gestured him into her home.

    “You did come, I’m so pleased,” she said happily. “How are you feeling? You look ever so much better than you did earlier, I must say.”

  3. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    “Well enough,” he answered, although she knew as well as he did that he’d been having a row with Theodor earlier, and he still bore himself with a trace of that taut wariness that she’d witnessed in the Bazaar. “I’m eager to meet your charge; the way you speak of him, I’m half-afraid that you’ve adopted a mandrake.”

  4. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    Merri laughed, gesturing him into a comfortable chair and settling herself on the divan. “Oh no. I did have a deshrieked mandrake, but I donated it to the cause of the Fisher Kings to smooth feathers over, as one of their members has agreed to an arrangement with me.”

    There was a loud bang! from upstairs, followed by a bellowing male voice counterposed against that of a much higher-pitched one. Neither sounded happy. The language used was, fortunately, indistinct.

    Merri winced. “A part time arrangement, for now. He’ll be down as soon as he’s finished his bath.”

  5. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    “Your Harry is a boy, then? Your stray is –” He burst out laughing, then drew off his battered grey overcoat and took a seat. “And of course he wouldn’t be a windsome orphan” and he didn’t even hesitate over the mispronunciation; “No, Merriwether Fawkes would accept no less than the challenge of convincing an authentic Fisher King to eschew their taboos on touching foot to ground –“

  6. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    She looked extraordinarily pleased at his reaction. “Hence the donated mandrake and no little amount of rostygold. He’ll be permitted his place among them and in the Flit during certain hours, and with me the rest. With the sound of gold tinkling in his filthy little ears, wasn’t difficult to convince their leader that having a member with ties into society here on the ground might work to his advantage.”

  7. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    “I shouldn’t wonder that he’d struggle at a bath. Imagine returning to his society, smelling of soap and pomade; he’d be a laughingstock! What use could you possibly have in mind for him, beyond a charitable concern for his well-being?” And then, with a small smile, he asked, “More to the point, do you plan to hire a manservant to wash behind my ears?”

  8. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Something positively wicked flashed through those grey eyes, but whatever she had been about to say was forestalled by the arrival of Esther and the tea.

    “Your pardon, my lady. The young master will be finished with his bath presently,” she said primly. It was plain she rather disapproved of her mistress’ sudden charitable inclinations — or more likely, the choices her mistress had made about those inclinations.

    “Thank you Esther. That will be all for now.” Merri’s mouth flickered in suppressed mirth as the older woman curtsied and left the room. “I believe you had a high opinion of cream for your tea, dear Henrik,” she said as she poured for them both. “This tastes like cream to me. Beyond that, I can’t swear to much of anything concerning it.”

  9. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    “Ah, the first fruits of your associations with the orphan-gangs.” He carefully drizzled honey into his cup — not, he could see at once, prisoner’s honey, but one couldn’t have everything — and followed it with a reasonable dollop of cream, stirring carefully (clockwise; he seemed to recall that it was proper to stir one’s tea clockwise). After a moment, he raised the cup to his lips and inhaled the scent. “However the Masters maintain trade with the Orient, I am grateful for it. Whatever should we do without coffee and tea?” He licked his lips after the first sip; the taste was nearly perfect, but the texture was less rich than he had hoped. After months of practical abstinence from cream in his tea, though, even this facsimile was nearly heavenly. “My dear woman … I find myself utterly in your debt. This is a rare treat.”

  10. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    “It’s more of a treat when it’s shared,” Merri assured him, inhaling her own tea then sipping with sybaritic delight. “Have a scone, if you wish. They’re all fungus-based of course, so much of everything here is, but they’re passable.

    “Two rather extraordinary things — other than my arrangement with Harry, of course — have occurred to me recently, on which I should very much like to hear your opinion and advice,” she went on, settling back (as much as was possible, given her apparel) with cup and saucer in hand. “I fear on one count I may have gotten myself in over my head; on the other, I’m quite at a loss to explain.”

  11. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    “On both counts, I shall try to do my best,” he answered readily, “But if you wish to have advice on maintaining acquaintances, you would better be served in Narciso’s company; if you would prefer advice of a more academic sort, Theodor is your man. That you’ve asked for my counsel suggests that your dilemma has already muddled you hopelessly.”

  12. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    “Or perhaps both are more accessible to your talents than theirs,” she drawled lightly. “Do not speak ill of my friends, dear man. I do not allow such things to be said in my presence, even if the speaker is the one being maligned.

    “As to the first… I fear I have run afoul of Mr. Stones, quite inadvertently,” she began, something cloudy darkening the light in her eyes. “I have striven to stay out of the sights of the Masters, except for one harmless request of Mr. Wines — and no, it did not involve wearing scarlet stockings! — and oh yes, that silly Knife and Candle business for Mr. Fires. Umpiring, not playing…

    In any event,” she went on, flustered with herself for the inner turmoil causing the tangents, “A stuttering fence of my mild acquaintance asked me to acquire an iron box for him, one with seven complicated locks. His information on it was quite thin and it just all sounded wrong, so I refused, later to find constables surrounding his dwelling place and he, nowhere to be found.

    “Later that evening, as I returned from some time in the Flit, I found a very heavy iron box, with seven locks, on the floor of my private sitting room upstairs.” She frowned. “It took me several days to decide what to do about it, and another several days to track down the fence — in a bat rookery in the Flit, of all things. After threatening him with a `long drop and a sudden stop’ if he didn’t come clean, he did confess that he wanted me to steal the box for him because he’d stolen it — from Mr. Stones.

    “I didn’t kill him, Henrik. I didn’t even hurt him too badly. Truthfully the information stunned me so badly I let him go.” With a deep breath, she raised her eyes to his. “The box is still upstairs. The locks remain locked, though I did find a secret latch in the side which released a door containing about 40 pieces of very sticky glim. Other than this, I know nothing — including what I should do about it. Can you advise me at all?”

  13. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    “I’m afraid I’m very much out of my depth,” he confessed. Having finished his tea while she spoke, he began preparing himself another cup. “Do you suppose that your acquaintance had good reason to steal the box? Or did he do it for no better reason than desire for gain?”

  14. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    It was a good question. Merri considered it for several moments as he finished preparing his tea. “From what I know of him… it’s almost assuredly for gain only. He buys stolen goods and re-sells them at a profit. If he has any anarchic or revolutionary leanings, they’re well hidden.”

  15. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    “Then perhaps you might be best served to return the box to its rightful owner? You have never quite shared my suspicion of the Masters of the Bazaar; this might be a politically useful choice, for you. You might even gain Mr Stones’s favour.”

  16. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    The prospect of having the favour of a Master didn’t appear to be a very pleasing one to her. “It’s not that I don’t share your suspicions, dear Henrik. I simply… that is to say… I’m not here to… interfere, I suppose it’s said. The Bazaar is the Bazaar, and London is now its home. I didn’t come here to change that, so it just seems best to find ways to live with it, which means living under the terms of the Masters of the Bazaar. Or better yet, staying out of their notice as much as I can.”

    There is a commotion just without the door; Merri looks sharply at the door, then places her empty teacup on the table. “Ah, that must be young Harry at last.”

    “…oy, leave off, I know where she is–”

    “Young master, you simply cannot go bursting in–”

    Or perhaps he could at that. Through the door strode a very scrawny, half-wild young male dressed in clothing which clearly felt much too confining after the rags he’d worn for some months, at the least. His blond hair was still damp, freshly trimmed and combed back neatly, falling into soft curls just over his collar and the shoulders of his jacket. The brightest blue eyes Henrik had ever seen darted about the room, set above cheeks which still retained a fair amount of ruddy tint for someone who called the Neath home. He’d evidently sized up Merri’s visitor in one or two sharp glances and spared no more effort for it, instead tugging at his collar, hitching at his waistband, taking in the room, its entrances and exits, and whatever was lying about that might be used in self-defense.

    Esther entered behind him, clearly quite put out by the young lad’s cheek. “Master Henry, my lady,” she said, exhaling the words along with a great deal of irritation.

    “Wotcher, Merri. Who’s the toff?”

    “Thank you Esther,” Merri said hurriedly. “Harry, we’re going to have to work on your manners. In my home, you don’t call anyone a `toff’. You may use the term `man,’ or `gentleman,’ if he is male.”

    She turned to Henrik, trying her best to hide a smile. “Mr. Paulsen, please make the acquaintance of my ward, Master Henry Dovings. Though if you were to meet him in the Flit, we’ve agreed he should still go by Harry Duffins, as he has been known. Henry, this is Mr. Paulsen. You will wait until he greets you, and then reply as politely as you know how.”

  17. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    The whole affair had Henrik perilously close to laughing. He stood and offered his hand to be shaken, thickening his accent just a touch. “I do believe you’re the first person who has ever thought I was dressed as a gentleman. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Master Duffins.”

  18. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Harry glanced at Merri once, then back up at Henrik’s face (which seemed much, much higher up than it ought), then slowly offered the correct hand in response. “Well, y’ ain’t dressed like one o’ th’ raggedies, are ya?”

    Merri cleared her throat. “A correct response might be, `Your servant, sir’,” she said. Henrik could hear the suppressed laughter there, it gave her normally musical voice a somewhat strangled undertone.

    “Roight! `Your servant, sir’,” he offered back proudly — in a credible mimicry of Merri’s own gentrified British accent.

    She coughed rather violently in response, then said “Mr. Paulsen, a `raggedy’ or `raggedy man’ is one of the members of the Topsy King’s court. Clearly, you dress significantly better than they do.”

  19. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    “Neither fish nor bird, I suppose,” he answered affably enough. “And he needn’t offer to be my servant unless he wishes me to take him up on it. Mr Gylden and I can’t even afford our own housekeeper; we must contract through our landlord, whose choices are frankly questionable.”

  20. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Harry looked at him askance, then grinned, then tugged at his collar some more. “Oy, Merri — how’s ’bout a scone, eh?”

    She shook her head, then gave in and laughed. “Harry, you’re going to have to charm Esther for your tea and scones today — you’re not ready to take tea in polite company. Do go ask her for some and mind you, if you don’t know how to ask politely for something, say so — Esther will help you if you show less cheek and more respect.”

    “Oy, yer weren’t so picky atop the church las’ night…”

    “Harry.” Her eyes turned to flint before he’d finished the sentence. “Remember our bargain, young man. I’ll live up to my part, but you must also live up to yours.”

    He sighed, but nodded. “Oy. Roight. I didn’ know it were gonna be this ‘ard, I didn’…”

  21. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    “Oh, let the boy be — he will sing, and sing like a nightingale, if that’s the price that you ask for his supper.” If Merri were to turn away for even a moment, Henrik would pick up one of her scones and waggle it in Harry’s direction before slipping it up his sleeve. “Now, shake my hand again and declare myself your servant, Master Duffins. It would please your mistress very much.”

  22. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    A pause. “Yourself my servant. Yes. My servant, of course.”

  23. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    It would appear she most carefully did not see Henrik’s antics, for her serene smile never waivered. Except at the end, when Henrik’s grasp of the language failed him momentarily. Harry, with the scone safely up his sleeve, was inclined to give the tall man the benefit of the doubt though.

    “Uh, yeah. Yer servant, sir. Roight?” He turned to Merri for confirmation.

    “Better, indeed,” she assured him. “Thank you, Harry. Have Esther get you settled in your room later and I’ll be up to talk about your lessons.”

    “Roight.” His grin was the most charmingly impudent expression ever to be found on the face of a child. He shook Henrik’s hand once firmly, then of course scampered out of the room as if it were one of the Flit’s many bridges.

    Silence reigned for a long moment as Merri, holding her breath, listened for his retreat to the kitchens. Only then did she explode in laughter, shaking her head in rueful chagrin.

    “Oh I’m certifiably insane, I know it. But thank you, Henrik. You’re nearly as charming as he is, when you want to be.”

  24. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    He was laughing, as well, not even bothering to hide that he was brushing crumbs from his hands. “I was a boy, too, once — you’ll scarcely credit it, but I was. And what is boyhood without a bit of loving indulgence from one’s elders?”

  25. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    “Indeed. Indeed.” She blotted mirthful tears with the back of her hand, still giggling almost uncontrollably. “Ah, but he charms me utterly and makes me laugh. He would be worth his weight in true gold for that alone.”

  26. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    “And we must all learn to be charmed, and to laugh at our cares; so a wise man once taught me, and I’ve yet to take the lesson to heart.” Coughing to halt another gale of laughter before it began, he sat again and helped himself to a scone. “Do keep hold of this one, Merri. He does seem to like you, or he wouldn’t endure being civilised.”

  27. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    She nodded agreement, shrugging in one of those helpless gestures that said more than words ever could about how mystified she was by this particular outcome. “He’s been following me for days. Up in the Flit. It’s not surprising that he could do it, he knows it much better than I of course… but that he would! Who was I to him, but one more runner in the Flit? If there’s an answer to that, I don’t suppose he knows what it is, either.”

  28. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    “Are you sure he’s not an agent of some interested power? Of the Topsy King, perhaps — or even of Mr Stones?”

  29. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    “No. I’m not,” Merri confessed softly. “I think, if he is such an agent, that it is likelier he’s in the employ of the man who constitutes the other extraordinary event I wished to discuss with you. When Harry and I met, last night, he did tell me that there is someone in the Flit who has been asking about me.”

    She met Henrik’s eyes levelly, but he could sense that this fact disturbed her. “He is described as tall, well-spoken, dark hair and `sharp’ eyes. Harry didn’t know the man’s name at the time, but managed to discover it later. The name he’s given, when he’s given one at all, is Randall Ross. I have no idea who he is, or why he should be seeking me out, or why he cannot find me — I have taken no pains to hide myself, after all. He simply seems to be… monitoring my activities, at least for now.

    “What would you do in this situation, Henrik? Seek him out and confront him, perhaps?”

  30. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    “Seek him out, without question. I’d rather face what frightens me — and I do think that he frightens you, although you manage your fear bravely.” He reached for her hand, and his own was warm from the teacup. “Or, better, you might send an emissary to question him. I’ve done such work before.”

  31. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    The touch rendered her momentarily speechless and she stared at their hands as if she couldn’t imagine to whom they belonged. Recovering, Merri squeezed his fingers tentatively, looking up at him in puzzlement, and perhaps even a bit of wonder.

    “You… would do that? For me? If I asked it of you?”

  32. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    “Without question. I’m yours to command, madam.” He looked up to met her eyes; there were still lines around his, inscribing on his face the strain of peering through darkness and watching for ambush. “Do use me as you think best.”

  33. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    She drew breath as if to reply, the clear grey of her eyes trapped by the open generosity of his gaze, but let it go just as quickly, without using it for whatever she had intended to say.

  34. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    “Madam? Merri?” He put down his tea and folded his other hand over hers. “Are you well?”

  35. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    “I… that is to say…”

    Merri glanced down at their hands again, then closed her eyes as if to force some measure of composure to return by sheer will. It was mostly in place, when she lifted her head once more.

    Mostly. “Yes of course, Henrik. Thank you. Just overcome by your… kindness.”

  36. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    “I’ve been overbearing again.” It was easier than calling her out on her concealment. “My God, I shall never learn –” He released her hand at once, folding his hands in his lap … and then picking up his cup again for good measure, holding it cupped in both hands. “Do forgive the imposition.”

  37. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    “There is nothing to forgive.”

    That at least escaped uncensored. The contrast apparently was not lost on her, for she smiled a little and dropped her gaze to her hands, now strangely naked and cold, folded in her lap.

    “I… It’s I who must ask forgiveness, I’m afraid. Some things are better left unsaid, even between friends. Perhaps especially between friends.”

  38. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    “I’ve had a great deal of trouble, lately, for saying things which perhaps might have better been left unsaid — yet I don’t regret it.” He took a sip of tea (to wet his throat, to calm his nerves) and asked, “Will you take me into your confidence?”

  39. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    The mantle clock ticked loudly into the ensuing silence. Merri swallowed visibly, wishing she could draw a deep breath, settling for the best a tightly-laced corset would allow. Her eyes were as clear as glass, rimmed with smoke, staring at him as if he’d just asked her to disrobe.

    In point of fact, had he asked that of her it wouldn’t have caused her to feel nearly as exposed as she did at that very moment.

    “Henrik…” It came out as a whisper. That would never do. The mantle clock ticked on. She cleared her throat to try again. “You… must know. Surely you must. Need I say it?”

  40. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    “I don’t know at all. I’m not –” and he swallowed. “Well. I’m not a clever as you suppose me to be. That you’d rather not say is clear as glass, clear as a bell, but what it is you’d rather not say, or what you fear I’d do …” An idea struck him then, something familiar in the way she held her head and the rhythm of her breath, the cant of her back as she leaned toward him or away — but it was simply too impossible an idea to be supported, and he dismissed it at once. “I’ll not force you. Your preoccupations are your own, and you may share or conceal them as you like.”

  41. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Merri drew another breath, or tried to. She didn’t like to think of herself as a coward, but her responses in this smacked of pure cowardice and that simply could not be borne.

    “It would seem that this comes between us whether I share it with you or no, and thus you bear the burden of it in ignorance, rather than in mindfulness. I do you a disservice in that, and myself a disservice in fearing your answer, should you be told.”

    Her chin came up at that, defiant and determined. “What I feel for you is more than simple friendship, Henrik. Almost since the moment we met I conceived a tremendous attraction for you; you affect me quite deeply. I am in the unenviable position of realising that… you do not, perhaps cannot, return this affection.

    “It is that with which I wrestle, when I wish to mistake simple kindness on your part for more than it is. Forgive me, dear friend. I will do better, for I would not wish to lose whatever you feel you can give me, in honor.”

  42. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    He sat in silence for a few moments, and in that space of time felt a keen longing for laudanum that he didn’t wish to examine too closely. “It’s a great deal to take in,” he said at last. “In all honesty, it mystifies me that you should have conceived such a great attraction, when you keep such fine and charming company — and we’ve done little but snipe at one another since we met. I should have thought myself the man you found least attractive.” If he’d had his pipe about him, he might have stood and begun to smoke. The inaction chafed at him, and he recognized that he was toying with the edge of his jacket.

    “Well.” Henrik drew in a long breath. “What sort of acquaintanceship were you envisioning?”

  43. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Uncharacteristically perhaps, she blushed deeply at that.

    “I… can hardly answer, as I have never dared allow myself to hope,” she murmured, shaking her head, now at least as uncomfortable as he seemed to be. The freedom of the Flit had never seemed so far to seek!

    “Perhaps a better question might be to ask what you feel it is possible to achieve.”

  44. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    “I’ve given my heart to another,” he said, and he couldn’t meet her eyes. “That much, at least, is a fixed boundary.”

  45. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    She nodded, smoothing the fine blue fabric across her lap, watching the wrinkles disappear and reform under her hands.

    “I… had intuited as much.”

    The thickness in her throat was something of a comfort, a familiar sensation by which one could reliably navigate. It brought her head up again, and if her smile was self-deprecating, well, she supposed it would be understandable, in the circumstances.

    “I must ask you not to castigate yourself over any part of this, Henrik. I have something of a penchant for casting my affections in places that are not, for one reason or another, entirely healthy. At least in you I’ve chosen someone honorable and worthy, someone who would not hurt me of his own will. Please believe me when I tell you it’s quite an improvement.”

  46. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    His voice was soft. “I had heard that you were divorced. Was your husband …?”

  47. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Her smile flickered, strengthened, then disappeared.

    “Narciso reminds me of him very much, actually. Charming, quick-witted, almost unbearably handsome. People liked him almost immediately even if they couldn’t say why. He always had friends, and never knew a stranger.

    “They differ in that Narciso has enough strength of character not to make promises he knows he will not keep. Gavin… my former husband… could never quite manage that. The lies and disappointments mounted, as did the recriminations and apologies, until we could barely speak to each other civilly.”

  48. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    He tried to keep from wincing at that description. It hit rather too close to home for his comfort; even now, perhaps, Theodor was pacing their shared rooms, distracted by their quarrel and the imperfect apology that Henrik had tried to tender. “I shan’t make you any promises. Perhaps it would be best if I offered you nothing at all; to give you my hand might taste like a promise, and I couldn’t bear to disappoint you.”

  49. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    “See? I told you I’d chosen better already.”

    Something in Merri’s chest loosened its grip on her heart, though she was not sure why that should be so. Perhaps it was that even an intimated regard was better than none at all. It did allow her to breathe a little easier, and to jest a bit, even if the humor was darkly tinted.

    “Henrik, I ask nothing of you except perhaps your continuing honesty and good will.” She leaned forward, reaching for one of his hands, for the comfort of touch to bridge the gulf between them. “And I will take nothing you do not freely give. Perhaps we can find a way forward from that place, asking nothing of each other that cannot be freely given, and see where it leads. If nothing else,” she concluded, squeezing his fingers gently, “we should manage a better friendship for it. I could not bring myself to regret that.”

  50. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 26, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    “I would have honesty and open-handedness in all things, but particularly with my friends.” With a small, wry smile, he squeezed her hand. “One question still troubles me, and I hope you’ll forgive that it’s impertinent. When we were speaking in the Bazaar, and you asked that I join you to be collared and cosseted … was this on your mind? In what spirit did you make that offer, and what would you have done had I accepted it?”

  51. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 26, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    It took her aback, mostly that he remembered that bit of jesting in the midst of his very real distraction, but Merri didn’t drop his gaze or his hand.

    “It was very much on my mind, yes,” she admitted. “I was not sure if you meant it as metaphor or as a… more literal proposition, of course. But if you had accepted, in either sense, I would have done my best to honor whatever you would have needed from me, Henrik.”

  52. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 12:00 am

    “I’d meant it as metaphor, as raillery,” he answered. He was studying their hands as intently as though she had written a cipher there. “But I do feel entirely secure, in your company. I would entrust you with my safety, with my liberty, and have every confidence that you would place them in my own hands again when you were through.”

    [I must to bed, alas–but if you wish to pick up again tomorrow, I’ll be game.]

  53. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 27, 2010 at 10:23 am

    The chuckle that escaped her was a whispered one, and too brief. “I thought to demur, but I find I cannot. If such a thing is what you would have of me, I will stand by what I have said and do my best for you. Give my best to you… as often as you would have it of me.”

  54. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 10:30 am

    “Be careful, madam; we aren’t yet speaking of particulars. I wouldn’t have either of us misled by our proper insistence upon generalities.” He sat back, releasing her hands. “Think on what you’d have of me, and at a later date, we may discuss our terms with more frankness. Until then, I shall make inquiries into Mr Ross’s whereabouts and habits — I haven’t the stealth to follow him from the shadows, but I am quite capable of confronting him in a public place.”

  55. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 27, 2010 at 11:09 am

    With a… well, if not a deep breath at least an easier one, Merri nodded, smoothing the front of her dress over her lap once more. “If you wish to make inquiries, I would be most grateful. Perhaps so formidable an agent acting in my interest is all it will take to end the matter, I cannot say.

    “As to any… arrangement between us… that must take some time, as you have said. I am simply overwhelmed that there now seems to be possibility, where all before seemed forbidden. It is rather bracing, to be sure.”

  56. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 11:14 am

    “If I’ve learned anything in the Neath,” he said, “it’s that the forbidden is often compulsory, here.” His smile was nearly the same conspiratorial, half-teasing one that he wore in Narciso’s company; his effort at informality was almost laughably transparent, as though he were forcing himself into ease in her company. “Might I enlist your charge’s aid in gathering intelligence on Mr Ross? Until I have a better idea of the company he keeps, I shan’t be able to make use of my contacts.”

  57. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 27, 2010 at 11:18 am

    “We can ask him,” Merri agreed, her smile shifting from whimsical to indulgent and back with each heartbeat. “But as I’ve already tasked him with that duty, I’m sure he’ll be amenable. He does need strong males in his life, Henrik, to model himself upon. I confess I hope you’ll be willing to serve as one; having Harry in your company, working with you, can only do him good.”

  58. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 11:26 am

    “You’d only have him grow up to be an irritable bear of a man, careless and provocative in his habits. Have him pattern himself on Narciso instead — he’s a cherubic creature, with his hair washed and combed, and he’d soon learn to charm the sparrows from the gutters.” It did charm him, though, that the boy’s name was Henry; had Henrik’s father had his way, perhaps he might already have had a son just a few years Harry’s junior.

  59. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 27, 2010 at 11:29 am

    She laughed at that, and it was Merri’s usual laugh, full of gay good spirits. “He will choose for himself of course, but I intend to offer him a veritable banquet of male models to choose from. Imagine if he had your strength of character, Theodor’s intellect, and Narciso’s charm — would he not be a most formidable person to behold?”

  60. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 11:33 am

    “He’d want only your infinite grace to be a godling,” he answered, with a delighted laugh. “He’d never forgive you for it. The boy is already a prince of the spires; he would certainly protest his elevation to Olympus –“

  61. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 27, 2010 at 11:44 am

    “– only until he saw how much there was to pilfer, there,” she drawled. “The lad would pick Zeus’ own pocket, sell what he’d found to Ares, then laugh all the way to Hermes to sell the tale!”

    It was evident she was already inordinately fond of the boy but in no way blind to his foibles. She reached for her tea, wrinkled her nose to find it had cooled, but simply added more honey to it and sipped it again. “With the scone incident, you’re already well on your way to earning his trust, I’d say.”

  62. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Henrik assumed a dignified demeanour. “I’m sure I haven’t the slightest notion of what you mean,” he said, although he knew perfectly well. “I can recollect nothing which might deserve to be termed a ‘scone incident,’ and certainly nothing that might have earned me his trust — unless by fumbling my pronouns, I convinced him that I was to be blacking his boots henceforth.”

  63. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 27, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Her eyes lingered on his face for a moment, a smile still flickering at the corners of her mouth. “Oh that’s… most remarkable,” she murmured. “You’ve learnt much in Veilgarden already, I see. Taking on such a reserved pose at a moment’s notice, then utterly charming me with it all over again. Well done.”

  64. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 11:56 am

    “Did I really?” He dropped the pose at once, and near-childish delight flashed across his face. “I had no notion — I’ve never managed — but you are lovely when you’ve been charmed!”

  65. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 27, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    “I can’t recall when I’ve so enjoyed being lovely,” she replied, sharing in his delight. Her response had been offered instantly, impulsively, no trace of internal censoring to be found; it was the first time she’d been completely unguarded in his presence since they met. “Nor ever quite this willing to be charmed, I think.”

  66. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    “Ah, you’ve hit upon it; none are so easy to lead as those who lead themselves. But I did enjoy imagining, for a moment, that it was entirely my doing.” His eyes glittered, mirth-bright; it wasn’t clear immediately whether he was castigating himself or teasing her. “You must let me practise my charms upon you until I’ve perfected them.”

    • cl0ckw0rks said,

      July 27, 2010 at 12:42 pm

      “But once you’ve perfected them, would you then take them elsewhere and leave me bereft?” Merri was clearly and thoroughly enchanted by this new Henrik, or perhaps this new side of him, and had the look of a woman who could hardly believe her good fortune. “Rather let me say if they’ve been perfected or no, that I might have the pleasure of such practise indefinitely.”

  67. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Perhaps only Narciso knew him well in that gregarious humour, ready to swear oaths and make a laughingstock of himself to delight others — even Theodor seldom saw him so comported. “I should not like to bereave you, Merri,” he said gently. “With such a gay name, you should never know anything but pleasure.”

    • cl0ckw0rks said,

      July 27, 2010 at 1:31 pm

      The playful smile faded a bit at this, metamophosing into a more vulnerable expression. “With such a name, I should never be tasked to take anything seriously, should I… including any such promises made in jest, dear Henrik. I am Merri, and fools are merry, but I would not be anyone’s fool.”

      Then she dimpled again. “Not even my own.”

  68. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    “What promise ought I to make you? What promise could I keep in good conscience, so that we might neither of us be fools?”

    • cl0ckw0rks said,

      July 27, 2010 at 2:01 pm

      “Dear Henrik,” she repeated softly, fingers tingling iin their desire to caress the lines at the corners of his eyes. “I promised you I would never ask anything of you which you could not freely give and you have already given me more than I could have dreamed. I may jest with you about such promises, but you must know they are only foolery — from your merry fool.”

  69. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    He raised his hand to brush the back of it against her cheek. He wore no gloves, and his skin was too rough to be a proper gentleman’s. “But in seriousness, my dear — and freely — will you give me a kiss?”

  70. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 27, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Merri leaned into the caress ever so carefully; they were close now, so very close, close enough that he could see, if he wished, her pupils widen in disbelief and pleasure as she registered the nature of his request.

    …in seriousness… and freely…. His words echoed within her mind and heart, much at home there, for in truth she knew no other way to… to what? To love? …in seriousness… and freely…. His heart was given elsewhere, could he ever accept that from her? To kiss, then? …in seriousness… and freely…. Perhaps. In truth, it didn’t matter; the small distance between them vanished as her face drew close to his, eyes wide open, pupils nearly eclipsing pale grey irises. Her softly parted lips breathed those words against his–

    “…In seriousness… and freely….”

    — then sealed them there with the requested kiss.

  71. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Henrik closed his eyes against the nearness of her face, lest he should be overwhelmed by it. He turned his palm against her cheek to steady himself, lips parted against hers. The kiss awakened no desire him, kindled no heat in his breast — but neither did it disquiet him; he wished only to requite her in whatever way would please her best.

    There was comfort to be found in bringing her pleasure. For as long as the kiss lasted, he could convince himself that his longing was purely selfless.

    After a moment, he found he was stroking her hair, and his thumb brushed the lobe of her ear. “Moon-pearls,” he said softly, still a whisper away from her lips. “They suit you.”

  72. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    A moment’s tangled hesitation, a whispered “thank you,” Merri’s glass-clear eyes passing over his face in search of…?

    She could not say. Or she did not yet wish to know. Whatever it was, she did not find it. What she did find … was only what I should have expected I suppose…

    “I am relieved you do not seem to think me completely shameless,” she murmured, attempting to disentangle herself from his nearness by pulling back.

  73. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    “I’ll bear half the shame, as I bear half the joy,” he answered, dropping his hand to his knee and closing it there. “My sister used to tease me that men got all of the joy from courting, and women all the shame; for her sake, let’s share them equally between us.”

  74. cl0ckw0rks said,

    July 27, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    “As we shared some scandal, not long ago?” Merri did smile at that, straightening and drawing her dignity about herself as if it were a favorite cloak. “But you have a sister? I should much—”

    The mantel clock chimed the hour, echoed shortly after by bells in nearby church steeples. Merri glanced at the clock in exasperation. “It would seem I must hear of your family another time, Henrik. I have appointments scheduled for the rest of the morning, and Harry — or Henry, as I suppose I should call him here — to get settled. Will you forgive me for rushing off almost immediately?”

    [I’m engaged this evening, starting almost immediately. This seemed a good way to begin to wind this scene down. :) ]

  75. Henrik Paulsen said,

    July 27, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    “Ah, of course; I had best be about my business, as well. Thank you for entertaining me with such patience and care.” He stood, resettling his coat upon his shoulders and making his way toward the door. (He didn’t resettle a hat on his head, which meant he must have come from the street shamefully bareheaded.) “If I may show myself out?”

    [Fair enough! Thank you for your time.]


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